A few quick-ish and not-so-dirty tips for short stories, fanfictions, and other needs that suit your fancy
The eternal struggle of writers… now that I’ve written it, how do I come up with a title?
I’ve been writing and titling for over a decade, so I’m going to share my tips and tricks for title-coming-up-with.
Disclaimer: I am specifying this guide as for short stories (although this would apply to fanfiction too) because I do not have significant experience in titling novels (or screenplays or poetry or essays). My understanding from reading on the subject is that titling for novels has more pieces in play, such as genre-branding. Additionally, if you go through traditional publishing your much-sweated-over title could be changed along the way from industry and marketing people anyway.
Disclaimer disclaimer: I’m not saying these tips won’t be helpful -- in some measure -- in titling over things. I have used some of these titling methods for library programming, so there’s that.
Tip 1 - The Scan and Rip
Scan over your story and note any interesting word combos or turns of phrase, and rip it right on out of the text for your title.
My stories ‘Another Life,’ ‘Pit-Stop Existence,’ and ‘Castles at Night’ had their titles taken from the text of the story.
The benefit of this is you get to pull off that Hollywood ‘title drop’ in your story, even though the title drop has in fact been reversed engineered.
Another benefit is the title is in your own words, because you wrote it, and is likely to fit the theme and style and feel of your story.
The caveat to this is that it is possible to discover an interesting turn of phrase in your story that just does not work as a title for your story as a whole. Maybe it thematically implies a completely different tone or genre. Maybe it just does not work or mean the same thing out of context.
Maybe you can’t find any interesting turns of phrase in your story, and you weep at the genericness of your prose all night. No judgement.
Remember -- interesting word combos or turns of phrase. Not generic ones.
Tip 2 - The Brainstorm Explosion
Ever do brainstorming exercises in elementary or middle school where you were supposed to very quickly just come up with and write down ideas? Yeah, this is the idea here. Brainstorm free writing of potential titles.
Either type (if you type fast) or hand write. I’ve done both with success just depending on what I had available or where I had been working at the moment.
What you need to do is push aside all that perfectionism and anxiety about a getting a good title and just write down every title that comes to mind. Stupid titles. Generic titles. Titles that are already taken but would’ve worked so good if you had just gotten to it first. Variations on titles. Minute variations on titles. Minute like dropped and added articles, plurals, or changed tenses. Just all of the titles.
Man, I think I delete (when typed) or discard (when handwritten) my title brainstorming, so I can’t show you my process. I have not only used this to title short stories, but also to title a new re-ocurring library program I started at my job.
Listen, free writing and brainstorming are good ways to get past your internal editor that swats down ideas before you can even get them on to paper. Get them on to paper. Get the creative juices flowing. You will be surprised what you can come up with when you just let yourself.
After you’re done brainstorming, review for potential contenders. Although, honestly, in my experience, when you hit on a title that’s the right fit for your story, you just know it.
Tip 3 - One Word Titles are Dangerous
This is a cautionary tale. At one point, when you are struggling to derive a title for your masterpiece, you might think, “Stringing multiple words together is hard, so if I just choose one word for my title that will be easy.”
Woah, boy. Hold your horses.
Coordinating a lot of people to move a piano is difficult, yes. But imagine having to lift that piano all by yourself ... Is this metaphor making sense?
When you have a one word title, that title has to do a lot of heavy lifting.
And there is a lot of no-gos in the world of one word titles. No vague, broad words that label emotions or abstract concepts: Love, Death, Hope, Sadness, etc. No words that you can reasonably assume are overused or may be just as vague in implication because that have obvious symbolic value: Ashes, Night, etc.
A title should be specific to a story, but a one word title should be even more specific.
‘Seeds’ is the title of my Hades and Persephone retelling. If you aren’t familiar with this Greek myth, Pomegranate seeds play a major and myth-defining role.
Another one word titled short story I have is ‘Renaissance.’ As the story is about a character’s sort of ‘rebirth’ this thematically fits the story. Also, there are several artist characters in the story, so it doubly plays on that word in terms of its artistic connotations. ‘Renaissance’ is also a more particular, less common word than ‘Rebirth’ which is also too on the nose.
Interestingly, originally the story was titled ‘The Renaissance’ but the article at the beginning was eventually cut in one of the drafting stages, and I think it is a stronger title for it. (Nevermind that ‘the renaissance’ refers to a historical period.)
