Friday, September 16, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name Sucks

A few days ago, Maili Ryan posted an interesting column on RTB about romance novel book titles. The gist of her thoughts are how unfortunate it is that so many romance novel titles are so forgettable because they rely on a small stable of words. The result are thousands of generic titles that have no chance of staying with the reader much longer than a few seconds after she (or he) puts the book down.

In the comments section for Maili's post, I had this to say:

"This may show my complete ignorance, but I was completely gobsmacked to learn that editors have the ability to change a book’s title. When I think of a title for any particular work I have in progress, it’s a painful, careful process. It’s akin to finding just the right name for a characer; you try several different options until finally, you just know that the title is right. And the idea that my intentionally selected title will be tossed out the window in favor of something generic kind of…well, pisses me off may not be strong enough. "

See, titles are a big deal to me when I'm writing. I hate having a WIP out there without a title. If anything, I need something to use when I'm creating folders and saving files. I've gone so simplistic as to call WIPs "The Medieval" or "The Cooking Story". I've used character names as well. So I've got a "Jake's Story" and a "Alison's Story" floating around my harddrive right about now until something more concrete comes to mind.

But usually I'll try to come up with something that captures the general theme of the book to use as my working title. Sometimes that working title remains the same and becomes the end title. Most of the time, however, the title changes. This is usually because by the end of the story, something that I hadn't known was going to happen occurs, and it makes better fodder for a title. I once wrote a fanfic that for the duration of it's writing, I referred to as "The Here and Now," only to change it to something far more abstract once the story was finished because scenes that I hadn't even conceived when I started ended up being key to the story.

Whatever I end up calling a book, I can assure you it resembles nothing whatsoever like a stereotypical romance novel title. I don't use any "Savage" or "Thunder" or "Tempest". Like I said in my comment on Maili's column, the title I choose has meaning related directly to the story. That meaning not be immediately clear, but once the book has been read, the reader can always say " I understand why it's called that. This makes perfect sense."

To which I'm sure any publisher out there worth her salt would tell me that you don't want your reader to have to read the book first to know what it's about. In order to sell the book, a requirement necessary to get the reader to read the book, the title must give some sort of glimpse to what's inside. How is a reader supposed to know that the story is about a Greek Tycoon's Virginal Bride's Secret Baby if you don't state so very clearly in the title? And who wants to read about a love that isn't "Savage" or "Forbidden" or "Furious"?

Thing is, literary novelists (or their editors) don't feel compulsed to dumb down titles simply to increase sales. Some of my favorite reads in the non-romance genre have titles that at first glance offer you nothing about what lies beneath the covers. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent comes immediately to mind. Too does Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season. Heck, even Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code didn't offer up a whole lot of insight and that thing just flew off the shelves. (I haven't read TDVC, but my husband read it for his Book of 2004. And that's another entry altogether.)

Some titles are simply lyrical. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

I have to wonder if in any of the above examples, the writer had another title in mind and his or her editor said "Nope, I've got a better idea." No offense to all of the fabulous editors out there, but these titles sound like something out of writer's brain.

Was it a matter of the editor wanting to change the titles into something that would sell better but the writer stuck to her guns, knowing that what she had in her hands was a winner? I mean, really, wouldn't Sweet Love, Forbidden Love have worked better for a story about the love between a Japanese American girl and a caucasian boy in pre-World War II America (one theme in Snow Falling on Cedars) be so much more appealing to the masses? Or how about The Hostage Songbird and Her Warrior Lover for Bel Canto? Okay, there is no warrior in the story, but it's about an opera singer who is one of a group of people taken hostage. So surely such a title is far more easily understood than one in some foreign language.

My point is, sometimes a writer has an actual reason for titling a story a certain way. And I guess she must decide if she wants to stick to her creative guns or if she wants to sell, if what the editors claim is true. I'm just so incredibly dismayed that romance novel readers aren't given the benefit of the doubt.

I mean, I'm smart enough to know that Gone With the Wind doesn't necessarily mean I'd be reading a book about hurricanes or tornadoes.

1 comment:

meljean brook said...

I'm going through the gotta-think-of-a-title process right now. My first title, TEMPTING HUGH, was deemed too light-sounding for the book (and in a way I agree, although the right cover could dispel any notion of 'light' right out of there). So trying to come up with a title that a) says something about the book b) is marketable c) doesn't sound like very other title out there and d) sounds enough similar books that it catches interest of the readers of the subgenre. Phew!

I've gotten help from Màili and crankywriter, really fantastic suggestions (because I suck at titles in general). So at this point, I'm pretty much compiling a list that I might send to the editor (and pick out a favorite or two of my own) and go from there.

It is weird being title-less right now. I have forced myself to stop thinking of it as TEMPTING HUGH and just call it HUGH now. But to distance myself even further from it, I'll probably rename it again the next time I change the file name. Like to the heroine's name, or even THAT BOOK YOU'RE WRITING, DOLT!