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This weekend, I finished writing I short story I’ve been working on for awhile. I started typing up the first draft when I realized that it didn’t have a title yet.

Now, normally the title is something that I come up with sometime during the planning stage, before I even start writing. It’s often something I know right from the concept — Flip City, for example, takes its inspiration from a song called Flip City by Glenn Frey, and that was part of the idea going in.

And even if I don’t have a title before I start writing, one usually comes to me sometime during the writing process. For something that takes me awhile to write (this story took me three weeks, though that’s mostly because I’ve been busy as a tourist in China) there’s a lot of time as I’m thinking about the story for a title to come to me.

Strangely, though, that didn’t happen this time. So now I’m stuck, (first draft of) the story completed, trying to come up with a good title for it.

Which is not easy. Despite that fact that it’s a tiny fraction of the words contained in the story as a whole, they’re very important words. A good title’s job is, ideally, to say a lot about the story without, of course, giving anything away. It should give the casual reader some hint as to what the story’s about, or at least what kind of story it might be.

If the story is one of many in an anthology or a magazine or something, the title might make the difference between someone reading the story or not. So not only should it convey some aspect of the story, it should be grabbing. It should say, this is a story worth your time to read.

The title can also pull a lot of weight where theme or symbol is concerned. It can tie together a linked metaphor threaded throughout the story. It can provide the key to a deeper meaning in the text. It can state the theme, outright or through symbolism (Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel is hardly about the physical stone angel, but entirely about the metaphor is represents, for instance). In this way, the title can do a lot more work than its proportion of words would otherwise suggest.

And while it doesn’t have to be put to all this use, there’s a lot of potential there. So if I’m not already settled on a title, why not try to mine it for all it can do for me?

I’m not generally the kind of writer who deliberates on every word in a story, like a natural poet might. But these few are important words, and I’m going to have to spend some time on them.

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