The secret to soup stock: simmer forever. The more concentrated the better.
Titles are like that. The more concentrated, the more intense the flavor, the better. Of course, the right ingredients, fresh ingredients, are also key.
Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved is one of my favorite titles. A title so strong that even if I could not read the book itself, I would be satisfied—and the fact there is also a book to read is enormously pleasing. It’s got everything: mystery, the seduction of a conversational frame (as if we are already privy to the author’s line of thought), and a rich signpost for what the reader will find inside.
I hear writers moan and groan about titles. Maybe this widespread antipathy is symbolic. Title, after all, is the first face, the word face, of your book in the world. So if you harbor any lingering insecurities about that book, they fling up roadblocks to titling. They remind you that even though you’ve conquered the inner critic in the writing of the thing, that fear/resistance bogeyman is still lurking.
I have this conversation with Kattywompus authors on a frequent basis:
Me: That title isn’t right.
Author: It accurately describes what’s in the book.
Me: Not that simple. The title has work to do for this book.
Author: (alters syntax slightly) How about this? It’s exactly on point.
Me: Accurate is overrated. How about strange? How about seductive, hilarious? Make somebody who doesn’t know anything about you or your book want to pick it up.
Names are important, the more so to writers, who spend their lives putting names to the world. And like writing itself, the path to the right title, the right name for your book (or your story, or your poem, or your essay) is not mapped by anyone but you.
Is a title like coffee? Good coffee packs a punch. Delicious hot, it’s still tasty as it cools, like the room temperature latte I’m sipping. Coffee should hold up without adulteration, just like good soup is flavorful not for heaps of salt and faux stock surrogates, but for delicious ingredients steeped long and patiently.
Enough with the ingestible metaphors, I hear you.
A good title should lift off from the book on its own trajectory, which may be right on course with the manuscript or quite slant to it—but it should lift off enough to snare a prospective reader’s eye so tightly, she cannot stop her hand from reaching for the book. So seductively, he steps a little closer, opens the book, forgets what time it is and where he was supposed to be going next.
In my house, another rule of good soup is that it always boils over. That’s not because soup has to boil over, to be good. It’s because I go back to work as soon as the soup is simmering. And when my fingers are on the keys, time ceases to exist.