If you’re like most writers, coming up with a title can be a challenge. I try to convince myself that it should be the fun part, the creative icing on the cake of a story well-told. But that’s often not the case.
When I’m about to submit a travel essay for publication and type the title into the cover letter, I often cringe, and then frantically try to come up with a better one. I wrote a travel memoir story about an experience I had in Morocco with an old boyfriend. We were talking to an older man also staying at our riad, and he told us his last name was Heinman. To my shock, my boyfriend said, “I’m Heinman.” His name certainly was not Heinman. I wondered why he would trick this man and say such a thing. The whole story hinges on this phrase, and so I titled it “I’m Heinman.” This makes sense, once you’ve read the story. But that’s not how titles work. They’re the words you read first, not after. It turned out that title wasn’t very appealing. Without any context, ‘I’m Heinman’ is not very evocative. It doesn’t really make the reader curious about this phrase and want to know more. Once I changed the title to “A Good Swiss Name” the essay was accepted for publication. For the change, I decided to still focus on the naming aspect of my story, but be more mysterious and evocative about it.
Here are some other tips for creating a good title:
Pick up on some key phrase or dialogue within your story, and see if that would work as an evocative title. I’ve done this with the title of a travel memoir story about to come out in The Manifest-Station. I called it ‘I Never Want to Leave Here.’ That’s a line of dialogue from the story that I felt represented the main emotional thrust and motivation of my character.
Read your favourite poet and see if you can rework a line of one of their poems that best represents the theme of your story. I used this technique for the title of my failed novel, ‘Hungry for the World and Its Glow.’ I reworked this phrase from Freya Stark’s book The Lycian Shore. In it, she wrote “ … there was a poet who was hungry to see the world and its wonders, and fed himself with their remembered glow.” Freya Stark’s legacy featured in this book, so I thought it was fitting to be inspired by her writing for my own title.
Think of titles you love, and try to model yours after it. I did this for the title of my travel memoir. I’d heard of a book titled Zaatar Days, Henna Nights. I really liked the dual structure, the way the title such a compartmentalised experience. I finally landed on Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights. This worked really well for my story because I spend the first half of the book in Abu Dhabi, and the second in Dubai. Plus, my experiences in Abu Dhabi were more innocent and fresh, and Dubai was a bit seedy and filled with nightlife.
Here are some of my favorite titles for travel memoirs and why I like them:
The Men in My Country. I like this because it’s evocative. It makes you wonder, and want to find out: who are these men? And what country is it? Why does the author feel it is hers? The first chapter of the book is titled ‘It Starts as a Name’, which is also evocative. What exactly starts as a name? And if it starts as this name, what happens next?
You could try borrowing these structures for your own titles:
The Love in These Trees
The Hope in Those Stars
The Pain in Those Smiles
It Starts As _______ (a Wish) (a Promise) (a Kiss)
It Starts with the Call to Prayer
You could try a title that describe an action, such as ‘Killing Chickens,’ which is a personal essay by Meredith Hall.
Taming Pigeons in Calcutta
Counting Sand in Morocco
You could also try a season and a location:
A Winter in Hanoi
That Spring in Prague
Autumn in Mozambique
Remember, titles are easy to change. Think of evocative titles already attached to published works and try to break them down (Article, Adjective, Place Name) etc. Plug in the words that best evoke the essence of your story, and see if anything sticks. Best of luck with it!
Do you have a story about coming up with a great, or not so great, title? Please share it on the Facebook group.