I recently read a well-intentioned and authoritative article that advised aspiring authors, when “choosing” their novel’s title, to examine their finished work then invent a title that perfectly fits what they had written. With due respect, that’s bad advice.
I cite as support for my claim the overwhelmingly convincing testimony of sixties jazz legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, an American alto saxophone player who, to my knowledge, never wrote so much as a pamphlet. Adderly, in an interview for a popular jazz magazine of his era, said something like (I paraphrase, from memory), “Every composition must begin with a title. Otherwise, how would we know what to play?”
In fairness to the advice I roundly dismissed above, it is completely true that, when the shooting is over, a novel’s text and title must certainly fit hand in glove. But it is also true that novels, like people, twist and turn according to their peculiar desires. They become, more often than not, beings their authors never intended. My latest novel, Jeremiah’s Last Call, for example, bore three different titles as its writing progressed. (Only Good Morning Residents! among the seven I’ve published, kept its working title intact from start to finish.)
A working title can be thought of as a declaration of intent; the first vision of an author’s intended destination while at his or her lonely work. When, inevitably, the writing begins, on its own, to head in another direction, it is almost always best not to fight it. Better to embrace the conflict between you and your wilful creation, change its title to fit its new path and move on (while anticipating that it may very well turn again).
The above be a minority opinion. Some very successful authors, for example, swear that the best way to start a novel is to first write a complete, detailed outline, title at top, every move planned, then will one’s way through the writing in obedience to the initial inspiration. That may be a great way to write an essay but it seems to me like a sure way to stifle one’s creativity.
Many successful writers confess to finding it difficult to keep their characters in tow once they have been given life. It seems that their stubborn, fictional creations refuse to embrace such things as outlines in favor of their desires. In the plan, one stoically says “Goodbye,” then lowers his head and walks away. But somehow those words refuse to be written. The author suddenly becomes aware that his character has somehow become angry and itching for a fight. What to do?
My advice, start with a working title, have a firm idea of where you are going but also grant your characters the volition they deserve. Be willing to adapt your writing’s direction to your characters’ passions and concerns. After all, they make the story, not you.
Future posts under “Concept” will discuss an array of issues; plotting, planning, theme, front and back matter, cover design, publication… All those essential elements that quicken, magnify and support the story itself.
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