Finding the Right Title

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It’s almost a rite of passage to have to change the title of your book when it sells to a publisher, and I fully expected that to happen to me. I figured it would be just one more step in a process that often felt outside of my control. But strangely enough, my publisher didn’t change my title when the time came. Maybe because I’d already changed it three times on my own.

At first, I was too busy figuring out how to write a novel to bother with a title. Then a friend from my writing group suggested I call my nameless, ragged orphan of a book The Way She Left Us. It was a line from a scene in which, Caroline, my young narrator, looks around the room she shares with her sister, Jess, the morning after Jess disappears. It echoed a major theme of my novel—the terrible impact a missing child can have on a family. It remained my title over the many years I spent revising my book.

One of the first things my agent did after I signed with her was to suggest that I change the title to Death and the Buttercup, after the title of a poem Caroline writes in the book. I loved her suggestion. Caroline, very much the buttercup, is love-struck and vulnerable as she ventures into the dark world that has swallowed her sister.

I was happy with this new title, and never would have changed it except for what happened next. Along the road to selling my book, an editor requested a revision that involved major cutting and restructuring. It turned out to be a great learning experience, and when I was through I was certain I had a stronger book. But the editor turned it down. I was deeply disappointed.

Whenever my son or daughter faced some major rejection in high school, like not making a sports team or not getting the lead in a play, I’d be the cheerleader telling them not to take it to heart, to keep on trying. Now it was my turn to follow my own advice, but how? I felt at the mercy of things beyond my control. I’d tried my hardest at the one thing I could control—my writing—but that wasn’t enough. My agent was committed to sending my book out to more publishers, but I couldn’t shake the sense that I needed to do more to sell my book.

It was one of those writer moments when you either give up or pick yourself up. I picked myself up—and decided to change the title. I’d made so many changes at this point that my novel was practically a new book. It deserved a new title.

I made a list of possibilities, but quickly realized that being the author of a book doesn’t necessarily make you the best person to figure out its title—sometimes you just need another set of eyes. I turned to my sister for help. She was the one who had given me the idea for this novel many years ago, and along the way she has had an uncanny knack for zeroing in on what my book needs. If I didn’t know better I’d swear she has a crystal ball in which answers to my writer questions materialize from a glittering, swirling mist.

When I mentioned my title dilemma to her she smiled and said, “That’s strange, I was just thinking of one for you.” Of course she was.

Then she said, “How about, Half in Love with Death?” I felt a deep sense of relief.

The line, “I have been half in love with easeful Death,” from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” appears three times in my book. I am an unabashed Keats’ fangirl, but that’s not the only reason I used it. Keats personifies and romanticizes Death, calling him soft names, and suggesting that to die is to fall in love. Caroline falls half in love with an alluring and mysterious boy who says he has come back from the dead, and who promises to help her find her sister.

Once again my sister had plucked an answer for me from the mystical universe of book advice. Half in Love with Death was the right title. Just the idea of it filled me hope. But now I needed to tell my agent. I trusted her and always took her advice, but rarely offered my own. For me, it would be a big step to make this suggestion out of the blue. But I had to do it. It turned out she liked my new title.

Deciding to change my title was not the biggest or hardest decision I ever made about my book, but making this choice at a time when it felt like nothing was under my control restored my confidence. And now, seeing Half in Love with Death written across the cover of my book (forthcoming from Merit Press in 2016) feels just right.

4 comments

  1. Rob Wilstein

    Thanks, Emily, great column and encouraging advice on sticking with it. I, though, still have TWSLU files on my computer.

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