In my volunteer work for a disaster relief agency, I go away for weeks at a time, and meet people who are experiencing the worst weeks of their lives. And when I get home, I am an essentially useless collection of self-regenerating cells. Ask my husband, who bears the brunt of this transformation from capable human to meat puppet. In the time it takes for me to get from airport to home, I become the neediest creature in his universe: I cannot fetch nourishment for myself. I can barely speak. Expecting me to be social or coherent is silliness.
I get a similar sensation when it comes time to think up a title for anything I’ve written. After the hard sprint of writing the story or essay that the title’s supposed to be on, I lose all steam. Truly. I get up from my desk, wave my arms around, do a handstand or two, trying to run blood to my brain.
I go for a walk; I play with the puppy; I do all the things I would ordinarily do to generate some good ideas. Nothing helps. Witness the crappy title for a short story I wrote about a worker at the American consulate in Mexico City: “Consularity.”
Yeah. A critique partner wrote, “You can do better,” and gave it a smiley face, but it still stung, because I knew the title was terrible. I was left feeling like I hadn’t even tried, and you know what? I think that was spot-on the right feeling. Or! Oh, good gravy: How about the title I drew up for an essay I wrote that took a hard look at sport and my ever-lasting desire to be competent, and touched on the themes of leadership and tokenism, all in 9,000 neat words? “Faking It.”
Ugh, I know.
Look, after you’ve been banging your head against the wall of creativity for days or weeks or months or years trying to make the perfect short story or essay, the last thing you want to do is think up something that sums up the work perfectly. And actually, titles are trickier than that, aren’t they? You want something that sums up the story or essay – or describes its theme – while, at the same time, draws the reader in.
As usual, it’s easier to criticize something that you already know isn’t ideal. But instead of a litany of cautionary tales, I wanted to share some tips that might make your search for a title better than mine always goes.
Do you remember those “Magic Eye” puzzles, the ones that looked like they were just a random collection of dots and colors? You were supposed to stare at them, let your eyes fuzz out a little, until suddenly, bang! An image appears. They’re called autostereograms, and the creators explained that you were meant to look not at the image, but through it, in order to see the image behind the image.
This is a convenient way to assess your work if you’re struggling for a title. A lot of writers I know have to gain some distance from their short story, essay, or poem before they can see the theme of it.
In Tahoma Literary Review’s #14, writer Bruce Ducker (who turned 80 last year, by the way) has a story that’s a modern-day re-crafting of Scheherazade’s story, from 1001 Nights. In it, the hero spins a tale for a security guard working the night shift. The love story he tells takes place across the street, in a diner that really does exist. Originally, the story came to us titled “Love in Parallel Universes,” which…OK, describes what’s happening in the story but ignores the magic, the attraction, of the world that Ducker is gifting us.
By giving us the setting of the story in the title, Ducker wasn’t doing much to draw the reader in. And the title was also misleading: When I first read it, I was expecting something in the science fiction or hard fantasy genre. Finally, the original title also gives away something that should have been held close to the chest, in this editor’s opinion: Neither character (the narrator nor the heroine in the story he tells the security guard) even knows yet that they’re looking for love. The title robbed the story of an element of surprise.
Ducker and I hammered out a few critical things over the phone: I wanted to see something that spoke to the buried romance in the narrator’s life. (“Elevator-shaft Fables”? Ugh.) I thought something concrete would offset that romance nicely, like maybe a reference to the diner itself. (“The Diner Across the Street”? Meh.) We thought about the possibility of addressing the Scheherazade touchpoint. (“1001 Midtown Nights”?)
The title Ducker eventually sent us knocked me breathless for a second, for its all-encompassing nature: “The Fabulist of Midtown.” It all came together when we looked through the story.
Sometimes, you can find a great title in the details of the story or essay itself. Look at things like catchphrases your character is fond of using, or objects or settings that have particular significance.
One of my writing coaching clients is struggling to come up with a name for her soon-to-be memoir of a close friendship. All of her previously selected titles were way too general, too broad: They all ended up sounding really generic, like they could belong to anyone’s story of a friendship. But as she recalled more and more about this particular relationship, she remembered that her friend used to sign her cards and letters a certain way: “From your secret admirer.” That gave us something concrete to hang on to, and although the title isn’t set in stone yet, it’s such a strong indicator of the personality of this particular friend that I can’t see us not using it in some way, shape, or form moving forward.
The other thing this title helped us to do is shape the actual memoir itself: My client’s previous title ideas were, in part, too generic because she hadn’t yet honed on in the exact thing that made this particular friendship so special. Now, though, with this quirk of her friend’s floating around in her head, she can start unpacking something pretty specific to this friend: Why did her friend choose to sign off this way? What did it mean that she wanted my client to feel like she had a secret admirer? Digging into her sense of humor will provide yet another couple of chapters, easily.
Whether you decide to go big to find your title or poke around in the details of your work, try to avoid titles that reflect a lot of loaded social baggage.
Picking a title shouldn’t always come at the beginning of the creative process, but if you find yourself stumbling on one early on, write it out. Stick it on your bulletin board. Maybe it’ll give you even more than just a title.
I’ve only ever written one short story in which the title came to me quickly and relatively painlessly, and that’s for a story that hasn’t even sold yet. But for this one, too, I looked at the tiny details that were only hinted at in the story. The title, “Tributary,” has a double meaning: the heroine is running along a tributary of a larger river, although that’s never really mentioned in the story, and she thinks she’s about to encounter a sea god. Somewhere in the story, she decides to offer herself to the mystical world by way of going with the sea god, no matter where he goes, and so she’s a potential tributary that way, too.
The word itself is never mentioned in the story, but it was too apt a detail – and descriptor – to let go by. (I don’t know if the editor of wherever it eventually appears will feel the same, and that would be OK, too.)
Stay away from cliché
Whether you decide to go big to find your title or poke around in the details of your work, try to avoid titles that reflect a lot of loaded social baggage. I’m talking, of course, of the titles that do double duty as phrases you might hear in everyday conversation or of phrases that are au courant.
These are too broad and, simultaneously, too subjective to do justice to the individual charms of your work.
For instance, I recently turned down a story titled a popular 2016 campaign slogan. (It wasn’t the first of that reading period that used a campaign slogan for a title.) The title implied the story was loaded. (It was.) The title was there to push me into a specific way of thinking even before I began reading – but what if I wasn’t of the persuasion to have voted the way the writer wanted me to vote? What if I hadn’t been on board with that candidate?
Likewise, I recently read an essay that was titled a popular phrase also used to describe specific social tensions. By the time the reader spots the title, it’s already too late to get them back: The title makes the reader think they already know all about what that essay or story is going to be about. They already have their own opinions, and whatever you’re trying to say in your work becomes obfuscated by the title.
If what your work says feels new and fresh to you, it’s probably going to be new and fresh to someone else. Don’t give it short shrift by borrowing a phrase from popular culture.
Titles are my biggest bugaboo. For occupying such demure parts of the overall writing real estate, they carry a massive weight. Both editors and writers, I think, are well served by considering their significance.
Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.