Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Introducing the Amazing, Patented Title Generator - Cathy Butler




Many children’s writers find giving their book a title one of the trickiest parts of the job. It’s an important consideration, though: along with the jacket design and the name of the author, the title of a book is the thing mostly likely to make a potential reader pluck it from the shelf or leave it be. But what strategy works best? Direct or oblique? Short or long?

There is no single answer: both Joan Aiken’s Is and Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen strike me as excellent, though they have little in common. (Aiken’s of course would give a present-day marketing department conniptions, being virtually invisible to search engines, but that’s a different matter.) Back in 1950, when my mother was a humble secretary at Geoffrey Bles, C. S. Lewis sent them a manuscript called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with a note to the effect that this was obviously just a working title - and it was only at Bles’s persuasion that he used it for the published book. History has proved Bles right, but I can see Lewis’s point too: it does look like a working title, once you allow for the beer goggles of hindsight.

Titles have their fashions, like anything else. For example, the big Disney blockbusters of recent years have mostly been past participles: EnchantedFrozenTangled (or “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” as I like to think of them). This snappy style is seen as more in keeping with the busy lifestyles and short attention spans of modern children, but it’s a sobering thought that if Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella had been made today they would have been called Pricked and Slippered.

Around the turn of the millennium there was a vogue in Young Adult fiction for titles that described continuing actions or progressive states, in the form “Verb + ing + Noun”: Gathering Blue, Burning Issy, Missing May and so on. I suppose this was intended to evoke a sense of adolescence as a moving target, a time of change and flux. Any device can be overused, however, and when I wrote Calypso Dreaming (2002) I deliberately reversed the order so as to make my book stand out. How well that strategy worked in terms of sales I leave to historians to record.

If you want to make your own YA title from circa 2000, you can do it by following these simple steps. Turn to page 52 of the book nearest to you and find the first transitive verb; add “ing” to it, and then the name of your first pet. Voilà – there’s your title! (I got Vexing Topsy.)

Alternatively, perhaps you wish to produce a prize-winning children’s novel from the sixties or early seventies? In that case it pays to give it a title in the form:

“The + Slightly-Quirky-Noun-Used-as-Adjective + Noun” 

This will confer the air of poignant obliquity so appealing to publishers of that era, home to such books as The Dolphin Crossing, The Owl ServiceThe Chocolate War and The Peppermint Pig. Naturally the success of this strategy depends a little on one’s choice of words, so to make it easier I invite you to use the chart below, which contains a selection of words approved by our experts as Puffin-friendly. Simply look for the month and day of your birth to find your own title. There are 84 possible combinations, any of which would, I’m sure, have been a shoo-in for the Carnegie shortlist and warmly recommended by Kaye Webb as “a thoughtful novel about growing up that will appeal to slightly older girls.”


Mine’s The Blue Moon Promise. What’s yours?

30 comments:

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Amazing!! and hilarious. Mine's also The Blue Moon Promise. Uh-oh...

Catherine Butler said...

Thank you. And what are the chances?

(1 in 84.)

Joan Lennon said...

I got "Roping Cokey" (my dad named our first kitten Cokey because she had the paws that refresh ...) (I wanted to call her Fluff.) And then I got "The Martinmas Summer" - with a time travel element, perhaps?
This is fun!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Sandcastle Summer. Makes perfect sense! A touch Blytonesque, I think. A wonderful blog, Cathy.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Oh and my older title (on the model of Vexing Topsy) is Respecting Opaline.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Haha Sandcastle Summer is much too lovely to be a contemporary YA title...

Catherine Butler said...

"Roping Fluff" wouldn't have worked half so well, Joan - the moral being that we should always listen to our parents.

Yes "The Sandcastle Summer" could be a straightforward idyll, perhaps involving a competition to build the biggest and best sandcastle; or it could be a slightly melancholy nod to the transience of youth. Or both, of course.

Catherine Butler said...

"Respecting Opaline" is great - whether Opaline is the high-school queen or (as I suspect) a street drug.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I got Dreaming Jenna and The Sandcastle Promise. Yes, we had a dog called Jenna, after a heroine of Blake's 7, so not Fluffy - it could be a teen romance seen from the boy's viewpoint. The Sandcastle Promise is a bit harder. You couldn't make it a story of love among the elves or the amazing quest of a long lost princess and her pet unicorn. Maybe a young couple meet on the beach and vow to meet next summer while building sandcastles... Hmm, might make a nice creative writing exercise, do the title and you MUST write a story based on it....

Catherine Butler said...

I think "The Sandcastle Promise" suggests a promise that seems solid and certain but crumbles away at the first tide. As Edmund Spenser put it:

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.


