It takes a long time to finish a novel, and almost as long to choose a title for it! Once or twice, I’ve thought of one before I started writing a particular book, but more often than not, even if I have one in mind, later on I decide it’s not quite right. You are advised that the title should be a) catchy; b) original; c) intriguing; d) relevant to the book; and e) suitable for the genre. A tall order, especially since so many promising titles have been used before, sometimes several times. There’s no copyright on titles, but you want a new one that catches the eye of potential readers.
Titles matter. “Lord of the Flies” was going to be called “Strangers from Within”, and “Gone with the Wind” was to be “Tomorrow is Another Day”. Would they have been so successful if they had been given the original titles? Hard to say, since once the title is familiar, it feels as though that was exactly what it ought to be. “Wuthering Heights”: a perfect title, except it’s possible to think of several place names that might have been just as evocative.
A few years ago, I wrote a series of books for eight-to-twelve-year-olds, which meant I had to think up up rather a lot of titles in a fairly short time. “A Watery Grave”, “A Choice of Evils”; “Don’t Breathe a Word” and “Deathly Silence”. I still like them. Wish I could have them back! Since I mostly write crime novels, I sometimes search through books of forensic science, hoping for a suitable phrase, but if I find one — “Cause of Death”, or “Skin and Bone”, or “Exit Wounds”, chances are someone else has thought of it first. Time and again, lying awake at night, I have an inspiration and scribble a title in the notebook by my bed, only to come down in the morning and discover, not only that it’s been used before, but it’s also the title of a music album.
A title ought to reflect the plot but, just as blurbs sometimes ruin the reader’s enjoyment by telling them too much, it’s important not to give too much away. Searching the text of your book sometimes helps, as does checking out lists of common idioms, and quotations. Perhaps a single word would work, like “Room” or “Chocolat” or Stephen King’s “It”. Or an oxymoron, like “Clever Fool” or “A Quiet Storm”. The name of the main character might be a good choice. “Jane Eyre”; “Mrs Dalloway”; “Frankenstein”; “Horrid Henry”.
There’s no shortage of websites with title generators, but I have never found them much help. Brainstorming can be a good method: writing down every word that comes to mind when you think about your book, then making a short list. But the short list becomes shorter and shorter and you can still end up without a satisfactory title. Is there a fashion for particular kinds of title, or particular words? Since a missing loved-one is everyone’s worst nightmare, it’s not surprising that the word “missing” has been included in so many recent titles. But I think it may have reached saturation point.
My new novel started life with a particular title in mind, but later I decided it was not quite right. Too cosy. What would be a better one? After agonising over it for several weeks, I finally came up with one I liked, but was afraid it would be turned down because it was too long (although there are several recent examples of books with long titles: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the night-time” and “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”). Anyway, it wasn’t turned down and the book, inspired by working at home while most of my neighbours are out all day, is called “The Woman who took in Parcels, and Opened One”.
No, I didn’t. But I could have.