The takeaway lesson here is (and please, please take away something) is that if you go with a one word title, the word has to be specific and particular to the story in question, even more so than a multi word title has to be.
Tip 4 - Steal. *Cough* I mean, Reference.
Or as references are sometimes called in the literary world, use ‘allusions.’
You don’t want to use whole cart another title, or trademark, or catchphrase… However, there is a long history of titles being references to or lines from other pieces of literature. The Bible and Shakespeare have been been pulled from a lot.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner are titles taken from Shakespeare’s works. A Time to Kill by John Grisham and Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson are titles taken from the Bible. I hope you can see from the variety of types of books hear how allusion-titles can work for a variety of stories.
So, basically, this is the same advice as tip numero uno except instead of finding interesting turns of phrase from your own prose, you are finding it from someone else.
But your options aren’t limited to just literature. Consider idioms and localisms, or nonfiction quotes.
The reference does not have to be whole cart either. You can twist it, play with it, manipulate it, subvert it in a whole lot of ways to make it a better fit for your story. You might notice that a lot of comical television shows have episode titles that are plays on references or titles to other things. The Simpsons and Psych are two shows that do this that instantly (and without having to do any research) come to my mind.
For example, one of my working titles for a short story of mine was “Through the Aquarium Glass” which was a play on “Through the Looking Glass” (aka, the Alice in Wonderland sequel). The cadence of phrase would (hopefully) be familiar to the audience even if they did not immediately recognize it, and I also hoped (for those who did recognize it) it imparted the feeling of madness that was a theme running through both tales.
Tip 5 - Don’t Be Afraid of Long Titles
This is the opposite side of the coin of the other advice, tip3. Here I am telling you to channel your inner Fall Out Boy, and no be afraid of giving a story a longer or more wordy title.
I think people tend towards shorter, few word titles. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you can’t quiet come up with one that works, that is original and isn’t generic, well, open yourself up to longer.
One my most successful original short stories is titled ‘The Pawnshop of Intangible Things.’ It is only five words (It was six until I found out pawnshop is one word and not two), but it quite a mouthful of syllables. Any shorter version of the title like ‘The Pawnshop’ or ‘Intangible Things’ would not have as strongly conveyed what the story was about or its genre: a piece of Twilight Zone-y magical realism. ‘The Pawnshop’ could be any number of things set in a pawnshop. ‘Intangible Things’ sounds like a poem or piece of lyrical literary fiction. Having those two together, boom.
Conversational-style long titles is subgenre of the long title. This means words that you can imagine coming out of someone’s mouth. A little wordy but real. Not overly rot or poetic.
One story of mine I could just not come up with a title. I scanned and no turns off phrase seemed to hit the mark of what the story was as a larger entity. It was ultimately a story about characters heavily involved in toxic and unhealthy coping behaviors, so what came to mind was ‘everything wrong with me, and then some.’ This is ultimately what I went with because I wanted to post the story and was tired of waiting for a better title to come to mind. This will segue into my next tip momentarily...
The benefit of long titles is that they are more likely to be original than short titles because more words equals more variables, and more variables is more potential variety.
Tip 6 - Sometimes good enough is good enough.
A Meh Title is Better than No Title
No one wants to read your story called ‘Untitled,’ not even your mom. (Okay, maybe your mom.)
At the end of the day, you need to title your story if you plan on sharing it with the world in any which way. Literary magazines want your story to have a title. Agents and editors and publishers want your story to have a title even if they might change it down the line. Think you’re home free if you’re just writing something to post online for free perusal (whether fanfiction or original fiction)... There is plenty of stuff online to read for free. You need to distinguish your story.
You know what ‘Untitled’ looks like to a reader? That this author didn’t even care enough or put enough effort in to come up with a title. Why should I, the reader, care enough to give this story a shot?
A title is part of the polish and presentation, like proofreading and good formatting. Maybe you have a brilliant story, put if it is in one stream of consciousness-like blob instead of in paragraphs I ain’t reading it. Lack of titles causes the similar effect when I’m browsing a fanfiction website. I don’t even give that story a time of day, because if there is no title I don’t trust that the author put even passing time and care into the writing itself. Is that being unfair? Well, I don’t care.
