Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Good Title Goes a Long Way

As I imagine most writers do, I try to put a lot of thought into my titles. I find it difficult to even begin a new project without some kind of working title. Yet a story's true title may not show itself until the writing is nearly complete; often, I don't know myself what a work is about until I'm on the final draft, so how can I know what to call it?

For most of its creation, my first book was known as Plague Psalms - a weak attempt at combining its two main elements: a large scale viral quarantine, and a smaller, but equally relevant, religious quarantine. I knew that wouldn't be its title in the end, but for a long time I couldn't come up with anything better.

Then the word "gospel" came to mind, and I looked it up in the dictionary, where it was defined as "good news." At that moment, the statement "The good news for the damned is the bond of hope it creates," which the minister and suspected terrorist, Samuel Elliot, says to his sons one day, emerged within my little brain. It was the epiphany I was waiting for - simultaneously I had found my novel's theme, and its title, Gospel for the Damned. That statement became the cohesive thread which tied all the other sub-themes and motifs together, and the title was my novel's true title.

For some time, the book I'm currently writing - about cowboys and silent films - had the working title of Cowboy Flickers ("flickers" being a derogatory term for silent movies). I never had my heart set on it, though; it was too superficial, probably because I hadn't yet written enough of it to know what the story was about. After deciding to make one of the characters a poet, who also suffers ever worsening episodes of dementia, I composed a handful of poems penned by him. The title The Quieting West found its way from my cowboy's crude lyrics to also be the novel's title, as though it was always meant to be.

Some titles that come to mind as favorites are: A Prayer for Owen Meany, Flowers for Algernon, The Island of the Day Before, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ask my wife and she'll quickly respond with Crystal Singer. I'm sure you have some favorites of your own, as well.

Not so favorite titles? Any of the kind that leave nothing to think about, everything the story is about is in the title, without an ounce of ambiguity. The kind you see on the Lifetime Channel, for instance. The "My Husband's Third Mistress"-sort, or "Amy: Suicide of a Pregnant Teenage Paraplegic."

Sadly, one of my favorite books by John Irving, A Widow for One Year, is also one of my least favorite titles. (And I'm sure Mr. Irving couldn't give a rat's tail about what I think.)


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