One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for finding a title is to look within the work itself. Read your work carefully and look for a particularly compelling phrase or image within it that evokes the mood or setting or plot. I’ve heard this from Jane Bradley (author of You Believers), and this is also a technique favored by Jerome Stern in his book Making Shapely Fiction.
Another method for discovering a title is to think of the overall work and pick out the setting, the season, the main character’s name, or the main action of the plot. This could lead you to one of the kinds of titles I’ve posted about in “The Who of Titles,” “The Where of Titles,” etc.
Hemingway used to brainstorm titles, writing down anything that came to mind and then crossing out the bad ones. This is why we know that he came up with such clunkers as They Who Get Shot and The Carnal Education before settling on A Farewell to Arms.
If you’re fortunate, you might have a spouse like Carol Steinbeck. She came up with the titles to John Steinbeck’s two best novels: The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. He divorced her after the success of The Grapes of Wrath, but that’s another story.
One of the reasons I began this techniques blog with a consideration of titles is because I have had so much trouble settling on a title for my fourth novel. My original title was Temporary Landscapes. This title expresses an important thematic concern in the novel, but my editor said it sounded like nonfiction, and I thought it failed to give potential readers something or someone to care about. My second title, The Theater of California, was also thought to sound like nonfiction. And though there is a high school theatrical production in the story, it’s not central.
I began by making a big list of words that seemed key to the story. I tried to do this without allowing any self-editing.
The Good Life
Valley of Abundance
Then I tried to combine those key words into possible titles:
The Theater of California
A Home in the Valley of Heart’s Delight
Home Maintenance: A Novel
The Heart of Silicon Valley
Dream Home in Silicon Valley
Your Dream Home in Silicon Valley
The Strange Landscape of Home
A Home in the Golden West
A Home in the Golden State
You’ll Do Better than Me
A Home in the Heart of Silicon Valley
The Goodbye House
Reasons to Live in Silicon Valley
The Cost of Living in Silicon Valley
Where We Lived in California
Middle Class Living in Silicon Valley
Anxiously Seeking Plan B in Silicon Valley
I had trouble settling on any one title. I liked Where We Lived in California, because it had a certain sense of place and the passing of time. I was thinking of a Joyce Carol Oates novel entitled We Were the Mulvaneys. That title implied that something will happen in the novel that means that the characters will never again feel the same familial bonds.
I also liked The Goodbye House. The novel is comic – at least I hope so – and the title seems to have a certain lightness of mood to it. You could compare it to The House of Sand and Fog for instance, a title that practically exudes gloom.
I also liked the way The Goodbye House, though light, still invokes place and the passage of time. And the house, a rather nondescript post World War II suburban tract house, is really at the center of the story.
I will confess that I asked the hive mind of Facebook to weigh in. I have a lot of Facebook friends who are also writers, and I asked them what they thought. I was surprised by how one-sided the response was. More than 90% liked The Goodbye House.
So… I hope that this long digression is useful to you in thinking of titles for your own works. And I hope you’ll look for The Goodbye House when it is published in the fall of 2015.
My next post will have a taxonomy of titles. And then I’ll be through with titles for the foreseeable future, and move on to other topics.