Featured From the Archives: What’s in a Name?

My muse failed me this week. Like straight-up turned tail and ran, laughing maniacally as she went. So I apologize for once more having to cull something interesting from the archives. I promise, there will be new material next week. Even if I have to drag my muse, kicking and screaming, from her beach sanctuary and duct tape her skinny butt to the chair. It will happen.  In the meantime, here’s a snarky look at every writer’s favorite task — naming things. Enjoy!

What’s in a Name?

By Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted on 6/29/12)


Maybe I’m part Fey, or maybe I’m Rumpelstiltskin’s great-granddaughter, but I believe names are extremely important. Probably because I’ve been graced with a somewhat unusual name myself. Wait, did I say graced? I meant cursed. Doomed to endure countless mutilations, including: “Keisha,” “Kissah,” “Kye-sha”, and my favorite, just plain old “Lisa,” because obviously that “K” has to be a typo. There was even an unfortunate incident where, after explaining the spelling of my name as “Lisa, with a K,” the person responded with, “okay, Ms. Withakay, will there be anything else?” Seriously! No joke. So now, I actually do give my name as “Lisa” at fast food places, or anywhere they’ll be calling it out randomly, because it’s just easier. As long as I remember I’m answering to that. And who knows, Lisa Withakay might just make an excellent pen-name someday. Everyone needs a good alias, right?

For the record, my name is pronounced “Key-saw.” Difficult, isn’t it? But I respond to pretty much any variation thereof, as evidenced above. I think I already mentioned that it’s Russian for kitten, didn’t I? Well, it is, as confirmed by several people I’ve met who actually speak Russian. And no, I’m not Russian, nor is anyone in my family tree that I’m aware of. German, English, a little Scottish, yes. Russian? Sadly, no.

So how did I end up with this charming, pain-in-my-ass name?  Let’s just say this is what happens when soon-to-be parents stumble on those lovely little baby-name books in the bookstore. And trust me, after seeing the other options my parents had circled, I ended up with the best one. As much as it has irritated me over the years.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand — names.

Finding a title for a work can be the hardest part, whether it be a novel, a masterpiece of art, or a choreographed routine. It’s one of the first impressions your audience will get, so it has to accomplish a lot of things: summarize the plot, theme, and overall tone; provide something catchy that will make your work stand out among the masses; create a lasting impression that’s easily remembered; and build a sense of mystery and intrigue about your work’s content. All in just a few short words. No wonder many people find the process of naming a daunting task.

For me, this is a critical part of the creative process, and often, I have a title before I have anything else. Naming something is my favorite part. It’s the moment when whatever I’m working on becomes a thing of substance, its existence clicking into place like the final piece of a puzzle. It’s no longer just a vague concept floating around in my head — it’s a declaration of identity. And I rarely change a title once I’ve found it, whether it’s on a story, an image, or a character.

Others aren’t so lucky, struggling under the burden of working titles or simply leaving something as “Untitled.” And still others completely miss the mark, dubbing their spectacular work with a lame, uninspired title that dooms it to obscurity forever. They say you shouldn’t judge a book (or artwork, or choreography, etc) by its cover, but the truth is, everyone does. And the title is as crucial to your work’s success as the rest of the packaging. How often have you picked a book off the shelf solely for its title and cover art? Or browsed Itunes and found new artists because their album covers looked cool? Or rented a movie because it had an interesting name? And how often have you done the opposite? Scoffing at something because of a lame title, stupid cover, or lackluster blurb? I think you see my point.

So, what’s in a name? Everything!

Which is why you should spend as long as it takes to create the perfect title for your piece, whatever it may be. I’m afraid there aren’t any sure-fire techniques I can share for how best to choose a title, though. I’m sure there are others out there who would gladly try to tell you the correctness of their own process, but I believe creativity is too personal for that, and every artist, dancer, martial artist, writer, musician, has to find their own way of doing things. What I can offer you is a succinct version of how I go about it.

I remember reading somewhere, (and I apologize that I don’t have a direct quote for you), during my research of Disney’s story process, that they try to sum up each film’s plot in a single sentence. Being the complete fangirl I was back then, I thought that was a brilliant idea and adopted it for myself. It’s actually a lot harder than it seems to boil a complicated premise down to a simple sentence, but eventually, you get good at it. How does this pertain to titles? Well, once you can summarize your work with a single phrase (and this generally works best for writing, although it can apply to the concepts of art and choreography too), you can take it one step further and chop it down to only a few words. Something that single-handedly conveys the heart of your piece to your audience. Sometimes, that will be the name of your main character; sometimes, it will be an integral theme central to your work; and sometimes, it will be a metaphor summarizing the subtler messages you’re trying to convey. There are no hard and fast rules. The important thing is that it be inseparable with the larger work.

As an example, I’ll dissect the names of my three published short stories and show you the thought process behind them.

The Bardach was named for the race Amyli (Nameless) comes from. They’re a central key to that world because they have the link to its gods. All the conflict revolves around them fighting against the Mages who want to destroy that link and corrupt the gods for their own purposes. Since they are essentially the heart of the story, it seemed fitting to name it after them. Plus it’s a short, interesting title that might make someone click on the link, buy the magazine, or read the excerpt.

(2014 UPDATE: The rewrite of this story now goes by the name Kindred, as it’s a more character-driven, dual POV version that centers around the main character, rather than the culture. When its released, you’ll see. It’s been completely stripped down and rebuilt into what feels almost like an entirely different story, hence the need for a new name. The thought process I went through to choose the name, however, is the same as outlined above. 😉 )

Spinning has a more complicated meaning. It refers to the sect of people Taylor becomes part of, but it also refers to the ability to morph time that they all have, so named because it literally spins the world around them. It also refers to the emotional turmoil Taylor feels throughout, as his world is completely turned upside down, inside out, and sideways. He’s left with a confusing mess of half-answered questions, and is emotionally off-kilter for the entire story — spinning, as it were. It’s also a subtle tip-of-the-hat to the inspiring song by Jack’s Mannequin of the same name. Most of these connotations a reader wouldn’t grasp until after they’re read the piece (and some they might never know), but it adds layers to the title for them to discover along the way. Plus, it’s short, to the point, and hopefully mysterious enough to draw someone in.

Confessions has a dual meaning. It actually does refer to the characters confessing hidden truths, so it’s perhaps one of the more literal titles I’ve used. The thing that makes it interesting is its mysteriousness.  Its vague meaning hopefully makes a reader want to know what’s being confessed and would get them to buy the story to find out. But it’s multi-layered enough that they’ll get the full meaning only at the end. I can’t disclose much about this one without giving away spoilers, so I’ll just say that the obvious confession (Constia’s) isn’t the only one the reader comes across. Plus “Confessions” seemed like the perfect title for a story about losing faith.

Now, my process may not be your process, and that’s perfectly okay. The goal here was to get you to reconsider your approach to titles. The lesson in the above examples is that what appear to be simple one or two word statements, are actually layered with meaning and perfectly embody the message of the piece. Which is the ultimate goal of a title, isn’t it? (If you answered “no” to that, then I think you seriously need to reappraise your opinions of titles, and why did you bother to read this whole huge novel of a post? Just saying.) However you go about finding your names, the important thing to remember is that they are just that — important. Don’t spend months or years of your life on a project and then give it a half-assed name. You poured part of yourself into that thing! Give it enough respect to name it accordingly. You’ll be surprised how effective a marketing tool a simple title can be. It may just be the difference between massive success and complete failure. And I don’t know about you, but when so much hangs on a single decision, I think it deserves a few extra moments of my time to get right.


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