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Posts Tagged Everything is Illuminated
For every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.
Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.
‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.
What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series. Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.
Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.
Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.
Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.
Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.
Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?
Oh, and speaking of titles with a number…
Have you any tips to share on coming up with titles? Do you find it difficult? If you have decided on a title, what others did you consider? How did you make the choice and why?
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I have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)
I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.
In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.
This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.
In times of trouble
This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.
In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.
This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.
In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.
Ear and eye
To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.
But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’
In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.
Choose synonyms with care.
Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!
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