One of the most common questions I encounter as a writer is how I come up with my titles. Mostly, I just shrug and say that at some point they just seem to arrive and I call a work titled.
But that’s not entirely true, even if I’m tempted to cite a common writer’s cop-out. The fact is, while I’m not obsessive over titles, I put a lot of thought into the first words a potential reader sees. A good title, I think, should do three things: first, it should help me complete the work and bring closure to the project; two, it should add something substantive to the work, such as a hint towards a key point, a nod to the figurative goodies that might be found, or a tribute of some kind; third, it should get potential readers excited about what they’re going to discover in the story I tell.
Numbered list aside (narrowing the outcome down to three things was the result of writing this blog post), I don’t have a formula. It’s a fairly organic process with a smattering of intentionality. The outcomes seem to “arrive” after I put some thought into the title: meaning and bigger things often come out of the love and effort and sweat that gets put in to the work’s creation, but that extra reflection can build on artistry as well.
That’s the philosophy. For practical purposes, I have two distinct phases: the working title phase and the final title phase. The working title phase happens when I’m researching or drafting and stays on the project until I’m ready to think about a more final solution, and can come from almost anywhere: first words, significant character, setting, inspirational text, etc. The final titling comes after the first draft and lands somewhere during or after my secondary revisions: at some point, I just get the feeling I need to find the right title and then I get thinking.
To illustrate, let me describe the evolution of the titles for my three novel projects that are in various stages of development.
The Mural: is the working title for my new project, a pilgrimage tale about a man who seeks to complete a mural his dead mother had begun many years before. I have a feeling that at some point a new title will emerge from what happens in the work, but I’ve been referring to it as The Mural in my notes and preparations, so the working title will remain until after drafting. Easy. (For now.)
Aeden’s Wake: in this case, my working title ended up being the final title. As I was completing my first round of revisions, I tried a number of other combinations but kept coming back to the reality that, although subtle, Aeden’s Wake (the fictional town where my protagonist lives and has to uncover what happened to her family) was important enough for the reader to be aware of as they moved through the novel. The story arc follows Rhoda’s journey, but her town provides a number of the colourful threads woven into the story’s tapestry. Try as I might for a title that might seem more profound or weighty, I kept returning to Aeden’s Wake as accomplishing everything I needed it to, and that overthinking it was diminishing its impact. So, it stayed, and I'm glad it did. (FYI, it’s pronounced “Eden.” Intrigued? I hope so.)
Old Habits: if you’ve been reading my previous postings, you’ll know that Old Habits was the working title of my recently drafted novel, which traces the lives of six characters and the supernatural connection that follows them through twenty-four years of story arc. You’ll also know how unhappy I was with the working title, which came to be as a result of the first time I saved the file in Word: the opening lines of the novel were, “Old habits die slowly. The old habits of soldiers take even longer to fade.” So much changed throughout (including that awful first line) that I knew it would need a new title when I was finished the draft: old habits, while a prominent motif, just didn’t seem enough somehow. So, after my first round of revisions, a new title emerged, What Steps We Carry, a mashup of the following lines: “What infinitesimal impact weak people have on history, the limping, lurching steps they take through life, the insignificant weight of the memories they carry, the hollow words they use when no one is listening.” I read the lines a few times and the title practically leapt out of them.
Nothing is sacred in writing and publishing, of course, so who knows if I’ll always be satisfied with the title. But at this point, it nails down what I try to do with titles: it reflects the journeys and regrets and successes of all six of my characters and seems to bear the weight of decisions they (and we, hence the shift to first person) make. I’m very happy with it.
Does it work? I hope so. I really, really hope so.