If I’m done convincing you the importance of titles (and if you are reading this you probably already agree so… ) then time to get to the point.
Maybe you can’t find a title you love. A title that’s dazzling and original. A title that perfectly encapsulates the tone and theme of the story as well as hooking readers.
Sometimes -- or even most of the time -- that’s okay. Push over your perfectionist self. Sucker punch your internal editor. Perfection is impossible. Artistic endeavors have subjective standards. You are your hardest critic and need to get over yourself.
Use various tactics, like the tips above, to create a list of potential titles, and then pick the one that is good enough. After a few… days, weeks, months, etc... of caling and thinking of the story by that title it might very well grow on you.
“The Witch and the Runaway” was a unique submission experience for me in that I was accepted in the first and only publication I submitted to. That is that power of a perfect match. Briar’s Lit -- the online literary magazine which accepted and published my work -- is a publication for queer-themed fairy tales. And that is what I had written.
While I had only written this fairy tale back in October 2018 (this is quickest turn around from written to publication too), the inspiration is already a little fuzzy for me. I’m not sure if I ran across Briar’s Lit and its mission during my regular perusal of literary magazines and submission calls, and then this story sprung to me, or this story sprung to me and I fortuitously found Briar’s Lit. In truth, I think the two of them were more messily mingled together.
I think the inspiration and how it repurposes fairy tale (and Disney movie tropes) is evident. Take the princess who doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage because she wants to marry for love, and chop off that ending and make it that she doesn’t want to get married at all. Add a crotchety but fundamentally good witch and some found family themes, and there you go.
To be honest, this story probably reveals a lot of myself and my worldview in an explicit way more than my other stories.
If you missed it or haven’t had a change to read it yet, check it out Here.
…and the philosophy behind her book limit.
(Not that she needs me to defend her.)
Wow, it’s like deja vu. A snippet of Kondo’s tidying advice has gone viral and a lot of people are reacting to -- from joking and memes to more serious responses -- without actually knowing the context or Kondo’s tidying philosophy that goes behind it.
A few years ago it was about only keeping things in your like that spark joy. Now it is her comment from her new Netflix show (or promoting her new Netflix show… I’m not sure of the source of the screenshot) about only owning thirty books.
Now look… I’m a librarian, a writer, a reader, and a booklover, and maybe if I hadn’t had a previous experience with Kondo’s work I would be reacting like the rest of the book-loving internet, but have had previous experience -- positive experience and an emotional emotion -- with her work. Needless to say, I’m a Kondo fan and I’m defensive and I’m going to get into it right here.
I have not watched any of her new Netflix show, but several years ago I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and, more importantly, used her methods to clean out my childhood bedroom. When I say childhood bedroom, this was the room I had lived in since I was a toddler through my mid-twenties. It had a closet I didn’t even go into, built in cabinets, shelves full of knick knacks collected over the years. I could never keep it organized and tidy, and I would often lose things in the mess that would take me a long time to find. I had a lifetime of stuff in there: toys, collectibles, magazine clippings on my favorite actors from various times in my adolescents and so on. Almost all had nostalgic memories attached.
Kondo’s method helped me sort through this childhood of accumulated stuff, pare it down, and get organized. Which is not as easy (or un-emotionally fraught) as it sounds.
Kondo’s method is built on a couple tenants.
The first is that the reason you can’t get organized and stay tidy is that you have too much stuff and you need to get rid of some of the stuff.
The second is that you get rid of stuff by categories (as opposed to a room by room process). In the book (and in her cleaning method when she works one-on-one in people’s homes), that starts with clothes, goes through several others (including books), and ends with sentimental items.
The third is that she uses an emotional gage for judging what items you should keep and discard. This is where the ‘sparks joy’ thing comes in that so many people make fun of or just don’t plan understand. She defines joy broadly, and honestly, it is not until you are going through the mountain of stuff you have that you realize how so much stuff that you keep is because of negative or neutral emotions. It’s obligation or guilt, because it was a gift, because you spent a lot of money on it, because you used to like it, because you really meant to get around to using it but never did, and so on and so forth.
Look, if you think ‘sparking joy’ is kooky, then you’ll think the part where Kondo suggests you thank each item you are getting rid for the joy it gave you in the past really kooky. Which I did think when I read it, but ended up being very useful in practice, because getting rid of your possessions can be very emotionally fraught it turns out. (Especially ones you that attached guilt to.)
