There’s no copyright on book titles. I didn’t realise that to start with and fretted that I couldn’t ever use a title that had been used before, but I can, although it’s still needs thinking about.
The easiest way to check is to do what I did yesterday – draw up a shortlist and then look each title up on the Amazon data base. I know it’s lazy, but it’s quick. Looking carefully at what comes up helps me to decide whether a previously used title could be used again. If the title has been used before, which almost all titles have, I look for various criteria:
Was the previous book the same genre? I want a title for my novel: if the previous title was for non-fiction, it’s unlikely that someone looking it up would be confused.
Has the title been used in the UK, or just in North America or elsewhere around the world? If it’s just in the US, for example, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the title again.
Was the title previously used for a paperback, or just for an ebook? I publish in both formats, and I might still choose to use the title again, although I might slip down the priority order
How long ago was the title I want used previously? If it’s within the past year or two, that could be a problem. In 2014, when I was looking for a title for my novel set in and around the Windscale reactor fire in Cumbria in 1957, the title ‘Fallout’ was an obvious choice, and I really wanted it. Just three months before we went to print another novel appeared with that title, published in the UK, and I had to make the choice. In the end I decided to go ahead, but I’ve noticed that since publication we’ve had two copies returned – which I guess arose from the confusion over the title. I still think I made the right decision, though, and the cover is pretty special too. ‘Garish’ someone called it, but at least it gets noticed.
When I’ve checked all these criteria, I find that some titles don’t feel so appealing, as they have been used before many times, and quite recently. The exercise yesterday brought the list of eight possible titles down to two or three, which was helpful. Once my trusty editor returns from her hols the fateful decision will be made and possible covers will then be designed. Still on schedule for publication in November 2016.
My editor and I are having a disagreement about the title of the new book. The first title I chose sounded fairly dull, and I wasn’t convinced. Then I opted for a phrase ‘Seize the Day’ which appears once in the book, and quite significantly, but right at the end. She feels that the reader might be annoyed that the title’s meaning remains a mystery until the very end. She also thinks that the abstract phrase would be hard to link to an attractive cover image. All this may be true, but I can think of many books where the cover image is a mystery, and the title too: the connections between them and the story are intended to be part of the riddle. Am I asking too much of my readers? Do titles need to be ‘literal’?
We’re now considering various alternatives, but the issue of a connection between title and cover image remains a dilemma. There are various themes and events in the book that could be picked up in both title and image, but which would be most effective? No decision is absolutely necessary for a few weeks yet, so I shall wait for inspiration – showing more patience and tolerance of uncertainty than is customary for me.
I want to have a female detective, who needs to be at least at sergeant and better still at inspector level.
I want to keep clear of the technical complications of the DNA, Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the introduction of computerised data.
But… there were no female detectives in Cumbria until the 1990s. So, something has to give. Does authenticity matter, or could I introduce a female detective earlier than it actually happened? Ironically, the Cumbria police force now has plenty of high-status female detectives, including one with the wonderful surname of Thundercloud, but this is now and that was then. So what to do? My reluctant conclusion is that authenticity does matter: I must stick with my physical setting of West Cumbria because it’s so important to me, and so the time setting has to move into the mid/late 1990s. All the necessary research is unavoidable, but I can do it. Should be fun to discover how life has changed over the past twenty years.
I love the Society of Authors, for all sorts of reasons. For a start, they let me join, which for an independently published author is a real bonus, as most of the writers’ groups won’t let me join regardless of how many real, well-produced and well-written novels I sell. Second, they provide a source of professional information for any writing or publishing query I might have. Third, they organise useful events, and are trying hard to spread these beyond the capital. Fourth, the monthly journal ‘The Author’ always provides ideas, questions and provocations to make me think about both writing and publishing and keeps me in touch with the inside of the book world that is still relatively unfamiliar turf for me.
This month’s edition of ‘The Author’ contains an article by Louise Doughty entitled ‘The Horror of Being Published’. I have tried without success to get ‘traditionally’ published, which was the form Louise was referring to, but reading the piece rang bells for me, even though my form of publication is on a much smaller scale than hers. Almost all writers, except the handful of global names, have to jostle for shelf space with others and are routinely rejected by people browsing for a book to read. When you’ve spent a year with nothing else on your mind except the research, writing and production of a book it’s hard to realise that this effort may be of no interest to others.
Louise is a highly respected writer, who chairs book prize panels: I’m just a humble supplicant in those very few competitions for long form fiction that permit independently-published entries. One of the few is a local Cumbria-based competition of long standing. Every year I send off the required four copies of my previous year’s publication, and every year until now they have received no mention whatsoever. Fair enough, maybe they’re just no good, although their sales and my readers seem to indicate otherwise. This year my novel ‘Cruel Tide’ was ‘shortlisted’. It got a favourable mention from one of the three judges, but as I collected my ‘certificate’ the Chair of the panel told me with a smile that he and the third judge on the panel ‘don’t like novels’. I’d suspected so, but was surprised to hear him say it. Hey ho. It’s my choice whether to bother entering next year.
