Search Results

Naming the Baby: Titles (Part I of II)

This is the second column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. The first column, and the entirety of his Short-Short Sighted columns (dedicated to writing very short fiction), visit his author page.

Titles are hard. They have to accomplish a lot in a few words. The ideal title will attract the reader who has a variety of stories to choose from, will grab the reader by the collar and say, “Hey! You! Yes, you! Here is exactly the sort of story you love!” It will identify the genre. It will begin to establish the literary contract with the reader about the likely pleasures of the story and the rules of the story’s telling. It will frame or control how the reader sees some elements of the story. When the story is over, the ideal title will help the reader to think more deeply about the story and might give the reader one of those “Aha!” moments of realizing that the reader’s first understanding of what the title referred to has been turned upside down. The ideal title will help the reader to remember the story and recommend it to others, and it will help those other readers to remember the recommendation and find the story.

That’s a tall order. Indeed, it’s a nearly impossible. I don’t know of very many titles that manage to do everything that that a great title can do, but a title that doesn’t do at least some of them is not serving its story very well. Here are some suggestions for creating a good title, beginning with the most important suggestion: Try.

I know from reading student stories, from judging contests, from reading unsolicited magazine manuscripts, that a surprising number of writers don’t try, or at least don’t try very hard. Perhaps we can blame the reading comprehension questions in standardized tests. “Which of the following would be the best title for the passage above?” The answer is always the title that most comprehensively names the central subject of the passage: “Memories of Grandpa Joe,” “A Snowy Day,” “The Price of Coffee.” And for students who are just learning how to write a few paragraphs that stay on topic, this kind of title can serve as a navigation beacon: If you’re supposed to be writing about Grandpa Joe, then that funny story about Grandma Gracie may need to wait for next week’s writing assignment.

Indeed, a title that serves as a lighthouse may be of use to even the most sophisticated writer. A “working title” is often exactly that, a way for the writer to remind herself of the idea or enthusiasm that got the story started. It helps the writer to keep the main idea before her, to make some decisions about what does or does not belong in the story. However, those three example titles are, for most readers, boring, and not only because they simply name a subject. They are boring because they are very much like the titles of school assignments or the earnest efforts of the rankest beginning writers. That is, they remind the reader of painfully boring writing that the reader has had to endure in the past. Like a good title, they are naming the genre of the piece that follows them, but that genre is, unfortunately, Torture By Literature.

Allow me to pause here and apologize to Grandpa Joe, to backyard meteorologists, to traders of coffee futures. I’m sure that there are some for whom “Memories of Grandpa Joe,” “A Snowy Day,” and “The Price of Coffee” are alluring titles. Let me also disabuse my readers of the advice I have sometimes heard that a title like one of these is the kiss of death for a story. It isn’t. No editor worthy of a blue pencil is going to look at the title of a piece and reject it without reading another word. A title that looks like the beginning of a terrible story can sometimes be a clever move on the part of the writer, promising a story so mundane that the reader has to look at the first sentence to see if the story really is as awful as advertised. That first sentence could be brilliant. It could lead to a brilliant second sentence, and to the realization that the title is being used with a sense of irony, that the story pretending to be a school assignment is actually playing with that expectation.

Editors know this. Editors also know that titles are hard, that some writers never manage to come up with good ones. So an editor who thinks that a title is awful will read at least a few sentences, meaning that a bad title is not really the kiss of death. It is, however, the kiss of contagious disease. The editor will read those opening sentences while wearing gloves and holding the manuscript at a safe distance, expecting to verify that the manuscript should be returned from whence it came. It’s hard to overcome such a first impression.

Before we move on from these examples, I should point out that a title that simply names its subject can be a good title, in spite of all I have said, if the subject is inherently interesting and dramatic. If Grandpa Joe were Joseph Stalin, then “Memories of Grandpa Stalin” could draw readers. Part of the problem of “A Snowy Day” is that it offers one snowy day among a lifetime of days with snow. Why will this one be of interest? However, “Snow Day” is a good title because it refers to a special kind of snowy day in which the normal routines of life are suspended. That’s already a promising start to a story: the things that usually happen are not going to happen on the day of this story.

My second suggestion for writing good titles is to prioritize. The two most important tasks of a title are the same as the tasks of literary illustration: to draw the reader in and to make an apt promise.

I think the first part of this is obvious enough. The reader might be drawn in by dramatic subject matter named in the title, or by a mystery or contradiction, or by language that promises that the writer is good with words and can be relied upon to tell a good story. The apt promise is a little less obvious.

