Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Titles in first and second person

I've been thinking a lot about first and second person titles recently:

As I Lay Daying by William Faulkner
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

At their best, from the first words, before you even open a book's cover, these titles can throw you into the main character's world. They can evoke a feeling, a mystery, and place the reader right into the "I" position.

Take Judy Blume's classic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

The title has been parodied, turned into academic book titles, and jokes. But what I find interesting is for a title that's two sentences and seven words long, it's so memorable. Perhaps because it describes such a human feeling, searching for God, wondering if God will answer. From the beginning, the reader is right with Margaret.

I also like When I Was Joe by Keren David. It automatically sets up a mystery for the reader: Why was the character someone else? Who is he really? Who is he now? That mystery, and the story of what it means to be someone else, is integral to Keren's story of knife violence and the witness protection program.

However, I frequently worry that first and second person titles sound a bit mushy and forgettable. They're often lacking in concrete nouns and all their pronouns, prepositions, and adverbs can get jumbled together.

For example, what about How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff? I love the book (it's well on its way to being a British classic). But when I studied it at Bath Spa, no one could ever remember its name. It doesn't help that another of Rosoff's books is called What I Was.

But one thing Rosoff does beautifully with both these books is to insert the title phrase into the novel. I believe it's at the end of her book first book that she writes something like, "And this is how I live now." First person titles are easier to work into the text, and there can often be an Aha! moment where a reader thinks, "So that's how the title relates!" Jacqueline Woodson's title, If You Come Softly, is in a poem one of the main characters shares with the other.

Why am I so fixated on first and second person titles at the moment? Well, because I have one.

I've made a few tweaks to the blog recently to prepare for the possibility that agents or editors could end up here. If you look in the right corner, just below my description of the blog, you'll see my pitch for Project Sparkle. The novel is really called A Truth I Don't Know.

Wow, it's a little scary revealing all that... *Anne finds a dark corner to hide in*

While I'm off in my dark corner, what do you think of first and second person titles? Like them? Remember them? Any favorites?


  1. Interesting post. I don't think it's down to first or second person whether they're memorable: As I Lay Daying and It's Me Margaret are very memorable, whereas, to me, When You Reach Me and If You Come Softly are instantly forgettable. I like your title btw.

  2. Girl Friday... what a FABULOUS name! =)

    Perhaps it's not so much being first person as having memorable, concrete words: like God, Margaret, dying, etc.

    Thanks for letting me know about my title, too! It's quite scary going public with it!

  3. I wonder if there are stats on when working titles end up being the published title. Sounds like an ideal survey for Blueboarders! (And I don't have time to do it today, so I'm passing along the idea to you, Anne!)

  4. Thanks :) I think it's more about suggesting well what's between the covers. If You Come Softly sounds pretty, but it tells me absolutely nothing about the book. How I Live Now, while not exactly memorable, does hint intriguingly at what's inside (I haven't read either of these mind you).

    Also, and no offence at all to your having chosen one because I really like some of them, I think writers are trying to sound more 'literary' with these kinds of titles

  5. Interesting post. I was just thinking about how I always mix up HOW I LIVE NOW and LIFE AS WE KNEW IT even though they're nothing alike (though the books are in the same genre). I guess it really does come down to those concrete, memorable words. Plus, first and second person titles tend to be a bit long, which makes them hard to remember. So short, sweet, and concrete! :-)

  6. Oh, that would be an interesting survey, Anne, and interesting to know... hmmm, might have to jump on that.

    I think it's about suggesting what's between the covers in the most succinct yet intriguing way... I wasn't trying to be literary at all, but I think my main character had a little more to say than a 1 word title allowed for. =)

    Short, sweet, and concrete are definitely words to live by, Anna! =) I do think better titles have a way to identify them quickly... for example, I tend to call When I Was Joe, "Joe". "How I Live Now" really doesn't have a short version, except maybe HILN. =)

  7. I'd never noticed what all these kinds of titles had in common, but you're right - I think they do draw a reader in. Incidentally, I'd definitely pick 'Anne Finds a Dark Corner to Hide In' off a shelf too :)

  8. Hah! "Anne Finds a Dark Corner to Hide in" could be written many times over by now. =)


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