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 It was even short listed in a couple of awards for unpublished novels under that name.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?

High tech future for the written word?

I’m going a bit off-piste with this one so do bear with – I’m sure we’ll get mugged by something approximating a valid point down near the bottom somewhere.

I was just thinking how little I now know about the world around me – the man-made world that is. Technology has bounded along at such a lick that it’s left the average man or woman in the street trailing in its wake I’d say.

Not that I’ve ever really been up to speed. I mean, when it comes right down to it – I don’t even know how a radio works. I’ve got the headlines of course – if it came up in a pub quiz I’d know that it’s got something to do with waves and they travel through the air – but beyond that – nothing. I mean – these waves – are they everywhere? Are they all around us now? Do they pass through us? Who knows – not me, press a button, music comes out – that’s it.

So you can imagine the towering level of my incomprehension when it comes to what might loosely be termed ‘new technology’. Take this laptop I’m writing on – how does that really work? Microchips and things yes – binary code, noughts and ones. But how does it come together? And the internet? Twitter? This blog? Frankly I haven’t a clue.

When people – well, you know, nutters – say that it’s all alien technology, reverse engineered from a crashed space-craft found at Roswell, I don’t think ‘Oh – how absurd!’ I think: ‘Well – it’s a theory.’

Things have moved so fast. If I was able to talk to myself as a kid, and show him what we’ve got in the way of gadgets now, he would think I was showing him some distant science fiction.

“Never mind that rubbish you see on Star Trek with the clam-shell phones – that’s so 1995 – take a look at this iPhone. With this thing in my palm I can access every fact in the world – or at the very least someone’s opinion on that fact. I can speak to anyone on the planet who is willing to speak to me – yes on the phone, the way you have to go down to the corner and use the pay phone to do, but also on TV face to face. I can listen to any song on any record in the whole of HMV on the high street – and millions more they haven’t got. Yes, even 12 inch singles. I can watch any movie – the ones you have to go to the cinema to see. And when you get in the car – this thing can bounce a signal off a satellite up in space and tell you exactly where you are in the world and give you directions to where you have to go.’

Even supposing young me wasn’t freaked out by old me just appearing like that and going on at him like some deranged salesman from Phones 4 U he would doubtless be amazed by how quickly things have changed.

But now imagine me as a kid, going back to see my dad when he was a child – say 30 years earlier. I wouldn‘t really have had that much to tell him. ‘You know TV? Yes – well we still have that, but some rich people have colour ones – and you know telephones? Well several people in my class have them in their actual homes.’

Yes – it’s since the 1970s that things have really taken off. I think I was about 12 when Pong came out – that precursive video game based on batting a white dot from one side of the screen to the other between two paddles. I imagine that was the first bit of technology we reverse engineered from the Roswell Aliens. It’s all gone haywire since then.

Now let’s look at literature. (See, told you there was a point). How has that changed in the same period? Well, I’m tempted to bluster and make up some stuff but the truth is, it’s hardly changed at all. Styles come and go, fashions wax and wane, but we still have novels, poetry, short stories. Nothing revolutionary has happened.

It has been suggested that the changes in technology could prompt a revolution in the way we write. That the more open access of the e-book era might allow people new latitude to reconfigure what counts as a piece of creative writing. It might smash open the boxes into which writing must fit to get past publishers and agents and make it into print under the current orthodoxy.

Removing the constraints of the solid, physical book and the expensive process of printing might lead to unexpected and radical change in the forms writing takes.

Is this what’s going to happen? Or will ebooks simply lead to mass piracy and mean that authors struggle even more to get paid for their work?

Who knows? The truth is it’s a revolution – and in a revolution nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, not even the people who start it.

Long story short

427px-Ernest_Hemingway_1950_cropChallenged to write a short story in just ten words Ernest Hemingway managed it in six. His story read:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

He later said it was the best thing he’d ever written.

And there is a skill of course in brevity. It’s a lesson you learn in newspaper journalism, where space is at a premium. Writing a good News In Brief is an art in itself, as is a tight story intro. They can become quite poetic in the right hands

The legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans offers up a cracking intro in his book Newsman’s English. His example, from the New York Sun, reads:

Chicago, Oct 31: James Wilson lighted a cigarette while bathing his feet in benzine. He may live.

Though not quite as compact as Hemingway’s shortest story it has the same function of carrying a whole world in a few words – of distilling the tale right down to its bare essentials.

That’s about it for today. A short blog this one – naturally.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.