Thursday, January 3, 2008

Work in Progress: Titles

See? I can’t even come up with a good title for this post. I am TERRIBLE at titles. Some people are naturals (I’ve noticed that many poets are excellent at titles; I knew someone who claimed to have a thick file of titles just waiting for a poem). Not me. I have written down a few titles that I thought might make appropriate story titles, but they’re really not all that good either. Plus, that was way back when when it seemed like a good idea to spend my time and energy concocting a 20-page story around a catchy phrase. (Okay, I confess to a certain fondness for the title—though not the resulting story—that came from one such experiment: “In the Desert Heat, I Burn for You, Burn for You.”)

Ever since I started this third novel, the working title has been Prodigal Daughters, because, well, the book is loosely based upon the parable of the prodigal son except with daughters. (Perhaps this overly literal mind is part of the titling problem?)

Now that the reality seems to be that I’ll actually one day finish this book, I seem to have latched onto my title as a new obsession (replacing the “no one will like my book” fears that are far more terrifying and unmanageable). I have at least a hundred new options, most of them significantly worse than Prodigal Daughters. My husband has learned to run from the room when I get that certain look in my eye and start a sentence with, “How about….?” (He has found the title he likes and is sticking with it, responding to all my queries with a shake of his head: “Still not as good as my idea.”)

To find all these title options, in the past few weeks I have googled: Scottish quotations and folktales; Chamber of Commerce slogans; quotations about forgiveness, estrangement, point of view, and the past; Robert Burns; and Abraham Lincoln. I have skimmed a book of science factoids; read the box of a fancy single-malt scotch; examined the song lyrics of the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads, Pet Sounds, and “Begin the Beguine”; offered my writing group $25 cash to anyone who comes up with the title; offered my husband $25 cash if he comes up with a title; and spent all hours of insomnia keeping myself awake longer by obsessively running through title options in my head.

I even had a dream in which I was worried about what to name a new food blog I dreamed I was starting. When I woke up, my first thought was, “High on the Hog,” which, yes, would be an absolutely delightful title for a food blog but which has no relevance to my novel. (Just my subconscious getting back at me for calling it surly back here.)

I know this is the point where I am supposed to offer some pithy tips about how to come up with titles and reveal that I have now come up with the perfect title and rewarded myself with the $25 cash.

Alas, no.

Instead, when I was in New York, we went to see Jack Kerouac’s original scroll of On the Road (very cool) and I read that he had come up with his own obsessive list of 100 titles before coming up with On the Road (which seems so obvious and perfect). And last night when I was reading the new issue of the AWP Chronicle, I came across this in an interview with Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires. The title of his recent novel, The Stone that the Builder Refused, comes up and Bell says, “There was a feeling that the title was too long, which I shared to some extent, and my agent and my editor and I set out to find something better if we could. We got into a three-way discussion—all well-intentioned people—that went on for weeks, and we were coming up with the most terrible titles for this book. They were just awful…Beth [poet Elizabeth Spires, Bell’s wife] encouraged me to stand up for my original title, which was better in her eyes than anything the ad-hoc committee had come up with.”

So, I suffer, but I do not suffer alone. I’ll keep you posted. And the $25 cash offer is still on the table, BTW.

(Okay—now that you’re depressed and doubting your own [undoubtedly perfectly fine] ability to title, here's a previous post about my titling angst, with a helpful link written by someone who DOES know how to title.)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.