When a book title goes back to the drawing board

If you’re not an author, it may surprise you to know that sometimes, the title a writer originally gives a book doesn’t always stay the title of that book.  A lot of people chime in along the way, from agents and editors, to the sales reps who will ultimately be making sure that your book is available in stores. THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. for example, wasn’t always THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z.   First it was SWINGER OF BIRCHES.  Then it was MAPLE GIRL.  Then there was a whole lot of brainstorming before we came up with the final title, which I love.

My new book, about a figure skater from a small-town maple farm who earns a scholarship to train with the elite in Lake Placid, was originally called SUGAR ON SNOW.  Even though I like the way that sounds, there are concerns that it doesn’t make the ice skating element of the book clear enough, so we’re working on new titles right now.  Brainstorming.  I sent a list of ideas to my editor a week or so ago, but none of those seem to be sparking joy and agreement either, so we’re trying again. 

I thought I’d share the process I used last night, since regular old brainstorming wasn’t helping me get at anything new.  First, I brainstormed a list of all the skating words I could think of and jotted them down.  SKATE, ICE, RINK, SPIRAL, SPIN, BLADES…and on and on. Then I wrote down other words that are important in the book.  SUGAR, MUSIC, SEASONS, SONGS, SPARKLE…you get the idea.  Then I did this…

Cutting up the list into little pieces allowed me to literally play with the words, move them around and try combinations that my brain might not have come up with on its own.  Kind of like a magnetic poetry set, but more impromptu.  It worked well, and I’ll try this again the next time I’m feeling title challenged.  Sometimes, there is value in just seeing things in a new way.  In play.

And I did send a new list of title ideas off to New York early this morning.  I’ll keep you posted…

11 Replies on “When a book title goes back to the drawing board

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing your process. I’ll be interested to see what you all come up with (and would also be interested to see the “rejects”).

  2. Love it!

    Wow, excellent timing. My students were just discussing titles for their fiction pieces in writing yesterday. I’m home today with a sick kiddo, looks like I will be sharing your post first thing tomorrow. Thanks!

  3. Re: Love it!

    Oh good! I was debating whether or not to post this but decided to because I was actually thinking it might be fun for a classroom activity.

  4. Yes – and thank you!! I can’t believe with everything you all came up with, we still haven’t hit that “magical” title that makes everyone happy. Sigh… back to the drawing board.

  5. My theory of titles.

    This is James Kennedy. I was asked about titles lately in an interview. If you’re interested, here’s what I said. I think it explains why THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. makes a better title than MAPLE GIRL or SWINGER OF BIRCHES. Indulge me:

    A good title should feel like the DNA of the book — that all the conflict, structure, atmosphere, and sensibility of the story should somehow be there right in the title, writ small in a couple words. The telling of the story is simply the unpacking, the unspooling of what’s already crammed into the title.

    Titles that manage this trick have a magnetic tension in them, a fertile busyness. You can feel the different words of the title pulling each other in different directions. Those titles are unforgettable. They intrigue you afresh every time you hear them, even if you’ve already read the book.

    For instance, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE is a fantastic title. We feel three distinct things pulling against each other — something noble, something evil, and something commonplace. Adding AND THE WARDROBE to the end is the masterstroke, because it deflates the epic-ness of the first two items, and brings the title back to earth. It assures us that even though there will be fierce animals and unnatural magic, there will also be a certain coziness. That coziness is essential; it throws the magical stuff into relief.

    THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is another great title. You can feel the unpretentiousness and raffishness of HITCH-HIKER rub up against the cosmic grandiosity of GALAXY. Again, the last word turns everything around. GALAXY instantly recontextualizes all the preceding words, making the title buzz with tension. And the two words beginning with H, followed by the two words beginning with G, is a nice piece of alliteration, but not so much that it bonks you over the head.

    A certain kind of good title posits something that at first sounds like an impossibility. Margaret Atwood’s THE BLIND ASSASSIN (Huh? How could an assassin worth their salt be blind? I’d better read it and find out!). G.K. Chesterton’s THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY (Wait, how can a man also be a day of the week? I’m intrigued, tell me more!). Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS (But there are no home-grown American gods! Ah . . . )

    That’s why THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. works. You’ve got two concepts in opposition — BRILLIANT and FALL. Falls aren’t usually brilliant. A question is immediately set up in the reader’s mind, a teasing impossibility. Also, it seems to be a sly reference to Thomas Nash’s SONG IN TIME OF PESTILIENCE: “Beauty is but a flower, Which wrinkles will devour; BRIGHTNESS FALLS from the air; Queens have died young and fair; Dust hath closed Helen’s eye. I am sick, I must die; Lord have mercy on us” (emphasis mine).

    And then the third thing — GIANNA Z., a rather peculiar name, liberates the energy crackling between BRILLIANT and FALL. And as a bonus, the last element of the title is the letter Z, also the last letter of the alphabet, rounding out the title with a curious finality.

    So that’s what I tried to do with THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH. The words ORDER and ODD can’t bear to be in the same title together; they’re pushing and pulling, you can feel them fighting each other. Odd things don’t feel orderly; well-ordered things aren’t odd.

    But throwing two opposing concepts together in a deadlock isn’t quite enough. I needed the third thing (the third heat?), like WARDROBE, like GIANNA Z., to liberate the energy pent-up between ORDER and ODD. And so FISH — something alive, something faintly disgusting, with religious overtones, but strangely alien to humans — comes along as the last word of the title, recontextualizes what came before, and releases the charged energy stored between ORDER and ODD.

    This comment is too long.