Why is it so hard to come up with a good title for a novel?

I’ve found that I either know the title from the start (Girl with a Pearl Earring – no-brainer), or I struggle to find one until the very last minute, with publishers breathing down my neck. Often someone else suggests the title (husband, agent, editor).

You would think that as the writer I’d know what the title should be. After all, I know the book better than anyone else. But maybe that’s the problem. I’m too close to the story to make a judgement on what the title should reflect.

What should a title do? It should be memorable but not so quirky that it irritates. It should intrigue. It should hint at something about the book, though it can’t tell you everything. It should conjure up an image that stays with you. How do you communicate the essence of a book in a few words? It’s hard!

Lately there’s been a fad for novel titles that are whole phrases or sentences, and completely unmemorable to me.  Titles like I Let You Go, Everything I Never Told You, When All Is Said, How Hard Can It Be? or All the Light We Cannot See. Some of these are good books, but I struggle to retain the titles because they don’t offera concrete hook I can hang onto.

To me good titles are strong and simple: War and Peace. Or an amazing turn of phrase that may not even mean anything: To Kill a Mockingbird. Or that make you do a double take: My Sister, the Serial Killer. Or make you laugh: Crazy Rich Asians.

For my latest novel, I spent months coming up with literally a hundred titles:

 

novel titles

None of them worked. The book is about a lot of things: embroidery, bellringing, cathedrals, single women in the 1930s. For me the struggle is to work out which element to emphasize.

At last lovely Ore at HarperCollins UK calmly lobbed one into the ring:

A SINGLE THREAD

Perfect. It references the embroidery and the singleness of the heroine, while also hinting at the tapestry that makes up a community. And it sets up a strong image easy for the reader to remember.

Why didn’t I think of it? Among the many titles I’d come up with, I’d used “Single” and “Thread” but not together. Thank you, Ore!

A Single Thread will be published in the USA and UK in September 2019, with other countries to follow. Now we just have to come up with a cover - even harder than the title!

On October 1st I pressed SEND on two years of research and writing a new novel. Off went the book through the ether to my editors. (In the old days it was a big jiffy bag I took to the post office.) It is a huge leap to press that button. No one had seen it; no one really knew much about it. Then I had to wait for them to read it and see what they thought.

It’s odd: by the time I turn in a novel I am so close to it that I have absolutely no idea if it works or not. An editor could just as easily say, “Sorry, this is terrible” as “Wow, fabulous!” For either response I would simply nod and accept their judgment, because my own ability to judge is shot. Strange, eh?

So what did I do while I waited? Well, in the book my heroine Violet Speedwell goes on a walking holiday in August 1932 between Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals – 26 miles. I wrote the scenes without doing the walk myself, though I always meant to. So my husband and I and friends went a-walking, over a very rainy and then a very sunny weekend.

TCWinCathforweb      TCSalCathforweb

We started at Winchester Cathedral, and ended at Salisbury Cathedral. (Yes, THAT spire, all 123 metres of it!)

In between we stopped at a couple of places important to the novel.

farleymountforweb

 Farley Mount, an 18th-century folly to a horse

 

johnogauntforweb

The John O’ Gaunt Inn (which gets a bad rap in the novel but is actually very nice)

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The church at Nether Wallop (note pyramid similar to Farley Mount; same family)

 

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 Messing about in the Nether Wallop bell tower (I promise I didn’t ring them!)

 

And ... the editors are very happy with the book! Relief! I have a little tweaking to do, fixes to make it even better. Editing is a crucial part of  writing a book, and actually really fun.

 

There’s still the thorny question of a TITLE. Watch this space – once I’ve finally settled on one I’ll write about that tricky process.

 

Scribble scribble scribble. Type type type. That's what I've been doing today and for many days.

Some writing days are good; some bad. What differentiates them? Partly it's whether or not I cross the magic line of 1000 words (about 3pp in a novel). It may not seem like much, but it is a lot to conjure up day after day. If I write less than that I feel a little flat and stupid and annoyed with myself for procrastinating and wasting time.

But it's also about quality. A good writing day is when I push a scene forward and something unexpected comes out of it. Maybe a character does something I wasn't planning. Or I think up a twist that deepens the story. Or I surprise myself with a word or a phrase or a metaphor. Bad days are when I repeat "look" too many times (my characters seem to look a lot!), or I grind through a description of something and my heart isn't in it.

Today I wrote a scene for my forthcoming novel ("The Winchester Novel" as it has no title yet) between two friends, who are having a heart to heart, trying to get each other to confess to behaviour they're not sure they approve of. 1600 words, not too many "looks", and a couple of surprises. I wrote it long-hand, and have just typed it up to the tune of Al Bowlly's "Love Is the Sweetest Thing," which was a big hit in 1932 when the book is set. That song is becoming important - another surprise.

