Titling

There are two main schools of thought on when to give a title to your work in progress, and any number of variations between those poles. The question mainly concerns the timing but there are perhaps some unforeseen consequences that result from the stance you take on the choice, and it is those that this post will concern itself with. The question then, boiled down to its simplest, is this: Before or after?

If a writer decides on the work’s title before they have started writing or before they have made very significant progress then there is a good chance that the title itself will play a deciding role in how the events in the narrative develop. This may not necessarily be the case, however, if the writer is the sort that prior to any actual typing meticulously plans out each character, scene, and detail beforehand and then unfailingly sticks to that blueprint. I am not sure how many writers there are of this type though; my own approach is radically different and so it’s hard for me to imagine working in that way. At any rate, if a writer does not have virtually the entire novel planned out then the subconscious pull the title exerts on the thought processes undergone when engaged in writing is at least likely to be moderate and may even be significant. That could be a positive, however, guiding the writer as she directs her characters towards their goals and the overall plot’s climax. The title may even be a clue as to the nature of that climax, or to the broader meaning that the author wishes to express through their work, as Nick has pointed out in regards to Thomas Pynchon.

On the other hand, if a writer instead puts off deciding on a title until the entire work is finished – perhaps even stubbornly refusing to consider a title before then and banishing thoughts related to such when they unintentionally crop up (that’s where I’m at with my current project) – then the writer is creating a sort of distance between the events within their book and the presentation of those events via whatever the title may turn out to be. The freedom from being influenced by the title you’ve chosen, whether subconsciously or consciously, may carry a price though. After all, a book’s title is crucially important as it is the very first approach a reader will make to your work and we needn’t labor the point of how important first impressions are. Still, there may be good reasons to keep one’s options open, and perhaps primary amongst them might be a positive view of intuition and the benefits that can come from trusting it. After the final words have been typed and the entire story arc has been neatly tied off (or purposely left open) then there will naturally arise within the writer – any writer – a feeling towards the project and that feeling may perfectly capture the mood and the ethos of the book. It is a bit of a gamble, I suppose, but trusting that that inner voice will carry through could have better benefits than deciding on the title ahead of time.

Of course, even if a title is chosen ahead of time, and I’ve done that with essays in particular on many occasions myself, an author can always take a loose view towards it and allow themselves a commitment-free attitude. The guiding effects of the chosen title will still be there but not to the degree that they become overriding. If, as the project develops, it becomes apparent that the title just somehow doesn’t fit anymore, then it can always be jettisoned in favor of another that is more apt and the exercise of having first chosen a title that the work outgrows will have been instructive when it comes to deciding on another title. The bottom line quite naturally is that there are no hard and fast rules but that, as with everything related to writing, it behooves the author to think through this point ahead of time and consider what they would prefer: a guidepost on the journey or a flash of insight at its end.

Of the titles to my existing projects, only Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies was decided ahead of time. With the others I preferred to put the choice off and let the project tell me itself, as it were, what it wished to be called. As I said, that’s the approach I’ve taken on my current work in progress as well. And speaking of, don’t forget that ebook versions of Randolph’s One Bedroom and Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies are free all month on Smashwords as part of their site-wide July sale:

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/andrewoberg.

And if you like those, I still recommend getting the paperback versions.

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One Comment

  1. Nick Cody
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Working Title Films. I think that’s the name of the production company the Coen brothers always use for their movies. I thought it was pretty clever! Maybe “Working Title” could do the job until the real name is bestowed.

    Anyway, thanks for the post! Playing around with titles can be fun, and it’s also fun to think of others that are memorable. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for Woody Allen’s film, is probably a better title than it is a movie. As for Joyce’s Ulysses, I read somewhere (probably Harold Bloom) that Bloomsday would have been a better choice, but who can second guess one of the supposed greatest of the century?

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