Thursday, March 29, 2007

Smite's Been Smitten. They Smote It. I'm Smat.

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.

9 comments:

roger said...

Bugger. Ah well. You know I was going to put in a link to the Barry Eisler piece/s, but you beat me there!

For what it's worth, I like Smite the Waters too!

David Isaak said...

The one you had was all it took. Superb timing even though accidental. Thanks.

Charles Lambert said...

Have you tried the lulu.com thing which tells you how likely a title is to be successful?

The original title of my novel was "The Receipt of Fern Seed" - it comes from a wonderfully resonant couple of lines in Henry IV, Part 2, and I had the title before the novel. It was immediately shortened by my agent to the - for me - far less intriguing "Fern Seed" . My editor loved the book, but didn't love the title. The sales people at Picador hated it. Result: "Little Monsters". Which everybody loves, and which I'm learning to love.

During the final edit, I took out every reference to the idea of fern seed (which, of course, doesn't exist, as fern reproduces itself by spores). It wasn't necessary but I couldn't bear the idea of the old book lurking reproachfully within the new.

What gives me most comfort is how often I hear people say things like, 'I read this fantastic book, I just can't remember what it's called...'

Do you like your cover, David? I'm still waiting to see what they'll come up with for mine, but I'm resigned. All my suggestions have been greeted in the way that suggestions for a good time made by maiden aunts tend to be. They practically pat my hand.

Matt Curran said...

I thought Smite the Waters was a good title!!

MNW too had a problem with the title for The Secret War. It was originally called The Plainsmen. But that got binned for sounding like a western.

Still, some of my titles have been a little odd in the past... How about The Apprentice and the Stripper for a metaphysical fantasy epic?

It could be worse though... You can have the same sense for titles as George Lucas.

David Isaak said...

Charles--

I've never heard of suhc a tool at Lulu, but I'm off soon to check it out!

As to my cover--yes, I love it. And my editor even asked for my input (which I gather isn't common practice in the industry), but I had little sensible to offer. The jacket art is wonderful, and reinfoces the title...

I can see why you're warming to LITTLE MONSTERS. It's a good title.

David Isaak said...

Matt--

THE PLAINSMEN? Well, I can see how that might confuse folks, 'cause folks are easily confused. A lot of video stores over here have PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK in their Western sections--apparently just having the word "Rock" in your title is risky.

I think the title THE SECRET WAR worked out fairly well, though, especially in combination with the cover art. Don't you? Or do you long for THE PLAINSMEN?

Lucas had one fine title: THX 1138. It has a fine WTF factor. But I guess maybe WTF isn't enough?

Neil said...

I think it's a bit concerning they want you to change the title, but I rather like Tomorrowville--it's a bit more noir-ish anyway. (I have no idea if you've taken that from somewhere else though.)

Failing that, what about Automatic Resonance

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil!

Changing the title doesn't bother me a bit, but I sure wish I could find a new one I liked!

TOMORROWVILLE is a nice title, but it's a title of a previous book.

>>Failing that, what about [I]Automatic Resonance[/I]<<

You're right--that's a great title. Maybe not for this particular book, but it makes me want to write a book to fit with the title.

Jake said...

Hey, the title "Star Wars" makes up for a hundred "A New Hope"s and "Attack of the Clones".

Damn, I really liked the title "Smite the Waters". But then, I was raised fundamentalist, so I get the Biblical, er, resonance.

(Nothing, though, could be as bad as "Aether Veneficus".)