One of the harder parts of writing a book is getting a good title. The criteria are tight; two or three apposite words that sum up the contents and make people want to read it. But that’s not an easy row to hoe. Some of the titles just float in, settle on the cover – and there they are.
Others have to be drawn. kicking and screaming, from the quicksands of good intentions and truly awful mixed metaphors (like this one). Another complication, certainly for my books, is that I like bad puns.
There are reasons why this is so difficult, of course. Titles have to do contradictory things; they have to be sharp, marketable and fully descriptive, all at once. Very difficult to achieve. And one thing that readers and critics sometimes don’t realise is that – certainly for commercially published books – the title is not the author’s decision. By contract it’s the publisher’s prerogative, and with good reason. Publishers know what sells, and how to make titles work.
I came up with that title in discussion with my editor at Penguin. Now, in a literal sense, that past has never been secret – the whole preamble of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, for instance, was given over to the fact that it was intended to squash the bad behaviour of local Europeans. Many were ex-convicts from the prison colony across the Tasman. Some of their stories have been digitised for download, which is fairly public.
So why call it ‘hidden’? Because for all intents and purposes today, New Zealand’s convict past was. Not conspiriatorially, but by popular mythology and the inertia of old thinking. It was a social thing. Early European colonists after 1840 were very eager indeed to show that their new colony was a fine, upstanding example of British values, law and order. That meant drawing a line in the sand – sweeping the proclivities of their immediate predecessors under the table. And so the story of ‘old New Zealand’ became a side of New Zealand’s history we haven’t liked to talk about much. Most historians know it happened, most question the trope that early Europeans were actually lawless. But it’s had little general attention. Hence ‘hidden’ from our immediate consciousness.
Until now. (Shameless self-promotion alert). It’s being published by Penguin on Monday, in print in Australia and New Zealand, and as an e-book in Canada – which means it is available for purchase in hard copy and by download worldwide. (‘Woohoo!)
How do you work up your titles? Do they arrive easily – or is it long, involved and painful? I’d love to hear from you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012