Years ago, I was one of a group of new writers seeing for the first time the illustrations that a group of new artists had made for our stories. The stories and art were going to be published together in an anthology, and a couple of the writers started to complain about their illustrations. The art did not depict any scene that actually took place in the story. The art director who had been overseeing the artists heard this and gave us writers an impromptu lecture about illustration. Most of the time, the purpose of illustration is not to show the reader what happens in the story. The illustration is, instead, a lure. It doesn’t matter whether the illustration is on the cover of a book or on the first page of a story. Its purpose is to tell the reader what kind of a narrative this is (western? SF? literary?) and to intrigue. The illustration should be sexy, dramatic, subtle, or whatever will best advertise the fiction. Once the reader finishes the story, the reader won’t usually judge the illustration by whether it depicted a scene from the story, but by whether the story fulfilled the genre and tone of the art.

The title pulls the reader in. Then the story delivers on the title.

Readers are harder on titles than they are on illustrations. When the story is over, they will forgive an illustration that didn’t picture the characters the way the reader did, for instance. Everyone knows that the writer didn’t create any illustrations, didn’t design the cover of the book. But the writer did choose (or approve) the title, and so the reader will be irritated if the story failed to live up to it.

A story can do all the things that I listed in the opening paragraph, but if it doesn’t pull the reader in and then seem apt at the end of the story, it’s not a good title.

Next month: Take this theory and practice it!


 

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.


Become a Patron!

We need all the help we can get. For more info on any number of flash-tabulous rewards including extra stories, personalized critiques, and more:

patreonfriend

Or…

If you enjoy Flash Fiction Online, consider subscribing or purchasing a downloadable copy. Your donations go a long way to paying our authors the professional rates they deserve. For only $0.99/issue that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Or subscribe for $9.99/year.

subscribe_button

Naming the Baby: Titles (Part II of II)

This is the third column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. The first column, and the entirety of his Short-Short Sighted columns (dedicated to writing very short fiction), visit his author page.

In part one of this article, Bruce explained some theory and then wrote: The title pulls the reader in. Then the story delivers on the title. This column goes from theory to practice.

Enough theory. What a writer lacking a title can really use is some Things to Try. Here are a few.

1. Look at your bookshelf. What are the patterns of the titles you see there? From where I’m writing this, I can see The Road to Gandolfo; Nip, Tuck, Dead; Shore Leave; The Dark Queen; Before Women Had Wings; Picturing the Wreck; Charity Ends At Home and Six to Break Even. Applying these patterns to a story that I’m writing about a perfumer named Olivia, I come up with these titles: The Formulary for Hollywood; Spritz, Sniff, Punch; Sniff Test; The Blood Perfume; Before Olivia Was Somebody; Punching the Diva; Celebrity Breeds Contempt and… Well, I can’t come up for anything at all for that last one. Not every pattern will be useful, and the pattern itself probably won’t survive this brainstorming process. But the patterns force my hand, make me think of words I wouldn’t otherwise consider. I like the word formulary. I like the dramatic action of punch. Some of these titles are giving away more of the story or theme than I want to telegraph. My favorite is “The Blood Perfume,” which is an unexpected combination that refers to something in the story and perhaps provides a nice parallel to the idea of blood money. That fits the action of the story. I would take out the article: “Blood Perfume.”

2. Scour poetic texts, starting with poems but also considering the plays of Shakespeare, books of the Bible or other scripture, the text of well-known speeches. In each of these, the language is compressed and full of symbol, metaphor, and simile. If the text is well-known, then you might use it to obliquely title your story. For example, Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Metaphors,” is a widely reprinted poem about pregnancy. Ray Vukcevich and I were looking for a title for our collaborative story about pregnancy, and we turned to this poem for ideas. The most obvious metaphor, which we also liked, was “A Riddle in Nine Syllables,” but we searched for other uses of this title and found that three story writers had already used it. There’s no copyright on titles. We could have given our story the same name. But we turned to another line of the poem and called our story “The Train There’s No Getting Off.”

Some well-known poems have been raided many times for titles. Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem “To His Coy Mistress” has yielded World Enough and Time, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” “Our Vegetable Love,” “Time’s Winged Chariot,” and A Fine and Private Place, with variations such as World Enough and Space-time, Worlds Enough and Time, “Vegetable Love,” and Fine and Private Place. Every time I re-read the poem, I see promising phrases that are begging for the right story: “Deserts of Eternity,” “Till the Conversion of the Jews,” “Thy Marble Vault,” “Amorous Birds of Prey,” “The Iron Gates of Life,” “Yet We Will Make Him Run.”

