Thursday, 11 February 2010

Title Magic and The Naming of a Novel

Notebook and laptop

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) WS

Having finished the new novel I’m still struggling with the title for  It’s a big responsibility…

What’s in a name?   The title of a good novel pulses with a special magic. It’s the cultural signal for the novel; it’s a label for a novel; it’s a cool code for a novel;  it  synthesises the meaning of the novel; it can be a metaphor for the novel. The title can be the magic reason why readers pick a book off a shelf or a bookseller’s list; in a good dream world it can be the reason why a bookseller orders fifty or five thousand copies from s publisher.

Various sources – books and internet – will tell you lots of cutesy and fairly mechanistic ways of arriving at a title. I can’t say this works for me.

All I know is that you have to stay with the writing, stay with the novel for the title to emerge.  Deciding on the title can take as long it takes to write the novel itself.  The endgame will be talking  with the editor to to find at title that works for my reasons and for hers.

When I start a novel I give it a working title - like a hook on which  to hang your hat. just for the time being.

So,  through the years  we’ve had The Coventry Novel  which became Land of Your Possession; The Hartlepool  Novel  which became ‘Children of The Storm’;  The Settlement Novel which became  ‘Where Hope Lives’ ;  the Mary Ann Cotton Novel which became ‘A Woman Scorned’; The London Novel  which became ‘The Lavender House’; The Factory Novel which became ‘Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker’ ; the Polish Novel which became ‘The Woman Who Drew Buildings’.

Kitty Rainbow – whose name I found on the births and deaths column in the local  paper -  ‘Kitty Rainbow, sister to Bunty…’ – stayed ‘Kitty Rainbow’ from beginning to end. Maybe the spirit of the real Kitty stayed around to make sure that happened.

The only title which I think didn’t work very was The Settlement Novel, Where Hope Lives – about a young miner who was made redundant and became a respected artist through involvement with the Settlement Movement. Possibly both my then editor and I lost the plot on that one. I think Where Hope Lives is one of my most interesting novels but neither the title nor the cover sang any magic song and in general it got good reviews but a restrained reception.  Funnily enough  my PLR statistics tell me it is one of my most borrowed books. Perhaps library fans see further than the title or the cover… 

Anyway,  now I’m having this big struggle  with the novel  that I’ve been calling for ‘The French  Novel’ for more than a year. For a time  it seemed to want to be called   The Maison d’Estella, after the spooky house at the centre of the novel. Then it became Starr Bright after its astrologer heroine. But now I ‘m haunted by the thought that it should after all be At The Maison d’Estella...

Any views out there in the blogosphere?  Does either of these titles hold any magic for you? Time is running short…




While I’ve been obsessing about titles I’ve made a a little quiz for some of you book beavers to do over your coffee.

Name the writers of these successful well-titled novels.

A small twist. Two of these  great titles (not mine,,,)  are not (yet) published novels.

The Edible Woman; The Lost Symbol;  Kenya Dawn;  The Sweet Track;  Slaughterhouse-Five;  A Flag On The Island;   Naming of The Dead;  The Black Moth;  The Sugar Accounts;  Jamaica Inn;  Fleshmarket Close; Firefly;  Persuasion; Blood River;  The Distance Between Us;  The Sweet Track;  My Lover’s Lover; ;  Alias Grace; Saturday;  Against the Streams; Alone in Paris;, The Road To Samarkand; An Expensive Way To Die




  1. Why not simply "Maison d’Estella"

    I know exactly what you mean about names. I could not find the right name for mine.
    After tearing my hair out for months I settled on the name for mine by rereading my MS, the name jumped out from a line of dialogue where one of my characters said she lived in a "world veiled in shadows."

  2. I can't help it but I always think of the title as- At The Maison D'Estella - because that's what it was called when we were in France and because of the house and the place and I like the estella/star thing -but the title has to be right for you, you are the author, and Starr is your creation.

    A x



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