The Evolution of a Title

June 24, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Barbara Ferraro

Ever google ‘how to title a book?’ From YouTube videos to master classes, title generators to ten-step plans, there’s plenty of online help. Build on a theme or phrase from the story. Use a character’s name or memorable setting. Pull keywords from a hat, two by two, till you find a pair that sings. Lots of free advice but no easy answers. Which leads me to believe: maybe the book chooses the title.

Twenty years ago, I began writing memoir as an antidote to my dysfunctional Sicilian in-laws. The well of inspiration was vast and deep. Gloomy, troubled scenes about family secrets, my husband’s hush hush adoption, a conspiracy to hide the truth, and a script straight out of The Sopranos flowed from my fingertips to the page in a total brain purge. The saga was dark and disturbing—but oh, so shallow.

Did I mention the curse? Malocchio, or Evil Eye. From the Italian mal, meaning bad, and occhio, meaning eye. Bad luck cast upon you by an evil person—usually someone close. Rooted in spite or envy.

Evil Eye, the first working title,captured the mood of my early rant. But titles are placeholders, like my father’s second wife, which thankfully don’t last forever.

What is the story about?

As my anger eased and writing improved, this one-dimensional tirade morphed from flat and bitter to multilayered and rich. And a funny thing happened. A handful of objects kept sneaking into the scenes. Vintage slot machine straight out of the Untouchables; beat up suitcase stashed in a musty basement for fifty years; silver spoons hidden from the Nazis in the mountains of Norway; a stack of wartime love letters from the South Pacific. Ordinary objects with extraordinary personal significance. Objects too personal, too painful to touch. Objects that felt like characters on the page.

Ordinary Objects screamed at me in capital letters as the natural second title. It was perfect. Perfect, until the objects started squawking. They had different opinions, different voices, and two completely different points of view. I watched in awe as a second thread emerged from the scuffle, poking up here, weaving through there, to form a more complex story than I ever could have imagined. But as the writing evolved, this title also fell short.

What is the story about?

On the umpteenth revision, a pivotal sound bite buzzed on the page like a neon sign. ‘Blood of my children,’ four words spoken at the aha moment that braided the intertwining threads together. Then it clicked. Two people—my husband and me—with different histories, searching for the same answers: who am I, why am I here. Two people whose separate identities merged in our children. Knowing ourselves so they could know themselves. Bloodline, ancestry, heritage. This book was their unvarnished family tree. Blood of My Children elbowed its way to the title page, where it stayed for quite some time.

Too bad it sounded like a crime story. I loved it, I hated it, I wanted it to be The One. It captured the essence of the narrative but sent the wrong message. I had taken the writing as far as I could. I tucked the project away and moved forward.

Months later, alone in my office, the manuscript whispered from its hiding place in the bottom desk drawer: hey dummy, what’s left when everyone dies?

Wait. What?

The memoir that lived in my mind, on my laptop, in a drawer, inside my heart for two decades had its own timeline. Shit happened, people died, but what did any of it mean. The story marinated, I ruminated. Time and distance sharpened the focus as I learned to listen to the writing. Which brings me here.

When the noise and chaos, anger and pain, sadness and longing of thirty years finally faded to a whisper, what was left was love. Love is more powerful than family dysfunction, war, and even death.

So simple. What’s Left When Everyone Dies.

That’s the one.  

___

A third generation Chicagoan, Barbara Ferraro is a married mother of two fine adults, interior designer, and foodie who appreciates a nice glass of Chardonnay—very cold.

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§ 12 Responses to The Evolution of a Title

  • Stacy Elizabeth Holden says:

    Sometime you need to sit with that discomfort just knowing one day you’ll get clarity. Simple to say, so hard to do. Loved this piece.

  • wearegoodweb says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’m in the midst of something similar. Your essay resonated with me.

  • This hit the bullseye for me. Loved it!!

  • Lois Roelofs says:

    You describe what many of us probably struggle with. I’ve gone through so many working titles for my two memoirs that I’ve thought of stringing them together to make some sort of poetry! I like how you talk about a natural (after the fact!) evolution of your title. It’s a good reminder that we don’t need the “right” title till very late in the process and can stop obsessing about it early on!

  • Lisa Sexton says:

    Barb. LOVED this. Very proud of you for keeping at it over the years. Interesting to hear how your feelings changed as time passed.

  • Hi Barb. Loved the story how your title morphed as the story migrated. What time and perspective bring. Nice essay.

  • Rick F Derer says:

    You have a natural writing style. Very engaging.

  • This is great Barbara, thanks for sharing the evolution of your fantastic title!

  • Julia says:

    Outstanding.

  • I’m currently trying to find a title for my WIP. So far all my ideas are too long/complicated, not intriguing enough or give the wrong vibe. I’m so heartened to see your journey here, it will keep me going! Sharing on Twitter.

  • riccof says:

    This simple story of a story wrapped around and captivated me; has meaning that extends far beyond its authors intent of finding a title. In her journey, Barbara found a truth and inspiration for all of us. Her words flowed into this reader’s heart. As a member of a, in fact, this Sicilian family I am left with a life well spent’s memories. Barbara has discovered a fundamental truth of what it is really all about. And I, selfishly, relish in having known and loved her for all these years. Yours truly, Uncle Richie

  • Frank Danes says:

    Your quest and struggle to find just the right book title was an enlightening read. I am totally impressed with the commitment and devotion you have shown towards completing your project. I look forward to reading more of your captivating writing.

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