Titles

No, not job titles or aristocratic titles or even the title to my finally paid-off Forester that arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.

Titles of stories, novels, essays . . . especially the title of a piece I posted to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, yesterday morning. The post was ready to go except for the blank box at the top where the title was supposed to go.

That blank box was staring at me.

Some titles come easy. Not this one, but I was more than ready to go walking with my dog. I typed “Rootless” in the blank box, hit Publish, gave it one last read-through for typos, and logged off.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

“Rootless” wasn’t a bad title. The blog post is about two different trees, a birch and an oak, that I pass often on my walks. Both trees were felled by storms, the oak by a 2011 hurricane, the birch by one of this past winter’s blizzards. Both remained partly attached to their trunks, and both continued to leaf out after they fell. Both have since been severed from their roots. One is dying, the other dead.

As I walked, another title came to me: “Two Downed Trees.” Bingo.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak's trunk. Its leafing days are over.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak’s trunk. Its leafing days are over.

It’s nice when that happens.

Some titles come easy. Others come hard. Some don’t come at all — you have to go looking for them.

When titles come early, they often help shape the story. The epigraph for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, gave the novel its title and kept me honest while I was writing it. It’s a remark by the late Grace Paley (1922–2007), a wonderful poet, fiction writer, and political activist.

“If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place,” she said in an interview, “you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

I added some literal mud to the novel so readers wouldn’t be disappointed.

Novel #2, in progress, needed a working title so I could stop referring to it as “my current project” or “the novel I’m working on.” I started calling it Wolfie, after one of the main characters, a dog. That may turn out to be the actual title. Who knows? It’s definitely the one to beat.

The novel on the back burner has been The Squatters’ Speakeasy almost since it first flickered into my mind. This is the project that stalled out because of its “surfeit of subplots,” one of which has to do with a bunch of musicians and artists who take over a trophy house and turn it into, well, a sort of speakeasy. I love the title. Trouble is, as the novel bubbles along on the back burner, the speakeasy subplot is fading into the background. I don’t know what the main plots and themes will turn out to be. Will they include a squatters’ speakeasy? Damned if I know — yet.

So where do your titles come from? Do they come easy, or do they come hard? How do you know when you’ve got a good one?

Leave your comments here. If you’re shy, feel free to use the handy-dandy form below. Seriously — you don’t have to be shy to use the form, and it doesn’t have to be about titles either.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Titles

  1. I am the absolute worst at titling things. It’s the one and only thing I hate about writing. I can’t title anything until after I’ve written it, and even then I struggle with its appeal, whether or not it would pique the interest of a potential reader, or if it reveals too much. Or, of course, if it’s just plain stupid. Titles to me are a nightmare.

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    • Journalists usually don’t have to write their own headlines. This is a blessing. Working for a weekly newspaper, I got to write heads for other people’s stories. Much depended on how much space was available: three columns, one line? one column, two lines? And it usually had to be done ASAP. I think that encouraged me to “just do it” and move on.

      Do you have a writing buddy who might be able to help out from time to time?

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      • I’m not going to lie, I considered journalism just for that reason! However, once I explored the idea a bit further I realized it wasn’t for me.
        I do however work in a Writing Center at the college I’m going to, which provides me a few people to help with such tasks 🙂 I do have another friend who helps me with editing as well, and she’s excellent at titles. Thank goodness for buddy systems!

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  2. My titles have come hard. Very hard. Well, that’s not quite accurate: My working titles served just fine for me, but when it came time to put the books out into the world, I was alone in liking those titles. I surveyed friends and colleagues using lists of alternatives and never got anything resembling consensus. I still cringe when speaking the titles that were finally decided upon. And I still can’t come up with better ones, or get consensus on any alternatives. Yet my next book, which is starting to bubble and may emerge in another year or two, began with a title. Go figure.

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    • If The Squatters’ Speakeasy ends up not working for the NIP it’s currently affiliated with, I might have to write something for it. I like it that much. Plus I’ve got the domain name. 🙂

      Long time ago (1989–1991) I edited three good anthologies of original women’s f/sf. I liked all the titles: Memories and Visions, The Women Who Walk Through Fire, and Dreams in a Minor Key: Tales of Magic Realism by Women. Except the publisher flipped title and subtitle on the last one, without telling me: I didn’t learn about it till I saw the catalogue copy. I never forgave them.

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