Which Comes First, The Title Or The Book?

The other day I was exchanging a few words with a couple of TV writers on the subject of titles. It was both surprising and Titlescomforting to know that I wasn’t the only one with the rather odd affliction of not being able to start anything without having a title first. When you think about it, this is ludicrous. There are many who would strongly advise against any further excuse for prevarication. Get on with it. Call it ‘Untitled Masterpiece’ or ‘Work In Progress’. Or just don’t call it anything. Surely, once a work is over and you know what happened, that would be the time to sit back and think of a title?

Nothing I’ve ever written to completion was ever begun without the title first. Nothing. I actually had to think long and hard before I realised that. I thought it interesting. Now that I know I’m not the only one, I wonder why this is? I think it might have something to do with showmanship. I can never remember, as a child, wanting to be a writer only, but a writer/performer. I was still only 14 when I first contributed dialogue to the big annual pantomime in my village and thence to a full-length play of my own. So the performance of the written word went hand-in-hand. I am inherently lazy, in a lion sense of the word (I have some views on this coming in another post) so I have always benefited from deadlines and targets to get going. I always liked (still do) there to be a point to everything. Once I had decided (and, more importantly, told people) that I would be putting on a play at school, for example, then there was an endgame. Often I had a poster in rough ready, to go with the title and venue and date long before I’d even started writing! Anyone who’s ever tried this routine knows it has a down side which is often finding you are not ready, or not anywhere near as ready as you should be and your audience deserves. You need to find a balance between a deadline that is going to make you sweat a bit and one that is artistically realistic.

Here are some titles of mine.

“Dr. Cha Cha.”

Before I left Wales for Tenerife, as a teenager, I had been hoping to put on a play about a goofy secret agent. I was a big fan of the early Clouseau films (up to but no further than The Return Of The Pink Panther) and in particular the visual gags that were presented deadpan. I was also a fan of early Bond movies so I had long since had in mind a character that could combine these two, and allow me to wear a sharp suit! When we lived in Borth, on the west coast of mid-Wales, our telephone number was 407. In those days even I answered the phone either “Borth 407” or “Hello, 407” and one day, somehow, it came to me that I could have been an Agent 407 answering his desk phone. I saw a play at the Theatr Y Werin in Aberystwyth that was set in a public school and a character bellowed “Pond!? Pond! Where is he, blast the man!” And, of course, I decided my character would be Pond, adding the ludicrous only-a-fifteen-year-old-would-dare-think-of-it first name of Flames! I never got started so it was in Puerto de la Cruz, at the British Yeoward School, that I finally wrote this play, but not until I had the title. In my parents’ record collection was something by someone whose name escapes me. But the tagline on the cover was “Mr Cha Cha Cha”. So the play was titled “Dr Cha Cha”, after the antagonist of the piece.

“Spy In The Ointment”

This came from the same series of plays, the third. The title just came to me on a walk down into town from our house. As the character was clearly a pain to all and sundry, this pun on fly in the ointment just seemed a perfect fit. I hadn’t been planning to write another play but when I had thought of the title I couldn’t let it go to waste! In fact, I am in seemingly permanent pre-production of a short, dialogue-free film using this title again so, you know, watch this space!

“Humourescence”

This title was for a kind of one-man sketch show, with musical guests interspersing my slots. I remember it as a title that nobody knew how to pronounce (‘Humour scene’? It was meant to sound like effervescence, just with humour in it!) and a show so badly prepared that, even with lots of jiggling about and discarding, I actually had nothing for my first slot and winged it in a panic for ten minutes. When I returned to the dressing room during the first musical interlude, I seriously considered getting up, sneaking out of the theatre, carrying on down to the railway station, and not getting off until Portsmouth, on the assumption that by then everyone would have gone home.

“Odium Bicarbonate: Or, How To Hate Everything”, “Ticklish Allsorts”, “zjvq!”

Standard, punny titles for more shows, except for “zvjq!” for which there was the prize of a fiver for anyone in the audience who could guess the correct pronunciation! Yes, well.

“Foreign Bodies”

One thing that has happened in this new internet age is the ease with which you can check on whether a title is original and, if not, whether it matters. Titles cannot be copyrighted, or rather there is nothing to stop you (or anyone else) from using a title that pre-exists. I am sure Disney and the monoliths have something to say on the matter but there you go. My first attempt at a full-length novel was a thriller/adventure set around drugs in sport. Hence the foreign bodies angle. I mention the internet title-research because I think there is already a novel with this title. I didn’t finish it, or get beyond a third of the way.

“The Very First Time I saw Your Face (I Couldn’t Help But Cry)”

There is nothing that screams song title for me more than a title with parentheses! This was a love song (you’d never have guessed, right?) when I was writing lyrics for a songwriter. Initially I was putting the words to the music. After a number of songs had been done I noticed, looking at the papers with squinty eyes, that there was a certain uniformity to the lines. So I suggested I shake him up a bit by writing lyrics first and making him fit his music to them. Oddly enough, I ended up writing (in my head at least) a tune anyway as I find it difficult to write words for a song without there being a song. His music was as different to mine as could be, just going to show that no two people find the same music in an identical set of words.

“A Table In Berlin”

I have no recollection of any eureka moment with this title, other than it was a eureka moment. By that I mean it just came out of my head instantly. This novel came about from a photograph that a writer called Claire Elizabeth Terry posted on Facebook. There was nothing fancy about the photo, quite the reverse. It was four young ladies around a table in a restaurant. What had attracted me was what she had written to accompany it: Berlin 1989. The photo was in black and white and I thought ‘Berlin 1989’ sounded like the opening words of a novel! One thing extremely quickly led to another and I found myself committed to writing a novel based on a moment captured by a snapshot some twenty-five years earlier. What else could I have called it if not A Table In Berlin, having no idea at all what it was going to be about, and continuing in the same vein until I was finished!

“Goodnight Mrs Day”

I decided to write a novella, an ebook, to elaborate on the story of some of the people involved in A Table In Berlin. It would be set in 1961. By now I am entrenched in this fad of needing a title and, increasingly, an ending. This story was about the births of the two protagonists of A Table In Berlin – Charlie Stokes and Joanna Cooper. I knew that a bus was involved, because some information had already been published in the novel. I knew that I would have a character, a nurse or midwife, that would be central to what would happen. One evening, when I wanted to get started properly, I noticed I was scribbling random notes and titles, trying to see if I could provoke something. A name came. The idea of someone saying ‘Goodnight’ came and then I had written “Goodnight, Mrs Day” amongst all the detritus. At that point I looked for some more space on the notebook and wrote it out again. While I did that I heard this female voice, someone standing on the threshold of a house somewhere near Wimbledon Common on a dank autumn evening, saying goodnight to somebody and that somebody replying “Goodnight, Mrs Day.” So then I had both a title AND an ending in the same three-word cluster. Result!

But Is It A GOOD Title?

And here I have to bring the mood down. For, what makes a good title? What IS a good title?

A good title sells a book. Or it’s the first point of interest. There is an argument that a book title, particularly in today’s over-crowded market, is there for one thing only and that is to sell. It’s easy in non-fiction. HOW TO PAINT A DOOR PROPERLY. You don’t need to call it EFFICIENT STROKES. But, however many people tell me “great title, by the way”, what does A Table In Berlin say to you, straight out of nothing? What does Goodnight Mrs Day make you think? Or does it have to say anything at all about what type of book it might be?

I’m still going with what I’ve always gone with: write what you like first and foremost.

Art and commerce can make ugly bedfellows.

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