Playing the magical name game
Why I'm finally turning tail, back to the original book title chosen by my publishers ...
It probably won't come as any surprise that a great title can be the making of a book - and in particular, the making of book sales.
When Jane Blonde Sensational Spylet was first published, people in the know in the publishing industry told me I had the best title of the year (and they also liked 'Vampirates'', which I do too. Clever!).
He seemed to be right. JB sold very well.
But book titles can be hit and miss affairs, and not all are created equal. Some are born, like Jane Blonde. Some are created for mass market appeal, like many My (fill in the gap) Animal series. And some, I've discovered, are made backwards, from tail to whiskery nose.
My first major title, Jane Blonde, Sensational Spylet, I came up with myself. It stuck. Then, through the writing of the seven book Jane Blonde series (no, eight, including the World Book Day novella!), I became accustomed to chucking around ideas for titles with my then publishers, Macmillan Children's Books in the UK. Sometimes I'd suggest them up-front before I started storytelling. Sometimes we'd toss it around between us as the book neared completion. Occasionally, they'd suggest a title and ask if I could match the story to it. They were wonderful titles, and I love every single one as it fits the book brilliantly from contents to cover.
It was (mostly) the same with Doghead, and although I had some back and forth on titles with other publishers for my adult fiction, Macmillan and I were always in full agreement on the children's books. So when they asked me to write a new 'girl' series and gave me a theme to consider, I had no hesitation in coming up with the most original theme-based story and character I could conjure up. I pitched a new series called, in my mind, 'The Nine Lives of Matilda Peppercorn' with each individual book named after a breed of cat. We all loved the concept, the early chapters, and the fun new character. Series bought, contracts signed, job done.
It was only later, once the book was at first draft stage, that I discovered in a random conversation what the publishers were now calling the book/series. Catgirl, they said. What now? I said. Then - no, I said. I hated it. It didn't feel like my book.
And the engines ground to a halt as, over several months. we battled with the title.
Macmillan tried very, very hard to make it work. They really did. They even brainstormed a new title that didn't mention cats. Unfortunately, I loathed it even more than Catgirl. It literally made my heart sink every time I thought of it. I know they were committed to this name, because I accidently found it on Amazon in a 'placeholder' a few years ago - as all he other Tilly titles will be found on Amazon as they never seem to disappear.
But this title wasn't to be. And so, heart-broken (on both sides, I believe, because publshers didn't and don't make these decisions lightly) and with an exchange of some dramatic emails, I pulled out of the deal.
I look back now and wonder if it was complete madness to back out of a multi-book contract with a major publisher over what was, on the surface of it, just a difference of opinion over a name. Perhaps.
The other part of me, though, knows it was the right thing to do - because what I was really challenging was not the title, but my creative freedom and the ability to take my character and story in a direction nobody knew was coming. Not even me.
You see, the reason I didn't like the name 'Catgirl' was because that's really not all that she is. And I knew that if I went along with it, I wouldn't be able to write the rest of Matilda Peppercorn's story in the way I wanted to. Correction, she wanted to. Non-cat sections would be edited out. Bigger storylines that strayed into the unknown would be shortened and then steered in a different direction. Effectively - and I don't blame them for this as this is what publishers have to do - my beloved character and her stories would become a product, and I'd have to go where the market and market forces sent me.
Back then, I could only mumble that it wasn't really where she was going, and while I didn't know exactly where that was, I knew it wasn't down a narrow channel, sized and shaped for a specific market segment. Writing it 'true' was more important to me than writing to be published, even if that meant (and it did) significant pain, hurt and loss of income for all parties concerned. Even at the time, I could feel that this crazy blue-haired girl would take me down creative trails I'd not even dreamed of.
