26 May 2010

What's in a Title?

Dear Author asks whether as readers we remember (and that includes recommend) a book by title or by author. In the comments discussion, readers add that cover art and description are also major memory triggers. But titles remain the definition of a particular book--and as a writer, I have to confess, I hate titles.

Like any reader, I love a great title. "Footsteps in the Dark" for Georgette Heyer's charming 1930s mystery--perfect. "Bewitched and Betrayed", Lisa Shearin's latest book, equally apt.

Ah, but coming up with a great title. Not so easy. As a writer, I struggle with titles. Ideally I'd like it to catch the eye, delight the ear, bring a smile and capture the essence of the story/poem. It's a lot to ask of a handful of words.

When it works, when the title adds to the total package rather than sitting there like a useless lump, then it's the best feeling. Very rarely it comes organically from the story, as with "The Price of Freedom". More often, it requires a great deal of ink and paper, scratching and scrawling, and strange grimaces, muttering and pleas to the editor that this story should be Untitled. Fortunately, editors don't respond to wild-eyed pleas. Unfortunately, novels can seldom use the cheating method of poetry and simply rip off the first line. Shame that, but it could be fun...

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