that’s it exactly!

Sometimes the magic happens.

So let’s say I’m working on a short story right now, and let’s just put it in a general category called “dads and boys” (since I know you’re tired and bored of me talking about that other cycle of stories I’m working on). I’ve been having a hard time with it. I wrote the story itself, worked out the plot, the cast of characters, the setting. But it wasn’t coming together right. It was the good genesis of a story, but it wasn’t yet a good story. In my experience, if I just keep at it, I can generally refine and polish such a raw bit of ore into a finished story, though sometimes this has taken years. (And “finished” by my standard, of course, which, I suppose, is the only one I can really aspire to satisfy.) And that’s what I intended to do with this “dads and boys” story.

Sometimes when I’m in this state with a piece, I try to find some precedent for the tale that I can use as my scaffolding for the finishing work. Is there a story from Greek mythology that I can appropriate to inform my story? Is there an archetype that makes sense of my muddle? Some cultural touchstone that will lend a bit of universality to my effort and outcome? And so I went in search of such a solution.

Let’s say the story involves a young father asserting his fatherhood, just for discussion, of course. I fished around for stories, myths, archetypes dealing with kings restored to thrones. Not much luck there. Then I tried looking for lost children restored to families. (The story is not that grim though.) More of the same, which is to say, more of the little of the same.

I was having a similar problem with another of my “dads and boys” stories. I had given it the title of “The Long Road,” and I’m sure you can feel how cliched and useless and un-evocative that title was. But I thought about it, and I thought about it, and I tried to figure out just exactly what I was trying to do with the story. The protagonist in this story sees a long road ahead of him in becoming a good father. But every father sees that. And I realized that in the story, he was being a good father, but he didn’t see it. Everyone who mattered in the story was telling him he was doing everything right. But he was alone in his judgment of himself. He was on a lonely road, not a long one. And so I retitled it “The Lonely Road,” and that made all the difference. Suddenly, the tone was clear. The word choices presented themselves. The interactions took on much greater depth. And now I believe that story is one of the finest things I’ve ever written.

I hoped something similar would happen with the story I’m currently struggling with. It’s been through a few titles. “A Happy Mess.” “The Most Beautiful Sound in the World.” Others. Ugh. I knew all along they were only working titles, but they sure didn’t do anything for my inspiration.

And then, the other day, while I was supposedly busy working for the man, a fresh title popped into my head. “The Name of the Father.” I knew instantly that that was exactly right. It matches the resolution of the plot. It evokes the assertion the young father must make. It even echoes another story in the cycle that I’ve titled “Sins of the Father.”

Now that I have this exactly perfect title for my story, I can see/feel/understand how to finish it. Every word I choose will be affected by that theme, which is finally clear to me. I have the core in hand and can build on it with precision and even a little excitement. I love when the magic happens.

And then I can get that story “finished” and maybe even start sending it out so that my poor, overworked mind can begin to fret about another story in the cycle.

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