Writing Upside Down

26 Nov

When it comes to titles, I am completely tone deaf.

My usual writing process is similar to watching a film. A picture plays out it my mind and I write down what happens. When I’m done, I spend many desperate hours brainstorming a title.  Eventually, I give up, label the file with some random word from the text, and send it out to my critique partners.

Typically the responses range from “That’s a working title, right?” to “You aren’t really going to call it that, are you?”  Without a decent title, my manuscript is doomed to be mangled, misunderstood, and abandoned.

Forgotten before the first page is turned.

I have known writers whose titles always shine, even when the texts are lackluster. They’ve got that hook, that title that makes you want to grab the book off the shelf. I’ve asked them for help, studied their methods, and done all I can to imitate them. I know how important a good title is.

And still, I fail to come up with anything memorable.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I was driving the carpool, listening to the kids chattering, and overheard a phrase that would make a perfect title for a YA novel. It was the type of thing that no one over twenty would think of saying, yet it captured the essence of these kids exactly.

Now I’ve got the title, I’ve got the characters, but I haven’t got a story. Instead, I’ve got questions: What kind of trouble could a kid like that get into? And how am I going to get him out?

I’m turning my process upside down, starting at the end and writing backwards. I’ve heard authors say they start with just a title, but is this really enough spark for a book? Writing this way feels like trying to walk in someone else’s skin.

I would love to hear your suggestions. Have you ever tried to change your process? How did you move forward from that first spark to a full-bodied story?


Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Idaho, writers, writing, writing craft


19 responses to “Writing Upside Down

  1. Janis McCurry

    November 26, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    My stories come first, then my characters, then my title. The book of my heart I wrote, I’m still not satisfied with my title and I’ve been through all the steps you have with asking CPs, the sister who reads a lot, etc. Somehow, it just hasn’t satisfied me yet.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:03 AM

      I know that feeling when friends suggest great titles that just don’t quite fit the story. Good luck on your title search, Janis!

  2. marsharwest

    November 26, 2012 at 8:43 AM

    Titles are tough for me, too. My WIP, titled Book 6 for over a year, finally found it’s title and I now call it SECOND CHANCES because lots of folks in this book get second chances. I came to it taking an online course on plotting and in answering a question, the light popped on. My former CP starts with the title and they are all great.
    I start with a place often as not and the questions come. Who lives there? Or Who works there? What do they do? Is it a large family or small? Do they get along? Has anything bad ever happened to them? Etc. and that populates the story as well as generates the conflict.
    IMHO some of us do titles and some of us do not. Kind of like some of us can spell and some do not. For those of us who can’t title, we count of others to help. 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:04 AM

      So good to know I’m not the only one struggling with titles. I think the key to writing backward is to keep asking those questions. Thanks for some great suggestions, Marsha.

  3. Judith Keim

    November 26, 2012 at 9:10 AM

    Hi, Gail! I usually come up with a story idea, give it a title, know what the ending is, then do character studies for names and background, etc. Names are often changed as I write and the ending can be altered a bit because I’m a pantser but the title I give it usually plays a big part in the storytelling. And sometimes a publisher will take your treasured title and either tweak it or replace it altogether. Can’t wait for you to develop your YA story. You have a natural YA voice!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:04 AM

      Thanks for the kind words, Judy. Now if I can just find a few spare hours in the day. . .

  4. Meredith Allen Conner

    November 26, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    I’ve had titles come to me in a glorious flash and I’ve struggled and struggled and still not found the perfect title for that one book. It’s always interesting. But I do think you can see and embrace a title AND have a wonderful story that goes along with it. I think sometimes when you have the title – it becomes the beacon in the dark that guides you through the plot 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:06 AM

      That’s exactly what I need, a beacon. 🙂 Thanks for commenting Meredith!

  5. Jennifer

    November 26, 2012 at 10:41 AM

    I don’t put a lot of thought into the title. However, the title of my paranormal WIP does keep me focused on the overall theme of my story.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:07 AM

      There do seem to be some advantages to starting with a title. And honestly, chances are it will get changed along the way. Thanks, Jennifer 🙂

  6. MK Hutchins (@mkhutchins)

    November 26, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    The first half of this made me laugh — the book I’m sending through my writing group is currently labeled “NND”, for “No-Name Draft.” Titles are something I often only figure out with the brainstorming help of my writing group.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:08 AM

      Megan, you’re a girl after my own heart! I like the idea of labeling it with letters. That gives the impression that you really do have a fantastic title- like LOTR- it’s just too much to write out. 🙂

  7. maryvine

    November 26, 2012 at 3:00 PM

    I usually don’t have any problem coming up with a title until this last one. Keep changing it. One of my three published books was publisher named. I think you should write down any part of your book, which ever comes to you first. By starting to write-anything-will keep you going, I’m thinking.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:09 AM

      Great advice, Mary. Can I ask you for help when I need a title?

  8. stephanieberget

    November 26, 2012 at 4:31 PM

    I had the name of my first book when I started writing, but since then I’ve struggled. If you figure out how to find good story names, please let me know. LOL

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      Since so many people struggle with this, I may do some research and report back on all the title generating methods I find in another blog 🙂

  9. Lynn Mapp

    November 26, 2012 at 7:16 PM

    You ask tough questions. I don’t know how I do it, but the story concept is somehow in that title. Now I’m going to have to think about how I come up with my titles.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      November 27, 2012 at 8:11 AM

      Hi Lynn, Let us know if you come up with a method 🙂 We’d love to try it.

  10. Peggy Staggs

    December 3, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    I always begin with a title. I’ve got lists of them. For me it sets the tone of the book.


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