I believe that people grow into their given names. A baby Bubba will indeed grow up to be a Bubba. Tracie and Gertrude will become different kinds of women.
I don’t have children, but the naming part must be an awesome task. Do you whisper to the Genius Gods with names like Isaac and Albert? Do you tempt fate by calling your daughters Precious and Belle?
Unlike human parents, I’ve noticed that many dog owners prefer ironic names for their pets. How else to explain the number of Bichon Frises named Rocky?
My family has always followed the Last-Out-First-In rule for naming. That is, you name your newborn after the most recently deceased relative of the same sex. It can lead to a covey of Leonas and Louises in one generation. And it will be a long time before any more Jennifers or Jasons show up.
There are some folks who recognize early on that they have been mislabeled. Like fixing a recipe, sometimes it calls for just a tweak — a little more salt, perhaps. Leonas become Lees. Elizabeth becomes Betty.
Others throw out the recipe all together. My old friend Maddie Werner became Illiani Matisse. And webmistress-extraordinaire Heidi Mack became Madeira James. She never felt like a Heidi, and finally did something about it.
Why all this talk about names? Because I can’t start writing without one.
I need a title for a book before I can even write the first sentence.
I know this isn’ÂÂt true for all writers. Some folks find that nugget of a title from a sentence they wrote on page 386. Others have been so burned by title changes at the publisher that they no longer care what name the book starts out with.
But that’s not me.
A good title opens whole new worlds for me. Something called Cold Kill could be a survival story in the bleakest winter. Or it could describe a passionless execution by a serial killer. Louise Penny’s Still Life evokes artwork, but also made me ask, "Is that an unmoving and stagnant life? Or is a still life another name for death?"
I keep three "idea folders" in my desk drawer. One for plot lines and book ideas. One for description, dialog, and character inspiration. One for titles. Guess which one is as fat as a mid-summer tomato?
I once tried to write a book without having a title. I was rudderless. Too many places I could go, and no destination in mind. I got 130 pages into it and realized that it was a collection of scenes, but not a story.
It didn’ÂÂt have a name. And a name would have defined it.
Years ago, I decided that I would someday write a book called Forcing AmaryllisÂÂ. (You know, of course, that it was said in the grandest tone — back in the days when I talked about writing rather than actually doing it.) I had seen the words on an instruction sheet at the nursery. How to force an amaryllis bulb to open after its months-long slumber. Hmmm, I wonder what that book would be about?
My second novel is ÂÂThe Fault Tree,ÂÂ and it, too was named years before it was written. I was driving through Golden Gate Park when the radio announcer broke the news of the space shuttle Columbia’s disintegration in the Texas sky. "They’ve already scheduled a fault tree analysis to see if they can determine what went wrong." Ah, there are so many ways something can go wrong. My own Fault Tree proves it.
The next book will be Liars Anonymous. Then After That Day. Then maybe The Glam Squad. I have no idea what these books are about but the words hang at the point of my tongue, teasing and taunting.
How about ÂÂSnuff Radio? Or Gabble Ratchet or A Silver Bullet for Miss Kahlil.ÂÂ
Maybe ÂÂDime Store Pope or ÂÂSin Lagrimas, when the English-reading world is ready for a Spanish-titled book.
I’m not at a loss for titles. The hard part is creating the books that live up to them. After all, we grow into our given names, don’ÂÂt we?
What about you all? Are you as drawn to titles as I am? When you’re in a bookstore, can a title alone get you to pick up a book? And writers, can you nurture a nameless child? Or must you, like me, name him first?
And just because I think it’s so cool … here’s 500 years of female portraiture in three minutes:
I have to have a name, though I am aware that it can change. So far, so good — they let me keep my first title and I fought hard to keep the lower case verys in the parentheses–it has a meaning and value for me, and luckily, they ended up agreeing. I’m not as 100% certain of the second title, but it was a good place to start. I think the book has grown past it, though, like a nickname that no longer quite fits.
