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YMMV: Write The Title First

🌲Like the Pine Trees Lining the Winding Road...

Just a quick bit of housekeeping here at the top. At the last possible minute I've decided to rename this series Your Mileage May Vary. It's one of those things I say a lot in a writing context: "The first rule of writing advice is 'your mileage may vary'." Okay, let's get into it...

Write the Title First

Might as well start this blog series off with this one, because it's sort of become my calling card. Or at least, it's a go-to example that comes up when someone wants to point out that I do everything backwards when it comes to writing. People of all levels of experience have had the same reaction when they hear me say this--and it's usually a look of quiet confusion. But it's true, when I'm working on a story, regardless of the length, I start with the title if at all possible.

Now, because I've had this conversation many times, let me go ahead and answer your questions in roughly the order you're thinking them. Yes, I'm being serious. Yes, I really do this. I don't do it every time, but almost every time--it's definitely my preferred way to do things. And as for why? Well, that's what I'm going to spend the rest of this post digging into. But the short version is that coming up with a good story is a lot easier than coming up with a good title.

Yeah, that's right. I said what I said.

Let's take a step back and consider: what does a story need to accomplish vs what does a title need to accomplish. A story just has to tell a story. That's it. It needs to have a beginning, a middle, an end, compelling characters, and something to say. But within that framework, you're free to do whatever you want. Want the main character to be a robot? No problem. How about an entire story that's just an exchange of dialog? Do it. Want it to be a body-horror comedy told entirely via email? I've written that story. Hell, I've sold that story. Go crazy. Want to write a 1000+ page book that's one single stream-of-consciousness sentence? Lucy Ellman did that and was shortlisted for the Booker Award! You've got a lot of leeway, is what I'm getting at.

A title, on the other hand, is a sales pitch! It needs to be clever, original, and relevant to the story it's pitching. It needs to communicate tone and genre while adhering to the standards of its genre, length, and medium. Oh, and good SEO doesn't hurt either. That's a lot of work for only a few words to do. And it sucks! Authors will tell you that coming up with a good title is one of the hardest parts of writing. And no wonder! You're trying to create something memorable, pithy, and functional, and marry it up to something you've already created? So I ask you: Why do this to yourself? If writing a title has a lot of strictures around it, but writing a story has a lot of freedom, then shouldn't the flow go in the other direction? Why try to make the hard thing dependent on the easy thing?

Okay, so "hard" and "easy" are a bit loaded. Aaaaaand I should caveat myself here and make a distinction between "writing" a story and "coming up with" a story. Writing is hard. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about story ideation. That's pretty straightforward, especially if you've been doing this for a while. Most seasoned writers can take a nugget of an idea and a target word count and put together the most basic shape of a story outline before breakfast. They can probably come up with three or four different versions and then pick their favorite. Now, I want to reiterate that actually writing the story is work. It takes time and effort and snacks. Lots of snacks. Because you have to go in and work out the details and make some decisions.

But here's the thing... a lot of those details and decisions are arbitrary. It doesn't matter what you choose, only that you choose something. You're going to make those decisions based on what you're good at, what you like, what you haven't done in a while, what you think your audience is going to like, etc. And some of them, frankly, you're just going to pick based on... however the spirit moves you in that moment. Might as well pick them out of a hat. So what if... instead... you based them on a pre-chosen title?

A title, you see, can inform a lot. Do you want the tone to be serious or silly? Do you have a serious title or a silly one? Can't decide between near-future or far-future sci-fi? Which goes better with the title you've chosen? Unclear on how you want to shape a character arc? Trying to nail down a theme? Look, a title is not going to give you all of these things, but it can be the first place you go to for guidance, and the earlier you have a title, the more decisions it can inform for you.

To illustrate, let's torture an analogy! Suppose you're making dinner. You've got some chicken--that's the nugget of a story idea in this analogy--and now you need to turn it into a meal for the family. So you need to decide how to cook it. Fried? Grilled? Cut up over a salad? How do you decide? Well, you'll lean on what you're good at, what you like, what you haven't done in a while, or what your family likes. So you settle on... marinated chicken. But marinated chicken is not a meal. You'll want a side of some kind, maybe a vegetable and a starch. Green beans sound good as a vegetable, and maybe a dinner roll. Okay, you've made your decisions. Now... you need to go the grocery store and get all of the ingredients to make everything else.

In this analogy, coming up with the title is going to grocery story. (See, I told you it would be tortured.) Were you able to get everything at one store? Were some of the ingredients more expensive than you'd anticipated? Were some things just not available, period? You can end up with a real situation, especially if you've already committed to a meal.

