Tales of Title Writing

Submission guideline: No one- or two-word titles.

First time I’ve seen that one. But I’m a rookie.

The editors desire longer titles to capture the attention of readers. The two stories I want to submit have one- and two-word titles.

I stare at the computer screen trying to think of longer titles. Zip. I close my eyes trying to conjure up longer titles. Zero. I reread my stories, hoping for inspiration. Zilch.

I don’t feel rebellious enough to ignore the guideline. I like my one-word title, but I agree my two-word title has to go. One of my writing friends who read the two-word title (along with its story) advised, “Titles are important. You might want to think about a new one.” Maybe my title composing needs fine-tuning.

Instead, I rationalize my lazy title-writing behavior. Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

Then I remember my first encounter with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shortly after its release. Someone pointed to it in a bookstore and said, “That’s a good book.”

“Oh,” I said. The title didn’t capture my imagination.

A couple of years later, my daughter-in-law said, “I think you’d like this book,” while handing me Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. We’ve similar tastes in books, so I read it and loved it. I’d judged a book by its title. It was time to work on my titles.

Research is a good way to avoid writing, revising, cleaning, so I start with research.

I learn titles can’t be copyrighted. Nice to know. Still, I decide against recycling titles by literary giants or literary middleweights or any other writer. But what about a quote from Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. I search Shakespeare+quotes+youth+death. I find a five-word quote and pare it down to four words, change one word and use a synonym for another word to best fit my story. Inspired by The Bard, I’ve doubled the length of my two-word title, and my writing friend says, “The new title ties in better with your story.”

I’m not stoked about changing my one-word title, but I’m game for more research.

I pull an American short story anthology and a recent literary journal off my bookshelf. The two books contain a total of sixty-three short stories and creative nonfiction narratives. Twenty-one of them have one- and two-word titles. Thirty-three percent. Captivating or not, short titles exist. I keep my one-word title.

I don’t submit either title to the no-one-or-two-word-titles publication. Self-reflection about this behavior is another essay.

***

“About the title,” a friend starts, “wait—let me finish.”

He’s been teaching writing so long he recognizes the look flashing across my face. At the same time, I know that look is on my face. I’m already taking a deep breath and reminding myself about feedback rules: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t argue.

We’ve met for coffee, but first he’s giving me feedback on a flash essay. The essay is 493 words. The title is twelve words.

“Normally,” my friend says, “lengthy titles are discouraged.”

I didn’t come across a too-long rule in my research, but I know a twelve-word title isn’t the norm. I’d written two titles and torn between them, I weaved them together.

“But,” he says, “this title works. It mirrors the tone of the essay and sets up the irony revealed at the end.”

Bingo. He understands. Even if he hadn’t, I’d have kept the title. Sometimes a writer has to know when to disregard feedback. But I entertain the idea both of us might be wrong.

The twelve-word title is accepted for publication in a yearly collection of short stories and creative nonfiction.

***

During my research, I find some practical advice for title writing: Engage in a mindless task, think about titles, make a list, then ask your readers which title they like.

Having a story in need of a title, I begin cleaning—my mindless task of choice. (Cleaning and writing have a symbiotic relationship in my world. I take turns doing one to avoid the other.)

After an hour, I’ve five possible titles. I send the story and titles to five different readers, asking them to vote. The first four readers each select a different title. The fifth reader votes for a previously selected title. Without a definitive outcome, I pick the title I like and enter the story in a contest.

Months later I learn my title placed second in the fiction category.

***

I finish my third revision of a flash essay, which has been declined twice. Something in the essay speaks to me, but something’s been missing. Now, I feel the essay says what I want it to say. Out it goes to readers. One reader writes, “powerful ending.” Perhaps I’ve nailed the meaning I wish to convey.

But she began with, “The title is too philosophical.” Yep, she’s right because the essay is about my father, who was a difficult man, and philosophical is where I’m at.

Another reader writes, “This title is perfect.”

I’m not changing the title, so I embrace the second opinion.

I spend the afternoon submitting the title to publications featuring flash essays. Maybe this time.

