Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Candice has a piece on the importance of titles on her blog, and on the difficulty of finding good ones. I enjoy a good title very much myself, and though I’m unlikely to buy a book by its cover there is no doubt that a provocative title draws me in like the moths who come at night to circle our deck light. I agree that titles are critical.

I also enjoy just making up titles, and quite often an evocative title that I’ve come up with has “triggered” the basic idea for a story that follows. At other times the story and idea seem to come together as a pair. Sort of like, if you order now you’ll also receive… But there are plenty of times when the perfect (or at least decent) title doesn’t strike me and then I have to work for it. Here are some of the things I do, although I don’t know if these will help Candice at all.

1). I love poetic sounding titles, Nightmare with Angel (Stephen Gallagher), She is the Darkness (Glen Cook), and where is the best place to find poetic titles? From reading poetry. (Apologies to Stewart Sternberg.) I read a lot of poetry, and write it. Most of my favorite titles from my own work have come from poems I’ve written, or were jotted down first as possible lines in poems. “A Cold of Snow and Ghosts” and “Wanting the Mouth of a Lover” are examples of this, both titles for vampire related stuff. I’ve sold a poem with the line in it, “The Language of Scorpions,” and I’m still waiting for the story that should go with that title. Reading poetry also, for me at least, seems to shift my brain into the mode that allows me to string words together in something approximating pretty. Maybe the process will be the same for you.

2). I’ve also found quite often that if I can’t discover a title from outside a story I can discover one within. What I mean by this is that the perfect title, or at least a good workable one, often lurks in the prose that you’ve used to actually construct a tale. My story “Splatter of Black” was originally titled “Turnabout is Fair Play,” which is both awkward and cliché. The editor wanted a title change so I went through the story line by line until I found the phrase “splatter of black.” “Thief of Eyes” came about in much the same way. You might be able to speed up the process of finding such lines in your own tales by using the computer’s search capabilities. If you’ve written a horror story, search for words like “black,” “night,” “fear,” “shadow,” “hate,” etc, and see what phrases pop out at you from your own piece. If it’s a romance, how about searching for “love,” “kiss,” “embrace,” “sunrise,” “dream,” etc. If you write romance you probably have a better idea of good words than I do. If it’s a mystery, what about “clue,” “murder,” “weapon,” “blood,” etc.

3). Some people borrow titles from the classics. Hemingway did this all the time. The Bible seems a good place to find possible titles, especially the psalms and proverbs. The King James version is actually quite poetic, which is fitting since parts of it seem to have been written by Shakespeare. (Speaking of Shakespeare, he has a great line that I want to use as a title or in a poem somewhere, sometime. It’s “We mourn in black. Why mourn we not in blood?”) But classics such as The Arabian Nights, or The Odyssey can be great sources for possible titles.

Anyway, there are my suggestions for finding titles. They work for me. Maybe they’ll work for others.


Bernita said...

Excellent, Charles.
I've always maintained a title is your first "hook."

Drizel said...

Thanks for always giving kewl tips.....I usually get my title within.....
My tattoo is on my other blog if you wana see....the link is on the writing site:)

Lana Gramlich said...

Although I'm not a writer, I absolutely abhor trying to title my artwork. A friend of mine who bought one of my favorite dragon sketches absolutely insisted on a title, so I responded in kind; "Tulips at Night." Of course, there's not a tulip in sight & the shadows indicate sunlight, but that'll learn him. ;)

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm terrible with titles, so I really appreciate your hints, Charles.

For years, I kept a list of intriguing typos I found while copyediting that I thought would make good titles—things along the lines of "peaches and scream." But no stories for them ever blossomed, and the list eventually vanished.

Steve Malley said...

I'm pretty sure Dennis Lehane uses method #1 to come up with such gems as Prayers for Rain and Darkness Take My Hand.

James Lee Burke? Well, Black Cherry Blues, the Lost Getback Boogie, Purple Cane Road and Last Car to Elysian Fields all can be found inside the pages of his prose. Often in obscure spots.

Oh, and for classic sources, let us not forget Gone With the Wind, drawn from Psalm 103...

