25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Title Deed

With Helaine Becker, Brenda Chapman, Krista Floss, Nora Gold, K.D. Miller and Kathy Page.

This month for Fiction Craft, I asked a group of writers: How do you choose titles for your works?

I had a terrible working title for my first novel. Terrible. It was so bad that I will not repeat it here. Thankfully, an editor friend, named Meg Taylor, told me it was a terrible title. I listened and instead called the book Snakes & Ladders. This was a much more pleasing and appropriate title because the novel is a YA book, intended for readers in the 10-13 age group. That?s an in-between age, when young people typically still have one foot in childhood and at least a toe in the adult world (sometimes much more). At that age, a young person will sometimes still play games like Snakes & Ladders, meaning they will still behave like children and do the sorts of things children do. (And indeed, my characters do play Snakes & Ladders in the book.) At other times, they will play or experiment with adult things, such as drinking and sex. (They do that, too.) Snakes & Ladders is very much a book about negotiating that transitional period, and as I wrote the book, themes of verticality ? embodied at times by actual snakes and actual ladders ? became apparent and I drew them out. Growing up is, of course, one of the great themes of childhood and of life, as is falling down, or descending. (We all end up in the ground.) I wish I knew the moment when I thought of the new title, but I cannot remember it. I do know that the second it came to me, I knew it was right and there wasn?t a force that would have compelled me to change it without a fight. Thankfully, others like the title immediately, so there were no struggles. A good title is, in a way, invisible like that; it fits the book perfectly and compels no debate. The novel I?m working on at present has a title that I took from a Phillip Larkin poem. I won?t say what the title is, because I?m highly superstitious (and protective) in that regard. I feel that letting the title loose now would be an act of betrayal to the novel in progress. But I will say it is a title I have had for years, since even before the idea for the novel came to me. Maybe it was the germ that gave birth to the novel, I do not know. But when the idea for the novel did come to me, I knew this title that I?d been carrying in my pack pocket for some time was perfect. Hopefully I?ll eventually get to see if others feel the same way.

Now, let?s find out how some other writers struggle with titles.

 

Helaine Becker is the author of numerous works of fiction, and other books, for young people, including the novels Gottika, Trouble in the Hills and How to Survive Absolutely Anything. She lives in Toronto, ON.

I'm not the kind of person who ever does the something exactly the same way twice. I would have flunked Assembly Line 101. And don't expect last week's cake to come out the same if I make it again this week. Last week, cinnamon. This week - ?

That taste for variety applies to my writing life too. I flit between different kinds of projects ? fiction and nonfiction, picture books and Young Adult novels. I figure out titles for each book in different ways too.

Sometimes, the entire project starts with a title. That's how both The Ode to Underwear and Alphabest got their starts.

Sometimes, the project's title jumps out at me while I'm writing. That's how Gottika got its name. Gottika is the fictional city where the book's action takes place. As a title, I liked how it signalled the gothic elements of the story, while also echoing the name of the sci-fi film, Gattica.

Naming those books was easy. Other times, I struggle to choose a title. In those cases, it might wind up chosen via a group decision with the editors and marketers. That was the case for The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea.

Every book is different. And I say Vive la difference!

 

Brenda Chapman is the author of numerous novels, including Cold Mourning, Butterfly Kills and In Winter?s Grip. She lives in Ottawa, ON.

I have a tortured relationship with the book title selection process. In fact, choosing a title can take me hours or days of searching and experimenting before I come up with something I am happy to send to my publisher. Perhaps, this is because I realize that a title can make or break sales: the title needs to give a sense of the book, should be memorable and has to have that intangible star quality?picture Margaret Atwood rolling the words off her tongue as she announces the Giller winner.

I usually wait until the manuscript is complete before I attempt to come up with a title; however, I start thinking about ideas long before. For me, the themes in the book are a good place to start. This might involve rereading the manuscript, looking for a word or phrase to hang a title on. For example, for my first adult murder mystery, I decided to incorporate the word ?winter? because the winter setting was such a dominate part of the story. I tried various word combinations and looked through books of poetry to see if I could find any language or images. I checked out song titles and kept my mind open to evocative language when watching television or listening to the radio. Finally, I settled on an expression In Winter?s Grip.

