Inspector Original and the Not-Boring Title: Thoughts on the Naming of Novels
I’m about to start writing a new novel, and so the subject of titles has been very much on my mind…
A few weeks ago, the writer Lissa Evans tweeted:
‘Your detective novel title: Inspector (mother’s maiden name) and the (colour of your socks) (nearest object more than 3ft high) Mystery’.
This prompted a huge response, among which my favourites were these two:
Inspector Sutton and the Glittery Bookcase Mystery
Inspector Hudson and the Nude Boyfriend Mystery
My next thought was: ‘What a shame that titles of novels generally have to be so much more boring than that.’ (I know, of course, that they don’t *have* to be, but I think it’s undeniable that commercial publishing is currently keen on titles like The Usual Thing, More Of The Same, and More Of The Same II).
I was beyond delighted when Hodder had no objection to my urgent need to call my new thriller Did You See Melody? They even allowed me to keep the question mark (which is crucial!)
I started to think about how many of my favourite novel titles are long and unusual. I love a title that announces ‘I am unique, and possibly even a bit strange’. I regularly sigh and ignore books called Short Easy Words or things of that sort. And it turns out I’m not alone. I made a list of my favourite titles, and then asked Twitter friends to tell me theirs.
It’s important to point out that some people gave short, simple book titles as their favourites, and some said, ‘I don’t like long pretentious titles’ – but the overwhelming majority of favourite titles suggested were long, interesting and unusual.
Here’s a list of titles that were mentioned as favourites by two or more people:
Here is my list of favourite novel titles, compiled before I asked Twitter friends to join in:
Have You Stolen My Title?
There’s no copyright on titles, as I realised many years ago when I went to my local library and found that every other book in the crime section was called Cold Kill. And I’ve known authors who have been desperately unhappy to learn that some newcomer has called his debut novel The Plump Postman only three years after the publication of their own masterpiece, The Postman Who Was Plump. Come on, who is that newcomer kidding? There’s no way that’s not direct title theft! Despite the slight change in wording, he’s fooling no one.
In this situation, authors tend to complain to their agents and/or publishers, and to ask if something can be done. Can’t the debut author call his book The Chubby Letter-Deliverer instead? Why the hell not?
Well, because there’s no copyright on titles. What’s always struck me as odd, though, is that the angry/distressed author is almost always the one who used the title first. The second user has clearly (one assumes?) Googled their potential title, seen that it has indeed been used before, and decided they don’t care.
My question is: why don’t they? When I think of the title for my new book before I start to write it (a vital part of my writing process and one that helps to determine the character and essence of the book) I almost always reject anything that’s been done before. I’d hate to call my book something that felt like a copy of something else. I’m always puzzled to find that some authors don’t mind it. Having someone copy a title that was original when you used it, on the other hand, doesn’t make you look bad in any way. Why would anyone be upset by that?
If someone published a book tomorrow called Androids Dreaming of Electric Sheep Again, all I’d think is ‘Yes, wasn’t that a great Philip K Dick title?’ swiftly followed by, ‘Who is this unoriginal copycat?’ If there’s nothing that can be done to protect your interesting, original title from copycats (and there isn’t), you might as well not worry about it! Just carry on being original, and be glad that you are. And if I ever meet the first author to call a crime novel Cold Kill, I will shake his or her hand and say, ‘Wow – so you’re the one whose idea it was?’
And one final writing tip: try thinking of a title you love – before you know anything else about what would be in your novel or story. Then allow your title to inspire you! I’ve done this twice: for my novel Kind of Cruel, and for a long-out-of-print non-crime novel called Cordial and Corrosive!