Well, we’re almost done with copyediting Smite the Waters, and the process was a breeze. The copyeditor caught some things that definitely needed fixing (most notably someone taking a seat when he was already sitting!), but it’s all been fairly straightforward for me.
It is probably less so for the poor copyeditor. In Michael Stephen Fuch’s The Manuscript (one of the MNW launch titles), the decision was taken to leave the book in American orthography and formatting. In the case of Smite, the spelling and formatting will be changed to British practice (or do I mean practise?) except for certain idiomatic usages. This has to be a fiddly, maddening job, since it isn’t as simple as converting everything in sight from American to British. I’m grateful that it isn’t my job, and someday I’ll buy that copyeditor a drink. Or a whole bottle.
But one minor hitch has emerged. We’re rethinking the title. I like Smite. (Sounds like a slogan—maybe we could hand out I Like Smite buttons?) Will likes Smite. But some of the folks who actually have to sell the darn thing believe that the title doesn’t give much of a clue what the book is about. I have to admit they have a point (and freely grant that they know vastly more about the topic of selling books than I do).
If the title goes, I'll miss it. The phrase has a grand, if puzzling, King Jamesey feel to it, and the words have that simple Anglo-Saxon force that makes me feel one of Hrothgar's minions has swung his meaty arm over my shoulder in a companionable way. And the title might in fact suggest the nature of the story to some--but those who immediately exclaim, "Ah, Exodus 7:20!" are probably not our core audience. DH Lawrence already worked the same ground for the title (and a rather coy title indeed, but those were different times) of his novel Aaron's Rod, but if I add up all the Biblical Fundamentalists and Lawrence scholars who will immediately catch my point, I don't find a big crowd...and I don't find that many thriller readers amongst them. So, I can readily accept the need for a change. But to what?
For a time, my pal David Thayer used An Aztec in Central Park as the working title for every novel he wrote, until the day that title inspired him to include an Aztec character in one of his New York crime novels, and the working title became a permanent title. I’m not sure what Mr. Thayer uses now that Aztec is taken.
I, unfortunately, use the ever-popular Untitled as my working title, so I don’t have any fallback to Smite. Will and I came up with a couple of workable possibilities, but it turns out that both of them have been used. Indeed, our front-runner alternative has been used by a novel coming out about two weeks before mine.
Serendipitously, Roger Morris just handed out a link in his latest post to a pair of essays by Barry Eisler (over on MJ Rose's busy site). Eisler has a wonderful discussion of titles, the first essay focusing on titles with automatic resonance (those that stir an intuitive understanding of what the book is about), and the second on titles with acquired resonance (those that are iconic, and just right, but only become meaningful once you have read the book. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 would be good examples of acquired resonance--when you first encounter them, you ask what they could possibly mean. I'm afraid Smite the Waters is in that class as well.)
Eisler makes a good case that booksellers lean toward automatic resonance, because it's a sort of sales handle embedded in the book. Acquired resonance is less appealing, especially given that many people in the decision loop will not have read the book themselves. He notes that Dennis Lehane wrote several books titled with automatic resonance before he published Mystic River--and by that point, Lehane's name was enough to sell books.
So, Will and I are off in search of automatic resonance. At least now I know what I'm searching for.
I think the best title anyone ever came up with is attached to Jincy Willett’s hilarious novel Winner of the National Book Award. But she already used that trick. Sigh.