I’m terrible at coming up with titles for novels. Short stories and blog posts? I’m usually okay. I typically title short stories and blog posts after I write them. Which is also what I did with my novels, but I wasn’t okay with that at the time.
One of my current works-in-progress is titled Chaos in G Major. It was called several different things before I settled on that. I went through pages and pages of notebook paper and wracked my brain for months. It was labeled “Story” in my computer the entire time I was writing it.
My other work in progress, Definitions of Life was easier to name, but still after it was done. It was labeled “Evie” while I wrote because that’s the name of the first narrator. In that one, I have four narrators writing in journal format and each chapter begins with a definition. The first half is from the dictionary, but the second half is the character’s definition. For example, chapter one is titled "Artemis" with a Evie’s definition being “the name of my stupid cat.” All four characters define life for one of their chapters and thus, the title was born.
The chapter titles were never a problem and again, I often decided on them after the chapter was written. Are you sensing a theme here?
With Chaos in G Major, I eventually realized I shouldn’t be the one to title it. I wrote it as if it’s written by the narrator, Olivia. It’s an exercise her psychiatrist gives her. It’s not set up like a journal, but she’s writing it all down. So if she wrote it, she needed to be the one to title it. I started thinking like her. Olivia plays piano and writes a lot of her own music. She’d probably title the story the same why she titles music. Which is one word that helps her remember which piece it is and the key.
I knew chaos would be the word. Then I decided on G Major as the key. It’s typically a bright, happy key, which is not at all the tone of the novel. However, it is Olivia’s perspective by the end and the way she’s choosing to look at her situation.
Bam. Chaos in G Major. Thanks, Olivia.
For the record, Olivia titles her music after the piece is written, not before or in the middle of it.
I read a lot of advice and articles and blogs as I was picking titles and they gave ideas like naming it after a character, or picking a recurring symbol, or a phrase you want readers to latch onto. None of those really helped me. I perused Goodreads and Amazon. I Googled title generators. I asked my friends for help. None of that helped either.
Ultimately, I named one like my narrator would and the other based on the format it was in. But both had a completed draft before the title was picked. I felt bad about that at the time, but it’s okay. It’s okay to name short stories and blogs and chapters after they have a draft, so it should be okay for novels, too.
You know what I realized? Because I don't plan my stories before I write them (see this post), I don't really know what it'll be about until I finish the first draft. Which is probably true of people who plan their stories, too. The themes and tone of the story will shift as you write. It's okay not to have a title right away. Don't force a title to fit and don't force a story's tone to keep aligned with the title you already picked.
Stop thinking. Tell the story. Then name it.
Are you good at titling? How do you do it?