Sunday, August 7, 2011

Whaddyacallit

Until a teacher told me I ought to hire someone to title my stories, I didn’t think I was particularly good or bad at it, but after that comment, my titles got significantly worse. Perhaps even more than the story itself, a great title requires an extraordinary amount of confidence and even bravado, especially if you’re going to go the straightforward route (Death in Venice) rather than the ironic (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). If anyone were to ridicule the latter, Dave Eggers could simply laugh it off, but a critic could drive a sword straight through the soft spot that is the fact that Thomas Mann’s title would also work beautifully for a paperback crime novel. If some cynical or silly or simply cruel little snit chose to ridicule the title of Eggers’ magnificent and soulful What is the What, with a snide reference to Dr. Seuss or even to that high school cheer I like so much, Eggers would not be able to simply snigger back at his not-so-hip detractor, but would have to somberly explain himself.

What am I going to call the late revision of a novel I just finished? The title is so important, and yet I can’t think of anything. I have a working title, but it’s nothing I’m willing to say out loud, much less post on the Internet. My best titles I’ve simply lifted from songs by Robert Johnson and Billie Holiday, and the title I like best of all, which it took me six years to come up with, the name of a frost-blooming camellia, now titles a novel manuscript I’m beginning to admit I’m no longer interested in.

I tried for a while to figure out a way to justify using this title for the newest novel manuscript, but of course I couldn’t make it work. Because the best titles are so intrinsically tied to the book they represent, in myriad complex as well as surface ways, that a fake title, stuck on just because it sounds good, will only detract from the book and won’t satisfy even the most forgiving reader. But you can’t call something “Untitled,” either. That move only shows that you have no idea what you’ve got.

How I wish I had some advice to give on the subject! Any wisdom would be much appreciated!

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