Finding the best title for your book – five prompts from Clarissa Goenawan

Clarissa 2016

Would The Great Gatsby still be in print if F. Scott Fitzgerald had stuck with Trimalchio in West Egg? Sometimes the perfect novel title comes early on, as was the case with Rainbirds. Other times I’ve spent weeks, months, or even years agonizing. Here are my favourite prompts for novel titles.

The Character

If your novel is character driven, how about using the narrator, protagonist, or antagonist’s name? Or perhaps a nickname like Baby Doll or a trait such as Precocious or even the clothes they wear e.g. The Girl in The Red Coat.

Or is the character’s role more key, as in Gladiator and The Good Soldier?  How about a family member’s role, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter?

The Location

Perhaps the setting is what sets your book apart? In Chris Whitaker’s debut, the characters live in Tall Oaks, a small town in America, which becomes a kind of character by itself.  Could you combine the character’s name and the location, like Alice in The Wonderland? Or the character’s role and the location as in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

The Theme or The Essence 

What is your book is truly about? Is there a title in the underlying theme? Are you writing about Pride and Prejudice? Or is it Great Expectations? Is there any object that symbolizes the theme, such as An Unremarkable Body  and Testament?

The Inciting Incident or The Event

If your story revolves an event, why not use it as a title? In Laura Marshall’s Friend Request, Louise Williams is shocked when she receives a Facebook friend request from Maria Weston, a former school friend who is supposed to have been dead for 25 years.

A Line from Your Book

Do you have a particular line that jumps out from your manuscript? Can you find a catchy and memorable phrase? Or maybe, the line is crucial to your plotline (without giving a spoiler, of course). Great picks include Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Other prompts include: song titles; nursery rhymes; a line from a poem; the title of a piece of art. Critique partners or beta readers can also be a great source of fresh ideas.

The story of how I found the title for Rainbirds proves inspiration can come from anywhere. I wrote the first draft of Novel 1 in November 2013 for NaNoWriMo and that month, there was a 3-Day Novel Boot Camp at the Singapore Writers Festival in collaboration with the Curtis Brown Creative. Having never studied creative writing, I decided to join. For the application, I needed my opening, synopsis, and yes, a working title and I didn’t have much time.

I looked through photographs my daughter took in Gardens by the Bay, a nature park in Singapore, for inspiration. In one of the photographs, she was sitting next to a sign that said, ‘Rain Bird’. I liked the sound of it and figured it must be the name of the bushes behind her. Great. I would just add in the bushes, somehow.

I shared the title with my friends. Everyone thought it was great. Beautiful and evocative. I googled the plant called Rain Bird and discovered it was actually the name of an irrigation product manufacturer. But by then, I loved the title too much I wasn’t going to give it up, and found a way to incorporate it to the story.

A strange coincidence: After Rainbirds won the Bath Novel Award in 2015, I got to know Caroline Ambrose, the founder, and discovered her husband, Andrew Grant was the landscape architect behind Singapore’s famous Gardens by the Bay! Andrew brought my trophy out to Singapore and we laughed at the coincidence of Rainbirds, which made me fall in love with my title even more. Good luck finding the perfect title for your novel!

Find out more about Clarissa Goenawan at


Set in an imagined town outside Tokyo, Clarissa Goenawan’s dark, spellbinding literary debut follows a young man’s path to self-discovery in the wake of his sister’s murder.

Praise for Rainbirds

“Debut author Clarissa Goenawan spins a dark, encapsulating story that will certainly reel you in completely.”

”Elegantly [combines] a suspenseful mystery with an eloquent meditation on love and loss.”

“Goenawan offers a moving investigation of love, loss, and grief.” 
—Asian Review of Books  

”Luminous, sinister, and page-turning all at once. I loved it.”
—Kate Hamer, internationally bestselling author of The Girl in the Red Coat and The Doll Funeral