What’s in a Name?

roseTitles are a tricky thing to devise. It’s not uncommon for a writer to christen her work with one name only to have her publisher rename it later. Like an expectant parent, I have lists of possible titles for my little gestating novels.  Aptly chosen, the title can speak volumes and linger in the reader’s mind forever. I want to get it right (so the editor at the big fancy publishing house that’s going to buy my book can tell me the name sucks and heavy-handily suggest something else).

Some novels announce their names right away: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Or, as with Fahrenheit 451, immediate yet oblique “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Many are named after a place or character: Swamplandia!, The Great Gatsby, The Life of Pi, Cold Mountain. But I don’t know  that anything or anyone in my stories are, as yet, that iconic.

I’ve heard it’s best to keep the title short. Two, three words max: Ender’s Game, The Road, Team of Rivals.

Then there’s the tried and true “&” pattern: Pride & Prejudice, War & Peace, Sense & Sensibility, Crime & Punishment. But Jane Austin and a few Russian monoliths have crowded that market.

In truth, I like the poetic: Of Mice and Men, As I Lay Dying, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

And my favorite, titles that are reveal in the narrative of the story:

Was Tara still standing? Or was Tara also gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia?

With them went the father and mother of Crazy Horse, carrying the heart and bones of their son. At a place known only to them they buried Crazy Horse somewhere near Chankpe Opi Wakpala, the creek called Wounded Knee.

They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

“What a piece of work is man…in action how like an angel!” And the old man, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” And Chamberlain had gone on to school to make an oration on the subject: Man, the Killer Angel.

It’s not just in “literary fiction” that you find this device. Stephanie Meyer did it with Twilight. Ursula Le Guin buried her title The Left Hand of Darkness within her prose as well.

Regrettably, my own titles, Mark of the Logi and Learn Away the Indian, are not so clever. But, as with all writing, what starts as piece of coal can be compressed and polished into the brilliant gem, with or without the help of an editor. And, in the end, if my titles do suck, there’s always the solace of Shakespeare:

That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet.


6 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Such a literary post! 🙂 Btw, my very first thought when you sent your very first page was, “That’s a fantastic title.” As I’ve read the story–I’ve since thought how perfect it fits. I love the title “Learn Away the Indian.”

  2. Being self-published, I don’t have that problem…Seven-Inch Vinyl is what I wanted and that’s what it was. I also like Learn Away, the Indian. Maybe the big-time editor will only change it to “Learn Away (an) Indian.”

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