Titles seem to be one of the elements of writing writers fret over most, and justifiably so. Chances are, titles are the first thing readers see, so they take on a lot of importance. Under ideal circumstances, they somehow carry the whole theme and story all in a quick phrase. My favorites include Needful Things, American Gods, Peace Like a River, and The Silence of the Lambs. All are not just effective but evocative; Stephen King’s Needful Things, in fact, begins with a character discussing the name of the new shop in town, which happens to be Needful Things–“What do you suppose something like that means? Why, a store like that might carry anything. Anything at all.”
And indeed it does. It’s where you can buy anything your heart desires–or at least the fantasy of it. For a price.
Knowing how important a title can be, I always fret over them. Which was why I was relieved when The Prodigal Hour finally came to me.
I often note that I realized I was a writer after I finished Stephen King’s Needful Things, and while that’s not untrue, it neglects all the other elements and stories and media that played a role and influenced me as a storyteller. Stuff like Where the Wild Things Are and The Hardy Boys. Don’t forget Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Quantum Leap, and that’s not even mentioning Infocom games.
And that’s what Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is all about, and it’s brilliant.
Besides two quotes, one from The Prince and one from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” those are the first three words of my novel. They occur as a thought when the protagonist, Chance Sowin, crosses his parents’ front lawn and sees that the front-door lock has been shattered. He’s been there before, you see, and in several ways, all of which those of you who know that it’s a time-travel novel might be able to conjecture, but it’s more than that.
When I was eleven or twelve, I stole Stephen King’s Needful Things from my father’s small bookcase and began to read it. It was the first adult-level novel I had ever read, and it rewired me in some very important ways. Not only was it the book that confirmed my lifelong addiction to reading and words, but it was also the book that made me realize I wanted to write. I had read the Hardy Boys series and A Wrinkle in Time, but they never suckerpunched me quite like Needful Things did. I felt that moment in the same way I realized I wanted to go to grad school; moments like that come with some absolute and incontrovertible certainty.
It is, perhaps, not altogether ironic that my first novel begins with the same words as Needful Things. There are so many cliches to go along with it: the circle of life, and what goes around comes around, and etc.