It may be that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But outside the world of doomed adolescent lovers, the names of things matter, and finding the right title is crucial. A well-chosen title reflects and subtly positions the book, but finding les mots justes–that’s always tricky. My client, debut novelist Beth Hahn, blogged about the experience of letting go of her original title—THE SINGING BONE—in favor of DARK EYES.
“I got to keep THE SINGING BONE through editing and even saw the manuscript’s final version with title intact, but then, at some point–I think it happened during tip sheet review–there was a pause, and someone questioned my title, wondering if it were too literary, too mysterious, too–oh, but those were the very things I liked about it. Anyway, the publisher worried that readers wouldn’t know the how to interpret THE SINGING BONE, and truthfully, I had noticed this when I told people. “The Singing what?” was not an uncommon response.
I guess I could have fought for my title, but then, honestly, I sort-of knew why the title was being changed, so I began to think of the title change as a further relinquishing of my book. Yes, THE SINGING BONE was my novel’s title, but when a book is sold, it belongs to everyone–to editors and art directors and readers, too, to libraries, and to strangers who would not get to ask me, “The Singing what?”
Finally, I got an email from my editor: “What about DARK EYES?” he wrote. It was clean, relevant. It screams “Mystery/Thriller.” I’d thought of DARK EYES, but I’d been too literal with it. The darkest character in the book, Mr. Wyck, has blue eyes–light blue eyes. But the song “Dark Eyes” cuts a strange path through the novel, turning up in different scenes and carrying plenty of psychological and emotional weight.”
I’m in the midst of helping another client and his editor come up with a new title for WWII-era narrative nonfiction. Our marching orders are to find: “Something with zing. Something that sounds dangerous and romantic. Something that’s catchy and rolls off the tongue. Especially something that is not generic.” Whew! Settling on a title that both the author and the publisher love can take a while, but the effort is certainly in the book’s best interest. Sometimes a title emerges from the text itself, a particularly resonant line or quotation.
Where and how do you find your titles? How often in the writing do you switch gears?