A title says a lot about a person. If you use the wrong prefix, better watch out. Address a woman as Mrs. instead of Ms, her hackles could rise. Confuse a five star General with a General Factotum, and the stars you see won’t be on his collar. And when calling someone a queen, it had better be a woman wearing a crown.
Titles of books can be equally tricky. As Stephanie Gayle wrote in “Adventures in Titling,” changing a title can induce stomping and the need for pain-dulling drugs.
Painkillers would have helped when I had to change. In my novel, (originally, A Wager of Bones), Aaron bundles his pregnant wife Ruth and their four children into a Conestoga wagon, and against their Amish faith, joins the dreaded English heading for free land in Idaho. During the trek, they face Indian attacks, a deadly pestilence, and prejudice leading to betrayal that leaves the family alone on the trailside fighting for their lives.
In the gentlest possible way, Alice, my agent, suggested rethinking. Wager… wouldn’t give a clue to readers scanning shelves in a bookstore. I moaned. I wheedled, “Wouldn’t it inspire curiosity?”
Again, infinitely patient, she explained: putting wife in the title might say more about Ruth’s dilemma. After hanging up the phone, I emulated Stephanie and stomped around.
Alice emailed several possibilities. I scowled at the screen.
Like a cow on a cud, I masticated, swallowed, regurgitated, and chew though I might, I couldn’t gag the titles down. “The only possible wife,” I tossed out in our next conversation, “would be Unseemly.” I was feeling very unseemly. And bang, she jumped on it.
I did the cow thing again and realized, she was right (always is, she’s miraculous that way). An Unseemly Wife told more about Ruth’s role in the story, and hopefully would ignite that desired curiosity. I liked it, but couldn’t resist slipping in A Wager of Bones as Part III’s heading.
My title now set, edits and copy edits finished, I had the joy of seeing a bound galley, only to be smacked with another hurdle. The publicist wanted a sound bite. I assumed it should be an elevator pitch (the full novel spelled out before reaching the second floor, thank you Michelle Hoover). My instructions came at a business lunch, not even one martini, with me paying too much attention to stuffed grape leaves.
After several days’ work, I went back to my notes. The assignment: In three sentences, give an overview of the book, where it came from, and the universal elements connecting it to today’s woman.
Three sentences. Shoot me now.
I worked for a week and had the requirements culled down to four pages. Nothing helped, not stomping, not hair pulling. It wasn’t as if I had Darlings to kill; they already littered the study floor.
In her article Stephanie mentioned writing a title was harder than writing the book. It turns out, composing a sound bite is harder than the book and the title.
The four pages became the article my publicist meant to pitch with the sound bite. Fine, but where was the sound bite. After another week of spitting and whittling, I pared it down to five lurching sentences.
So here I am with a book ready to come out, one I like and am pleased with, yet after the sound bite fiasco, I’m wondering how it all happened.