30 December 2020

Which Came First? The Title or the Egg?

 I belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In fact, I am the current president.  I imagine you can figure out what we discuss there. (And, hey, if you want to join, go to this page and look for Subscribe.  It's free.  But do it by tomorrow or you have to wait until the spring when the Derringer Awards have been decided.)

Recently I sent the following note to the Society's list:

I am about to do something that truly irritates me: starting to write a story with no idea what the title will be. 

How about it?  Do you need a title before you start writing?

And that started quite a discussion.  I am going to reduce a lot of interesting comments to four generalized categories:

Inspiration.  Writers who said their stories were often inspired by titles.

Start. Writers who usually know the titles before they begin.

Later. Writers who don't know the titles until the story is mostly or completely finished.

Varied.  Writers who are all over the map.

And speaking of maps, this chart shows the results.

A number of people agreed with me that it is annoying to start without knowing the title, if for no other reason than: what do you call the file?  When I started the story I was complaining about I called the file "Tunnel," which I absolutely hated.  The next day I changed it to "Underpass," which I like so much it may wind up being the actual title.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but huge to me.

I can think of only two times when the title inspired the plot:

"My Life as a Ghost." This was the first story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They changed it to "The Dear Departed."  They have never changed another title on me, even when I invited them to do so.

Too Dead For Dreaming. I was listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" one day and that line leapt out as a perfect title for a crime novel. So I wrote a book set in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Scare of the early sixties.  Alas, Bob Dylan's publishing company wouldn't permit me to use the line as a title so it became Such A Killing Crime, a line from a traditional song, long out of copyright.  

My story about the Plainfield, New Jersey riots was originally called "Bullets in the Firehouse Door," but before I finished it I changed to "Shooting at the Firemen," which covers the same ground but is shorter and more active.  First readers suggested I drop the "the" so it appeared in Hitchcock as "Shooting at Firemen."  

Do you need a title before you start?  Do they stay the same or change their identity mysteriously?


  1. Interesting blog-post, Robert. I always use a working title. Just like you, I often know beforehand if the title is the one I eventually will use, or not. Working title says it all, it helps me get to work. A crutch to sustain me on the way to the story's end. But, during the writing process often better titles come up in my head. Very often the working title is not the name the story will go under in the end. Yet, sometimes I perceive a working title that's just perfect (at least in my perception.).

  2. Yes, I use a working title which often remains the title. Been writing so long I've done it all the ways you mentioned. Been inspired by a title and in some cases, struggled for a title. As a novelist I always have more than one title for a book. When I was published by traditional publishers, I needed it because the celestial radiance marketing folks sometimes did not like my title, so I had better have another ready so they wouldn't put 'French Quarter' or 'Big Easy' in my title. When we began publishing the books independently, I needed more than one title because someone might publish a book right before mine with the same title. Happened when we was ready to publish my caper novel SLICK TIME. It was going to be called SLICK, only a buddy of mine published a book entitle SLICK just as we were getting ready to copyright and publish. The books were nothing alike but he got there first. No problem. I like SLICK TIME better.

  3. I've had both experiences: getting the ideal title before the story and writing a whole novel and still not having any good idea for the title.

  4. Sometimes I have a title, but no idea what story should go with it. Other times, I have a story, without a title. Rarely do both arrive at the same time. It's interesting that you hated the title Tunnel, but loved Underpass. They mean the same thing, but have a very different feel.

  5. Years ago, I tried to sell a series about a PI who was a wannabe rock 'n' roller, so I accumulated a list of song titles that might work as story titles, too. I usually have one of those 200-+ ideas for a working title, but it may change as I discover new things during the actual writing. The majority of my novels and stories still do use song titles or music allusions.

    Several years ago, I worked on the novel I called Hot Rod Lincoln, but realized early-on that the title wasn't right. My cover designer and I tossed out every car song we could think of (Little G.T.O., Little Red Corvette, Spring Little Cobra, etc.) and didn't like any of them, either. As we were approaching wit's end, my wife said, "Why don't you call it 'Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes-Benz?'" We loved it, and that's what's out there.

  6. Titles are always an interesting subject. Like O'Neil, I've gone all those different directions. The story I'm working on at the moment doesn't have a title, so the file is still "new mystery story 12-27-20." I have some titles in mind, though, and I'll change the name of the file in a couple days, when I make the final choice.

