Duchess? Lady? I’d settle for Ma’am

I’ve been pondering titles. Not, sadly, because I’m to be honoured for services to children’s literature, but because the perfect one for The Novel came to me from nowhere the other day. And it started me wondering about great titles, and how they are born.

I’d been battling with this one for a long time. Years, believe it or not. Back in the early days, when I could write every day, and all weekend, and spend an afternoon each week at the best children’s writing course in London*, I had a working title that didn’t work. I fiddled with it endlessly so that every time I brought new chapters to the group they came with a new title. They were all perfectly good titles, they all reflected the general theme of the book, but they just didn’t work. None of them sounded like titles for a book, and none of them sounded like the title of my book. To be frank, they started to irritate me and I found myself agonising over the title in an increasingly unhealthy way. So one day I gave up on the title and carried on writing the book without one.

In the meantime life intervened, and when I started to write The Novel again I realised that it was going to be a different novel (I’ve talked about this in another post). The original titles were now even more obsolete, so every now and again I’d have a think about what to call The Novel #2. This time I didn’t stress myself. I didn’t get hung up on it, I didn’t spend every waking moment wondering what it could be.

And then I was having a shower and thinking about what the book was actually about (as you may have noticed, thinking about, rather than writing my book is a common theme), while simultaneously talking to my daughter about her latest Playmobil creation, and zap, there it was. The perfect title, discovered without any apparent effort at all.

How do published authors decide on the titles of their great works? JK Rowling once famously said that the entire story of Harry Potter came to her, fully formed – did her titles arrive that way as well? Having cast my eye briefly over my bookshelf, it seems that there are two broad categories of titles for YA books:

  1. The solid, dependable ones. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StonePippi LongstockingThe Secret Seven – we know exactly what these books will be about and that’s why we want to read them; they give us a sense of security before we even turn the first page.
  2. The multi-layered, mysterious, even poetic titles that draw us to the book like a gentle but insistent hand on our arm. They catch our eye, intrigue and nag at us.  Walk Two Moons, Ways to Live Forever, Broken Soup and Dear Nobody are some of my favourite YA titles of this type.

I like to think I’m more multi-layered than solid and dependable (hmm, that doesn’t necessarily sound good). So I’ve gone for category 2 for my title. Or rather, it went for me.

A month or so ago I was delighted to see the author Sally Nicholls (on whom I have a massive YA author crush), ask her Twitter followers to suggest titles for her new novel. She wanted something slightly creepy, possibly reflecting a nursery rhyme. I don’t know if she went with a follower suggestion or not, but in the end she chose ‘Close Your Pretty Eyes’. I liked her style – was her method the author’s equivalent of asking Google for any answers?

Writers: I’d love to hear how you choose your titles. Let me know! Everyone else, what do you think about where titles come from, and what works?

*City Lit, Writing for children and young adults, with the marvellous Elisabeth Hawkins. More on that another time.

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6 thoughts on “Duchess? Lady? I’d settle for Ma’am

  1. I like the idea of crowdsourcing for most creative projects. There’s so much creativity out there and sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can come up with something astonishing. Sally Nichols has the right idea! Really enjoyed this post 🙂

  2. For picture books I have often found that the title comes first, then the story. For example, the titles have come from conversations and messing around with words – often silly playful conversations. The title for my adult WIP came to me in a half-asleep state so it’s difficult to pin down how that happened. You can’t make it happen but you can be patient and wait for it. I’d had two titles before that – titles which I’d laboured over and which probably sounded laboured. Perhaps it’s best to let it stew in the hope that, in time, it will just occur – like yours did in the shower!

  3. Labouring is it Paula – if you labour nothing comes, which is where I was at all those years ago. I think you’re right about picture books. You’ve made me think about where the titles for mine came, and I do think they came first. The one I’m (not) writing at the moment has been a title alone for too long! Did you rouse yourself awake when the WIP title came to you?

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