Monday, September 9, 2013

Working out the Knots: Titles and the Difficulties of Summation

I recently completed my novel - a decade-long endeavor of wrestling, contorting, massaging and coaxing verbiage - the Muse and I sometimes operating in mellifluous concert, like creative wavelengths superimposed to new peaks, but more often at odds in a daily grind of teeth-gritted extraction; a tortured procession of words that finds literary ease only after additional toilings and perpetual revisions: the final phrase born perhaps more of a mutual exhaustion between the Muse and I; or an elusive process of working out the knots: a literary attentiveness that is reminiscent of the close-fingered deftness and focused intent required in disentangling water-swollen ropes yanked to tightness under a wind-filled sail - an undertaking made without recourse to the passage of time, requiring perhaps a year and a day. Or, in my case, in certain particularly entangled parts, a decade.

Amidst the restless search for the trailing sequence of sentences, the years have passed by with all their intervening crises, the geographical re-locations, the upheavals, the family expansions and the critical wage-earning expeditions that fettered the mind and stilled the literary pen. Characters and plot expanded like the complex whirls of a fractal, and page after page filled with the dark imprint of ink. Some paragraphs, of more ancient age than those adjacent, suggested a disparate expressive voice, an awkward shift - a younger authorial me that at times jarred and bristled alongside more recently penned neighbors. These sections were re-crafted and a few more years fell to the task.

But the word-hunt is, at last, over - for this novel. All now is quietude. The pen has been laid aside (the black one at least - awaiting the attention of the editorial red), and the simple words that adorn the last page finally are in accordance with the parental mind: 'The End.' Having suffered from the delusion that these two words signify the completion of the work, I have spent the last few months in the torturous mire of needful summations - acquiring a title; the one which had accompanied an earlier version of the work now seemed an ill-fitting appellation - and so subsequently began months of list-making, opinion-seeking, potentials written in and many more firmly crossed out. For the title is critical, is it not? A few words that entice a bookshop browser (virtual or otherwise), a short phrase that elicits a response...a tendril, a wisp, a light suggestion of something substantial to come. A literary come hither that might coax a pick-up, or a turn of page...the quick scan of an opening sentence or two. And of course there are innumerable restraints in the formulation of said title - erring on the side of short and pithy, uniquely unlikely to be muddled with another work of similar title, some loose connection to the theme of the narrative or a primary character within. For perhaps it is the condensing wherein the difficulties lie. Take this mammoth of a literary beast and reduce it to a scattering of words, distill it (as an alchemist of old) into something that glitters within the pen-calloused palm of one's hand. It perplexes me somewhat - that comparatively months can result in page after page of dense text but weeks upon weeks might yet be required to come up with a mere smattering of words.Three or four will do.

And it simply must be done. The novel without is a rather forlorn thing. Unnamed. Unfinished. And I begin to realize what a title contributes to a given work - it assigns personality before anything more is known. Just as olfactory stimulation quickens the salivary glands, the enticing scent promoting subsequent hunger, so does the naming of a book awaken the curiosity of the imaginative mind. Not only does it appear a succulent dish with its neat glossy binding and intriguing cover art (saving that angst for another post!) but the title itself emits a singular aroma - one that weaves a tantalizing thread of half-formed questions within the browser's mind, and, if successful, initiates a hunger that can only be quenched by reading the novel. A satisfying literary meal will, like well-loved dining establishments, be recommended and passed on. Of course the work within must rise to the occasion of the titillating title - otherwise it will be consigned to the bin of only partially-satisfied, the author to be avoided, subsequent works eschewed.

But perhaps I assume too much - perhaps, as was recently suggested within a Historical Novel Society newsletter, the title need not be so functionally encumbered, need not, in short, serve so many masters; indeed, the author contended that the title is an acolyte of the marketing god - seeking merely to entice - to enthrall - to incite purchase irregardless of contextual meaning or associative parallels within character or plotline. It complements the suggestive cover art and sells the novel. And that is all. So when I tax neurons unmercifully, engage in long fruitless list-making, wax lyrical (and not-so-lyrical) about underlying meanings, the whys and wherefores of title-fit in regard to the contents of the novel - perhaps I am missing the mark. Perhaps I should take my cue from Shakespeare's Juliet and be assured that like the rose the novel will still smell as sweet.

For of course like all writers I yearn to compose anew - the next novel waits impatiently for my attention, kicking its heels in the dusty outskirts, and like a quivering hound before the hunt I scent the promise of it, heart-quickened and breathless, fingers twitching in anxious accord. For the spinning of a new narrative, weaving a world and populating it - another glorious adventure awaits beyond the horizon, knots and all.