I heard it eighty-seven times at least: “Don’t get too attached to your title!” Every time I took a workshop or attended a writers’ conference, someone reinforced this idea that writers have very little control over the ultimate titles of their books. “Once you sign with an agent, she’ll change it anyway. And then your publisher will change it again.” Fellow writers – I think you know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard it too; I know you have.
Umm…okay. So I was to name my book-baby but not like that name too much? Got it.
The original working title for my manuscript was “My Body Broke First.” I liked that title – but not too much! – but the feedback some gave was that it was too negative and gave away too much of the plot. After several years of writing and rewriting and pretending I was never going to write again, I started to look for alternatives. I wanted a word or phrase that better encapsulated one of the memoir’s main themes.
Confession: I don’t remember how “Caged Eyes” came about! I think someone in my long-time writing group may have raised it as a consideration. In a workshop not too much later, the nine writers who critiqued my work indulged in a lengthy, lengthy debate over the merits and pitfalls of each title, “My Body Broke First” and “Caged Eyes” (over bottles of wine, naturally). They voted for the latter, and ultimately, I did too.
What does the title mean? It refers to the regulation that first-year cadets at the Air Force Academy keep their eyes locked on a point directly in front of their faces. Here’s a passage from the second page, for context. The narrator is at lunch when she says,
“I focused my eyes on the black eagle at the top of my white, round plate; otherwise, upperclassmen would demand that I “cage my eyes.” I had not yet earned the privilege of allowing my eyes to stray.”
“Caged eyes” becomes a two-fold metaphor as the story progresses: first, for the level of power and control exerted over the narrator, and second, for her own denial. It may not make sense to a reader first coming across my story, but I do think that it will resonate for readers after they are immersed in it.
Don’t worry! I hadn’t forgotten the above advice! I liked this new title, but not too much. I kept myself fully prepared for several more title overhauls. When my manuscript was complete, I shipped it off to New York with “Caged Eyes” as the working title nevertheless. Perhaps you can imagine my surprise when my agent said she loved it. That’s great, I told myself, but still don’t get attached; my future publisher will change it.
…but then my editor liked it. …and then the team at Beacon Press liked it.
The only stipulation was that my editor wanted to add a specific subtitle. In an ultra-marathon of email exchanges, my agent, editor, and I discussed possibilities over a long weekend. I’ll never forget that my agent sent one suggestion at 10 pm that Saturday night. That’s dedication! When my editor came up with, “An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience” we all immediately agreed. I like the alliteration and it does indeed capture much of the book. (Side note: one of the words in the subtitle makes me a little uneasy. Nope, not the word “rape.” But that’s a whole other story for another day…)
The problem is I spent so many years keeping myself intentionally detached from a prospective title, I never learned to call my book anything other than “my memoir.” Still to this day I have to remind myself to use its name rather than just refer to it as such. Even now, less than three months before launch, it’s a bit of a weird realization that the title won’t change.
My denial is not a huge problem for sure (at least in this context!), but I think there’s a lesson in here somewhere for writers: OWN YOUR WORK!
Don’t be afraid to get attached to all of your writing, including titles. Sure, those few words may morph over time. But then again, they might not. So claim them.