What’s in a Name?

It’s a sad fact that short stories and novels have to have titles.  If they didn’t, then there’d be nothing to put on the spine of the book, or in the table of contents for the magazine or the anthology.

This means that the unfortunate writer, after having labored for weeks or months on something that may have lived quite happily with the designation “NewNovel.doc” or “short story in progress” or even “that thing in the green notebook”, now has to give his or her brainchild an actual name.  Cue angst, flailing, and general unhappiness.

Composers have it easy by comparison.  They call a project “Concerto Number 3 for Xylophone and Orchestra in B-flat Minor” and get away with it, where a writer who tried to run “Space Opera Volume Three with Blasters and Scaly Aliens” past an editor would only get laughed at.  (Oddly enough, though, the same writer could probably get away with using that title for a short story — there’s a lot more room for weirdness and wordplay in short story titles — but not more than once.)

Desperate writers do have a few resources they can turn to in their quest for a title.  Quotations from Shakespeare are always good; likewise, quotes from the Bible.  And if the Bible and Shakespeare don’t come through, there’s always Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.  Pulling a relevant or evocative phrase from the book itself also sometimes works.

If all else fails . . . console yourself with the thought that most editors know that thinking up titles is not necessarily a part of the common writer’s toolkit.  If an editor likes your book or story, but thinks that the title sucks, he or she will tell you so.  And at that point, it’s perfectly okay to turn the job over to a professional ask the editor for suggestions.

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