Pick a Decent Title, and Move On

Titles are a variation on names. And names, as we all know, can set destiny.

Whether you’re naming a book, story, essay, blog, or post, you’ll find a good title. You just have to prime the pump, let the backwater gush, and wait for the clear, clean answer to emerge.

Here’s how it went, for example, in the naming of this blog.

“Denise” was taken and “Shekerjian” is too difficult to remember or spell. Besides, I’m not the point here.  So, I began by making a list of attributes that I thought described my concept. How does good writing happen? That was the main question I wanted to explore. I wanted something personal — not too stiff, cute or trendy. I wanted it to be inclusive of all kinds of writing.

After weeks of generating lists of possibilities, I finally hit on soulofaword. Then, I tested it. I looked for the light in someone’s eyes when I mentioned it. I mentioned it in the start of a conversation to see if that person remembered it by the end.

Today, 119 posts later, I still think it fits. It delivers what I want from a name:  

1. it’s memorable

2. speaks to content

3. fits the voice

4. makes a genuine promise–that is, it is suggestive of what I deliver, which makes it honest

5. has an inviting feel – a this-is-a-safe-place-to-speak-your-mind feel.

Your title should accomplish much the same, and one more thing, as well.

6. It should pop up in a search by your likely readers or no one will find the material.

Sometimes, this is sad. Sometimes, you have to square your shoulders and kill off a very good title—a perfect title, even—in favor of being found.

And once you find it, move on. You’ve got writing to do.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Trevor Coultart.

Choosing a Name

1918 Poster

I know people who have used aliases, and changed a name, and changed a pronunciation, and buried the old in favor of the partner’s surname, and taken on a nickname. But I have only come across two people who went by a first name only.

In one case, it was a vanity thing, or at least that’s how it looked to me. It was a writer, our paths crossed briefly but at close range, and I got a good look: noisy fellow, insecure, the use of the single name as if his fist pounded on a puffed up chest. I Tarzan.

The other case was entirely different, a middle-aged woman, her aspect pained, her eyes hard to look at, and her voice a little freighted. You could

Albatross

see she wanted to be free of something, and I wished for her sake that the name change did it, but it didn’t.

A name has to work—in life and in a piece of writing—or it lacks authenticity, which in turn introduces an irritant into the scene, and before long, nothing is working. What kind of authority is held by our selection? What kind of history? What fate, what trajectory have we foisted on our character? A Theodore is not a James or an Ari. An Adolf is an unfortunate choice.

I’m capable of running through a host of names before I find the right one. I won’t go so far as to say that this decision is an all or nothing proposition—well, on second thought, yes I would.

Photo credits: poster, public domain, Google Images; Albatross, stormpetrel1

What’s in a Name?

The novelist, film director, and screen writer John Sayles once told me that if he had his way, he’d name all his characters Ed. It’s so short, he said. He had things to say. Why type out a Sebastian or a Giancarlo when you just want to get to it?

Compare this to the experience of a Chinese friend of mine who went back to the mainland to visit family and returned with, of all things, a new name.

The change came through a consultation with Buddhist monks in the temple near her home, and where she has a relative who is a disciple well immersed in these studies.

Many things go into the naming of a Chinese baby—birth date, time, place, family, the fortunes ahead . . . But this was no baby at the feet of the monks but a young woman, married, working, and with babies of her own. The monks, all scholars, considered how she stood in relation to the five elements—water, earth, gold, wood, and fire.

water

When she left town, her name was Miao written with three signs for water strung together to signify a vast watery expanse.

wood

fire

Too much water, the monks decided. Wood and fire needed.

Dutiful daughter, she deferred to her mother. Attentive mother, she did what was best for her daughter and took the guidance of the monks. Zhenyan, her new name, has the element for wood and a double fire sign.

Some months have passed and I asked her: has her life changed? Yes, she conjectured, but less as a result of a new name than due to the wisdom of the monks who spoke about tolerance and balance and other Buddhist teachings in the course of their conversation. Still, she loves her new name and feels like it ushered in new times, new destiny.

We are writers. We get to choose. We can go the John Sayles route, and just get to the point, or we can deliberate and decide a character’s entire trajectory through a carefully meditated pick. My preference is in the middle: a name that fits like interlaced fingers but which won’t slow me down.

Photo credit: water – Timo Balk, sxc; wood and fire – Alessandro Paiva, sxc