Fiction

The 5 Best NaNoWriMo Apps for Planning & Plotting Your Novel (HINT: Start Planning in October)

This is the year! You are SO IN! You’re going to knock out 50,000 words in November, then spend the next few months revising and adding until you have that glorious thing: a completed novel, polished and shiny, ready to be sent out to an eager world.

You got this. But as every writer knows, before you begin, you need to lay out your tools: cup of coffee, notebook and pen for helpful scribbles, laptop or tablet . . . and the right apps.

PLANNING IN OCTOBER

Planning is the fun part! But that’s the danger: you can get lost in planning and diagrams and research and oops! It’s almost Thanksgiving. Don’t succumb: come November 1, be churning out your one or two thousand words a day.

In October, though, plan away. Scapple ($14.99 for Mac and Windows; free to try for 30 days), from the people who brought you Scrivener, the writer’s best friend (see below), is a simple mind-mapping app that allows you to plop down characters, events, or ideas and connect them with lines, shift them around, or arrange them however you like. Like scribbling on a whiteboard, but faster.

The Cult of Mac also points us to Lists for Writers, $2.99 for iPhone/iPad or Android. When you’re writing fast—and you’ll be writing fast—this is a great go-to for prompts and ideas. What kind of hair does the bridegroom have? What does my earth-bound angel actually do for a living? What attitude does my super-spy’s husband have toward her work? Flick through a list, grab a likely answer, and go. This app will stay useful well into November.

WRITING IN NOVEMBER

Scrivener ($45 for Mac and Windows; $19.99 for iOS (universal); free to try for 30 days) is often accused of having a cult, and if that’s the case, I’m a happy member. I’ve been using it for nine or ten years, first on large business documents at my then-day job, and then as a novelist. I genuinely do not understand how people write big projects without it. Some of my favorites of its many features:

  • Allows you to break your work into chunks – chapters and scenes—that you can color code and swap around easily in the “binder” that organizes them on the left of your screen.
  • Gives you a place to keep all your research right within the project. Photos, sound clips, videos, PDFs, entire web pages—they’re right there at hand in your research section.
  • Split screen feature allows you to have two windows open at the same time. Describing a magic raven? Pull up your raven photo and set it right next to the scene you’re typing in.
  • The project word counter tracks your progress every writing session and alerts you when you’ve hit your goal—useful for NaNoWriMo.
  • And of course, Scrivener easily exports your document into Microsoft Word format so that you can send it out into the world.

Some people find Scrivener a bit intimidating initially. With so many ways to help you write, research, and organize, using it for the first time can be like sitting down to the controls of a jet plane. Here are three key things to know if you’re new to Scrivener:

  1. If you’re planning to use it for NaNoWriMo, get it ahead of time and play around a bit to see if it’s for you.
  2. The Scrivener tutorials are famously excellent, so give one a spin.
  3. Forget about all the stuff it can do. Just begin by using its most basic features—the binder that organizes your documents, and the Research folder—and don’t worry about the rest. Those two features alone can be writer’s-life-changing.

For years Scrivener cultists, I mean fans, have been begging the creators for an iOS version, and it’s finally here. Now you can sync a project to Dropbox and work on it anywhere, from the coffee shop to the line at the post office. The transition to iOS was worth the wait: Macworld gave the iOS version a four-and-a-half mouse rating and said “Scrivener for iOS does just about everything you could ever need in order to research, plot, and write a short story, doctoral thesis, novel, or a review like the one you’re reading right now. . . a robust, flexible writing tool that will serve you well.” (Note that because of screen size limitations, a few features are not available on the iPhone version.)

Tried Scrivener, and it’s not for you? Ulysses (Mac ($44.99) and iOS ($24.99, universal) (sorry, Windows and Android users) gets raves from the Scrivener-decliners. One iTunes reviewer said, “Ulysses hits perfectly between the hack of using a standard word processor and folders to create long-form writing, such as a novel, and the too-much-to-be-worth-the-effort kitchen sink approach of Scrivener. I have become many times more productive since I started using it and it quickly, quickly, QUICKLY justified itself in terms of cost.”

The Mac desktop app has been around for a decade or so, and a 2010 Macworld review sings the praises of its clean interface and “superb design.”

The Ulysses iOS version is new this spring, and the five-mouse Macworld review is a rave beyond raves.

