The Terror of Titles


I love titles.

When you’ve only got a title for your story, the whole world is open and free and wonderful. You don’t have to worry about plot threads that make no sense. You don’t have to fret about characters who won’t do as their told. No, when all you have is a title, your story is perfect bliss, just a shade more substantial than an idea.

I’m the sort of writer who likes to have a title before I begin working on a story. It doesn’t always happen that way but for the most part I have some sort of title before I begin pecking away that the keys. Sometimes the title comes right away and that makes things easier (at least I know what to save the file as, which is a start).

But what happens when the title won’t come? Do you stress out about it? Does it keep you awake at night?

The title for my NaNoWriMo novel is The Fantastic Adventures of Kip Frazier, but the nugget of an idea from whence this title was born, has like sixteen different variations. Since I added the title to my Wrimo profile, I changed it three times. Small changes to be sure, changes that really mean nothing to the actual draft of the book.

Or do they?

I find that having a working title for a story often influences the style of my writing. I know this sounds sort of odd, but when I write I tend to fall into character as I work and the title helps me get there mentally. Sort of like a series of rituals helps prepare the mind to receive cosmic goodness.

Without a title (or one I particularly like), I futz about in a haze of uncertainty. I get frustrated. I get snippy with the characters. There’s a real danger here that I might actually destroy the whole thing. Of course, it’s entirely possible to hang onto a title for too long. Let me give you a few practical examples (because Kip Frazier is a title I am very happy with).

Deepest Shade is a story I’ve struggled with for close to 10 years. It’s been many things during that time but one thing is absolutely certain: Deepest Shade has always been the title. Or, at least I think it is. I’m still not entirely happy with Deepest Shade as a story. I think I really have two different tales going on not to mention the fact that I completely over edited the thing and now it feels sort of lifeless. Yet, I wonder if I haven’t hobbled the story by forcing myself to stick with a phrase that keeps clinging to my brain.

There are other stories in my archives like this one, stories I’ve wrestled and tried to fit into the title I’ve found myself infatuated with. A few posts ago I put up a chapter from my last book Revisions. The original title of the book was The Man Who Forgot Language, which is about as horrible as a title could get. When I wrote it down, I used it as a placeholder for a filename. Eventually, I went about seeking another title, which became The Slaves of Burt Thompson. Again, wretched, but it kept me going on the story (and in fact shaped the plot a bit (if I can call it a plot). I settled on Revisions long after the final version was done and put to sleep in the depths of my hard drive and I like it. In fact, I like the title enough that I may even dig out the manuscript some day and fix all the things that are wrong with it – mostly by starting over.


The point of all this rambling is that I want to show you that titles are important for many reasons, but I also want you to see that you can change the title anytime you want. If you’re struggling for a title for your NaNoWriMo book, you could do a lot worse than just calling it BOOK. ๐Ÿ™‚

11 thoughts on “The Terror of Titles

  1. I like your notion of titles being a springboard for your writing. After all, a title stirs something inside you, evokes an emotion or an idea. The title is often what draws a person to pick up a book. Why not use that same approach to inspire you as a writer? Great post.

    Sherri´s last blog post..Sign Said โ€œPLEASE DO NOTโ€

  2. I find it’s a lot easier for me to come up with titles for short stories than it is to come up with titles for novels–maybe because I feel like there’s a little less at stake.

    I’m not afraid to fall back on calling a project “BOOK” or “NOVEL”…sometimes I’ll even spice it up a little and call it “MYSTERY NOVEL” or “ADVENTURE NOVEL.” But, there’s no greater feeling than actually being able to call something by a real name.

    Even if it’s only temporary.

    Dan´s last blog post..Just Because I Can

  3. I love coming up with titles for my novels! It totally helps me get into the mood of the story. The one for this year is “Powers and Principalities.” I came up with the idea almost a year and a half ago, was going to write it for NaNo 07 until I was blindsided by the random epic that was “A Million Sunsets,” then decided to write it for NaNo 08. It’s gone through a lot of revision as to what the plot actually is, but the title has remained constant.

  4. @Sherri Thanks! I’ve read quite a bit about how titles can change while going through the process of publishing. In some ways, I think that would be quite painful though perhaps not as painful as some covers discussions.

    @Dan That’s a good point. Coming up with book titles is often an issue of scope for me. I guess that’s why they change so much during the process.

    @Joi Some stories are like that aren’t they? They just sneak up and bash their way in titles and all. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Title, yes, *moment of sheer terror* I need a title! I have been trying to prepare myself for WriMo, reading and learning and not once did I think of title. *thunking head* I am not going to get through this thing without help. Thank you for being my buddy. Now shuffling off to think of title.

    Karen Swim´s last blog post..Influence and Responsibilty on the Web

  6. @WriterDad Stories are like that. You get rolling and they get on with a mind of their own. ๐Ÿ™‚

    @Karen Nothing like a bit of scream to get the juices flowing, eh? You are totally going to make it and I am going to help you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I generally have a working title for my articles or stories, but nine times out of ten I change them once I’m finished. Some of my favorite titles:

    How to Win Friends and Influence People: Hey, everyone wants to do that, right?

    My So Called Life: A perfect expression of the lead character’s teen angst

    A Fish Called Wanda: An absurd movie with an absurd sounding title that actually made perfect sense once you saw the movie.

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: How can you help but pick up a book with that dark a title?

  8. Hi Jamie,
    I found you via the Nanwrimo site. Your idea of the halo giveaway is fab, I’m going to post about it on my blog. Sadly, I can’t donate this year (though I think it’s an eminently donatable cause) but I don’t want to take away from someone else’s potential halo so I won’t fill out one of your forms. My Nano handle is ‘mommika’ (something my eldest used to call me) -I’ll look out for you on the boards!

    Ref topic – ‘the terror of titles’, indeed. I think maybe the one to top them all was ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’. I didn’t read it, mind you, but I thought the author was brilliant.

    Maya M.´s last blog post..Experiment: THE BIG H, Report #3

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