I do like having a title, and thus far, the title has always come early on in the process.
And yes, the title of a book in the store can absolutely make me pick up the book. I will usually then read the inside flap copy, the back cover copy, and maybe the first page. I get very annoyed if those parts aren’t as good as the title.
Should I ever write fiction (no one hold their breath!) I know what the first six books would be called! And I have all the main characters named.
I’m endlessly fascinated by names. The names Dick Francis uses for his tend to make me smile and make me wonder if he stuck a pin in the business section of a phonebook!
In the UK, Sharon is a chav (think trailer trash) name, although my mother insists that 40-coughcough years ago, it was an unusual first name! If my second name wasn’t worse, I’d have stopped using it long ago. Maybe I should do what Heidi’s done!
Naming children is hard. You don’t have any clue what they’re going to be like when they grow up, so you do the best you can. (Which is probably why I’ve known a lot of people who hated their names at some point.) My daughter hates the name I gave her. Until I was an adult, I hated the name my mother gave me. *shrug*
I was actually relieved when I heard publishers often change titles. I’m not good at snappy titles, so I do the best I can and hope it will be catchy.
Toni, you must have great talent with naming, as your first book title not only is interesting but reflects the tone and something about the character and setting as well. Well done, you!
And Sharon … funny what names convey in different countries! One of us is going to have to do a whole post on character names, don’t you think?
B.E., initials are always a good escape from a less than desireable name!I can’t think of any “initialed” person I don’t adore. (E.B. White, E.L.Doctorow, J. D. Rhoades, B.E. Sanderson!)
Billie, I think you and I prowl the bookstore the same way. And … after all that glancing at the title, the flap copy, the opening paragraphs … it really pisses me off if the rest of the book doesn’t live up to those glorious opening pages that the author has worked so hard on.
Loved the clip!!!
I have to have a title before I start writing, as well, although I changed the name of my first book somewhere in the middle when a better one materialized.
Do you think that it’s your work in advertising that has contributed to you thinking in names? Advertising seems filled with word play and being creative in a very condensed space. And it’s visually oriented as well.
Just wondering. I’m curious what we bring from our other lives in producing books.
And for me, yes, I need to come up with a title first. And as Tony has expressed, it’s subject to change, but I need to hang my hat on something in the beinning.
Louise, this is one of those writing dichotomy questions that fascinates me. I absolutely, 100% can not work without a title first. The title defines the who, what and where for my story. Heck, I title my blog entries before I start. And I’ve been very lucky, all three of my book titles have stuck.
But I know so many people who are completely laissez-faire when it comes to titles. They can do it later, or last. I envy them.
I did not have a title when I started Sacred Cows. I did have one when I started both the second and third books, however, the titles were both changed…and to better titles as it turns out! I started the fourth book with a completely different idea for a plot in mind, but when I wrote the first sentence, I knew that it wasn’t the book I thought I was going to write. The title was a no-brainer, however, and it seems that the publisher also likes it so it probably won’t be changed. Yay!
Hi Patty! Glad you liked the video clip. I should more accurately have called it “500 years of WESTERN female portraiture” as there are not many Asian, African or South American images included. But it’s so well put together.
I think you do a great job with titles, my dear. Each of yours is so distinct, yet each contributes to the story line and reflects the protagonist’s background. Don’t know how you could have changed mid-stream, though.
Interesting question, Naomi. Yes, I spent thirty years evaluating headlines and the copy for 30 second TV commercials. That’s part of what made it so hard to work on the larger format of a 80,000-100,000 word novel. Maybe I’m returning to my roots and viewing everything as a headline again.
And JT, yep, the approach to titles is just as polarizing as that outliner vs. seat of the pantser debate. But I don’t envy the other guys.
SACRED COWS was a great name for that first book, Karen. But, oh what fun we could have had with the second if you’d gone with my (only slightly tongue in cheek) suggestion of GUINEA FOUL!
