Book & Story Titles:
A Rose by Any Other Name?
© 2008 Lori L. Lake
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
~From Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet"
When Juliet said this about Romeo, she was obviously hopped up and swoony on love and pheromones. If there's one thing we know these days, names and titles mean a lot. In the publishing world, it's almost always either the cover or the title that first catches a reader's eye, so when it comes to books, at first the contents may not be the most important aspect; the title is. A book inappropriately or inaccurately titled may not find its audience.
Would you be interested in reading a book called Trimalchio in West Egg? That would never do! Luckily, F. Scott Fitzgerald's publisher convinced him to rename the book The Great Gatsby.
Or how about these two books?
The one on the left is a perfectly innocent 1933 novel by E. Talbot about London school boys. The other is a nonfiction collection of book titles and covers that obviously have not withstood the test of time or changes in language and meaning.
Gone With The Wind is another example of how titles get changed during revisions and/or the editing process. The 1,037 page novel was originally titled Tomorrow Is Another Day. That's not nearly as intriguing as the final title, but at least it was thematic. Later, after Margaret Mitchell finished writing the first draft, she actually considered these as well: Another Day, Tote the Weary Load, Milestones, Not in Our Stars, Bugles Sang True, and Ba! Ba! Blacksheep. Luckily she chose wisely. Gone With The Wind turned out to be a great title, and that book still sells after seventy years. (Another interesting detail about names: Margaret Mitchell originally wrote her main character with the name Pansy O'Hara! Oh, my! Another positive change when she went with Scarlet instead.)
I like to use titles that:
It's quite useful to think about the themes of your tale and see if that can be incorporated. For instance, the title of a short story I wrote called "Take Me Out" was a double entendre. Not only did it refer to the desire of one of the main characters to be taken away from the nursing home she was stuck in, but "take me out" is also a slang term about death. At one point in the story, the nursing home character jokes with the protagonist and says, "What are you in for? You wanna float with the fishes? Make my day."
- no one's used for a book (Snow Moon Rising);
- reference popular music (Ricochet In Time);
- play off other titles (Have Gun We'll Travel); or
- have never seen the light of day before (Different Dress).
I didn't start the story with that title in mind. It just grew out of the writing process. But I know a lot of authors who won't or can't commit words to the page until they have a perfect title. Why? Because the title is both thematic and evocative of what they plan to write. It gives them a jumping-off point to work from and a destination to work toward. Often, the title is quite literally the premise of the book. Consider, for instance, Ellen Hart's An Intimate Ghost. By selecting that title, she automatically had a premise for the book (the past, which one lives with whether you want to or not, can come back to haunt you in unexpected ways). She also had a wealth of thematic images to work with then. The title felt ALIVE in her mind - and characters and compelling situations sprang forth because of that liveliness.
Keeping Track of Title Ideas
I keep lists of titles that I might one day want to use, and each one sparks ideas for whole plots. Any unusual image or item might do so. For instance, take a simple title like The Three-Penny Nail (which pops into my head because I bought some a while back). From considering that title, I conjure up images of carpentry, hammers, nailing, planing, nail-sets, wood, sawdust, creating things. Suddenly I'm imagining a woman laboring to build boxes in a dusty shop. In my mind's eye, I see her sanding away on a long flat surface. In fact, since I've recently experienced a few deaths in the circle of family and friends, I make the leap that the character is building hand-made caskets with beautiful inlaid designs.
The images intrigued me, so I noodled around with Google and discovered a bunch of interesting details. Three-penny nails are 1.25 inches long, and they're called that because about four hundred years ago, it used to cost three cents for a package with 100 count. (Believe me, now they cost a LOT more.) We abbreviate the "penny" designation with the symbol "d," which came from the word "denarius," an early Roman coin. I didn't know that! But that's why you see various sizes of nails in hardware stores listed for sale as 3d, 6d, 16d, etc.
I also learned that in Christian lore, when Christ died, he was made to wear a crown of thorns which, to this day, is shown in art as a thorned circle with three nails bisecting it.
Hmmm . . . now I've got religion on my mind as well as death and carpentry. Nails are associated with St. Helena as well as with Joseph of Arimathea, St. Bernard, and St. Louis. Interesting - especially since the Romans nailed Christ to the cross. Wonder if they used three-penny nails? Ten-penny nails - or what?
What if my character, the carpenter of the story - I'll call her Mary - is in dire straits. She HAS to sell this oak casket - or else she may lose her shop, her vocation, the only livelihood that has ever mattered to her. But her departing ex-lover has taken her to the cleaners leaving her feeling totally crucified. She's angry, she's hurt, her tears fall upon the wood, and she has to keep wiping them away so she can sand and . . .
The story could go on from there to whatever conclusion it led me. Just think: all that bubbled up from the well because of picking an oddball item for a story title. I suspect I could write an entire book about Mary.
Authors who "write to a title" give themselves interesting food for thought. Sometimes I have written to a title (Under The Gun, Snow Moon Rising) and sometimes not (Stepping Out was named after the book was in editing - prior to that, I'd called it Jumping Over My Head). Try both methods and see what happens.
Avoid Confusing Your Readers
For the most part, book titles do not fall under copyright protection, so there are literally millions of combinations out there, used and never used, that you can employ. I recommend trying to be somewhat original though. We've all seen plenty of titles used over and over, particularly in the romance genre. I looked these up on Amazon.com, and they're not titles I would ever suggest using now: Shadows of the Past (a dozen instances), Midnight (four) Someone to Love (ten other books), Dangerous Secrets (four romances), Love Potions (over a dozen fiction and many more in nonfiction).
How will readers tell your book apart from the others? Multiple works by the same name will often confuse potential buyers. Better to find a title that distinguishes your book. Look up a prospective title on Amazon.com or some other book site, and if you find it, especially if it's in your same writing genre, don't use it.
