Title changes are usually wrenching, but they also offer much relief after you finalize your decision. In my case I try to decide what an ideal reader would make of my novel title. If I see that the title is misleading in any sense, I eventually part ways with the original name I’d nurtured through notes, rough drafts, and succeeding revisions.
I’m not sure why we often see the title page of some novel read:
THE BLOODSTRAIN COGNITION
(Original Title: A New Governess for Tilly)
Did the author have enough clout to insist on his original baby at least seeing something like print? In any case I have a hard time believing that both author and publisher were so enamored of the original title that they just couldn’t let it go. But as far as I’m concerned, the original title–sometimes called the “working title”–can be vaporized.
I have a decades-old novella I and many others thought a great deal of, Awesome Beauty of This Earth, in which ninety-seven percent of the world’s population has inexplicably committed suicide. But as you can see the title is overblown. I tried Odd Planetary Beauty for a while (but “odd” is a weak word here), then Executed Beauty (a mouthful that doesn’t quite strike anything) and finally The Psychobeauty. This last is a word I’ve used to denote some sort of psychological, holistic grasp of personal meaning, but if I ever revise this novella I’ll either have to make this all much more clear or else change the title again. This is an example of a work that so far has resisted a meaningful change in title.
The first novel I retitled was originally called Property, and was about a new social system that has just outlawed private property and is now on the verge of collapse. I sent out some queries on it until I realized that the novel needed some serious revision. I changed the title of to CommWealth (the name of the new society) after seeing two novels called Property in a bookstore and realizing how common the title is. Library work had also shown me how often the same titles are appropriated, for instance Flashpoint with dozens of novels by that name. Although you can never guarantee absolute uniqueness, I was determined not to recycle trendy-sounding titles for any of my novels.
Within the past two months I’ve changed two novel titles. One was the third Jack Commer novel, Nonprofit Ladies, which became Nonprofit Chronowar. Seeing The Martian Marauders published got me thinking, a lot more seriously that I had previously, about how titles are perceived by the public, and I realized that “Nonprofit Ladies” does not really sound like a science fiction title. The women running the nonprofit organizations and their ineffectual attempts to come to terms with inexplicable solar system disasters are really just a subtheme. The main force of the book is space pilot Joe Commer’s war guilt and the United System Space Force realizing that all along it’s been fighting a war based on time travel.
Thus the title Nonprofit Chronowar gives a nod to the first chapters where Joe scolds the naïve ladies and their Committee to End Suffering on Planet Earth, but offers up the main theme of the book as well. The title also indicates the futility of the war, which both sides know the Alpha Centaurians will lose seventeen years in the future, but which both have no choice but to fight anyway.
The second title change this year was the fourth novel in the series which I’ve just completed, and it took a couple weeks for me to work my way through the meaning of the words in some sixty iterations of the title. The original title, Seven of Cups/Beyond DamnStar, finally became Collapse and Delusion. My original idea for the novel was to tell the story of what happened after the Battle of DamnStar in 2036, where everyone knows that the Alpha Centaurians are going to lose the war on May 14, 2053, but all, including the Alpha Centaurians who understand they’re doomed, must fight for seventeen more years anyway. Not quite sure I wanted to continue the Jack Commer saga just yet, I turned my attention to notes for a literary novel about illusion, which I called Seven of Cups after the scary Tarot card. But after a while I saw that my literary notes were a rambling and unwritable mess, so I went for the story of the bridge to 2053 and used engineer Phil Sperry’s guilt about his brainwashing in Alpha Centauri as my investigation of illusion. But I finally saw that the amalgamated title Seven of Cups/Beyond DamnStar was again too much of a mouthful, that one would have to picture the Waite deck’s Seven of Cups and that the somewhat loopy “DamnStar” can’t carry the title anyway.
At first I wanted to use the word “illusion” in the title, but finally I decided that “illusion” connotes something confusing and tempting which is presented to you from the outside, as in the Seven of Cups Tarot card. “Delusion” connotes something you’ve agreed to, something taken inside and made part of yourself; it’s more deeply rooted. The AC’s–and Phil–seem more into delusion than illusion, even though the Seven of Cups card is more about illusion.
I had also wanted to keep “beyond” in the final title, but in the original Beyond DamnStar, “beyond” had the meaning of temporal distance. But used in, for example, “Beyond Delusion and Collapse,” the meaning changes to surmounting or transcending or recovering from, and creates too positive a title, almost a “feel good” sense.
So something blunt like Collapse and Delusion is more of a warning bell. Putting “Delusion” first in the title would seem like a natural cause and effect thing, but putting “Collapse” first is stronger, as it questions the cause and effect, which happens to be germane to this novel.
copyright 2012 by Michael D. Smith