Friday, July 06, 2007

When Working Titles Don't

A recent post on David Dvorkin’s blog has got me thinking about the importance of a good working title. I’m sure it’s a little different for everyone, but for me, having a working title that I like is paramount. I’d had the framework of The Angels’ Share bouncing around my head for years, but until I settled on a title, the idea never really crystallized. When the title hit me, it served to define the central conceit of the novel, and I suddenly knew how the story needed to be told.

My new work-in-progress was a little different. The idea just kind of whacked me on the head one day, and I started writing. I tried out a half a dozen working titles before I found the one that stuck. (As I’ve said before, and as evidenced by this post, names – for me, at least – have power, and I’m not yet ready to let this one out into the world, hence the dodginess.) Even though I’d already started writing, I’m convinced that the title served to focus the novel, affecting nearly every aspect of it, from plot to tone to narrative voice.

My short stories, as far as titles go, are a bit of a mixed bag. Seven Days of Rain and A Simple Kindness began as nothing but a title. The Toll Collectors, on the other hand, was finished long before it found a name – it tried on title after title until finally one fit. (Truth be told, it was my wife who suggested the name, and thank God. Honestly, I had nothing.)

Of course, this post isn’t simply about titles; it’s about working titles. I’ve been fortunate enough that all my stories accepted thus far have retained their original title, but that streak can’t last forever. To quote David Dvorkin, “To us, our titles are the distillation of our novels. To publishers, they're part of the marketing package.” One of these days, some big-shot publisher is sure to deem my package inadequate. So what then? Tears? Rending of fabric? Dogged insistence on sticking to my working title, and publication be damned? Nah. I’m attached to my titles, to be sure, but partly because they serve to inform my writing. Once the writing’s done, I suppose it’ll look more or less the same no matter what title’s on the cover. In a way, the title is like training-wheels – early on, they keep me riding straight, but eventually, the book’s got to stay up on it’s own.