Title Fail

You wouldn’t know this from my blog posts, but I’m reasonably good with titles. I can pick that one killer phrase, the thing you deleted, the great image, and slap it at the top of my work or other people’s work. I even came up with some chapter titles for Dr. Cougar.

I hate clickbait titles, or obvious titles. If it sounds like the subject line of an email it’s a shitty title. If it involves the words “amaze” or “crazy” or “blow your mind” it has no place in a creative writing setting. The poets say that your titles in the table of contents should compel a person to turn to the poem itself. That’s not true of every poem in a manuscript, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

A good title can be a striking image, a good turn of phrase, or something that has two meanings. A little action is good. I like a shorter title. “Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form” is my least favorite title in the world. Try not to be pretentious. Imagine an event director at a bookstore introducing your book. Imagine your engineer relative asking for the book in a bookstore.

My book has six or seven chapters and a bunch of chapterlets, which are titled. For the most part, the titles are pretty strong. There was a correlation between the right title and the focus of the chapterlet that can’t be ignored. But I have two chapterlets with the same name and for the life of me, I cannot come up with a good title for them.

How do you determine titles?

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12 responses to “Title Fail

  1. There is no end to possible titles. Generally speaking, however, in the case of novels, short stories, and poetry the best title is whatever is the controlling image for the work since the controlling image contains in a concrete picture the essence of what the work is really about. The primary reason for this is that such an image, when it does contain the essence of the work, gives us readers control over our understanding of the work and what the author intended to do, just as for the author, when he realizes his controlling image, gains control over his work.
    All generalizations are false including this one but generally speaking the worst titles are abstractions.

      • I am very glad that my comment seems to have meant something to discerning readers and writers. You should always look for the controlling image in all you read, though sometimes it may be had to determine and other times just apparently not there in lesser work. Look at how many titles of short stories and novels are the controlling image itself. The American classic example is THE SCARLET LETTER. Most times you will discover your controlling image as you work–if you’re alert. Your subconscious will offer it up when it’s ready if you’ve done your “homework.” Occasionally, as probably with Hawthorne, you may know it before you start. Isabel Allende says all her work starts when an image strikes her fancy.

      • I don’t understand the clutches pearls reference.

        I think you have to keep the hyphen, Paul Lamb. It’s in line with Williams’ third set of rules: the optional ones. Few readers will notice if you violate them, but your adherence will demarcate you as a careful and sophisticated writer. Go with the hyphen

  2. Ger! How do I decide my titles? Two ways:

    1) they fall into my head by some mechanism I do not understand. I wake up, and they are in my mouth; OR,

    2) you make them up for me.

    There.

  3. Yikes! There’s that patchwork square I don’t recognise! Where does it come from? I just woke up, and it was in my… I mean, it was on my message! Help!

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