Monday, February 6, 2012
Please Insert Title Here, Please: A Fantasy
Sometimes, I conduct imaginary writing conferences in my head. I’m the keynote speaker of course (my openers ranging from T.C. Boyle to Alice Munro to, if she’s lucky, the ghost of Flannery O’ Connor) and it doesn’t matter where we meet—the Met, Madison Square Garden, or, most recently, the Hollywood Bowl—because the point of the exercise is that I like to imagine what I would say at such an event, what wisdom I would impart in regards to the craft of fiction. It usually varies, depending on many things. Just last week, for example, after reading three separate novels and an essay that all included the exact same phrase, I might’ve advised young writers to forever banish from their tool kits the words “shock of (whatever color) hair”—truly the Kim Kardashian of figurative language, as it’s everywhere, means little, and I don’t like it.
Of course, I’m a young writer—youngish, anyway—but at the Hollywood Bowl, see, I get to be a seasoned veteran, which is what makes it so much fun. And in my most recent dream sequence, I found myself giving advice on titles. I’ve been thinking about titles lately, and there’s a reason for this. Last month, a short story of mine was published in the Indiana Review. And I liked it. I mean, I liked it okay. But what I really liked about the piece—what didn’t make me cringe upon revisit, all those months later—was the title. I thought to myself, If anything, you will have the best title.
Well. I was wrong. Trumped easily by one Mary Hamilton, who, no, I do not know from the ghost of Flannery O’Connor, except to say that the strength of her piece doesn’t end at one of the best titles I’ve come across in recent memory.
But wait. Forget that. This is my fantasy. I’m the one headlining the Hollywood Bowl. I’m the one shouting for John Irving to fetch me a glass of cold, but not too cold water (did I mention the old wrestler is my personal assistant?) And so, following this thread, using my knowledge of nothing, I’ve compiled a survey for young writers everywhere (see: me), a survey that may have nothing to do with pleasing your woman, or man, but everything to do with coming up with that perfect title—that “Bullet to the Brain”, that “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, that “Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” that “Good Country People”—that, you know, thing above your story that won’t have us humble readers running for the hills, pulling out our hair in…shocks.
Here’s the thing: answer YES to any of these questions and the buzzer sounds, you’ve lost, and will be promptly shown out of the Hollywood Bowl, the writing profession, my fantasy, and left alone in the void of space where bad titles, like luggage, circle the earth in one endless orbit.
(Did I mention I’ve failed, and will continue to fail, my own survey?)
Does Your Title Suck?
A Not So Serious Survey for
Me Other Fiction Writers
1. Could your title pass for a fragrance by Calvin Klein?
Oops! Did you just submit “Drops of Chance” to the Atlantic? “Ocean Dreams” to The New Yorker? “Desertscape Horizon” to The Paris Review? Well, unless you’re this guy, go ahead and rethink that stinker.
2. Does your title shamelessly answer the question, What is the overall theme of this story?
The problem is, if your masterpiece—and it might very well be a masterpiece—“Love Conquers All”, or “Endurace Always Wins”, or “The Pain of Loss”, or “Money Does Not Necessarily Equate Happiness, People,” is one day assigned to students across the globe, then they won’t need to look beyond the first page to answer 99% of all test questions. And you want them, typically, to look beyond the first page.
Speaking of tests…
3. Could a 6th grade English teacher in Anywheresville, USA use your title as a multiple choice question in which the answer is c.) Simile?
I’ll admit, I’m a huge offender of this one. But never shall the world be punished to read my high school portfolio, which includes such gems as “Eyes Like Stone”, “Sadness Heavy as Thunder”, “That One Thing That Was Like That Other Thing I Saw Once”, and of course, “Anything (and I Mean Anything) Like Blood”.
4. Do prepositions constitute 75% or more of your title?
A quick tidbit from the most recent issue of Scientific American: Reading aloud titles such as “Of Where From Which We Came Before”, “With and Within the Before and Beneath”, “Nothing Besides About”, “Regarding That Which is Regarded” is one of the major causes of externally-induced seizures, second only to strobe lighting.
5. Might Don Draper slap your title across a vehicle and market it as the new family sedan?
I suppose there’s a wee bit of intrigue to that 20,000-word “Cronata”, sitting in the bowels of your hard drive. Or “Illustra.” Or “Enamora” (could it be a character? a place? a curious feeling?); but the only story for which I’m willing to make an exception and actually read is the one simply titled, “Ford Focus”.
6. Does your title include a colon, followed by a not-so-subtle reference to genre?
“…: A Love Story”; “…: A Horrific Tale of Horror”; “…: Coming of Age”; “…: A Mysterious Mystery of Mysterious Events of a Quasi-Mysterious Nature”—whatever the case, the only person who will be thanking you is the dude who has to shelve this stuff at Barnes and Noble. But now he has nothing to do. And five hours left in his shift. Thanks a lot.
7. Does your title make it painfully clear that you’ve just finished reading anything by Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, or Raymond Carver?
Again, guilty as charged. And I wish I could promise you that I won’t hammer out a few more, “The Abridged and Marvelous Life of Roscoe Wow”, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Things and Such”, and “How to Do Anything You Might Not Have Previously Thought Required Instructions”, but I can’t. Call it an homage. And then roll it up and slap me across the head.
8. Could your title pass as anything showing on Cinemax beyond 10 PM?
Or more specifically, am I shoving “The Awakening of Terra” beneath the sofa cushion when my mom passes through the living room?
9. Can you feasibly imagine your title lit up across a giant marquee, followed by the words: STARRING ADAM SANDLER?
I’m looking at you, “Mr. Tom Can’t Lose”, “Townies 4 Hire”, “Plunky McGee Gets Lucky”, “CivilWar Land in Bad Decline”, “Haba Dabba Doo Doo” (though I’m sure Mr. Sandler pays a lot better than The Timbuktu Review).
And the worst of the worst.
10. Is there a pun in your title?
In which case, forget the literary journals…send that sucker to Hollywood and make some real money. I look forward to seeing you-know-who in the film adaptation of “Receding Heir”.
Of course, I could be wrong. Titles, like this one, have turned on me overnight. Brilliance has corroded into pretension, melodrama, absolute ridiculousness. The important thing being, if you have a title, you have a finished piece. And in this writing game, that’s all you can ask for. To finish anything is to hang off that doomed ocean liner in the middle of your own over-budgeted fantasy and inform the world that you are, in fact, the king of it. Which brings me to my next survery: Do your characters say stupid things?