Titles are hard. For me. I don’t know about other writers, but for me, titles are invariably the last thing that I write. I have been stuck on titles for ten year stretches.
“I cannot start this right until I get the title right.” And I wouldn’t get the title right. So I wouldn’t write. It was really hard for me. As a writer. Because that is the scariest thing. I am a writer. Whether I write or no. But, according to Nanowrimo:
“What determines a writer from a non-writer? Writing.”
-Weekly pep talk
I think I have been a writer since I was very young. I was always better at copying stories though. Writing around the edges and in the margins:
- I wondered what Rosalind must have been like in Romeo & Juliet.
- I wondered where the Grey Lands were in The Lord of the Rings
- I wondered why Sam had to stay behind
I thought this made me a cheater. A copier. I don’t think that that is the case. It means that I am a writer. Just a specific kind of writer.
There once was a story:
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. It is a story without words. When asked to write a whole five paragraphs in third grade, I chose to write the words to this book. I was ridiculed mercilessly for it.
I did the same thing in middle school, in high school, in college. I re-imagined the stories from other character’s perspectives. I rewrite the world into something that I find more satisfying.
But, this has only ever received derision and criticism.
Until I read Wicked. Gregory Maguire’s entire career is based on this idea: reimaging fables from the villain’s perspective and seeing what that does to the fable. He does it with:
- Wicked: a look at the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz
- Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: the Cinderella fable from The Brothers Grimm
- Lost: supposedly a retelling of A Christmas Carol for aught I know
The point is, here was an author who was internationally acclaimed for doing precisely what I had done as a child. I couldn’t believe it. Somebody was like me. Yet again, I felt like it belonged to someone else; that was someone else’s shtick and I should suck it up and get my own.
Hence my consternation with titles. If you have your own original title, then the work will have to be yours. It couldn’t be anybody else’s. Because it is yours. From that title is born the seed that creates the entire book. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?…
No. The answer is quite simply no. The title is not the seed for the creation. For me, it is the fruit. The very last thing that blossoms only when everything else has had time to grow is the Title.
To give a clear example:
Harry Potter is called just that. Harry Potter. Why? Because that is the protagonist’s name. Easy. Right? But, what is the seed of the book? What is it all about? Is it about Harry? Well…yes, but also no. It isn’t really about Harry. Then, who is it about? The question is misleading.
The answer is the book is not about a who, but a what. A very particular sort of a what: an idea. The seed of the book is the idea: Love conquers Death. Every character, every interaction, every moment comes back to this idea that love is stronger than death and in the final conflict between the characters who epitomize Love (Harry) and Death (Voldemort-literally means “flight of death”) love triumphs as death rebounds upon itself.
But, that would be a really terrible title: Love conquers Death by: J.K. Rowling. Instead, the title stems from the idea. And the idea states that Love conquers Death, therefore Harry gets top billing in the entire series:
- Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone
- Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets
- Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
- Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows
- when it comes to titles, do not start with them.
- aim at the idea with your title
- it should act like a keystone, balancing your entire piece and bringing weight to it.
- don’t worry about it. Titles come when they do. They’re fickle, take it from someone who has been grappling with them for years.