It’s an epic battle of biblical proportions in writing. A title is the first impression a writer makes. The few words of a title are as important as the work itself. If the title does not capture the reader in the first few seconds, no connection is made and the reader may never pick up the book let alone open it.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked.
A 2006 New York Times article, “Titles That Didn’t Smell As Sweet” by Thomas Vinciguerra focused on the importance of these most important words. He begins with the story of a young writer in 1924, who sent his recently completed novel “Trimalchio in West Egg” to Charles Scribner’s Sons. The response the writer received from editor Maxwell Perkins was that the publishers hated the title. Perkins wrote, “Consider as quickly as you can a change.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald quickly heeded the editor’s advice and substituted “The Great Gatsby.”
There are the powerful titles that become part of the vernacular. For example, if you say something is a catch-22, you know there is a quandary. Fortunately for Joseph Heller his World War II novel, originally Catch-18, was renamed to avoid confusion with the soon-to-be-published Mila 18 by Leon Uris. Vinciguerra wrote, “Arguably, the alliterative and palindromic number made for a better title.”
Authors typically do not have the luxury of explaining their title to the reader. And in many cases with books it is often the publisher, not the writer who determines the title. H Jackson Brown, the best-selling author of Life Little Instruction Book told me he always found success in simple titles.
Yet, I am still intrigued by those authors who titles involve linguistic alchemy.
As a high school volleyball coach, I was concerned with who some of my athletes admired and considered role models. I began thinking about some of the women with whom I went to school and served along side in the Army. These women are role models, and if my team learned about some of them maybe they would consider pursuing paths to which they had not previously been exposed.
As I began researching and writing the stories of ordinary women who decided to enter West Point and take an oath to defend our country, I learned they had extraordinary stories of perseverance and integrity. I returned to the chemistry of mixing words in content and title.
A title is born
The title Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line is based upon the artistic works of Tara Krause, West Point Class of 1982 and her sculptures to honor fallen warrior sisters. I was fascinated by Krause description of the creation of the statues. She explained the process as an interesting dance in seeing how thinly delicate porcelain, wet clay in its most basic form, could be extruded and then draped and shaped over the steel so that it would be strong enough to survive the intense heat of the kiln.
West Point is a four-year leadership crucible with intense heat and pressure. Its mission is to produce leaders of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country, and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.
Porcelain is a strong, vitreous, translucent ceramic material often used in the making of fine china. Steel is a hard, strong, durable and adaptable alloy of iron and carbon. It is widely used as a structural material in buildings as well as plowshares and swords. As an adjective, steel is suggestive of such character qualities as hard and unflinching. The two materials, porcelain and steel, honor the beauty and underlying strength of West Point women.
Is porcelain fragile?