    Also interesting that AHMM changed that title of your first story for them. So far I've not had any titles changed by AHMM, EQMM, Strand, etc., but Woman's World has changed my titles about fifty times. Whattayagonnado?

  7. If I'm writing for a specific anthology, I will sometimes use the name of the anthology as the filename and as a placeholder title.

    As the year is rapidly coming to a close, I've been trying to finish two stories, both of which have had several titles. I finally settled on a title and finished one story last night. The other has a title I am satisfied with (but not thrilled), so now I'm struggling with the last sentence. If the last sentence doesn't work, the entire story doesn't work. Sigh. It's always something, isn't it?

  8. Titles really are my weak point. It's hard for me to come up with a good one, or at least one I can live with. Sometimes I'm inspired by a good title; other times I use a tag, usually something about the plot, as a working title. Sometimes the title comes to me in the middle of writing the story. I admire writers who get it right every time.

  9. I'm with Susan - titles are my weak point. I usually name my working files after a character in the story or a specific incident, but the final title... Who knows?

  10. I'm one of those writers all over the map. The title for my first published short story, The Dead Man in the Pearl Gray Hat, which you offered kind comments about, Robert, came before I put story to paper. But other titles have been a struggle to the bitter end. Fortunately, lightning usually strikes somewhere along the way. For my most recent published novel, I had a working title I wasn't nuts about but it stuck around for a long time. One day while researching additional background for the novel, I read a quote in Life magazine from a cop caught up in a major Denver police scandal in the 60s (my novel draws heavily from the scandal), and I exclaimed aloud to myself, THERE'S MY TITLE! A snippet of his quote became The Big Dive, which struck me as perfect for the tone of the book and deeply metaphorical for the plot.

  11. I've done a lot of stories from a title, and have at least one in my files that never had a good title (it's one where the story came first!) I tend to use a lot of song titles as titles ("Shine On Harvest Moon," "Mister Brownstone," "Goodnight Sweetheart.")

  12. Great post. I've used Dylan snippets in books several times and had no trouble getting rights, but none of them was the book's title. That was probably the problem.

  13. I told people for years that I was going to write a mystery called Death Will Get You Sober before I quit my day job running an alcohol program on the Bowery and wrote it. Then I had to go on writing novels and short stories whose titles, preferably clever, started with Death Will. Once I changed a title because it wouldn't fit on a book cover, once because it was too provocative to please editors. Standalones: sometimes title first, sometimes story first or part way through. With other series stories, I try to stick to a theme (eg the Rachel Mendoza stories "in the Harem"); plot and title may come more or less simultaneously (eg how about one called "A Sortie from the Harem/in which the harem characters appear outside the harem?). Then I have to figure out how to make that work and hang a mystery plot on the premise.

  14. Most of the titles of my stories come from songs, but not necessarily from song titles. "The One I Loved" came from the lyrics to "The Corvette Song" by George Jones.

  15. Interesting to see how many of us use song titles/ lyrics. Bruce, as for saying "There's my title!" I sometimes am surprised to find a title or theme int he text of my own story. "Oh, THAT'S what I'm writing about."

    Thanks for all the comments, folks.

  16. Nice article; not something I'd thought about till reading this. Guess I've gone all over the place.

    With my first novel, about a billionaire named Gordon Donne who bought the US government (legally), I called it The Donne Deal, then about a year after indie publishing it, I changed it to The Devlin Deception, since Jake Devlin, my pen name, turned into a sort of arrogant narcissist, as both character AND author, and carried that on through all four novels in the series (Devlin's Defiance, Devlin Sub Rosa and Devlin's Demise? [yes, with the ?]).

    Then when I started with short stories, the titles came in all four ways you mentioned, several from unusual names of people I met, like "Teagan's Special Sand Castle" (it's haunted) or "Hazel Moon and the Swampy Woods" (including a Burmese python and a Skunk Ape in the Florida Everglades), some just descriptive ("Nature's Way" or "Acts of God Insurance"), and others only suggestive/equivocal ("Brrr" or "Shrink Rap" or "Think Fast." All over the place.

    Again, thought-provoking article.

  17. Usually I don't know the title until I'm a little ways in, although once I thought of a title long before I wrote the story.

    More often than I like, I suffer an embarrassment of riches, two catchy titles that I have to decide between. Life is tough.


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