I’ve not yet found the right title for my novel.
Opinions differ about whether at this stage this is a fatal flaw or not. Some advice is that even if you already have a name you love, by the time it’s been through an agent, an editorial committee and a publisher, it will likely have been changed. Others say agents won’t look at anything that doesn’t have a great title; but for the moment I choose to believe that they can’t possibly be that short sighted.
But still I would like, when people ask me what my book is called, to be able to say it with confidence. Instead I em and ah a bit before stuttering that at the moment the working title is……. And then I watch the slight moue of disapproval pass across their face, and say, ‘I wish I could find a better one’.
For a long time, the working title was ‘Scapegoat’ (sometimes alone, sometimes preceded by ‘a’, sometimes ‘the’). This felt right because one of my original inspirations was the idea of the Biblical scapegoat, the animal over which all the sins of the community were confessed before it was banished into the wilderness taking the sins with it. Rose, my protagonist, is the carrier of secrets, confessions of her friends by which she feels weighed down. Trying to escape them, she runs away to a place that is worse, a wilderness that is Moscow immediately post perestroika. I even had fantasies of the book cover design, a sort of amalgam of Holman Hunt’s painting with a few onion domes in the background.
But there are already a couple of novels out there with that name; and generally my friends would frown and say ‘Well I suppose it’s OK as a working title.’ Not really the support I was looking for.
I tried ‘The Lightening Rod’ for a bit, but it didn’t sit comfortably for me, and others said I needed something that hinted at the Russian setting. For a while now it’s been ‘To the Beat of the Little Bear’s Drum’, as a wooden toy, of a bear beating a drum, is a recurring image in the story, there’s the idea that Rose is marching to a rhythm that is not her own, and the bear is an image often used to signify Russia. But it is the current fashion to have snappy short two word titles, so it’s too long, as well as requiring all that explanation to justify it.
A couple of weeks ago, after entirely revising the opening chapters I road tested ‘The Aroma of Plum Jam’, as the smashing of a jar of the stuff is a metaphor for the mess left after the murder of one of the characters, but that idea wouldn’t stick(!)
I’d shelved thinking about this issue because it’s so difficult, but the importance of a good title was brought home when I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. The cleverness of the title is one of the factors that contributes significantly to the sense of unease in the reader as they follow the unfolding of the narrative. The recounting of the story told by the protagonist to a stranger over the course of the evening, at the beginning might appear to be simply the tale of a young man’s life; but with that title we are led to expect that something potentially terrible will happen. It is also cleverly congruent with the ambiguous tone of the whole novel: which of the characters is the reluctant fundamentalist?
So all of this has set me worrying about my own novel again. In my head I think of it as ‘Rose’, could I possibly get away with calling that, or ‘Rose Fleming’?
What do you think?