Monthly Archives: February 2012

Title Wars: The Battle Between Publisher and Author Over a Title

How do authors settle on a title? Surely, it is not as difficult as facing the dreaded blank page. You have already made past the desert and have found the oasis. The manuscript, like a pimple, is ready for a home. Rather it already knows where it wants to go. If only one can decide upon a title.

I am no genius, unlike some authors, whose advice is to have a title first and then write the story. To me that sounds more like opening the parachute even before jumping off the plane. Why should I vote without knowing the candidates contesting in the elections? I need my story first.

So I have the story. Now what? Then my job is to identify the core theme of the story. Let’s say the story is about a spinster. The recurring theme could be her marriage. Now I try and figure out what is it that is holding it all together? Is it one special moment? Something that the protagonist says or feels or experiences? Or should I use a metaphoric title that represents the story in the best manner? And so on.

It certainly is not nuclear research, this title settling business. Mostly, it will be apparent, like indigestion. But with some pieces you will have to work a bit more to get there and occasionally, a short story or a novel will make you work the hardest that you ever have. Presently, I’m going through one of those “occasions”.

My second book is almost ready for release. It has already gone through several acid tests and from an original eighty-five thousand epic masterpiece, has sat on the gas long enough to boil down to a much muscular sixty-thousand words.But  the hardest part for me hasn’t been writing the book, for two reasons – one, I wrote this much quicker than I wrote my first. For the obvious reason that the former was a short story collection, while this is a novel. And secondly, the story almost wrote itself. The hardest part, in fact, has been deciding on a bloody title.

Why has it been so hard to decide on a title for this book? I have no clue. I know the story. I understand the characters. I bloody well wrote it. Just when I’d think, Ah, this is an appropriate title, my publisher gets back saying, I’m sorry. I don’t think this works. Look at this, instead. She and I have been going back and forth over this. She has been rejecting the ones I have been sending her and I have been discarding hers.

The other day she emailed me another suggestion for a title and seemed excited about it. She said the title was suitable because it highlighted the love interest of the protagonist and showed her importance in his life. Also, she said, the title was different and new. Though initially I was drawn to it, I didn’t act on that impulse straight away. I slept on it for two days. I asked around, checked with my friends and got a mixed response. One said it was interesting, the other said it was a run-of-the-mill title. I said the publisher thinks it was the most unconventional title ever, to which the friend said, As a reader I won’t be much intrigued. Someone said, Eeeks. And though they had no idea about what the book was about (partly because I haven’t revealed much), they vehemently commented on the choice of title.

The title is vital. It is the first thing that a reader lays his eyes on. Gives him a glimpse, if you will, a gist of the novel in one to four words. He will then look over the cover design. Then he will flip to the back page of the book, read the synopsis and if he likes that, he will arrive at the first page, but will carry on further only if you hold his interest in those first few lines. And so, the title attains a great importance.

The more I thought about her suggestion, the more I felt it was not for me, not for my book.  Two days later I told her I wasn’t comfortable with her title choice, and with that, I sent her another list of probable titles. In reply, she sent me a long e-mail explaining in great detail why she thought her title was better than all the ones I sent her. She even took the trouble to break the title in parts and explain the relevance of each part. She said, Trust me. People will pick up your book. She said, I only have your best interests at heart.

In a way, it is quite heartening that she is taking such an interest in the project and not treating it like an oh-no-not-another-one. So much so that it almost feels like we are competing with each other and trying to vilify the other’s choice of titles. Why should she get to decide? As a publisher she has a say but shooting down all my ideas! Not cool.

I never expected so much discussion with her over this. I was gearing up for a grand battle when her edits had come in. But they were fine in a very anti-climax sort of way. They were aimed at enhancing the story. I didn’t have much to protest about. In fact it was her edits that transformed a Betty into a Beckett (From Castle, for the uninitiated).

So now I am gawking at this title and don’t know what to do. It seems okay but doesn’t seem okay. It looks like it is going down the chick-lit road, and that’s my biggest apprehension. I’m thinking of agreeing and also trying to come up with a few more titles of my own at the same time. But I am blank and freaking out. She said I had to reply ASAP as she was going to print a catalogue soon with all the forthcoming titles.

“Priya and Other Do-Withoutables” (Publisher’s idea). Go or No Go?

FYI, Priya is the love interest of the protagonist and though he feels she can be done without, it really isn’t so. So sort of an underhanded humour in the title.

Going with the title, Just Another Do-Withoutable

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Stop bullshitting us

Hollywood should stop bullshitting people. Stop feeding us with a false sense of confidence and hope and romance. Because brownies don’t always have a gooey center. Romance novels are no better either. Last Kiss, Love and Other Drugs, Valentine’s Day, Love Actually, It’s Complicated, and a whole list of films that make you believe for that hour or so, that, yes, if you’re obtuse enough, if you’re expressive, persevering enough, yank your heart out and hold it in the open long enough, things can happen, love can happen, happiness is within reach. Especially now, when there are Hollywood couples that are breaking world records in courting the most number of people or staying married for the shortest while possible.

