I love it when I know a story’s title before it’s finished. Sometimes I even have the title before I have the story to go with it. My most recently completed story was like that. I had the title weeks, even months, before I knew what it was about. It was kind of fun coming up with something that fit, and when I found it, it was like meeting someone you know by name but have never met. “Oh, you’re Mr Tod! So nice to finally meet you!” Cue sly grin and whisker-licking on his part (yes, I have been thinking about Beatrix Potter lately). I knew the name. I knew the story existed somewhere. And discovering it was like reuniting two parts of something that had been separated but belonged together.
It’s great when that happens. Unfortunately, I find it to be very much the exception rather than the rule.
At the time I was writing that story, I was also racking my brains for a title for another one. In the exact reverse scenario, I had the completed story but I didn’t know what the heck to call it. Total mind blank. I didn’t even have one or two possible ideas to tweak. Nothing. And what do you do with a story that has no name? It exists. It’s complete… it has characters and plot and a setting that deserves summing up in a neat little title. But it’s not finished. You can’t submit it like that. Editors do have a habit of changing titles anyway (my last published piece, ‘Rule of Five’, was originally called ‘Five’ until the editor suggested the alternative), so there’s not much point in getting too attached to a title. It just seems wrong to send it out into the world without one. Like waiting until your child’s first day of school before settling on her name, and then just hoping the teacher will come up with something suitable because you still can’t decide what she’s called. It doesn’t bode well for your writing (or parenting) ability if you can’t think of a title to stick at the top of your manuscript (or on your child’s name labels).
The story in question finally has a semi-working title that I thought of before drifting off to sleep the other night. I’m not 100% sold on it, but at least I can send it out respectably until I think of something better or the title grows on me. But it’s been almost four months since I began its first draft. Four months without an inkling of what to call the poor thing, whilst the other one sits smugly next to it on my hard drive, all ready and titled before I even wrote the first sentence.
Titles are important. No, they’re not the meat of the story and you certainly don’t want them to be the only memorable thing about it, but they’re the first point of contact a reader has. How many of us pick up a book or choose a story based on an intriguing or unusual title? You want your title to engage people instantly; to make them want to know more. The first sentence is the hook, but the title should be your bait. It should lure your readers in before you snag them with that urgent first line.
That’s why it’s so gratifying when you know your title right away, and so frustrating when you just can’t grasp it.