I’ve changed the name of my first novel to Radio Echo.
What’s in a name? Depending on what it is – everything. For a person, it’s either a moniker they’re stuck with and hate their entire life, or probably for most of us it’s one we’re ok with, maybe we play around with abbreviations, nicknames, but settle for what we’re given. But names are important. Rightly or wrongly, they can give an impression of what that person is like, or let us foolishly go along with our preconceptions.
Would we think of a strong, manly figure being called Pinkie? Well, I would have said no But take the main character in Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. He’s called Pinkie and he’s a mean spirited thug. But did that make him strong and manly? You make the call.
For writers, and particularly novelists, as we need to live with the characters for so long – as do our readers – names are incredibly important. I spent hours deliberating names for my characters for my first novel. The fact they are Italian names did not make the job easier. We each have personal associations that interfere with potential choices – people we know, or someone we don’t care for; perhaps a teacher who was particularly mean. Our own history colours our decision as well as the characters we’re trying to portray.
Some people say having names that begin with the same letters make it confusing for the reader. Two brothers called Harry and Henry, I can imagine being easy to mix up, unless their characters are either extremely well defined and/or very different from each other. Take the Kray brothers – Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Can anyone remember which was which despite the publicity at the time, or the filmic portrayals etc.? I can’t.
The younger sister in my novel is called Alma. But initially the older sister, the main protagonist of the novel, was Essie (an Italian abbreviation of Esther). For me I knew who they were, but other people found their names too similar. They had the same number of syllables and they found them confusing. I eventually changed Essie’s name to Raffaella, which instantly made her a different character both in my mind and on the page. I also had to admit, part of the problem was her character hadn’t been clearly enough defined. So changing her name helped me shape her character. I talked about character in my blog a few weeks ago (see Real Characters Feb 18th).
So where does that leave us with the title of the work, in this case a novel? That too has to fit, has to mean something to someone who picks up the book and has only the blurb on the back cover and the title to help them decide whether or not to buy it. For the past 3 yrs the novel has been called Tracing Paper. And it fit the novel when I began. But the novel has changed so much, that the meaning behind it has become diluted.
So after a professional critique of the beginning chapters and other writers who thought it no longer fit, I have changed the title to Radio Echo. Even if you only know that the novel is set during WWII, the connotation of shortwave radios is there straight away. But the main protagonist, Raffaella does become involved with Radio Echo, the key transmission point for the local Resistance.
Letting go of the original name has been hard – almost like letting go of a friend. But as with any rewrites, you have to be prepared to be brutal, even if it was a favourite piece of the work. Publishers often change titles, so I may have to let go of it again. But to me, writing is all about change and rewrites. How else can the work grow and improve? My hope is that long term it will help me deal with change in real life, which is usually just a tad bit harder than a quick tap of a key or stroke of a pen.
How do you go about choosing names, or the title for your latest work? Was it a difficult process? Is it one that’s ongoing?
I’d love to hear from you.