Story 1: Sure! But it needs a new title.
Story 2: Yes, but it needs a new title.
Story 3: Nope.
Story 4: Maybe, but with a new title.
And so on. You get the idea. While I’ve never outright rejected a story based on a bad title, I have accepted several based on the intrigue created by the title. Often, if pressed for time, I’ll read the title, first line, and last line of a submission. If all are strong, I skim a little more closely. If they’re bad, I often move it to the rejected file.
But how do you know what the right title is for your novel or story? Here are a couple things to keep in mind. I’ll try to lead by example in sharing a few backstories that might be helpful. But, to be perfectly clear, I’ll also give a few suggestions at the end.
Leaving Tennessee: While in college, I wrote a piece about an affair gone wrong. I believe, the first title I had was something terribly arresting, and full of allusion. Something like The Gun in the Glove Box. However, it wasn’t very original, considering that was the title of the prompt I was writing to. I later decided on Leaving Tennessee because of the reference to an influential moment in my characters’ lives. My publisher decided to change the title again, to something that spoke more directly to the subject matter (so it would be easier to find while doing web searches. He settled on An Affair to Forget, a twist on the familiar “An Affair to Remember.” However, I still maintain that Leaving Tennessee is a better title for the story itself (though it may not move as many copies, it at least got the attention of the publisher).
The Coldest Winter: Another college story of mine originally touted the title Appeasement. A professor of mine told me the title was too direct, and did little to appease mystery or intrigue (see what I did there?). Later, in order to increase mystery and intrigue, I settled on The Coldest Winter for a variety of reasons. Notably, it was no longer a direct reference to the “theme” of the piece, and it also helped establish a setting that worked symbolically, though it did not become apparent until the end of the story.
Any Sense at All: Michael Zapata put together a great flash fiction piece for The Citron Review. I snatched it up nearly immediately, though I almost read right over it. The original title was 3021, which made me immediately think science fiction. We’re not a sci-fi journal, so I nearly dumped it solely because of the title. But I didn’t, which is nice, because it turned out to be a great gem. I suggested he change it to Any Sense at All, a line taken from the story which, to me, spoke to the overall emotional impact of the piece. It served to better establish the emotional context of the story to follow.
Here are a few things to keep in mind while titling your story or novel.
Don’t be obvious: Overly simplistic titles are generally too vague to inspire specific intrigue. Something like, The Coffee Table, or The Lamp, or The Quilt are too easy. If it’s the first thing you think of, it’s probably not going to be the best title for your work.
Twist a common phrase: Think of a cliché, and then twist it enough so it feels fresh and strange, familiar and enticing. Instead of A Bird in the Hand, try An Elephant in the Hand. Instead of Raining Cats and Dogs, try Raining Lilies and Nightingales. Black as Night might become Gray as Dusk. Birds of a Feather might evolve into Raptors of a Feather.
Grab something unique from the story: This is what I did with Any Sense at All, though it can be applied with nearly every story. I’ve also pulled Happy, Free, Alive, a direct reference to the final line in the story, to do the same thing. The best things to look for are unique lines of dialog or an image that seems to encompass the emotional context of the story. Something like Knee Deep in the Pacific will always be better than The Ocean.
Be specific: One of the problem with vague titles, such as The Tree, is that the lack of specificity leaves us without a solid image. If you’re able to pull out specific nouns, and combine them with strong, specific verbs, the quality of the title leaps off the page. Take the generic The Car and turn it into something like Racing Audis.
Make sure you have a title: At the risk of offending beginning writers, Untitled is not a compelling title. At all. All stories and novels must have titles. Not having a title is akin to saying there is no compelling reason to read the following prose. I understand several poems lack titles (Emily Dickenson, for example, never titled a single poem, other than simply giving them numbers). Prose is not poetry, though we may borrow elements of them. One thing we don’t borrow from it, however, is the lack of titles.
Try literary allusions: The Violent Bear it Away, Absalom, Absalom! are both references to passages from the Bible that speak to the overall themes and symbols working throughout the novel. In fact, on that note, Flannery O’Connor is one of the best at coming up with titles (except for The River, but we can allow her one faux pax). Just think of A Good Man is Hard to Find, Everything that Rises Must Converge, Revelation, etc. The list goes on. And on. And on.
My apologies for the longer entry today. Didn’t realize I had so much to say about the topic. Here are some other sites to help get your imagination going: Writing World, Kristy Taylor’s advice, surprisingly good advice from eHow.
Curious, what are your favorite titles of novels or stories, either that you’ve written or that you’ve read. Let me know in the comments section.