Admittedly, the titling strategy of both my favourite writers – Anne Tyler and Ruth Rendell – seems designed to wrongfoot the reader by enticing and confounding simultaneously, but I like a title that does what it says on the tin.
That’s a legacy from exam advice at school. When faced with a poem you’ve never seen before: ‘Read the title first.’ Often it sets out the writer’s store so you’ll know where to look for meaning.
For a writer, titles can help pin down what you are trying to achieve. They can show you how to pull together the disparate strands you are weaving, or else isolate the theme that provides the backbone to the story.
A title can sometimes answer the elusive question, ‘What is this book about?’
This book has one of my favourite titles. I imagine it’s a very serious novel, but for some reason it makes me chuckle …
For ages, my book was called The Last to Know, which described Minna’s position at the outset. A lot of people liked it, but in the end I found it a bit downbeat for a comedy.
Then I tried the Anne Tyler route and called it A Misty Start to Thursday, which I loved, because the incident I wrote into the book had happened almost word for word in life. But I lost courage, not believing I could get away with something just because Anne Tyler could.
I considered calling it Look!, as an imperative to the reader as much as the characters. ‘Who was looking?’ is an important catchphrase. But as a title it seemed too clever.
This is Coe’s 11th book and, apparently, he didn’t have a title for it so called it Number 11. He also put a lot of 11-related things into it, quite neatly, I think. Clever.
There was a fourth title which I won’t reveal because I still want to use it. I’ve always wanted to use this title, because it sums up the world of books I want to write.
Finally, one summer’s morning, I was walking to work and I suddenly thought, ‘This book is a love story.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until then. It wasn’t a genre I read. It wasn’t all about the pursuit of love, that’s for sure. But the desire to be in love linked the two main characters, and that was enough for me. So why not have ‘love’ in the title?
I spent quite some time – walking to work, usually – thinking of catchy phrases that contained the word. I thought of the question at the heart of the book. ‘How do you know when …’ As if in answer, the words ‘ready to love’ came next.
I inserted them into the book, not too clunkily, I hoped. And then, on another read through, I realised I had already used them, months before. So I knew it was the right title. (There’s no better feeling than reaching the end of a story, wondering how you’ll tie up loose ends, and re-reading your work to find the seeds of the ending were sown at the beginning. You knew where you were going subconsciously.)
Titles are crucial to Linda Newbery and as soon as she trialled this one on me I felt a tingle of excitement. They’ve retitled it Missing Rose for the paperback but it’s the same book. Read it!
Have you ever come up with a title so convincing you’ve had to write a story around it?