Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Finding the perfect title

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There are two kinds of titles—two grades, two orders. The first kind of title decides on a name for something that is already there. The second kind of title is present all along; it lives and breathes, or it tries, on every page.

—Martin Amis, London Fields

If you’re tearing out your hair trying to find the perfect title for a novel or short story, take comfort: you’re not alone. Hemingway considered dozens of potential titles after finishing For Whom the Bell Tolls, narrowly rejecting The Undiscovered Country, much to Nicholas Meyer’s relief. Umberto Eco wanted to call his most famous novel Adso of Melk or The Abbey of the Crime. Martin Amis claims to have weighed the titles Millennium, The Murderee, and Time’s Arrow, the last of which he later repurposed, before finally deciding on London Fields. Similarly, Cameron Crowe almost called his ’70s rock movie Vanilla Sky, tried unsuccessfully to convince the studio to let him go with Untitled, and finally settled on Almost Famous—which is proof that the process doesn’t always work as it should.

When you’re searching for a title, the obvious first step, which I’ve often neglected myself, is to ask what the novel is trying to tell you. At its best, a title is a sly expression of the novel’s theme, but indirect, and open to more than one interpretation, which is something you can’t accomplish without looking hard at the story itself. Last week, when I was asked to come up with a new title for my second novel (which had already been called Midrash, Merkabah, and House of Passages), it took me days of frantic brainstorming before I asked myself one simple question: what is the story about? In my case, the novel—while naturally covering a lot of other ground—is primarily about the problem of living in a world in which God has fallen silent. From there, I was led into the theme of spiritual exile, and at that point, the perfect title was just around the corner.

At the time, though, I didn’t know this. Instead, I pushed ahead with my earlier strategy: casting about wildly in all directions. I was mildly obsessed with the multiple meanings of the word passage, which could evoke a section in a book, a way through a house or mountain range, or a ritual moment in one’s life. For a long time, then, my titles were variations on The Secret Passage or The Silent Passage. I went through the entire thesaurus, looking for potential adjectives, and wrote down interesting words from the books on my shelves, from lists of great thrillers, even from the IMDb top 250. Some of the results, which I jotted down in no particular order, can be seen on this page. But it wasn’t until I let go of the precious word passage, and allowed myself to look at other possibilities, that I was able to break out of my rut.

Looking back, I can see that I went about the process all wrong, and next time, I hope to do better. Still, if you’re as desperate as I was, these seem like three decent steps to follow:

  1. Go carefully through your novel, either in print or in your head, and pick out a handful of words and phrases that seem expressive of the story’s primary theme.
  2. Cast your net wide, looking at every source you can find—books of quotations, poetry, the titles of other books or movies—looking for words that strike you as meaningful, resonant, or simply interesting. Don’t overthink it too much: just write everything down. For a novel, it isn’t too much to spend an entire day on this stage.
  3. Finally, relax, look at the lists you’ve developed, and see what happens. Don’t force it. Sooner or later, some combination of words, or even a single word, will seem just right—but only if you’ve abandoned your preconceptions about what your title should be.

In my own case, this was exactly what happened. Keeping the concept of exile in mind, I went haphazardly through my other lists until I saw, near the top of the page, the word city. Within a few seconds, I knew that I had my title—even if it took a day or two and several emails with my editor before the change was official. Whether it’s the best title for this novel, or even a good title, I can’t say. And a great title doesn’t always mean a good book, or vice versa. But for all the hard work and frustration it took to get here, I’m very glad that this novel will be called City of Exiles.

2 Responses

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  1. This is great advice. Titles are my nemesis. It’s usually the last thing I do and it takes the longest. My novel went through twenty titles (at least) and I even struggle with giving titles to my blog posts.

    C.B. Wentworth

    September 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

  2. Same here! Sometimes I wish I could just outsource the title to someone else, but that probably isn’t a good idea, either…


    September 16, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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