What’s in a Name? Ten Minutes to Choosing a Title

What’s in a Name? Ten Minutes to Choosing a Title

At the very start of a writing project, I like to spend time developing a working title that captures the spirit of what I’m doing. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s actually a very   powerful way to focus your energies and hone your point. Many writers avoid it because a.) it forces them to think about their real point and that can be unnerving if you have no clue  and b.) it feels so much like making a commitment and commitment is frightening.

You can, of course, revisit and revise your title whenever it feels like it’s not serving the story, or when it’s time to send that story out into the world. I often work with writers at this stage of the process and they can spend days or even weeks agonizing over the right title.

Last night, I had occasion to work on a title with a writer who happens to be my 17-year-old daughter, Emily — but it wasn’t what you might think. She was not asking me for my help. She was merely asking me to run a stopwatch for her, because she only had a few minutes to pick a title and she had devised a system for titling stories that could be completed in 10 minutes, but she needed someone on the clock. I was so blown away by this system that I am sharing it here with you — and will be using it in my classes, too. It can work for fiction or non-fiction alike.

Why listen to a 17-year old? Emily is a talented writer who has attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Workshop and whose stories and poems last year won three national awards in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and a trip to Carnegie Hall to collect them. People sometimes ask me if I think she’s so good because writing is somehow in our DNA. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Emily’s got some of the best writing habits of anyone I know, including myself. She works very, very hard at her writing. She often writes first drafts on a typewriter because she says it makes her feel closer to the words. She revises over and over and over again. She reads her work out loud over and over and over again. She market tests her work — with me, with her English teachers, with her friends. And she pays attention. The timer thing in her system thing isn’t about DNA or dumb luck. I love using timers to make writers get out of their own way. Emily knows this and has seen it work.

The other thing that has helped Emily hone her writing skills is that she teaches what she knows. She tutors a seventh grader who wants to win the award that Emily won, and last summer, she taught fiction writing to a group of middle school boys. It was in that class that she devised this system.

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Some Background:

Emily taught the writing class in {pages}bookstore in Manhattan Beach. One day, she asked the boys to take 5 minutes to wander the bookstore and collect 3 titles that intrigued them. They weren’t supposed to read the book jacket copy or consider the cover art. Just the titles. (Note that if you are doing this for your own work, you can take far more than 5 minutes. Scour the online bookstores. Search high and low in the category to which your book belongs. Search in categories you would never dream of searching, just to spark your mind.) They all sat down and then talked about why they liked the titles, what appealed to them, why they were drawn in. From this discussion, a list emerged that described the attributes of the “most appealing” titles. (The examples are mine.)

  • One word   (Kidnapped, Jaws, Unbroken, Seabiscuit)
  • Six Words  (Six words is Hemingway’s famous “shortest short story” concept – a brilliant way into a title simply because it offers a constraint rather than letting you be totally free to wander around the vast universe of your mind. The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All; The Other Side of the Mountain.)
  •  A title that includes a number. (Catch 22. Farenheit 451; The 4-Hour Workweek; The $100 Start Up)
  •  A title with imagery/metaphor/symbols. (Who Moved My Cheese? Swim with the Sharks, On Cold Mountain.)
  •  Fill in the blanks. The ______ (adjective) ______(noun).   (The DaVinci Code; The Dark Knight; The Book Thief; The Artist’s Way; The Writers’ Guide to Agony and Defeat)

 

I’m going to add a category here for non-fiction:

  •   A list (Eat, Pray, Love; Women, Food and God; Godel, Escher, Bach.)

The Story Problem:

Last night, Emily had to enter the title of a short story into an online system that would assign that story a barcode. This is the first step in entering her stories into the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Contest (the one where she won the medals.) You can’t move forward in the registration process without a title and this particular story didn’t have a title she liked. It’s a wonderful story about a Turkish journalist and self censorship, but what it’s really about is fiction and truth, and the pain of creating something that might never see the light of day. She had been calling it The Turkish Journalist but she felt the title was a little flat. So we got the iphone, set the timer for 30 seconds, and off she went:

The System:

Step 1:  Creation. About 2 minutes. Using the timer, give yourself 30 seconds to come up with at least one title for each of these categories. Do the 30-second intervals one right after the other.

 

  • One word
  • Six words
  • A title that includes a number
  • A title with imagery/metaphor/symbols
  •  Fill in the blanks: The ______  _________
  • A list

 

Here is the list Emily got:

 

·      Unscathed

·      Censored

·      Writing for an honest Turkish newspaper

·      Why I lied to my country

·      Twenty-nine Kurds Dead

·      AHHHH

·      The Unreported Truth

·      The Story’s End

·      The Turkish Journalist

·      The Untold Truth

·      The censored truth

 

Step 2: Expansion. About 4 minutes. Now look at the list and see if you can expand or improve on any of your titles. There’s no reason to follow the rules here. This is where you can be free and go crazy.

Here is what Emily did. Changes are in bold, italics. Not that this step included some brainstorming that didn’t make it onto the page.

·      Unscathed

·      Censored  Self-Censored  (more ominous)

·      Writing for an honest Turkish newspaper

·      Why I lied to my country

·      Twenty-nine Kurds Dead Twenty-nine Kurds Died Last Night (more rhythmic)

·      The Unreported Truth

·      The Story’s End   Delete the Story (more powerful)

·      The Turkish Journalist

·      The Untold Truth

·      The censored truth

Step 3: About 1 minute.  Pare down the list.  Be ruthless. Get rid of what you don’t like. This is good practice for any kind of editing. Shift your view from creator to audience/viewer/analyst and sharpen your ax.

·      The Story’s End

·      The Untold Truth

·      Delete the Story

·      Self-Censored

·      Twenty-nine Kurds Died Last Night

 

Step 4: Pick a winner. About 30 seconds minute. Close your eyes. Imagine your story wherever you hope you will see it in the world – on a book jacket, on a bookshelf, on a bestseller list. Emily imagined her story the first time she would see it on the list of award winners on the Scholastic website next March.

·      Delete the Story

 

And that’s it! Ten minutes. Done. 

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season. Here’s to writing great titles — and great books — in 2014.