Finally, if NaNoWriMo (or any writing, really) demands anything from you, it’s time management skills. That’s where the Pomodoro Timer (iOS and Android, $1.99) comes in. This little app keeps you writing for 25 minutes, then gives you five minutes to stretch, walk around, or play on Facebook. But it dings you back to work when that five minutes is up. Let this bossy, cheerful tomato keep you churning out words.

Good luck! And remember the Rule of First Drafts, coined I am not sure by whom, which should become your mantra for November: The only thing a first draft needs to be is done.

Ready? GO!


Fantasy Vs. Contemporary: How to Let Your Character Dictate the Story — No Matter the Genre

Fantasy vs contemporary novels

Back in 2009 (how could it have been that long ago!!!!) when I started writing Infinite Days, I was compelled by my main character, Lenah, and her voice. Infinite Days is a book about Lenah, a 592 year old vampire, who gets a second chance to be human. I was enthralled by this character who had seen so much darkness, reveled in it in fact,  and who had to relearn what it means to be human. She experiences love, compassion, envy, and more. When I first heard Lenah’s voice (I'm going to sound nuts) she came to my mind clearly. I could literally channel her and I understood how she would speak.

She's quite tortured, you see. That’s Lenah. That sentence you just read - that’s how she would talk. I would never say “quite tortured.” Anyway (I’ll move on before you call the looney bin), she had a clear conflict. At the time I had never read a single Twilight book and was unaware of the paranormal explosion in the YA fiction world. I wrote Infinite Days in eight months. From Lenah’s conflict came the story. Her emotional needs drove the conflict, not the other way around. I didn’t create the supernatural rules/lore for the world first, but with what the character needed. As a vampire, Lenah wanted to be human more than anything. So, to push her to want it even more, I took away any aspect that was remotely human from the vampire experience: the more she aged the less she would be able to experience the sense of touch, the only sense of taste was blood and flesh, and the ability to love waned over time. So much of our human experience is about being out in the world with other humans. As a vampire, Lenah couldn’t be out in the daylight. After a while, that kind of isolation drove her insane.

As I explain the process now, I think it probably seems like I was totally aware of all of this but I wasn’t. I’m a big believer in Robert Olen Butler’s “white hot of the subconscious.” Olen Butler says in his book From Where You Dream: “Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. Does this make sense? Do you understand what I'm saying? If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we're going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from.”

I love that.

When I started writing a contemporary story, Between Us & The Moon,  I was already writing and drafting from a character-driven place, yet the rules had to change. In Lenah’s stories, anything was possible, which made my choices huge. But again, I narrowed the scope of those choices to anything that would push my character out of her comfort zone and inhibit her from getting what she wanted. So the choices got more specific.

Genre should never dictate the character’s emotions. As I hinted at above, a contemporary world in some ways narrows the scope of the character’s problems even further because of the sheer limitations as to what that character can and can’t do. A way to narrow that scope even further is to think about what your character needs. One of the best ways I can say to bridge the world of writing fantasy and contemporary is in the arc of the character.  

Try out the following 3 questions:

  1. Who is your character at the end of the story who he/she was not at the beginning?
  2. How did he/she get there? They have to earn that change. Without change you have no story.
  3. What does he/she want? Well, if he/she is a supernatural creature, does the world in which the live making it harder for them to get what he/she wants? If your answer here is something abstract like: she wants happiness! That’s not specific. That’s abstract. What is something specific that your character can do in the story that represents “wanting happiness?”

Playing God: Mastering the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction

It’s old-fashioned.

It’s much harder to pull off.

Lots of people will warn you against it.

But if you do it right, it can crack your writing open in the best way.

Omniscient point of view—that godlike narrator who knows it all—is out of fashion. These days, the most common POV in fiction is “third-person close.” That’s where the narration only sees what your main character sees, only knows what she knows, can only speak her feelings.

But an omniscient narrator knows much more than what’s happening in front of and inside the main character. The omniscient narrator knows what all the characters see and feel and know, as well as things none of them know, like what’s past and to come.

People will warn you that omniscient POV is less intimate. Third person allows the reader to slip into a single consciousness, to identify with just that one, and see the others as threats or objects of desire. You know: like you do in your own head every day. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—many, many brilliant books and stories use third person close. It’s also much easier to control than omniscient POV.

