One of the best parts of writing is picking a title.
At least, it is for me. I mean — after all that brainstorming and thinking you have to sum everything up into a few words that will attract, awe, and draw. It’s like a fun, twisted (and also rather screwed up) creative puzzle that is just a zillion kinds of tingly wow.
I used to pick titles before I had started writing the actual story.
I used to do it a lot. I think lots of people do. And, I never saw a drawback to it until… erm… well, not too long ago. See, I finally realized that by naming my work before I had written it, I was actually getting so caught up in the hoopla of naming something that was going to be the most awesome story I’ve written to date that I forgot to actually write my story.
And then, a funny thing happened… the title wrote my story, not me.
And I don’t mean that in a good way. A good writing brain takeover is when a character starts writing themselves, or when a good guy becomes a bad guy and steals the real bad guy’s thunder without you realizing it. A bad writing brain takeover is one that stifles your creativity.
See, I would think up these story ideas (I call them sparks because all my stories start as kindling that transform into massive flames) and then immediately felt the need to name them so I had some sort of control over them. It’s exactly like when I get a pet, I have to name it. I name it so I can love it and nurture it, but also so I can own it and make it poop outside and not chew shoes.
And I did that with my stories and thought nothing of it until I was sitting there one day staring at half a story and wondering what the hell happened to my original idea and why it was so…. meh… and just…. you know, blah…. and boring? Well… yeah, we’ll go with boring.
My beta readers thought it was okay. My editor was all “cool” towards it.
But something just wasn’t there for me.
I had called it Verdigris & Lilacs in some random wave of ingenious (or silly) concept of high fashion and colorful play on words. I slapped that title on the word document and my computer folder and even on my research folder (production bible is usually what I call it). I told everyone that I was writing Verdigris & Lilacs and they all went “ooh” and “ahh” accordingly. I mean, yeah, it’s a pretty cool sounding title, but the book was just meh.
Why? Because the title wasn’t the story that was begging to be written.
In my haste to control and own and just dominate and write the crap out of the original story spark, I rushed to a cool sounding title that had to do with an image that happens once in the entire book — and maybe a repetitive smell alongside it. That’s it.
Verdigris for life out of one scene? Guilty as charged.
All because I wanted to have some sense of control of my creative process.
Because I wanted to feel like I knew where the story was going before I’d even begun to write it. But here’s the thing–you never do, you shouldn’t, and you can’t if you are truly being creative.
For me, picking titles right off the cuff is like getting in bed with a really hot partner and then finding out they went a bit… prematurely. Tada!
Total. Freaking. Bummer.
Then, you’re left staring at each other wondering what to do next so it isn’t as awkward as you think and know it is and so you can recover your losses and make something magic happen because it’s already 11 o’clock and you have work the next day.
Who knows… Maybe you just show them the door? Maybe you do recover and it’s just good, or all right, or satisfactorily sufficient.
But that magic spark–that raw creativity and emotionally charged surge that cannot be contained–has been squashed, never to see the light of day again.
Same thing goes with prematurely picking a title — at least for me.
So, I’ve sworn off premature title picking… completely.
I didn’t even pick the title for my latest work in progress, a new adult fantasy/paranormal romance until my beta reader suggested it. I just slapped a “working title” – something I identify it as like, “ghost love thing,” or “teddy bear” – on it and kept moving on. In this case, the working title was a nickname in the story: Taloo. When she started asking me about the real title, I told her I didn’t know and then explained all of the above.
She laughed, saying that she’d never thought of it that way but that it made complete sense. Then, she had the courageous nerve to ask if I had any thoughts about finally naming it. You know, about a real title.
Yep, she opened that can of worms. But, she also made me have an epiphany.
When she asked me if I had any thoughts — I realized that I had several. I knew what I wanted to conjure with the title. I knew what I wanted to make people feel, what I wanted to hint at — because the story was already written.
It was already all there, just waiting to be summarized… not the other way around.
And, it’s happened again and again with my current works in progress. I find that I’m happier than ever with my first drafts (still shitty, by the way) and that I don’t ever have that, “well, crap” feeling looking at my stories halfway through.
Do I have control of my stories?
Absolutely not. And, I think, I’m a better writer for it… and I dare every other writer out there — beginner, lurker, newbie, oldie — to try this if they don’t already.
See what comes of waiting for just the right moment… that elusive, but closer-than-you-think, perfect title.
Side Note: I have since removed the “Verdigris & Lilacs” title and revised/edited that story. It would later go on to win me honors in my MFA in Creative Writing program. It’s still one of my favorite stories, and one day I’ll be sure to share it with you–under its proper, self-realized title, “Savior.”