I should subtitle that at once: when good titles don’t find you! Because that’s the heart of the matter.
There are two main ways good book titles come about:
1. We have a plodding workaday title attached to our manuscript, a title we know instinctively—or are told!–will have to be changed.
2. The title comes fresh-faced, newly-minted, manifesting of its own sweet accord in the mind of the writer, right from the start.
The second variety is usually a blessing, because it acts like a trigger to the writing process, infusing inspiration and atmosphere pretty much immediately. I say usually because occasionally the beautiful title is like a firework, blooming in imagination’s sky for an instant with bright blossoms of stars, only to die away and turn dark once more. That makes for a false start, and one that can be hard to recover from, if the title has stuck in your head like a plaintive tune you can’t get rid of. But usually, as I say, the second variety is a gift.
I think of some of the titles that came to me like that, which miraculously brought into being immediately the first draft of a new story-world. And what I notice, when I look at such titles–for example, that of my forthcoming novel Scarlet in the Snow, whose alliterative harmony came fully-formed to me one long winter’s train journey back to my highlands home from Sydney–is that very often those titles have alighted on stories that mix magic and reality. Again and again I’ve had that experience: novels that are inspired by fairytale, myth, legend or folk belief often seem to call out the Muse of Titles much more successfully than novels set entirely in the everyday world. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and I can certainly point to some ‘realistic’ novels that came fully named with great titles that felt right at once, and maybe two or three fantastical novels that had to have their titles changed, mostly for the better, though in at least one example I can think of, 1992’s A Blaze of Summer—originally titled The Glade of the Wolf–this was something I agreed to reluctantly—and I still think did the book no favours. But I was a fairly new author at the time, and not sure of my ground. Things have changed!
Anyway—no hard and fast rules, but a definite trend. For me, magical worlds call out magical titles—or the reverse. And there’s no formula for that I can come up with! It just happens. But some titles I’ve had to work much harder for, in order to coax them out from behind the bland, misdirected, or flat monikers that were all I could think of at the time. It helped, by the way, to know that writers have always struggled with this process. Just consider what some classic novels were called before their authors reconsidered (or their publishers threw up their hands in horror!)
First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice)
The Dead Un-Dead (Dracula)
Tomorrow is Another Day (Gone with the Wind)
Strangers from Within (Lord of the Flies)
And in what can only be seen as the supreme misnomer, All’s Well that Ends Well (War and Peace!).
For me, as no doubt for many writers, it’s not just a case of enjoyable head-shaking “what can they have been thinking” that is the point of these examples; it’s knowing that even the greats struggled with bestowing the perfect name on their literary offspring. And I don’t know about you, but that’s mighty encouraging!
Anyway, to start you off on your own tips, here’s some of what I’ve learned over years of trying to choose the right title–sometimes racking my brains all by myself, sometimes happily picking those of relatives, friends and editors!
- Don’t be afraid of utter simplicity. For instance my prize-winning novel The Hunt for Ned Kelly had originally been called Dark and Bright, which is how Ned described himself in something he wrote. “Too obscure,” said my publisher, and suggested I use The Hunt for Ned Kelly. which I’d put as a kind of introductory, explanatory line on the first page. It worked brilliantly! Partly because its very simplicity is memorable; partly because people know exactly what the book’s about.
- Contrariwise, don’t be afraid of being a little more complex, or poetic, or mysterious. Fire in the Sky became the new title for my first children’s novel, which had originally been titled The Witch of Devil’s Mountain. A Fearful Thing (from a line in a poem about death) became Sooner or Later, which kept the same idea but had less of the ghost-story implication about it (there are no ghosts in the novel!) while The Lost Island became, wait for it, The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare!
- The book’s theme or atmosphere can yield useful ideas for titles, but so can characters. For instance, The Troublemaker, about a difficult but endearing kid, is what the main character thinks of that kid—before modifying their mind later. That novel laboured under the nameless burden of ‘Latest Novel’ in my files for quite a while, until finally it clicked.
- Settings can also provide useful ideas. Prodigal morphed into The House in the Rainforest, instantly acquiring glamour and the humming of cicadas; The Bronze Mirror became Red City, and clothed itself with intrigue.
So–what are your tips for finding the perfect title? And, for a bit of fun—what imperfect alternative title can you come up with for a famous book?