Inside my head I imagine myself at a book signing, fans of my latest work queueing up for autographed copies of my work in a line that stretches out of the bookstore and around the block. Policemen are directing traffic outside, and overworked bookstore clerks are glaring at me over the heads of hundreds of adoring fans.
“I just love your new book, High Ground,” one enthusiastic reader gushes. “Didn’t you also write Run for the Hills?”
“Oh, yes.” I nod sagely. “That was the first one of my books to make the New York Times Best Sellers list.” Bursts of admiring sounds come from the crowd and I smile, careful to keep my expression modest and humble.
In real life that scene would probably go like this: I am sitting in an empty corner of the bookstore with a stack of my books, looking anxiously at the people passing by me on their way to the children’s corner or the magazine racks. I hear a voice at my elbow – at last, somebody has fallen in love with my deathless prose!
“Wow, your new book High Ground looks awesome,” they say, pressing a copy into my hand for my signature. “Aren’t you also the author of Run for the Hills?”
Run for the Hills? Feverishly I wrack my brains and come up empty. As my lips are shaping the word “no” it comes to me. Of course I’d written it. All those anguished days and sleepless nights — this side of hell, how could I possibly forget I’d written Run for the Hills? Because for the time I was sweating over this book, I knew it as Milestone.
I admire the writers who always seem to find the right words to distill the essence of their work and elevate it to a higher level. Personally, I can’t do it. I have to sit down with my unfinished manuscript (sometimes a mere outline), talk to it, take it out for coffee, perhaps even dinner and a movie. Then I sit down with a pen and paper, generate a list of unsuitable appellations, and circle the three least obnoxious ones. Finally I am able to settle on the title by which I hope my novel will be known from this time forward. However, while I am still hunting around for that title I have to refer to my unfinished manuscript as something other than “that life-sucking black hole.” That’s where a working title comes in. Without a working title my manuscript remains a nameless, amorphous blob that slips through my fingers like warm jello. With a working title, the story acquires structure and identity and I gain some measure of control.
So, if you visit your favorite bookstore and see me sitting in the corner with a stack of novels at my side, come and talk to me about my latest work. Go ahead, ask me — “Didn’t you also write Anguished Draft?” And if I take a minute to think about my answer, please don’t think I have lost my memory. It’s just that during the time I was writing it, it was a Milestone to me.
(book titles made up for purposes of this post.)