Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's in a name?

The quest for catchy

Earlier this month I received a very welcome e-mail message from the general editor of a university press:
We are very interested in publishing your novel
I stared at the screen for a while. Time was frozen and it took several seconds to thaw and allow me to catch my breath.

That morning I had been shrugging on my coat and preparing to pick up my briefcase when my computer beeped to indicate the arrival of new e-mail. It was time to go to school for my first class of the day. I glanced at my watch and decided I could take a few seconds to see what had dropped into my in-box. It ended up, of course, stretching into several minutes. I composed a quick thank-you-thank-you-thank-you note and then dashed off to school.

It was observed that I was unusually high-spirited during the morning's classes.

The general editor sent me a summary review from the manuscript editor he had commissioned to plow through my tome. Key phrases jumped out:
Not only is the story itself generally well told, but it effectively conveys significant aspects of Azorean-American life in California.... [T]he courtroom scenes are especially well managed.... [M]y overall evaluation of the ms remains fully positive, and I look forward to the opportunity of sharing my thoughts with the author directly.
The ellipses, of course, conceal the manuscript editor's tiny little quibbles (“the book is at least 15-20% longer than the central narrative thread warrants,” “though the story of Paul's evolution from child prodigy to mathematician is well-enough told and does present a focal point for an alternative assimilation narrative, I'm not altogether persuaded it fully coheres with the rest of the book,” “something might be done to differentiate the speech of less well-educated from better-educated characters”). Hardly worth mentioning!

He also didn't much care for my working title. Thus my faithful readers get to join in part of the fun. What should my book's title be? For some useful background, here's is a plot summary that I used to pitch the book:
This is the story of the Francisco family, Portuguese immigrants from the Azores who settle on a dairy farm in California’s Central Valley. Their plans to eventually return to the Old Country fall by the wayside as their success grows and their American lives take root. The legacy of one generation becomes a point of contention as the members of the next generation begin to compete to inherit and control their heritage, which includes herds of cattle and tracts of farm land. The death of Teresa Francisco, the family’s matriarch, sets off a string of battles (both personal and legal) between brothers, spouses, in-laws, and cousins.
Yes, Teresa is based on my grandmother, the linchpin of my family and the vital center without whom the family flew to flinders. A wily old lady, she drew her will to force her two sons (my father and my uncle) to cooperate as co-executors of the estate. As the elder son, my uncle was deeply aggrieved that he did not get to call the shots himself, but I'm certain it was no accident that my grandmother chose to clip his wings in the way she did.

Unfortunately, there was also a lawsuit. My father and uncle had an older sister who predeceased her parents. She was my much-loved aunt and godmother (and is the dedicatee of my novel). Her widower, my embittered uncle-godfather, resented receiving nothing from the estate (although his children got quite a lot) and bankrolled a legal challenge to the will. The battle left scars that remain to this day, nearly thirty years later.

That was the raw material I drew upon to write my novel. Since I was not privy to all of the backstage maneuvering and scheming, I had to speculate on motivations and make up events to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Real-life people provided the models but their fictional representatives were not obligated to conform to the originals that inspired them. It's a novel. It's based on a true story, but I made it up. So far, the readers of the manuscript have been all over the map in guessing what parts are “real” and what parts are purely fanciful creations of my fevered imagination. For future readers, I'll admit that the accidental circumcision episode is quite true to life. Hey, if Laurence Sterne can write about such an event in Tristram Shandy, why can't I? (Mom wishes I would drop that section, but my manuscript editor favors “holding on” to the damaged foreskin—in what I'm sure was a deliberate choice of wry language on his part.)

But let's go back to titles. Here's an alphabetical roster of some of the candidates we have considered thus far. Which, if any, do you favor? If you wish to nominate other possibilities, I'm eager to hear them. I look forward to seeing what pops up in the comments.
  • California Dairy
  • California Gothic
  • Cow
  • Cow Boys
  • Crying Over Spilt Milk
  • Curdled Milk
  • Dairy Family
  • Dear Dairy
  • Don't Have a Cow
  • Have a Cow
  • Land of Milk and Money, The
  • Milk of Human Kindness, The
  • Moo Cows
  • Past Your Eyes
  • Promised Land
  • Raw Milk
  • Sour Cream
  • Spilt Milk
  • Split Milk

In the meantime, I am trimming and editing the manuscript with an eye toward an April 1 deadline. If I can deliver a satisfactory revision by that date (or close to it), the university press will put my novel on its publication calendar and it could see print as early as January 2012.

Darn. Too late for Christmas!


Mark said...

Title-wise, there's a fine line between too clever and too banal.

I vote for "Split Milk" or "The Milk of Human Kindness". Congratulations and good luck!

Miki Z. said...

I like "Past Your Eyes", and I'll suggest "Emulsifying Agents" at the risk of being called recondite.

Eric TF Bat said...

Another vote for "Milk of Human Kindness". It leapt out of the list. Most of the rest were a little too Douglas Copeland for my tastes (not that I dislike Mr Copeland, having only read Microserfs anyway). Land Of Milk And Honey is a little too generic, like something Steinbeck wrote after he got famous. Promised Land doesn't feel right. Spilt Milk would be a close second, but I think it might be too generic too, and too tinged with regret.