Please note that Kondo, in broad strokes, is not one of those minimalist that usually ascribes numbers to the amount of this and that possessions you should have. The nature of sparking joy is very individual. We have different interests and tastes, so where on person may have a lot of… sports memorabilia that sparks joy, some others have none of that but have a lot of cooking supplies that spark joy, and someone else has a lot of, say, books.
Alright, books. We’re moving onto books.
Books is one of the categories Kondo has in her process of purging and tidying. I don’t recall -- although it has been several years since I read it -- Kondo giving that ‘30 book’ ideal in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I do remember her writing about winnowing down your books collection was this:
Imagine looking at a bookcase and it is just filled with books that you love. Imagine how good that would feel.
Seriously, just take that idea and seperate it for the rest of the conversation here for a second. Isn’t that a lovely image in your head? Doesn’t that fill you with an inner warmth?
Maybe you say you love every book in a 300 book collection, and maybe you do. I know I love more that thirty. But I also know that there are many on my shelves right now that I don’t.
Anyway, yes, I did purge a significant number of books from my collection, selling some via amazon and others at a new and used books store. (And then used the store credit to buy more books :P.) Many of them were books I had acquired at used books stores and had never read. Others were books I had acquired (as gifts or purchases) as a young person. I may or may not have read them in the past, but had no attachment to them in the present.
Did I keep more than thirty books? Yes. Could I purge that book collection I have built up again since then? Yes. Would it still be more than thirty books? Yes.
But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers may very well have more books that they L-O-V-E love than the average person. I know that between just a few book series that I do. But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers might like to remember than not everyone reads as much as they do or loves as many books, and that is totally okay. Thirty books might be a lot for some people and a little for others. Marie Kondo, who clearly greatest pleasure in life is tidying, may be part of that second group.
(And also, just because you don’t own a physical book doesn’t mean you aren’t reading. There are e-book and audio books people. People that use this thing called libraries that lets you borrow books. People that purchase books and then, once done, resell, give away, or donate.)
Sometimes I feel the booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers put a little too much stock into owning books for just the sake of owning them. I may be saying this as a perspective of a librarian who borrows most of the books I read (and then only buys the ones I love after reading… I rarely purchase a book before reading it unless it is in a series or from a beloved author). Maybe I say this as a person who has purged books via the Marie Kondo method and doesn’t regret it (it sure made moving easier a year later), and as a librarian because weeding (aka removing books from the library collection) is literally part of my regular job duties.
I suppose from the librarian perspective I believe that a book’s value is in its use. It is meant to be read and referenced, or to store important information, and even to be aesthetically appreciated. (I wouldn’t own multiple version of Lord of the Rings with different cover art if it wasn’t for aesthetic appreciation… And, yes, they all spark me some joy). A book isn’t sacred because it's a book. A books is important because it is useful. For information or pleasure or entertainment or artistic enlightenment.
I feel that a book stuffed in the back corner of a bookshelf that is unread, forgotten, and unwanted is not, well, fulfilling a book’s purpose. And maybe that same book could be filling its purpose on someone else’s shelves.
I guess I am one of the rare booklovers that thinks it is okay and even appropriate to purge and weed your personal book collection every so often, the same way you would purge your wardrobe or any other collections of stuff you have. Most people are going to have to purge it at one point anway. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are difficult to move. So whenever you move house… Just think about it.
So before you make reactionary posts about Marie Kondo’s thirty book comment, please consider the following…
That it is not a dictate or a judgement. It is just part of her tidying philosophy.
That the 30 books is just a suggestion for the average person, but that numbered dictates are not really a cornerstone of her philosophy. The ‘joy’ is. If you have more books that give you joy, than more books for you. But many people hold onto books (and other possessions) for negative reasons.
That if you ever need to weed down a book collection (such as for moving) rather than just spring cleaning, that her practice might be a guiding light.
And that if you prefer maximalism to minimalist, then that is your right, your prerogative, and more power to you. Kondo is there for the people who are seeking to organize and tidy, and her first step is purging. If you’re not looking for organization tips, then this has nothing to do with you and your life. Let the water roll of your back and please don’t engage in internet, snobby, booklover elitism or condensation that makes all of us books nerds look bad.
Please and thank you.
