The Art of Fiction: You Can Tell A Book By Its Cover

January 30, 2008
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 
You Can Tell A Book By Its Cover

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

February 2008

"it never occurred to me to change this title. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Just as my characters arrive full-blown with names, faces, and lengthy biographies, most of my novels and stories show up with titles attached. Those bits of luck aside, I’d like to tell you about two novels which for far too long remained nameless

There and Then

I began writing the first of these in 1997, shortly before a dear friend died of cancer. She’d been a difficult woman — a brilliant, acerbically funny alcoholic pothead poet — and of course I adored her. I’d already begun work on a novel about a newswoman who’s having doubts about her career when she meets an environmentalist who changes her life when a second voice showed up — an acerbically funny alcoholic pothead poet who learns she has breast cancer.

Throughout its early incarnations, this book was called Here and Now. This was the name of the newswoman’s TV segment, and so seemed a natural choice. But because it in addition referred to the way we then seemed to view our world, it never occurred to me to change this title, even when the other character’s voice began to insist itself more and more.

"For the next week, whenever a title occurred to me, I scribbled — on notepads, napkins, and any other available surface."
—Lenard-Cook
Until, that is, my agent read the book.

 

“It’s a great book,” she told me, her voice its usual Selma Diamond growl, “but the title’s gotta go.”

I sputtered a few buts of my own.

“Before I take it out to editors,” she said, “come up with something better.” Take it out to editors? I’d come up with the Third Coming, if that was the plan.

For the next week, whenever a title occurred to me, I scribbled — on notepads, napkins, and any other available surface. But as the day my agent would be taking the book out approached, she finally had her assistant print it out without a title on the pages.

And then one afternoon, I was listening to Lyle Lovett when I came up with Leavings. Leavings is not a better title than Here and Now. In fact, I think it’s just as vague while even less appealing. That is nonetheless the title the book went out with. Alas, dear reader: It didn’t sell. Was it because of the title? you may wonder. No. But the title didn’t help, either.

"A year later, I revisited this novel. (It should be obvious by now that I’m an incurable rewriter.)"
—Lenard-Cook
A year later, I revisited this novel. (It should be obvious by now that I’m an incurable rewriter.) I found I was relieved it hadn’t sold — it had a lot of issues I wanted to redress. But in addition, I realized to my dismay that it still had the wrong title. I knew this because the right one came to me as soon as I began rereading it: The Cost of Living.

 

“Perfect,” my agent agreed. “But too late.”

Go Patient Toward That Good Title

"The second book with a titular identity crisis is one on which I’ve been working for 24 years."
—Lenard-Cook
The second book with a titular identity crisis is one on which I’ve been working for 24 years (see, “incurable rewriter,” above). In fact, I am just now finishing the revisions to my sixth total rewrite. (It’s getting close. And it couldn’t have been what it is now if I hadn’t been willing to revisit it over and over, and over and over.) This novel began as several short stories in the mid-1980s. (Interesting aside: I believe one may have had the word “leaving” in its title.) By the time it began to be a novel, in the early 1990s, it was being called Best Girl.

 

I liked this title. Guess who didn’t?

But it was only when I began the current revision a year ago that I realized she was right. Best Girl is a dreadful title. But if not that, then—?

"But when two characters began to dance, the current (and, I swear, final) title, Beautiful Dreamer, came to me."
—Lenard-Cook
My title lists include everything from The Woman Who Never Was to Family Matters. But when two characters began to dance, the current (and, I swear, final) title, Beautiful Dreamer, came to me. That this is also the name of the song to which these characters are dancing is one reason that it works. But in addition, dreams — both the nighttime and the shattered varieties — are integral to these characters’ stories.
". . .it’s partly because of this title that I’ve been able to do the rewrite. . ."
—Lenard-Cook
In fact, it’s partly because of this title that I’ve been able to do the rewrite I just completed. And so it is that I suggest that when you can’t seem to find the right title, it could be because your book isn’t yet ready for its debut, either.
Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) is now available for advance purchase at amazon.com.

 

Learn more from Lisa Lenard Cook in her Authorlink online class, beginning Saturday, February 16, 2008. Enroll now!

 

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