Title Work: This is Not About Your Mortgage…Or Maybe It Is

Title Work: This Is Not About Your Mortgage…Or Maybe It Is

by Stacy Post

First of all, let me qualify this by saying I am not a teacher. I don’t hold an M.F.A. from any sort of writing school and I haven’t pondered this topic too deeply for fear that if I analyze my own methods too much the tap might stop running. I do admire teachers greatly and experience jealousy pangs with regularity when I encounter writers who have completed an M.F.A. degree. They both represent different possibilities of how I might have turned out had I chosen a different road.

With that said, I am a public librarian with a shiny M.L.S. degree and I live almost daily in the world of titles. Book titles primarily, but article and review titles are pervasive in my reading duties. Poetry titles too, when I’m off duty. I read a lot. It’s a job requirement. (Nice work if you can get it.)

I’ve been invited by the editor to discuss title creation and I hope you’ll pull up a chair and contemplate with me for a spell. I’m a doer. I’m a crack the knuckles, roll up our sleeves and get to work kind of librarian and writer. Yes, I’m a writer too.

How do you create a title for your work? The writing you’ve poured your heart into, fretted over every detail, except perhaps the title, and now want to make stand out? Or make it hum? Or make it whisper in the reader’s ear?

What can a librarian who writes surmise? Let me ask a few questions:

  • In your opinion, what should a title do for the work?
  • Do you feel anxiety when it’s time to label your writing?
  • How flexible are you to changing the title once you’ve created it?

When I get an initial idea, I’m often unsure if it is a poem or a story. I put words down, move them around and if I can’t stop the tap, that’s a good indication the work is headed for fiction and not poetry.

That initial spark I write down and set aside.

Once the work is written, then I make up what I like affectionately to call title hooey. Yes, that’s a real word. Hooey. Brainstorming titles can be fun if you let your mind be playful.

Take that initial idea and toss it on its head. Stretch it like Silly Putty. Rearrange words. Ask the title to audition. Make up title contestants, if you like that sort of challenge. Make your title candidates fight for position.

Here’s what I have developed over time:

  • I believe a title should make the reader ask questions before reading another word.
  • I don’t think of title work as labeling; that’s too simplistic.
  • I change my titles many times before I settle on the final one.

I suffer, as many librarians may attest, to title saturation. There are so many titles that are similar it’s ridiculous. Don’t believe me? Go to www.worldcat.org and type in the word, murder. You will see literally hundreds of thousands of titles that utilize that word. It takes away the suspense and danger.

Palpitations dissipate when the reader is desensitized. The world is largely desensitized.
So how do you make your title snazzy? How do you make it snap, crackle and pop? How do you hook a reader to peruse further?

Here’s my big secret: create a mini-mystery with your title to pique the reader’s interest. Curiosity is a strong motivator that compels people to pause and reconsider. Here are some titles from contributors at Referential Magazine whose titles popped for me:

  • Frank Scozzari’s Kill Me with Chocolate Why would someone kill with chocolate? Who is the killer? How is it going to happen?
  • Madeline Mora-Summonte’s If This Is Crazy If? What does the author establish as crazy? Who is crazy? Are you intrigued yet?
  • Val Dering Rojas’ This Is Not a Train Poem It’s not? Then what kind of poem is it? Is it a poem at all?
  • Rose Auslander’s Hulk at 50 I never thought a superhero would age. What would the Hulk look like at fifty?
  • Bryan Borland’s The Day I Pack His Things Oh, no! What kind of day would make a man do that?
  • Liz Dolan’s Maybe His Stories Saved Him Maybe? Saved him from what? You’ll have to read more to find out!
  • Melanie Faith’s Treadmill Why would someone write a poem about a treadmill? Is a treadmill poem-worthy? I’m intrigued.
  • Juanita Garciaodoy’s To Terry with Stars in Her Pockets How does a person carry stars in her pockets? What will the side effects be? I want to know!

When a strong title creates curiosity, the reader will follow through. At least this reader does. I anticipate what will happen and I’m often surprised by what actually happens. Isn’t that one of the goals of writing, to surprise the reader?

Okay, so let’s discuss title revision. Just as you would refinance a house when the interest rates dip drastically low, you sometimes have to re-think your original title work. Every word is an investment. Each word needs to invite the reader into the world of your poem or story.

This is where you toss aside the notion that a title is a label. Go ahead. Fling it over your shoulder. Or hurl it into the air like a catapulted piano. (I love that image. I’d like to take credit for it, but can’t. It’s from the television show, Northern Exposure. For me, it’s an example of hooey perfection.)

What your title is in actuality is a complicated piece of representation that holds a promise, much like a mortgage, of what you’ll receive in the end. When the reader asks questions from your title, you need to be sure your work answers those questions. If it doesn’t, then you have the wrong title.

If you write the work before creating the title, you already have answers. You just need to create a title that stimulates the questions. In other words, what is the, what if, of your written piece? See how that might tie back to the original initiating idea?

Another way of accessing those questions is to remove a key line or turning point. Pick your favorite one. Could that line stand alone? Would it make a good title? Does the work still function with that line now propped at the top?

What if the title was cut off from the poem or story accidentally? Would it tell the reader, if the reader discovered it on a scrap of paper floating through the air, what your work might be about? This is the notion of context, a way of entering the poem or story with an assumption or expectation.

You could also flip-flop the question and answer scenario I mentioned above. Make the title your answer and the work the question. See how I’m still playing around with hooey?

Examine your current titles and ask: Is the mystery alive? Does your title suggest there is more to the poem or story? What questions might the reader pose…if any? If your title doesn’t spark curiosity, then it needs work. If you uncover questions, then you are on your way!

If you can’t find the questions because you feel you are too close to the work, read the title to someone else. I bounce title ideas off of my kids all the time. When I get that raised brow, I know there’s a question. Ask your listener, what do you think this story or poem is about based on this title?

The answers might surprise you.

It takes practice. It takes tweaking. It might take twenty drafts. Keep an open mind. When you land the right title, the one that shouts, hums or whispers as you’d like it to, it makes all the difference.

Remember this is the opinion of one writer who happens to struggle with title work all the time. I don’t get it right on the first try. Maybe not even the tenth. But I respect the real estate the title holds. I don’t want the reader to pass it by without notice.

Don’t let the process of creating a title overwhelm you. There is great value in playful practice. At some point though, you have to put that title to work. Who knows? Someday, it might just pay the real mortgage.

-refers from the word title in Jessica Patient’s story The Department of Extinct Objects – Case Number 1985

  1. Great piece! I love this: “I believe a title should make the reader ask questions before reading another word.” And to answer at least one question before it is asked, the Hulk really did turn 50 this year 🙂

  2. When I’m browsing for new books at the bookstore or library, it’s the title that grabs my attention. I think an engaging, intriguing title is far more important than a flashy cover! I always admire a compelling title probably because titling my writing is such a struggle for me. This is a terrific article. Thanks for the tips, Stacy!

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Rose and Laura, to discuss titles with us!

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