Guest post by debut novelist (Rainbirds Soho Press March 2018) and Bath Novel Award 2015 winner CLARISSA GOENAWAN
Finding the right title for your manuscript can be tricky, but it’s so important. Would you prefer Trimalchio in West Egg or The Great Gatsby? Like it or not, readers judge a book by its title.
Sometimes, a great title comes right away. Sometimes you spend weeks, or months, or years agonizing. I’ve been on both sides (the title for my debut novel, Rainbirds, came pretty quick, but I’m still mulling over the one for my current WIP, which I started in 2014. Yes, three years and counting) so I thought of sharing some of ideas I came across.
- The Character
Maybe you have an unforgettable narrator, or a protagonist to champion, or even a clever antagonist (Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Hannibal). It can also be a nickname (Hollie Overton’s Baby Doll) or a trait (Joanna Barnard’s Precocious) or the clothes they wear (The Girl in The Red Coat)
You may also want to consider the character’s role (Gladiator, The Good Soldier). There is also a trend of using a family member’s role (The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter).
- The Location
Or perhaps, the setting is what sets your book apart. Classics such as Mansfield Park and Wuthering Heights have gone this route. In Chris Whitaker’s debut novel, the characters live in Tall Oaks, a small town in America, which becomes a kind of character by itself.
You can also combine the character’s name and the location, like Alice in The Wonderland. Or perhaps, try the character’s role and the location, like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
- The Theme : The Essence of Your Book
Think about what your book is truly about. Is there an underlying theme throughout story? Are you writing about War and Peace or Pride and Prejudice? Or is it Great Expectations? Is there any object that symbolizes the theme, such as The Bell Jar?
- The Inciting Incident or The Event
This is often found in the query. 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.
Something big is happening and your story revolves around that event, so why not use it as a title? This approach works for The Hunger Games and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
- 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.
More suggestions: You can find inspiration from all around you. It can be a song title or a nursery rhyme, who knows. Take a walk to the museum and look at the titles of the artworks. Something may spark your interest. You can also try crowdsourcing—ask your critique partners and beta readers for ideas! You might be pleasantly surprised at what they come up with.
A little backstory about how I came up with Rainbirds, the title of my debut novel.
If you read the novel, you’ll understand why the title is Rainbirds, but beyond that, there is another story… and a strange coincidence.
I wrote the first draft of Novel 1 in November 2013 (yes, it was NaNoWriMo!), and that month, there was a 3-Day Novel Boot Camp held at the Singapore Writers Festival in collaboration with the Curtis Brown Creative. I’d never studied creative writing before, so I thought it would be great to join. For the application, I needed my opening, synopsis, and yes, a working title.
Since 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 sat 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. Awesome, except even after a relentless Google search, I couldn’t find any plant called Rain Bird. Apparently, what I thought was a name of a plant, was a 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 I won the Bath Novel Award in 2015, I got to know Caroline Ambrose, the founder, and her husband, Andrew Grant. He was the landscape architect behind Gardens by the Bay. We laughed at the coincidence, which made me fall in love with my title even more.
You can find out more about RAINBIRDS on my website: www.clarissagoenawan.com
Good luck finding the perfect title for your novel!