What’s in a name?

The naming of a book or story is a curious thing. Once it’s done, there it is, set in stone – but getting there can be as much of a process as any other type of writing.

Take Catch 22 for example. Joseph Heller thought long and hard about what to call his darkly comic magnum opus about the Second World War, until he finally came up with the perfect title – Catch 18.

Only trouble was, there was another book coming out that year with 18 in the title, one by a more famous author (this was Heller’s first book don’t forget). So the publisher wasn’t feeling the love for the whole Catch 18 thing.

It was back to the drawing board and Heller ummed and arred over various possible numbers before settling on 22 on the grounds that it was more amusing than other numbers. And who are we to dispute the great man on that?

Anyway, the point is that something which seems so set and intractable now – so much a part of the book, and indeed part of our culture, could so easily have been something else.

For my own part, I often start with one title, as a kind of place marker, then change it for something more exciting later on. This early title tends to be quite a basic label – one which describes what the story is or does. Sometimes this title survives into print – other times it gets replaced.

Song of the Sea God for example, spent a lot of its early days being called The Longing. It was even short listed in a couple of awards for unpublished novels under that name. It was only when my publisher suggested I change the title for something more evocative that I came up with Song of the Sea God, which I think is a lot more attractive title have on its cover as it sits in the bookshop window hoping for buyers.

I expect it was the first time I properly considered a title in terms of something which might entice people to read my work – rather than as just a tag. Previously when I’ve had stories published in anthologies and so on they’d been ‘paid for’ in terms of competition prizes – the title had not been there to attract readers or buyers – just to indicate what the story was about or convey a feel for what it contained. At that stage it never entered my head that, essentially, what you call your story or book is an exercise in marketing.

Perhaps the writers out there could comment on how you find your titles – and how important, or otherwise, you think they are in the finished work?

6 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. Hi Chris, as another Skylight author of a book called ‘By Names and Images’ which focuses on how names evoke and bring into reality the inner realms, I naturally think a title is very important 🙂 it is the first point of contact with the audience and, incidentally the publisher, and from an esoteric perspective should embody and earth the essential message of the work. That way it conveys instantly what the book is about.

    I think your novel has a wonderful title, and I am sure it will appeal to many because of it, stick in their minds, etc. this is a very good thing for ‘marketing’.

    Thanks for this post…And I am looking forward to the novel, not just the evocative title, very much 🙂

    1. Thanks Peregrin – the whole issue of names and what they are and mean is fascinating – I remember doing some semiology back in uni and it’s an interesting field on all sorts of levels I think.

  2. I can completely relate! After months of frustration trying to come up with not only a title to my book, but for my series and all the titles for all the books need to fit together, I thought i was never going to come up with a name. My original book’s name was The Last Guardian, well, we all know how many books have that title, or at least ‘Guardian’ in the title, so I kept coming back to the drawing board. Finally after hitting up everyone I knew, it came to me, and I mean suddenly! It is a tough thing to go through and I can appreciate your frustration and struggles! good post and I look forward to your future ones!

    1. Thanks Lisa. I agree it’s an area where it perhaps helps to get someone else’s point of view – the reason I ditched The Longing and tried a bit harder was my publisher didn’t like it – and in fact pointed out that there were lots of so-so romantic fiction pot-boilers already in print with the same title!

  3. Titles are very important! I spend ages mulling over stuff. Funnily enough, you kind of know when you’ve hit the jackpot – it just feels good. ‘Dark Side of Midnight” Dead Man Talking’. (2 of mine that I struglled over). Good luck with forthcoming book. Guest blog on my site??? In return for invading yours!!!

    1. I sometimes write down a big long list of alternatives until I find something which sticks. That’s what I did for Sea God. I’d love to have you on my blog – I’ll send you an email

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