So instead, you go to the store first. What's here that goes well with chicken? Maybe you find something there that was unexpected! They've got whole ears of corn that are fresh and on sale! Well, an ear of corn is going to go better with fried or grilled chicken than marinated. Now, if you really had your heart set on marinated chicken, then you should marinate the chicken. But if you didn't have a strong opinion on how you make your chicken, then isn't it useful to have some groceries already for guidance? And that's what starting with a title can buy you. Or! Better still! You can have a bunch of titles stockpiled--just write them down whenever they occur to you--and then look at that list when you have a story idea to see if anything matches. That's like having a fridge already stocked with food!

Okay, let's step away from the metaphor and look at this in practice. I already told you that this is my preferred way to write, so let me give you an example from my own oeuvre. One of my first big pro sales ran in the sci-fi magazine/podcast Escape Pod back in 2017. The name of the story is Ms. Figgle-DeBitt's Home for Wayward A.I.s. It is my favorite story of mine, and it's the one I tell people to read if they want to get a sense of what I write. And it started with a title. Well... a title and a joke.

Where did this title come from? It just sort of popped into my head. Figgle-DeBitt is kind of an oblique reference to Howard Taylor, who describes one of the common design elements of his comic Schlock Mercenary as "the obligatory fiddly bit." But really, I was just playing around with the word in my brain, stumbled onto the phrase "Ms. Figgle-DeBitt's Home for Wayward A.I.s," and knew that I had a great title on my hands and that I wanted to tell that story. I also had a weird one-liner in mind: "Next time, peel the bananas." And I built the story around these two elements, based on what I knew about the story given that title.

For instance, that's a funny title, so this is a humorous story. The phrase "Ms. [Aristocrat]'s Home for [Adjective] [Plural-Noun]" conjures a certain setting for the reader, so I felt like I didn't have to create one in the actual text of the story. And indeed, the main locale of the story is never described. I knew there would need to be a major character named Ms. Figgle-DeBitt, so I needed to decided if she would be a hero, villain, or foil. The title has a British boarding school vibe, so I made the main character effectively a British butler. Apropos of that, even though the story takes place in New York, the reader that was cast to record the story for Escape Pod is British. And finally the word "wayward" speaks to character arc. The hero has lost his way and is trying to reclaim his former role. And all of that was worked out before I had a single story beat in mind. And now, not only do I have a great title, that title is now worked into the bones of the story.

If you get good at it, you can do it on demand. In my Ideas file I have a title The Elephant of Surprise. I think it's fun--I am rather partial to puns--but there was a book by that name released in 2019, so I'm not going to use it any time soon. So let's game this out. If we were to use that title, what kind of story would we tell? First, what does it have to say about genre and tone? The presence of a charismatic animal says "fantasy" to me. It feels light, perhaps a little absurd. If we're going absurd, then I would typically try to write something short. So in that light, I would probably have a contemporary setting, because not having to explain the world-building is one of the ways you keep word counts low. The phrase "element of surprise" as well as the concept of an elephant work well in a contemporary setting, so we're good there.

What about story? Well, it should involve an elephant and that elephant should be surprising. So maybe I would do something with the concept of a white elephant. If you're not familiar, white elephants were sacred animals kept by monarchs in Southeast Asia. To receive one as a gift was a great honor but also a great burden, as they were expensive to maintain but couldn't be used for labor. So what if you were take that idea and transport it to a modern setting? Perhaps someone receives an elephant figurine in a white elephant gift exchange, and then it turns into a real elephant. They can't do anything because in their state it's illegal to use elephants for labor or something like that, but they have to figure out how to feed it and clean up after it while they arrange for someone else to take it.

Now, would this be a good story? Who's to say. Execution is everything and, as I mentioned above, writing is haaaaaaard. But without any prep work, over the course of about ten minutes, I took a silly pun and turned it into an idea for a story that I honestly wouldn't mind writing. And the really nice thing is that, even though I started with the title, the story idea I've generated still feels like the kind of thing I would write because it is filtered through my brain. If you took that title, you'd probably come up with something completely different that would be the kind of story you'd like to write. Because at the end of the day, you're still the one making decisions, you're just using the title as a guide.

So, this is the part where you're probably thinking "Kurt, I hear you, I understand your reasoning, I think it's a cool idea, but there's no way in hell I'm going to actually do that." And to that I say... fair enough. The whole premise of this project is that I'm doling out writing advice that you won't actually use. But hopefully it gives you something to think about. Maybe you won't start with a title, but if you start thinking about it earlier in the process, and let it steep into the story brew rather than trying to come up with it after the fact, you may find that it makes your life considerably easier.

Next week, we're going to talk about one of my foundational writing principles: The Attention Budget.

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of a authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.


Kathy Schrenk said…
And then there was the time you started with the cover ...