Titles Matter

The title of a book may seem like such an insignificant part of the whole creation.  After all, it’s only a few words, while the book itself may contain 80,000 or more words.  How can one possibly judge a book by its cover, much less its title?  Surely, a reader will forgive an author for a poorly chosen title if the work itself is stellar.  Won’t she?

Maybe not.  Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird was originally titled Atticus, and while naming a book after such a heroic character is not necessarily a bad thing, the original title simply doesn’t capture the emotion and wide-ranging impact of the novel that the final one does.  Admittedly, a lot of the emotional impact of the To Kill a Mockingbird title is a result of the fact that book had such an enormous effect on American society and is widely read and accepted as a classic book, but titles set the tone of the novel and often convey the emotion of the book in a way that attracts readers and pulls them into the story.

I spend a lot of time fussing over the titles of my novels.  In fact, I often won’t start writing a novel until I’ve settled on the title because it sets the emotional compass for me and helps me stay focused on what I’m trying to convey in the story.  Sometimes, the title comes to me first and then I build a story around it.  Yes, it’s that important.

My first novel, The Vanishing, tells the story of a woman coming to terms with her husband’s battle with early-onset dementia.  She’s pushed to the breaking point and contemplates murder-suicide.  The title refers to her husband’s slow disappearance.  The man she describes in the first-person narrative is nothing like the man she married many years ago.  He simply vanished.  Slowly.  Right before her eyes.  I purposefully freighted the title with heavy emotion because the book is very poignant, and I believe it conveys the tragic nature of the story.  In this case, I had the title in mind from the very beginning, and as I wrote the book over the course of six months, it served as a guidepost that helped me keep the feel of the novel consistent and intense.  So yes, titles are very important.

I have a whole list of novel ideas and each and every one of them has a title associated with it.  The title may not be the one that ends up being typed on the first page of the manuscript, but most likely it will be.  I rarely change the title after I land on one that captures the essence of the book.  So far, it’s only happened once.  Originally, my second novel was titled My Friend and His Lover, a title that I never truly liked, but it was the working title throughout the time I was working on the manuscript.  After I finished the novel and re-read it a few times, I changed the title to All Things Certain.  The original title sounded too cheap and tabloid-like, which is definitely not the feel I wanted the novel to have.  The new title conveys the ironic fuzziness of the lines we draw in our lives, which is exactly what I was hoping to portray in the novel.

My latest story idea emerged a couple of weeks ago on a trip to Arizona.  It didn’t take long for me to create the main character in a rags-to-riches story about a man who succumbs to the corrupting influences of power, but it did take me a while to find the perfect title to go with it.  I quickly scribbled down the elements of the story in my notebook, but I left the title blank.  I had to turn over ideas in my mind for a while before I landed on what I think is the perfect title, The Feast of the Fury.  Anyone who has ever made the trip from poor to well-off knows that the experience of being poor leaves a mark, a chip on the shoulder.  That chip smolders and burns in an undercurrent of anger that can easily consume you if you’re not careful.  That’s the essence of the title, and in the case of this novel, the main character allows himself to be overcome by the fury.

I’m sure many authors put the same level of effort in their titles as I do.  The next time you pick up a book, read the title carefully.  What does the title convey to you?  Does the book capture the essence of the title?  I think you’ll find that it does.

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