Titles 101: Choosing Engaging Names for Creative Work

1Recently, I finished a chapbook of poetry, and while titling each individual poem was something I had been doing for years, drawing together a collection with a cohesive and interesting name was new for me. I ended up copying the title of one of the poems in the collection, “Losing Teeth,” but it got me thinking about how and why we give the names we do to our creative works. I have written poems, plays, articles, and stories, and I’d like to share some ideas for those who may not know where to start.

Summarize your work.

This worked for Kerouac with On The Road, and J.K. Rowling with each installment of the Harry Potter series. It has the advantage of immediately telling readers what they are in for, but titles chosen in this way aren’t necessarily going to be creative or gripping.

Guide readers towards themes and motifs.

The central conflict in Rent is whether or not the main characters will be forced to pay their rent. However, the stories that the musical tells serve to remind the audience that “you can’t take it with you” and to not take life or relationships for granted. The simple title gives weight to the line “Everything is rent,” and invites us to read it as the main idea of the show.

Pick an interesting and unique phrase from your work.

This is particularly easy to do with poetry, because the use of language in the work is creative by definition. However, it would have worked for Kerouac too, who could have just as easily written Burn, Burn, Burn, which is a phrase from one of my favorite passages in the book:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

—Jack Kerouac

Draw connections to another work.

This was one of my favorites to use in college, because it really impresses professors. Think of some similar works, especially literary, that might give your work deeper meaning through a connection with it. To again use Kerouac as an example, he could have gone with American Odyssey or, more subtly, My Name is Nobody.

Of course, titles are an important piece of any creative work, and they require careful consideration. You have to consider everything from the age group of your audience, to conventions of the genre, to the overall effect you want your work to have; for example, Kerouac may have picked his title not only because it is an accurate summary of the book, but because he wanted readers to make connections between his semi-autobiographical character’s adventures and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or maybe he wanted the focus to be on the geography and milieu of America more than individual characters. The ideas listed above are good ways to get your juices flowing, but don’t forget to make sure your title is the perfect one.

Happy titling! If you have any questions or there was something I didn’t address, feel free to comment!

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Review: Please by Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown’s 2008 collection Please is a free-verse auditory adventure from the place where blackness and homosexuality intertwine. This is Brown’s first book, but not his first foray into poetry, having completed an MFA and being published in numerous highly acclaimed magazines. He has also worked as a professor and speechwriter in New Orleans.

Divided into sections titled like the buttons on a CD player, Brown often uses music and musicians as a backdrop for his experiences. The collection focuses on themes of shame, but since the tone is neutral and the imagery is varied, it does not feel overwhelming, nor like a pity party.

Here’s the statement from the book jacket, presumably written by the author:

Please explores the points in our lives at which love and violence intersect. Drunk on its own rhythms and full of imaginative and often frightening imagery, Please is the album playing in the background of the history and culture that surround African American/male identity and sexuality. Just as radio favorites like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Pink Floyd characterize loss, loneliness, addiction, and denial with their voices, these poems’ chorus of speakers transform moments of intimacy and humor into spontaneous music.

My only criticism of the work is that his use of spacing is not necessarily successful. One poem in particular is divided into three columns, and totally baffled me until I realized it was supposed to be read horizontally and not vertically. Other spacing choices just don’t feel intentional.

I recommend this book for people who like cleanly-written, confessional-style poetry, and those who are looking for something a little meatier than a chapbook.

“Lot of My Sister” Review

Lot of My Sister is a 2001 chapbook by Alison Stine, containing 13 medium-length free verse poems.

The poetic collection focuses on matters of the body, and is mostly set in the dusty wilderness of the rural Midwest. Blood is a motif that twists through the entire work; both the result of violence and of defloration, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. There are also a few poems told from some very interesting perspectives, like the wife of Jack the Ripper.

Even through the dusty tone, it is a very political work, focusing on the oppression of women as a very personal matter, seen through the eyes of one. Much of the work focuses on violation, humiliation, and powerlessness inflicted by men that she loves. It reads much more like a resigned journal entry than a treatise.

I don’t believe that poems focusing on women should be pigeon-holed as only being for women, but it is a fact that women (I am of course including transgender women) might relate to this collection more. Otherwise, this poetry collection is for anyone who (like me) prefers to read densely-packed, intensely personal poetry.

College Writers: Do you need to study writing to be a writer?

As time crawls forward to graduation, I find myself wondering if I have any regrets. If I would have done anything differently if I had different information.

I have been a Creative Writing major since my acceptance at Oswego University (though I did add a Theatre minor my junior year) because I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. My original plan was to go on to get a Master’s in Library Science, but that plan has fallen by the wayside as I have slowly realized I’d rather do something active than sit behind a desk.

