Barry here again... just back from the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Lee Child gave an outstanding luncheon keynote tying together the origins of Tess Gerritsen's family, the way dogs walk, the development of storytelling, the importance of thrillers in the development of the human species, and Laura Lippman's hotness. It was entertaining and illuminating in equal measure, and by my count about 400 new people are now on tenterhooks for "Bad Luck and Trouble" on May 15.
Okay, back to titles. On Thursday, we talked about titles with automatic resonance: resonance that's present in the title of a book you know nothing else about. Today, let's talk about acquired resonance.
Whereas automatic resonance occurs because of a connection between the title and something in your mind or experience, acquired resonance has to do with a connection between the title and the contents of the book itself. The reason I call it "acquired" is because it doesn't adhere until after you've read the book -- that is, the book acquires resonance from being read.
Choosing a place name as a title is usually a bid for acquired resonance. If you haven't read the story, the place name doesn't mean much... but if the story is memorable enough, it imbues that otherwise neutral place name with tremendous power. Empire Falls, Lonesome Dove, Mystic River, Watership Down... these are such overwhelmingly powerful stories that they breath life into their own titles. Titles with stories like these behind them function as a form of shorthand, a place keeper, a vessel that carries forward the emotional weight of the story. A body for the story's spirit to animate and inhabit.
Note that the titles above aren't devoid of automatic resonance. Words like lonesome, dove, mystic, and empire have inherent connotations that lead to an unavoidable degree of automatic resonance. But if all these titles had going for them were the automatic resonance, they would be weak. What makes them work is that acquired effect, what trademark lawyers call "secondary meaning."
Let's talk about the concept of secondary meaning for a moment. Some of the world's most powerful trademarks (and the brands they stand for) derive their market power almost entirely from consumer associations that have little or nothing to do with the marks themselves. Think McDonald's, for example, or Harley Davidson, or BMW. These titles have come to stand as shorthand in the minds of consumers for the products the companies make. Without experience with those products, consumers would have no emotional association with the trademarks. All are therefore good examples of the potential power of acquired resonance.
(Contrast these marks with a company name like Yahoo!, which has automatic (as well as acquired) resonance. Yahoo! couldn't possibly be the name of a stuffy financial services company. It has to be something fun, exciting, and free. Virgin is another powerful mark that started off with strong automatic resonance.)
When evaluating a possible title, publishers tend to lean toward automatic resonance. There are two reasons for this tendency. First, automatic resonance is reassuring. If you have it, the book just sounds good right off the bat. The title will goose sales up front, when the publisher and the rest of the world is paying the closest attention. Acquired resonance, by contrast, is scary. What if the book doesn't work? The title will seem silly then. And even if it does work, it might take a long time, because acquired resonance only derives its power when people have read and are talking about the book. The natural, albeit often unfortunate, tendency in business, as in so many other things, is to focus on the short term at the expense of the long, and a default to titles with automatic resonance reflects this reflex.
The second reason is institutional. To have an opinion about whether a title has acquired resonance, you have to have read the book. Yet many of the people behind the title decision will not have done so. So whether they realize it or not, their only means of evaluating the title's impact is along automatic resonance lines. Automatic resonance is the only basis for their opinion.
If your publisher is pushing you to accept a title you're not comfortable with, therefore, you might want to ask: "Who among the people who favor your proposed title has actually read the book?" You might be surprised to learn just how few of the sales force and the big chain buyers, whose opinions count for a lot, have read the book. If they haven't, you'll know that by definition their only goal for the title is the establishment of automatic resonance. Acquired resonance, if it comes at all, will be a happy accident.
The third reason publishers tend not to focus on acquired resonance is that an acquired resonance title takes more thought and skill to discover. It requires a keen understanding of the heart of the story, along with an instinct for what word or phrase is best calculated to make that heart beat loudly enough for the reader to hear it long after she's finished the book. The emotional shorthand the title then stands for in the reader's mind both enables her and motivates her to enthuse about the book to others, which generates word of mouth, known in the age of the internet as viral marketing.
