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Choosing a Title for My Highway Book

On Writing

Choosing a Title for My Highway Book

Stephen H. Provost

It's easy to agonize over every sentence when you're writing, but if I kept stopping to rework everything I'd typed, I'd never get anything done. Early in my career as a journalist, I learned to spend the most time working on the first paragraph: the hook or, as it's known in the business, the lede. (They started spelling it that way to distinguish it the from the lead used in hot metal typesetting - which doesn't explain why so many reporters insist on misspelling the past tense of the verb to lead as lead. It's led as in Zeppelin.)

If the first paragraph's important, the headline is crucial. You get somewhere between four and 10 words to get the readers' attention and tell them why they should bother to read the story. I've spent the bulk of my career writing these things. When I wasn't writing stories or columns over a span of nearly 15 years, I was writing headlines.

Once I started writing books, I had to come up with titles - for the overall works and for individual chapters. As in journalism, you want something distinctive and eye-catching. How many times have you seen 'tis the season in a headline around yuletide? Or the phrase remembered fondly on a story about some beloved figure's death?

Book titles can be just as challenging. It's nearly impossible to come up with one that hasn't been used before at some point, but similar titles for dissimilar works aren't likely to cause any confusion. Hypothetically speaking, books about Pat Benatar and Muhammad Ali might both be titled Hit Me With Your Best Shot, but no one's likely to mistake the '80s rock star for the former heavyweight champ.  

Occasionally, you may manage to hit on a truly original idea. To my knowledge, the title Identity Break hadn't been used before I published my first novel, under that title. I didn't have to search long and hard for it; the idea came to me without much effort even before the book was finished.

Finding a title for my latest work, a history of U.S. Highway 99 in California, was a different story. For much of the time I spent writing it, I planned to call it Ghosts of Old 99. That was the title I used when I submitted the idea to my publisher. But then I started seeing books on retail shelves with titles that referred to highways haunted by "real" ghosts, and I started thinking the title might not work too well, after all. The ghosts I was referring to were memories, not actual phantoms that might require the attention of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and company (or whoever winds up in the remake). 

I scrapped that idea and started running through potential keywords in my mind. Whether you're writing a headline or a title, once you get the right keyword, you're halfway there. In this case, my mind fixed on the word Golden, as in the Golden State Highway - the name chosen for much of Highway 99 in California way back during the 1920s. My first idea was The Golden Era of the Golden State Highway. I liked it - especially the repetition of the word golden, but it seemed too wordy. Titles, like headlines, should be as punchy as possible, so I started scaling it back. First, it became The Golden Highway and then, finally, The Golden Road, with the subtitle Memories of Highway 99 in California.

I liked it. My wife liked it. My publisher approved it as a working title, so there you have it. Unlike with Identity Break, other books share the main title here, but none involve Highway 99 specifically or even highways in general. L.M. Montgomery, who also produced Anne of Green Gables, did write a children's novel by that title more than a century ago, which no one would ever mistake for a highway history. 

So The Golden Road it is. That's my big announcement for today. You can read more about it on the page dedicated to this work elsewhere on my website. It's due out in 2016, but I've been talking about it for the past few months online. At least now I won't have to refer to it as "my Highway 99 book" anymore.