Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Not So Much - Karen Ball


Has anyone else had this? Someone meets you for the first time. You can see the excitement in their eyes when they hear what you do. They eagerly demand to know the title of the book you’re currently working on and you tell them. The smile wavers and the light goes out in their eyes. Nah, you hear them thinking. Not so much.
What is it about book titles? Take virtually any out of context and it immediately sounds dull and uninspiring. ‘Emma’? Nah, not so much. Titles can be too long, pretentious, misleading or obscure. They can also be fantastically intriguing: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, Tender is the Night, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. (Do I have a weakness for long book titles?)
If you want to peruse a laugh-out-loud collection of titles, I can heartily recommend ‘Bizarre Books’ by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. ‘Frog Raising For Pleasure And Profit’ anyone? No. ‘The Wit of Prince Philip’? What about ‘Shut Your Mouth And Save Your Life’ by N Trubner and Co, 1869. I could think of a few people to give that to...
No wonder we all agonise over the names of our books. Only for agents to suggest alternatives and publishers to email about a conversation they’ve been having with Marketing. I’ve learnt not to give a fig what any of my books are called; I know someone will suggest something different.
That conversation with a stranger can get worse. I can’t pitch to save my life. I dread the moment someone asks me what my book is about. I can feel the blush rising in my cheeks. ‘Erm, well...’ Silence. The other person isn’t going to fill it for me. ‘It’s about this girl and, like, she goes out one day and there’s this really big thing that happens and...’ Panic takes over. I can’t actually remember what happens. I start to question my plot (again!). If I can’t sum it up in a couple of sentences, it can’t be working, can it? I have to remind myself that other people are much better at the pitch. Agents, for example.
But I can’t tell all this to the person sitting opposite me. Not because they wouldn’t understand, but because they’ve already turned their back on me and are talking to someone much more interesting. My opportunity to impress has been and gone and I’m left in no doubt that I failed.
It doesn’t really bother me; I didn’t start writing in order to have something to talk about. My boyfriend recently supplied me with the best story summary in the world: ‘Once upon a time. Something happened. The end.’ That'll do me.
Which book titles do you love?
Visit my website at www.karen-ball.com.

9 comments:

Anne Cassidy said...

But Karen, I think it is important to be able to 'pitch' your story. It's the hook that gets people interested. I've got a new book coming out in Jan called GUILT TRIP and it was only when a group of kids recently asked me what it was about that I struggled to put together an answer. Er... It's about this group of teens who stop a boy from committing suicide and five weeks later they end up killing him. That was it. Boys came up to me afterwards and earnestly asked me WHEN the book was coming out because they got the hook. So my advice (for what it's worth) to all novelists is to find a way of encapsulating the really dramatic narrative of your book and put it down into two sentences. Actually my book is about guilt and living with the consequences of a crime but that isn't a 'hook'. When you have these two sentences you should learn it off by heart so that you can rattle it out whenever asked.

Stroppy Author said...

Karen, I think as party season approaches I will pick my best title rather than most interesting book to talk about when people ask what I'm writing. And that's great advice, Anne. I will certainly prepare two-line accounts of anything someone might ask about. Sadly, the one with the best title is so short that a two-line summary is probably longer than the book... But that's OK, as then I can field all the questions about how it can take longer than 5 minutes to write a picture book. Sigh.

Kathleen Jones said...

Favourite titles? How about 'A short history of tractors in Ukrainian' - 'Salmon fishing in the Yemen' - 'Wide Sargasso Sea' - 'the Kite-runner'
I often buy books just because the title intrigues me, but can't for the life of me find intriguing titles for my own!!
Kathleen

bookwitch said...

I like Meg Rosoff's next one, There Is No Dog, except the publishers don't like it...

Whenever people (in publishing) ask me what I have read recently that excited me, I can never think of anything. Decided to learn a stock reply to this, but struggle to remember that too.

karen ball said...

That is absolutely fantastic advice, Anne. I am going to compose a two-sentence hook and learn it off by heart. Thank you!

Rosalind Adam said...

Serendipity. I've spent all morning agonising over a title for a picture book manuscript I'm about to send off. Sigh.
I like the bit about the two sentence hook. You could also try the line, 'I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of the book so go out and buy a copy.'

Nick Green said...

Having to pitch a book in terms of what it is 'about' has always bothered me. A book might be 'about' something really amazing but still be an awful book (or about something apparently mundane, yet be unputdownable). No one asks a musician what their melody is 'about' - they just know if they like it, or if they don't.

That said, I won't practice what I preach. I'm with Anne on this, 100 per cent!

vella said...

Почему бывает день и ночь? - а тут ответ

Ms. Yingling said...

P.B. Kerr's titles for the Children of the Lamp series are fairly clever and have two things I particularly like-- the series is titled in alphabetical order, and the titles usually involve a common and an uncommon word. Students will say "It had 'adventure' in it, then some strange word", and I know it must be The Akhenaten Adventure.