NOW HERE'S A BITTERSWEET ENTRY FROM September 26, 1997, WHEN I WAS STILL A GOOD 3 YEARS FROM A SOLID FULL-LENGTH DRAFT OF MY THIRD NOVEL...WHICH WOULD BE TITLED "FLASH HOUSE" IN THE END -- BUT ONLY AT THE VERY END! WHAT MAKES THESE MUSINGS BITTERSWEET IS THAT I HAVE YET TO GET ANOTHER NOVEL TO LIFT-OFF -- SO I LOOK BACK WITH SOME NOSTALGIA TO THE QUEST FOR THIS NOVEL'S TITLE!
I need a title for my new book. In the usual, and probably ultimate, way of things I would find this title upon reflection and rereading of a finished manuscript. Last time, when I chose the title before writing the book, it so obscured all other possibilities that I couldn't find any alternative, and then the title was too soft and too close to a competitor (my CLOUD MOUNTAIN to the soon-to-be bestseller COLD MOUNTAIN). This last may have had benefits if people bought my book in confusion, but I think more often it obscured mine, as in, reviewers assuming they'd already reviewed it or not wanting to confuse readers by reviewing mine so soon after the other. And it warned against fixing a title too early, without surveying the field of forthcoming books.
Nevertheless, writing a book without a title is a little like going through pregnancy without having selected your child's name. The question plays in the back of your mind all the time, often eclipsing the more critical questions, such as who are the characters, what do they want, and how do they all fit together. Snappy, and often wholly irrelevant phrases spark and whimper. Common phrases snap to attention, promising to catch eyes and command an audience. ON COMMAND. There's one. Or, SHOOT THE MOON. EYE CONTACT, was another. None of these, of course, have anything to do with my story. There are a few that do. FLASH HOUSE, my favorite, is an Indian term for a brothel. And THE GREAT GAME was how spies described the cat-and-mouse antics of British intelligence officers and Russians during the pre-cold war in what was then Turkestan at the end of the 1800s. Both, somehow, I hope, will be threads in my next novel, but to commit to one now would likely tip the book to "service" the name. It's the wrong way round.
For the moment, it's no matter. I've not submitted any samples to New York, and no one's out trying to sell the work in the foreign market, et cetera. The tentative title is a generic "In India," which does encompass the initial impulse to move my central focus from China to Delhi, though it does not say much about story. And is no grabbing marketing tag. I will need another, and as soon as I have the story going, if and when Warner Books embraces this preview, there will be some pressure to label it. And all the warnings from this past book will fly out to sea. Everyone will say this is the tentative title, but it will fix itself like a leech, and then, even if there is a direct conflict or some other reason we must abandon it later, it will be that much more difficult to select another.
I should revel in the freedom, I know. Enjoy the scroll through endless possibilities. I should write to my heart's content and never show a soul until the end of the day when I know I've got every comma just right. Make a fool of myself, let go. THE KARAKORAM EXPRESS, SHIVER WALLAH, HERE NOR THERE, GETTING ON, THE NEXT MOVE'S YOURS, HOME AND AWAY, BACK TRACK... Normally, of course, the phrases really pop when I've no means to write them down, and they evaporate as soon as I approach my desk. Which shows they're not meant to be, I suppose. But it's a little crazy making (CRAZY ALL THE TIME was someone else's title!), and there is such relief at finding a title that everyone likes and accepts and knows. It gives the project of writing a center of gravity, helps to anchor the otherwise whirling flotation of thought and debris.
It may be to the book's detriment, just as a child's name chosen well before birth may not suit the born baby at all, and then must be discarded for a middle or nickname or changed altogether later in life. And some parents will be able to wait. We did with Graham only because we could not agree between ourselves and because we believed he would be a girl. If I believe this book to be FLASH HOUSE, who's to say it will not be born THE GREAT GAME?
The yearning for a title is transparently the yearning for a cohesive manuscript. It's not written, and won't be for months. But if only I had a title... A talisman that someday, the whole will be done and will hang together and will be loved. Just like a child.