Or, in the classic words of "Seasons in the Sun": "The stars we could reach/ Were just starfish on the beach."

John Green, eat your heart out!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ooh, nice! Yes, it makes sense. :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

Mine is 'The Halfpenny Voyage' which is clearly a cross between something by Nina Bawden, and 'A Penny To Cross the Mersey'!

Really enjoyable post, Cathy - thanks!

Susan Price said...

Great fun, Cathy!

My first title is 'Crying Tweetie.' Tweetie was a budgie, which I got instead of a dog. That worked well. A budgie is so like a dog.

'Crying Tweet' might work better.

Second title: The Looking-Glass Promise.' Very mysterious.

Catherine Butler said...

I suppose if you'd had a dog it might have been "Crying Wolf"...

K.M.Lockwood said...

I had 'Wanting Bryony' followed by 'Dormouse Gate'. Snigger.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

The Forget-me-Not Choir! Brilliant. I am going to write it.

Emma Barnes said...

Settling down to write The Dormouse Voyage, just a little concerned about how many other people might be doing the same thing...

Catherine Butler said...

My 2016 Christmas stocking is filling up nicely...

Ven n/a said...

Wanting Sooty, which actually describes how I felt when our neighbour turned up with a tiny tiny black kitten in his huge farmer's hand.

Blue Moon Summer, a haunting tale of bitter sweet first love. I see the setting as a seaside summer home in the states with the lovers crossed by class and wealth.

Ann Turnbull said...

Seizing Tina. Hmm...

But The Forget-me-not Voyage is lovely, if slightly soppy.

I like this game, Cathy!

Seriously, though: another change in titles is the disappearance of "The" as the first word.(It even happens retrospectively, as in Wide Sargasso Sea, which I'm sure was called The Wide Sargasso Sea when I read it years ago - wasn't it?)

Ann Turnbull said...

Love the idea of a political thriller called Dormousegate.

Savita Kalhan said...

Brilliant! I love your post.
I got 'Donating Sammy' (yes, a more interesting pet name would have helped here!), and 'The Halfpenny Princess', which I quite like and has lots of possibilities.

Lucy Coats said...

Killing Simba (perhaps an African vibe for this one), and The Mulberry Promise. Noting them both down for further investigation. Thank you, Cathy. I needed cheering up, and this has done it!

Becca McCallum said...

The Cinnamon Voyage - a 13th century coming of age tale about the search for the elusive (and unfortunately mythical) 'cinnamon bird'...

That was fun! Now I really want to write it...

Oh, and isn't 'Is' called 'Is Underground' for the American market?

Catherine Butler said...

Becca, I didn't know that about "Is Underground", but it doesn't surprise me!

Stroppy Author said...

Obviously I shouldn 't be a writer as both my title are rubbbish: Containing Tamil and The Calico Gate. Although I like Ann Turnbull's idea of running it together into Calicogate and making some, er, scandal about an Indian textile magnate. I'm out of my depth. I rather wish the nearest book hadn't been Jekyll and Hyde. Equidistant on the other side was Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and that gave me Calling Tamil, which is little better. A film script I'm reviewing which was actually closer but isn't a book gave me Raising Tamil...why does everyone use such boring verbs?

Catherine Butler said...

I'm sorry my generator gave you such poor service, Stroppy! I thought I'd help you out by offering the book nearest me right now (Miyazaki's memoirs), but that just gave me "Searching Tamil", which sounds like an unpleasant incident at passport control.

I do think "The Calico Gate" has some possibilities. Either a straightforward portal fantasy, or else a quasi-historical adventure set near a bazaar city's famous Calico Gate, whence merchants stream to bring brightly coloured chintzes to an eager world.

Sue Bursztynski said...

This is delightful and fun! I shared this with a work,are, who is going to do her own version with her Year 7 class. As for mr, I'm going to use it with my Year 9/10 Creative Writing elective - I will ask them to put down their current stories for the moment and come up with titles, then a one paragraph blurb which can maybe be used later in the semester. We can discuss what their titles might be about. I think they will enjoy it.

Catherine Butler said...

Sue, that sounds a great idea. I'd be interested to know how it goes!

selcaby said...

I got Whitening Jemima. I am sitting right next to a bookcase, so it could have gone several ways, but The Light Fantastic is both roughly lined up with my elbow and sticking out further than the books around it.

Jemima was partly white already; the rest of her was tabby.

I think I'd rather read my 60s Puffin, The Barleycorn Gate, which has a faintly intriguing Morris-dance ring to it. I suspect the cover was largely brown.