Being a writer who also works in the theatre has offered me a unique perspective on both writing and creating theatre. Fundamentally, they aren’t that different: just variations on the transmission of narratives. However, the reason that so many genres exist is that certain stories belong as fiction, and others as movies, and some are made for the stage.
Recently, 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.
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!
Out is a fantastic read for anyone who is sick of predictable narratives. It was introduced to me as a mystery novel, which always follow relatively unsurprising patterns: there is a murder, an amateur sleuth gets involved, they solve the mystery, and the crook gets their comeuppance. Devotees of the genre are in it for the twists, but the timing of them, and often the twists themselves, are all too often predictable as well. However, in Out, we are know all about the murder and its perpetrator almost from the very beginning. In fact, we see it happen, and we know the identity of everyone involved. To me, that made the book even more mysterious than most of the genre, because I couldn’t even imagine how everything was going to come together in the end. Not only did I care about the fate of Masako and the other characters, but I kept reading because I desperately wanted to know how Kirino would solve this puzzle she had laid out for herself.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, but the protagonist turns out to be Masako, a serious and savvy middle aged woman. Many of the characters are housewives or widows who work together at a factory making boxed lunches; others, which show up later in the novel, are involved with the Yakuza and other similarly seedy occupations. Masako, as a middle-aged, lower class woman, is given a sympathetic treatment in a way that’s rare for characters like her. She is practical, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness, and yet readers can’t help but empathize with her. Her son hates her, her husband is distant, but readers see something in Masako that her family doesn’t: an astonishing inner strength. Natsuo Kirino’s interest in psychology is evident in her portrayal of each of the very different characters, from Masako to the sexually sadistic Yakuza to the homicidal housewife who sets the story rolling. Between the structure and the characters, Out feels extremely realistic. Like in real life, there isn’t a clear sense of the narrative as a discrete, clean package. Instead, the story goes until it is over, and due to the high stakes and the way we’re made to care about the characters, it is riveting all the way through.
It was published in 1997 in Japan, so English readers will have to read the translation that came out in 2004. However, nothing about the translation, or the portrayal of Japanese culture, feels clunky. For example, since Western readers may not be familiar with bento and its cultural significance, the translator just refers to them as “boxed lunches” and fills us in a little about the type of people who eat them when a character purchases one herself. Snyder has no need for the type of exposition blocks that I have seen in other, less skillful translations, and for that I was very thankful.
This novel is suited for all relatively mature readers who would be able to appreciate its complexity. Even those who aren’t fans of mystery (like myself) should give it a try because it is gripping but doesn’t lack the humanity and subtlety that we look for in more literary fiction. However, it is not for the faint-hearted. There are many grotesque scenes, made even more grotesque by the intimacy of the author’s portrayal. If you would be disturbed by an empathetic depiction of a combination rape/murder or a dismemberment, spare yourself the nausea, because much of the book contains very detailed, very bloody acts.
Apparently, American schools will no longer be teaching cursive, as it has been deemed useful for nothing more than signing your name. The news got me thinking– why do we have two different scripts in the first place? Where did cursive come from?
Our alphabet is based on the Latin one, which resembles our uppercase letters. By the fifth century, lowercase letters were starting to develop, and people were connecting letters sort of like in cursive. After the decline of Rome, most writing was happening in monasteries, by monks who turned hand-copying books into a form of worship and art. Most people are familiar with the type of beautiful script they produced, but Charlemagne found regional differences to be annoying, so called for standardization.
However, the Italians during the Renaissance (namely Niccolo Niccoli) didn’t like the clunky look, and started showing off ornate writing forms as a status symbol. The habit of elevating certain scripts continued into American history, and in the mid 1800s a bookkeeper named Platt Rogers Spencer decided that since all humans are created equal, their handwriting should be equal, too. He invented a widely-used system, that was later replaced by multiple successive styles that fit the needs of the writers. Cursive has become a way to write quickly and often casually, without lifting the pen from paper.
Today, the need to write quickly, accurately, and legibly has been reduced by the availability of typewriters and then computers, and therefore penmanship is no longer taught as a discipline.
People have been fretting over the loss of good penmanship for half a century, but if my study of Linguistics has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t stop the flow of language. If a culture no longer needs something, it will be dispensed with.
However, that doesn’t mean that the art of penmanship is dead. Calligraphy is a popular hobby, and there will always be those who will appreciate the visual beauty of written language. In my opinion, there’s no reason to mourn.
For further reading:
Fantasy has been my favorite genre since my grandmother gave me her copies of the Harry Potter series, and Young Adult is such a vivacious genre that I feel that I will never get too old for it. However, I also demand complexity and maturity from my escapism, and the Bartimaeus Trilogy offers it all.
Jonathan Stroud, born in 1970, has written two very successful book series, one of them being the Bartimaeus Trilogy. The first book, The Amulet of Samarkand, follows the irreverent (and often unreliable) demon Bartimaeus and the human boy who summons him. Nathaniel, a prematurely solemn twelve-year old boy, calls Bartimaeus up in his bedroom in an alternate-universe London to steal a priceless artifact from a powerful magician, and that is how their relationship begins.
The world that Stroud creates is simultaneously magnificent and grungy, evoking images of Industrial-era London brought forward a century. Within it, the voice of Bartimaeus is a beacon of modern sass, made totally unique by the author’s choice to interject with footnotes, as if his mind is working too quickly for our linear flesh brains to handle.
My only complaint about this work is that it begins a series, and I understand that many people don’t have the time or money to complete an undertaking like this. However, I recommend giving it an attempt, because these books are well worth their price.