Which Came First, the Story or the Title?

In a posting on the Inkspot blog a couple of weeks ago, Nina Wright, the charming and witty author of the Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries, wrote: “[C]hoosing a title is generally one of the last details of the book-writing process.” Yes, that’s how it usually works. My Dot Dead had a working title of Maid Dead until just before submission. The contract I signed with the publisher gave them the right to rename the book. (Someone once told me that first-time authors are all sluts – they just say yes to whatever asked.) I’d resigned myself to another title change, but Midnight Ink stuck with Dot Dead.
My work-in-progress has evolved a little differently. Now some people write from an outline. Not me. I start with a blank sheet and an idea and see where my brain takes me. That’s the fun of writing for me. I was surprised by who the killer in Dot Dead turned out to be. Recently, I picked up a tape of Stephen King being interviewed by Charles Ardai at this year’s Edgars. MWA’s newest Grand Master said something like, “You can’t expect the reader to be held in suspense if you, the writer, weren’t.” He said if a full outline is where your spend your creativity, then you might as well publish the outline. (You can order the tape here.)

Anyway my agent asked to see the first draft on my current project as soon as the ink jet could spit one out. I was a little hesitant, figuring it would be a little like tasting a half-baked cake. To my surprise, she said it was “compulsively readable.” I was suspicious but delighted. Of course there was a catch: she told me she would never send the manuscript out to a publisher with its then title, Coup. I started poking my head here and there around the Web and found this quote that dates back a few millennia: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Perfect. New title = Two Graves. Thank you, Confucius.

Then I reread the manuscript with the new title on the top of each page. While it had seemed fine when called Coup – it was after all a political thriller – the new title didn’t fit quite right. It wasn’t the title’s fault, it was the manuscript’s. It had to be reworked to live up to the new title. Two Graves crystallized what the book was about. The protagonist was no longer motivated by a desire to do the right thing; his soul was corroded by a desire for revenge. Once a nice guy, he was now sacrificing all, everything he’d stood for, to get back at the people who’d destroyed his life. Along with the character, the manuscript has become leaner and meaner. One more draft and I think he and it will be lean and mean enough and my agent can send it out. Just like a son with a famous father, my manuscript had to live up to its name.

Has anyone else had this kind of experience, where the title influences the story rather than the other way around?

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