The Impact of a Title

Writers think carefully about what to call their stories. So do publishers. I have one story that may be being hindered by its title. Let me explain.

Some titles are very direct. Let’s look at some movie titles as examples. If Star Wars isn’t about wars in space, I’ll be very disappointed. Other titles are more evocative without necessarily meaning anything. Apocalypse Now has nothing to do with the apocalypse. Reservoir Dogs? Spoiler: It isn’t about reservoirs or dogs. Still, each of these is a memorable title.

Think about The Life of Pi or The Forever War or Cloud Atlas. There’s a lot to be said for giving your story a memorable title.

But what if the title hits the reader wrong?

I have a story. It’s gotten excellent feedback from a number of editors. Each has loved it, but… And the “but” never gets quite articulated. I wonder now if maybe it’s the story’s title that’s causing the ‘but’.

What’s the story called? Graceful Degradation.

It’s not about BSDM (BDSM?). There are no whips, no bondage. The title comes from an old profession of mine, User Experience Design (aka UX). In UX, the concept of graceful degradation is that if something fails the user, it should do so in a way that allows some continued level of usage.

The primary example of this is a comparison of elevators and escalators. At the most basic level, both move people between floors. If an elevator breaks, it is no longer a means of getting from one floor to another. However, if an escalator breaks, it gracefully degrades into a staircase: still usable, if less helpful.

I took that concept and applied it to tokens of memory: photos, writing, music. What if they all were designed to degrade gracefully? What if there was no permanence allowed, so artists made works in such a way that the failings revealed new insights or expressions.

This is the backdrop for the story Graceful Degradation. Within this universe, there is a man trying to honour the memory of his dead wife. He wants to preserve photos of their wedding. He wants to preserve a recording of their wedding song. But each of these isn’t only difficult-by-design, they’re illegal.

So our protagonist is driven to some of the darker corners of society. He’s noble in intent but ill-equipped for the deception he needs to pull off.

As I said, I’ve gotten complimentary rejections of this story from editors of literary and genre magazines around the world. They like it… but…

Since no one can articulate the ‘but’, I’ve come to wonder if it’s the title that’s the hang up. I really like the title. I hope I’m wrong.

If you think you’d be interested in reading Graceful Degradation, it’s included in the collection The Maiden Voyage of Novyy Mir and Other Short Stories. The book is available in either e-reader/epub or paperback. Click this books2read link to get a list of retailers carrying the book. Or you can buy it through my indie publisher site, Skrap Books, if you’re in the US or Canada and would prefer to put more money into my pocket as opposed to the big box bookstores.