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.

And Yet Another New Name

I wrote earlier in the year about wanting my blog to be taken more seriously, so I dispensed with the catchy, alliterative name, “Maggie’s Musings.” I thought about using “Rarely Well Behaved,” after the title of my book but decided that would be too confusing. Besides, I’d discovered by then people had misquoted Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The correct quote is “Well behaved women seldom make history.” So, the blog became “Seldom Well Behaved.”

Yeah. Positively exciting. Look, it was the best I could come up with at the time, but I’m not a fan of it. In the three months since I changed the blog’s name to Seldom Well Behaved, I haven’t really come up with an alternative.

I like to change things around–I’ve never had the fear of change that can paralyze the accomplishment of anything from a new blog title to repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. My ex would come home after a trip and often find furniture moved around. One time I swapped the living room and the dining room, and even now in a brand new house, every few weeks I make some sort of little change–rearranging photos, moving lamps among the tables. The women out there understand; it’s not something we can articulate. It’s just something we do.

That being said, why is re-naming a blog so difficult? I’ll admit titles have never come easy to me. Many times I’ve written a story, given it to someone to read, and asked him or her what I should name it. However, titling a work has become easier over the years. I’ve reached the point where the story or the novel “tells” me its name. Now, if the blog would just cooperate, I wouldn’t be wasting a post whining about it.

So, let’s wind this up. A couple of weeks ago I ordered an iPad2, and because I did so on-line (rather than stand in line at a store) I got free engraving. My first iPod, a Nano, is engraved with “Deed not Creed,” a reflection of my commitment to Ethical Culture and trying to live an ethical life. What to engrave on the iPad2 came to me easily and also from an earlier post when this blog was called Maggie’s Musings. When I wrote about the six-word memoirs project I concluded the post with my six-word memoir, “I never took the expected path.” That sums up my life so succinctly that it even surprised me with its brevity and appropriateness–whatever others expected of me, I did just the opposite. If my parents were still here, they would be nodding their heads vigorously in agreement. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just me.

Welcome, then, to Maggie’s Musings, aka Seldom Well Behaved, and finally, Unexpected Paths.