Writing Question: Titles

Some authors slap a title on their work without much thought. Others obsess for ages over the best possible title. A title can grab a potential reader’s attention, or it can send a potential reader away. Choosing a memorable, appropriate, appealing title is a difficult task, so we asked the Odyssey graduates for their tips and advice when it comes to generating titles.

How and when do you title your works? Does the title come to you first and inspire the story? Or do you finish the story still banging your head over what to call it? Do you like to go for the long and bizarre title, or the short and simple title? Have you named stories after main characters or worlds, or do you prefer a more thematic, indirect title? Is your process (and your result) for choosing a title different for short works and long works? Do you compile long lists of possible titles, or just come up with the title in a flash? Does the title usually come from some element in the story itself or from another source, such as a song or metaphor?

Susan Sullivan, class of 2005

I would have to say, “Yes,” to all of the above.

I have an easier time naming my poems. Not sure why. My short story titles tend to be fairly simplistic, although I was able to get a triple entendre with “Getting the Curse,” and a double entendre with “Acts of Intimacy,” and “Crushed” (a poem).

I hadn’t really thought about the length of the piece vs the length of the title, but now that I compare them, my novel titles are pretty long and my short story titles, relatively short.

I also like alliteration in titles, like “Domestic Dispute,” “Dead Letter Dogs,” and “The Simon Sylvestri School for the Supernaturally Challenged” (whew! what a mouthful!)

Titles rarely pop into my head unbidden. They usually require quite a bit of coaxing. I can only think of one instance where the title and a line of dialogue came before the rest of the story. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the title occurs once a work is in progress and often evolves. I’ve gone through three titles for the novel I recently completed and am thinking of changing it again!

Krista Hoeppner Leahy, class of 2007

Usually I write the story first and then find the title, but occasionally a title presents itself, begging me to write the accompanying story. 
Very often I’ll be able to find an evocative phrase in the story with enough ‘resonance’ to work as the title, other times I’ve used allusions to outside texts, or a metaphor I find apt.

An advertising friend introduced me to the term “see-saw” which I think is a useful way of thinking about the information you can present in the title, and the information you can present in the story. The idea being that in the advertising world, you often have a visual and a caption (text)–if the caption and the visual communicate exactly the same thing, that’s a “see-saw.” What you see in the caption is the same information you saw in the visual. A richer communication happens if the visual and caption don’t have exactly the same information. That’s what I hope for in my titles. To avoid the see-saw. I want my title to enhance the story in a way that the story can’t do on its own. Of course I often fail in this goal, but I do keep trying!

When Rodman Philbrick taught at Odyssey, he mentioned that if a story is great enough, it will lift even a mundane title into the memorable. He went on to say that while a great title doesn’t sell a story–a great story sells a story–a great title may help people remember that great story. And that’s a good thing.

Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004

When George R.R. Martin was the writer-in-residence at Odyssey 2004, he told our class that it’s really important to find a good title–and the right title–for each story. He wasn’t shy about letting us know if we had an awful title.

A good title, he said, should be specific to your story AND ONLY YOUR STORY. He warned against used too-common phrases or titles.

He cited Harlan Ellison as a good user of unique titles. (Of course, Ellison’s titles are also very lengthy: “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “‘Repent Harlequin,’ Said the Tick-Tock Man,” etc.)

If you read the table of contents for a magazine or anthology, are you intrigued by particular titles (regardless of author) more than others? If so, why? I would figure out what appeals to you about titles alone, and try to find a similar approach to your own titles.

Here are some examples from the table of contents of an old issue of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress (#XV, pulled from my bookshelf). I’ll give you my opinion on why some of these titles work well and others less well.

If they are specific, detailed, unique and memorable: “Spring Snow” and “The Phoenix Blade” are specific and work better than “Perseverance” and “Skin Deep,” which could refer to almost any story.

If they make me say, Huh, that sounds different, I wonder what that’s about. “Queen’s Anvil” and “Unbinding Spell” sound more intriguing than “Oaths” or “The Dragon’s Horde” (which sound like generic fantasy from the title–although in actuality I liked both those stories).

Also I like titles that make clear what kind of setting the story takes place in by using a linguistic, cultural or historical reference. “Seal-Woman’s Power” suggests we’re dealing with Celtic selkie fantasy, whereas “All These Days” tells me nothing whatsoever.

I dislike titles that telegraph too much about the theme: “To Live Forever” and “Something Precious” kinda make me not want to read those stories.

