How to Choose a Book Title Using Motifs

Olivia's Baby Photo   Screen shot 2013-09-24 at 8.31.04 PM

       Olivia in the Orphanage                                                                                      Olivia Today

I don’t share much of my personal life, but today I’m going to tell you about Olivia, our eighteen-year-old daughter.

The photo on the left was taken by a Russian affiliate when she lived in the orphanage, before we met her. It was sent to us by our adoption agency after our attempts to adopt a girl from China fell through, and our referral of Sergey fell through. (He was adopted by a Russian family at the last minute.)

By the time we received this photo we had already completed the paperwork and changed her name from Ruzina to Olivia Ruzina. (We call it the “Spider Photo.” Doesn’t it look like there’s a spider hanging over her head? What is that?)

When the agency sent us this photo we held our hearts in check, guarding our love in case this adoption fell through too. We had pediatrician’s from Minnesota’s Children’s Hospital examine this photo for clues of possible medical problems: the big one–Fetal Alcohol Affect. The only comment one physician made was that her fingers seemed disproportionately long, which could be indicative of Marfan’s Syndrome, a condition that resulted in heart problems and typically was present in children with long limbs who were extremely tall.

Olivia was 4’11” when she was twelve-years-old and hasn’t grown an inch since. (So much for that worry.)

This photo was the only link to Olivia before we traveled to Russia to meet her. It still sits on a table in our living room, never forgotten.

Today, Olivia had a friend take a few photos of her for her senior high school pictures. What a remarkable change, eh?

What does this have to do with writing a novel and book titles? (Hang in there. I’m getting to that. Ha!)

In 2004 I wrote my first novel titled, OSKANA, after adopting Olivia. Our journey with Olivia fueled my creative mind.

As a parent of a post-institutionalized child I can tell you that we were totally ignorant of the problems we could have encountered. Many adoptive parents of foster children and institutionalized children have difficulty getting their children to bond. Love is NOT enough when children suffer from ATTACHMENT DISORDERS.

Here’s Mayo Clinic’s definition of AD:

“Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which infants and young children don’t establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers.

A child with reactive attachment disorder is typically neglected, abused or orphaned. Reactive attachment disorder develops because the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring attachments with others are never established. This may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.”

As a parent, I wanted to do everything possible for my daughter. I believed that God gave us a gift, one that I couldn’t take for granted. Of all the children in the world He chose Olivia to be our daughter. He gave us the child we were meant to raise. It was my responsibility to make sure she found her place in the world, in God’s Kingdom.

The day we met her she weighed only 16 1/2 pounds. She was the size of a nine-month old even though she was 25 months old. She was greatly developmentally delayed. One of our greatest concerns was whether she would suffer from AD.

I believed that love would cure everything–even if she had an attachment disorder.

Boy, was I naive.

Since many children suffer from AD, and I wanted to make sure I was prepared for this problem, I researched AD, talking to attachment therapists, therapeudic horse ranches, foster parents, parents of internationally adopted children, and horse trainers.

The research I did led to this novel. It’s NOT about Olivia, but a fictitious teen named OKSANA who’s adopted by a family in the states when she’s fourteen-years-old. I wanted adoptive families to realize that sometimes love isn’t enough.

Luckily for us, Olivia did not have AD, but there are countless adoptive parents who are “RE-HOMING” their children like pets because of this disorder. (You can read about it HERE.) It makes my stomach fist to see these children go from home to home.

This is how the story begins:

We are all born with a sacred place in a small dark corner of our brain that grows and develops into something much larger and brighter when our mothers or fathers answer our cries, hold us when we’re frightened, feed us when we’re hungry, and love us unconditionally. But if our cries go unanswered, it remains dark and undeveloped. We never learn how to ask for what we need because when we do, no one listens. Eventually, our cries grow silent; we grow into a child and then an adult, and forever stop seeking that which we desperately need–love. Only when, by the grace of God, someone truly amazing steps into our lives and shines light in that darkness, do we have a chance to feel the safe hands of love.

In almost ten years this novel has had many different titles. It went from Oksana, to Before The Light Flickered, to It’s All Greek to Me, to Love is Just a Word.

