Thursday, March 11, 2010

Working Titles

Over on his blog, Tim Stretton mentions that, despite possible uphill publication battles, he is immersed in his next Mondia novel (to which fans of Dog of the North and Dragonchaser, amongst whom I am numbered, can only say, Bravo and The Sooner the Better.)

He discussed many aspects of this venture, but the one that drew most comments was the fact the he hadn't yet chosen a working title. A couple of novelists I won't name (okay, he said, breaking down at the first threat of torture, they were Aliya Whiteley and LC Tyler) were a bit surprised that Tim didn't have a working title. Indeed, Tim himself seemed a bit surprised, though not really bothered.

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A digression: Working Title Films is a great Irish/British/Hollywoodish production company, whose name has always amused me. (Wingnut Films, Peter Jackson's production company, is equally well-named.) Working Title has produced big films like Atonement and Elizabeth and Pride and Prejudice, offbeat films like Bob Roberts and The Tall Guy, Richard Curtis' Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, the two wonderful Simon Pegg vehicles Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and most of the Coen Brothers films from The Big Lebowski and Fargo on down to their recent A Serious Man. (If you haven't seen A Serious Man, check it out. Truly original, peculiar, and delightful.)

I've always wondered how many of their films really had working titles different from their release titles. (Other than Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, of course.)
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Based on a highly scientific survey of the field I have ascertained that authors can be sorted into four classes on this issue:

1) Those who must have a title to proceed, even if it is likely to be changed. Aliya and Len fall into this camp. There is something admittedly seductive about a good title. It is fraught with potential and promise. Tim joked that he was calling his new novel War of the Midget Trolls, and I don't think there was a follower of his blog who didn't want to read that book. Of course, I can't see any way that a book with that title would fit into the aesthetic of Mondia, but it's an irresistable, pulpy, preposterous title that almost makes you want to write the book yourself if Tim won't. (War of the Albanian Dwarves is equally provocative, though that's off in Whiteleyland.)

Titles can be a kind of muse or irritant, and some writers flourish with them, flounder without them, and basically can't function unless they have them on at least a temporary basis. About half the writers I know seem to be in this camp.

2) Those who discover titles--sometimes many of them--somewhere along the way. I'm in this bunch. I don't mind calling it Untitled or My Current Book or Work in Progress or The Effing Novel until something leaps out and grabs me. And even then I'm not married to it until I'm near the home stretch.

And, as it turns out, however, even if I'm married to it by the end, I'm not really a till-death-do-us-part kind of guy on the title thing. I'm kind of attached to my title by the end, but, hey--was she really all that better than Untitled or My Latest Thing? Come to think of it, the other titles were less demanding, more affectionate, and didn't leave their pantyhose hanging on the shower-curtain rod to dry. So when my publisher suggests another title might work better, I'm quite capable of dumping the one that has emerged over the course of the novel.

In this I don't think I'm more of a sinner than the writers who have to have a title from the outset. Okay, I made a mistake, but we acted like adults, and our ways parted without a lawsuit or coverage in People Magazine.

I had a long lonely time in the world of Untitled before I discovered The Right Title, and then I dropped The Right Title for The New Title, who was younger and had fewer wrinkles, less emotional baggage, and support from my publisher, but I don't see that this makes me a bad person.

Well, okay, in fact it does make me a bad person, but it's certainly no worse than the writers in Category 1) above. They commmited to titles, real titles, knowing all along that those titles weren't Ms Right, just Ms Right Now. (Those of different genders and/or sexual orientations and/or states of feminist awareness are invited to insert Mr, Miss, or whatever title pleases into the previous sentence.)

I can live with the uncertainty of Untitled for quite some time. In fact, I fancy it gives me an air of mystery--sitting alone at a table in a cafe with no title beside me, a far-away look in my eye. It makes me want to adopt a slight accent, or perhaps obtain a good imitation of a Heidelberg dueling scar on my cheek.

"What are you working on?" they ask. "What's it called?"

A weary sigh from me. "I'm not sure yet." A languid, French throwaway gesture with an uplifted palm. "Ah. The title." Shrug. "She will come when she pleases."

This can also be done in Zen Monk form, with remarks about not pushing the river because it flows by itself.

Truth is, I wish I had a title before I started writing. It just doesn't work like that for me.

I believe I'm in about a quarter of all writers in this Untitled/Soon-to-be-Titled crowd. Which gets us to perhaps 75% of the writing community.

3) The third group of writers--almost another quarter of the whole, which gets us near to one hundred percent--claims they have working titles, but they aren't fooling themselves or anyone else who is beyond the age of believing in the Easter Bunny. A lot of famous writers fall into this class. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, even pop writers like Margaret Mitchell, all settled on titles--and sometimes title after title--that are so irredeemably stupid and unmarketable that they are either designed to make listeners change the subject, or are carefully constructed strategems to force their editors and publishers to think hard about a decent title and allow the writer to get on with his or her work.

Gone With the Wind. A nice title. But earlier she claimed it would be called Tote the Weary Load, or Pansy, or Tomorrow is Another Day. Yeah, sure. Those have bestseller written all over them.

The Great Gatsby. Iconic, no? Except perhaps when it was named Trimalchio in West Egg, or Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue, or The High-Bouncing Lover. Scotty was a master of language, so I have to believe he was having us on.

And, of course, Hemingway was the master of offering titles he could never have intended. A Farewell to Arms is good. But The Sentimental Education of Frederick Henry, or Those Who Get Shot, or Love in Italy...well, come on. Did he ever really believe those were the titles?

