Katie Khan on choosing the perfect name for a novel

Author Katie Khan shares how she chose the name for her debut novel, Hold Back the Stars, and the influence of Shakespeare on book titles.

Katie Khan on choosing a perfect name for a novel

But what’s in a name? For me, memorability, uniqueness, and the ability to write it down are all paramount

But what’s in a name? For me, memorability, uniqueness, and the ability to write it down are all paramount. And a problem with The Stars Are Fire is that nearly everyone mishears it as ‘The Stars Afire’. Then in 2014, after the booming success of The Fault In Our Stars film adaptation, my title sounded . . . oddly similar. It had that Shakespearean twang, a pervasive turn of phrase.

With regret, I changed the title to Halcyon: a word I love – there’s a nice gallery in London with that name, and a bookshop – which has a sense of looking back, a theme inherent to my story. The novel is structured so that the timeline of the couple fighting to survive in space is intercut with their memories on a utopian Earth. ‘Halcyon’ had that double meaning: the sense of a golden age – a utopia – and the calm and tranquil nature of space. I was sold.

1. denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful.
synonyms: serene, calm, pleasant, tranquil

But as my novel went out on submission, and began to sell quite quickly in translation, I realised I’d given the story a name that didn't resonate in many languages. ‘What does it mean?’ I was asked. It seemed that without being followed by ‘days’, the inference I’d wanted in ‘halcyon’ was lost. ‘Oh! Like the Ellie Goulding album?’ It was time to find a new title.

With Transworld, my brilliant UK publisher, now on board, we turned for inspiration back to that timeless and epic title creator, Shakespeare. With hints of both Romeo & Juliet in my story (two young lovers in a clandestine relationship), and Hamlet references peppering the space scenes, we began to play once again with my working title, The Stars Are Fire, and a line from Hamlet.

Hold off the earth awhile 
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.

Laertes, in Hamlet (V, i)

Hold off the Earth. There was something in it, though the rounded vowel sounds made it feel heavy (and somehow quite literary). We yoyo-ed between The Stars Are Fire, and Hold Off The Earth, until somewhere amid the fifty-cell spreadsheet somebody suggested, quite simply:

Hold Back The Stars.

It was nice. But I had my qualms – was it too romantic? Did it sound like a title you’d read in a swirly, girly font? Then again, it matched the physical impossibility of Carys and Max’s task in space: to survive as they fall. I mean, you can’t actually hold back the stars. They’re gassy giants.

Going on my own criteria, it’s easy to write down, and to say – a title you can’t mishear. And then, Google asked: ‘Did you mean James Bay Hold Back The River?’ Finally! Uniqueness, at last. Four words I could own.

But it was only when I saw Sarah Whittaker’s striking cover design that I felt, fundamentally, it was the title for the novel. Outlined in hundreds of hand-drawn stars, in a modern, sans serif font, Hold Back The Stars was at last not just ‘a love story’, not just ‘sci-fi’ . . . It was somehow both, at once. It looked like a book I’d love – which, after all, is why I wrote it. I had drafted the type of story I wanted to read: a sprawling mass of space, meteors, first love, utopian ideals, rule-breaking, and time running out. And at the heart of it, there is a young couple pursuing a forbidden love, against all odds . . . which I hope you’ll find most excellent, and most lamentable, all at once.

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