Thursday, April 10, 2008

Work in Progress: Titling Woes, Part 10,017

I have alluded several times to my difficulties in titling (here and here), which are especially apparent with this novel-in-progress (currently called Prodigal Daughters). Things are getting especially anxious (i.e. desperate) now, as there is a tiny glimmer of light at the end of my revision tunnel. Also, to be truthful, I think that as torturous as thinking about titles is, it may be slightly less torturous than doing the revising work—in short, obsessing about titles can be a nice procrastination technique. I’ve successfully banned myself from thinking about titles for the past month or so, but for some reason, I’ve delved back into my obsession. Here’s how I know I’ve truly gone over the deep end on this topic:

1. I spent several hours one afternoon reading the Bible. It’s said (by whom, I don’t know) that many of the best titles come from the Bible. (And, my book IS loosely based on the parable of the prodigal son, so there is a link.) The only problem is that the Bible is a VERY LONG BOOK. Where, I wondered, is the “good titles section”? I went through Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the psalms. Some very lovely writing—some excellent titles that have already been taken (House of Mirth, Inherit the Wind—who knew?)—and a number of phrases I added to my list that now seem stupid. Perhaps this afternoon with the Bible will be my ticket into Heaven…but it wasn’t the “ah-ha” moment I’ve been desperately seeking.

2. Sadly, my knowledge of Shakespeare is primarily from college, way-back-when. But I hear he’s “pretty good” and that many titles have come from his work. So, another hour or so reading through various Shakespearean quotes web site (who has time to organize these things…whoever you are, THANK YOU!). Anyway, yes, it’s remarkable to see all the “clich├ęs” he coined for the first time, and I added some potential titles to my list, though nothing was “ah-ha.”

3. I’m so desperate that my husband takes pity on me and lets me ramble on endlessly about my pages of title options. In an attempt to help (or shut me up), he mentions a childhood game that he used to play. I seize upon its (perceived) immense metaphorical possibilities and write up a small scene that explores this childhood game. To include this scene as written would actually significantly change the structure of the ENTIRE NOVEL. Yet, I’m not discounting this possibility.

4. We go to the Arena Stage to see an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s masterwork Death of a Salesman. What does my mind linger on—the wonderful performance by the actress who played the wife, a difficult role? The hauntingly empty picture frames used evocatively in the set? Willy Loman’s universality, still, all these years later? The complexity of the characters? The taut writing? No: I focus on the program notes, telling us that the original producer thought the title was “Too morbid and insisted it would drive away audiences.” So, they took a survey, and as Miller remembered, when asked”…if they would go to a play with my title…98 percent said absolutely not.” The producer advocated the title Free and Clear, which references a line late in the play where wife Linda tells dead Willy that the mortgage is paid off and they own the house “free and clear.” Luckily, director Elia Kazan demanded that they stick with the title (actually, Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem) or he’d walk.

5. And is this a coincidence? Here’s the entry from today’s Writer's Almanac: “It was on this day in 1925 that F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby was published… Fitzgerald worked on the novel every day that summer, writing in pencil, drinking Coca-Cola and gin, and reading Keats whenever he needed inspiration. He struggled with the title and considered calling it Under the Red, White and Blue, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and The High-Bouncing Lover. When he sent the first draft to his editor Maxwell Perkins, just five months after he'd started writing, he thought it should be called Trimalchio in West Egg or just Trimalchio. Perkins suggested The Great Gatsby.

6. Finally, hoping for a magical “ah-ha” moment that would make for a great anecdote on the promotion circuit, I typed “novel title” into Google…as if the perfect title might actually show up!! (Google is pretty amazing….) Instead, adding to my woes, I got the Lulu Titlescorer, an addictive, scientifically-based, analytical program that claims to tell you what chance your book has of becoming a best-seller based on the title alone. Prodigal Daughters puts me at 41.4 percent, whereas The Place Beneath, from The Merchant of Venice, give me only 26.5 percent. Greater Matters (from Antony and Cleopatra) is mopping up with 69 percent.

The Bottom Line

So, the bottom line is that right now I have a “final” list of 31 possible titles. (Down from 150 or so.)

--My offer of $25 (and eternal gratitude) to anyone who comes up with the title I use on the final book still stands. (Details here. Yes, I’m serious.)

--Or, if you’d like to check out the current crop of titles, and offer comments, I’m game. Send me an email, and I’ll send you the list. I view this not as desperation, but being smart: Look how helpful Maxwell Perkins and Elia Kazan were!


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