What's in Your House?

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Hi. Eli here. And it’s been a while. We’ve missed you here on the blog. Rather, maybe the blog has missed us, and as such, we haven’t seen you. Trust that we still think about you all, and are happy to be back on the hobby-horse, as it were.

We’ve had some stuff happen. All good things, all good things—I’ve got myself a new job, something supremely fulfilling and maybe the last job I apply for, barring a yet-to-exist novel carving me a tenured space teaching creative writing. I’ll get to do a bit of that, time to time, where I am now, but my main focus is academic. Which suits me fine.

The result of all these goings-on is we’ve been a little quiet. I’ve had to reset phones and computers, lost some passwords, and, biggest hurdle, had to set up a new working routine incorporating all the new challenges I’ve taken on. But, here we are now, together at last, with all things lined up and running squeaky clean.

Funny—even with all the time-and-space juggling I’ve been doing, which includes cross-country trips every few weeks, I’ve been writing. I’ve got stories submitted in two different markets, had several rejections in the last few months—that’s the nature of the game—and am already touching up something else to send out. I got busy, then busier, and somehow wrote more.

Which is to say, there’s nothing in your way, right? I have this back and forth sometimes with people, where they say there’s no time, and then I say you make time, and then they side-eye me via phone or messenger or whatever, and I say no really, and then the circle spins again. And sometimes the conversation ends with a little salt on both ends.

But the truth is, we do what’s important. The things that keep getting done when we’re too busy to breathe are the things we refuse to let slide, out of habit and necessity both, like breathing. And it’s okay sometimes that things fall by the wayside. Sometimes, the creative work we’re doing is just management, like figuring out how all the cards lean on each other so the house at the end works, has all your stuff in it. But that end picture, it’s gotta have all your stuff. Your family, your work, your health (something I keep pretending I don’t need to pay attention to, as I go out and buy bigger t-shirts every few months).

Your art. That’s gotta be in there too. It’s your house, you put what you want in it. And that takes figuring out, sometimes. Like this, for me—took some figuring to get this post, and the reading I’m going to do today to find our next stories, into the day. But it belongs in my house, so the figuring was worth the time.

Yeah, I’m tired. I work a lot. I write a lot. I don’t sleep enough, don’t exercise at all. And that’s gotta change. But also, I work this space, this blog and these stories. It’s a whole lot of card-stacking to make this house. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every part of it is like breathing.

What’s in your house?

Trouble with Titles

By John Flynn-York

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A couple days ago, I snuck into an old Automata blog post of mine and changed the title. I don’t know if I improved it. I made it less wordy, certainly—but also more bland. But then, I’ve always had trouble with titles.

Once in a while, I’ve been lucky. A title comes in a flash and feels exactly right, and up it goes at the top of the page in bolded title-case, left-justified (that’s where I let my working titles hang out), and it stays there until the piece is done, then migrates to the center of the page and becomes official. It’s wonderful when this happens, and vanishingly rare.

Most of the time, it’s a challenge to pick a few words that will hang over the top of my writing. So I tend toward on painfully on-the-nose titles, because they’re obvious and (relatively) easy to find. If I write a story about a theater, that story will probably be called “The Theater” for most of its life. And when my titles aren’t blindingly direct, they’re excruciatingly obscure. The theater story might take a cue from the description of a patron’s outfit and wind up with a title like “Houndstooth Overcoat,” even though the overcoat in question, unlike the one in Gogol’s famous story, plays only a minor part, and then people will wonder what significance there is to the overcoat, when really, there isn’t any—it just sounded nice.

My ideal title lies somewhere in between the two poles of “painfully obvious” and “horribly obscure.” It suggests what the work is about without blaring it through a megaphone, it alludes to layers of meaning within the piece, it has maybe a touch of humor or mystery or intrigue to it. Not every title needs to do all this; that’s the goal, but the reality often falls a bit short. No problem: there are numerous stories out there that do just fine with unmemorable titles. Or, to it put another way, if a good story has a bland title, it doesn’t matter—the writing is what makes the story, and if that’s good, it will imbue the title with meaning. But a great title on a not-great story… well, that just seems like a waste.

In any case, say you want to up your story-title game. Here are a few ways to find new possibilities for the name of your work:

1. Brainstorm

That exercise you learned in grade school? Turns out it’s helpful for all kinds of writing-related tasks, and it’s particularly good for coming up with titles. Start from an obvious place—a location, a character’s name, an important object or goal—and free associate. Keep going until you run out of gas, and then look over what you’ve got. The mysterious linkages brainstorming huffs on can often help you hit the sweet spot between obvious and obscure.

2. Explore secondary themes

Instead of trying to capture everything about the story in a word or three, look for something in a subplot, a character’s dialogue, etc. that seems apt. These can, metonymically, sometimes do a better job of representing the whole story than a reference to the main theme. And, anyway, do you really know what your story is about? Probably not… and that’s a good thing. Embrace the off-kilter title, and you might find resonances you didn’t see before.

3. Ask a friend

It can be hard to have enough distance from your own work to see the overall shape of it. Or maybe it’s difficult to slap a label on something that’s taken weeks, months, years of work. Either way, a trusted reader can help. Give it to a friend and ask for suggestions. You might love one of the ideas, or a couple—or you might hate them all, but still get that little spark of inspiration that leads to the right title.

Happy titling!