If people would ask writers where they get their titles, instead of where they get their ideas, they’d probably get a lot more interesting answers much of the time.
In my experience, it’s really difficult for most writers to articulate exactly where they got the idea for something (except in those few cases where it’s blindingly obvious). But titles…that’s another matter. Many of us struggle with titles; after all, the title is supposed to sum up the story somehow, or at least attract the right sort of reader. And there are constraints, at least when you’re talking about novel titles. “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” works brilliantly for Delany’s short story, but fitting that and the author’s name on the cover of a book gets a bit hard.
The biggest constraint with novel titles, though, is that the publisher has to like it. Which means it has to “sound right” to the marketing department. I found that out the hard way with my second novel. The publisher didn’t like my first title (Night of Two Moons) on the grounds that “it sounds like science fiction, not fantasy” (I guess it was the mention of moons that did it?). I don’t remember how many versions we went through before we settled on Daughter of Witches.
Sometimes, a book has a title that is obviously the right one, right from the very beginning. Talking to Dragons was one of those; so was The Grand Tour. Other times, the author slaps something temporary on the computer file, hoping the right title will come along (or be generated) later on. I have learned that if I don’t want a mediocre temporary title to end up as the actual title, I had better make it an obviously unsuitable one. The result is that several of the early-in-process first-draft manuscripts on my computer were titled things like “The Stupid Book I’m Working On” and “New Fantasy Novel #3″. Such titles don’t usually stick for more than about the first third of the book, for me, because I can’t stand it, but some writers get all the way to the end with a temporary title.
And then there are the books and titles that… Well, take the manuscript that eventually became Dealing with Dragons. I originally called it In the Mountains of Morning, but when I told my editor, she said it wouldn’t work (too long and not snazzy enough for a children’s book, apparently). So I suggested The Dragon’s Princess. Meanwhile, my friend Lois heard me complaining, mis-heard the title and liked it, and asked if she could use it on a novella as “The Mountains of Mourning.” I said yes. She did. Word came back from the publisher: The Dragon’s Princess was a great title (and indeed, got used on at least one of the foreign editions), but it was too similar to the title of another book they had coming out the same month, The Dragon’s Egg. They didn’t want them confused, and first come, first serve.
So we eventually went with something similar to Talking to Dragons, and settled on Dealing with Dragons (if I remember correctly, Difficulties with Dragons was the other leading contender; I don’t recall exactly why we made the final choice).
For that title, I had the pattern (gerund-preposition-Dragons) to follow, but usually when I or one of my friends is generating a title at the last minute, we’re starting from scratch. So what we do is, we ask all our first-readers to suggest words and phrases and titles that they think suit. If we’re lucky, one does; if not, we break them down into words and phrases, use a thesaurus to generate some more words that might fit, and start shuffling them around until something looks reasonably acceptable. Sometimes that process triggers a brainstorm and the perfect title emerges from left field, but usually it’s just a slog.