But omniscient POV offers other readerly (and writerly) pleasures. Many of the greatest novels ever written move in and out of intimacy with more than one character, so much so that that movement becomes almost a moral, mind-opening act. What are the odds: other people too have feelings and desires and fears.

The catch is that omniscient POV is tricky to do, and easy to get wrong.

Omniscience vs. Head-Hopping

You’ve probably heard about the horrors of head-hopping. That’s when a writer carefully establishes third person close with one character, and then without warning randomly drifts into other people’s heads. This is extremely confusing to the reader—it breaks a sort of pact made in the opening pages. It’s also the kind of amateur mistake that will make agents and editors write you off.

Imagine that you’ve just started a book in which you’ve followed Karen for two or three pages throughout her busy day at the office and into an interview with a job applicant. Here we are on page four:

Karen stifled a yawn as she glanced again at the resume. It was all becoming so tedious, and she had paperwork to finish before lunch. She looked up at Steve, smiling a bright, false smile. Steve wondered if this meant he’d gotten the job.

Screeeeech. What? The reader is immediately disoriented—I thought we were sticking with Karen?

If you’re writing from the first person or third person close POV, the solution is simple: never, ever head-hop. But if you’re writing from an omniscient POV, you may move from one character’s thoughts to another’s. So how do you avoid the kind of head-hopping that’s the mark of a novice writer, one not yet ready for publication? These two rules of thumb are a start:

1)   If you’re using an omniscient POV, establish it in the first paragraph or two.

2)   Don’t try to give everyone’s thoughts and feelings. Especially in any single scene, stick with just one or two, three at most.

Learn from the Masters

Let’s look at an example of moving from head to head that works. I could have pulled from Dickens, Hemingway, or many others, but the real master of this form is George Eliot. Here’s the end of a brilliant scene from Middlemarch, in which idealistic Dorothea is giving her heart to the (rather tedious and awful) Mr. Casaubon, rather than to Sir James, whom she does not even notice is courting her:

Dorothea colored with pleasure, and looked up gratefully to [Mr. Casaubon]. Here was a man who could understand the higher inward life, and with whom there could be some spiritual communion; nay, who could illuminate principle with the widest knowledge, a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!
Dorothea’s inferences may seem large; but really life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has anyone ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?
“Certainly,” said good Sir James. “Miss Brooke shall not be urged to tell reasons she would rather be silent upon. I am sure her reasons would do her honor.”
He was not in the least jealous of the interest with which Dorothea had looked up at Mr. Casaubon: it never occurred to him that a girl to whom he was meditating an offer of marriage could care for a dried bookworm towards fifty, except, indeed, in a religious sort of way, as for a clergyman of some distinction.

Let’s break down this classic omniscient POV:

  • Paragraph 1: Dorothea’s thoughts
  • Paragraph 2: Omniscient narrator comments drily on Dorothea’s thoughts
  • Paragraph 3:  Sir James’ words
  • Paragraph 4: Sir James’ thoughts

Advantages of Omniscient POV

The omniscient POV gives you the option of taking some distance on your characters—you can move in and out of their heads, deeply feeling their feelings, and then zooming out to comment on them.

Also, your all-knowing narrator knows things the character does not, and things the reader does not. This gives you, as a writer, tremendous flexibility in dropping hints about backstory or foreshadowing what’s to come.

Here’s an example in which the narrator comments, gives new information, and offers foreshadowing. It’s from my first book, Summer and Bird:

So Bird slept in the forest with the birds that night, only a weak, flickering fire between her and the black cold. Summer slept under the stars, wrapped in Ben’s red sweater. But each of them fell asleep turning over the same questions in her heart: Where is my mother? Where is my father? Where are they, where are they, where are they.
The answer is that they, too, were in Down, but far apart, and far away.
Their father sat in a boat that sat on dry land.
Their mother lay deep in the ground, but alive.
And their father’s heart and their mother’s heart each longed for their girls, just as the girls longed for them. A full house of longing hearts, though a house split open and scattered, far from where it began. But even scattered as they were, the strands of longing from those four hearts met in the sky and twined in harmony, making one sad, silent song.
But another heart, a discordant heart, had thrust among them. This heart had spoiled the family’s music for many years, though they did not know it. And this heart’s ravenous longing sounded not like any music, but like the scream of a cat, or a hawk when it kills. This was the Puppeteer’s heart, and the Puppeteer’s long claw was coming very near one small, cold, sleeping girl.

