The Pain of Titles by Susan Price

It's still sharper than my sight without my specs
Over the past year I've been trying - with a satisfying amount of success - to make my garden more attractive to wildlife. By which I mean birds, frogs, newts, that sort of wild life and not certain friends. (Apologies for the photo's poor quality - new camera that I've not got the hang of yet.) 
     Chatting recently to my agent about the possibility of selling a non-fiction book, I happened to mention this. My agent was interested. A non-fiction book for children on the how and why of 'creating a wild-life garden.' She could get behind a book like that.
     Ah, but what to call it? It's one of the banes of a writer's existence that books and articles have to have titles.
       I started the book with the working title 'Why You Should Make a Wildlife Garden.' But this very blog's own Karen Bush strongly objected to this on the grounds that it sounded so boringly educational and worthy that it would be avoided by all. She suggested, 'Go Wild in Your Garden,' which I'll admit is a whole lot better and less dull than mine but I'm still not totally convinced it's right.

     Aren't titles a pain?

Christopher Uptake

     I've never found them easy and most of my titles have been argued over for ages or invented by other people. I wish I didn't have to think of titles. I used to like the way the TV series, Friends titled their episodes: 'The One About - ' or 'The One Where - '  I wish I could publish my books as, for instance, 'The One That's Sort of Based A Bit on Christopher Marlowe but Not Really.' Publishers never seem to go for that kind of title though.

I remember having a terrible struggle to come up with the title 'The Sterkarm Handshake.' The German translation is called 'The Time Tunnel' and that was one of the many, many titles I came up with. I remember having pages of them.
     In the story one character tells another that the Sterkarms have more left-handers among them than most families and because they are notorious for double-dealing and treachery there is a local proverb, 'Never shake hands with a Sterkarm.' It's said that they will smile and shake hands on a deal with their right hand, but draw their dagger with their left and stab you.
     The Sterkarm family badge shows a hand holding a dagger. Their enemies say the hand shown is a left hand and the badge exemplifies the Sterkarms' untrustworthiness. Their enemies call the badge, 'the Sterkarm handshake.'
The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
     I jotted down 'Sterkarm Handshake' as one possible title and as I battled with rewrites and edits, this phrase began to seem, to me, to be the ideal title. One of the main themes of the book, after all, was treachery and double-dealing of one kind and another, by one party or another, and the phrase
summed that up. I also liked the rhythm and thought it was odd enough to create a curiosity in the reader.
     So, when I submitted the final draft, it was with the title, The Sterkarm Handshake.
     And the publishers hated it. Back and forth went the emails. It was too obscure. It wasn't a 'selling title.'
     I sent them my long, long list of possible titles and said: Choose one you do like.
     And then, suddenly, collapse of stout party. The publishers got back to me saying that after reading my exhaustive list of titles and talking among themselves, they'd come to the conclusion that The Sterkarm Handshake couldn't be bettered. It might be awful, but still couldn't be bettered. So that's the title that stuck.

I called the second book in the series, A Sterkarm Kiss. Without giving away too much of the plot, one reviewer remarked that 'a Sterkarm kiss is every bit as anti-social as a Sterkarm handshake.' They are the Sterkarm versions of a handshake and a kiss, that's the idea.
     This time the publishers had no problem with the title, but I have never heard the last of it from my partner. He has never written a book but this in no way discourages him from telling me how to write them. The title 'A Sterkarm Kiss,' would lose me readers, he said. Any mention of kisses, apparently, is just too girly to be stomached, and the title would cause every single potential reader of the male persuasion to run away in horror without looking back.
A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price
     Despite the fact that Sterkarm Kiss has sold pretty well over the years, and presumably not only to soppy girlies, he has not altered his postion on the title one iota and restates it every time any mention of the book comes up.  (Just in case there are such men as he describes in existence let me repeat: a Sterkarm handshake is a stab in the belly. In similar vein, A Sterkarm kiss has nothing to do with snogging. It's a little like a 'Gorbals' kiss': a head butt in the face.)

