Finding a Title

Authors get possessive about their work, and it’s very uncomfortable to be told well

Emilie du Chatelet
Emilie du Chatelet

into the publishing process that the title of one’s novel has to go.  In a way it feels a bit like someone saying, “we really like your child, except for his/her name.”

A few months back the editor for THE LAWS OF MOTION delivered me just that news. The marketing division representatives didn’t think the title would work.  Too arcane, perhaps, not attention grabbing enough, not evocative enough–whatever it was it was clearly not enough of something the marketers needed it to be.  And marketers, I must add, need to be happy.  They are the ones who pitch the book to retailers, and every author wants and needs their enthusiasm.

I learned many years ago through my YA work with Lucent Books, that publishing is a team process in which the author is very important, but not the only one with a vested interest in the success of a book.  I’ve learned to listen and not think I always have the best idea.  In this case, though, I had to admit I was floored.

Newton’s Laws of Motion, in reduced form are these:

–an object in motion will remain in motion and an object at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force comes along to change that

–momentum equals mass times velocity

–for every action there is an equal, opposite reaction

These are bedrock principles of physics but they are also quite beautiful metaphors. Life illustrates all three quite nicely. As I wrote the book, I thought about the application of each of these laws to the story and built the novel to be an illustration of them.  For me, therefore, this wasn’t just a title, it was THE title.

I’ve had to be flexible about titles before.  In fact THE FOUR SEASONS  wasn’t originally called that.  I completely agree that despite my initial resistance, the title Hyperion came up with is better than mine, which was VIVALDI’S GIRLS. In my mind now, the book simply is THE FOUR SEASONS and the other title sounds very, very strange.  If someone had a better title than PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER for novel number two, I would have taken it in stride, and I feel the same about my work in progress, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD.

I suffered over the loss of the title THE LAWS OF MOTION, though, and for several months my agent, Meg Ruley, and editor, Kathy Sagan, along with my two biggest supporters, big sister Lynn, and sweet partner Jim, came up with one title after another than I revolted against. I even hated the dozen or so titles I came up with, and felt more and more entrenched that there was one and one title only for this book, and I had already named it that.

Late summer is not a good time to have to make decisions in the publishing world. People are getting in last-minute vacations and trying to finish up old projects before the fall season gets underway.  The book remained without a title for so long I was beginning to worry.  I didn’t know how to talk about it, because calling it the “book formerly known as THE LAWS OF MOTION sounded as strange as–well, something that Prince tried a while back.

Then the breakthrough.  Kathy Sagan suggested FINDING EMILIE, and the rest of the team probably wondered the same thing I did:  why didn’t I think of that?  It’s a great title. Though Emilie du Chatelet is not the main character, she is truly the reason I wrote the book.  She a fabulous, brilliant, charismatic woman I wanted the world to know more about. In the novel the reader discovers her slowly and comes to understand that the main character, Lili, must find Emilie (her dead mother) also, if she is to have a chance to shape the kind of life she wants.

I first “found” Emilie in a casual reference in one of the textbooks I used in the humanities survey I teach. I found her more and more as I dug into her remarkable story.  Now, from the moment they see the cover of the book, readers will be invited to find her too.