Searching for the Perfect Title: Deborah Campbell on 'This Heated Place' and 'A Disappearance in Damascus'
A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.
One thing the experience of writing each of my books has in common is this: I remember exactly where I was when I found their titles.
In the first case, I was in the Middle East, conducting fieldwork, and writing at the same time. That day I was at a friend’s apartment, working on the fourth or fifth chapter of a book that very nearly wrote itself. It took me three months to write, a rare state of grace I have never since recaptured. It was early evening, mid-autumn. The sun had set and I was working by lamplight. I had gone to look for a pair of scissors, for what purpose I have no recollection. I had just picked them up and turned back toward whatever task I had in mind when the title appeared, seeming to me to be as much a physical object as the scissors. This Heated Place. That was what I was writing about: the Israel-Palestine conflict, the view from the ground for those who lived it. I had just written a line that included that phrase: “Conflict is the leitmotif of this heated place.” As a title it seemed both literary and quiet, like the book itself. It stuck, as did most of what I wrote in that first draft. The book was published, with that title, one year later, though at the time I had no inkling of its ever finding a publisher.
Second books are said to be the hardest to write. The next one took five years, not including a year and a half of fieldwork. The book is about the arrest of my fixer in Syria while I was with her, and my search for her. The numerous drafts stacked on the floor of my office attest to the effort it took for this book to coalesce: They reach well above my knees.
For the first several years the book had a title I loved. But as the book evolved, I found that the title required increasingly long explanations, since it no longer made sense to anyone but me. The book had outgrown that working title — but still, I wasn’t prepared to abandon it. It had been with me each day of the journey, like the old gray sweater I wrote in for years despite the elbows wearing through and the sleeves coming unraveled. That I don’t wish to divulge it, despite queries from this journal’s editors, illustrates how attached I remain — part of me maintains that I will use it for another work.
I remember the day the new title came. I was walking home from the university where I teach. It was mid-afternoon, and I was watching the trees signal the change of seasons. I wasn’t thinking about writing, I was simply absorbed by the world around me, which is often when ideas come. As I was about to turn a street corner, four words appeared: A Disappearance in Damascus.
A disappearance is an event that is at once action and mystery. It bespeaks narrative momentum, and a certain edge-of-your-seat suspense. There was a sense of drama to the title that reminded me of Gabriel García Márquez’s non-fiction book, News of a Kidnapping, which a friend had given me when I confessed I was having trouble with my own book. The new title had what the original title lacked, or might have had before the book was written: a quality of inevitability.
Scarcely a single line in the book itself came with such ease. Writing, my second book taught me, is mainly work. But as you do the work, there are sometimes moments of serendipity, moments of grace.
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A version of this story was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).
Meet: About the Author
Deborah Campbell is a writer who has published in 11 countries and six languages. Her literary journalism incorporates extensive fieldwork in places such as the Middle East, Russia, Cuba, and Mexico, and she has won three National Magazine Awards. Her 2016 book, A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War, won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, the largest literary award for non-fiction in Canada, and was
selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She is a lecturer at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches creative non-fiction.
Read: David Abrahamson and Alison Pelczar on Titles
Titles are no doubt a great source of stress for writers — a quick Google search will turn up pages and pages of articles offering advice on the subject. Much of the advice is conflicting, and the only general consensus seems to be how important a good title is. Titles have to sell the book by sounding good while also giving the reader an idea of what’s to come; they have to be catchy, short, and informative, all at the same time.
To make matters more complicated, it’s not always possible to know before publication how well a title will work. We can laugh now at the fact that The Great Gatsby was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg or that Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened, but we can’t know how F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Steinbeck felt about those working titles.
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, a publisher whose Little Blue Books pamphlet series sold hundreds of millions of copies, knew well the power of a good title. He would pull books from his list when their sales weren’t meeting his expectations. Then they’d go to “The Hospital” to be rejuvenated with new titles before rerelease. A few editorial assistants would brainstorm a potential list, and one of those would be tried.
The process could work quite well: Fleece of Gold sold 6,000 copies in 1925 but the following year, rereleased under the title The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, it sold 50,000 copies. Sometimes, even Haldeman-Julius’ young daughter would help; after reading the book Privateersmen, she summarized that it was about seamen and battles, so it was retitled The Battles of a Seaman.
How enticing those titles seem point to something else that can’t be predicted: how well a title will age. Eighteenth-century novel titles were short summaries in themselves, such as the full title of Daniel Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates (1719). The greater detail was necessary at a time when novels were still entering the cultural mainstream, and it would take more than a word or two to pique a reader’s curiosity.
More recent classical works often have titles derived from other works. Popular sources include Shakespeare (Brave New World; Pale Fire), the Bible (The Sun Also Rises; Absalom, Absalom!), and the works of major poets (Of Mice and Men; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Now, it’s common for works to have single-word titles — but the pressure to summarize, or least capture the essence of, the work within nevertheless remains.
Those articles online do offer a few modern suggestions to creating titles, but take any or all of the advice at your own risk. Methods range from A/B testing to random title generators (which can generate titles as inane as The Missing Twins to as nonsensical as The Teacher in the Alien).
Common title structures make something like a random title generator possible; the titles can sound real, albeit not always. And because there are no copyrights on titles, some small subgenres of fiction do see titles recycled every few years. But picking a title that truly fits takes a bit more work.