Lisa said...

These are some great ideas and since I'm not published, so I have no good recommendations to make, but I can say that the titles for works in progress tend to be inspired by underlying themes within them, just like sometimes character names are inspired by characters from film, movies or television.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, yep, you're right.

Etain, nice tat.

Lana, what about your titles for me? I like those.

Shauna, "peaches and screams" is great. I'm having ideas even as I write this.

Steve, yes, on "Gone with the Wind." I forgot that one. I like Burke's titles a lot. "In the electric mist with confederate dead" is my favorite.

Lisa, that's a good way to do it.

the walking man said...

I have to agree, I really don't get non-titled pieces of graphic art titled with something along the lines of "non titled 67"

Not being published more than a couple of times I don't know that my opinion counts but my titles come from the same place all of my writing comes from. A phrase or word just passes through my head and that's the title.

Rarely will it be something from within the piece but in its own way it is germane to the piece. One day i will throw up "21st Century Jesus" on my blog and you'll know what I mean.

Like the short post from yesterday though, the piece was written and then "A Start" came to me and that was the title. But are all titles of necessity the hook to get the browsers interest?

Damned if I know, I just know that every piece of creation needs a title even if it's "Tulips at Night"...for some reason being the dragon at day that title from the short description of the piece would make me think more, contemplate it more just because of the dichotomy between the title and the art.

my four cents worth



Farrah Rochon said...

I remember the first time I heard about your book, COLD IN THE LIGHT, I was completely intrigued by the images that title brought to mind.

Great list of tips! I'm horrible at titles, so I usually ask family members and friends to give me their ideas.

JR's Thumbprints said...

A majority of time, when I'm reading a short story, the title becomes a faded memory. Especially, if I become engrossed in what the characters are doing. The title usually comes into play on a second reading.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, 21st Century Jesus is a great title.

Farrah, I believe I got "Cold in the Light" from song lyrics, although it wasn't consciously chosen. I did later find music that I had with that phrase in it, although not as a title of any song.

JR, I often remember titles better than the story myself.

Michelle's Spell said...

Titles are one of my favorite things to do for some reason. Friends often make me title their work which I enjoy. I'm partial to longer titles and strange ones, especially Brautigan -- In Watermelon Sugar, Loading Mercury With A Pitchfork, stuff like that.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Yeah - I'm usually no good at titles. I think you're right about finding titles in the story you've just written. I have lots of working titles my friends just roll their eyes at, but once I find a title from inside the story, it's usually better. But in my head, I'm still thinking of it with the working title name.

LoveRundle said...

Once in a really great while, I come up with a title I really like, though lately I'm running low on those. I have a few that I need to fix now.

miller580 said...

I love to title personally. I typically find my title about the third draft and almost always comes from within. When I edit, I read outloud to an empty room. I like to feel the words roll off. It's at this stage...a solid read through, that a phrase or a couple of words ping. That ping is the title. This works for me.

A few months back, my poetry class did a reading along with another class from another school. (My teacher taught both)

In my group, one girl (who wrote fantastic poems) also loved to title. Her titles were long sentences.

The other class mostly used one word titles like "purple" and "monster" or "untitled." Yes, thirteen poets in that group and 18 "untitled" poems.

After, the "untitled" class commented on the "ego" of the poet because she thought her poetry required long "pompous" titles.

On one hand we have clever and witty titles that (though long) were almost like poetry in themselves, and on the other we had "untitled" I thought this was ironic...coming from writers who claim to be wordsmiths.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, "Loading Mercury with a pitchfork" is great.

Rachel, at first it was very hard for me to switch titles once I'd named a story, but I no longer feel that way. A good title change takes me over.

Christina, good luck with the ones you need to fix. Maybe try some poetry.

Miller580, that is rather ironic. Titles, to me, are actually part of a story or poem. So calling something untitled is really weak. The fact that so many did it is just sorta lame. They shouldn't be attacking someone who put in more effort than they did.

cs harris said...

Maybe that's my problem--I've never been able to write poetry. I do enjoy reading it, though!