I think a novel’s title has two purposes: It should convey a flavor of both the story and the writing style. It should entice potential readers. For me, the best titles work on several levels, both the obvious and the subtle.
Of literary novels, some of my favorite titles include Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, and Trent’s On Fields Forgotten. They each have a poetry to them. They each have mystery and intrigue, promising to reveal their full subtlety only on finishing the book. At the other end of the fiction spectrum are hard-boiled crime novels, like Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill and Kiss me Deadly, and thrillers like Fleming’s Live and Let Die. These titles employ brute force. Nothing wrong with that; the market tells us it’s quite effective.
My novel, An Owl’s Whisper, has a literary style. The first working title I had for it was Heads Is Tails. I liked it because it was catchy and it gave the sense that things in this story are not what they seem. But one wise editor (Carole Glickfeld) commented, “Heads Is Tails sounds like a Mickey Spillane novel.” She was right. I came up with An Owl’s Whisper and I’m very happy with it. It has a lyrical tone in the soft sounds of its l, s, wh, and sp. And it intrigues, upsetting one’s default notion of an owl’s sound…a whisper rather than screech. On the most obvious level, it harkens to the story-telling club Eva forms in Chapter 2, The Circle of the Whispering Owl. And more subtle, since Eva’s secret name is Owl, An Owl’s Whisper can mean her story, one she doesn’t proclaim boldly, but rather tells quietly because of her shame. (By the way, I didn’t lose my darling Heads Is Tails. I made it in as the title of Part III of the novel.)
Cotton and Silk is also a literary novel and I think its title works on several levels, too. It is the story of Nik and Eri, and they have the code-names Cotton and Silk, respectively. Less obviously, Cotton and Silk evokes a sense of America and Japan, the countries/cultures at the center of the story. As you get to know Nik and Eri, you might even think that the fabrics in the title name tell you a bit about those two protagonists’ personalities. Also, the sounds of the title’s words give it a lyric quality. When you say Cotton and Silk aloud, notice that it starts and ends with hard sounds (c and k) but inside are soft ones (n and s).