Friday, September 4

Friday Favorites

Oxford American's Summer 2015 Fiction Issue is out in bookstores!

Here's one of my favorite openings, taken from Nick Fuller Googins story "Origin Stories."

Their first months of ecstatic infatuation, Girl and Boy were the type of people to scorn that most standard of cocktail-party questions: what-do-you-do? Rather than answer directly, they'd discuss their curiosities and visions. Human existence, they believed, was far too complex for the flattening language of economic occupation. To reduce it as such was so derivative, so cliched. So American!

Wednesday, September 2

Hooked by the Title, Or Not?

The Hissing Vase.
The Evil Bed.
The Psychedelic Wolf.

I generated these three titles using a Story Title Generator online. The Internet never fails to amaze me of its capacity to outwit the human mind.

If you flip through any number of books on writing that adorn your writing nook, look hard to find advice on how to craft a story title. It won’t be there, at least not in the dozen or so books that line the shelves in my office. It begs the question: Does a title matter at all?

I’ve received a range of advice on the matter; from don’t include a tile because no one reads it to don’t get the title wrong or you’ll fail to hook the reader to don’t spend too much time on it, slap down a word or two and move on. 

Lots of don’ts, but what about the do’s?

One thing is certain: all stories have titles. So how do you create one, without the online supersleuth story title generator, that can at the minimum attract a reader and at the most become a permanent fixture in the reader’s mind?

I. Where to Begin

Authors of short stories, novels, essays, articles, blog posts, advertisements, etc. have one thing in common when it comes to the title: attraction. For the sake of keeping it simple, we’ll discuss the joy of writing titles for fictional pieces of writing, but the information gleamed can be applied to all aspects of writing.

Here's a sample of titles from novels sitting on my desk at the moment (and what I thought they might mean):

The Scorpio Races (By Maggie Stiefvater) - I honestly pictured a battalion of scorpions racing each other!

I am the Messenger (By Markus Zusak) - I saw a boy, living on the street, carrying a secret message down a dark alley.

My Heart and Other Black Holes (By Jasmine Warga) - A girl, a sweet sweet girl, who know one understands.

An Ember in the Ashes (By Sabaa Tahir) - A single spark of fire surrounded in gray ash.

If we’re going to purchase a book or check one out at the library, then we most definitely will read the title. But how closely does a reader pay attention to the title of a short story if it’s one of many in a literary journal? Does it have as much weight as the title of a novel? Without the cover art and bold, embossed, exquisite lettering, the title of a short story may be read in one breath. 

Here's a sample of titles from short stories in literary journals taken from my writing nook:

What Happens Next (By Emily Bernard)

Brief Encounter with the Household Gods (By David Huddle)

Origin Stories (By Nick Fuller Googins)

The G.R.I.E.F. (By Micah Stack)

The Wonder Garden (By Lauren Acampora)

They are just as captivating as the titles of novels, but to be honest, I didn’t spend as much time imagining a visual of what the title meant. I read it, pondered it for one or two seconds, and moved on to the short story.

Some may take this as evidence that we shouldn’t spend much time considering titles for short stories. But I believe we do.

If titles are creative and original, if they don’t grab us in some way, then what impression will the reader have of the story? They are necessary to identify the story, but they can do so much more.

II. Measuring the Title

Titles of books and short stories can run long or consist of a single word. As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the title, the easier it is to remember, like “A & P” by John Updike, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, or “Wool” by Hugh Howey. Consider Anton Chekhov’s title, “The Lady with the Dog.” Perhaps not the most exciting, unique title we’ve come across, but this story is well-read, discussed among literary communities, and analyzed by writers. The key to Chekhov’s title is the reader finds confirmation of the central, strong focus of the story in it.

Titles don’t have to be shot and simple. Elaborate ones can have a good punch to them and bring the reader back full circle after reading the story. Take for example, “A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, "Nothing Living Lives Alone" by Wendell Berry, or "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" by ZZ Packer. Novels such as “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver and “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold more beyond mere attraction: they express voice, poetic and figurative.

It isn’t about the number of words in a title, although readers tend to develop brain fog in exceptionally wordy titles, but it’s about choosing the right words.

III. Crafting the Title

A successful title hooks the reader and anchors him or her in voice, theme, character, setting, or a dramatic piece of dialogue. It’s a promise that the story will relate to the title.

What if Charles Dickens opted for a different title instead of “A Christmas Carol?” He could have named his book "Don't Snooze, Scrooge" or "Scrooge and His Spirits" or "Encounters of a Third Kind." I’m certain the public would still cherish Dickens' story; however, "A Christmas Carol" has a nice ring to it. It captures the umbrella-like theme, the overall arch of the story’s spirit.

In Margaret Wise Brown's children's book, "Goodnight Moon," she could have easily written a different title (e.g., "Goodnight Balloon," "Goodnight Nobody," or "Goodnight Noises Everywhere"), so why did she choose the moon, why not the stars? The moon is a focal point, one large, luminescent visual. It isn't necessarily the theme, but it provides the reader with an image that pulls at our heart. Aren't we more romanticized by the moon, the mystery, the awe of it, than we are by a balloon? Nobody and Noises Everywhere is perhaps too vague, too in the dark for children to grab a hold of.

When writing the title of your story consider theme. 

In Stephen King's words from "On Writing" you'll be uncovering the fossil, letting your story arise naturally with its theme as the backbone of the story. Writers will struggle if they try to impose the theme on the story. 

My advice on writing the title of your work-in-progress is have a story already in the works. You may have a title rolling around in your brain that begs for a story, and that's okay. Write that title down. See what comes from it. But be open to changing it once your story is complete. Don't let the title serve as a cage, confining your story from where it's supposed to go.

If you leave the title "Untitled" as you begin to write your story, give yourself space. Dig out your story and you might begin to see a core of pearls threaded throughout it, your theme. A story that overemphasizes theme may turn a reader away. "Too preachy, too showy." But if it is subtle, the reader will lock in on the title afterwards, remembering it and the meaning of the story.

My second piece of advice on writing titles is they don't have to revolve around theme. They may capture a piece of the setting, like Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." Titles may be based on voice or a key line of dialogue as in "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes or "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. 

A few final rules of writing a title that hooks the reader:
1) Keep it short if possible.
2) Don't make the story about the title. Let the story tells itself first.
3) Use poetic, figurative language to add voice.
4) Play around. Generate a handful of titles. Have fun with it.
5) Don’t give away the ending.
6) Google it. Has your insanely, brilliant title been used before?