I was having a Twitter chat yesterday with a fellow writer about how difficult we were finding it to think of the right title for our work in progress. It was a serendipitous moment when I saw her Tweet go skittering past in my timeline; it helped me shrug off the lonely frustration of coming up with something pertinent, memorable and pithy (140 characters get eaten up really fast when you are promoting your work on Twitter, and at great cost to your grammatical principles).
I had been struggling with an appropriate title for the next story in The Purana Qila Stories series. The titles of my other two short stories had fallen into my lap, one a variation on a line from a Dylan Thomas poem, A Change in the Weather, the other from a small moment in my story, The Dust Beneath Her Feet.
A good title has to say it all: it has to pique interest for the uninvested person browsing the bookstore, internet or library for his or her next reading options; it has to hit just the right notes for readers of your genre; it has to sum up your book in a way that is not deceptive; it has to marry well with your cover artwork. There is a lot riding on your title — it announces your brand to the world.
I remember watching a documentary about Robert Ludlum, years ago, I must have been about nine or ten and I never forgot this: his male literary agent had been arguing with him, in tears, because he had considered naming his next work with something other than one of his signature three-word book titles. Think of the impact that is had by three well-chosen words: The Bourne Identity. The Matarese Circle. The Icarus Agenda. They speak confidence and clarity. In his 22-title bibliography and a storied career, Robert Ludlum wrote only three books that break the mold.
I was all over the shop with my next story and I finally came to peace when I found some clarity of my own. I had to ask myself, what is the central conflict here? What is at stake and for whom? At the same time, I had a selection of cover artwork, each with an image that I liked, but there was only one that told the story I was trying to tell. It did not matter how hard I was trying to make some of the others work, like Cinderella’s sisters trying to jam their size 12’s in her shoe, they would not fit. Perhaps the other images will inspire stories of their own, but I ready to throw my lot in with my next story title and its accompanying image: The Well-Tended Garden. It is an analogy for the relationship between my central characters, something they have nurtured and cultivated in modesty.
I still have a way to go before it is finished, however. As a writer, I have learned that I am only somewhat in charge: it will be complete, I suspect, when it is done with me, and not the other way around. I’m sure there will be many more dilemmas by then, but I have put my finger on the pulse of my story now and have given it a name. This blog post is the birth announcement, and only just a little premature: The Well-Tended Garden: 4 words and 22 characters. If I smoked, it would be time to break out the cigars. I’ll settle for some Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut.