I suck at coming up with titles. For EMISSARY, my husband the Plot Whisperer and I went around and around for a couple of days until I came up with the title. Then I went back into the book and changed it to fit the title. That’s how bad I am.
So after writing a couple of books and agonizing over their titles, I decided it was time to take a different route. I’d been reading the book Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and it has a whole chapter on brainstorming and a section on brainstorming titles. This seemed like the answer I was looking for. So I grabbed all the books near my work station, found an online searchable database of Shakespeare’s works, and started scribbling. The idea is to just flip through books or online sources and grab whatever phrases catch your attention. Then change them around. Extrapolate from them. Combine them and see where they go. Most of them don’t work out, or at least didn’t spark any ideas for me, but it was interesting to see what my subconscious came up with.
Here’s a few I don’t plan to use (NOTE: If you want to steal these, feel free, but if you do, and if they become runaway best sellers, please make sure you put some suitably taunting words in your acknowledgments page). From Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach” came On a Darkling Plain (which I’m sure has been used before) which turned into Darkling Rover. I wish I could remember the source of Night’s Ignorant Armies, The Melancholy Sea, and Discoverers of the Empty Sea, because it must have been something really interesting.
Then there are the ones I can sort of trace back to their sources. I think I was looking at the bookshelf containing Stella Gibbons and Dorothy Gilman’s books, because I’m pretty sure that’s where The Nightingale Diary and The Tightrope Maze came from. I ended up with three small-print columns of potential titles and a sense of profound satisfaction that I’d accomplished something that day. Some days are like that.
But narrowing it down was more difficult. In the end, I printed up a copy for the Plot Whisperer and one for me and asked him to go through the list and mark 5-10 titles that grabbed his attention. I did the same, hoping there would be some overlap. And, surprisingly, there was. Four of the maybe fifty titles on the list were ones we both liked. I stored those away for future use. (No, I’m not telling.)
There was one last thing. I had a strong preference for which one I wanted to write immediately, but I wanted to see what he thought. So I asked him to choose his favorite. He immediately came up with the same one I’d chosen—and that’s how I came to write THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL. Everything else—the characters, the magic system, the story—all of that came later. The title was first.
Much as I enjoyed the experiment—and the relief of knowing the title problem was sorted from the beginning—I don’t know that it’s the best basis for an entire writing career. But until I find a way to pay someone to write my titles for me, I’ll probably keep coming back to it.