• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Like a Bird Without a Song

I’ve been whining for a while about being stuck with my writing. Pathetic. Finally, had a breakthrough over the last week (or maybe it’s my meds talking), but I feel that I’ve taken the project a few big steps forward. Mother may I? Yes, you may. And in the middle of all this new writing came the title for the screenplay as if on a silver platter with a great roast upon it. The title not only galvanized me into figuring out what the motherfucker is really about, but it also suggested a new structure, which is like getting a new engine in a car.

How important is a title, anyway? For me, it’s crucial. I won’t submit a client’s proposal unless I think we’ve nailed it. To me a great title can vastly improve one’s desire to read the work. Too many people say, “I’m not good at titles,” or, “won’t the publisher change it anyway?” I beg you: search the bible, poetry, rock lyrics, the yellow pages, titles of paintings, John Cheever’s diaries, look under rocks, couch cushions, four leaf clovers, but find a title that kills it.

When do you come up with your title, before, during or after? Where do your titles come from? Do you try them out on people? How do you know when you’ve nailed it?

30 Responses

  1. Knew you’d break through the barrier. Congrats.

    For me, the *presumably* kick-ass title comes easy. The rest of the words, not so much.

  2. I always come up with THE title before I start any new book. Nothing can proceed without it.

  3. Oh this is a touchy one for me. With my first book, I could swear I nailed it. My agent suggested we change it to something that I felt was far less exciting. It didn’t sell so I put on Amazon to sell as a Kindle book, and I used my old title. It’s selling okay.

    My current book has a kind of bland title. I assume it will be changed later.

    Fiction Writer, do you think of characters first or literally titles?

    • Well, I write historical fiction and nonfiction, so I come up with the subject first. But before I write a single word, I have to know the title, since it can change everything.

      And congratulations, Betsy, on breaking through.

  4. Yeah, I’m one of those “not good at titles” people. Isn’t that one of the things an editor is for? (I will lie down on a moldy, urine-stained mattress for a good editor.)

    So the title of my memoir? The publishing exec I was dating at the time came up with it. In fact, he came up with the whole notion of the book.

    Then he dumped me two weeks later–via email–citing the complications “the book” might raise in his personal life.

    People in publishing kick ass.

  5. I always come up with a title afterwards. My first writing professor taught me that the title is always in the piece somewhere, you just have to look for it. Sometimes it’s the name of a chapter, sometimes it’s a great phrase you’ve written.

    What’s kind of strange is that with blogging, as opposed to larger-scale writing, I have to title every single post and it’s been pretty good training.

  6. I always label my projects with a random working title while I’m writing them. I’ve found THE TITLE will reveal itself at some point, in an organic fashion, normally whilst running for a tram or lugging groceries home, or some other point in time in which it is difficult to make notes.

    It’s the best feeling when THE TITLE shows up! And don’t you find you always seem to instantly know that it’s the right one? THE TITLE just has a certain feel to it.

  7. Betsy, I always love your blog titles. They are always clever or ironic or just plain fun and they always make me want to read.

    If a title doesn’t just present itself to me as I’m working, I usually have to really struggle. I have a couple of writing buddies who are really great about making suggestions.

    Once, a title of a short story, which ended up being the title of the book, came to me before I’d even begun the story. I’d been straightening up my step-son’s bedroom and sat down to flip through a book of hubble satellite postcards he had. One of the photos was titled Springtime on Mars. I wrote it down, and the story followed.

  8. knew when I nailed it exactly for the reasons you exposed: the right title moves things for you as you’re writing, it encapsulates the many meanings of the work for you before it does it for the reader 🙂

  9. My titles either come to me during the writing or else they don’t come at all.

    The title for my current book was so bad that an agent wrote back to me telling me to change the title, gave me instructions on how to look for a better one, and then one week later wrote a blog post repeating those instructions.

    So I guess you could say my title was REALLY lousy! But in a memorable way. 🙂

  10. I Love title hunting. So far my editor has loved all five titles I came up with for my books and they stuck through all the meetings! Yayy. Except now I’m stuck for one for a new book. I agree that titles a re vastly important. So important to me that I don’t think I can even work on the new story until I’ve nailed the title. How do I know when I’ve nailed it? When it feels right, looks right and gives enough of a hint about story to make it interesting. Or as Emily Dickinson said, “if it feels as though physically, the top of my head has been taken off, I know.” Well maybe almost like that. And thank you for mentioning in your psot to search tiltles of paintings, poems etc. I thought that was wrong of me.

  11. For three long years I had no idea what my first book was about. I couldn’t describe it to anyone, least of all to myself — all I knew was that it was about a lot of different stuff, swirling around in twelve mushy chapters that overlapped and were redundant and extremely lop-sided and never got to the POINT.

    Then one day I was looking up Brownian Movement in my 1939 Popular Science Encyclopedia (Brownian Movement is what happens when you pour cold milk into a cup of hot coffee and the milk swirls around real pretty) and the heading for that entry whallopped me instantly: It was the perfect title for my book. (I googled it: the encylcopedia was quoting a line in a poem by a long-forgotten once-popular Victorian lady poet from the Isle of Man, which is why I just loves my 1939 Popular Science Encyclopedia).