BTW, I recently read Louis Penny’s STILL LIFE, and absolutely loved it. The title fits the story so well on so many levels.
I always have some kind of working title but it’s not necessarily the final title, and no, I don’t at all have to have one to start. Some of my best titles haven’t come to me until after the project is finished. But in Hollywood you can’t get married to anything you write – titles are just as likely to change as anything.
I find titles either immediately obvious or difficult and fraught with anxiety – there’s very little in between.
THE HARROWING was a last-minute title change – I had just 24 hours to come up with an alternate title when suddenly sales didn’t like the previous one.
I’m a Titlist. I try to pick something provocative and unique. I want the title to stimulate the reader’s imagination.
“I try to pick something provocative and unique.” You certainly succeeded with ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN, Simon.
And Naomi, I’m so glad you liked STILL LIFE, too. I find that I use it as a good example for so many things: voice, an update on a traditional mystery, setting, title selection, character development. And I hear that her second is even better.
Alex, if it’s my advertising background that makes me focus on titles, then we can surely blame your film background for the last minute nature of them. But THE HARROWING was certainly appropriate!
Sometimes a story of mine ends up with the title it started with, but not very often. At some point, usually about halfway through, a better title suggests itself.
Likewise, very few of my characters keep the names I initially assign to them. The early names are almost always given for convenience’s sake, before the character’s personality asserts itself. I like to give names that either illustrate the character or are wildly misappropriate for the sake of humor.
JLW, I’m going to remember this comment of yours when we getting around to talking about the naming of characters. I agree about the changeable nature of their names. I don’t think I’ve yet created a major character whose name remained the same from the first to the final draft.
The name is everything. It’s the heart of the story to me. James M. Cain, however, must not have felt the same. There is no postman in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Oh, and yeah – our Shih Tzu is named Rocky. Rocky de la Roque, to be exact.
Nope: Ain’t gonna happen. No way are you going to trick me into saying I’ve never bought a book because of it’s title.
Had this sort of conversation with Patty (Smiley) about bookcovers. I’d never bought a book because of its cover. A couple weeks later I bought FALLEN ANGEL solely for the cover. I liked the book very much, have recommended it often (title’s an excellent one for it, too), and a week or so later bought another because of the cover (by a well-known author I had not read before…and won’t read again); it was a real stinker.
Maybe in a previous life I bought a book or two or more because of the title; but if I did, I don’t recall what books or how I liked them. They were probaby Sci-Fi or Westerns. (A friend observed that Louis L’Amour’s best books had one-word titles.HONDO and SACKETT, for example.)
Is Miss Kahlil a werewolf, or is she just wondering who that masked hombre was?
Pardon moi – I’d meant to type ‘title’, not ‘name’. Oh, well – you probably got my drift anyway.
Elaine, I had forgotten that your newest addition was a Rocky! I’m sure he lives up to his name.
And Tom, although I’ve long ago forgiven her, Miss Kahlil was actually the high school teacher who told me I had a bright future in retail. (Ergo I’ve made her the villain in my piece.)
I’m waiting to see if my editor will buy off on THE NEVER-WAS MAN. It sums up the story and it’s provoking in a makes you wonder how illiterate the rest of the writing is kind of a way. 🙂
I’ll pick up a book with an evocative title, but then put it down if the flap descriptions don’t catch me.
I have high hopes for Gischler’s GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE. I’d pick that one up in a heartbeat.
Amen, to the Gischler title! It’s not that I wish I’d thought of that title; I wish I could have written that book!
And Simon, by all means, push for THE NEVER-WAS MAN.The book is already interesting to me.
I’m still on the second draft of my first book, and I really like my title! I know that it might be changed.
What I have in mind for the second or third book is the thing that intrigues me most, and I DON’T have a title for it. I tend to think that’s a good thing. I shouldn’t title it until I know what it’s about.