Welcome back to Writing Wednesday! Excited?
Try to contain yourself, James.
Last week, I was working on a synopsis for my novel (tougher than it seems) and while I was re-reading what I’d written, an image came to mind that seemed to sum up what I’m writing really well. I looked up the term and you know what? It was PERFECT. So perfect, I felt like the king of morons for not making the connection sooner. But more than that, I felt so relieved and excited that I laughed like a maniac for about 10 minutes.
You can arrive at a title in different ways. Sometimes it’s ridiculously simple; other times you can feel your brain cells wither and die while you spend five forevers trying to come up with something that gets to the root of your story without sounding silly or pretentious. Until this novel, I’d never had trouble coming up with titles I liked. I attribute that to the fact that I only wrote short stories before. For me, it was easy to decide on a word or phrase that hit on the main point of my stories and that felt right, too. But novels are, well, longer.
What I mean is, “summing up” 100,000 words is a little tougher than getting to the heart of a 6,000 word story. Shorter stories mean less time and space to explore ideas, which means you have to choose which idea(s) you want to focus on. A novel on the other hand will likely explore a few major themes while also including unique technical aspects or several small events that are integral to the fabric of the tale. Not to mention characters that are fully fleshed out and whose thoughts, personalities, and interactions — in the ample space a novel provides — meld together in complex ways. Of course short stories attack ideas and themes that are just as complex as what you’d find in a novel. But with less space to fill, you’re left with a more incisive rendering than a novel, which is allowed to meander and loop until it makes its ultimate point. The difference between a novel and a short story is like the difference between a maze and a door with an exit sign over it: either way, you’ll reach your destination — just in different ways.
After browsing my bookshelves, I’ve noticed a few different types of titles, which can be helpful in deciding what direction to go in with your own. There’s…
The Setting-based Title
Some books center on a specific place that is crucial to the plot. Often, as in the case of The Loney (Andrew Michael Hurley), The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole), and Slade House (David Mitchell), the setting in the title is where the majority of the story takes place. Does the bulk of your story happen in one location?
The Simplistic Distillation Title
Some book titles are really just a super stripped-down answer to the question, “What’s this book about?” Like Andrew’s Brain (E.L. Doctorow) about a man speaking to a psycho-analyst about his life, which is written in a way that brings to mind (my mind anyway) the ability of the mind to think about itself. Essentially, it is a story about Andrew’s brain in that it’s about the way his mind works and how that’s responsible for his hang-ups and the way he reacts to people and things. Other examples are The Girl in the Red Coat (Kate Hamer), and The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). Obviously these books are about more than just a girl in a red coat and a girl on a train, but those are distinguishing aspects of these protagonists, so the title’s aren’t inaccurate!
The Catalyst Object Title
Some stories have characters who encounter a particular thing that changes their lives and subsequently dictates the course of the story. The example I pulled from my shelf is The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink. A wallcreeper is a type of bird, and this is a story about a woman who marries a bird enthusiast after knowing him for only three weeks. They find this particular bird at the start of the story, and take it in. In all honesty, the bulk of the story has very little to do with this bird, but the finding of the creature is what gets the story going, and the bird does affect the husband and wife in different ways that reveal more about who they are as people (at least from the wife’s perspective).
The Story-specific Title
By “story-specific” I mean a term unique to the story that isn’t taken from real life. David Mitchell’s novel The Bone Clocks is titled after a phrase in the story. A “bone clock” is… a human being — one who suffers from mortality, unlike certain characters in this story who have found ways to evade it. There’s also Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You, which is the name of a chain of sex toy boutiques that are the impetus for much of what happens in the story.
The Excerpt-based Title
One of my favorite books, Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates takes its title from a collection of poetry by D.H. Lawrence called Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (a simplistic distillation title 😀 ) which she excerpts as an epigraph for her book. The poem the epigraph is taken from is one of my favorite poems ever (b/c of this book), “Medlars and Sorb-Apples.” Here’s the epigraph:
I love you, rotten,
…wonderful are the hellish experiences,
Dionysos of the Underworld.
Read the whole poem. Did it make you feel things? I bet it made you feel things. Anyway, this poem fits well with JCO’s novel — especially in the grotesque mixture of sweetness and foulness — and the word “beasts” nails exactly what the characters in her novel turn out to be.
The Symbolic/Thematic Title
This is the one I typically shoot for. It’s also the one that poses the greatest risk of sounding ridiculous if you get it wrong. I love when I finish a book, look back at the cover, and feel like the main idea of what I’ve just read is fully expressed in the title. Like the fact-based fiction How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, which is basically about a young woman’s experience of living her life and trying to find the answer to that very question. Or the literary classic A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) about an off-the-wall teenager whose next-level hedonism leads to his forcible transformation (by means of intense conditioning) into a “better” person. In his introduction to my edition of the book, Burgess says he meant for the title to “stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.” The novel challenges that notion, and invites the reader to do the same. In the case of A Clockwork Orange, content and title marry flawlessly.
What’s your process for coming up with titles? Do you have a favorite kind? A kind you hate? Hope this post has cut your title journey short by a few hundred minutes.