Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Memoir Book Report -- Part IV: Title Roulette

This is the fourth in a series following my memoir as it moves from manuscript to published book. You can find the other installments here.

At a conference, I gave a short presentation, "I'll Take Titles for a Thousand, Alex,about creative titles for individual essays, short memoir pieces mostly, or chapters/essays in a book of creative nonfiction. I enjoy writing titles, though I'm aware many writers would willingly shred and rewrite dozens of pages rather than deal with titles. (We each are odd in our own ways!) I purposely limited my talk to short works, because except for making suggestions for the titles of a few clients' books, that's where my expertise lay.

But now I have one notch in the book title bedpost.

My memoir—to be published in May 2018 by University of Nevada Press—has a title: 

Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss

Phew. That only took three months, a hivemind of writer friends, the pros at the publisher, my agent, and hours of my time, buckets of anxiety-induced sweat, and way too many lists scrawled on a dozen or so yellow legal sheets. 

Here's how we got to the very best title for this book.

First, following my own advice, I always have a working title for anything I’m writing. So I had one, right from the beginning. Sort of. But it's hard to say, because when did the book begin? With the first pages I wrote about what happened to me after my father's death? That essay was titled "Two Weeks in Vegas,” and told the story of the time I spent in Las Vegas with my mother, beginning the morning after Dad died. But I didn't know then that piece would lead to a book. So that wasn't the first working title for the manuscript.

Six years later, with a dozen or so additional essays in hand, I began to think it might be a book of linked essays, and I typed this working title on page one: Father Figure. I soon realized this wasn't right, perhaps implying he wasn't a real father, or that it was about someone else.

Meanwhile, woven into the evolution of the title is the larger evolution of the book itself. As a memoir-in-linked-essays, I got great feedback on the writing, but a handful of publishers, a book coach, and trusted beta readers (writer friends) all said: transform the essays into a more traditional narrative memoir. I grumbled, procrastinated, and then finally I did it. (More on this process in a future Memoir Book Report post.)

As I rewrote and began to see the narrative arc emerging, I tossed out the working title. And another. When the new manuscript was ready, I began brainstorming title ideas, and landed on yet another working title, The Father and Daughter Reunion.

Right away, I knew I needed a subtitle—common in memoir not only to lure readers, but to give readers, booksellers, librarians, and others in the book world important hints about the story.

Back to the lists, where three word groups jumped out: "a love story," "a ghost story," and "a loss story." Because my father and I have "conversations" after his death, and because I came to know and love him better then too, I wanted to incorporate these ideas. And so I came up with the subtitle Every Loss Story is a Love Story.

Many people liked this subtitle (and even suggested it as a title) because it was lyrical, slightly mysterious, with nice rhythm. It sounded familiar but also new and surprising. But there were two problems: First, it too closely echoed the title of D. T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace: "Every Ghost Story is a Love Story,” a book I’d read with great interest. Though it’s a phrase Wallace used, it didn't originate with him (which Max detailed in a New Yorker article), many readers would link it to Wallace.

The other problem was that, taken literally, that subtitle wouldn’t resonate for readers who have had different experiences with the connection between loss and love. I knew I’d be changing it, eventually.

Yet, coupled with The Father and Daughter Reunion, that was the subtitle when the University of Nevada Press acquired the book in March of this year. Early editorial feedback mirrored my own gut feeling: we needed a new title. I was ready. Sort of.

First, I went looking for inspiration inside the manuscript, searching phrases, themes, objects, chapter titles, dialogue. Next, I looked at poems about grief. I wrote and wrote titles and subtitles, filling pages. Then I culled the lists, spent time on Amazon checking for books with too-similar titles, and on Google, checking for...well you never know what, do you?

I reached out to trusted writer friends, some who’ve published memoirs, some who hadn’t; all whip-smart and able to consider both marketing issues and literary concerns. I added friends who buy books by the boatload. And my family.

I gave them—as well as my agent—14 possible titles, and 11 potential subtitles—disconnected from one another, in random order. I wanted to see what titles they thought matched which subtitles. I also asked for original ideas, and had lots of fun—and pulled out a bunch of hair—sorting through the responses.

At the same time, the publishers’ editorial and marketing teams were shuffling possibilities too. While I was fretting and spinning, my agent—who can instantly clarify for me things I’m naturally inclined to make overly complicated—helped me see the value in considering not only the lyrical, literary, dreamy, poetic titles I tend to gravitate to, but also more straightforward options. This was good advice. The lists grew. And narrowed.

Finally, a deadline loomed, and I sent off my suggestions to the publisher—ten possible titles and seven subtitle candidates. Then I waited. And kept replaying the list in my head, questioning everything I had and had not considered, admonishing myself for not including more of the titles still on those yellow sheets. A few days later my email pinged with my final title. And I relaxed.

Right away, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, felt right. It struck me, my agent, my family and friends, as intuitively on-target.

Right away, I started coaxing my fingers around the new keyboard combination, wanting to immediately get quicker at typing it, wanting to feel it flow from my fingertips, as if I’d been typing it forever.

And now I can’t imagine having anything else on the book cover. Speaking of covers…I got a glimpse of the art last week. But that’s another blog post.

Find the rest of the Memoir Book Reports here. If you're interested in seeing the slides that accompanied my presentation about titles for short works (at the HippoCamp conference), go here.

6 comments: said...

So affirming to read your journey toward a title that works. So hard when a book is not a straight story but a series of memoir pieces or essays. Sounds like you finally captured the feel of the book with a title that is a grabber. But what a process. I'm grappling with stage one--the working title as I start pulling together the pieces and the subjects. So thanks for making me feel I am not alone in struggling. As an editor for a nonfiction magazine, I'm used to writing headlines but book titles are another order of magnitude.

Risa Nye said...

I love reading about your process! And I also love coming up with titles. Thanks for letting your readers peek behind the curtain! And I eagerly await seeing the cover.

Unknown said...

You're so generous to open up your experience and process with the world! I'm slogging through sections of my own memoir that challenge parts of my mind and heart in ways not anticipated. Your sign posts are huge encouragements: like hearing English spoken in a foreign country, or seeing a ©Coke sign when you pull up to a gas station in the desert. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Kristine Adams /

Lisa Romeo said...

Thanks for reading and letting me know what you think. Good luck with all of your individual projects and title-wrangling!

Barbara said...

I am almost finished with the first draft of my memoir and it has only taken me about 10 years. ;) The rewriting gets tiresome, for sure but, when I came up with the title it started to meld. Now I just have to find the right subtitle.
Thanks for sharing your journey!

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