Words, pictures and surgical scars

The creative symbiosis of writing a novel without a name

The idea to attempt to compose an untitled novel found momentum at The Word event at Astley Hall in Chorley, Lancashire in September 2013.  Among the speakers were book designers Ned Hoste and Ed Christiano who delivered an informative session on the crafting of book covers.  They spoke with convincing authority but were a little unbalanced by my question as to whether eBooks needed a title on the cover as they were always accompanied by printed blurb – rather like pictures in an art gallery. Their response was that it would be dangerous to not include one. For physical books perhaps – but for eBooks?

Untitled composite
Untitled works by Amrita Sher-gil, Alma Thomas, Jackson Pollock and Cindy Sherman

The notion to name a novel by not naming it had its origins in many visits to art galleries down the years when Untitled reoccurred as one of the most common designations for paintings, especially those of an experimental or avant-garde nature. Artists sometimes take the view that the work should stand entirely alone and that to attribute a title is to narrow the perception and offer the viewer a definition of the work that may confine or distort its inherent quality. Could this also be true for a person?

It was interesting to explore that theme by having two central characters whose names are not revealed.  This had been tried a number of years earlier in two short stories Tryst and The Bedouin both part of The Atheist’s Prayer Book collection.  That exercised proved straightforward but applying the rule over ninety thousand words was a different prospect.  It is very challenging to be restricted to she or he especially when the person is involved in scenes where there are other characters of the same gender, and when the majority of the story is written in the third person. The likelihood of confusing the reader is high.

In the completed work the central character is eventually described as the poser or the muse and the antagonist by a nickname.  Neither character is ever directly named in the novel but their names are in the narrative, and the reader should be able to determine what they are by the end.

untitled cover 1At the outset this novel was going to hinge on a portrait but several thousand words were laid down before a commission was instigated for the cover artwork. Seeing examples of Emma Ritson’s portraiture resulted in a decision to commission the painting at the heart of the novel from her. At that point barely a third of the text had been created and only snippets were shared with Emma. Twelve weeks later the finished painting was handed over. She had sent pictures of the model and of the process so the final reveal was no shock, but it was a delight.

cover detail 1

At the core of this tale is an act of surgery, and what the consequences of that might be. We discussed the difficulty of depicting a partial nude without it appearing prurient and at the same time increasing the mysterious allure of the cover.  Emma’s solved the problem by placing the torso in the reflection in the window and thereby linking the image to the main subject indistinctly and elevating the enigma.


There are a number of portraits of the poser that feature in the narrative. The one on the cover occurs relatively late as a painting but slightly earlier as an episode and a premonition. All those instances were inspired by seeing the painting for real.  The work also triggered some fundamental aspects of plot and character. The background as seen through the window located some of the action and affected key decisions regarding principal roles ironically including their backgrounds too.  Working from the commission both Emma and myself initially presumed the woodland depicted to be England, but it turned out to be somewhere else, twice.

Neither the model nor the figure in the final portrait bore a likeness to the protagonist as she was initially imagined, but that made the subsequent imagining of her all the more vibrant. It is the quality of the brushwork in imbuing a blend of recollection, anticipation and apprehension in the woman that hit home the hardest.

cover detail 2Firstly, it illustrated just how vague the initial conception was, and now here, before me was a precisely defined embodiment, which felt less like a realisation and more like an introduction. Secondly, the soul of the character had been reconstituted. The haunting she felt was manifest in the expression on her face, but there was also an acceptance rooted not in resignation but in resilience and resolve.  So it was that a string of words led to patterns of oils and they, in turn, curved the trail of subsequent words.

Some five years had passed since muting the proposal for not applying a title to an eBook and in that time the quality assurance procedures had become more complex, while setting up a print-on-demand paperback have simplified, and the decision to release the book in both formats means the title needs to be on there. That matters not, for the broader challenge of not directly naming the two pivotal characters spawned a unique story and enabled some exploration of the theme of the consequences of labelling ourselves and each other.

The painting as whole (cropped for cover proportions) comprises the eBook image, but the paperback allowed for an interesting effect when wrapping the painting around the spine. It meant that the rear cover could support an enlargement of the face of the protagonist, but also resulted in the surgical scar of the imagined torso being hidden but not obscured, which harmonises well with parts of the initial narrative.

cover detail 3

It is crucial for creative people to encourage the creativity of others.  It invariably nourishes one’s own output, and frequently, as in this case, elevates the overall impact of the final product. Seeing the face of a protagonist for the first time after over a year of writing about her was unsettling.  She was not the person hitherto imagined, but she instantly became so, and the recognition reshaped her identity, which is entirely in keeping with veiled theme of the story.




Original oil painting by Emma Ritson.



Untitled paperback


Untitled eBook



2 thoughts on “Words, pictures and surgical scars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s