Most of these movies have spatting lovers realizing their foolishness, wishing to get back together, or ex-lovers (now single or with others, or separated for whatever reasons, infidelity being the top one), after an epiphany, rediscovering their love for each other. So we’re taken through this entire bogus journey, knowing very well where it is all going to culminate. Also, if they are seeing someone else, all of a sudden, that relationship seems loveless, as though they are sleeping with the most despicable person on this frigging planet. Oh, but he doesn’t respect me like the last fellow did. Doesn’t “value” me like he did.

There is this final scene where the audience knows that the characters are in love except the characters themselves. This scene where the hero or the heroine leaves the other’s home or office or wherever, without giving vent to their feelings. Without saying the unsaid things. Sparring and squabbling instead because they can’t believe how thick-hided the person in front of them is. How could you not see this? The weight they carry in their hearts as they walk away, or get into a taxi.

They sit in a hotel overseeing the metropolis, or at the airport thinking of all the things that could have happened or should have happened. In Bollywood, it’s running after trains in slow motion, mostly actresses (it makes for good viewing). The hero valiantly hangs on to the bar with one hand, while the other is stretched out for the girl to latch on to. He could simply pull the chain, but no, or she could get into any damn bogey in front of her, but no.

They look over at canoodling couples, the love-suffused eyes, a sweet child sandwiched between man mouth and woman mouth, old couples with wet lips, quivering hands tipping their heads together, the teary farewells. Then an old photograph of a happier time, or a note with a sappy message of love, or a highlighted paragraph in a book or a memory will wrench their heart and in that moment they will pine for their partner intensely. Mostly, both parties realize pretty much at the same time that what they are doing is stupid, that they should get their enormous egos out of their way and shadow this prospect with honesty. They will get up, grab that phone and dial their number. But no one will pick up and it will go to voice mail, or they will head back to their lover’s house and find a lock outside their door instead.

But it’s only apparent what is about to happen. The lover is standing right behind, or is at the airport, too. Or the leaver never leaves but is sitting in the waiting area, or the plane halts for some insane reason and the lovers unite with a euphoric embrace or a passionate meeting of lips. Tears, apologies, smiles, silly goose, how could you let me go?

For once, why not shove the brutal truth in the audience’s face? Why not tell them that it is f****d up? Why not show an ex-couple meeting after a long time. The long-drawn embrace, whiff of a forgotten spark. That they have come a long way. That they are not the same people any longer, veiling a broken confidence and oscillating self-worth. Getting lost on the way to finding a Thai restaurant for dinner on a 4.6 degree Celsius night, on a motorcycle. Ending up at a totally different place, eating, bantering, touching upon gray territories. Frowns, scratching past wounds, recalling good times. Driving back, gently holding on to the shoulder of the rider.

Outside her home, words come out of shivering lips, like ice cubes being dropped into a glass. She invites him up and he refuses. But accepts later. Room, warm, conversation, warmer.

‘There’s something on your cheek. Let me get it for you. There. Oh, it’s just a hair,’ he says.

‘Your sense of humor has improved. It’s relevant, much tighter, crisper,’ he says.

Then the girl yawns. ‘OK, time for me to get out. See you then.’ They embrace quickly, with the hero eager to leave.

And say, as the hero walks down the stairs, something clogs up his chest. He bumps into a skimpily-clad woman, apologizes and continues down the steps. Any other night he would have ogled. One step after the other. Every step taking him further and further. No, this can’t be it. This can’t be it. He runs back up, gasping, panting. Knocks. The girl opens the door, surprised, lets him back in.

‘I…just…can I have another hug?’

The girl looks at him strangely, and says an unsure, ‘Okkaayy.’ They hug again. He holds on tightly this time.

‘I came up because, I don’t know, I suddenly felt sick, like there’s something in here and I can’t come out with it. Look how my heart beats, like it’s on steroids.’

‘No, I believe you,’ she says.

‘No feel it,’ he says.

There’s reluctance in her eyes, her hands are on her hips. She feels his heartbeat. ‘You do realize it could be because you just ran up six floors.’

‘Yes, maybe, no. Can I have some water? I feel so nervous for some reason.’ He gulps some water from a former Cola bottle, the rim still smelling of coke.

Then in an inspired moment he reaches to kiss her. She backs away. ‘No, please, no. Let’s not complicate this.’

‘You’re right. I don’t know why I did that. I’m sorry.’

‘No need to say sorry, it is fine.’

He starts to leave. She stops him. ‘No, don’t leave like this. Sit. Please sit down.’

‘It is not fine. Just feeling a little emotional I guess.’

‘So, is it my new, improved sense of humor?’ she smiles, standing at the door.

‘Just you, but I am sorry.’ He looks here and there, his eyes darting everywhere but her face. Embarrassed he feels, humiliated, he sits on the bed, at the edge.

‘I didn’t say anything. It’s a beautiful emotion and you expressed it. In fact I’m sorry for not being able to reciprocate.’

‘I should leave,’ he says and he leaves, but not before she touches the back of his head in a you’re such a child manner.

Hollywood, learn something, be truthful, that’s the least you can do.

 

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