First, a disclaimer or a spoiler alert: there are no turtles in this post. Aside from these two mentions, and the one in the title, there won’t be any more turtles. Neither the word nor the reptile to which it refers will reappear, so if you’re only reading this for more lovely information or entertainment concerning such fresh-water and/or sea-dwelling testudines, you might as well click away to something more useful to you.
(Just so there’s no confusion here…)
This leads to an obvious question: why include them in the title, then? Well, that depends on what you want from a title. I recently finished writing a story – one of those beasts that gnaws away at you, not with teeth but with the horny ridges of its upper and lower jaws. It’s taken almost two years to get this chelonian tale finally to poke its head out from under its carapace and let me see it, and on a last-edit read-through I saw something which irritated me to the point of frustration.
It had a title, this story. Had had it since early in its inception, and it had carried me through those months of it lying safely buried in warm sand. Trouble is, the title was included almost word for word within the text itself, and when I was reading through the ‘finished’ piece those words leapt out at me. It was if they carried far more importance than all the other words, because it was (almost) also the title. It had to go.
In chatting to a non-writer this problem came to be discussed. What did I want from the title, she asked? Did I want it to tell the reader what the story was about, somehow to encapsulate all the possibly meanings, sub-meanings, contexts and asides? No. Did I want it to sum up the narrative? No. Did I want to allude, to draw in, to entice? Again, no. Okay, she said, so what do you want? Why is it so difficult?
A few days ago I saw a Twitter reply to this vexing issue of titles, from the American novelist and screenwriter Matt Wallace (@MattFnWallace): “I pretend the story has died and I’m writing its obituary and I ask myself what the headline would be.” To me, that’s a really fine place to start – what, exactly, are you writing about? What is the most urgent, most demanding, more vital point of contact you have with the story, the one which you need to explore creatively, even if it’s only to find out what you think?
And my story? Three weeks went by, with me wracking my brains trying to find which word or words would adequately convey what I wanted the title to say. It would have helped, of course, if I’d known what any of that was. I left the problem to incubate, and soon enough a title squirmed its way to the surface and trundled down to the shoreline to meet me, where I considered it, worked out how to spell it, and then took it out for a swim to see how it felt.
I liked it. It gave the piece a solid surround of keratin, of scutes, that said pretty much nothing and yet (to me) said all that there was to be said within, around and outside of the narrative and its environment. The story is now sitting in the hands of an editor (hence no naming it here!), waiting for them to contact me and say ‘I like it, and I want it, but can you change the title, please? This one’s far too vague.’