    And once I had the title for my book, I also — finally — had the structure and the parameters and the meaning of the whole shebang. I never could have written that book if I hadn’t found a five-word title that did it all.

    I don’t know where to go to dig up the title up for the book I’m working on now, since you can only go to the 1939 Popular Science Encyclopedia well once in a lifetime. The 1911 Britannica ? Is there anything good from Shakespeare that hasn’t been taken already? Is it possible to write a best seller that does not have the words Secret, Club, Society, Sisterhood, or Code in the title?

    • I was intrigued by what you wrote here, clicked on your name, and found on your blog a link to buy “When Wanderers Cease to Roam” from B&N. Are you telling me that’s the phrase you found in the 39 PopSciEncyclo? No wonder you love that volume (volumes?). And if you’ve got that old Britannica edition you named, I am very impressed. (Even if you don’t own it–I once did but lost it–I’m impressed you know about it.)

      I think Betsy’s advice is good: look everywhere.

  12. met with you at Tin House eons ago (four years maybe) and you asked (probably to bring me to the point) for the title of my novel in progress and I threw it out there, one stupid word I can’t bring myself to repeat here, and you said that’s works great if you’re writing a stupid fannie flagg novel…I took your sound advice, left that title in Portland…I’m three-quarters of the way through my first rewrite (yes, all these years later), new title

    I was going to name my first child brandy, after “brandy you’re a fine girl, what a great wife you would be”, my favorite song summer of 1972 (I was ten)…

    • You torment me. I writhe in not knowing. You must tell me what that title was. Pleeeeeeeeeze.

      Brandy: Every high school junior who got pregnant in 1972 named her kid after that song. Or, if they were seniors with a little more poetry in their souls: Brandolyn.

      I thank god I was not in utero in 1972.

      • Tell you my title? Vivian, a title is like a young lady’s virginity and she shouldn’t give it up until she is ready. Or, in my case, four years prior to that.

    • Still one of my very favorite songs, and I am a long way away from ten …

    • I can’t believe I said that. Well, I can, but still mortified.

  13. The name helps me remember why I wanted to write/make the time consuming heart wrencher in the first place. And that thematic guide should be what hooks the reader/viewer and helps them make sense of it.

  14. I always start with a title because I can’t write without one. It always changes to the keeper title around chapter three.

    This doesn’t have anything to do with titles, but I always have the worst time with chapter twenty. No exceptions! (Not that anybody cares.)

  15. The title of the novel my agent is shopping right now couldn’t be more generic and boring– just “The _____.” We were going to change it before submitting it to editors, but then a big news story about a _____ broke, and she said, “Uh, yeah… We’d better keep that title.”

  16. Glad you’ve broken on through to the other side.

  17. I’ve had a title for my project for the past two years–my thesis novel project in my MFA program.
    I thought it was the best title in the world. A month ago I asked my sublime thesis adviser what he thought of it.
    He, with all kindness, said “I don’t really like it …. How about ________.”
    At first I moaned and cringed! Two years I had been coddling my Little Darling of a perfect title!
    While out running, I realized he was absolutely right and that his suggestion was, in fact, the better title. I went home, chopped the perfect title into chopped liver and threw it right into my Cupboard of Precious Writings …

  18. My first over went around for year with the title CHICKEN LITTLE, which was useful when I was writing, but truly awful for the finished product. After that year I pulled it, revised for three more months, and came up with a new title, ALL SAINTS. Next two publishers who read it made offers. Was it the revision? Oh probably. But the title change really helped.

  19. The title comes after the book is written. I consider it a synopsis.

  20. I’ve got a working title for a memoir I’m working on. It comes from King Lear, and (a quick glance at Amazon tells me) it’s been used by a few other books, as well as providing the name for a 4-CD set by Miles Davis. No surprise–people have been mining Shakespeare for a long time.

    Because I expect to be referring to Lear in my text, and because there’s a situational comparison between Lear and the story I’m telling, I think for now my title is good. But I’m going to have to get advice on that later.

    Thankfully, Betsy has told me where to look if I need a new title: basically, everywhere.

  21. I find titles come out of nowhere. Often I get the story first and have to mine it for the best name-tag that will do it justice in the world.
    When I have been stuck I have held supper parties where the purpose is to brainstorm a title – or at least provoke me to come up with the right one by trying on many wrong ones.
    And sometimes it comes straight away, and so I can write with a stronger focus on what everyone’s doing and what it all means.

  22. do any words, phrasesor symbols keep recurring in your story? if not its a matter of patience sometimes.


  23. Titles? They appear out of the blue. Never been good at coming up with them when it’s demanded of me. A professor of mine suggested the trick of searching whatever I’d written for a phrase that stood out. But I guess I’m not the sort that produces soundbyte-ish phrases. (And she agreed.)

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