Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Name Game

It must be something in the air; or in the electrons. There’s no other explanation.
Last week, while thinking about future posts for this blog, I was thinking about names; specifically, my difficulty in coming up with them. Imagine my surprise to read these two posts this week, plus this thread on Absolute Write. We must all be drinking the same Kool-Aid.
My problem not with naming characters and places. I may cast about a bit, looking for something that’s just exactly right, but I don’t agonize too much over it. I find something that seems right, start using it, and it either sticks or transforms to something else within a few paragraphs or pages. I may really like the original name, but I end up using what ultimately trips most naturally off my fingertips as I type. No, my big problem with names is what I name my stories. I have a problem with titles.
My ‘first story’ (it’s the first one I remember; I’m sure I wrote others, but this is the one that launched my dreams of being a writer) was called – get this – The House of Evil. Horrible, isn’t it? It was about four young people who found themselves at an old house where an evil scientist was doing evil scientist things. I found the story when we were cleaning out my parents’ house. My mother kept it for thirty years. That makes me want to cry for two different reasons. Perhaps I will share that story here one day. I can’t quite bring myself to burn it. Yet.
The only other story from those days that I remember having a title for was something my  best friend at the time and I were working on together, before we decided we were going to do something else with our lives. That one was called The Assassin’s Coffin. I don’t remember much about the story, except that it involved a killer who drove a hearse and used a coffin in his killings somehow. Ah, the imagination of pre-teen boys. Title-wise, I think it’s a step up from The House of Evil.
Titles became a problem in my professional life, too. I worked for a number of years in the education department at the Central Park Conservancy. Every couple of years someone higher up the organizational food chain came up with a new vision for the department, forcing us to either:
a)      design a whole new set of programs to fit the new vision, or
b)      repackage everything so it looked shiny and new.
Either way, we ended up having to come up with a bunch of new program titles for brochures and the website. Sure, what we were doing was nothing more than an hour and a half long study of pond life, but we really wanted to come up with something sexier title “Pond Study.” Not very exciting, though I suppose it told everyone pretty much what the program was about, which is exactly what a name should do. One year we were looking to jazz up the names a bit. I suggested we rename our Invertebrates program “Some go Crunch,” since the reaction of most city people when they see a ‘bug’ is to step on it. Not surprisingly, it got vetoed. I think we ended up sticking with just plain old “Invertebrates.” Blah.
Book and story titles give me the opportunity to be more creative than my bosses at Central Park, but it’s still important that the title relates in some way to the story. You can’t go off the rails with a book title the way you can for a song or a painting, especially if you’re a new author. It’s all well and good for Bob Dylan to title a song Subterranean Homesick Blues, but a novel? What do you think it would be about, a homeless guy living in the New York City subway, pining for his old life back in Omaha? Coal miners, maybe? A title is important for catching the eye, but how will people react if they pull your novel, Pirates of the Caribbean, off the shelf and discover it’s about wildcatters in Alberta? They’re expecting a book on pirates, so it’s probably going back up on the shelf.
I’ve got four novels in various stages of completion. Only one of them has a title, and I’m not all that happy with it (the title, that is; I’m still largely happy with the novel). When I posted a snippet from it on Absolute Write way back in February, I called it Lives in Parallel. Shortly thereafter, I started thinking of it as Parallel Lives. When I printed my first draft in April, I tacked on a cover sheet with the name Converging Parallels. Now I’m leaning back toward Parallel Lives. In truth, I really don’t know what I’m going to call it, but I expect the word ‘parallel’ is going to be involved in there somewhere. If it ever gets to the point of being published, someone is likely to change it, anyway. I hope whoever does that does a better job than I did. And yet, the notion of parallel lives, or lives in parallel (and even the impossible ‘converging parallels’) makes sense in the context of the story and the novel’s construction. And that’s probably why I have it running through my head. I suppose if my story really suggested a title like Subterranean Homesick Blues (or that other Dylan classic, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35), I’d try to run with that.
The other three novels, even the completed NaNoWriMo draft, don’t have titles to this point, and I think I know why. Each of the three has a story line. In two of the three cases I have an endpoint in mind; that is, I know roughly how I expect it to end (in the case of NaNo, I actually know how it ended). Yet what’s missing for me is a real sense of what those books are about. They’re not as fleshed-out thematically as Parallel Lives. Even the NaNo, complete though it may be, was so rushed, the ending so forced, that I never got a real strong sense of what it is. The other two are just not far enough along for me to really know what they’re about beyond a broad plot outline.
I don’t have problems titling my short stories, but maybe that’s no surprise. The names for my short stories float to the surface like fish in a polluted lake; I often have a title before I’ve even finished writing my first draft. I expect it’s because it’s much more evident what the short story is about. Short stories get to the point much faster than novels (and blog posts). The theme, the ‘what it’s all about,’ is easier to grab hold of in a short story. Often, there’s one phrase in my short stories that resonates with me in such a way that it suggests itself for a title. The novels like to keep their secrets.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go work on next week’s blog post. We’ll see if I get trumped again. Have a pleasant weekend.

One Response

  1. First off, thanks for linking to my post! I guess you're right; we really have been passing the Kool-Aid around this week.

    Anyway, great post! I think that's something we're all struggling with, especially at the revision stage. For what it's worth, I like Lives in Parallel. 🙂

    Have a great weekend!

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