***

Epilogue

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either. I write short titles and long titles. I write titles I love and titles I tolerate. Feedback is contradictory.

This essay is on its third title.

And the job I’d least like to have? Writing titles or captions.

“Tales of Title Writing” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on November 15, 2020.

Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids

The synapses in my brain zing snarky impulses from neuron to neuron, causing my mind to fire on all cylinders with crankiness and snarl, feed me serotonin.

I have to write because that’s what the old gray mass wants. At this point, my brain is past accepting substitutes—walking, chocolate, reading, or cleaning won’t short-circuit the cranky electrical impulses as my brain begs, write, you know you want to; write, you know you need to; just bloody hell write.

***

I’m retired and days should be my own, but my grandkids need daycare, and being the only available option, I’ve been babysitting now for two-and-a-half months.

Most weekdays my four grandkids fill the house with the discordant sound of a young orchestra struggling to play on key and in time. I love them, but by the end of the day, their continuous, overlapping voices and sounds of play erode my energy, leaving my mind worn down like a piece of driftwood partly buried in sand.

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides. It’s been days since I’ve attempted any writing, and the front and rear bumpers of my soul are almost rubbing together.

Each morning I’ve grand plans to write after my grandkids go home. But after they leave, I descend into a stuffed chair, stretch my legs over its ottoman, and muster up what I need to get through the few hours I’ve left before going to bed. Writing rarely makes the cut.

My weekends are grandchild-free, but I’m spending them working on a sizeable editing job for a client. The work is stimulating, and the client’s writing is enjoyable, but it’s not the same as doing my own writing.

Because I’ve the reserves for escapism but not the stamina to write, I hide from writing, pretending I’m being productive by reading a novel for my book club, embroidering dishtowels for friends, and watching British police dramas with tortured detectives, hence phrases like bloody hell slinking into my speech. (In one police drama, the storyline featured a detective winning third place in a prestigious writing contest. It was the character’s last episode, and with no explanation for his exit, I’m assuming he left the force to pursue a rewarding writing career. I decided the show was mocking me. But I still watch it.)

***

Today, mercifully, my 22-month-old grandson falls asleep on the daily car ride my grandkids and I take after lunch. I carry him into the house and place him on the couch. He curls up like an armadillo and slips back into a deep slumber. If he follows his routine, he’ll sleep about two hours. His older siblings migrate to the rec room to play with a marble run and building blocks. An enticing silence replaces the din of chatter, constant questions, and chirps of “Nana.”

I brush aside plans to catch up on housework and slip into my writing hole. I ease in by organizing a few items on my desk. Next, I slide a little deeper by doing some research for an article I’m writing. Finally, I burrow in and start writing this essay about how hard it is to write after caring for grandkids all day.

***

A friend of mine often tells me I’m doing an important job (the babysitting not the writing). I agree with her that caring for children is important, but I don’t say that for me, it’s not enough.

Writing isn’t my hobby, but it’s not my job either. I started writing after I retired, and I grapple with its place in my life, but if I ignore writing, it picks and prods at me. If I don’t write, writing finds me, invading my thoughts, diverting them from the world around me. I start composing in my head and later find I’ve driven to the end of my day, but don’t remember the scenery along the way.

***

After more than two hours at my desk, except for quick breaks to check on my grandkids, my brain is swimming in a pool of serotonin. So, when my sleeping grandson awakes calling, “Nana,” I know I can handle whatever he tosses at me for the afternoon. We meet halfway between the living room and family room. He reaches up for me and I reach down for him, scooping him up in a big hug.

At six o’clock my son picks up his children, and I write for another half-hour, but I’m tired because it’s been a ten-hour day. I take a break to eat, but I don’t want to leave my writing world, so when I join my husband in the family room where he’s watching TV, I read a book about writing essays. The book, a bit academic, isn’t what I thought it would be, but the writer’s prose is wonderful and I find myself lulled by the rhythm of his sentences, enjoying his contemplations about essays. I’ve entered a Zen-like calm. It’s the best I’ve felt in days.