When I use a well-known poem, one that appears in most university survey textbooks, for example, I expect many readers to recognize the poem that I’m borrowing from and to think of my title in relation to the poem. However, I also look for titles in the lines of contemporary poets. Few readers will know these sources, so I can’t count on anyone making a connection. In such cases, I choose a phrase from the poem because the image or language are arresting and suit the story. My story title “These Shoes Strangers Have Died Of” is borrowed from Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, one of the better-known poetry books of the last half century, but still not likely to be recognized. Sadly.

3. Search the story for a title you wrote down without knowing it. Is there a line of dialog that sums up the central concern of the story? Is there a central metaphor in the story? These things make good titles, especially if the utterance or metaphor is something you want to call the reader’s attention to.

4. Consider the main situation or problem of the story. Can you come up with an oxymoron or some other image that suggests some sort of appropriate conflict or contradiction? Here’s one off the top of my head: “Barefoot in Ski Boots.” There’s a contrast between a foot that is bare and vulnerable and a foot in the stiffest, most armored footwear most of us will ever try on, but in addition to the contrast, there is the apparent impossibility of both at once. This title is intriguing, and if it will seem meaningful or symbolic after reading the story, it will seem apt. (But readers had better be able to figure out why this is an apt symbol!)

5. Play with familiar phrases by substituting with one surprising word. You Only Live Twice, A Hearse of a Different Color, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Monticello.

6. If the story is about one central character and that character has an interesting name, the character’s name may be all the title you need. But if the name alone isn’t enough, consider adding an attribute, as in The Talented Mr. Ripley. If the story’s setting has an interesting name, and if the setting is central to the story, then you might name the story with the setting, or at least including the setting. Cold Mountain, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Out of Africa. One of these days, I want to write a story set in Rifle Gap just so I can use the name as a title.

7. Try the sound effects of poetry such as alliteration, assonance or rhyme. I see rhymes often in song titles: “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter,” “Advance Romance,” “I Can’t Drive Fifty-five.” Sleepless in Seattle alliterates.

8. Consider whether the title can contribute something to the structure of the story. For instance, there are some poems that have lead-in titles where the title is treated as the first words of the poem. A story called “The First Commandment” could begin “…was the only commandment that Clarence failed to keep. He had no trouble honoring his parents, shunning false idols, or keeping the sabbath holy. But he had spent his whole life so far killing, and he didn’t see how he could stop now, even though he knew he should.”

But the title can also provide all sorts of symmetry with the ending of a story. For example, my story “The Dead Boy at Your Window” is written almost entirely in the third person. The story only refers to you in the title and in the very last line. Putting you in the title helps me to prepare the reader for that intimate shift in the last line. If you want something tricky to happen in the last line of the story, perhaps you can prepare the reader for this in the title.

9. Steal a title. If your story deals with the same thematic material as a famous story, or if your story is in some way an argument against that other story, consider appropriating the title. There is no copyright on titles. If you call a story or a novel The Dead, a great many readers will be thinking of the James Joyce story of the same title when they read your work. Of course, you are inviting an unflattering comparison if your story isn’t up to the comparison. And if you lift a title that is more idiosyncratic, such as The Last Picture Show, many readers will think you’re unimaginative or a copycat or a cheat. Stealing a title, or even using one by mistake when someone else has already attached it to a different work, certainly has drawbacks. But there may be stories for which it’s the right move.

10. Perhaps all you need is the right word. One-word titles will work well if they name a topic that is both central to the story and suggests strong emotion or drama. My students have recently published stories called “Jitters” (Kim Lundstrom) and “Buccaneers” (Stefanie Freele).

11. Finally, get into the habit of just noticing good titles and considering why they make you want to read further. Sometimes you won’t be able to say why a title is good, but just appreciating good titles will make you better at coming up with your own. David Wagoner’s poems are nearly always brilliant: “My Mother’s Nightmare,” “Disorderly Conduct,” “The Stone Dreamer,” “The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934.” That last one is a good example of a title that is arresting for being so long. Usually, short titles are best, but a longer title can be memorable or amusing simply because it is so long. The poet James Wright made such titles one of his signatures, is in the well-known “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Such titles aren’t limited to poetry. “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” is a Joyce Carol Oates story, and I love the title of a movie I have never seen: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. Don’t you want to know what that’s about? And the meter and rhyme help to make the title memorable so you can pass it on to your friends even at fifteen words.

That last consideration — whether readers can remember and say your title to others — should be a filter through which all prospective titles must pass. Are there any words in the title that readers won’t know how to pronounce? If so, then even if they read a positive review of the book, how will they remember a title they can’t say? How will they ask for it in the book store?

