“That title from a better man I stole”

It’s as well that there is no copyright in titles, or half my books would have been disbarred from the get-go: Paradise, The Refuge, The Garden

It’s odd, actually, to find myself with a backlist of such plain titles. I grew up in a more fanciful era, and Ellison was my idol: “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, these were the stories that defined my notion of what a title ought to be and do. To some extent they still are, all other things being equal; but other things never are equal, and my professional career began in less profligate times. I cut my cloth – and my verbosity – to suit, settled for one- or two-word titles, and found my fun in other ways. The Refuge and Paradise are purely descriptive and purely ironic at the same time, a purity of pun; a few books later I was appropriating the titles of two favourite novels, Possession and The Dispossessed, to make my own Dispossession.

People ask me sometimes where a book begins, how I start. The answer is always “with the title.” Before that I’ll have a notion of what kind of book it’ll be, what genre, possibly what setting – for Dispossession, eg, I knew that I was writing a thriller about amnesia and a fallen angel: that was all – but the shape of it, the mood of it, the voice, the purpose, everything that makes it a book rather than an idea? That all starts with the title. It’s absolutely a part of my process. The title sits like a grain of sand at the heart of a pearl; I write to it, and everything accretes around it.

Sometimes, the process is more obvious. I wanted to write a fantasy based around the Crusader kingdoms and the pre-Islamic myths of djinn and ghûls and ’ifrit. I was in a bookshop looking at a map of Krak des Chevaliers, the great Crusader castle now in Syria; I saw that one of its towers is called the Tower of the King’s Daughter; I read that no one knows where the name came from. I walked out of the shop thinking, “Tower of the King’s Daughter – that’s a title, if ever there was one!” By the time I reached home I had three more, enough for the series. I started the books with no notion what the King’s Daughter was or what it meant, only that the king himself would have no daughter so that it had to be something else. That and the other titles gave me a framework of questions, which as I answered them became the structure the story is built upon. The books could never have happened without those titles.

Which is why I’m bewildered by the notion of leaving a book untitled until the last moment, as some of my friends do. And why I’m very nervous about the book I’m writing now, because I’m ten thousand words in and it doesn’t have a title. It did have, but the publishers took it away. Which leaves me floundering, kinda. I can still write to my original title (The Doors of D’Espérance, since you ask), and I will; but then I will need to think of something else actually to put on the cover. And there will be so many options by then, and none of them will be exactly right, not embedded, so how on earth will I choose…?

Browse Chaz Brenchley’s bookshelf here, and buy Dead of Light as an e-book.

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“That title from a better man I stole” — 9 Comments

  1. I can write without a title — in house, my stories are normally known by the name of the main character — but having said that, I work better if I have the title in mind, and a good title can, as you say, bring everything else in its wake. Right now, I am haunted by a perfect title which I suspect is too long for the thing to which I am attaching it, and yet which is so very right for the project.

  2. I’m like you, with titles. I can’t write a book without one, and I’m badly out of sorts if a title needs to be changed. Especially if the change happens after the book is written, because it doesn’t *fit* then. Aghghgltlg.

  3. Like Kari, I tend to call books by the protagonist (and a couple of times I’ve gotten away with that all the way to publication), but every so often the perfect title comes to me. Most of the time they don’t.

  4. Um. Some of my books start out with titles (Point of Honour and Petty Treason did), some start without (the current WIP, which did not become The Salernitan Women until about six months ago), and some have the title ripped away by circumstance (The Stone War started life as City on Fire, via Sweeney Todd, and then another book in genre was scheduled for publication six months before mine, and there was a mad scramble for a new title).

    The way different writers write is one of the more delightful mysteries of the life.

  5. My stories range from the “start with the title” to “complete done with the last draft except that the stupid thing still needs a title.”

    What’s really annoying is when it’s both because it changed from the original title.

  6. It is driving me CRAZY that I don’t have a title for the current book yet. I have possibilities, but none of them have clicked properly. And the number of brain processing cycles the hunt for a title is taking up is kind of unreasonable.

  7. You could look at my essay on Titles and Titling. It’ll be in our BVC collection BREWING FINE FICTION, and I do believe I have covered all the possible bases on the subject.

  8. I’m afraid that wouldn’t be helpful, as the pattern for this series is that the titles are all quotes from contemporary English literature. I just have to keep wading through possible sources until I find a phrase that meets all the necessary criteria.

  9. I tend to either know from the beginning what the title will be, or don’t nail it down until close to the end of the book. Frustrating, since I feel the titles must mean something. And two of my five titles were taken away, never to be seen again. I decided not to change them back for the e-books — I know my mother hates finding out she bought a book she read under a different title in England!