Infringing on Trademarks
Another area of concern has to do with trademark infringement. Just because titles can't be copyrighted doesn't mean you have a blank check to name your work anything on the planet, especially if it falls into the muddy area of logos, mottos, and trademarks. It goes without saying that if your title is libelous, you could be sued, but if your title adversely affects someone or some company with a registered trademark, you could find yourself in a legal mess.
The Publishing Law Center website (http://www.publaw.com/tfaqs.html) defines trademark like this:
"A trademark includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, a trademark is a brand name."
Trademarks, in other words, are often recognizable and aren't limited to logo art and symbols. Who hasn't heard of Nike's motto: "Just Do It"? Or "Like a Good Neighbor State Farm is There"? Or "Pepsi, The Choice Of A New Generation"? Those sayings, as well as the Apple symbol or the Nike swoosh or the blue Ford oval, all fall under trademark protections.
How does this apply to you and your title? Let's say you write a story about a child-abusing character who, for his job, drives around the country advertising a particular product. So you name the story "The Oscar Meyer Wiener Pedophile Mobile." Oops! Not good. Your use of the trademarked title is not incidental; it is disparaging; it could damage the company name; and it's highly possible you'd be pointing the finger at some poor soul who actually does drive the world-famous Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.
Run screaming from that title and story line!
On the other hand, a title that refers to a trademark but does NOT disparage, damage, or point the finger at the innocent would probably never create problems. For instance, the actor Paul Newman has just died. Let's say his passing prompted me to dream up a story about a woman who has loved Newman's roles, lusted after his blue eyes, and been both jealous and admiring of the long relationship he had with his wife of 50-plus years. Let's imagine that this fictional woman's husband of thirty years left her six months ago, and she's still demoralized, angry, depressed, and pushing fifty now. The story deals with how she comes to grips with the loss and betrayal by remembering her youthful longing for a soul mate, which her husband never was. She gets a bunch of Paul Newman's old movies and she and a couple of her best friends (who have also been dumped) watch them obsessively over a long weekend. Our heroine manages to recapture some faith in herself and realizes that she's one of many women who held Newman up as a worthwhile male standard. At last, she (and her friends as well) decides that she's going to go find her own present-day Newman.
That story could be called "Paul Newman's Own" - which would be a play on the line of trademarked products Newman has been marketing for the last couple of decades. Now I'm not a lawyer, but because Newman and his commercial products would be dealt with as a positive force and he'd be portrayed as a powerful mentor and inspiration, I suspect nobody would ever complain about the story.
Tactics You Might Consider
The following are tactics you could use to name books and stories, followed by examples of other authors' books that seem to fall into each category:
Use the book's theme: The Color Purple, Broken for You, Odd Girl Out, The Sea of Light, Lucky in the Corner, Bleeding Out, A Seahorse Year, Aftershock, Stone Butch Blues, Tipping the Velvet, Safe Harbor, Finding Home, The Well of Loneliness, Women in the Shadows, In Broad Daylight
Choose the name of the protagonist or other important character: Miss McGhee, Rebecca, Charlotte's Web, Sita, Cooper's Deale, Carrie, Oryx & Crake, Orlando, Branded Ann, Patience & Sarah, Cristabel
Use a descriptor for a person (or a place or thing): The Spanish Pearl, The Crown of Valencia, The Iron Girl, The Swashbuckler, The Traitor & The Chalice, The Candidate, The Amazon Queen
Pick a place that matters in the work: Sweet Creek, Journey to Zelindar, Passion Bay, Summitt Avenue, The House on Sandstone, Reiko's Garden
Select a memorable expression, description or line from the book: To Kill a Mockingbird, Rubyfruit Jungle, Gun Shy
Pull a memorable expression, phrase, or saying from culture, music, or the arts: Deep in the Heart, And Playing the Role of Herself, Just Like That, Yesterday Once More, Many Roads to Travel, Ricochet in Time
Select a title - or a play on a title - from another work such as the Bible, Shakespeare, music, the classics, mythology, or proverbs: All the Wrong Places, The Price of Salt, One Degree of Separation, Red Sky at Morning, None So Blind, Tempus Fugit
Play on multiple meanings or change the title slightly to give a twist to the original: I'll Be Leaving You Always, The War Between the Hearts, Substitute for Love, The Intersection of Love and Desire, Bastard out of Carolina, In the Name of the Father, Romancing the Zone, The Lies that Bind, Have Gun We'll Travel
Portray the action of the book by the title: Murder at the Nightwood Bar, To Protect and Serve, Home for the Holidays, An Affair with Love, A Nice Clean Murder
Use a title that sounds mysterious or interesting or unusual and makes the reader question what it means: The Mortal Groove, Venus of Chalk, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, The IHOP Papers, Crybaby Butch, Rat Bohemia, Butch Girls Can Fix Anything
A Rose is a Rose is a Rose . . . or is it?
Back to Shakespeare's rose. Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson's vice president, once said:
"In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be."
Book titles are like that as well. Their appropriateness - "sweetness" - and ability to draw the reader's attention are bound up in what they seem to be. A great title makes a good book seem even better.
A bad title can make even the best book sound like a dud:
- The Sea of Light
- Curious Wine
- Six of One
- Sister Gin
If you're not laughing at bad titles, you cringe!
- The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
- The Feast of the Goat
- Suture Self
- Cooking with Pooh
However you come up with and use a memorable, evocative title, it matters a great deal to the success of your book or story. Just like a flashy cover, an intriguing title can do a lot to provoke interest and prompt a potential reader to pick your book to read. Here's to titles that smell like roses . . . and have no thorns.
© 2008 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.
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