Novelist Caroline Leavitt on the impossibility — and importance — of finding the perfect title:
When I finished my new novel, I was relieved, excited, overwhelmed, and then terrified. I knew I wasn’t really finished — I had to do the one thing that makes my head feel as if it is going to explode: I had to find the right title. Having published eight other novels, I knew that a title wasn’t just my own creative decision. My editor, my agent, publicity and marketing were going to weigh in, and truthfully, I could see why. The title’s the first thing a prospective reader sees (besides the cover, of course, which is a whole other story), and if you can’t grab someone’s attention with a few words on the glossy jacket, you may not have a chance with the thousands more that are inside.
A lot of my writer friends are expert book namers. They argue with marketing, they follow their instincts and convince their editors about the rightness of their choices, but I’ve had no such luck. I admit that I’m horrible at titles, that none of the ones I ever think of seem right to me. I can, however, recognize a decent title when I see it. Or at least, I think I can.
Originally, my new novel was called Traveling Angels. It’s a screenwriting term I got from story guru John Truby. A traveling angel is a person who comes into the midst of a village, changes everyone’s life, and then vanishes. How perfect for my novel! Or so I thought. But my publisher was afraid no one would get the title. Plus, it sounded too soft for them, and what did it really mean? How many people would get the screenwriting reference? So I came up with a one word-title. Breathe. One of my main characters, a nine-year-old boy, is severely asthmatic. The word “breathe” could also apply to the other characters, who could use a good deep breath themselves. I loved it. I was sure it was right!
It wasn’t. “Not strong enough,” my beloved editor told me. She asked me to come up with a list, but it was actually she who came up with Pictures of You. “It’s the name of a Cure song,” she told me, which I knew, and I instantly loved the idea. (One of my other novels, Coming Back to Me, was the title of a Jefferson Airplane song I loved, and an homage to my husband, whose book on the band, Got A Revolution, was making many Best of the Year lists.) Plus, the title Pictures of You fit in all sorts of ways, since the novel is about photography and how we choose to see (or not see) the ones we love.
I’m writing another novel now, due to Algonquin in 2012, and of course I’ve worked hard on the title, trying desperately to come up with something that would be both evocative of the story and mind-grabbing. Set in the late 1950s and early 60s, this new novel is about how we try to keep the ones we love safe, how the unseen in our lives affects the parts we are aware of. I thought I found the perfect title: The Missing One. My editor emailed me. “I love what I’ve read so far of your pages,” she wrote, “but the title has to go.”
Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Pictures of You, officially out in January 2011, is already in its 3rd printing! She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com, at facebook at http://www.facebook.com/carolineleavitt, at Twitter at @Leavittnovelist, and on her blog, http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/.