Monday, April 14, 2008

Titling Angst, Part 10,018

Thanks to those who responded to my title angst (still ongoing, alas). Writer Richard Goodman (who wrote for the blog here) was kind enough to send along “Finding a Great Title,” the chapter from his new writing book, The Soul of Creative Writing, that is all about titles! Needless to say I pounced on that, especially the part where he advocated being obsessive (okay, not in those exact words—more like, it’s perfectly fine—and necessary—to spend time to think about your title in a thorough manner…so I’m not “obsessive” anymore, I’m “thorough!”).

And I thought the following story about how he approached the task of coming up with a title for his book, French Dirt, was amusing, instructive, and dare I say calming?

Here’s what he wrote:

When I was trying to come up with a title for my own book, I presented myself with three main goals. I didn’t think it was right, or possible, to try for more. That, I reasoned, would simply weaken any title as it tried to satisfy more and more requirements, like a decision made by committee. My book is about living in a small village in the South of France and about having a vegetable garden there. The garden helped me connect to the villagers, and to the village, and to the land of Provence. What I told myself I should accomplish with my title was

1. To let people know the book was about France.
2. To give them some idea that it was about the land.
3. That the title be brief, and strong.

And, it goes without saying, I wanted it to be unforgettable.

I spent three days working on this. It was a wonderful time. I was house-sitting for a friend. No one knew where I was. I had hours of uninterrupted time in which to concentrate. My book was finished (or so I thought at the time). A year’s good hard work was behind me. I was done. Now, all I had to do was to write the title.

All the while I was trying to think up a title, I tried to keep the spirit, the soul, of my book within me, close at hand. I let that guide me. I came up with two words: French Dirt. To me, those two words accomplished what it was I had set out to do. I stopped there.

My agent hated it, and so did my editor. I was completely thrown off by this. My agent even went so far as to say, “My mother hated that title, and she’s never wrong.” They were so certain it was bad, that I began to have my doubts. To appease my editor, I tried to write other titles. She didn’t like any of them, and neither did I. So, we temporarily dropped the matter. The title didn’t have to be decided on right away, and so all of us, gratefully, put that issue aside. Some four months later, as the time neared for the manuscript to go to press, I reluctantly brought the title question up again.

“Uh, what about the title?” I asked my editor.

In her singy Southern voice she said, “Oh, hell, you might as well call it French Dirt. That’s what everyone down here is calling it anyway!” What I hadn’t realized was that as the manuscript circulated amongst the staff at my publisher’s, the people who looked at it had to call it something. Since the only name it ever had was French Dirt, that’s what they called it. I guess after a few months, it didn’t sound that bad to my editor. “You have to give me a subtitle though!” she ordered. “Otherwise, people will think it’s an erotic novel, or some damn thing.” And that’s how the book ended up being titled French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

~~From The Soul of Creative Writing by Richard Goodman


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