And for all it sucked, in a way it couldn't have happened at a better time. It was the cresting sunrise of the e-book era, the growth of indie publishing arena, the rise of technology and systems that would 'democratise publishing' (a popular zeitgeist cry). I tried my hand at all of it, with varying degrees of success and even more extremes of failure, and over a number of years I published the first Matilda Peppercorn book under several different titles - Manx, Defend, and latterly, Witch Hunter - trying to find and feel the one that best reflected the story.
In the meantime, I just kept writing - writing all sorts but especially more Tilly P titles. I wrote that girl's adventures of magical mayhem in the way that they wanted to be written. As biiiiig chunky novels (which, btw, I'm told girls don't read any more). As bonkers tail-tales of friendship and family. As mad, epic, mystical journeys. As an interweaving, crazy history of a girl who's a legend in her own lifetime. And that's what it finally became: a four book series called The Legend of Matilda Peppercorn: Witch Hunter, Toadstone, Questioner, Trinity.
I toyed with calling it Tilly and the Whatever, btw, but then another series with that title came out, published by my own former publisher, no less! Ideas often float around waiting for a co-creator, and this time they got there first. No biggie. I shrugged and moved on.
And when I moved on, I finally finished writing TLOMP. I actually snivelled a bit. You spend a lot of time with your peeps over four biggish books, and you miss them when they're gone. But it's what drives you as a creative. Even if nobody ever read it or appreciated a quartet of large, zany novels that are not at all the market fashion, I had to finish the story. I did the same with Doghead, which I'd always seen as a trilogy but Macmillan published as a duo. I wrote the third one anyway (and also changed the names, to Jack B-C, Doghead, Dogfight, Dogstar).
Writers gotta write. I finished the story.
Or at least, I thought I did.
When the first Avengers film came out, I had a lightning bolt moment of picturing my own superhero characters joining forces in a similar fashion. Imagine the scale of what they could overcome in a team, together! So I started that story, too - of Jane Blonde, and Jack B-C, and Matilda Peppercorn and Stein of Stein and Frank, all under the shadowy leadership of mysterious newcomer Gideon Flynn in a new ensemble series called SWAGG. And because I have creative freedom, I've written them exactly as I wanted to and would probably have been persuaded not to - in different voices from the persective of a specific character. Book 1, Spook, is from Jane Blonde's point-of-view. SWAGG 2, School of ICE, is told by Jack B-C. And the third one, just released in December 21, is distinctively and uniquely Tilly's own SWAGGy story: Sorcery.
Which brings me back to why I've decided, finally, to go back to that original name that Macmillan wanted for the Matilda Peppercorn series. The first in the series is no longer to be Witch Hunter. It is now The Legend of Matilda Peppercorn, Catgirl.
Because in that particular book, it turns out that's what she is, and it then provides a tag or nickname for her throughout all the books. Also she's not the Witch Hunter, which is what that title might suggest. She's the Hunted.
Because now that I've written the whole thing, I know she can't get stripped of her other powers to fit a certain notion of who she's meant to be. She's just herself. Above all else, Matilda Peppercorn is just - divinely and haphazardly and with flaws galore - herself.
Because now it feeeeeeeeels right. I know my characters more by how they feel than anything else, and I just know that Tilly would approve. In the beginning? Not so much. But now? Superbly excellent.
And I'm going back to Catgirl ... because I can. Because I'm just myself, too. A writer. A creative. A storyteller who just needs to finish the story, and thanks to a small matter called COVID-19, happens to have her own publishing company in order to do it. Sometimes your own story heads off in unexpected directions, too.
So with props and apologies to Macmillan Children's Books, here she is, finally. Catgirl. SWAGG member and so much besides, but most of all, uniquely Matilda Peppercorn.
And what's in a name? Turns out it can be a complete adventure.
Jill's books are available in e-book, paperback and now hardback from Amazon and everywhere you can buy books, including your local indie bookstore. Go to jillmarshallbooks.com or swaggbooks.com for more. SWAGG 3, Sorcery and The Legend of Matilda Peppercorn Quartet out now.