Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Art of Titling is Hard to Master

Writing is a brutal business. At its worst it involves staring at the computer screen for hours hitting the “k” button repeatedly as a coping mechanism for dealing with the blank idiocy of your mind. At its best it means refusing to shower for days because you’ll lose the ideas if you don’t get them out now.

If you do manage to finish something (usually at an ungodly hour the day before an important meeting), it’s like pulling a squalling baby from the womb. The story is wet and wrinkly. It smells. It’s covered in blood. It’s perilously close to ejecting blood/urine/fecal matter all over you.

And the worst part has yet to come.

It needs a name. A title.

The untitled masses

Ideally a title should wrap up the piece in an elegant package. More than elegant. Seductive. A good title sings out from deep within a bookshelf to passing stranger, who, without quite meaning to, will pick up the book, caress its stiff spine until it shudders open baring its pages.

It’s enough to make you want to stuff the story back in the wretched place it came from.

Yet, somehow titles like this do exist. Whenever Owl finds one she has to talk herself out of tattooing it on her wrists in 72 pt font.  

Some of her favorites:

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
  • Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami
  • Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
Murakami is hands down the grandmaster titler. His titles are commands to open up his books. What’s a wind-up bird? What does the wind sound like? And who doesn’t want to dance, dance, dance? It doesn’t matter that his books answer none of these questions. The titles are a promise of better things to come, and therefore, irresistible.

Owl has considered cutting out Murakami’s heart and eating it in an attempt acquire his skills.

  • The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Owl loves The Beautiful and the Damned because it’s more than an elegant phrase, it could have printed on Fitzgerald’s calling card as his M.O. All of Fitzgerald’s characters were beautiful and damned. And so was he.

  • The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Owl’s favorite title. It conjures up images of an old man cleaning up after a party,
picking up the abandoned paper hats, turning over the discarded paper in his hands as the sun sets over his fading memories. The sadness is unbearable and exquisite, and in fact, that is the book exactly.

As the story goes Ishiguro didn’t actually come up with it, he was sitting on an Australian beach with literary greats such as Michael Ondaatje and tossing around potential titles. Ondaatje suggested something like Sirloin: A Juicy Tale and then someone (the name escapes Owl) mentioned a phrase about dreams and translated it into English as The Remains of the Day.

However, Owl is unable to attend Aussie beach parties with genius writers and has had to resort to other means. Her standard approach used to be type garbage at the top of the screen, write story, forget about title, send story to appropriately bribed relative/friend to be read and then have conversations like this:

Father: I read your story. Why did you see fit to call it Lechuga-Wooga?
Owl: Um, that’s a typo for “The Apple.”
Father: This story is about a duck who commits suicide by getting sucked into a jet engine. What apple?
Owl: Maybe I’ll change it to “The Regurgitating Apple.”
Father: …
Owl: Regurgitate is such a great verb.
Father: But the apple?!
Owl: Artistic license.

In an effort to improve, Owl has developed the following strategies.

(1)   The + Noun

Owl reads her story, identifies the most commonly occurring noun and puts it on top of the page. This leads to lots of stories with titles like “The Jam Pot.” But sometimes leads to stories with titles like “The Person.” This is when Owl just shuts her eyes, flips open a dictionary and points, so “The Person” becomes “The Vesicle.” If Owl feels really fancy she’ll sometimes add an adjective to the mix. Like, “The Sad Vesicle.”

(2)   Phrase

Owl picks out the most interesting phrase in the piece and slaps it on top of the story. Results may vary and include:

  • Reality’s Hairy Gut
  • Inviting Demons Over for Scones and Tea
  • Mushroom Porn is Exceedingly Difficult to Find
Owl is a little confused about the last one, but there is indeed a file titled “Mushroom Porn is Exceedingly Difficult to Find” in her stories file, and apparently she wrote it. She’s a little scared to open it.