A few other titles, in addition to the ones above, that for me carry tremendous acquired resonance: The Godfather, Going After Cacciato, The Kite Runner, The Prince of Tides, Snow Falling on Cedars, Sophie's Choice. All these titles are connected to something at the heart of their stories, or otherwise able to encapsulate that heart. All are powerful titles, but none began with that power. Instead, the power of the title is a function, an outgrowth, of the power of the story.
If you had to favor one type of resonance over the other, how would you make the decision? There are at least two factors at work here. The first involves the kind of market you're trying to reach. The second has to do with timing.
Market: The more your audience is focused on a genre, the safer you'll be in favoring automatic resonance. A genre audience has tastes and expectations that are relatively easy to understand. Choosing a title that immediately signals to this audience "This is just what you're looking for" is a smart way to make sure you sell an adequate number of books (and of course, that message should be an explicit part of other aspects of the packaging, too). So a romance gets a title like "Unchained Desire," a western might be "High Plains Drifter," horror is "The Howling," science fiction is "The Terminal Experiment." Etc. In Thursday's comments, I offered up my favorite movie example of a splatter movie perfectly packaged for maximum penetration of its core genre market: "You don't have to go to Texas for a chain saw massacre... PIECES! It's just what you think it is." Indeed it is.
A non-genre audience, by contrast, has much vaguer expectations. They're looking more for an emotional experience than they are for the traditional indicia of a specific genre. It's therefore more difficult to signal to a non-genre audience that "It's just what you think it is," and more sensible to make a play for acquired resonance, instead. Think "The Kite Runner," or "Shantaram," or "The Road," etc.
Timing: Here, the question is, where is the author is in his career? I haven't read Dennis Lehane's first few books, but I love the automatic resonance of the titles: "Gone, Baby, Gone" (loss, mourning, and a certain hip attitude). "A Drink Before the War" (a reprieve, the calm before the storm, a moment of peace before the unavoidable violence to come). "Darkness, Take My Hand" (seduction, surrender, an embrace of the forbidden). And then Lehane wrote "Mystic River," which I consider to be a masterpiece -- a perfect blend, a perfect weaving together, of people, place, and plot. At that point, Lehane's audience was large enough to guarantee a certain level of sales even without the strong automatic resonance of his previous titles. And the new story was so powerful, and the title so perfect a vessel for that power, that all the people who bought the book more on Lehane's name than on the title were enabled and motivated to spread the word about the book. Had the same book been Lehane's debut, entitling it Mystic River would have been much more of a risk.
Two titles came up in the comments to Thursday's post: "Katz Cradle" and "Finnegan's Week." For me, both have strong automatic resonance because they connect with the name of children's game (and a Kurt Vonnegut novel) we all know, and with the title of Joyce's novel. But my sense is that this kind of automatic resonance is at odds with acquired. The title of a novel as firmly ensconced in the canon as Finnegan's Wake has such strong acquired resonance that it's likely to eclipse whatever acquired resonance its derivatives might otherwise have developed. Similarly, "Katz Cradle" is likely to have difficulty breaking out of the gravitational field exerted by the childhood game and the title of Vonnegut's novel. The likely limitations on the ability of these titles to achieve acquired resonance doesn't make the titles bad; but it does probably inhibit their staying power, both in the public mind and the marketplace.
Simply put: automatic resonance tends to help a book gain momentum; acquired resonance is what sustains it. For genre, or for any book that isn't expected to have that long a shelf life, automatic resonance will probably suffice. But if you're selling something you hope will go the distance, an attempt at acquired resonance will certainly help. Ideally, of course, your title will have both.
Thanks again for coming by, everyone, and MJ, for having me. I'll check in again this summer while on tour for Requiem for an Assassin, with some thoughts about book tours and perhaps a few other matters, as well.