It’s useful, too, to think about how memory works. Sounds help us to remember, and so does image. The concrete is better than the abstract. You’d think that a phrase in common usage would be easy to remember as a title, but I know moviegoers who have seen Something’s Gotta Give, As Good As It Gets, and Nothing In Common, along with similarly named films, and have trouble matching the title to the movie. Familiar though these phrases may be, the abstractions don’t provide much glue for sticking the title to the remembered scenes. It’s much easier to attach a nice concrete title such as Steel Magnolias to remembered characters or scenes.

Hollywood usually gets titles right, and even titles on various “worst movie title” lists are actually pretty good. But even Hollywood gets it wrong now and then, and so will you. At the very least, every writer should be able to come up with better titles than the first one that came to mind, and every once in a while, we can hope to come up with a title that will be on everyone’s lips.


Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.


Become a Patron!

We need all the help we can get. For more info on any number of flash-tabulous rewards including extra stories, personalized critiques, and more:

patreonfriend

Or…

If you enjoy Flash Fiction Online, consider subscribing or purchasing a downloadable copy. Your donations go a long way to paying our authors the professional rates they deserve. For only $0.99/issue that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Or subscribe for $9.99/year.

subscribe_button

 

 

 

Our February Issue

Jake Freivald, Editor
Jake Freivald, Founder

Welcome to February!

You may have noticed that we skipped the January issue. For a variety of reasons, that month has always been difficult for me to manage, and this year was the worst in a long time. Next year I’ll bake a double issue into December (Merry Christmas!) and have a planned skip in January.

This month is a great return, however. Our first story, “Banshee Lullabies” by Chazley Dotson, is a modern-day fantasy. It has a wonderful opening line: The night my daughter sings my death, I am sitting in the living room floor, sifting through old pictures. It gets better from there, too. Check it out.

Our second story, “Clock-In” by Vanessa Blakeslee, uses an interesting technique — it immediately puts you in someone’s situation, being instructed by the narrator, which leads to a very natural use of imperative and second-person, better than the vast majority of second-person we get. In fact, I only thought about its use of this unusual voice well after accepting it. So, on second thought, ignore the technique (since it’s easy to do) and just enjoy the story.

Our third story, “Repair” by Steven Mathes, is a darkish view of the not-too-distant future. I get the feeling one of my kids will be the subject of a similar situation someday.

Speaking of kids, our Classic Flash this month is from Anton Chekhov. Its title is “A Living Calendar,” and it’s possible that it speaks to me mostly because this is the way I keep track of my life: I had my oldest (now 16) while I was in the Marine Corps; we moved to New Jersey when my third (now 12) was still in utero; my brother was living with us the year before my youngest (almost 2) was born. (There are eight total. A friend has taken to say “I haven’t seen you in two or three Freivalds,” where one Freivald is an indeterminate amount of time between 18 months and two-and-a-half years.) Looking at a photo of Anton and his family, it wouldn’t surprise me if the conversation this story contains is mostly autobiographical.

This month also marks the second installment of Bruce Holland Rogers’s Technically Speaking column. This is the first of two parts describing “Naming the Baby,” or creating titles. This month he talks through the issues, and next month he’ll discuss nuts-and-bolts and give examples.

Thanks for joining us! We’ll see you in March!

On the March

This month we’re a little more mainstream than usual.

Our first story, “Deconstructing The Nihilist” struck me as interesting because of the development of the narrator, who is essentially seeing the lack of development in her lover. His assessment of her becomes more disconcerting over time, and the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper result seems just right for this story.

I enjoyed our second story, “Ring Worlds” by Peter Fisk, for a variety of reasons: the detached British attitude of the protagonist (the author himself is Swedish), the dry humor, and the multiple misdirections contained in a mere 1,000 words. This is definitely not a mainstream story.

I confess to liking any story that combines blunt relationships and skillful typography, but that’s not the only reason I liked our third story. “The Whole Of The Brush,” by T D Edge, is a good example of a simple story that’s still very solid. One of the things that made it interesting for me was the choice of perspective: The narrator is essentially being told why he’s weak. And clearly he is weak; I find myself not liking him. Hearing this in his voice feels a little like talking to a friend that you want to smack upside the head and say, “Are you listening to yourself? Are you listening to your uncle?” The ending, though abrupt, is at the right place. This story wasn’t one of my favorites at first, but it grew on me quite a bit.

I felt we needed a little humor, so I included a Classic Flash from Punch called “Cutting Down”. And honestly, it somehow seemed appropriate during a month in which President Obama started a third war in the Arab world, continue to live through the so-called Great Recession, and yet still have signs of excess all around us.

Bruce Holland Rogers continues his Technically Speaking column with the second installment of “Naming The Baby,” which is, as you might guess, about titles.

April will be a bit foolish, as is our wont; although we’re publishing stories later in the month these days, we’ll still keep the foolishness coming.

Thanks for joining us! We’ll see you in April!