When it comes to writing I would like to think I handle things like characterisation, dialogue, and plot well enough. A title however is a different matter. I suffer from chronic titlitis — a debilitating condition that renders one unable to think of titles. I mean I once wrote a story called The Blades of Change. You think that’s bad? Wait till you hear the excruciatingly titled Memories Are Bad for Your Health. I mean, seriously. What is wrong with me? For me a title is an afterthought — after much frantic panicking. It is a black hole staring back at me across a void, an incomprehensible object I cannot name — a thingamajig, a doodah, a whatchamacallit. Suddenly when it comes to titles I fall to pieces. And yet a title is so vital. It’s no trivial thing. It needs to say so much with so little. So much hinges on it. Much will be judged by it. So how do you even decide something like that?
My current novel-in-progress is provisionally entitled Flat 21. It’s been called that since inception a few months ago. I don’t like it. It was only ever meant to be a working title. And yet I’m struggling to think of another. It is meaningless and insipid. It signified something back then. It signifies nothing now. Things have moved on. I have no idea what else to call it until I redraft and refine my themes. For all it’s worth, I may as well call it Madness and the Uncertainty of Being, Punishment, and Reality as that pretty much sums up this hotchpotch of ideas I’m calling a novel.
This all got me thinking about how and where titles come from. Ray Bradbury in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, suggests making a list of nouns invoked by a walk through the unconscious sounds and smells of childhood. And then use these as a starting point for stories. That may work if you write from titles. I don’t.
So I looked at other sources of inspiration writers have used. These have included using references to:
- Protagonists: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), Emma (Jane Austen), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz), The Dice Man (Luke Rhinehart), The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
- Dates: Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell), 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami), August 1914 (Alexander Solzhenitsyn), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)
- Themes: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Atonement (Ian McEwan), Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers), Nausea (Jean-Paul Sartre)
- Places: The Old Curiosity Shop (Charles Dickens), Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie), Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), The Castle (Franz Kafka)
- Music: Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami / The Beatles), Girlfriend in a Coma (Douglas Coupland / The Smiths)
- Shakespeare: Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace / Hamlet), Under the Greenwood Tree (Thomas Hardy / As You Like It), The Fault in Our Stars (John Green / Julius Caesar), The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner / Macbeth), Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov / Timon of Athens)
- Poetry: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner / The Odyssey, Homer), A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh / The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot), Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald / Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats)
- The Bible: By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept (Paulo Coelho), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), The Wings of the Dove (Henry James), In a Glass Darkly (Sheridan Le Fanu), The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
As you can see titles can be inspired via a variety of sources. How and when you link the title to your story depends on many factors. Sometimes themes and characters may not emerge fully until several drafts. While others may choose a title first and work from there.
Whichever way you work, I hope this gives you some ideas on how to navigate the unnerving quandary of choosing your own titles. Personally, I’m off to plan my next novel — working title: Thingamabob.
Image: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash.