I’m terrible at titles. I think a lot of writers are (with the exception of people like James Tiptree, Jr. who turn their titles into total wordgasms that are sometimes more powerful than the stories they label).
But I have a very firm rule about titles: if I’m having trouble coming up with one, it means I don’t fully know what the story is about, which usually means there’s something deeply flawed at the heart of the story. A good title is one that speaks to a key moment or theme of the story, uses fresh, vivid language, and would make me curious enough to pick the book up if it weren’t mine. The working titles of my stories are often cop-outs, titles I know are bad: the name of a character, a cliched line from a song or poem, a pun.
Cuckoo was a pun, or at least a play on words: the main character is crazy, and she is caring for a child who isn’t her own. It definitely captures the themes of the book, but if I was flipping through a pile of manuscripts or perusing the shelves at a bookstore, would I pick up a book with that title by an unknown author? Probably not. And if I couldn’t think of anything better, I was definitely not ready to send it around. For more than three years, I wracked my brain and pestered my writing group, but nothing came to me.
And then today, like a gift, the perfect title unfurled in my mind. I’m going to road test it with a few friends before putting it out in the world, but I think this is it. Time to finish up the rewrites and start sending this puppy out.