Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
What’s in a Name?
by John Stephens
I’ve been asked to write about an aspect of The Emerald Atlas (Random House 2011) that I struggled with, and, honestly, it’s hard to select just one thing. I could write about the number of times I kicked myself for imagining that I could create a mind-twisty, time-travel story. Or I could mention the difficulty working in a genre as well established as children’s fantasy. Or I could write about the process of writing one book while knowing two sequels would follow: What information and which secrets should I leave for later? What story points would bear fruit two books down the line? Which paths might paint me into a corner?
But instead of addressing any of those topics, I’m going to write about the title.
I have always found titles difficult to write. Indeed, it’s generally the last thing I take care of, and only after much hemming and hawing. In the case of The Emerald Atlas, I struggled for a long, long time. When I finally sent the manuscript to my agent, it was titled The Wibberlys and the Wizard of Cambridge Falls. My agent called me and said, “I love the book. But I think it’s probably the worst title I’ve ever heard.” I had to agree. We couldn’t send the manuscript to publishers with that clunker attached to it, so with the book essentially finished, I began the search for a new title.
To guide me, I thought about the titles I loved: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; A Wrinkle in Time; and The Dark is Rising. I made a list of the qualities I wanted in my title. It had to suggest magic and mystery, but not use the words “magic” or “wizard” or “witch.” (I didn’t want to overplay the fantasy element since the book was as much about the characters and their love for each other, as it was about a magic adventure.) The book is intended to be funny, so I insisted on an ironic wink, in the way The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has one. When you read that title, you’re wondering, “What’s that wardrobe doing there?” And I wanted continuity–a title that I could build on for books two and three.
And for a long time I had absolutely nothing.
But why is a title so important? For one reason, it’s what readers see first when they pick up the book. And a mysterious, poetic, or catchy title is more likely to engage browsers. Also, nuances in a title can color the experience of a book. A book that is meant to be light and comic burdened with a title that’s a tad too serious will always feel a little off. The title is the promise that the writer makes to readers. You’re telling them, “It’s going to be this kind of book.”
The strange thing is that when you do finally find the right title you know it immediately. All the arguments you made about why previous titles could work or wouldn’t be so terrible, go straight out the window. Suddenly, there’s no title but the one that just came to you. And, when I finally thought of The Emerald Atlas, I knew that was it.
This material may not be used without the express written consent of John Stephens.
Hear John Stephens speak about his name and how it influenced the names of his characters.