Using Motifs to Find Your Title

The final title I decided on yesterday is  SCATTERED LINKS. Why? What does this have to do with a Russian girl? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but my editor, Susanne Lakin helped me by sending this note. She said, 

“Maybe you can think about a motif—something, or some item, she carries from home that you can work into the title. Something she keeps from her mother. Often a motif can be a symbolic object that can work great in a title, and then you can find places in the book to add a line or comment about it so it’s recurring. I try to do that in my books; often it’s a phrase someone says, and it’s my favorite touch in a book. I often have about 4-5 of them. I have some great ones in The Crystal Scepter. Motifs like that become thematic and make a book much stronger and more memorable.”

Susanne, at her blog LIVE WRITE THRIVE, discusses motifs in a post HERE.What’s a motif?


“Motifs are symbolic elements packed with inference, but they don’t have to appear in your story as an actual item. Motifs can be a word or phrase, a concept, an image—just about anything that can be repeated with significance and symbolism. The weather can be a motif, for example, if each time something terrible is about to happen, “lightning” strikes.

There’s a part in the book where Oksana stomps on a bracelet that was given to her as a gift. She purposely scatters the links in Russia’s filthy streets and crushes them beneath her feet. Like those links, her family becomes scattered across the world.

Do You Have a Bestselling Title?

(To see if your title has a high percentage of being a bestseller check out this LINK. It’s called TitleScorer. You put your title in and indicate whether the words are nouns or verbs and it gives you the percentage. Very fun! SCATTERED LINKS received an 80% score, whereas the others scored much lower.)

How I Chose a Title

It’s normal for authors to struggle with book titles. For those authors who are publishing with a press the title is usually chosen by the publisher. But for those self-publishing their novels, the title is typically chosen by them.

In that case, post your premise of the novel at FB, Twitter, or your blog and ask for title suggestions. Here are a few I received:

The Secret in The Envelope, Unspoken, The Photograph, Goodbye Mama, Waiting for Mama, Leaving Mama, Letting Go, Broken Pieces, Untold, Unbreakable, and What I Didn’t Tell Her.

Although these all fit a piece of the story, none encompassed the entire plot. However, reading them and making a list of them helped me arrive at the final title.

Final words from Susanne Lakin, “So as you plot out your novel, or tackle your rewrite, think of two or three motifs you can weave in, then go back through your book and place them strategically. If you can somehow use the motif in your title, even better. And if you can think of motifs that parallel and/or enhance your overall theme, you will have a book that will be unforgettable. Pay attention as you read great novels to see if you can spot the motifs the author has used. You will be surprised how you will start seeing them if you pay attention and look for them. May these thoughts spark some ideas in your head and get you running to your pages!”

SCATTERED LINKS, a young adult multi-cultural novel, is slated to launch in December, 2013.

How did you arrive at your book title?



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  1. What a great post! Thank you. I guess my book title, Divide by Zero, came from the my being a mathematician, the idea of singularities and what happens beyond them–and what a singularity might be in the life of a community–and the fact that I was writing about a subdivision of a small town. But I did go back through the pages after settling on the title, to make sure it was hinted at in the events.

    • Hi Sheila!

      I love that title DIVIDE BY ZERO. It sounds like you have a lot of symbolism there. But I can’t tell what genre it is.


  2. I just had to comment on Sheila’s comment. I have so much trouble with math that I can’t understand why 6 times 0 isn’t 6.
    Love this post about Olivia (it’s also the name of one of my characters in my first book). Your posts are so informative!

    • Hi Pat –

      Thanks for stopping by and reading the “Oksana Journey.” It’s a long one. Ha! Today I received an email from Catherine Drayton (The Book Thief’s agent), requesting this full manuscript. It was part of the contest that I won, but it gives me hope that this story might get told soon.

      Math – it’s difficult to grasp, isn’t it?

      I hope the ACFW was a great time for you! It was lovely to see you–although it was too short.


  3. I love that you’ve shared this compelling story, that she hasn’t had AD and that you’re blessing others w/ the insights and experiences. I started writing in 3rd grade composing poems. I love words and phrases, themes and symbols, too. So far my problem is probably coming up w/ too many titles and then asking friends their input on favorites. In fact, too name a boat in a WIP I asked friends to suggest ideas on FB, promising to credit the best ones. They came up w/ some great ones, & I will–free book copies for them, of course, too. Thanks, Michelle, and blessings to Olivia and all of you.

    • Thanks Dee. What a great idea–about asking FB friends and giving away freebies based on their suggestions. I love that idea. I know what you mean about titles and having too many. I struggle with finding titles too!


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