The next steps involve searching out the title on Amazon to see if my creation has been used before. It can be unbelievably difficult to come up with something original that has not been used; however, this can sometimes be done by tinkering with the words. In some cases, the idea must be discarded entirely when Amazon shows a long list of recent books with the same or approximately the same title.

Once I?ve let a prospective title simmer for a while and feel somewhat happy with it, I will send the suggestion to my publisher or editor to see what they think. Sometimes, I offer a few variations. A few times, I?ve been asked to try again, but more often than not, the title offering has been accepted. In Winter?s Grip was one that got the thumbs up. Another recent title, Butterfly Kills, was accepted without reservation.

I always let the publisher know that I am open to changing the title since it is ultimately part of the marketing plan. The publisher has the book industry experts who know what will work and what will not. The triumph is in finding a title that generates a cover that has readers picking up the book months after it has arrived on the shelves.

 

Krista Foss is the author of the novel Smoke River. She lives in Hamilton, ON.

Not every writer is equal to the task of naming his or her own work. Like me, you may be among that subset of scribes with a ?title? problem, i.e. you are so eager and so in love with immersing yourself into the muck of writing itself, that the title feels like a bother, a frill, a distraction. You use a placeholder title ? something quick and not very thoughtful ? in order to give your project a name. Later, you might convince yourself this placeholder will do just fine as in, ?Hey! that?s pretty intuitive, not bad at all.? This is dangerous. So if you recognize yourself, here?s what I recommend.

Tip 1: Get feedback early. If another writer or reader, ordinarily a lexical gymnast, reports back that your title ?pretty much sucks?, don?t ignore him or her. Others will not be so forthright. With them, look for the deer-in-the-headlights visage or even the slightest wince when you say your title out loud. Not everyone will love a title, but when there?s a dearth of positive response, it?s the universe telling you your title needs some work.

Tip 2: Ask for help. People other than you may do a better job of identifying prospective titles. Be open to their suggestions. It?s a glorious thing when an astute reader plucks a specific phrase, concrete object, or geographic/temporal marker from your work that perfectly broadcasts something elemental about your story, and to boot, has lovely thematic reverberations upon second and third thoughts. Have the humility to recognize this. You can always make such suggestions your own with slight adjustments (for example, the power and glory of the definite article.) Even if you anticipate hating someone else?s suggestions, invite them. In the very least, they could trigger you to think of something you like better.

Tip 3: Look to the people who get it right, and follow their lead. Many great titles are one of the following: the name of a specific place, person or song from the story; a marker of time such as a specific day or month; a resonant abstraction or piece of dialogue, or the role or alter ego of a major character.

My final tip? Resist titles you think make your story or book heave with gravitas, seriousness. Smoke River is the title of my debut novel, but it?s not the original title. I started with a placeholder that I got used to, and convinced myself worked. My agent told me otherwise. I offered up a whole bunch of other options that to me sounded sweeping and ?important.? Nobody was swayed. Smoke River worked because it?s the name of a specific feature from my story, and importantly, it?s a boundary between people who are divided in many other ways, so it has thematic echo. I was grumpy about not having a ?bigger? title, but both my agent and editor saved me from myself. A title that over-reaches ? as heady as it might sound in the present, will make you cringe every time you hear it a year or two later. Avoid that pain up front. Go deep into the specifics of your own writing and you will find your title. And if you have a title problem, suck up the ego, and get others involved.

 

Nora Gold is the author of the novel Fields of Exile. She lives in Toronto, ON.

Choosing the title for my first book, Marrow and Other Stories, was quite straightforward, but what happened with titling my second book, which just came out last week, was unexpected and instructive. When I first submitted this novel to Dundurn, it was called Exile, and I was very committed to this title. But Dundurn told me I?d have to change it because they?d just published another book by the same name. I was very disappointed, and certain I?d never find a title so perfect. My novel is about a young woman living in Toronto and experiencing herself as being ?in exile? because she longs to be back in Jerusalem. Exile is a major theme in Jewish tradition, so I decided to start searching for a new title by reading exile-themed Hebrew poetry. To my delighted surprise, I soon discovered an almost unknown Hebrew poem called ?Exile,? written by one of Israel?s most well-known and beloved poets, Leah Goldberg. I began reading its opening lines (translation by Michael Gluzman):

 

Exile

How difficult the word how many memories

of hatred and slavery

and because of it we have shed so many tears

exile

and yet, I?ll rejoice in the fields of exile...

