Saturday, 15 November 2008

Titles - Is This One? - Katherine Langrish


My first book was called ‘Troll Fell’ because most of the action happens on or under a mountain of that name. It was a good, strong title, and my publishers liked it. And the sequel, ‘Troll Mill’, was easy to name as the plot turned on supernatural activity in an old watermill on the flanks of the same mountain.
The third book in the series gave me more trouble. For a long time the working title was ‘West of the Moon’, but no one at my publishers really liked that. It sounded a bit wordy and vague, romantic instead of strong: and most importantly was not an obvious follow-on from the others. I’d been having trouble getting to grips with one of my characters, too. I needed a female companion to my feisty heroine Hilde. Her name was Astrid, but I couldn’t decide what she was like. Older than Hilde, but not much older… Shy? That didn’t seem quite right. I was fiddling about with ideas and then, as characters sometimes do, she came to life, turned to me with a secret smile and whispered in my ear, “There’s troll blood in me!” I felt the authentic shiver that you only get when something works. All at once I knew just who Astrid was – bitter, witchy, flirty, sad. She’s the most complex character in the book, and she gave me the title too: ‘Troll Blood’.
The book I’ve just finished writing is not about trolls, so sadly I can’t use the suggestion of the Telegraph reviewer who, after admitting he hadn’t actually read ‘Troll Blood’, kindly suggested I might call my next books ‘Trolls in the Cutlery Drawer’ and ‘Trolls in the Garden Centre’… This one is set in the Welsh Marches at the time of Richard Lionheart, but includes many supernatural and folkloric elements. For the best part of two years, I’ve been thinking of it as ‘Devil’s Edge’ – the name of yet another fictional hill. But my publishers thought that sounded too much like horror, and we had to find something else. The Black Hunt? Underworld? Wolf’s Castle? Elfgift? In the end, the book has become Dark Angels. It’s taken me a while to get used to, but now I like it. It’s strong and mysterious, and in conjunction with the cover projects the right sort of feel for the story.
But all this has set me wondering about other authors’ titles. When and why did Lewis Carroll decide to rename ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’? The new title, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was undoubtedly an improvement, but common use has shortened it to the even better ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Why didn’t he think of that?And nowadays, what’s the betting that the sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass And What Alice Found There’ would have to be ‘Alice in Mirrorland’?
The Alice titles belong to an old tradition of what you might call ‘descriptive’ titles: they tell you what’s inside the pack. George Macdonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblins’ is another example: it tells you straight out that this will be a story about a princess and some goblins. Then there are ‘evocative’ titles: Macdonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’; Linklater’s ‘The Wind on the Moon’; ‘A Dark Horn Blowing’ by Dahlov Ipcar – a certain sort of reader will be attracted to these at once. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is another: Kenneth Grahame surely means, ‘Listen! Listen to the voice of the wind breathing through the willows. How it whispers! Do you hear what it says…?’ A lovely fin-de-siècle concept; but he wouldn’t get away with it today. The book would be ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ for sure. Modern editing would focus on the comic elements: Toad and his motor cars: and what has the wind in the willows to say about Toad? Too vague, too romantic, too poetic – but the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the terror in the Wild Wood – the wind in the willows can certainly speak of these.
A third sort is the ‘teaser’ title: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – how on earth, we are meant to wonder, can such wildly different ingredients fit into the same story? ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ – what is someone with a name as ordinary as ‘Harry Potter’ doing in conjunction with the fabled Philosopher’s Stone? ‘What Katy Did’: what did Katy do? And a fourth variety is the heavily stressed, punchy, one or two-syllable title beloved of thriller writers like Dick Francis: ‘Whip Hand’; ‘Bolt’; ‘Slay Ride’. Here I hold up my own hand: ‘Troll Fell’, ‘Troll Mill’ and ‘Troll Blood’ all belong to this category.
Finding the right title can be really, really frustrating – a cross between naming your child and solving a fiendishly hard crossword puzzle. But - I wonder. How much do titles really affect the success or otherwise of a book? Do we attach too much importance to them?

7 comments:

adele said...

I've just written a teenage novel called DIDO....it's the Carthaginian queen, not the singer! David Fickling said it should be called Carthage so I fell in line, though wasn't 100% convinced. Now, it's been changed back to Dido and I am much relieved, I have to say. Which probably means I should have stuck up for my original title in the first place....But I do like Dark Angels!

Nick Green said...

I wonder how much a title really does matter. There are classics like 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' with that ingenious mixing of ill-fitting elements. But usually I think we remember titles because of the quality of the book, not the reverse. It's similar to the way names take on associations; 'Arnold' probably sounded a weak and nerdy name until Arnie became a Hollywood hardman. 'Clint Eastwood' is now loaded with connotations, but it was once just a name. And there's nothing inherent in the title 'Troll Fell' to indicate if the book is brilliant or awful. (In case anyone is wondering, it's the former.)

Brian Keaney said...

Two of the titles in my recent fantasy trilogy were changed for the US market at the instigation of the US publisher. The Gallowglass became The Cracked Mirror (my suggestion) and The Mendini Canticle became The Resurrection Fields (one of the chapter titles). I wasn't very happy about it at first but after a very short time, I realised I greatly preferred the US titles.

Nick Green said...

Brian: personally, I think The Gallowglass is a wonderful title!

One does always hear stories of US publishers apparently dumbing down titles. It's puzzling; if one cannot read the word 'Philosopher's' then one is unlikely to be able to read 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'.

Mary Hoffman said...

Gallowglass is indeed a wonderful word but it is the title of Barbara Vine novel. I know there's no copyright in titles but she's so popular that I would have thought the problem would have been here not in the US.

Hi, Brian, how are you?

Mary

Katherine Langrish said...

Hi Brian! I like these. 'The Resurrection Fields' is a wonderful title. It looks as though 'Dark Angels' too will end up with a different title in the States; we shall see. My agent is worried that a different title for the same book can lead to confusion on Amazon; but it must be said that 'The Golden Compass' is a much better title than 'Northern Lights', and I don't know that people got confused over that. And as you say, it gives us another shot at 'getting it right'...

Brian Keaney said...

Hi Mary et al. Gallowglass was, indeed, the title of an excellent novel by Barbara Vine but it was also the title of the Gallowglass Ceili Band whose records my parents played at Christmas and New Year parties when I was growing up and, of course, it has its roots in Irish and Scottish history so I felt I had as much right to it as her. Besides, mine was an entirely different kind of novel, in a different genre, and many years later. I once wrote a book called Bitter Fruit and about two years later someone wrote another book called Bitter Fruit which got shortlisted for the Booker, blowing mine out of the water. So it happens all the time. Anyway, I still think the US title, The Cracked Mirror, is better as, incidentally, was the editing.