Monday, March 4, 2013
Every story begins with a title. That may not come until the story is written, but sometimes it can be the trigger that gets the tale moving. Creating the final title can often take longer than writing an essay or story.
The title of this essay came to me while I was thinking about what I wanted to say today. I’ve been working on a new story, a police procedural. I did the last rewrite a day or so ago, but it was still untitled. There has been a working title, course; you can’t file it unless you can find it. For me that part of the process begins with trying to distill the essence of what the piece is about into a single word or maybe three or six words. It really depends on the story and subject and audience.
My first novel, Accidents of Time and Place, summed up the final draft in my mind. About a man who becomes an accidental hero, the book really is about people who go through life without a real plan, simply following whatever lead opens before them, making the most of opportunity, often because the alternatives are unpleasant or dangerous or boring or unappetizing. Much like picking from a menu in a restaurant: you may sit down knowing exactly what you want, but discover that it isn’t served in the place where you are eating. You then make your choices based on what seems best of what there is. Of course, it is also possible to simply sit down at a table and eat whatever is being served. There are places in the world where that is what restaurants do.
With a piece of writing, there are several things a title should accomplish. It should be intriguing, clever, memorable. There are books about everything these days; the title is there to help you choose a specific one. The writer works hard to commit authorship. The title is the key to pulling readers to the story.
One way I approach the task is to simply start with the working title, then write riffs on that. Usually by about number five or six on the list, new words in new order begin to assert themselves. The new story is an example. I began with Blue Byrd, Bye Bye, because of a character with a name that I thought was clever. As I wrote the story I really stopped thinking about title. As I approached the place in the story where I would write “The End,” I was ready to take that up again, because the working title didn’t seem very intriguing. It may be memorable, but that isn’t enough. It must, at least in my mind, have some perhaps indefinable quality that makes a reader want to go beyond the title.
Anyway, after writing about a dozen-and-a-half possible titles, I finally settled on a variation of one, thanks to input from a group of writers with whom I meet more-or-less regularly. The new story is called Walk, Run, Fall. It will be part of a collection of police/crime/mystery stories I hope to have ready for you to read soon. I don’t have a publication date yet, but as soon as I do, you’ll read it here.
All I need is a title.