Madeleine Mysko, “A Good Title”
“I’m no good at titles,” is what I say all the time (flippantly) to my writing friends. In workshop, I throw up my hands in exasperation when once again, in my eagerness to get into the poem or story, I have leapt right past the title, paying it no mind and never looking back.
I belong to a poetry workshop in Baltimore—four women who have been devoted to the craft for twenty years. If you ask the other three, they probably wouldn’t say I’m “no good” at titles. Actually, once I’ve been prodded by the question (“So what do we think of the title?”), I can scramble to make an intelligent assessment. At the very least I can determine if there’s a problem—a title that upstages the first line, a title striving to introduce what needs no introduction or to explain what needs no explanation, a perfunctory title, a too-clever title, a title heavy as a bucket of stones.
But that doesn’t mean I can come up with a better title—for my own work or for someone else’s. “You know me—no good at titles.”
I think the real problem may be that I resist the effort of crafting a good title. Titles seem so after-the-fact—appendages to the art they are pressed upon, a word or phrase for the mere purpose of labeling.
With fiction especially, I admit to some high-mindedness on this topic—because when it comes to a novel, the decision about what to call it seems to me tainted by the concerns of the market. Will the title attract attention and bring buyers? Is the title memorable? Is the title (God forbid) similar to that of a novel already out there? When prepared at long last to wipe the sweat from the brow and offer the labor of love to the world, who wants to pause and figure out what to call it?
These protestations are partly tongue-in-cheek, but they do reflect my state of mind when it came time to settle on a title for the second novel. Because given that state of mind, there was a surprise in store for me: what I keep saying I’m no good at actually has proved to be very good for me, now that I have thought it through.
But before I go on, I need to tell a story.
I was having a delightful lunch with my new editor. The contract had been signed, and now we were envisioning the next steps, which were all very exciting, but at the same time daunting, even though I had been through the production process once before.
“Besides choosing a title,” the editor said brightly across the table, “there are a few other tasks on our list—like composing that paragraph for the cover.”
Oh. That paragraph of honed sentences, perfectly pitched to the prospective reader, telling what the novel is about? It crossed my mind to say I was no good at that sort of paragraph.
“Whenever someone asks what my novel is about,” I said, already making light of it, “I feel cornered. I get all tongue-tied, and then I just sort of flounder.” I added that in a few weeks I’d be at a high school reunion, when old classmates would surely ask about the new novel, at which point I’d be floundering again.
The editor wasn’t making light of it. She frowned. “You need to have an answer prepared.”
“I know,” I said grimly. “I need the elevator pitch.”
“But it’s not just about selling it.” Now she smiled in a wise but kindly way. “It would be good for you to think it through. Besides, it might help you come up with a title.”
Two weeks later, when reunion time rolled around, I still didn’t have that perfectly pitched reply as to what my novel was about. But I had in fact come down from my perch to do the serious thinking. Could I even trace the mysterious trajectory of the story I’d been trying for years to tell? After several switches back and forth in point of view, after one character had been plucked out and another allowed to take over, after scenes had been moved or completely cut, some of them to be put back in later—what was it about the pages in hand that now seemed purposeful and complete?
I sat down to read again. I tried to answer no one but myself. In truth, I was hoping that while I was at it, the perfect title would emerge from a line of dialogue or passage of description, unmistakable as a neon sign. Titles did occur to me—I made a list of them, a half dozen—but none was quite right.
Eventually, I entered the “fiction-as-dream” state that John Gardner describes in The Art of Fiction—vivid and continuous, mysterious but at the same time purposeful. I was carried forward from the other side—the reader’s side—by real concern for my own characters. How to describe that concern for them? It seemed to me they were fixed, bound to certain relationships, and at the same time moving—bound for the fictional place I hoped would bring them resolution.
I searched through the entire manuscript. Nowhere had I written the word bound. I think I already knew that. Bound isn’t the sort of word any of my characters would likely speak in ordinary conversation. Nevertheless, it seemed to me a good word to have come up with while moving like a dreamer through my own novel, discovering what it was all about.
Bound. In the end, it seemed good for the title.
I now have resolved that in workshop I will pay careful attention to titles. I want to be—if not good—at least better at crafting them. The words of the title are the first to reach the editor, the publisher, and ultimately the dearly desired reader. The words of a good title actually say something. First to be read, they may very well be the last to have been chosen, after serious deliberation, before the writer lets go.
Excerpt from Stone Harbor Bound
We have arrived. There was a story to it, of course—how Bridget, her sisters, and her little brother, Daniel, would wait for the exact moment when the old paneled station wagon got to the bridge, at which point their father would boom, “We have arrived, Gallagher children,” and then they’d all yell back, “We have arrived!”
On the desk at home, Bridget had kept a photograph of the four Gallagher children lined up alongside the station wagon: Marie and Eileen—the older sisters whose narrow faces were framed by dark hair—then chubby Bridget with her thick red hair parted in the middle and clasped by barrettes, and finally little Daniel, squinting into the sun, holding Bridget’s hand. After Bridget died, Camille set that photograph aside, thinking she’d give it to Marie. But for some reason she had only gotten as far as putting it into a padded envelope.
We have arrived, Gallagher children. Odd—that Camille could hear Mr. Gallagher’s voice booming, as though she’d been there herself, a member of the chorus in the back seat. Bridget had told the story that many times.
Camille’s own arrival in Stone Harbor for the first time had actually occurred during the later period, when the Gallagher children were grown up but still gathering every summer at their parents’ gray-shingled beach house with the long porch. That summer, Bridget’s sisters came with their husbands and small children, and Daniel brought his fiancée, Josie, for the first time. Also that summer, Bridget had just upset her parents by breaking it off with the boyfriend whose parents were long-time friends of theirs. She was nearly twenty-eight years old and had known the guy since they were teenagers.
“My parents thought it was a match made in heaven,” Bridget said. “But we were really just friends.”
“So no sparks?” Camille dared to ask.
When Bridget and Camille arrived at the house together that first time, everyone was out on the beach. The Gallagher siblings with their significant others were lined up in their beach chairs, watching their parents play a game of quoits near the water’s edge. Camille had never heard of quoits. As she followed Bridget across the hot sand, she saw it was a simple game of ring-toss, similar to horseshoes, with opposing stakes. She also saw that—for Bridget’s family at least—it was serious business.
Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher, standing side-by-side behind one stake, were both staring across the yards of wet sand at the other stake. Mrs. Gallagher was short and plump in her plaid, skirted bathing suit and straw sunhat. Mr. Gallagher, tanned and white-haired, tall and slim in his classic navy trunks, was poised for the toss like a Spartan with a discus. When Bridget strode towards them, calling and waving, no one seemed to hear. Her father sent the quoit spinning through the air. It plopped solidly onto the stake—a ringer! A cheer went up from the chairs, and only then did Bridget’s mother drop her quoits and run forward to Bridget with open arms.
But Bridget’s father kept his feet firmly planted in the sand, his eyes on the one coming from behind—Camille Pickett, a trained nurse from Dundalk, who was obviously older than Bridget, and was tall and athletic-looking, and carried herself like a person not easily dismissed.
Madeleine Mysko’s work, both poetry and prose, has appeared in The Baltimore Sun and in literary journals, including Smartish Pace, The Hudson Review, Shenandoah, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is the author of two novels: Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press, 2007) and Stone Harbor Bound (Bridle Path Press, due for release in 2015). A graduate of Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, she has taught creative writing in the Baltimore area for years. Presently she serves as coordinating editor of the “Reflections” column for American Journal of Nursing.