A week or so, my author-friend Lisa asked me to talk about titles. I know a lot of people who struggle with the titles of their works, and since most of them don't want to pay someone else to title their novels, I agreed that it deserved a blog post.
Steve Almond said that you should try to pick a title that's uniquely yours... that so many short stories get names like "The Date" or "About My Father" and they're just miserably interchangeable and uninspiring. And Absolute Write agrees that "[t]itles need to come from within, rather than without." But sometimes we're too close to our own work to see the right answer: Amy Tan said that "[t]he words The Joy Luck Club had never struck me as unusual or remotely literary" because it was merely a social club her father had named. She had originally planned to title the book Wind and Water after the Chinese belief in feng shui and the balancing of the elements.* I leave you to draw your own conclusions about which title is more evocative.
Sure, writers are also told not to get too attached to their "working titles" because when it comes time for publication, titles fall somewhere between the content of the book and cover art as far as final authorial control goes... your opinion usually matters, but you're not the final decision-maker, and you don't get veto power. But we still have to work hard to find a good title to capture the attention of the agent/editor in the first place. And, one would assume that the better our own titles are, the more likely we are to get to keep them even after several rounds of editing.
So, how do you get your titles? The original working title of my novel was None the Wiser, and I picked the title very early on in the drafting process. My main character would have a birthday between Acts 2 and 3 ("another year older and...") and I liked the flat acceptance of it. Yeah, she would say, I'm older, but damned if I'm any smarter... except that of course she IS smarter and better at the end. Indeed, her awareness of her failings is part of that growth. Knowing she is not wise makes her wise... something like that.
My last round of beta readers raised the topic of title when I was long past thinking about it. It was depressing, they said. And it was untrue, because the main character is absolutely wiser, and while she might be self-deprecating about it, she certainly isn't blind to her emotional growth.
Hmmm. Good points.
Because Hemingway is referenced throughout the book, I went back to his collection of short stories and tried to find a title among his words. One beta reader liked "stronger at the broken places" but I felt that was too melodramatic. I liked "the end of something" but my readers again thought that was too depressing. "White elephants" would unfortunately make most people think of a sale before they thought of the short story or even the idiom. And after further thought, I wondered if I really wanted to reference a master in the title of the book and risk having myself unfavorably compared to him. Maybe not.
Since names are a big theme in the book (in particular, names as a reflection of identity), I next went online and read through every name-based expression I could find. Both English-language idioms and translated ones, paying particulae attention to anything Japanese in origin, since Japanese language and culture plays a large role in my character's life as well. In Name Only was, in my opinion, the best fit.** It indicates that there's something deeper than the name on the surface (whatever that name might be).
Who knows if it will make it to the shelves with that title, but at least I hope it's sending the right kind of signals about the book's content as I search for an agent.
WHAT ARE YOUR TITLES? What do you like/dislike about them? Are there any published books that you think have particularly good or bad titles? I have to tell you, it doesn't matter how critically acclaimed the book is, I have never been able to read page one of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The title makes me die a little bit inside, every time I read it.
* Anecdote from Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees.
** The phrase What's in a name? is in my query letter but I felt it was wrong for a title. I didn't want a question as the title, it's too well-known, and there's that tricky referencing-a-better-writer-than-you problem again.