My passion for the written word hasn’t waned, but I do find myself wondering whether my major was worth my time. The answer I have come to is pretty complex, so buckle up.

ABOUT THE CREATIVE WRITING B.A.

My required classes have consisted of multiple tracks of practical, workshop-based classes (I took Fiction, Poetry, and Playwrighting), with some basic English courses sprinkled in. Perhaps the most interesting and unique writing course that Oswego offers is the Living Writers Series, in which faculty invites writers to talk about their work.

Other majors at other colleges have different programs. Some have more general majors, usually just branded as “Writing,” that focus more on business-oriented, professional writing, and of course a Journalism degree would be relatively similar.

YOU SHOULD NOT MAJOR IN IT IF:

I’m going to be honest. I don’t think that aspiring writers need to get a degree at all, let alone a Creative Writing one. Writing instructors cannot teach you anything that you cannot learn on your own from reading and writing extensively.

If you love to learn, and you think you would enjoy academia, by all means go to college. College is an amazing experience, and if you are a scholarly type (like me!) and it fits into your career plans, I highly recommend it. However, consider majoring in something else.

Writing is both a trade and an art, and therefore you learn much more by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience things like foreign languages and science are much harder to study just from reading and practice, and therefore might make a better major.

Secondly, majoring in a secondary interest may be worth it just to broaden your scope. Basically, writers need something to write about. My experiences in Political Science and Linguistics classrooms have permanently altered my worldview, and I think my writing has become more mature as a result. And– don’t flinch– this also serves to open up your career options. If you love science fiction, why don’t you augment it with science journalism? If you write like George R. R. Martin, get a political science degree so you can also blog about current events. You know yourself best; all I am saying here is to consider your options.

Many writers choose to major in English, and despite its reputation as a useless major, I think it’s a really good path, for fiction writers in particular. If nothing else, you will be exposed to a bunch of literature you may not have otherwise read. And if you dedicate yourself, all that reading can really do you good: after being forced to read the entire Iliad in three weeks, nothing seems too dense. Shakespeare isn’t much harder for me than an average novel (aside from his pop culture references, of course). If professional-level reading competency fits into your career plans, an English degree is pretty useful.

YOU SHOULD MAJOR IN IT IF:

There are two reasons that a Creative Writing major is indispensable.

One thing is networking, though as always this is more feasible at larger, more well-known universities. Meeting other writers, both those with established careers and those who are your peers, is valuable for a variety of reasons. Since OSU is a small school, I doubt you have heard of any of my professors, but what if you could attend a class taught by Maya Angelou? Peers are useful too: some of them are bound to be very talented, and maybe together you could set up a very successful YouTube channel, or just have someone to read your future work. All writers know how valuable a skilled and articulate beta-reader is!

The other is market research. It may sound cold, but reading what your peers are writing will help you get ahead. Learn from their mistakes (personally, I am sick of reading love poetry and fiction set in college dorms, so I don’t write it), but don’t ignore their successes. Though I think people often put too much stock in it, it is still a fact that publishing goes through trends, and you could be in the perfect position to jump on the newest one.

WHAT ABOUT CREATIVE WRITING MINORS?

On the other hand, I think that a Creative Writing minor is a great idea, even for people who don’t want to make writing their career. At my school, this is a more focused program, meaning that you only have to practice one medium. Many people choose it just to devote time to their hobby, but in our increasingly technological world, how could getting experience writing well possibly hurt you?

SUGGESTIONS FOR PROGRAMS

My Creative Writing classes have been focused around work-shopping, to the point of neglecting most kinds of instruction. I remember one lesson on publishing, another on first sentences, and maybe a few others on different kinds of poetic forms, but for the most part, the entire semester’s worth of classes was focused on the piece that became our final project. In my opinion, this is extremely short sighted. Even if work-shopping helps students publish all three of their fiction pieces, or every poem they handed in (about 15), what then? How does this help a writer go on and create a career?

This could be fixed by limiting work-shopping to only one round (most of my classes have done two) and doing more short assignments, which students can apply to future projects. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re in-class or for homework, but finding effective ways to practice dialogue, exposition, stage directions, line breaks, imagistic language, etc. could really help student writers in the long run.

My other suggestion would be a wider variety of classes that majors could take as electives. For example, we got little-to-no instruction on publishing, blogging, genre fiction, journaling, or reading for audiences. I’m sure there’s many more useful skills that I could list that I haven’t even been exposed to. I think my career would really benefit from practicing skills that don’t apply to sitting in front of the keyboard.

OTHER OPINIONS

Of course, every program is different, and every person’s experience is different. I invite you to comment (or write your own post!) about your thoughts and feelings. If my advice is missing something, I won’t hesitate to rethink!