(3)   Google-fu

When all else fails, Owl uses strategy (1) to pick a noun and then dumps it into Google with either: “quotes about…”, “poems about…” or “song lyrics about...”.

Owl worries about being clichéd so she skips over the most familiar part of the quote/poem/song and nab the part no one remembers. For example, instead of using “The Cruelest Month” from T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” she settled on “Lilacs Out of the Dead Land.” Because obviously everyone will has memorized “The Wasteland” and will immediately understand the Elliot allusion Owl was going for, but simultaneously absolve her from T.S. Elliot sized expectations. Right? …Right.

(4)   Bastardization

If (3) is complete fail—for example, there is precious little quotable material on ankylosauruses—, Owl will steal someone else’s title and um, bastardize alter it so she doesn’t get slapped with plagiarism. And thus Owl has a whole host of titles like Letters from a Young Biologist, Letters by a Young Poet, Letters from a Young Owl,…Owl needs to look into stealing from different titles.

Owl is in desperate need of help. What are your favorite titles? What are favorite titles you’ve written? How do you title your stories? Tips? Tricks? Suggestions?


  1. ...the other half...

    I don't think about titles so much as what the title signals. I think different style titles signal different types of books...but the more I think about it, the less I can figure out what the distinction actually is. I like "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" but it doesn't signal Sherlock Holmes mystery to me, it signals general fiction. And when I first heard "The Time Traveler's Wife" I thought of scifi, not general fiction.

    I like "Trickster's Choice" and "Trickster's Queen" as titles. The word trickster brings up images of coyote and trickster gods, I suppose like it's meant to. "The Game of Thrones" and "The Wheel of Time" both bring up giant, epic, lots-of-characters, story arcs, which they are.

  2. *evil glare at blogger* I should stop writing such long comments.

    Titles are interesting. I need a title in order to get into a story -- I don't always keep the same title, but for some reason I need a "working title" in order to write. Midway, for instance, went from Midway to The Kiss to Lost Thyme back to Midway. A story I'm writing with a friend has gone from Apocalyptica to Bricks and Bones to Bricks and Cross to Wildfire and we've barely even started it. Normally I pick a noun from the story, not necessarily the most used noun, but the one I think the story is most about, and use that as the title. If I'm feeling adventurous I use a verb.

    We had a titling exercise in class the other day and my favorite tips from the exercise were: a title that begins with "on," a title that's a lie about the story, a title that's a question, and a title that begins with a word ending in "ing." I also like using lines from poems or songs, but unless the artist/author is dead I run into the question of plagiarizing.

  3. Not that I'm a writer, but I like the Google-Fu technique. Not only does it conjure up some evocative, vaguely familiar phrases, but everytime I come across something like that I feel like the author is uber-smart to come up with an obscure line that I should know but didn't. Plus, then you can use the source poem/song as an epigraph and feel all the more brilliant that your work now also has an epigraph.

    And even though I can't fathom what it refers to, I will say that I, for one, am glad that mushroom porn is hard to find.

  4. Did blogspot delete all the lovely comments? :(

  5. Yeah. It was down for a good twenty four hours and it deleted this entry too. :( Am kinda wondering why people love blogspot so much.

  6. I only just got here :-( I missed all the comments!

    Let us know what's in the Mushroom porn file, when you muster up the courage to open it!

    I find the "The + Noun" method of titling quite handy, I must say.

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  8. I enjoyed this post...And yes, titling..A very significant and often challenging few words... I sometimes change the title e.g. online to my virtual audience, or a real life reading for a local audience, with the purpose of making the main idea more accessible to quite different target audiences here..
    Of course if I was a serious and public figure, celebrity poet etc, this practice would not serve me. In the meantime I have total command and freedom with my poems..

  9. @Barbara

    Thank you! Titling drives me mad. It's so important, often times the title is what will encourage someone to pick up a book, and yet, I'm so careless titling.

    And I'm very impressed that you have different audiences and get to read to them. :)