‘Just keep writing’ says my partner. And I will.
Incidentally, Louise Doughty was one of the first tutors I encountered when I decided at 60 that I wanted to write fiction. She was a very accomplished teacher and I’m grateful for everything I learned from her and Tobias Hill on that Arvon course in 2008.
Who remembers good old Sergeant Dixon, courteous, uncomplicated, with his files and his big black phone, solving crime through listening to people and figuring things out?
Those were the ‘good old days’, before DNA and computers and CSI forensics, when policing was simple and villains were wicked and the death penalty was still the ultimate deterrent and women knew their place.
I’m thinking about the setting of a new crime series. The choice of place is easy, it has to be Cumbria. But time? Personally I prefer the present day to previous decades when oppression of various kinds was more widespread, but as a crime writer I’m attracted by the relative simplicity of policing in the past. I want my main detective to be female, but that’s unrealistic in the days before the late eighties when it was finally accepted that female police officers might be given more to do than making the tea. But I also want to avoid some of the more clinical and technical aspects of contemporary policing which radically affect both the research and the plotting. There must be a window of opportunity between these two. It would be really interesting to focus on the early days of women in CID in Cumbria, in which case I need to talk to some of those early pioneers and get their stories. That would be a worthwhile exercise, no matter what plots ideas flowed from it.
At the same time as I’m considering all this I’m watching the Brexit decision and all its implications. Today I saw the figures on the close correlation between those in favour of the death penalty and those wishing to leave the EU. And there’s a piece in the Guardian about ‘false binaries’, another way of saying that the best choices are rarely just one solution or another, which is one reason why the EU referendum was so flawed in both process and result. Real life, personal, social and political, is always complicated and pragmatism is an under-rated virtue. President Obama has maintained a good balance of principle and pragmatism, in my view, but I’m not optimistic about political leadership in the UK right now. They say we get the political leadership we deserve. We must have done something really bad.
I always struggle with titles, and then with the cover image that should illuminate the title and engage the reader: as an independent author/publisher, these decisions are all mine. The image on the cover of ‘Cruel Tide’ developed before I even started the book. It came to me when I did the walk across Morecambe Bay and was struck by the menace of quicksand very close to the northern shore. The snaking, threatening tide that covers these huge mudflats twice every day connected with another cruel tide – of abuse, cover-up and corruption that have damaged so many children’s lives. The decision about both title and cover came to me quite quickly.
Not so with the sequel to ‘Cruel TideI’ that I’m currently completing. My editor Charlotte and I have brainstormed possible titles, but nothing really stood out. Then in the final stages of the first draft, in one of those times when the story seems to be writing itself, the words ‘Seize the Day’ became suddenly significant and I could see them on the cover, with a dark image of one of the settings – no details for fear of plot-spoiling.
The first thing you do is check how many other books already exist with that title. Of course there are several, but then you have to take them one at a time and decide whether the replication is significant. The most recent was non-fiction, an autobiography, so that was OK. Another appeared to be a religious tract, too different to bother about. There was one fiction book, but a very different genre.
I think I have my title. Next I’ll think hard about the image, and start working with the cover designer Kevin Ancient who did such a wonderful job with ‘Cruel Tide’. Crime fiction covers seem to be have some common characteristics, to ensure that readers understand what may lie between the covers. Decisions to make. Watch this space.
Do other writers share my ambivalence about the need to go back to the first draft of a new book and make it much better? I want to make it as good as it can be, but it’s hard to go back to the text and start over. I just want it to be finished. My head knows that I must buckle down and do the second draft, but my heart wants to go out to play.
I met my deadline and got the first draft of the new book off to my editor by the end of May. For a day or two I felt as if a weight had been lifted, but I knew it wouldn’t go away. Since then I’ve been waiting for her reaction. It reminds me of waiting for my A level results fifty years ago: the feeling of anti-climax after a long period of concentration, not being able to settle to anything or see the way ahead.
Ten days of waiting have fuelled my tetchy impatience. When the pages of notes and annotations arrived yesterday I read through them too quickly, thinking not about the feedback but just about the implications for the next steps, worrying prematurely about getting everything done properly in the time I’ve given myself. Today I’ve made myself read through it all again, more slowly. I have to let the ideas settle, give myself time to think.
I recognise much of what’s been picked up by my editor’s eagle eye. Maybe I’d hoped she wouldn’t notice when things weren’t quite right, and I could carry on convincing myself that the first draft is ‘good enough’. But it isn’t, of course. And I’ll have to go back to it and fix it, and it will be much better as a result.
But right now I’m going to watch the cricket, then make a meal for a friend, have a glass of wine, and let the second draft gestate for a while. I’ll start next week. Isn’t this a great image, by the way. I want to see it on the cover of the new book, but I have to think about that too. My head hurts.