I had a teacher in grad school who told our class a story about the title of one of her novels. This woman was known for writing books that tended to be fairly provocative in terms of sex, and they were marketed as such. Sex brought readers in through the front door, and she didn’t mind knowing this because she understood concepts like “branding” and was able to keep her artistic objectives and the packaging that sometimes went along with them in their own separate boxes. When it came time to give her new novel a title, however, her publisher balked. The author wanted to call it Pure Poetry, which the publisher felt wasn’t sexy enough. It wasn’t her. It didn’t make the promise to her readers that her books usually promised.
In the end, they reached a compromise: the publisher allowed her to keep the title, but only if they could put a naked woman on the cover. And they did.
I’ve never been hassled by publishers about my titles. A good title achieves many things—sets a tone, suggests narrative, maybe even establishes a point-of-view—but it has a primary objective: if the title doesn’t say “Read me,” it’s no good. Of course, whether or not a title says “Read me” is subjective, and the author only has his or her own instincts to go by. A title needs to be discovered more than contrived, and I find that I rarely know the title of a book I’m working on until fairly deep in the process.
Titles can change as well. The original title of my first novel, The Egg Code, was Interfaith Message Processor, which unfathomably remained at the head of the manuscript for five months before I came to my senses. Sometimes I’ll change a title simply out of boredom, or to encourage my brain to consider the story from a fresh angle.
My second novel was called Pike’s Folly for years, and at a certain point I found myself feeling stuck and in need of a new perspective. This “thing” called Pike’s Folly had become fixed in my mind over the course of many revisions, and that’s dangerous for a novel-in-progress. A book is a bit like concrete in that you have to keep in it motion or else it starts to harden, and then there’s nothing more you can do with it. So I changed the title, first to Spirit of America and then to Smile (both Beach Boys allusions, which was apropos to the book), and this helped unjam my sense of what I was doing. Ultimately I went back to Pike’s Folly, but those other titles were useful to my process, even though neither made their way onto a dust jacket. (They don’t really say “Read me,” do they?)
My new novel also went through a number of titles. I started calling it The Rise and Fall of the Independent Island Nation of Mobility, in the fashion of those old po-mo novels from the eighties by John Calvin Batchelor, who would name his books things like The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica. Much of the novel takes place in a quasi-utopian community called “Mobility,” so the title was apt, if unwieldy. It also didn’t capture the voice of my first-person narrator.
Another rejected title, Creampie, had a Vonnegut quality to it that I liked, but I finally discarded it as being too crass. (If you read the book, you’ll know what I mean.) For the longest time I was calling it Sorry I’m Such an Idiot, which I grew to assume would be “it.” My narrator’s voice was there—her self-deprecation, her habit of apologizing for her small offenses while giving herself a pass on the big ones. But my editor, the formidable Mink Choi, felt the title painted the narrator in a misleadingly unfavorable light. It encouraged the reader to form a bias against the character before really getting to know her. Fair enough, I thought—yes, Mink’s right. As a counter-suggestion, she proposed the title Mobility, which I didn’t like at all. No “Read me” factor, and it’s kind of an ugly word by itself.
In retrospect, I’ve come to suspect Mink, who’s very sharp and very clever, was daring me to come up with a better title and quick by threatening to otherwise call the book Mobility. Who knows—maybe not. But on the train back to Boston from New York, where we’d met for lunch, I took up Mink’s challenge and pushed out a list of forty alternate titles, thinking, “She’s got to like one of these.” Of the ones Mink didn’t pick, the only title I especially liked was You’re Supposed To Be Rooting For Me, which I’ll use someday.
After some discussion, we both decided to call the book We Came All This Way, which has all the levels and layers we were looking for, along with my character’s voice. Among other things, a good title gets out of its own way, leaving the route clear for readers to explore the world behind it.