How in the world do writers come up with a title for their books? It’s hard enough thinking of one for a blog post, let alone an entire, full-length novel! How do we do it? How do you do it, fellow blogger? What’s in a name? as Shakespeare said. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. So would a book smell just as sweet by any other title?
With blog posts this is a hugely important matter to consider, as my graphic designer son keeps reminding me.
“Mum, you should ask for my advice before posting!” he reprimanded me the other week, after seeing the title of my latest masterpiece: A Nightmare on Copernicus Street.
“But it’s clever, isn’t it?” I rushed to my own defense. “It’s a take on the 1980s horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
“So who’s heard of that?” At least he was kind enough not to add: only parents and other oldies. “Look, just ask me first in future, okay?” I could hear his sigh reverberate all the way down the WhatsApp phone line between London and Krakow. It was a sigh reserved for Mums Who Exasperate You. “Otherwise no one’s going to read your blogs.”
So that got me thinking. Just as his comments on images that accompany blog posts had got me thinking, a few weeks earlier. “You can’t publish that photo!” he’d wailed down the phone one exhausting Friday, sometime before Christmas.
“Why, what’s wrong with it?”
“It’s so … amateurish. You can’t just go around flicking through your personal albums and selecting any old family photo -”
“But why not, if it fits the theme?”
“God, Mum, you’re incorrigible! I mean, look at the terrible lighting!” So I looked. And couldn’t see much wrong with it. “And that horrible kitchen floor…” Which had cost heaps of money, sixteen years ago. “Who’s going to want to open a blog post when that’s the first thing they see? Honestly, Mum! Why don’t you ask me to send you photos in future? I’m the artist, not you.”
I couldn’t argue with that. So I obeyed. And from that moment on, you can bet your life that any quality photos you see on my blog – i.e. the ones with perfect lighting and subtle shading and carefully thought-out compositions – are gracias my amazing artist-son, whereas all the crap photos – you know, the ones that are a bit blurred, with hazy lighting and horrible kitchen floors and haphazard compositions which I thought at the time looked just fine – are gracias a mi, i.e. the incorrigible mum-blogger who apparently knows nada about photography.
Okay, so back to titles.
With the launch of my latest novel looming ever nearer – i.e. the one that was inspired by my trip to Rwanda in 2016 – I’m getting a bit panicky about the title. I still haven’t made up my mind about it, and it’s ridiculously late in the day now to be constantly procrastinating and pondering over a handful of words that could possibly make or break the success of a book.
Here’s the thing with titles. They’ve got to sound good when people say them aloud. They’ve got to look good on the book cover. They’ve got to grab your attention, make you wonder and, most importantly, they’ve got to have relevance to the story. The best titles are the ones that combine all those traits in one, and also have that Ahh! factor when the meaning suddenly clicks with the reader, or when the title is quoted at some point later on in the story.
So here are some of the titles that my novel has traversed during its various stages of incarnation over the past two years – and which I simply CANNOT decide upon.
Beyond a Thousand Hills * Soho Shalom * The Hills of Soho * Fly Me to the Hills * Of Lace & Hills * Once Upon a Thousand Hills * The Stars of Kigali
But why so many references to hills? Okay, I’ll explain.
One of the first things I learned about Rwanda when I started researching it (inspired by my daughter’s IB history study of the genocide) was that it’s often referred to as The Land of a Thousand Hills. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Doesn’t it just roll off the tip of your tongue, having the after-effect of making you want to actually go and see those thousand hills for yourself? Even the online tourist visa you are issued with, about twenty-four hours after application, reinforces this magical quality:
Welcome to the land of a thousand hills and a million smiles.
Talk about a heart-warming greeting! I even briefly considered using it as the title for my novel. But no, I concluded, it’s way too long – though not quite as long as the title to Philip Gourevitch’s excellent book: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. Now that really IS something! But not for my story.
Anyway, I worked out quite early on that hills should definitely be used in my title, seeing as one of the main characters is a Rwandan genocide survivor who was brought up in those hills, before being orphaned and taken to London by his new adoptive parents. But the actual protagonist of my novel, the sexy Naomi Lieberman, has nothing whatsoever to do with Rwanda. She’s a British Jew from Liverpool who lives in London, yet can’t get rid of her accent or her roots. (Know the type of accent I mean? If not, then go to YouTube and look up a 1960s interview with the Beatles.)
So the hills refer to Rwanda. Soho and lace refer to the sex shop where Naomi works, and Shalom refers to her Jewish background. Kigali is where my male lead, John Paul, was born. And Once Upon refers to the children’s stories that Naomi starts writing, inspired by the refugee centre where she volunteers. Oh, and btw, that’s where she meets its Volunteer Manager – no other than the aloof and enigmatic John Paul himself!
As for ‘stars’ … well, they can either refer to real stars – the ones that twinkle above the sub-tropical hills of Kigali – or they can refer to all those brave people who somehow managed to move on from the horrific events that scarred their lives a quarter of a century ago, when the world looked on in horror, impotent to do anything about the slaughter that lasted for one hundred days and took one million lives with it.
But what about the Kigali part of the title? Would the name of some foreign-sounding place that practically no one has heard of put potential readers off? Or, on the other hand, could it intrigue them? I just don’t know … and it’s driving me nuts!
So maybe it’s time to stop moaning, and instead ask for some help?
Okay then, fellow-blogger. Honesty time! I’ve given you the bare ingredients of the story, so what do you think about my proposed titles? Should I aim for the stars or the hills?