- by Barbara Keiler
I have written more than 80,000 words of my current manuscript-in-progress, and I still don’t have a title for it.
In my last blog post, I wrote, “You know you’re a novelist when the working title of your current project is The Book From Hell.” Obviously, I was speaking from personal experience. My current project is definitely The Book From Hell.
That was not the working title I used when I sent the first few chapters to my agent, whose response was, “I love the chapters. The title, not so much.” I assured my agent I’d come up with a better title. “Writing the book should give me some good title ideas,” I said.
Eighty thousand words later, I’m still waiting for those good title ideas to arrive.
On rare, blessed occasions, a novel will take shape in my mind with the perfect title attached to it. The book I have coming out in April, Hope Street, is one of those novels. I set parts of the story on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, where there is, indeed, a road called Hope Street. That the hero of the story would have lived on that road made perfect sense. Once I knew the book would be called Hope Street, those words and all they evoked became a touchstone throughout the entire story. “Hope Street” came to symbolize the hero and heroine’s aspirations. When their picture-perfect life collapsed, they felt they’d been exiled from “Hope Street.” The novel is about their struggle to find their way back to that special place where hope dwells.
When you have the perfect title, it informs the entire novel in a variety of ways:
It sets the tone of the novel. (I wrote a comedy caper called Cry Uncle, in which the hero turns his life inside-out to protect his relationship with his young niece.)
It provides a concrete image. (I wrote an adventure story called Oh, You Beautiful Doll in which several people were trying to gain possession of a rag doll stuffed with smuggled diamonds.)
It serves as a metaphor. (I wrote a book called The Fixer Upper, which was about a “fixer-upper,” an old residence in need of repair, and also about a man and a woman whose lives are equally in need of repair.)
But if I don’t have a title while I’m writing the book, I lose a valuable tool: that unifying idea, that mood-setter, that metaphor. The novel, no matter if it’s a comedy, a drama, a mystery or a suspense, winds up being The Book From Hell.
Then, too, if the title I finally come up with isn’t perfect, my editors might replace it with a title they prefer. What dictates their title choices is not just the story but also their marketing requirements. When my editor vetoed the title of my last book and informed me that the book’s title would be The Marriage Bed, I had to work my way through the manuscript, inserting references to the hero and heroine’s bed so the title would make sense.
Years ago, I wrote a novel I called Independence Day, a comedy about freedom of speech with a wild-eyed civil liberties lawyer as its hero. My editor informed me that the title was too long to fit into a framed square that would appear on the cover, and I had to come up with a new title, preferably one with “skinny” letters in it so it would fit inside the frame. The new title I came up with was superior to the original one: Taking Liberties. But that title didn’t fit into the frame on the cover, either. So my editor informed me the book’s title would be Turning Tables, which had nothing to do with the story at all. (I thought the L’s, I’s and T’s in Taking Liberties were skinny. What do I know?)
Why is it sometimes easier to write an entire novel than to produce the perfect title? I can only hope I’ll come up with the right title for my new manuscript before I type “the end.” The Book From Hell? Hmm. Maybe that’ll work.