Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The trouble with titles

by Rick Blechta

One of the most difficult tasks for every writer is coming up with a great title for their stories, whether they are novels, novellas or short stories, fiction or non-fiction. Names are important, not only from a marketing standpoint. They are how we introduce our story to the world, and our “children” deserve the best, don’t they?

The reason I’m going on about this is that I ran across an interesting piece on theliteracysite.com this morning. It’s about first cracks at titles for famous novels, and they provide an interesting insight into the thought processes of writers as they struggle with finding the perfect title for what are famous novels. Would they have been famous if the first title had stood? I wonder...

(The blog post was written by someone named Will S. I wish I knew more about him, so I could get in contact with him to ask if I could quote him. I haven’t been successful as of yet, but I want to share this, so Will, thanks in advance. If you don’t wish this, just let me know and I’ll remove the quoted material.)

So here goes: bad titles for famous books!

Here are the titles. See if you can guess what the book is. Descriptions will follow. They are all iconic works of the 20th Century.
  1. The Kingdom by the Sea
  2. Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires
  3. The Last Man in Europe
  4. Fiesta
  5. Something that Happened
Any ideas? Come on! Try to guess.

And now the answers:
  1. Vladimir Nabokov nearly titled his 1955 novel, Lolita, with this more imagistic title. Had he done so, who knows how reception of his controversial classic would have gone!
  2. Believe it or not, F. Scott Fitzgerald went through several titles for his American classic, The Great Gatsby. Sometimes it’s the simpler titles that say the most. Instead of choosing this more abstract title, he chose the epithet of its most exciting character, Jay Gatsby.
  3. Although this original title makes sense for content of the book, doesn’t 1984 have a nice ring to it? George Orwell couldn’t have known the lasting effect of his now-famous dystopia when he originally wrote it, but dating its plot shows readers of every decade how close we still are to Big Brother.
  4. This is an example of how sometimes a successful title can come from a source that is external to the book. The Sun Also Rises is a quote that Hemingway adapted from Ecclesiastes to title his famous novel about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, applying the quote to the “lost generation” of which he was a part of. Although most of the book takes place at a fiesta, Hemingway was wise to choose a more elegant title for his novel of failed romances.
  5. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was a commercial success in the U.S. with his Robert Burns-inspired title. How would his audience have reacted in 1937, to such a vague title for such an intense story? Something did happen, but it’s the mice and men that still haunt audiences today.
I don’t feel so bad now with some of my poor ideas for titles for my own works when I was coming to grips with what to call them. Most of these are pretty bad – especially the last one. It would be interesting to know who came up with the works’ final titles. Was it the author after more consideration? Or did the publisher say, “No way are we releasing this with your title.” Or possibly a loved one who gently chided, “Honey, just what the heck are you thinking? This title is awful!”

The really interesting question, though, is: would these books have been successful if the original title had stood?


Sybil Johnson said...

Very interesting. I just bought a book solely based on the title plus it's marketing as a Pet Noir mystery, When Bunnies Go Bad. Couldn't resist. The power of a good title.

Rick Blechta said...

Would anyone ever have bought a book that had the title Something That Happened? I doubt it.

On the other hand, I remember instantly buying a book titled Smilla's Sense of Snow completely based on the title.

And who could resist The Mexican Tree Duck or Still Life with Woodpecker or The Concrete Blonde?

Donis Casey said...

The title for my upcoming ninth novel in my series has been called "Nine" since I started writing it. It's close to done, now, and one of the characters had better say something witty pretty soon that I can use for a title.

Rick Blechta said...

Worked for the Beatles...

Eileen Goudge said...

A rose is a rose by any other name. Would that it were true with book titles. You examples are food for thought and supposition. I doubt the great works you mention would have done as well had they been published by their original titles, though I like to think content is king. Another title to add to your mix: "Eye of the Needle," by Ken Follet, originally published, in England, with the title "Storm Island." Not bad, but I think we can all agree the second title is better. My trick in coming up book titles is to think like adman and come up with one that resonates like an advertising jingle.

Rick Blechta said...

That is a very good point, Eileen. If you don't think like that and the title is not all that good (but probably accurate for the story), the marketing people will change it, and you might not like what they come up with!