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Novel titles: Which comes first, the story or its title?

Novel titles: Which comes first, the story or its title?

Novel titles: Which comes first, the story or its title?

'The title is such an integral part of any novel that I write. It’s the cornerstone, essentially. From the title flows the work. Thus, the title fits...'

Did you know that Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace was originally entitled All’s Well That Ends Well? That William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was called Twilight? That Jane Austen’s original title for Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions? That John Steinbeck envisioned Of Mice and Men published as Something That Happened?

Clearly, a book’s title is hugely important when it comes to hooking a reader’s interest and perfectly encapsulating the central theme and mood of the story. It’s hard to imagine any of the following becoming The Great American Novel: Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; On the Road to West Egg; Trimalchio in West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; The High-Bouncing Lover (all titles considered by F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby; indeed, if he’d had his way, it would certainly have been published as Under the Red, White, and Blue).

Fitzgerald is not alone in having deliberated long and hard – and wavered – over the title for his story; this is part of the writing process for many authors. In order to alleviate some of the agony of the title hunt, some authors don’t even attempt to write their title until the manuscript is complete; they simply write The Book.

Many authors, however, find it difficult to shape a story without a title, and so they craft a working title. Vladamir Nabokov’s working title for Lolita was The Kingdom by the Sea, for example, and Evelyn Waugh wrote the novel Brideshead Revisited under the title A House of the Faith. This can be a sensible approach to writing if you are seeking publication from a major publisher, because they may well direct you towards a new title for your book in any case. Back in the 1940s, Secker & Warburg led George Orwell away from his title The Last Man in Europe towards the iconic 1984.

Publishers think from the perspective of marketability, but of course authors are all about the art – the most beautiful title for the work. Sometimes, issues can arise when an author doesn’t like the publisher’s chosen book title. JK Rowling stopped Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published in the US as Harry Potter and the School of Magic, but had to concede the change to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the publisher felt ‘philosopher’ would put off children). She had written the novel under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; it would have felt quite wrong to her to publish the story under a different (and less compelling) title.

Burning Embers. The Echoes of Love. Indiscretion. Masquerade. Legacy. Aphrodite’s Tears. Concerto. These are the titles of my novels so far, and I can’t imagine the books being published under different titles.

But were the manuscripts for my novels untitled? Did I write under working titles? Did I fall in love with a title, only to have my publisher change it?

I consider myself very fortunate that coming up with the title of a novel is a relatively straightforward element of the writing journey for me. The ideas start forming for a new book – the mood, the setting, the themes, the main characters – and very soon, the title arrives in my mind. I will challenge that title; I will consider it carefully and suggest to myself variations. But invariably there has been a ‘click’ inside, and the title is fixed.

I think my mind provides this ‘click point’ for me because the title is such an integral part of any novel that I write. It’s the cornerstone, essentially. From the title flows the work. Thus, the title fits (and, thank goodness, my publisher agrees).

Of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald is reported to have said ‘the title is only fair, rather bad than good’ (Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2002: 215–7). I am glad that I feel that my own titles are more than fair; for me, they are not good so much as they are right for the story. They are the story, in a nutshell.

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