What’s in a Name? The Importance of Titles in Fiction

“… that which we call the rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare reminds us. And it’s true of most things in the world, but not in the world of books; especially fiction. Here’s my take on things.

Ernest Hemingway believed a title should have magic. I’ll buy that. A dull title can kill an otherwise good book. An inspiring one can help make it a best seller. In my view, a title should at least hint at the genre and tone of the work. It should be intriguing. It should also be unique; a writer should always check his title against existing works. Type your title into a search engine or Amazon.com and you’ll get to know if your title is original or someone has beaten you to it. I’ve often found several books carrying the same title, so beware.

It may be a single word such as: Poison, Vengeance, or two: Poison Harvest, or a complete sentence: Vengeance Wears Black. It should not be too long as it does seem that short titles work best.

In 1924, a young writer sent off the manuscript of a novel to the publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons entitled Trimalchio in West Egg. The editor abhorred the title and suggested the author make a change. The writer came back with several other titles, all getting the thumbs down. They finally settled on The Great Gatsby. A good move don’t you think?

Though not a book of fiction, as a young anthropology student I was introduced to Bronislaw Malinowski’s great work: Argonauts of the Western Pacific; a terrific title that. But it could easily have been called: An Ethnography of the People of the Trobriand Islands in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea because that was what it was. Which is the better title?

It’s said that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And the word coming in from agents and editors is that a book’s title is the best impression of your work and of you as an author. It’s a manuscript’s title that first captures the publishing house editor’s interest. More than a book’s cover, it’s the title on the spine that impels the bookstore browser to reach out for a book and take it down. And then, if he or she likes the cover and the publisher’s blurb, perhaps buy.

Book titles have always fascinated me. For awhile, I wondered how great writers came up with their inspiring titles. Hemingway, for example, who gave us:

For Whom The Bell Tolls

A Farewell To Arms

The Sun Also Rises

And what vision inspired John Steinbeck to create:

East of Eden

The Grapes of Wrath

In Dubious Battle

Then I discovered the mundane truth. They purloined them. They swiped, high-jacked or borrowed them. Take a look.

For Whom The Bell Tolls. Meditation XVII, John Donne

A Farewell To Arms. A Farewell to Arms, George Peele

The Sun Also Rises. Ecclesiastes 1:5

East of Eden. Genesis 4:16

The Grapes of Wrath. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe

In Dubious Battle. Paradise Lost, John Milton

F. Scott Fitzgerald took Tender is the Night from John Keats poem Ode to a Nightingale. Thackeray got Vanity Fair from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. James Jones’ first novel: From Here to Eternity was a bestseller, received critical acclaim and won him a National Book Award. Based on his Second World War experiences, it and was made into a successful film starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Frank Sinatra made a hit record of the theme song. It made Jones rich and set him on the path of literary success. But it was Rudyard Kipling who supplied the title:

Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,

Damned from here to Eternity,

God ha’ mercy on such as we.

The list of writers who outsourced in this manner is endless and includes Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner and so many more.

So fear not. If you’re stuck for a title, just remember that the works of Shakespeare, dead writers and poets and the St. James Bible have proved a mine field for the writer seeking a good title. Writers have even been known to take a well-known phrase or verse and move the words around. David Halberstam did this with his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Best and the Brightest, the title of which he borrowed from Heber’s hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;

So, if finding a title for your novel is proving difficult go ahead and check out the Bard, ransack the Bible and dig into some old literature and poetical works. You’re in great company.

Would I do it? Would I steal a line from a Shakespeare Sonnet or a poem of Byron’s? Would I lift a quote from Ecclesiastes or Genesis for a book title? You betcha. And with no qualms at all. In fact I already have. The novel I’m presently working on was called: “The Company of Men”. I’ve changed that to: “The Sum of Things.” It comes from a poem of A E. Houseman:

These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

Followed their mercenary calling,

And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

A.E. Housman

The Lost City of Atlantis – Fact Or Fiction

The lost city of Atlantis was a story by Plato in 355 BC which stated that Poseidon was the sea-god who made the city of Atlantis. This city boasted of hot and cold water fountains, city-walls, and irrigation system for cultivation outside the city. The attraction was a temple in the centre of the city atop a hill which had a statue of Poseidon in a chariot pulled by horses with wings. Some supported this imagination while others argued it as untrue.

