Those scant few words on the cover of our book or screenplay can be the most labor-intensive work of our entire manuscript. Coming up with a good title can be a bitch. We may have a working title, a place-holder. Meanwhile, we wait for that perfect title to jolt us awake at three in the morning.
Sometimes a title is only great in retrospect. There is nothing particularly poetic or provocative about The Great Gatsby, until you learn that Fitzgerald’s original title was Trimalchio of West Egg.
A Moveable Feast is evocative. It captures our imagination; we want to know more. Same with Lonesome Dove, Catcher In the Rye, Angle of Repose. A good title can speak directly to our theme, like Ha Jin’s Waiting, or it can be blunt, grand, and in your face like Martin Amis’ Money, as if this were the final word on the topic. There are poetic titles like Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, or Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love.
In the past twenty years, artists have loved putting America in the titles of their work. American Psycho, American Pastoral, American Buffalo, American Idiot, American Gods. The American Revolution has had many books written about it, yet strangely they rarely have the word America in the title: The Glorious Cause, Almost A Miracle, and others. E.R. Frank recently published a young adult novel entitled simply America (which, as coincidence would have it, is the protagonist’s first name).
Generation is another popular word. Everyone, it seems, is looking to coin the next movement. Generation X, Generation Y, the ME generation, and recently Evan Wright’s quite successful Generation Kill.
Obviously, the goal is to get the reader’s attention. Book titles are the literary equivalent of trying to look butch in hopes of getting picked for the team. There are no rules for book titles. Tell the story as best you can, and if it’s great, even a mundane title like The Great Gatsby isn’t going to hurt it.