Where Do Titles Come From?

22Jan10

Bright Angel Time, my first novel had so many terrible working titles, but I wrote the book so long ago I can’t remember what they were.  I do remember that my editor wanted to change the title from Bright Angel Time to Falling Backwards. I refused because a Michael Douglas film was recently out called Falling Down and I didn’t like the association.  And, also, I loved my title.  I found it while hiking in the Grand Canyon with my husband a few months before finishing the book.  He had taken me there for inspiration. We were camped beneath the stars near the Bright Angel Trail and I can remember still the cool, desert air, being tucked in my bed roll, dreaming quite literally that I was the daughter of Clint Eastwood—the Eastwood of the spaghetti westerns that I love so much.  I remember waking up disappointed that the dream wasn’t true.  (Forgive me, Dad.)  Hiking out of the Grand Canyon, I knew even then, long before giving birth, that it would be the hardest thing I would ever ask my body to do—harder than childbirth.  (I thought of that when my first child was born.   And, by the way, I was right.)  As I hiked out, like a flash it came to me: Bright Angel Time would be the title of my novel.  Bright Angel is the name of a shale in the canyon that represents a period of time some 500 million years old from the Cambrian period in the Paleozoic.  Bright Angel shale, as a layer of the canyon’s strata, lies between Muav limestone and Tapeats sandstone.  Metaphors about time started bombarding me.  And I loved all the names.

Gorgeous Lies, my second novel.  I had many bad working titles.  To name two: Quo Vadis (I cringe to write that) and Farther India (which comes from an old map of Hindoostan.)  My editor thought that Farther India sounded either like Father India or a travel guide.  I agreed.  I despaired as I had no other ideas.  My mother suggested that I read some of my husband’s poems, promised me I’d find a title there.

From the last stanza of “Memo: From The Course of Empire By Bernard DeVoto”

How do I love thee, and why? O, congeries
of gorgeous lies, I’ve lost my way,
and rivers flow into other rivers, and they
flow into rivers that flow into the sea

From Empire Burlesque by Mark Svenvold

L’America, my third novel.  I was also asked by my publisher to consider something else but couldn’t think of anything I liked as well.  I was in love with an Italian man once and he used to say “l’America” quite a lot, with a sense of humor and impossibility—as though only in America.  A beautiful admiration and absurdity.

And finally, Dear Money, my fourth novel.  At first, and for most of the writing of the book, it was called I Can’t Keep Up: The Truth About The Joneses. I jettisoned The Truth About The Joneses, and then toward the end jettisoned I Can’t Keep Up-–because, I discovered, the main character keeps up and boy does she.  She transforms herself from struggling novelist to MBS trader. I thought very briefly about using Our Times, a shortened version of “a sign of our times” or “our foolish times.”  But it seemed t0o much like Hard Times or In Our Time. Then I read the brilliant biography of Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius by Scott Berg and found in there a letter to Perkins from Fitzgerald. Here, the last paragraph of that letter:

“I think Tom Boyd’s book is excellent—the preface is faintly pretentious but the stories themselves are great. By the way I think my new collection will be called Dear Money. It ought to be awfully good and there will be no junk in it.

Yours in a Tremble,
Scott”

Fitzgerald jettisoned Dear Money for his collection of stories, calling it instead All The Sad Young Men. In my family, filled with writers, when we hear something we like we jut our hand into the air and say, “That’s mine.”  It means no one else can use it.  That’s mine, I said to myself.  That’s it.  That’s the title of my fourth novel.  As a book that is quite interested in the subject of money, who better to offer me its title than Fitzgerald?

A tip: working titles, as bad as they may be, help you in ways you might not understand through the first drafts.  Don’t be embarrassed by them, but know they are rarely, in my experience, the final title.   Use them for what they offer and then laugh about them later.

Another tip: If in your heart you love your title and your publisher asks you to change it, DON’T—unless, of course, a convincing argument is made that you believe in, in your most artistic heart.  My husband let go of the title he desired most for his first book on nonfiction.  His title was A Century’s Corpse.  A great title.  It comes from a Thomas Hardy poem.  Mark’s book was about a corpse that traveled from freak show to freak show across the 20th Century.  His title was perfect but the publisher thought people would be turned off by the word corpse so used the corpse’s name instead: Elmer McCurdy. Mark regrets giving in to this day.

Special thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald for discarding his working title.

Where do your titles come from?  Please let me know.

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