And finally, my favorite titles are poetic or mythic, suggesting that the author has a good sense for lyrical prose. “Shimmering Scythe” wins on that count, hands down. (And the story, by Vera Nazarian, is one of my all-time favorites, from an author known for lyrical prose).

Elizabeth Hirst, class of 2006

My titles come from a variety of places, but I love plays on words. Sometimes, wordplay can come off as kind of cheesy, but if you do it right it can add a great deal of impact to your overall story. For instance, I titled my flash fiction piece (and first-ever publication) “Made of the Mist” because it involves an encounter with a mist woman who hangs over Niagara Falls and protects its natural beauty. The Maid of the Mist, in addition to having ties with local native folklore, is the tugboat that takes tourists down about as close to the bottom of Niagara Falls as anyone would ever want to go. I felt that the title worked for the story because it tied into my main themes, which were tourism, urban decay and stewardship of the environment. That title came to me at about the same time as the concept of the story. I was working on a three-hour writing challenge, and so everything had to come out at once. Other times I wait to finish the story before devising a title, because I feel like I need to let the story be a whole, finished product before I can really sum it up with a title. I don’t ever really know what twists and turns the plot could take, despite my best efforts at outlining, and so I find that leaving the title until last allows me to let the story be itself and not be defined by my original concept for it.

Abby Goldsmith, class 2004

I’ve recently settled on a title theme that ties my novel series together. It took me several years to come up with a theme that pleases me (just as long as it took to write the novels). The titles refer to the setting. Book 1, City of Slaves, takes place in a city
 full of slaves. Book 2, Caves and Canyons, takes place in (you 
guessed it) a cave system hidden in an alien jungle, and canyons. The
 third book is called City of the Dead, and it takes place among 
haunted urban ruins. This is a linear series, so it’s basically one
 epic story divided into separate books to make it publishable.

I’m still debating the titles of the fourth and fifth books, which I haven’t written yet. Just to be poetic, I would like the final book in the series to be titled “City of __ (something).”

So that’s a series, but what about stand-alones? My stand-alone novel 
is The Illusionist. Ugh, I hate that title. It’s bland and overused. I want to come up with something more attention grabbing,
 but the novel is shelved for now, awaiting a rewrite.

And short stories? I probably change their titles as often as I edit them. My personal favorites are “Post-American Princess” (sounds
 steampunkish) and “Shirley Knott” (a play on words). But I don’t consider myself to be a title genius by any stretch. Sometimes a
 title clicks, and sometimes I’m never happy with 
it.

Maggie Della Rocca, class of 2005

I’ve never written a story with a title in mind, at least not in recent memory. Generally, I start with a placeholder title so that I can find my notes later. My current work-in-progress started life as “Animal Murders”. When I finally developed a main character, she had a job but not a name. The notes were retitled to “Wisconsin Humane Officer.” but had I given her a name at that stage, I’d have called it “Lily.” I came up with the final title when I was writing the first rough draft and Lily sees a sign advertising Rare Breeds (novel title). The title garners positive response from most readers because it can be applied to the characters as well as the animals in the story.

I’m happy that title popped out fairly early in the process. The longer I go without a meaningful title, the harder it is to find one. I personally like short titles, especially single word titles. My experience as a bookseller makes me hate long titles with a passion. If you really don’t want potential customers to locate your book, tag it with a long and involved title.

Rita Oakes, class of 1998

I struggle with titles. I tend to find the title around the middle of the story, or sometimes not until it’s finished. Ideally the title has some bearing on theme for me, but without being too obvious. Sometimes I’ll use a fragment of poetry or quotation–usually lesser known and discovered via a quote book/site: “A Wind Sharp as Obsidian,” or “Jewels in a Jasper Cup” (both short stories). More rarely it will be a line from the story itself: “Before Chaos and the Glare” (short story). Sometimes I use a mysterious-sounding/unfamiliar single word: “Lupercalia,” (short story) or Azabache (novel). When I am totally at a loss, I’ll give the story to friends to read and let them suggest 4-6 possibilities. And sometimes, even after I’ve settled on a title, I may change it multiple times before I’m really satisfied. My current work-in-progress is called Killing Time, (novel) and was suggested to me by another Odyssey graduate. I like it because it has a multiple
 meaning. It can mean something in the sense of wasting time and can also mean a time for killing. Since it deals with a character in prison, there’s a certain irony that appeals to me. 

I’m generally happy to let a story sit until the proper title shows up.

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