Even if it’s just in snippets of time, I resolve to write more, to read more about the craft of writing, and to sign up for writing classes. If I don’t, my brain will hunt me down, nip at my heels, and bite me in the behind. And, having started writing after retirement, behind is what I feel. At sixty-one, I don’t see unending days and years stretching ahead of me, like I did when I was twenty and thirty. It’s harder to say, I’ll write when life settles down, because that doesn’t happen. Life pushes in, but with keyboard at fingertips, I need to push back.

“Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on September 8, 2020.

Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again

[When COVID-19 caused dangerous spikes and lockdowns in April and May, I became too anxious to write. I’d only been writing over a year, and this was my first serious bout with writer’s block. But I needed a creative outlet, so I turned to a cherished hobby.]

COVID-19. Schools are closed; nonessential businesses are closed. But I worry about my husband, an essential worker, getting sick. I fret about my 79-year-old mother living alone in Michigan. I miss my children and grandchildren. I think about death.

And, I can’t write.

Fellow writers describe their new writing routines. Breathlessly, like excited young lovers, they talk about the hours they spend writing. I flutter between cleaning, cooking, walking dogs, and checking email. I’m not admitting I can’t write. Scariest thought racing through my head: Do I ever want to write again?

A writer writes, even in tough times. I wonder, Am I a real writer? I have ideas, but my concentration has jilted me. Then I read an essay by another writer who says that it’s okay to not write at this time. Validation. Perhaps I need a break.

I turn to an old love—quilting.

A stack of my son’s hockey T-shirts, which I’d cut and ironed to fusible interfacing months ago, squat on the dining room table.

I look at the T-shirt blocks and freeze. I’ve no pattern, and it takes precise measuring to create one. The blocks taunt me, much like my writing when I’m away from my desk. At this point, both are unrequited lovers.

Just start the quilt. Or write. Make a choice.

I begin surrounding each block with a black border, difficult because each block is a different size. I abandon the quilt and mop the kitchen floor.

Stop it. Start sewing. Make a mistake? Use a seam ripper—the delete button of sewing.

I return to sewing borders around each block until I come to the black T-shirt. Dilemma. A black border along the black T-shirt lacks contrast. I delve into my fabric stash. I find a gray print with a hint of pattern, which compliments the black T-shirt. Audition time. I place the black T-shirt on the gray fabric and return it to the other blocks. It screams, “Look at me!”

Cabela, our standard poodle, helps with the layout.

Egad, it’s a little darling. I kill it by replacing the gray border with the same black border I used on the other blocks. It no longer causes a scene and it works. Harmony returns to the quilt. Yes, the little darling had to go.

I arrange blocks on the floor. Blocks are sentences. Rows are paragraphs.I move blocks around. I exchange one row with another row. Reordering my “sentences” and “paragraphs” until the quilt reveals its best version.

I stitch the blocks together in vertical rows. Time to add narrow strips of bold color between each row. I select fabrics of blue, green, and red to enhance the bright colors in the final border. But the quilt is already bigger than I expected. I could cut a row, but each row tells a story about my son’s hockey days as a player. I study the T-shirt blocks on the floor. They float on the black background. Separating each row with a color would be superfluous: “words” that don’t belong. I stitch the rows together without colored strips. My son’s quilt is ready to go to the machine quilter.

The finished quilt top before it went to the machine quilter, who quilted it with a pattern of hockey sticks and pucks. My son now has the quilt to keep him warm this winter.

I escaped the pressure to write by quilting. My hunger for creativity was satisfied, and my pursuit of serenity was realized. But writing followed me throughout the composing and editing my son’s quilt. As I pieced the quilt, I wrote the rough draft of this essay, first in my head then at my desk. Quilting calmed me and gave me space to think about writing. It carried me back to my desk.

I’m writing again. But when I become too antsy, I throw myself into the arms of another quilting project.

“Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on June 17, 2020.

Writing’s Daily Worries

Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)

I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.

“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.

“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.

Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?

When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s always another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.

Up from the basement, my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”

“I forgot,” I say.

But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?

The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.

I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .

After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a short story that I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.

Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.

“Writing’s Daily Worries” appeared on Brevity Blog on December 18, 2019, and on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on January 9, 2020. It was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poems in 2020.