 

As soon as I got to the words fields of exile, I knew I had my title. I had a physical reaction to these words: I felt something electrical in my body.

So in the end, thanks to Dundurn, I wound up with a much better title - a richer, stronger, more evocative one - than before. And now I feel lucky that circumstances required me to reconsider the title I?d originally had.

 

Deborah Kerbel is the author of several novels, including Bye, Bye, Evil Eye; Mackenzie, Lost and Found; Girl on the Other Side; and Lure. She lives in Toronto, ON.

Titles are a big deal. Every author knows it. We all want to believe that the only thing that matters is the writing. But let?s face it, even if a reader isn?t going to judge our book by its cover, there?s a chance they going to pick it for the title. For an author, choosing a title for our book can be as tricky as picking a name for our child ? except little Hortense can eventually change her name if she doesn?t like it. Our book, not so much.

Thankfully, choosing a title is usually a fairly simple process for me. Whenever I begin a new manuscript, I name it something very basic. At the conception stage of a book, this working title is just a way to save my Scrivener file. Nothing more. I know the working title will never stick. But it does give me the freedom to avoid fretting about titles and get down to the business of writing the story. I?m a ?seat-of-the-pants? writer, so agonizing over a title before I?ve had a chance to pin down where the story is going doesn?t make any sense. With every book I?ve written, the final title has inevitably revealed itself to me at some point during the writing process. Usually it happens around the time the manuscript begins to take more definitive shape and the words start to flow freely. All I have to do is to look up from the story long enough to catch the title and jot it down as it goes sailing by. All in all, it?s usually a very organic process.

Once the title has revealed itself, I do a quick online search to make sure it hasn?t been used a hundred times already. Although a title can?t be copyrighted, I do want to make sure readers can easily find my book. There?s only one instance where the title I?d chosen had been overused and my editor sent me back to the drawing board to find another one. Needless to say, that process was decidedly less-than-organic. List-making, email debates, and fretting ensued.

 

Doretta Lau is the author of the short fiction collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? She lives in Vancouver and Hong Kong.
When I start a project, I usually have a title in mind. I need this element in place in order to write with purpose and direction. If I don?t have it, I find it?s a bit like driving without a map ? I get lost and frustrated and thirsty. For me, a title functions as a portal to another world; it tells the reader what to expect and how to read the text that follows. Sometimes I change the title when I've completed my final draft if I discover that the initial idea has morphed into something else all together. A title also gives the work a personality. Will the story be witty and whimsical like a George Saunders piece or melancholic and magical like a Banana Yoshimoto tale? It baffles me when a writer can do the difficult work of creating a world, but then fail to choose a title that ignites the imagination. Every word in a story counts ? the title is as important the final sentence.
The title How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is taken from a Tang dynasty poem by Meng Jiao that?s about maternal love; I first read the translated line in a news story about the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming years ago and I was determined to write a story that captured that linguistic oddness and beauty. Several of the stories in my collection refer to music: Bach, A$AP Rocky, the Weakerthans and Smog. I have a story that didn?t make it into the collection called ?All Love, All Beauty? that?s from a Philip Larkin poem; when I began writing it I called it ?Bookcases? because the action hinged on moving a set of bookcases from Cobble Hill to Morningside Heights. (Yes, I realize that this description makes it sound like I write in the ?Asperger style?, but that?s not really the case.) Every day I see or hear things that seem to be perfect titles to me and I write them down for future use.

 

K.D. Miller is the author of the short story collections All Saints, Give me Your Answer and Litany on a Time of Plague. She lives in Toronto, ON.

In my experience, a story can choose its own title, and a title all but announce itself to a story. Nor is it unusual for the author to be the last one to know what?s going on.

My favourite title anecdote concerns Margaret Lawrence. When she finished her first novel, she was at a loss as to what to call it. It was full of Biblical imagery, so she went through the Psalms, trying out this phrase or that. Nothing worked. Finally, when she was about to give up, her eye fell on the first three words of the first page of the manuscript: ?The stone angel ??