In 1800, Ignatius Donnelly supported this story by stating in his book titled ‘Antediluvian World’ that such a city existed in the center of the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantian civilization therein was the earliest civilization which later spread to other colonies. This city was believed to have been ruined by a disaster of nature.

Counter theories were that since the sediments at the ocean bed could not have covered the city entirely considering the period of its existence, this theory was untrue.

Another professor in history, K.T. Frost, believed that the city did exist, but it was located on Crete Island, which was home to the Minoan civilization. He stated that this civilization was indeed prosperous wherein an efficient navy was in force. Due to the eruption of a volcano 10 miles away from this island, the entire civilization with the empire suddenly vanished. There was semblance in this story with that proposed by Plato. In fact, most people believe that the legendary city was actually located on Crete. The tussle between this story being a fact or fiction still continues.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison – Fiction Book Review

If you’re searching for A-1 fiction to read in the New Year, begin with award-winning author Jonathan Evison’s 2012 release, “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” a story of love, loss and hope.

Trevor Conklin, 19, lives with his mother, Elsa, on a small farm in Washington State; and suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease requiring a wheel chair and round-the-clock care. His father, Bob, left when he was 3, two months after Trevor’s diagnosis.

Ben Benjamin, 39, is estranged from his wife Janet, after a horrific accident claimed the lives of their two children, Piper and Jodi, over two years ago.

Ben blames himself for the tragedy and it’s forever changed his perspective on life: “Who wants to live in a world where suffering is the only thing that lasts, a place where every single thing that ever meant the world to you can be stripped away in an instant?”

Struggling to regain direction in his life, Ben enrolls in, and graduates from a 28-hour caregiver night course at the Abundant Life Foursquare Church.

Trevor and Ben bond when Ben applies to be Trevor’s daytime caregiver, allowing his mother to work the farm.

Ben aspires to help Trevor transcend his life routine, which includes flaxseed waffles, three daily hours of the Weather Channel, and a Thursday matinee at the mall.

A super-enlarged Triple A map, inspired by an “American Back Roads” travel channel show, dons a wall in the Conklin living room. There, Ben places push pins on North American roadside attractions Trevor can only dream of experiencing.

Bob Conklin sporadically travels from Salt Lake City, Utah to see his son; and his un-announced visits upset Elsa and Trevor. Although, deep down, Trevor still loves his father: “Trevor will hoard his advantage until the very end, withholding the one piece of evidence that might ever absolve his father, namely that he still loves him.”

Driving in the desert, Bob crashes, typical of his misfortunate life. Ironically, he temporarily becomes wheelchair-dependent; and Trevor can’t help but gloat.

Trevor and Ben convince Elsa to allow them to travel to check in on Bob; and thus their southwestern USA trip begins.

Vicariously enjoy the duo’s excursion as they visit popular landmarks, including Yellowstone National Park.

Along their journey, Ben and Trevor meet some interesting people, including Dot.

Dot too is a teenager, who’s hitching her way to Denver; and her free-spirited, sassy ways allure Trevor. Despite Trevor’s physical limitations, Dot too finds him attractive. Dot joins Ben and Trevor as they continue their travels.

The newfound trio spots a beatnik Isuzu on the shoulder while traveling through a downpour. There, they befriend a very pregnant young lady named Peaches who’s changing a tire, while her loser boyfriend, Elton, is sitting in the passenger seat smoking a cigarette.

“Elton’s got a bad back,” she explains. “That’s why I’m changing the tire.”

Meeting the young adults en route, Ben naturally wonders what might have been had his children survived.

Adding mystery to the entourage’s journey is a beat-up, brown Skylark with crooked plates, conspicuously trailing their van.

Throughout the story, Evison deftly captures bittersweet moments we’ve all experienced in life.

The phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies to “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.” Look beyond its busy, psychedelic sleeve to discover a rich narrative, sure to complement your reading in 2013.

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