In one of the funniest episodes of the TV series Seinfeld, Elaine wants to impress a famous Russian novelist with her inside knowledge. “Did you know that War and Peace was not Tolstoy’s original title? The original was War—WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?”
She was half-right. The working title was The Year 1805.
Stories abound, which I cannot vouch for, that many famous titles almost weren’t.
The Great Gatsby’s working title was The High Bouncing Lover.
To Kill a Mocking Bird’s working title was Atticus.
Of Mice and Men’s working title was Something that Happened.
Titles are an art all its own. If you ever marveled at a beautifully wrapped gift only to find that the content was less impressive, you got a glimpse as to what great titles can do. They are an enticing invitation to look inside without revealing the content. Fiction titles are evocative, not informative.
Titles cannot be copyrighted. They are often the brainchild of the publisher, not the author. Most publishing contracts don’t even give the author the right to veto a title they don’t care for.
For myself, I consider all my titles to be working-titles only. The title serves as a lamppost to remind me where or what or even why I’m telling this story, and sometimes whose story it is. But once the last line of the first draft materializes, all bets are off. I got to the finish line in one piece, and renaming the journey is wide open.