Torii gate at Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto, Japan

From Gates to Altars: On Naming Things

For this year’s NaNoWriMo project, one hard decision I made was to rename my story. My last title was A Buried Stone Gate, which I changed to Altars and Acolytes. It was hard because the artifact central to the plot, a stone arch hidden in sprawling government land, was called a “gate.” But, it turns out, it wasn’t a gate at all.

I had a real-world image in mind when I came up with the idea of a magical artifact that can summon objects and creatures from parallel worlds. Torii gates, usually vermillion in color but sometimes stone, mark the entrances to Shinto shrines. They demarcate the border between the mundane and the sacred, and they’re often flanked by kitsune, examples of Joseph Campbell’s threshold guardians.

I had wanted to play on the sacred nature of my artifact, which my protagonist finds one day along with her siblings. I thought calling it a “gate” would do that. But I hadn’t counted on the glut of “gates” in fiction right now:

  • Stargate
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  • The Lost Gate / Gatefather by Orson Scott Card
  • The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin

As a writer whose published work consists of IT humor articles and assorted non-fiction, there’s no way I could break out from that crowd. I may as well have named it Magical Door Series #482. As I’ve come to learn, writing a book is one thing; selling it means marketing it, and that requires a sound business strategy.

I came close to putting the work aside, fearing I’d never be able to stand out from everything else coming out, when I remembered my original inspiration. I wasn’t writing about a stargate-like device, where a person walks through and appears in another world. I was writing about a magical archway that someone could use to bring both wonderous creatures and terrifying beasts to our world.

And besides that, no one actually steps through the archway itself. It’s a place where one comes either in wonder or in need, kneeling or sitting before it, with the object of their desire held in their mind–

Oh, I thought, it’s like worship.

I was already playing up the religious angle of my book. The artifact leads to one world that is mysterious and wonderful, and another that’s foreboding and terrifying, much like a popular belief in the afterlife. So, why not go all in? As the arch was a place of pseudo-worship, I renamed it an “altar,” and those who are able to use it are “acolytes.”

And it adds one extra thematic angle. One of the characters, and eventually my protagonist, sees the altar as a tool only to be used for good. Its exploitation for evil, which (inevitably) happens, now brings with it feels of sacrilege, given its semi-sacred nature.

I’ve always believed that any story can be salvaged, given enough judicious editing or extensive rewriting. Sometimes, you just have to rename something to give it the right focus.