Why “Perceval” or Book Titles 101

From the beginning, I struggled with what to title the first novel in the series, which at the time was the only novel.  I made one list after another of title ideas and nothing really grabbed me.  As a working title, I used “Con Brio” for a long time.  Eventually, under the influence of a quote by Carl Jung, I changed the working title to “Shadow Lovers.”  This title remained through eight or nine drafts, work with my first editor and my first stab at marketing the novel.  Then I took some time away from it to work on screenwriting.

I returned to the novel eager to write prose again.  However, I wrote the rough draft of a screenplay adaptation first to help me get back into the story.  Writing the screenplay exposed structural problems that I fixed.  “Shadow Lovers” was still the title but it struck me as sounding like a romance novel which it’s not.  One day, the proverbial lightbulb lit up over my head.  The secret Evan harbors needed a code name.  I could use the code name, if good, as the title.  I groped around for a name before settling on using one of King Arthur’s knights’ names.  The first that came to mind was Perceval.  And I was off and researching….

Perceval was one of three knights who searched for the Holy Grail.  The other two were Galahad, who died of ecstasy after seeing the Holy Grail, and Bors, who was the only knight to see the Holy Grail and return to Arthur’s court.  The original story, begun by Chretien de Troyes in the 12th century as Perceval or Conte del Graal, was finished in the 13th century by an author named Manessier.  In the story, Perceval was the knight who saw the Holy Grail at the Fisher King’s castle but did not comprehend what he saw, and he failed to ask Amfortas, the ill Fisher King, what it was (Perceval’s uncle had taught him it was impolite to ask questions), thereby causing Amfortas pain.  If Perceval had asked the question, Amfortas would have been cured.  Perceval left Amfortas’ castle and continued to have adventures, not realizing what he’d done or missed.

Perceval’s “blindness” appealed to me.  Evan’s secret can make him blind in the same way and he fails to ask crucial questions about it from the beginning because he is thinking about something else.  I changed the title to Perceval to reflect the power that this secret has over Evan and the story.

A one-word book title, from what I’d heard from other writers who’d also struggled with book titles, is advantageous for marketing and sales purposes.  The shorter the title, the better.  I’d wanted to find an evocative title, and I think I have — Perceval evokes a quest, knights, adventure, as well as “blindness” — and there’s a music tie-in as well: Richard Wagner’s opera of the story, Parsifal.

Once I had the first novel’s title, it was fun to come up with titles for the four subsequent novels and each hints at something important that occurs in each narrative.


2 responses to “Why “Perceval” or Book Titles 101

  1. A really interesting path to a title. Intriguing. My 12th grade English teacher had a great influence on my writing. One of the things she said, which has stuck with me for many years regarded writing prose. Admittedly, she was specifically referring to a research paper.

    If the first sentence doesn’t grab their attention and hold it … there won’t be any incentive to read the rest of your writing. So, even if they finish, it means you will have spent a lot of time and effort for naught. (this is the general gist, at least).

    I have come to realize that she was right. My favorite was the opening to “The Queen’s Man”, by Sharon Kay Pennman: The king was dead.

    Short, sweet, intriguing.

    In addition to Mrs. Covert’s rule-of-thumb, I am of the opinion that the title is just as important. It ought to be either intriguing – like Anatomy of Percival – or unambiguously direct to the story/characters – if you heard it again, you’d immediately remember the story – “A Civil Campaign” comes to mind (by Lois McMaster Bujold)

    I look forward to being able to read some of Percival.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. It’s great to see you here. Come back often. Mrs. Covert’s rule of thumb applies to all writing, although in prose, i.e. novels, you can often get away with having a compelling first page, not just first sentence.

    As for titles, it can be excruciating to search for the right one, only to have a publisher’s marketing department, which has not spent much time on the book, change it to suit their idea of marketing demands. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not. I wonder if J.K. Rowling had a problem since her titles are so long!

    I’ve got an alternate title in the back of my mind for “Perceval” that I’d be just as happy with, but for now, I’ll stick to just “Perceval.”

    I’d love for everyone to be able to read the novel….(smile) Keep your fingers crossed that a publisher picks it up!

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