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 It was even short listed in a couple of awards for unpublished novels under that name.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