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The Name of the Prose: Paige Nick Investigates the Art of Book Titling

By Paige Nick for the Sunday Times:

This Way UpThe title of a book, assuming you can find something that hasn’t already been used, can cause serious turban-scratching for authors.

I imagine it’s hard naming a baby. Call him Neville and he may not be the Springbok quarterback, or name him Baksteen and he may never own a library card. Names also move in and out of fashion constantly, hence the 16 young Brooklyns you’ll find in one classroom right now.

I’ve named two in my life and both were traumatic experiences. Granted, mine weren’t human children, but they were my books, so my babies nonetheless. Believe me, I had no idea that titling my books was going to be almost as hard as writing the blimming things.

So I was relieved to discover, at The Open Book Festival in Cape Town a couple of weeks ago, that it’s not just me – first at Cynthia Jele‘s talk, and directly after that during James Clelland‘s session, and later at the launch of Mike Nicol‘s book, Monkey Business. It was nice to hear that some of my favourite local authors have struggled with the naming process too.

Jele’s first book was originally called Chasing Pavements, after the title of an Adele song. Jele says: “I chose it because I felt that despite everything the characters had, they were still in search of something they couldn’t define or explain.” But rights issues meant they had to bin that title, and she struggled to come up with a good replacement.

Then her publisher suggested Happiness is a Four-Letter Word. Jele admits that she wasn’t sure about it at first. She worried people wouldn’t get it, but it grew on her. And the book went on to win the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. So Happiness is a Commonwealth Prize and a Four-Letter Word in this case.

Deeper Than ColourHappiness is a Four-Letter WordMonkey BusinessPompidou PosseYoung Blood

Had Clelland’s publisher not been involved, his EU Literary Award-winning debut would have been called Trying not to Fall, (from the JM Coetzee quote in his prologue) instead of Deeper than Colour, which is a piece of dialogue in the book.

Personally I like both titles, but Clelland reckons: “Trying not to Fall would have been too slavish to Coetzee.” For him, titles always come at the end of the writing process, after a lot of re-reading and thinking.

Sarah Lotz is another author I chatted to about naming and shaming. She says: “My first novel had more titles than a corrupt member of the royal family.”

The book is a fab read about two girls living rough on the streets of Paris. One of her early titles was Paris on a Shoestring, which was canned because it would have confused readers and book-sellers and probably would have found its way into the travel section. (Lotz jokes that might not have been the worst thing to happen, and it might have actually sold more copies.)

They eventually settled on Pompidou Posse, which Lotz says can far too easily be misheard or mistyped as Pompidou Pussy (which is rather apt), or Poseidon Posse, which Lotz says “makes it sound like a Western, set on a doomed cruise liner, a genre which, oddly, has never taken off”.

I also asked Sifiso Mzobe, recent winner of the Sunday Times Literary Award. He says his book was originally called Pillars of Sands, until his publisher suggested Young Blood instead, a term used for teens in the townships. I must say, I’m struggling to picture the cover of Pillars of Sands. It feels more like a soap opera than a tough, gritty, township thriller.

Mike Nicol’s latest was also a tricky little monkey. It’s a book about the murder of Anni Dewani. Nicol says he’d been going round and round until his partner Jill said: “Why don’t you just call it Monkey Business?” Nicol says: “Once she’d said it, I could see it was the obvious title.”

Nicol says he’s been lucky: he’s never had a publisher change a title (and he has many). Unlike international author Tess Gerritsen who, when she was here earlier this year, told Nicol her publishers had changed every single one of her titles.

Maybe it’s just easier for someone not as attached to the book to find its title. My second novel, This Way Up, which was launched in May, was always going to be called Bacardi for Breakfast. But the Bacardi makers said no way, and I couldn’t bribe them with booze, which is my usual trick. So I removed every trace of Bacardi from the manuscript and hit a brick wall.

After I lost my perfect title I couldn’t come up with anything even half decent. My editor at Penguin, James, cracked it two days past deadline. When I look back at my list of potential titles I see I dodged a bullet. What kind of idiot calls their book Get a Life?

Perhaps the job of naming is best left to a publishing aunt or Godfather. Although maybe that’s not the best idea for naming real babies, unless we’re all happy for there to be a lot of Somerset Maughams, Ambrose Bierces and Moby Dicks in our next generation of classrooms.

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