How does it work for you as a writer? Do you tend to know the title of the piece you’re writing from square one, or from early on? Or are you more like me, still struggling with the title long after you’ve done all the damage you can possibly do to the whole rest of the story? I heard Madeleine L’Engle say that she had no idea what to call A Wrinkle in Time, and it was someone else who finally suggested that title to her after the book was finished. There are quite a few funny stories out there of now-famous books that their authors had intended to call something else, until fortunately a.) they came to their senses, or b.) a sensible agent, editor, or friend said, “Wup-wup-wup waaaiiit a minute. . . .” [Gee, I wish I could remember some of those examples! Maybe you can–help me out here! I seem to recall that The Great Gatsby was one of them. All I can think of right now is that Charles M. Schulz wanted to call his Peanuts comic strip Li’l Folks.] Almost all my own stories have worn several other working titles before finding their ways to the ones they were published under. Here’s a list of a few — finished titles first, followed by working titles:
Dragonfly — The High Dark Shelf (That change was the editor’s idea; I didn’t really agree, but here was a publisher offering to give my long-wandering novel manuscript a home. If he’d wanted to call the book Wombat Boy and the Pink Lollipops, I probably would have seen it his way.)
“The Bone Man” — “The Hallowe’en Parade” (My idea, once I got about halfway into the story.)
“The Star Shard” — “The Star-Shard” (The editor changed that one, too: I tend to hyphenate everything that isn’t nailed down.)
“The Fool Who Fished for a King” — This was the original title as well as the finished one, but for awhile, during a second rewrite phase requested by the editors, it was called “The Fish of Heavensdrop.”
“Here About to Die” — “The Arena” (There are several other things called “The Arena.”)
“The Bones of Oron-Dha” — “Land’s End” (Just watch: a new maker of stylishly rugged clothing will emerge and call their line “The Bones of Oron-Dha.”)
The Witching Wild — The Cry of the Nightbird — Halcyon Fey (My agent actually said, and I quote: “Any title would be better than ‘Halcyon Fey.’ Can you imagine a bookstore clerk trying to type that into a computer to search for it, or a young-adult reader trying to spell it?” Although I knew he had a point about the store clerk, I said, “Why would a reader have to spell it?” The conversation went rather downhill from there.)
The Fires of the Deep — Lachii (But this title needs to change again before the book ever sees print. It’s been pointed out that Vernor Vinge has a book called A Fire Upon the Deep, and mine is close enough to cause confusion.)
Anyway, here’s my question for discussion: of all the titles you’ve encountered in your life (we can include movies as well as books, if you like), can you name one, two, or three that you think absolutely rule?–that is, they seem the perfect title for the work in question? To be perfect, they have to be an ideal fit for the work as well as to “sell” it — to be eye-catching, perhaps haunting, fascinating, whatever–it has to be a title that grabs hold of your imagination with both hands.
So, what are they? To what handful of works would you hand out prizes?
I’ll be bold and narrow my picks down to just two. My mind is not made up for all time. You may be able to convince me there are better titles out there. And again, in case you came in late or skimmed over all that rambling about my own titles, I’ll re-emphasize [See? I hyphenate everything! Don’t stand too close, or you may go home wearing a hyphen.]–I’ll re-emphasize that these are not my favorite books. I’m only talking about titles here. I’m naming the winners of the FSD Best Title Award:
First runner-up: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
And the winner: The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. I haven’t read this book. And what’s really funny is that a good friend just told me she was reading it and absolutely hates it! In Japanese, it was released under a title that translates to The Great Cathedral. A friend in Japan liked it, but she said the characters all seemed too smart to be normal people. Anyway, regardless of the content, doesn’t that title simply rock? I have read some different articles about the building of medieval cathedrals. (One such article about the construction of Chartres directly inspired my story “The Gift.”) What struck me was how important raising these cathedrals was to the communities that erected them. People quite literally gave their lives in the construction. They’d fall into the foundation-pits and die in the fall; they’d tumble off the high scaffolds; they’d get smashed under stones. Children in the area would die of malnutrition because the people had sold their cows to buy building materials and pay artisans. These people were completely devoted to creating these magnificent structures as houses for God on Earth. It was an era in which faith lay at the center of existence, and everything else took a back seat.
So . . . doesn’t The Pillars of the Earth capture that colossal importance, that centrality? The image is of mighty pillars holding up the Earth itself. That’s what faith was to the cathedral-builders, who willingly gave up their pennies, their livestock, their health, and their children to build these marvels of architecture.
Cast your votes! Also, if you’re a writer, feel free to add which is your favorite title from among your own works, and tell us why! As for me? My favorite of my own titles is “Glory Day,” which has long been a sonnetesque poem I wrote back in my college days–and is the working title of a short story I’m working on right now! (I just sold my cow in order to buy some typing paper.)
“Glory Day” is, of course, a name some people call the Fourth of July. For me it has wonderful associations of summer heat, freedom, fireworks, memory, nostalgia, and childhood imaginings. Yes, “Glory Day” is the title . . . until an editor comes along and changes it to “Six Days of the Avocado.” Or something.