14 September 2016

‘What’s in a name?’ – wrote somebody very smart once, in a play called The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Which is an interesting title, when you think about it; the story of two kids pursuing a forbidden love and choosing to die for one another is both most excellent, and most lamentable, all at once.

Shakespeare has had an enduring effect on titles. John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, for example, is taken from Julius Caesar

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Cassius, in Julius Caesar (I, ii)

Other titles taken from Shakespeare include Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (Macbeth), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (The Tempest), Time Out of Joint by Philip K Dick (Hamlet) and Mortal Engines, which Philip Reeve took from Othello.

When I was writing the first draft of my novel, about a couple falling through space, I knew I wanted the characters to reference a Shakespeare quote about the stars, but to do it jokingly – sending up the seriousness of their situation by doing some grandiose, school assembly-style quoting. I became a little obsessed with a letter Hamlet writes to Ophelia:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love. 

Polonius, in Hamlet (II, ii)

Gosh, I just love this. The sense we can doubt everything in the galaxy – even truth – but not his love . . . Is it wrong to swoon? From this obsession there came more Hamlet elements woven through the story: the spaceship was named the Laertes, the A.I. computer was called Osric. And it was only natural that my title became The Stars Are Fire.

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.

halcyon
halsɪən,-ʃ(ə)n/ 
adjective
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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