My first writing teacher rarely gave any practical advice. Instead he would offer gnomic (and ultimately useful) adages like: “The work is the prize,” and “Look for the gifts you’ve given yourself.” He never talked about the publishing world. In his view, it was best to pretend that agents and editors didn’t really exist, especially while drafting.
But there was one instance when my teacher did address the nitty-gritty of publishing a book. It had to do with titles. “Never tell them your favorite title,” he said. “Give them a mediocre title and then wait for them to reject it. Then give them the title you really wanted all along.”
I remembered his words when I submitted my novel manuscript, but I did not take his advice. I didn’t think it applied to my situation. I liked my title— Count It All Joy— but would never call it a favorite, and I told myself I wouldn’t mind if it had to be changed. Of course, when the time came to change it, I did mind.
In general, when I start writing, I don’t have a strong feeling about how to title my work. I usually wait to see what arises naturally, and in the meantime, I use a generic working title. For some short stories, the working title becomes so strongly associated with the piece that I have trouble remembering the real title. One story went by the working title “The Red Car,” and even though its eventual title, “Brood X,” is much more unique and meaningful, in my mind it will always be “The Red Car Story.” A similar thing happened with my first published short story, “Fox Deceived.” I love that title—it truly is a favorite—but I always end up referring to it by its working title, “The Strawberry Story.” The odd thing is that my friends and family who have read that story refer to it that way, too, even though they are unaware of its working title. That story is like a carefully named child who ends up going by an accidental nickname well into adulthood.
The working title for my novel was Sports Novel . That was the file name, at least. It was also an easy and small-talk-friendly way to describe my book, which had a high school football coach for its main character. About halfway through the draft, I decided to title it Count It All Joy , a phrase that comes from a Bible verse, James 1:2: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” I took the verse from a sermon that I had written for one of the characters but later cut because, well, it was a sermon. I liked the verse, though, and decided it would be a good epigraph. My Sports Novel is not actually about sports; it’s about grieving and starting over. The verse alluded to the idea of embracing loss as something that can reveal the meaning and value of life.
My editor liked the title. Others seemed to like it, too. But I noticed that no one could remember it. Even worse, a lot of people could not get it upon first, second, and sometimes even third hearing, which was really awkward. The fact that it started with a declarative verb seemed to be especially confusing.
“Counted of Joy?” someone might repeat, trying to turn the title into something less forceful.
“Cowndid all? Cowndidall ? Is that a name?”
“Did you say, count ? Count it—what?”
“It’s from the Bible,” I would say defensively, as if to excuse the odd cadence. And if James 1:2 had been an oft-repeated biblical verse like “Consider the lilies how they grow,” maybe it would have been okay. The phrase would already be in people’s heads even if they weren’t totally aware of it. But even my aunt and cousin, who are both ministers, were not immediately familiar with “count it all joy.”
I can be a mumbler, especially when talking about my writing, so for a while I chalked up the confusion to my poor diction. For a few weeks, I made a special effort to pronounce the title slowly and with clarity. But people still weren’t getting it. Finally, I mentioned it to my editor and she said she’d been having the same problem. We decided to consider a new title, especially since it was a debut and word of mouth would be important.
When brainstorming new titles, my editor’s first question was what my working title had been. I told her it was Sports Novel and she started firing off sporty-sounding titles. I admit I was a bit taken aback at first: I’d stopped thinking of my novel as being sports-focused and didn’t want to give it a title that would lead readers astray. At the same time, I could see how it would be useful for the title to point to something outside the world of the book. A short story title can be fanciful or obscure or may even contribute something important to the meaning of the story, but a book title needs to have a life of its own because, if it’s a popular success, it will be separated from its text, and referred to in a casual way in lists and conversations.
Over the next few weeks, my editor sent me suggestions. At one point, she emailed me a list of football terms. Despite having written a book about a football coach, I actually know very little about the sport, and some of the phrases she sent me were unfamiliar. I’d never heard of a “wishbone formation” or an “unbalanced line.” I countered with running words, since the book is also about a running team, and because I actually have some knowledge on the subject. I was especially partial to the title Middle Distance. I liked that it had a double meaning, referring both to a type of race and a point in the landscape that is somewhat undefined, neither background nor foreground.
It came down to five titles: Home Field , Homestretch , Middle Distance , Wishbone Formation , and the original, Count It All Joy . Home Field was far and away the favorite of my publisher. It had been at the top of my list, too, in part because it had a double meaning similar to Middle Distance .
Still, I felt uncertain. I called my sister and she said she liked it. “At least it’s not Wishbone Formation ,” she added. “If I saw a book in a bookstore with that title it would make me not want to read it.”
The idea that a title could dissuade a reader was not something I had even considered, and her stray remark forced me to imagine my novel sitting on a shelf, among other books. It wasn’t an easy thing to envision, and it’s still difficult for me. Writing a novel is a private experience that unfolds over a number of months and years, but the book itself is a public object. As strange as it may seem to an author, it is an item for sale, not a singular piece of writing to be tucked into a magazine’s table of contents or hung (briefly) at the top of a web page. The title is, at least in part, advertising.
Count It All Joy is, in a way, the private title of my novel, a phrase that says more about my life while I was writing the book, as I dealt with all the emotional ups and downs that life consistently brings. But Home Field does a much better job of communicating to the reader what the experience of reading the book might be like—the themes, the subject, the milieu and mood. Also, it’s a lot easier to remember. When I say it out loud in conversation, I am never asked to repeat it. In fact, people often repeat it back to me. It still sounds a bit strange, not completely mine, but I think this reflects the truth of the publishing experience. Once your book goes out into the world, it’s no longer only yours; it belongs to readers too. You can only hope that the title will acquire new, private meanings, unknown to you.