What’s in a name?
I’ll happily admit that I’m a sucker for an intriguing title. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a book called Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on my Eyeball! (Paul Zindel), Scott Pilgrim vs The World (Bryan Lee O’Malley) or The Knife of Never Letting Go (Patrick Ness)?
Anybody who follows my regular blog posts will have seen mention of Calvin and Hobbes more than once, but I do so for good reason. Not only are Bill Watterson’s stories and artwork sublime, his titles are tantalisingly good: Revenge of the Baby-sat, Scientific Progress goes ‘Boink’, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, One Day The Wind Will Change … I could go on.
However, it is important that a title has some meaning and connection to the story, and not just bizarre for the sake of it; you’d be making a promise to the reader and then failing to deliver. Robert Cormier had a journalist’s eye when it came to naming his books: The Chocolate War, I am the Cheese, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway – all great books, with intriguing titles that mean something. Often it is only half way through, or at the end of the story, when the full impact of the name becomes clear and the title itself provides a final payoff or twist.
I’m always interested to find out the story or reference behind a title. For instance, Philip Reeve found the name Mortal Engines in Shakespeare’s Othello. A Darkling Plain, the final book in the series, is a phrase in Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach. Shakespeare provides a wealth of title material – Something Wicked This Way Comes from Macbeth, is one of my favourites, and gave its name to a 1962 Ray Bradbury novel, a number of songs, even a Derren Brown stage tour. I probably don’t need to point out that the title of this post is a quote from Romeo and Juliet.
Reaction to the title 15 Days Without a Head, has been mostly positive. People are usually intrigued to find out what the story is about. Some laugh, some frown, some misunderstand and think it’s a book about zombies! But there’s always a reaction – and people remember it.
When I started the story, I didn’t have a title though – it came out of the writing. The first scene I wrote placed two brothers in a kitchen. When one of the boys opened a cupboard, I discovered at the same time as he did, that there were cockroaches living in there. I thought it worked quite well, so did some research on roaches. When I found out that a cockroach can live for days without a head, the cartoon light bulb came on over my head and I knew I had my title. I liked the way the title suggested things being out of control, of metaphorically losing your head. At the same moment, it occurred to me that it might be fun if my main character’s surname was Roach. As the story developed, I realized how apt this was, considering the theme of survival running through the book.
Even though the chapter headings in 15 Days Without a Head are days of the week, I had a lot of fun coming up with twists on the names – trying to think of variations that would be appropriate to what happens in the chapter. For example, Lieday (a variation on Friday), was the title of the chapter when Laurence actively starts to deceive the world about the situation he and Jay are in.
My next book is called Waiting for Gonzo. I’ll leave you to ponder what that one might be about!