But in my partner's favour, he did give me the title for the third book in the series.
     It took me a long, long time to write and choosing a title was the usual hard graft. It was going to be 'Sterkarm something,' in keeping with the other books, but Sterkarm what?
     For a long time, it was 'Sterkarm 3.' Then a reader asked, since the first two books had moved from a handshake to a kiss, was the third book going to be called 'A Sterkarm Shag'? (For non-UK readers, a 'shag' is not only a seabird related to the cormorant but British slang for 'sexual intercourse,' as the dictionary puts it.) This amused me and for another long time, my working title was 'Sterkarm Shag.'
A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price
     But there came the time when I had to submit the book and come up with a serious title. (Although undoubtedly a 'selling title, at least in the UK, I didn't think the publishers would accept 'A Sterkarm Shag.')
     So I called it 'A Sterkarm Embrace.' In fact, the first cover roughs have this as the title. But I was never happy with it. The rhythm was wrong: the ending of the phrase is weak.
     Then my partner suggested 'A Sterkarm Tryst.' As I turned this over in my mind, it seemed better and better. Its rhythm was better than 'embrace.' Then, 'tryst' has romantic associations and there is a romantic thread in the book. 'Tryst' has other, unromantic meanings - it was, originally, an appointed meeting place for members of a hunt. It also became the name for the great meetings of cattle-drovers and dealers in the north, and the Sterkarms were cattle-farmers as well as reivers. It's also capable of taking another meaning: a Sterkarm tryst is an appointed meeting place that only one side knows about - an ambush.
     The publishers, Open Road, were agreeable, and so the third book was published as A Sterkarm Tryst.
     "But you should get them to change the title of the second one," my indefatigable partner says. "'Kiss.' That's no good. You should change it." Ten years or more since it was first published and I have never once agreed with him and yet he will not give it a rest. Titles are a pain.

     I once published a book for children of 8-10 about a bogle or house-spirit. I called it Hairy Bill, after a genuinely folkloric bogle whose Gaelic name translated as 'Hairy.' My partner was very happy with this title.  It struck him, for some reason, as very perfection in a title.
     The book also featured, besides the bogle, a motorcycle riding witch called Olly Spellmaker and I later wrote a couple of other books about her, called Olly Spellmaker and the Sulky Smudge and Olly Spellmaker: Elf Alert!
    My publishers decided to package the books as a trilogy and wanted to retitle the first book to make it fit better with the other titles. So they retitled it Olly Spellmaker and the Hairy Horror. My partner has never forgiven this sacrilege, or forgotten. If ever anything reminds him of these books, I get, "You should never have let them change that title. It was better before they changed it. That was the perfect title."
     A pain, I tell you. In all kinds of ways, titles are a pain.


madwippitt said…
Yes, the shortest piece of text in the book and the hardest of all to get right! But I think the Sterkarm series are perfect - bind them together with an overall theme plus just google Sterkarm and sooner or later you'll find the book you wanted if you couldn't remember whether you wanted a shake, kiss or shag ... sorry tryst. Loved tryst for the knotty title-solver - very clever!
Bill Kirton said…
I think the Sterkarm titles are excellent (even the Kiss one, but then I'm familiar with the Scottish variety you mention). Frustratingly, I still haven't got round to reading them. I will, though. Promise.
Umberto Tosi said…
So true, Susan! The title frames an entire book, no matter the length. I need a working title to really get started on a project, though I may refine it (or change it outright) in the process. It focuses my mind. Same goes for short stories and articles. As a magazine editor, I had to come up with dozens of titles for each issue (We called them "heds") that both sold and contextualized each piece graphically as well as content-wise. Your wildlife garden book for children sounds wonderfully intriguing, by the way.
Yes, titles can be agonizing! Sometimes they come straight away and everyone loves them (The Great Pyramid Robbery). Other times, your UK publisher and your US publisher can't agree, then the author wants something that does not work so eventually someone comes up with something really strange that actually ends up working quite well (I am the Great Horse).

But I love all three of your Sterkam titles with the slightly sinister double meanings (and yes, Bill, you should read them!!!).

I also like the idea of your wildlife book - how about 'Grow Wild in Your Garden'?

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