by Annette Lyon
With all due respect to Steve Almond, his latest article in Writer’s Digest wasn’t exactly en pointe.
This is the first time I’ve disagreed with a word he’s said. Usually his fiction column is a great resource, and I find myself mentally cheering him on with each example and explanation. (His piece on metaphors a few months ago was priceless.)
But this month . . . not so much.
In it he touts the importance of picking a title for your work. He claims that those poor souls who don’t pick a title might not be ready to show their work to the world, and then he proceeds to give a lesson (a pretty great one, actually) about how to come up with titles.
All well and good . . . if authors of published novels actually picked their titles.
Which happens, oh, about 1.3% of the time.
Okay, I made that statistic up, but in my experience, that might be guessing high. Sure, Dickens and company got to pick the titles of their books (really catchy ones, too, like David Copperfield and the one that makes you so eager to read it, Bleak House). But in the last, say, ten years, I’m aware of maybe three novels that hit shelves with the title that their authors submitted.
Writers are good at writing. We aren’t so good at selling stuff. That’s the marketing department’s job. That’s also why they hire professional graphic designers to make the covers—so prospective customers might actually pick up the thing and read the back liner . . . and maybe walk out the door with it.
And it’s why they get to pick the title. By and large, these guys have a ton more experience than we writers do in seeing what kinds of titles sell books and which ones land on their faces.
When they’re wrong, well, the author pays the price, because generally you’ll be at their mercy. You might be able to give suggestions or ideas, but in the end, they get the final say. The one exception might be with short stories, but if you’re planning on writing novels, there’s very little point in fantasizing about what they'll be called.
If you’re lucky enough to keep your title, party on. Throw confetti and toast your success.
But I know too many would-be writers who obsess about their titles, to the point of avoiding the nitty-gritty job of making a great book behind the brilliant title. A catchy name isn’t going to sell your work to an agent or editor. Knock-your-socks-off writing will.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ll probably use some of Almond’s suggestions when coming up with something to call my next manuscript before I submit it. But I won’t be married to the title, and I won’t be remotely surprised when (not if) it gets changed.
So I’ll be focusing my efforts where they really matter: Writing the best story I’m capable of.
Then I’ll let the marketing folks worry about assigning a title and a cover to it. That’s their job.
I think mine’s much more fun anyway.