To give you a taste, here's a bit to read, along with a link to the song so you can listen at the same time. This passage is not what I wrote today, which would give too much away about two important characters. But it gives you a taste.

And here is the lovely Al Bowlly:

Ffrom The Winchester Novel:

             Violet gazed up at the sky, which was dotted with stars but no moon. New Year’s Eve revellers passed by, on their way down the High Street. Then she heard the bells. They were not the full-throated ringing she’d grown used to - indeed, looked forward to. Instead a round sounded normally, and the next dull, as if heard through a duvet. Back and forth, they alternated between loud and soft. They must be muffled, Violet thought. Or half-muffled. She seemed to recall hearing fully muffled bells when she was young and Edward VII died, and the strangeness of it, like a thudded ring that held no timbre.

            She glanced at her watch in the light from the pub windows. 11:30. Would they ring all the way through midnight? Was Arthur one of the ringers? She had a sudden urge to be up in the ringing chamber, high above the city. Before she could talk herself out of it, she stubbed out her cigarette and crossed the stream of people heading down towards the statue of King Alfred. She headed the opposite direction up the High Street, then turned into Market Lane, a narrow passage that led to the Cathedral Green. It was lined with shops, their windows still decorated with holly and crèches and snowflakes for Christmas. Here there were fewer people, and it was dark. She passed a few laughing couples - why were people always in couples, and always laughing? She hurried along. The Old Market Inn was on the corner, and she could hear people inside singing.

            Then she was alone, walking across the Green, the Cathedral ahead of her lit by spotlight, though it was dark inside and deserted, for there would be no service tonight. Only there were bells: louder now but still half muffled, as if a hand were being placed across a mouth but a shout was now and then escaping.

            Even as she thought of it, Violet shuddered at the image, and walked faster. And then she heard footsteps, and knew it was him. He was whistling “Love Is the Sweetest Thing,” and he was doing it so that she would understand he had been in the pub with her, he had probably spent the evening watching her without her knowing, and now he was following her, because he could.

            It was as if she were back in the cornfield, running through the same thoughts and choices. It was hard not to walk faster, yet she did not want to show him she was afraid. Now he has ruined it, she thought. Ruined a song I love.

            There was no one on the Green now, just her and the corn man approaching the Cathedral, squat and dark, with only the muffled bells to comfort and guide her.

            Their sequence clicked into the descending scale, repeated a few times, and then they fell silent. The bells’ sudden desertion was more than Violet could bear, and she ran.

 

 

 

 

NewYearsEve1954

This is what I've been doing over the past few weeks. No, I'm not the stylish woman bellringing - but the man to the right, watching. My next novel features both embroidery and bellringing in 1930s Winchester.

 

There are 16 bells up in the Winchester Cathedral belfry. (Most cathedrals have 12, 14 at most. ) I have been up in the tower to watch these big boys being rung (though most refer to bells as "she"):

 wc bells

 Bellringing is complicated and kind of crazy, and I love it.

They've been ringing bells at Winchester for centuries, as demonstrated by this 15th-century graffiti in the ringing chamber:

bellringer carvingBellringers used to be given special coats like what this chap is wearing.
He also appears to have wings!

 

Up near the bells are a couple more chaps, 19th century this time, though confusingly, one of them wears a ruffled collar that was fashionable in the 17th century:

 

2018 02 28 15.12.15

 

Finally, some graffiti from the main part of the Cathedral - on the north wall of the Presbytery, for anyone who visits:

 

bellringer graffiti

It reads: "Harey Coppar was svorne bellryngar in the yer of our Lorde 1545"

 

I love this stuff. This is why I write historical novels: to find and interpret the marks from the past, the literal and figurative graffiti.

 

 

rechargebattery

 

Sometimes I need to be quiet. I have spent a lot of the past two years talking about books, writing, myself, blah blah blah. It's time to give you and me a rest from me. It's like the old system of crop rotation where farmers left a field fallow every few years to give it a change to recover, and - apparently - for earthworms to grow.

So I won't be doing any public events or mainstream media in 2018 (unless something truly spectacular comes along). I will still be on social media, though  (https://twitter.com/Tracy_Chevalier https://www.instagram.com/tracychevalierwriter/  https://www.facebook.com/tracychevalierwriter/), and on this website.

There are many other wonderful writers out there with things to say as well as words that should be read. If you want a suggestion, try the novel Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. Wow. It taught me a different way to tell a story, and here I thought this old dog already knew all the tricks...

 Right, I'm off to grow some worms and write a new novel. Happy New Year!