Oh, and congrats on getting a book deal. I am so going to Book Depository this when it comes out...

Bus Reader said...

I like The Land of Milk and Money, but I don't like Don't Have a Cow.

Anonymous said...

So, I stink at titles. But I have ideas anyhow. Feuding Islanders in Cowlifornia. Filhos of California. Land of Milk and Family. Assembling in California. Anything with one word in Portuguese.

I kind of like Cowlifornia. Which probably means you should avoid it.

I am very much looking forward...

Anonymous said...

I like the Land of Milk and Money best

William said...

Mother's Milk

Kathie said...

"Sacred Cows"

Blake Stacey said...

Darn, Counting Cows is taken.

Zeno said...

Nothing is "taken," Blake. You can't copyright a title.

Nevertheless, we should probably avoid Gone with the Wind or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Kathie said...

Zee, you might also want to avoid "I No Longer Like Chocolate Milk" ;-)))))))

Zeno said...

jd2718: Anything with one word in Portuguese.

My favorite choice for a title with a Portuguese word is just the word itself:


It's pronounceable in both English and Portuguese, but with amusingly different connotations. In English it's a noun that just means "creed" or "body of belief." In Portuguese it's a verb that means "I believe," but that's only the literal meaning. In actual usage, its connotation is one of incredulity. It's more like, "Can you believe it?!" My maternal grandmother used it all the time. (Funny, because she was anything but a skeptic, despite her constant pronouncements of doubt.)

Kathie said...

A single Portuguese word, you say?

How about "Ordenha" -- which sounds like "ordain" in English, but actually means "milking" in Portuguese.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I like Cow, but Iono if that'll make people pick up the book.

The Milk of Human Kindness has promise.

Kathie said...

"Cow Cow Boogie" (after the title of the jazz classic)?

Zeno said...

I think I'd use “Milking It” before I'd use “Ordenha.” The latter would be understood by too few people to make it viable.

Or maybe just “Milking.”

Bob Becker said...

IN The Land of Milk and Money.

Add "in."

Kathie said...

Zee, I concur that "Ordenha" is too arcane, but for those of us who know it, it's kinda funny.

I still favor "Sacred Cows." World Cat divulges a mystery novel of the same title featuring a female detective, though I doubt anyone would ever confuse your masterpiece with it.

Unknown said...

"Of Cows and Men"

Kathie said...

"A Moo for the Misbegotten"

OK, so I'm just getting giddy here ;-)

phalacrocorax said...

Credo [...] In Portuguese it's a verb that means "I believe,"

Actually, that's Latin, like in Credo in deum patrem omnipotentem blablabla... The proper Portuguese verb would be creio, which evolved like this:

credo (Latin) > creo (form retained in Spanish) > creio (Portuguese)

One could argue that the Azorean dialect spoken by your ancestors differed from standard Portuguese, but it is unlikely that a poor Latin voiced occlusive would survive between two hostile vowels in any Iberian language.

However, I must concede that there is an interjection credo in Portuguese. I think it was probably taken directly from the church's Credo that I mentioned above.

PS: Your blog was probably the first place where knowing some Portuguese was of any use for me.

Anonymous said...

phalacrocorax, You're so right!!! That one slipped right past me (probably what comes from having studied Latin AND Portuguese -- LOL!).

Zeno said...

Point taken, phalacrocorax. Thanks. It would have been more accurate if I had said "in Azorean Portuguese usage." It was always spoken as I described, with the connotation of disbelief and astonishment. Of course, my only real exposure to Portuguese is to the language as it is spoken in California, where it's become something of an amalgam of various influences.

Kathie said...

Oops, that was mine at 7:13 PM PST. Forgot to type in my name. My face is doubly red now ;-))))

Kathie said...

"Valley of the Moo"?

(Jack London must be spinning in his grave)

Interrobang said...

Congratulations on the publication deal. :)

Gene O'Pedia said...

I agree with a few of the others--"In the Land of Milk and Money," both for it's twist on the words and also because the biblical meaning was probably how your immigrant relatives must've felt when they came to California.

Then they found that in real estate, it might be "location, location, location," but with people, it's "money, money, money."

Jonathan said...

Spilt Milk

Basil said...

Congrats on the publication deal. I like "Sour Cream" even though there weren't many people who also liked it.

Stogoe said...

Curdled Milk is my favorite.

Kathie said...

Zee, why does your homepage list that there are 32 comments on this post, yet the top of this plage (correctly) claims only 30? Did you delete 2, which the homepage didn't take into account?

How about "Cowabunga!" for a book title?

Zeno said...

I don't know, Kathie. The counters got out of sync for some reason. It may be because I had to rescue two of the comments from the spam filter, but that's just a guess.

Anonymous said...


Kathie said...

Ack, Zee -- should read "page," not "plage" (must have the beach on my mind this snowy winter!). Hard to believe I do so much proofreading and copy-editing, huh?

echidna said...

milking the farm

Anonymous said...

East of Escalon. Delano Dairy. Chowchilla Cows. Family in Fresno.