I'm not sure if the writers in this class simply rattle off titles as a way of telling folks to Go Away, or if they want to get their editors working on titles that fit the market, and hope to strike fear into their publishing hearts with preposterous possiblities. But it's pretty clear to me that this crowd of of writers are disingenuous. Their books are really called Untitled until the last minute, and in the interim they'll call them any damn thing that comes to mind, which amounts to the same thing.

4) David Thayer. As far as I know, Mr Thayer is the sole occupant of this class, though there may be others. David calls every new novel the same thing--in his case, An Aztec in Central Park--until the final title comes to him.

It's not that David's bad with titles. Some of the ones he's settled on for various books--Tossing the Jack, The Working Dead, Flamingo Dawn--are evocative and potent. But all of these at some point or another were An Aztec in Central Park.

Problem is, David recently wrote a novel that involved--you guessed it--a person of Mexican ancestry, with a good deal of Aztec blood, who spends some time in Central Park. And the title got attached to that book, because, well, it was a sort of irrevocable molecular attraction.

I'm not sure how David gets through his novels now that his Single Working Title has been abducted. It's the problem I'd face if I suddenly wrote a book and settled on Untitled.

But there you have it. Those who use titles as a sort of muse; those who grope for titles; and those who claim to have titles when they are still waiting for inspiration (or suggestions) to arrive.

And those who call everything An Aztec in Central Park.

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PS. I don't really call everything Untitled. Like the Jews after they'd settled down from their wanderings in the wilderness, and like the Christians ages later, I just call whatever I'm struggling with The Book.

Or, sometimes, The Goddamned Book.

Hey, come to think of it, that's not a bad title...

19 comments:

Faye L. Booth said...

I like to have a title for a piece I'm working on, but I don't mind waiting for the right one to come to me. However, when I do know the title, I guard that information jealously and only refer to the piece I'm writing as "the WIP" online. Paranoid, me? Nah.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Faye--

I'm like you in that I prefer having a title but can live happily without one.

If I have one, though, I don't mind disclosing it.

What I don't disclose, however, is my story. I'm paranoid about discussing the plot or where it is headed. This makes life difficult for me as I'm friends with a number of writers who like nothing better than kicking around ideas for where their story is going. They think I'm "secretive."

RDJ said...

I'm someone who needs some kind of title to hang on a project. An untitled project is, to me, like a puppy without a name. I haven't really committed to feeding it.

That said, if I can't think of anything I like, I'll call a project any damn thing.

David Isaak said...

(Reminder to Self: Don't let RDJ puppysit.)

I'll only do the "call it any damn thing" if I have been so foolish as to have two WIPs at once. (Yes, I actually have been that foolish.) In that case, I'll use the names of protagonists to distinguish between the two projects when I save the files.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for the plug, David!

This is the first time I've approached a novel without a title--but then I haven't actually started writing yet.

Now, of course, everyone will be disappointed that it's less zingy than War of the Midget Trolls...

Aliya Whiteley said...

They weren't dwarves - they just wore red bootees. I rewrote it and renamed it 'The Tale of the Magnificent Red Sock Gang' but it's still too weird by far.

I try to stay away from alliteration in titles, which is where I naturally want to go with it. 'Mean Mode Median' only came along after some terrible romantic novels called 'Caught by the Cougar' and 'Man of the Moment'. And now I'm working on 'Sensitive Skin'. I don't know why I'm drawn to it. I think alliteration is my version of catnip.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, the Midget Trolls title has set a pretty high bar.

Abar that, in fact, you may not want to clear. There's such a thing as too zingy, even in an era when A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian can become a bestseller.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

"Sensistive Skin" is a pretty good title. But I'm glad to have missed the other two.

Alis said...

I have to have a title before I start otherwise it feels like I don't know what the book is about. That doesn't mean, of course, the the publisher will agree that the name I've come up with adequately sums up the book in a marketable fashion...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Do you ever change the title while in progress?

As to not knowing what the book is about, I never really know what the book is about until it's finished. Sometimes not even then. But when I'm in process and someone asks me what the book's about, the best I can do is mumble, "About 400 pages."

Tim Stretton said...

"Caught by the Cougar"?

Wowetty wow wow wow!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Well, I suppose I can let you call your WIP that if the jealousy really is too much for you, Tim...

Alis said...

Do I ever change the title while the work is in progress? No, but I have changed the title at the end of a book when I realised that it wasn't about what I thought it had been about!

Matt Curran said...

Hi David

I'm with the Ryan, Len and Alis camp.  Every mss needs a name, even if that name turns out to be shit.

(Though not literally - unless it's a working title).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

This seems to be a fairly widespread, though not universal, position.

I can't tell if this says something deep about differences in our psychologies, of if it is more on the level of a quirk.

Matt Curran said...

It probably speaks volumes about writers' insecurities, David. We're a superstitious breed at the best of times!

Deborah Swift said...

Just catching up with this title thing. The "thing I am working on" has had three different titles to date. When this book reaches a new stage it tends to get a new title, don't ask me why. My first book had a really obvious title from the word go, but this one's a more shifty animal and won't answer to a good title yet!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Oh, I'm as superstitious as any writer out there.

I'm probably afraid of the consequences of addressing a WIP by the wrong title...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Deborah--

Some of the Native American tribes didn't name their children until the 'right' name appeared--the right name being determined by behavioral characteristics or events in the child's life. And some acquired new names when they were involved in exceptional happenings.

So maybe having your title change as the book's life evolves has cultural parallels...somewhere on the Great Plains, that is.