“WRITING A BOOK,” according to George Orwell, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.” The good news is that the illness ends after two or three years, or five at the most. When you start to feel better, it’s time to start a new book.
Many writers agree that the most important decision they’ll make is the selection of title. People will rest their decision whether or not to pick up your book – and thus either to buy or not to buy it – on the title alone. It makes sense: there are dozens and even hundreds of books in a bookstore, so the lack of an attention-getting title is going to leave you in the dust.
That’s all fine and good to know, but what if you’re not so great at picking titles? Writing a book is less of a horrible, exhausting struggle than naming one, for me at least. Most of the advice I’ve found on this subject says to pick a descriptive and clear title, in simple and plain English, that answers the prospective reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?” Okay, then how about this for a title:
Hi, this is a book you’ll enjoy reading because it has a lot of interesting stories in it.
Simple words, descriptive, answers the question. But that’s not a good book title, either, because a good book title also needs to be catchy, original and intriguing. So: clear, simple, descriptive, plain English, provocative, intriguing, original and catchy. My god, how does any book ever get named?
As I write this, one of the books I’m working on has had no less than a half-dozen titles. Even once you have chosen a title that you think fits all the criteria, problems come forward. You discover someone has already used that title, or your publisher doesn’t like it, or you show it to some friends and they say, “Oh, yeah, that’s okay I guess.” Okay? You guess?
The book is about Canada’s Indian Residential School System. It’s different from other books on this topic for several reasons. First of all, the format is more of a coffee table styled book. It’s full-colour, with a landscape orientation. The authors – I’m one of them, and the others are Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden – have interviewed dozens of former residential school students over the years. Larry is himself a survivor. The book is based on these interviews and includes not only quotations but also images of personal items that are from the schools. There are things in this book that you won’t find anywhere else. And we write about the residential schools from the beginning to the end.
Between the three of us, we have over a hundred years of research and personal experience with residential schools. I’ve been writing on this topic for a quarter-century, and I’m the junior partner in this trio. We’re very excited and looking forward to have the book come out. In the meantime … what to call it?
For a while, the title was going to be Residential School: A Children’s History. Then our publisher said the title sounded like a children’s book, and that this would immediately cut sales in half. So we tried a few other titles, each of which our editors and test readers found reasons not to like. I tried thinking outside that box thing: how about Priests, Politicians and Broken Hearts: voices and images from the Indian residential school. I like that one a lot, but will people really read a book with priests and politicians in the title? I’m not so sure.
Right now the working title of the book is We Were Only Children: A Residential School History. I think that title is good. Not stellar or world-arresting, but serviceable. I ask you, dear readers – what would you look for in a title? Would you read a book about Canada’s Indian residential schools? – and if so, what would you want to see in it? Chances are, this book has it. But you may never know if it isn’t in the title.