I’ve blogged in the past about how hard it is to come up with a great title for a novel.Â You’d think it’d be easy, right?Â When aspiring novelists talk about their books in progress, often that’s the first thing they’ll blurt out — the title of their opus.Â Â “Wait till you hear the name of my novel!” they’ll crow.Â “MANAGED CARE!”Â (Or even more of a groaner:Â “MANAGED DEATH!”)Â At which point they expect me to tell them how brilliant their title is.Â
The truth is, picking a great title is one of the hardest — and most important — things you’ll ever do as a novelist.Â Many aspiring novelists have no idea what makes a great title.Â Too many of them end up with puns or plays on words.Â TheyÂ think thatÂ cleverness will sell books.Â TheyÂ don’t understand that a great title is often a visceral experience — something that appeals to readers for reasons that are hard to explain.
For the past few months, my new book has had the working title of THE RESURRECTIONIST.Â The reason I chose it is purely historical.Â In the 1800’s, “Resurrectionist” was the word for grave-robber, those creepy guys who’d sneak into cemeteries at night and steal bodies, to be used in medical schools.Â I liked the title because of its significance.Â My new book opens in the present day, when a woman digging in her garden uncovers a human skeleton that’s 175Â years old.Â Then the story shifts to the 1830’s, and it’s about medical students and grave-robbers and the horrors of surgery.Â And oh yeah, there’s a possible serial killer.Â THE RESURRECTIONIST, I thought, was the perfect title for it.
Right away, I ran into resistance from various members of my publishing team — namely,Â folks at my literaryÂ agency, my editor, and the publicity team at Ballantine.Â TheÂ first objection was that no one knew what a resurrectionist was.Â The second objection was that it sounded somehow religious (i.e. “the resurrection”)Â and there were no religious themes in the book.Â Â A few liked it because it reminded them of THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr — anotherÂ title using an archaic word, which ended up being a megaseller.Â Overall, though, most people had problems with it.
The major objection came from my UK publisher who said that the word “Resurrectionist” was simplyÂ impossible to design a cover around.Â Â “It’s too long a word,” they said.Â “To fit it on the cover would force us to use very small print.”Â I suggested maybeÂ turning the word 90 degrees — print itÂ sideways, so that it’d have the whole height of the book.Â Oh boy, did they object to that.Â “We’ve tried it with other titles.Â It was a disaster!”
The Resurrectionist, in short, was out.
I wasÂ stuck in the same crisis I had to go through a year ago,Â with my last book.Â You may remember all theÂ versions I was working with then.Â First the book was called COPYCAT.Â Then it was EVIL.Â Then it was FALLEN ANGEL.Â And finally, thanks to a little prodding byÂ Sessalee Hensley, the buyer for Barnes and Noble, it became THE MEPHISTO CLUB.Â Â
Now I was stuck again.Â I considered THE BODY SNATCHER.Â Nixed by my agent.Â “It sounds like a B-movie title.”Â I thought of, simply, SNATCHER.Â Ditto.Â IÂ finally just gave up in disgust and packed for my book tour in the UK.Â Â I’ll think it about it later, I decided.
Once in London, my editor Selina Walker kept prodding me about the title for my new book.Â Â Couldn’t we come up with one?Â My mind wasÂ a complete blank.Â Â Then, on a stormy day, with trees being blown down all over London, Transworld took me and about ten others from the publishing houseÂ to haveÂ lunch at a restaurant,Â to celebrate the release of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.Â We had champagne.Â Â A lot of champagne.Â And wine, too.Â About midway through the fabulous meal, Selina began bugging me about the title again.Â (Did I mention she’s persistent?)Â Wasn’t there some word that came to mind, she asked, some theme in the story I could use for the title?
“Well,” I told her, not really focusing on the task, “I’ve always liked the word ‘bone.’Â Or ‘bones.'”Â But beyond that, I was stuck.
Selina, who’d had a few glasses of champagne by that point, thought about it for a moment.Â And suddenly said, “What about THE BONE GARDEN”?
The instant she said it, I knew: this is it.Â Â It gave me chills.Â It was visual.Â It had that strange, creepy juxtaposition of someting scary (bones) and something seductive (garden.)Â We went around the table, asking opinions.Â Everyone’s eyes lit up.Â Yes, they all agreed.Â That was the title.
The question, of course, is: why the hell didn’t I come up with it myself?Â Â But I didn’t.Â Even after hours — days, even — of agonizing over various word combinations having to do with graves and robbers and murder and bones, I couldn’tÂ come upÂ what an editor, with a few drinks under her belt, had managed to dream up.
There is no moral to this story.Â Except maybe this: sometimes the author is the person least capable of naming her own book.Â Â Sometimes we hang on too stubbornly to something we thought was brilliant, and we can’t see beyond it.Â Sometimes it takes an editor, or a publicist, or an agent.Â Sometimes it takes a few drinks.Â Or a lot of drinks.Â What an authorÂ does need is an open mind and the ability to recognizeÂ a great title when she hears it.
Even when it wasn’t her idea.Â
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