Monday, January 30, 2006

The Title Race

Ihe issue of titles has come up again. Yesterday I received a copy of some contracts to sign, one of which referred to the "Untitled Charlie Parker Novel", the book due to be published in 2007. It struck me that "UCPN", as it shall henceforth be known, just didn't look right. If I died tomorrow then that was what the half written (I exaggerate: quarter written) manuscript on my computer would be known as to those who cared about such matters. It needed a title. I mean, the book existed, however partially. I assume that, at some point, probably due to a pressing engagement with the afterlife, I will leave an unfinished novel, possibly even an untitled one, but I didn't want this book to be it.

Titles are hard. I read recently that someone with far too much time on his hands has created a computer program that analyzes the titles of novels in order to determine their potential to become best-sellers. Apparently, the program didn't think much of The Da Vinci Code as a title (although its critical faculties didn't extend to analyzing the book itself) which just goes to show that its creator or creators would probably have been better employed doing something else with all of that time, money and extensive computing power, possibly involving pornography or role-playing games. So, for the moment at least, coming up with titles for books is probably best left to human beings employing nothing more complex than cups of coffee and the end of a pencil to chew on.

My first novel was called Every Dead Thing. It was always going to be called that. It came from a line in a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne (A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucie's Day) that I'd come across while studying Donne at university and that I later used in an essay on, um, Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think:

For I am every dead thing . . . I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

The "dead thing" referred to the killer in the book but also to the detective, who was himself "re-begot" out of pain and hurt and darkness. When it came to selling the book in the UK, two publishers were competing against each other. One was happy with Every Dead Thing as a title, or at least not unhappy enough to object strongly to it, while the other publisher didn't care much for it. As part of the latter publisher's bid, a cover was mocked up using an alternative title: The Travelling Man. As it happened, I went with the publisher that preferred the original title, but it may be that The Travelling Man was a more commercial choice. It wasn't quite as apt, or maybe it didn't resonate with me because it wasn't my title, but it might have had more appeal. For better or worse, though, I stuck with Every Dead Thing.

I suppose that I could have continued with "Dead" as a linking word for all of the books, in the same way that John Sandford uses "Prey" for his Lucas Davenport books, but it might have led to me being referred to as "that dead guy" and, while I am in no doubt that at some time in the future I will be referred to, with considerable accuracy, as "that dead guy" I didn't want to tempt fate. So, when it came to the second book, the original title that I suggested to my agent was No Country for Old Men. It's another poetic reference, this time to W.B. Yeats's poem "Sailing to Byzantium":

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song . . .

I subsequently decided that No Country for Old Men wasn't the best title for a mystery (although last year Cormac McCarthy used it for his venture into poetic mystery fiction) and went instead for Dark Hollow. Now here the problems arose. My UK publisher, perhaps rightly, didn't like the title at all. It was a reference to a song by the late Gene Clark, formerly of The Byrds, and was also the name of the town around which much of the book's action revolved, but that didn't cut much ice with those who had doubts about it. I was asked to come up with some alternatives. I spent months thinking about it and eventually offered them - and even now I cringe when I write it - Requiem for the Damned.

They loved it.

I hated it.

"Requiem", by itself, is a strong word, as is "damned", but put them both together and something strange happens. They're rendered kind of absurd. It's excessive. And so it was that I found myself unable to say the title of my new book. I would kind of mumble it in interviews, usually with my hand across my mouth. It was a difficult situation. It's hard to publicize a book whose title you're unable to say. The nadir was reached when I was having dinner with some friends in the U.S. and I was asked for the title of my next book.

"Requiem for the Damned," I mumbled.

"Rec Room of the Damned?" came the reply, and I knew that the title had to go. (In retrospect, I've often wondered what the Rec Room of the Damned might look like. I suspect it would resemble the recreation room in some dreadful old folks' home where the ping pong balls were busted and the pool table had a slope on it.)

So it was back to Dark Hollow. My publisher had already made a number of proofs of the book under the title Requiem of the Damned and they've since become very collectible, but the book was published under the title Dark Hollow. Okay, it's not a great title. I still quite like it, but I can understand their objections.

The third book was called The Killing Kind. I can't remember if it was ever going to be called anything else. I don't think so. It's kind of a generic title, and I suspect that the computer program mentioned earlier would probably approve of it, but it worked.

I returned to poetry for the fourth book, The White Road, but this time to T. S. Eliot. (These poetic references may make me look very smart. I hope they do, because I'm not.) The poem is "The Waste Land" and the lines in question really are remarkably sinister:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
- But who is that on the other side of you?

Great, huh? I don't know if the title helped the book, though. It might have been too vague. Nobody objected to it when I suggested it. Maybe my judgement was clouded by the brilliance of the poem that supplied the words. In other words, if it didn't work it's T.S. Eliot's fault, not mine. Bad Men, the fifth novel and first stand alone, was always going to be called that. It's about bad men. To quote a TV advert from Britain, it does exactly what it says on the tin. When it came to the book of short stories that followed it, I borrowed the title from one of the tales in the collection, "Nocturne", so it became Nocturnes. A couple of people did ask me what a nocturne was and I had to explain it, but overall I was happy with that one.

I spent a bit of time worrying about the title of the seventh book, and it went through a number of incarnations: The Devil's Pitchfork (which my U.S. publisher didn't like as another of its recent books with "devil" in the title hadn't done as well as expected and people were still a bit sensitive about it); The Believers; and, finally, The Black Angel, which may be as good a title as I've ever come up with.

This year's book presented no problems. It was always called The Book of Lost Things and everyone seemed to like that title. I was on a roll! I was the title king. I could hire myself out to others as an overpaid "title consultant." I even suggested a title to another writer who was struggling with titling her second book and she went for it. (I've since come up with a better one for her. I must remember to tell her before she publishes.)

But now my ninth book was languishing without a title. It was a situation that couldn't be allowed to continue.

So I've titled it. In fact, just this minute I've changed the name of the folder on my desktop. It's a good title, I think. It's apt, and refers directly to something in the book. The only problem is that it uses a word that I've previously employed in the title of an earlier novel. I wonder if people will think that I'm some kind of word miser because of it, or the kind of guy who dries out a tea bag after using it so he can make another cup from it later. I'm not, I hasten to add. If you ever come for tea, I guarantee you a fresh tea bag and no quibbles. You'll have to bring your own biscuits, though.

That's it, then. Book Nine, UCPN, now has a title.

Excuse me? What is it?

Oh, I can't tell you in case someone else steals it.



Cameraman said...

Just finished Every Dead Thing and really enjoyed it. So much so that I've bought Dark Hollow and will be getting stuck into it in the next few days. The writing is pretty good, especially when it was done by 'a dead guy' - miraculous!

Cameraman said...

Just finished Every Dead Thing and really enjoyed it. So much so that I've bought Dark Hollow and look forward to getting stuck into in the next few days. Great writing, especially when it was done by a 'dead guy'. It's a miracle relly.