In Pursuit of a Title
I was asked recently how I came up with the title for my novel The Dress Thief. The short, answer is, I didn’t.
The book was originally entitled A Dark Flowering, which was my invention. Titles slip into your mind unbidden, appearing like apparitions or fog on the motorway. Absent one moment, fully formed the next. You grow fond of them and they become the skeleton supporting the flesh of your novel. You can’t imagine your book being called anything else.
Publishers are less sentimental. My editor thought A Dark Flowering sounded like the title of an erotic novel. My agent thought it sounded rather too oblique. Could I come up with something else? Quickly.
With all the sorrow of someone leaving a long-term relationship, I took out a lined pad and began to brainstorm. My technique is to jot down ideas in a stream of consciousness. Whatever comes to mind, even if it sounds rubbish. For all that, it’s a serious business. A book’s title must entice, invite, create a tingle. It has to be a finger-post for the kind of writing inside. Along with the cover-art, it should denote the book’s genre; crime, thriller, gentle contemporary romance, comedy etc. That’s a tall order in our brand-aware age. I can see why eighteenth century authors gloried in lengthy set-ups; ‘A history in three volumes in which a young gentleman of fortune sets out into the world and encounters scoundrels, rogues and harlots that turn him, for a regrettably long time, from the path of honour and righteousness.’ Nowadays, that title would probably be classed as a piece of flash fiction in its own right. One, clear idea is what we want these days. I’ve forgotten every single proposition on my lined pad except the one I liked best, which was ‘Sheer.’
Short, sharp. As the book is set in the world of haute-couture and fashion, Sheer says to me ‘scissors’ as in ‘shears’. It says ‘danger’ (as in sheer fall, sheer speed). It is a knowing nod to the new nylon stockings that made their first appearance in 1937, the year in which the novel is set. ‘Sounds like a gory murder story,’ said the first person I tried it out on. ‘I’m thinking Bates Motel and the shower scene.’ Later, over a cup of coffee in my publisher’s office in Baker Street, I came up with a host of lame ducks and my agent came up with The Dress Thief. I knew instantly it was the right title. It never hurts to have a title that tells the reader who the main character is. ‘Clouds of Destiny’ or ‘The Wounded Heart’ might describe the type of book you are about to read, but ‘The Prodigal Daughter’ or ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ tells you who it’s about. The Dress Thief not only tells you who the lead character is, but is pretty clear about what she does. That’s a hard-working title.
A few years ago, I drove my car onto field where I was keeping my horses at the time, meaning to stop just inside the gate and unload feed bags. I was thinking so hard about a title for the book I was writing then, I kept going until I was mired in mud. There was no way out. The wheels just sank deeper. I trudged home two miles on a November night whose sky was dominated by a full moon of the most mystical colour. Should I call my book ‘The Amber Moon?’ I wondered. As it had no relevance whatever to the story, I decided not. The novel in question is set in the Waterloo year of 1815. I had a working title; ‘A Season’s Scandal’ but the direction of the novel had changed, downplaying the scandal plotline. As I walked, I juggled ideas for a book set in the Regency era and inevitably started purloining Jane Austen. I came up with ‘Fortune and Felicity’ but decided that sounded like a northern drag act. The story is about a young woman trying to grasp back the fortune stolen from her. ‘A fickle fortune’ ‘To Find a Fortune’ ‘A Fair, Phantom Fortune’ flowed out. I think the F-words arose from my frustration at getting my car stuck in the mud. Actually, it took a couple of years for me to find the title for that book. A Tangled Season. It just came to me one day.
- Posted in: Uncategorized