I’ve probably mentioned this before, but since I still have this particular problem, I’m going to rehash it now: One of the toughest things about writing a story or an article, for me anyway, isn’t the actual writing of the damn thing, but figuring out what to call it. I have a tough time thinking up titles for pieces I’ve written, and have for as long as I’ve been putting ink to paper. Usually, if I’m under the gun, I’ll often end up with a song title, since I tend to think in musical terms. It’s my default position, and it’s something of an irritant to me, as it seems like a failure of imagination.
I had something of the same problem as a newspaper copy editor. It’s been a while since I was in the industry, so maybe things have changed, but one of the responsibilities of copy editors at most newspapers (at least, the ones foolish enough to hire me) is writing the headlines for the stories they edit. Usually, it falls to the first editor who reads the story, but not always, and the first attempt is rarely the final version.
Granted, it was a little easier for me as a copy editor; I wasn’t necessarily invested in the story when it came to my spot on the copy desk, so some pressure was off. Plus, I never had a problem with making outrageous lines up, since I knew it would get changed later down the line. Sometimes, the universe gets you back, though; every now and then, the headline I’d throw in as a joke would make it to print. Even though final responsibility for pages falls to section editors and, ultimately, the news and/or managing editors, newspapers are just like any other organization in that shit tends to roll downhill.
Anyway, I tend to get a little jealous of writers who can cough up evocative titles for their work, even if they’re ripping off other sources like I rip off song titles. Tennessee Williams wrote a play in the 1940s called Battle of Angels, which isn’t bad so much as it is bland (just like the play, as far as I’m concerned). He wasn’t done with it, though, and that madman kept revising it until it worked better for him, at which point he gave it the much cooler name Orpheus Descending. Sure, he stole that from Greek mythology, but say it out loud, and I think you’ll find title v. 2.0 is much more interesting, not to mention more ominous. Jack McDevitt, a hard SF writer, wrote a novel I picked up just for the title: The Engines of God. Simple, straightforward, but reaches out and says, “Pay attention; we’re gonna get some wonder up in here!”
In English, of course, certain constructions and rhythms lend themselves more to this kind of thing than others. The phrase “In the _____ of the ______ ______,” with its old-fashioned syntax and focus on the phrase’s end, tends to get a lot of use for this reason, probably ever since Grieg paired it with some awesome music and coughed up the only part of the Peer Gynt Suite that anyone under 40 knows, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Because English puts adjectives before the words they describe–unlike the aptly named Romance languages (romantic come-ons do sound better in French; it’s true)–we get a lot of mileage out of reversing that order, as demonstrated by the Williams example above.
Portmanteau words, where a new word is created by splicing together two previously unrelated words, also work well if applied creatively. William Gibson did this quite nicely with Neuromancer. Gibson is one of those guys who’s consistently good with titles: Although you could argue he ripped off the basic idea from a 1970s rock group, I must take my hat off (figuratively speaking) to the man for naming a book Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Of course, recognizing certain titling techniques and being able to put them into practice are much different kettles of fish. It’s something I’m still struggling with, as it’s one of the glaring flaws I see in my own work (as opposed to the glaring flaws I completely fail to notice), but it’s something I can at least tackle in a concrete fashion. Anybody have some good processes for generating interesting titles they’d like to share? Feel free to climb the soapbox and share. I don’t know about everybody else, but I could certainly use the help.