P.S. - Kondo’s method for folding clothes and how to fit them in your bureau draws is life changing. If you are constantly digging through your drawers unable to find the thing you’re looking for, messing up all that folding you dig, or otherwise have overstuffed drawers… seriously, look it up. There are diagrams and youtube videos. If you disagree with everything else here, please just do yourself and your drawers a favor. It’s so great. I’m serious.
P.P.S. - I’m just really passionate about how Marie Kondo changed my life, okay?
My “New Year's Resolutions” for the last several years have revolved around the same topics. How much I’m going to write. What writing projects I’m going to finish. How many books I’m going to read. Improvements in diet. To stop biting my goshdarn nails.
Some I’m more successful at than others. I’m least successful at stopping the nail biting.
As you may or may not have heard before, you are more likely to achieve your goals if you come up with specific plans on how the achievement them and to make the goals measurable. So, I will not just be blogging my resolutions, but how I plan to make it so.
I have written done my goals like this for myself the last two years and it has been a successful experience. Now I’m sharing them online so that is an extra level of accountability, ha.
Goal 1: Read 100 books
Why: I topped off at 79 this year. Which is pretty high but that includes a manga series I’m chugging through. I just want to hit that one hundred mark. I just always have such a long To Be Read list, and I want to get through more of it.
Please note I count audio, graphic novels, and children’s chapter books as books toward my goal.
Read during my lunch break instead of playing app games and scrolling social media on my phone.
Listen to more audio books (in car, while doing chores).
Always have an in progress ebook on my phone for when I am at places without a physical book. Sneak in more reading that way.
Dedicate at least a half an hour (ideally an hour) a day to reading either before or after work. In alternate measure, at least fifty pages of reading (ideally one hundred pages) of reading a day.
Dedicate at least an hour to reading on weekends and days off work.
Keep track of progress on Goodreads.
Goal 2: Write 300,000 creative words.
Why: Because I did it in 2017. In 2018 I made it to 250,000 words. Giving myself this goal has produced better almost-daily writing habits in me, pushed me to finish projects, and gotten me over so-called “writers blocks.”
Write a little everyday, with the goal being a little over 800 words a day. This counts original fiction, fanfiction, and blog posts for this website. This does not include school work or work work.
Stop trying to write in front of the television all the time. Actually use your writing desk.
Prioritize writing time before leisure activities.
If I’m too busy or too mentally drained to write on a specific day, I’m allowed to have a no-guilt skip day.
If I’m in the groove even after hitting the word count, keep going.
Keep track on writetrack website.
Goal 3: Submit to at least five writing opportunities a month (literary magazines, anthologies, queries, contests, etc.)
Why: Because you need to submit to be published. Because regular submissions means you have to look for new and diverse opportunities and that you catch submission periods that are only open for short periods.
Keep track on excel spreadsheet.
Submit stories on days/nights when you don’t have writing time or energy.
Make up for accidental shortages in one month with more submissions the next.
(I successfully have done this -- or a variation of this -- the last two years with good results in that I have consistently gotten several short story acceptances the last two years.)
Goal 4: Build my writer social media presence.
Why: Because I’m the odd millennial who is not a natural oversharer online. Because this is the way to network, connect with potential, and be part of the literary community.
Set aside time on weekend/days off to schedule posts.
When casually on social media, be more interactive with shares and comments.
Tweet once a day in the morning as part of morning routine.
Be more active/interactive on tumblr. I’ve been hanging out there for years, but not building a community.
Goal 5: Stop Biting Nails!
Why: Because I want to stop biting them. Because I want them to be long and pretty. Because biting them probably looks unprofessional and gross.
Take time to manicure and paint them when I’m not rushed so they will have proper time to dry and thus I am less likely to pick at messed up paint.
Use bad tasting polish to deter nail biting.
Keep track of nail biting on chart as to measure success and failure.
(Note: After writing, but before posting, I actually already started on this goal. This has involved youtube stop nailing biting hypnosis videos -- I kid you not -- and I am seeing some progress, albeit during a week while I’m wearing acrylic nails. Maybe 2019 will be my stop nail biting success year?)
Do you have any ambitions for the new year? Remember, the first steps are to write them out, make them measureable, and come up with plans to obtain success. Then -- start at it and start keeping track. Good luck on your new year’s resolutions!
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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