All this time, I had the wrong title.
I’ve been working for the last 18 months on-and-off again on a creative nonfiction novel about the investigation into my father’s abduction as an infant and the attempt to reunite him with his birth mother.
It’s been a slog. And one of the unexpected challenges arose from the title of the book.
I’d been calling it from the beginning For Him I Sing, which is lifted from an early Walt Whitman poem:
For him I sing,
I raise the present on the past,
(As some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past)
With time and space I him dilute and fuse the immortal laws
To make himself by them the law unto himself.
Everything about this poem spoke to the themes of my story — the present’s connection to the past, one generation revering (or fearing) the previous one. It seemed a perfect fit, especially since so much of the story involves my sometimes-volatile relationship with my Dad. For Him I Sing.
There’s just one problem – there’s (fortunately) no singing in the book.
A better way to creating a fantastic title for your book
The name of your book carries a lot of weight. It’s not different than a business choosing a name that speaks to its brand and customer experience. What would Friendly’s be if it was named burgers and ice cream for dessert?
As the writers at NYBookEditors.com say, the title of your book is just about the most important marketing strategy you have:
Your novel’s title is your siren call, luring readers to your story despite any obstacle in their way. Despite the price tag and despite the fact that you’re an unknown author, readers will flock to your book because you’ve taken the time to craft the perfect title.
Most readers decide whether or not to pick up a book by title alone. I’m certainly guilty of it. Are you?
Okay, so, there’s just a little pressure here. But no problem. The folks at Writers Digest offer five pointers thanks to guest columnist Cindy Fazzi give you , which include:
- Base it on the novel’s theme (In Cold Blood, Unforgettable)
- The protagonist’s name (think Emma or Forrest Gump)
- Protagonist’s occupation or other qualities (The Liar’s Club, In Pharoh’s Army)
- Titles inspired by poems or songs
- Titles lifted from the manuscript
While the Whitman poem I chose fit No. 4, a title lifted from a poem, there remained something peculiar about it. While the poem spoke strongly to the themes of my creative nonfiction book, the line I lifted was like putting pepper on ice cream. Both are great. Just not together.
I had to make a change
railroading my book
Unsatisfied, I made a list of other titles by using mind mapping. I diagrammed my book’s themes, relationships, plot points, and other details I felt relevant to the overall story.
What stood out was a legacy of railroading, which goes back to my family’s first immigrants from Ireland in the 1880s. Three major characters in my story work for the railroad – Bud, my grandfather; Mike, my Dad; and me.
My father was the first to work not as a locomotive engineer or train conductor but in the track department, supervising local crews responsible for building, maintaining, and fixing the track. This department within the rail industry is known by a few terms including the engineering department.
It’s also known as Maintenance of Way, or M.O.W., and the more I thought about it, Maintenance of Way just seemed to fit.
The title implies exactly what’s happening in the book, an attempt to bring my father’s life full circle by finding whatever happened to the young mother who lost him when he was just six months old due to an abduction.
My attempt to find his birth mother also connects to my relationship with my Dad, a storyline which runs through the entire novel.
Whether the title Maintenance of Way survives the editing process and is embraced by readers, I don’t know, but I can tell you that now every time I sit down to write, I can feel the creative nonfiction novel’s theme. The title acts as a portal into the world I’m describing and the characters you’re gonna meet there.
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and parenting columnist for Susquehanna Style Magazine. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and two sons. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.