What’s in a name…

This post is about names for stories. Sometimes I come up with a title first – I have a story called You Don’t Talk To The Driver, The Driver Talks To You, which developed entirely from the title. And sometimes the title is really obvious – The Lion Tamer’s Daughter couldn’t be anything else. Sometimes it’s lifted from a phrase in the story, like The First Time I Died. Sometimes it evolves after a struggle, like my novella The Year Of The Whale (which I will finish one day). And sometimes, I just can’t think of anything at all. And all this is relevant because we’ve just changed the name of my novel.

I’ve been calling it Riptide for the last six months, but my novel has had dozens of different names. I went through bucketfuls of working titles – occasionally to the point that I was changing it two or three times in a single writing session. Nothing stuck. I’d reached a point where the novel was finished, and I wanted to send it away, but it didn’t have a name. After another few days dedicated only to looking for titles, I called it Riptide Heart because it had to be called something, then sent it to some friends.

“Love the book, mate,” came one of my first responses, “but the title’s balls.”

In the end, a lot of people said pretty much the same thing. But no-one had any better ideas, so I sent it off to Sue as Riptide Heart. I used Dora’s grubby paw to click the send button. A week later, Sue got back to me, and here we are – a year has passed, and once more I’ve been driving myself up the fucking wall looking for a name for the book.

We moved on from Riptide Heart fairly quickly, and I was fine with that. Everyone involved has been calling it Riptide, because that’s better than ‘the book’ or the ‘the novel’. But the closer we’ve moved towards publication, the more important the title has become. Sue and Jane and I have been searching for a month. Churning through endless combinations of possibilities has turned my brain to mush. I’ve ransacked the manuscript half a dozen times and tried literally hundreds of potential titles. Last week it reached a point where not only could I not think of anything better, but I was no longer capable of judging other suggestions. That’s one of the reasons I’m fortunate to be working with such professional people at Quercus and Conville & Walsh. Linking wonderfully to the stunning cover art commissioned by Jane, I’m delighted that we’ve finally settled on a name which I’m happy with – my first novel is now and forevermore called The Visitors.

So, what’s in a name? A rose would smell as sweet, and so on… but a novel is like a child, and you spend so much time with it as it grows, learning what it wants to be, getting to grips with its tantrums and moods, guiding its ambitions, and being constantly surprised and amazed by what it becomes… I can’t imagine Dora by any other name. Knowing that Riptide was a temporary title hasn’t lessened the jolt of losing it; after so many months, it had become Riptide.

The Visitors grows on me by the day. It has the human element I wanted so badly, and it has a ghostly feel which I love. As my friend Iain pointed out, I spent so long looking for The Best Name Of Any Book In The World Ever Ever Ever – which doesn’t exist, of course – that I stopped being able to consider what was right in front of me. I’ve often used the idiom of not seeing the wood for trees when discussing writing – and writing novels in particular – and it’s proved true for this title search as well.

I can barely express my relief of being out of those woods…

Jane’s editorial notes have arrived, and I’m really excited about some of her ideas. Next stop: the final draft.


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