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Terrible Titles; or, What’s in a Name?

Posted on Mar 23, 2018 in John Le Carré, Karin Fossum, The Good Wife | 14 Comments

The Good Wife is not a good title. I feel confident in saying that as it put me off watching the series when it was first on TV. Later, sampling it on Netflix, I loved it and I am now on series 5. It’s not easy to put my finger on why the title put me off, but it sounded dull, not my cup of tea, a ‘woman’s drama.’

Titles are important – and it can be very hard to come up with a good one. There are simple descriptive ones: The Sopranos, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy. They get the job done, but are not exciting in themselves. There are titles that tie a series together, as with the late, great Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. There are evocative titles: The Wind in the Willows, Snow Falling on Cedars, Tender is the Night. And there are also terrible titles: Ruth Rendell wrote an excellent novel with the title, The Face of Trespass. What does that even mean – as my children say – and what were the publishers thinking? Readers might not be aware that though the writer is consulted about the title, they do not have the final say (and it’s the same with the cover).

Publishers sometimes give novels different titles in different countries, which can be confusing. This happened with my first novel, which was published as Dead Letters in the UK. My American publishers didn’t care for the title and asked for some suggestions. Among other titles I put forward Murder is Academic (not altogether seriously, if I am honest) and was taken aback when that was the one they chose. Recently we picked a novel by Karin Fossum for our book group. When I got home, I couldn’t find The Indian Bride on-line. That’s because it is the US title. In the UK it’s Calling Out For You, which I think is better for a crime novel (it has a different cover, too).

Titles are on my mind at the moment because I’ve been trying to think of a working title for my next novel. I can’t go on calling it Novel Number 7. It’s like calling a baby Child Number 7. I read somewhere that The Pigeon Tunnel was a working title that John Le Carré regularly used, until he finally used it for real. With me working titles  tend to stick, so I’m keen to find something resonant. And besides once a novel has a title it starts to develop an identity.

What puts you off in a title and what attracts you? Over to you for examples of titles that you love – or hate.

 

14 Comments

  1. Margot Kinberg
    March 23, 2018

    What an interesting topic, Christine. Titles do matter, don’t they? I ran into a similar situation to yours when I was choosing the title for my current release. I’d originally chosen a really bad title for the book, and it just didn’t work. Someone suggested another to me which was much better. For me, a sort, simple title works best.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 24, 2018

      Yes, Margot, I think they do matter – and it’s interesting that you chose a bad title originally (I like the one you settled on). I did the same for one of my novels and it was an effort to realise that and go for something else. The author doesn’t always know best – but neither does the publisher!

      Reply
  2. Helen Hardie
    March 24, 2018

    I have a recipe book called “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” which, I found later, was condemned on grounds of cuteness (title-wise) and lack of substance (recipe-wise) … There might have been some justice in the cuteness criticism, but it got my attention and one of the recipes is now one of my favourites.
    Then there is the “Geurnsey Literary and Potate Peel Pies Society”. … a little cute … but so fascinating you had to read it .
    Not so hot on the recipes though!
    Thanks for the tip on The Good Wife …. I have been casting round for something to start on Netflix ….
    Best wishes
    Helen Hardie

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 24, 2018

      Hi Helen, I’m so sorry to have misled you: The Good Wife used to be on Netflix but it isn’t any longer. However I was enjoying it so much that I bought the DVD of season five.
      I’d love to know which recipe became a favourite!
      I did read The Guernsey ect and wasn’t really wild about it – or about the title!

      Reply
  3. Susan D
    March 27, 2018

    I have title envy of Alexander McCall Smith. His titles are always charming and intriguing. However…. a) they seem to have nothing whatever to do with the story, and b) sorry, I don’t care for his books anyway. I keep trying, but they just don’t work for me.

    But your question sent me to my Books Read spreadsheet for ideas, and I find they’re all over the place. Usually 2-3 word titles seem most appealing to me: Blood Tango, Honeymoon in Purdah, This Rough Magic, Animal Dreams.

