Helga’s Post # 84: We’ve all been there: someone, a friend, your critique group, beta readers or an editor tells you, ‘Honestly, can’t you think up a better one? I wouldn’t think of picking up a book with that title.’
You are crushed. You have spent countless hours and sleepless night to come up with a killer title to match your equally brilliant book. You thought you found it.
It got nixed.
Take heart. You are not alone. A quick title search of famous novels yielded some rather amusing stories – the original title the author created and the final, published one. It made me think just how important this often overlooked part of writing a novel is. The old saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ may not be good advice after all. Because readers *are* judging.
Think about it: As you stroll down the aisles of your local bookstore, would you pick up a book with the title ‘Atticus’? That’s what Harper Lee named her book, the one we all came to love. It’s not clear who came up with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but it’s nothing short of brilliant.
I started to look for more. There are lots of examples and anecdotes you can find with the click of your mouse. Talking of which, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was supposedly titled First Impression until a clever editor renamed it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was first called Bugles Sang True.
Or how about this hilarious example: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was originally going to be The Jewboy, Wacking Off.
I just realized how much fun I am having with this blog post!
They should award prizes for the most ridiculous book titles ever. In fact, they do. It’s called the ‘Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year’. The prize was originally conceived in 1978 by the publishing firm The Diagram Group, as a way of avoiding boredom at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. It has been administered every year by The Bookseller.
The first winner of the prize was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Other winners throughout the years have included How to Avoid Huge Ships, Cooking with Poo, and last year’s Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.
My search didn’t stop there. I dug deeper and discovered a ‘veritable treasure trove of trash’. Do books actually get published with such titles? Apparently, they do:
‘The Joy of Uncircumcising’
“Games You Can Play With Your Pussy – And Lots of Other Stuff Cat Owners Should Know’
Why do Men have Nipples?
If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs – A Guide to Understanding Men
Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School
How to Sharpen Pencils (David Rees)
How Tea Cosies Changed the World (Laoni Prior)
Turning to the more serious side of writing, the last few posts of our blog offered some truly excellent writing tips. From all of my writing buddies. They are keepers (yes, the the writing buddies too). As good as any you will get at writing classes and workshops.
Take Joe’s discussion on shaking up your characters with the 5 stages of grief; Paula’s advice on just asking experts to write with authority; Silk’s 10 strategies to get your big Mo back; and Karalee’s musings on how to listen for story ideas. These are morsels worth pinning on your wall.
Lastly, I want to share another anecdote in keeping with the theme of how to write a great story. This one from famous author and lecturer Kurt Vonnegut to his students:
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
With so much good advice, your summer writing should be smooth and seamless. Just avoid killer titles that don’t.