My forthcoming book, All Saints, was All Saints for years. Then I decided to call it Still Dark, after one of the stories. My previous books? titles had all been borrowed from individual stories, and ?still dark? suited the overall tone of the collection. But then, the phrase ?fool?s refuge? jumped out at me from the story ?Return.? It?s uttered by a woman who has aphasia from a stroke, and is trying to say ?church.? So for a while, I worked away at something called Fool?s Refuge. Eventually, with a bit of inspired coaxing from my publisher, I came back to All Saints. Besides being a reference to the church that links the stories, it?s also a comment on the characters as I see them ? including dear Alice, the octogenarian mass murderess.

The most protean title in the collection belongs to the story that gave me the most trouble. I had been trying to write ?Magnificat? for almost 30 years. It started life as ?Flowers of Stone,? then became ?What Is Wrong With This Picture,? then ?Left Undone,? a phrase taken from the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer. What ?Magnificat? has in common with its previous iterations is one tiny incident ? just something I saw one night while taking a walk ? that left me wondering if there was a story behind it. There was, but it took three decades and four titles to pin it down.

I believe stories are organic things that grow and change and come into their own, sometimes in spite of their author. So it?s only reasonable that their titles change too. Besides ?Magnificat,? there are a few such in All Saints. ?Heroes? started out as ?Living Space,? and ?Spare Change? was ?Big Fat Love.?

On the other hand, sometimes you get it right the first time. ?October Song,? harks back to a song I learned in kindergarten. I can remember the first few lyrics, one or two bars of the melody? That?s all. I?ve asked and researched and Googled it to death. Nothing. It has become a thing of memory and imagination. But I have typed it at the top of the first page of countless revisions of its story, so who am I to question its rightness?

 

Kathy Page Kathy Page is the author of the short fiction collection Paradise and Elsewhere, as well as numerous novels, including Alphabet, The Story of My Face, and The Find. She lives on Salt Spring Island, BC.

The title: a few words, or even just one, is the portal to the story, part announcement, part invitation. I avoid over-interpreting the story, or telling the reader what to think. I prefer brief titles that don?t explain too much: Alphabet, The Find, Low Tide, for example, though sometimes I use a phrase: I Like to Look, The Story of My Face. I aim to intrigue, rather than inform; I?m hoping the reader wants to know more: What find? Whose face and what happened to it? Who is doing the looking, and why?

There are no rules. Or maybe just one: A title should crystallize out of the story itself, rather than arise from authorial willfulness or desire to add meaning or make a connection of some kind. On the whole, I find my titles quite easily. But occasionally there?s a struggle ? a tortuous back and forth between several alternatives and variations thereof. This always means that something entirely different has to be found.

My new collection of stories is called Paradise & Elsewhere, and one of the stories in the book is called ?Of Paradise.? Paradise is a very rich , associative word; it suggests both rich visual imagery and an entire story line. Everyone knows about that lush garden with its generous supply of fresh water and fruiting trees , and about the abundant life once lived there, where people co-existed with animals in a state of emotional and ecological perfection. Everyone also knows that they were suddenly and brutally expelled, so this is not just a gorgeous location, it?s high drama, too. Paradise has been an inspiration for countless storytellers. Both Milton?s Adam and Eve, who eat nectarines and scoop up pure spring water with the fruits? skins, and James Cameron?s planet Pandora in the movie Avatar arise from the same source.

Islands, planets, orchards, walled gardens: pagan versions of the primordial garden soon merged with the biblical one, and for many centuries people believed Paradise to be an actual location, a place we might eventually rediscover. It regularly appeared on maps and from time to time travellers believed, at least for a while, that they had found it. To this day, and in their different ways, both anthropologists and holiday brochures suggest that it might still exist, and many of us still long to return to a place we have never known. So in my two titles, I get good value from that very associative word.

I took a contrasting approach with the title of another story in the book, ?G?ming.? This is the name of an invented place and will likely have no connotations at all, though to some readers, the comma may suggest the orthography of another culture. It?s a sound, a pattern on the page, and you have to read the story to find out what it is, and what happens there?.

 

---
Shaun Smith is a novelist and an award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in numerous national publications including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC.ca and Quill & Quire. In 2013, his book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books. In 2009, his novel Snakes & Ladders was published by Dundurn. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

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