Working Titles, Titles that Work

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.

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6 Responses to “Working Titles, Titles that Work”

  1. Gabe Says:

    You remind me of a debate I had long ago. An old friend pointed to the erection of cathedrals as one of the “Church’s” many abuses, but the people you describe are “devoted” and “willingly” give their lives to these constructions. My friend was more concerned with all this money: “It should be given to the poor.”

    But I said, “The poor you shall have always. Isn’t creating a thing of beauty intrinsically worthwhile?”

    And you make that precise connection, Fred, when you mention selling your cow for some writing paper. Well done!

    Anyway, there’s my blab. Titles? I think there are too many good titles out there for me _really_ to weigh in on this one, but I’ve always liked _The Lord of the Rings_ (though _The War of the Ring_ probably would have been more accurate). _Raiders of the Lost Ark_ is a great title, sums it up – and have you noticed that the movies afterwards were _Indiana Jones AND… whatever he was doing? That first one was just straight-up these-guys-are-stealing-back-and-forth-the-Ark. It’s what it is.

    One of my one best titles? I think “One Stroke Till Sunrise.” This title has lovely rhythm and alliteration, plus it literally is what the story is. All the action takes place in that one stroke of time before sunrise, and the tension, the point of the story is letting that stroke fall, letting that suspension end, letting the New Heaven and New Earth manifest.

    Excelsior!

  2. Chris Says:

    While not a “literary work”, apparently Pink Floyd originally played a long, noodly piece of semi-free-form psychedelia in the late 60’s, early 70’s which they nicknamed “The Amazing Pudding” (for, what I’m assuming are obvious British reasons) but it got changed to “Atom Heart Mother” after they were forced to come up with a better name and they leafed through a newspaper lying around the studio and saw a newstory about a woman who had one of the earlier pacemakers implanted and who had recently given birth. The brit tabloid had labled her the “atom heart mother”.

    Working titles are always fun.

    As to the Cathedral Topic. On our trips to Europe I LOVE to go to Cathedrals. The older the better. I realize how much pain and suffering went into these things, many of which required multiple generations to complete. And I inherently realize the society that made them could have done something better with their effort and money and time. Maybe something to help the often crushing poverty they lived in. But I still have a really soft spot in my head for an old cathedral. Or an impressive one!

    We wandered into the Mariakirken in Bergen Norway back in ’97. It was built in, if I recall, the 13th century. Smallish but still impressive for its age. It had one of the strangest eeriest religious paintings I recall seeing, but the details of it now escape my aging memory. But it was definitely something that I would not have assumed would be particularly “spiritually uplifting”. But then not everything then was.

    Then there’s the Espoo Cathedral outside of Helsinki. Not a huge or stunning cathedral, but old, dating to the 15th century. Crudely painted on the ceilings are various angels and demons. Child-like scrawlings that were surely impressive to the church goers there and then. But now are almost funny.

    While in Helsinki I went to the Uspenski Cathedral built in the 1800’s by a joint Russian-Finnish friendship at the time. It is bedecked in gold out the wazoo as is befitting of an Orthodox cathedral. While I was there I noted the huge number of signs aroudn saying “NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY”. I don’t recall if any of the signs were in Japanese, but needless to say the busload of Japanese tourists who trundled in started flashing like mad. The docent gave a warning but that didn’t propogate through the tourist crowd and flashes continued. Finally I think the docent was about to kick them out. I left so as not to have to see an understated quiet Finn lose his patience with earnest and pleasant Japanese tourists.

  3. I liked unmo, loved ootid Says:

    Sometimes simple is best, as in “The Power That Preserves” or “The Exorcist.” I also like “The Killer Angels” about Gettysburg and “At Dawn We Slept” about Pearl Harbor and “Six Minutes in June” about the Battle of Midway. The best sports book I ever read is from Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers, “I Am Third”, because, as he explained, God is first and my family second.

  4. fsdthreshold Says:

    That last comment got me to thinking about historical or semi-historical works, and I have to give an honorable mention to S. Pressfield’s _Gates of Fire_ (about Thermopylae). Great title!

    And then, back in fantasy and horror, there’s Bradbury’s _Something Wicked This Way Comes_.

    Finally, thinking of the old classic stories in the genre: there’s an Ambrose Bierce story called “The Damned Thing.” Fascinating story! Bierce was years ahead of his time as a writer of speculative fiction. But that title always makes me smile. Viewed with our modern sensibilities, it could be a story about anything, and whatever it is, the storyteller sounds irritated with it.

    Another title that seems amusing nowadays is Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man.” It may not be one of Lovecraft’s most memorable, but it’s none too shabby!

  5. Nicholas Says:

    Nominee for best fantasy title: _The Well at World’s End_. William Morris’s title, as C.S. Lewis once observed, promises more than possibly any book could deliver. I’d give Morris a runner-up nod, too, for _The Wood Beyond the World_.

    From my own titles: _The World Beyond the Wall_. (The influence from Morris is obvious.)

  6. Xenorama Says:

    my tastes tend to run toward pulp fiction, and there’s no lack of great (though perhaps, more lurid) titles there- “The Man Who Shook The Earth”, “The Thousand Headed Man”, “Land of Always-Night” all Doc Savage titles, all cracking good yarns, too (good thing Lester Dent was a good writer).
    How about “Atlas Shrugged”- great title, even if you don’t agree with Rand.

    David

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