So many of today’s book titles read cryptically like they were named by AI. What’s your take on titles and what’s the story with yours?
ANSWER: For me, titles are like the first block in a game of Jenga. It’s the foundation. It cues my brain to what I’m trying to accomplish whether a journalistic piece, a short story – or a book-length work.
But like Jenga, that doesn’t always mean the whole structure will collapse if you decide to pull it.
For example, when I first considered my novel in 2018, I saw it as an exploration of the protagonist’s psyche following tragic events in his experience reporting the Iraq War.
More metaphysical than physical journey.
I dubbed it rather ambiguously, 15 Fathoms of Grief.
That held for the first five drafts, but gave way to the even more opaque, Beautiful Hole.
This referenced a line in the novel in which the Captain’s daughter, Olveda, speaks about her mother’s use of drugs and alcohol following multiple military deployments overseas. Here’s the passage:
“Mom had that for a bit too, after she was wounded. Got on the pills for pain, stayed for the forgetting. Told me later, after she kicked it, that the percs and the beer made her feel like she was in a beautiful hole and never wanted to come out.”
I loved that title because it created a sense of mystery. It kept readers guessing and interested since the line didn’t emerge until the last third of the novel.
But I was ‘violently’ disabused of that notion when both my wife and my agent, nearly simultaneously, told me it sounded like a porno film. The sad kind with aspirations of being more than what it really was.
I had never once thought of it that way. A common issue of being myopic. Too steeped in the work. But once they’d flagged me, all I could see anymore was the porn title.
It took another two weeks of writing hundreds of options on my dry-erase board. But by that time the novel’s narrative arc had evolved. It emphasized Landon’s fight for survival as much as his psychological agony, as Maya Angelou wrote, of ‘bearing an untold story inside you.’
In the end, crafting a new title became akin to magnetic poetry on the fridge (if we’re to continue with the game metaphors).
I had a list of prepositions and variations of water nouns and rearranged them. Under an Angry Sea was a contender for a while, but felt uninspired.
A good title should tell us something about what’s inside but also challenge our preconceptions. Get us thinking. Engaged.
The Ocean Above Me did both. The instant I wrote it, I knew it would be on the cover. Like everything in this novel, it was a long way from where I started, but so much better than where it began.
The lesson for me here was not to be so creatively self-righteous as to be foolishly myopic.
Consider, as any good artist does, the place others carve out for themselves in your work. That dialogue with your audience, in my case my wife and agent, may wake you up to unimagined possibilities.
And in creating something, that’s about as fun as it gets.
The Last Bookstore (Los Angeles, CA)
“We’re not really the last bookstore – thank goodness – but we are the largest new and used bookstore in California.”