What’s in a name, right? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Of course, that’s nonsense. When someone is named Ethel or Bertha (sorry to all the Ethels and Berthas out there), it simply is going to color how people look at you. Words have power–not absolute power, but power nonetheless. Every writer knows that there’s a difference between the right words and the almost-right word (it’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug, as Mark Twain said).
Another cliche: don’t judge a book by its cover. Which is also nonsense, at least if you take it literally. Of course you should judge a book by its cover. That’s what it’s there for: to inform you of the genre (lady in a period costume with her head cropped off: historical!), intended reader (subtle clues like color and font can say “this is for ladies!” or “this is for men!” or “this is for kids!”), and even the tone of the book (“ooh, a dark, abstract cover; must be a dark, abstract story!”). And you can get all that just from the cover art, without looking at the words.
Naturally, splashed across the front of the book is the title. That’s the most telling part of all. What has the author chosen to name his or her book?
[As an aside the author might not be the sole source of the title. A writer may come to an agent or publisher with a title, but then the agent or publisher doesn’t like it, and it’s changed. This can be for marketing purposes–the title isn’t appealing to the “right” audience–or just the sound of it–maybe the author’s title is just bad.]
For readers, probably, the origin of titles is mysterious. They probably think it just kind of appears (as do all the other words within the covers; it’s magic!), but that isn’t the case. Just like writing a novel, coming up with a title isn’t as easy as it seems. Titles influence how readers approach a book and whether they approach it all. Titles may change the meaning of the entire novel by prompting an interpretation of themes/events that might not otherwise be obvious. They set the tone. Titles give us basic information about what’s inside (Jane Eyre is about, well, Jane Eyre). Yeah, titles are important. And since they don’t come magically, where do they come from?
Writers come in all varieties. Some begin with a title in mind, some don’t. For some, the entire story grows up around the title, for other the title doesn’t come until well after the story is already written. Some just can’t get into a project until it has a title, some aren’t bothered about it. But one thing is for sure: once you start writing, you have to save the file as something on your computer, so it has to have some kind of designation.
Most titles are one of a few things: the name of a character, place, or event (Oliver Twist or Wide Sargasso Sea or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time [okay, I know it’s not exactly an event]); an object that abstractly or concretely is central to the plot or themes of the book (The Book of Life); a bit of striking narration or dialogue from the story (The Catcher in the Rye); an allusion (What Dreams May Come or The Grapes of Wrath or King Hereafter); or an abstraction (A Tale of Two Cities).
For me as a writer, titles aren’t crucial. The story needs a title at some point, but the story doesn’t flow from the title.
The novel I wrote on the Affair of the Diamond Necklace was originally titled Soleil, which is the main character’s nickname. However, it’s a French word that not everyone is familiar with. I completed the novel under the working title “Soleil”, then switched it to “Grove of Venus” when I began querying agents. The Grove of Venus was a place in the gardens of Versailles where Jeanne de La Motte-Valois staged an audacious little play for a Cardinal: she hired a prostitute to pretend to be Marie-Antoinette. In any case, that scene and that place are the lynchpin of the story. I’m still not entirely satisfied with the title, since it kind of makes the novel sound like a tawdry romance, which it isn’t; but it’s better than Soleil.
My next completed project came with a title more or less attached. As soon as I had the basic outlines of the story framed, I knew the title would be Channing. Channing is the name of the plantation that the main character becomes mistress of. It’s where a great deal of the action takes place, and its the source of all the evils that sour the main characters’ lives. Easy. (Where did the name for Channing come from? I don’t know, actually. Maybe there is a little bit of magic–aka, inspiration–involved in picking names and titles.)
When I chose to write a prequel, coming up with a title for it was a bit harder. I was writing about the same place, but with a different set of characters (these were the parents of the characters from “Channing”). Without a working title, I plowed right into the story and saved the file as “Charles and Archibald Daniels” (they’re the brothers at the center of the story). About two-thirds of the way through, I got an idea. The brothers repeatedly refer to their feud as a war, and at one point Archie says, “Cotton. Cotton until Kingdom Come.” And it occurred to me that this was a “war” over cotton (or cotton profits, specifically). So . . . “The Cotton Wars”.
I also wrote a novella set during the Civil War. I forged ahead on this project, too, without solidifying a title. I named the file after the main character–Hamilton Gray–and kept on writing until I was done. It still doesn’t have a title, though I may just end up calling it “Hamilton Gray” or something like “The Madness of Hamilton Gray.”
Although I’ve only ever done it on one project, some writers title their chapters. The project in question is a historical novel that has long since been trunked. It has merits, and I think the chapter titles are both clever and appropriate, but I don’t think the manuscript is really going to go anywhere. Most of the titles were based off of bits of dialogue or narration (“The Half-Soul Gift”, for instance). It was actually great fun coming up with cool titles for each chapter. Most of them came without too much effort–I found that a few words I’d written really captured the tone of the chapter, and bam!, there was the title. Chapter titles can be a bit more creative and fun than a book title. After all, book title have a LOT of work to do and a LOT of weight to carry. Chapter titles–well, a lot of readers probably won’t even read them!
Although titles are important, I don’t worry about them too much. They aren’t nearly as important as writing a darn good story, because no one will care what the title is if the story stinks. And what good is a title without a completed novel/novella/short story to go with it? Every writer is different, but as always the the most important thing is to just write.