The Title’s The Thing

If you’re someone who struggles with a title for a story or novel–as I do on occasion–you relish the moments when just the right title comes to you. I have two WIPs, which have undergone numerous title changes until, finally, the right one “showed” up.

One of them started life in the rough draft as Who is Killing the Friends of Slobodan Milosevic? Yeah, a mouthful, and borrowed from the title of a wire-service story exploring the fact that by the year 2000 a long list of Milosevic’s political cronies and associates had been murdered. The novel idea arose then as well, but the long and unwieldy title was problematic. So, it became Tumbling Pigeons, after a species of bird in the Balkans, which responds to stress from a predator by ceasing flight and falling from the skies. Quite often, they don’t pull up in time and end up smashing themselves on the ground. This self-destructive behavior exemplified the latter part of Milosevic’s rule, but the connection was difficult to make. The next, and hopefully final title, came from a comment made by a local Balkan journalist, to the effect that the problems plaguing Milosevic after the invasion of Kosova were “self-inflicted wounds.” Self-Inflicted Wounds, then, became the title. 

It works on several levels and not just for the political situation in Serbia in 2000, but as well for characters in the work. The two main characters’ partnership–and marriage–is rocky because of issues of their own making. Other characters have made choices that will ultimately come back to slap them in the face. In fact, every hurt in this novel has been self-inflicted by a character. So, perfect title.

Another draft novel started out as The Game, as in the game of espionage, which is often portrayed as a chess match with global implications. It, too, is loosely based on actual events–to a mole in the FBI, selling secrets to the Russians is a game so he can prove how well he plays it. One main character is tired of the game and doesn’t want to play anymore, but his partner, and wife, keeps finding excuses to play on and on. Another character plays a game with another’s life, so perfect title, right?

Except that’s it been used before, which is nothing new. Titles aren’t copyrighted and so can be reused. The Game is a TV show, a rapper, at least three other novels, and a Michael Douglas movie, a very popular Michael Douglas movie. The Game, then, wouldn’t stand out, but a replacement title didn’t present itself. Then, as I re-read The Art of War, as I often do, I came across a line I know I’ve read before, but because I had re-titling on my mind it jumped out at me: “All warfare is based on deception.” Just like that I had A War of Deception.

These were both situations where the novels had already been drafted, so finding a title to fit the plot and characters–a little easier. What about when a title pops into your head and you have nothing to attach it to? Writers should be so lucky, right?

Yesterday, because it was St. Patrick’s Day, I re-indulged in some Yeats, specifically his poem, “Easter, 1916.” I’d read the words before, though quite some time ago, and for some reason, one line stayed with me this time: “A terrible beauty is born.” In the context of the poem the beauty is the rebellion of the Irish against English rule; the “terrible” is the loss of life in the process.

It hit me as well that line needed to be the title of something I will write. Will write because I have nothing yet it fits. But I will.

The lesson from all this? Inspiration for a story or a novel can come from watching people, reading a book or a news story, or just about anything. Titles can come from inspiration, too, and when you least expect it.

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