    Some titles, however, sound like they went with the working title: say, Twelfth Night. Jane Eyre.

    And sometimes titles just grab me and won’t let go: Our Lady of the Lost and Found.

    (As for working titles, I tend to go with the characters. Evelyn’s Story, Nick and Miri.)

    Okay, sorry. Rambling….

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      March 28, 2018

      No need to apologise. I really enjoyed this! Yes, it is infuriating when the titles have nothing to do with the story.
      Our Lady of the Lost and Found is an excellent title. This Rough Magic is good,too.
      I like your ideas for working titles, because it doesn’t fix the final title too soon, so then it can emerge as you write the book.
      I like the title of Colin Watson’s comedy crime novel: Coffin, Scarcely Used somehow tells you just what kind of novel to expect.

      Reply
  4. moira @ClothesInBooks
    April 6, 2018

    Ooh great topic! It sometimes seems very surprising what publishers or authors choose… I have strong views on this topic.
    For example, I have often enjoyed the thrillerish books of Robert Goddard – but I never have the faintest idea which ones I have read or what they are about, because all the titles are phrases which mean next to nothing: Past Caring, Into the Blue, Beyond Recall, Long Time Coming. Honestly, take a look at the (long) list – they are hilarious, I would challenge anyone to match them up with the plots, even though they are nicely enjoyable books.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      April 10, 2018

      Thanks, Moira! I have strong views, too. Yes, those titles are not good. On the other hand I know how hard it is to hit on a perfect title. I have been pleased with some of mine – I think Cold, Cold Heart works. I also once wrote a short story with the title, ‘Don’t You Hate Having Two Heads?’ which was just right for it. But sometimes inspiration fails . . .

      Reply
  5. Deborah Mainwaring
    April 12, 2018

    For seven years I have shelved books as a volunteer at our local library in Whakatane (New Zealand). One of the librarians and I write down any titles that amuse or intrigue us, or annoy us. Some titles that have attracted me and gone on to deliver wonderful enjoyment are: Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard; When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin; Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson; The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman; The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill; and most recently and marvelously: Lab Girl – A story of trees, science and love — by Hope Jahren.
    I also have a special place in my heart for the title of my father’s last mystery: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes.
    I love John Sandford’s work with his characters Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport, but his titles (Stolen Prey, Buried Prey, Silken Prey, etc.) drive me nuts because I can never remember which ones I’ve read. One of the tactics avid readers in our library use is to mark their initials at the front of books or else put a circle around certain page numbers. That way they can figure out what in a series they have already covered. Clever borrowers!

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      April 17, 2018

      Thanks, Deb! Yes, I agree about the Sanford books. The titles are hopeless.
      I really enjoyed Lab Girl, too.
      And I remember those reader codes from the day that I used public libraries a lot more than I do now.
      And Build My Gallows High is indeed an excellent title – the epitome of noir!

      Reply
  6. Alex
    April 17, 2018

    Titles for some books exemplify their content to a tee, and hint at what’s to come. But they are far and few. Most seem to have been picked at random by the publisher’s cat from a box of shredded slush-pile entries. And if I see the word ‘girl’ in the title of one more book, I swear, I’ll take it off the shelf (wherever) and shred where I stand! 😉

    Which is probably why I no longer pay attention to a book’s title rather than who wrote it.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      April 19, 2018

      Yes, it is infuriating when publishers leap on the band wagon and I feel the same about ‘girl’ in the title!

      Reply
      • Alex
        April 19, 2018

        Oh, I’m glad I’m not the only one sounding off about the use of ‘Girl’ in every title. My local bookseller (there’s only one English bookshop in Quebec City) and I have had some interesting conversations about book titles. The funny, the mundane, the interesting, and those that drive us nuts! 😀

        Reply
        • Christine Poulson
          April 21, 2018

          You live in Quebec City? I had always wanted to visit after reading Willa Cather’s Shadows on the rock and finally managed to last October. I loved it (and wrote a post about it)! I didn’t see the English bookshop but I did browse a lovely big French one near my hotel.

          Reply

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