 Using omniscient POV here allowed me to do three things:

  1. Provide tantalizing bits of information to the reader that the characters themselves do not know (where the mother and father are; that the Puppeteer has been messing with this family for years)
  2. Show that the two sisters, though far apart and angry with each other, are emotionally in precisely the same place
  3. Foreshadow that the Puppeteer has her eye on one of the girls.

I could not have done any of that using any other POV.

All About That Voice

For me, as much as a first-person narrator, the omniscience narrator is all about the voice. Who is telling you this story? Why are they choosing certain elements to focus on? What attitude do they have to the characters and the story they are telling? Ironic and distant? Flat and emotionless? Merry and wry? Sad and philosophical? Bitter and snarky? Slightly insane? Trying to scare you, trying to make you cry?

How you answer those questions is how you weave a voice.

Some people talk about narrators that have an “objective perspective.” I say that’s nonsense—there’s no such thing. Your narrator will always have a perspective, a stance— that’s what POV means. Sometimes it may be a quite cold, distant perspective, but that is still a perspective.

Omniscient POV can definitely be a challenge, and it takes even more work in the writing and revising to get it right, compared to other POVs. But just because you’re not George Eliot or William Faulkner, you don’t need to fear it. Explore this technique in a short story, perhaps, and see what it has to offer you.


Katherine Catmull is a novelist, arts writer, playwright, and business and political writer and editor. Her first novel, Summer and Bird (Dutton Juvenile/Penguin), was named one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and was both an IndieBound New Voices Pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She is also a co-author of a collection of scary short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014). Her next book with Dutton comes out in Winter 2016. Katherine has worked as an editor with a whole range of people, from novelists to college students to members of Congress. She spent twenty years in business and politics, working with politicians and CEOs to help them find just the right words to get their message across.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Literary fiction, historical fiction, memoir, YA and MG, urban fantasy, magic realism, comic novels, history and criticism, mysteries, narrative non-fiction.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, developmental editing, content or line editing, writing coaching for adults, writing tutorials for kids, and first chapter critiques.

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Should You Wave Your Prologue Goodbye? (When Prologues Work and When They Don’t)

Does your book-in-progress have a prologue? If so, that might be a problem. According to the dubious wisdom of the blogosphere and the crotchety advice of literary agents who see too many duds in the slush pile, prologues are frowned upon. Agent Kimiko Nakamura wrote in Writer’s Digest that “almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back.”

With warnings like that one, it’s no wonder writers cut their prologue for fear of ending up in the trash folder. As a freelance book editor, though, I’ve seen writers alter the strongest parts of their manuscript because of a one-size-fits-all decree they’ve read on an agent’s (or another writer’s) blog. By deleting your prologue, you might be deleting the best part of your book—the part of your book, even, that would get an agent to request more pages.

So what makes a good prologue good, and a bad prologue bad? I’ll delve into detailed examples below, but first, here are a few rules of thumb.

Good Prologues Oftentimes…

… Occur in a different time and place than the rest of the book. (But they shouldn’t be used as information dumps for backstory. Details about past events should be integrated throughout the novel via exposition, dialogue, or a character’s inner thoughts.)

 … Showcase a narrative perspective that diverges from the rest of the book. (An omniscient prologue, for example, in a third-person limited novel.)

… Are written in a different tone than the rest of the book. (Heightened prose if the book’s prose is simple; minimalist if the book’s prose is florid.)

… Provide key information that the novel’s primary narrator doesn’t know about. (Again, though, this should be a limited, strategic piece of information; prologues shouldn’t be used as information dumps.)

Bad Prologues Are Generally…

… Conspicuous information dumps for information and backstory. (Yeah, this happens a lot.)

… Written as exposition rather than as a compelling scene/s. (Prolonged exposition is a sign that your prologue is an information dump.)

… Written in the same point-of-view or narrative perspective as the rest of the book.

… Written in a melodramatic tone. (This often corresponds to a scene that’s a failed hook.)

…. Focused on a dramatic scene that doesn’t end up connecting in an interesting way with the rest of the book.

… Written after the rest of the book was finished because the writer worried that Chapter 1 wasn’t good or didn’t have an enticing hook. (It’s better to work on fixing Chapter 1.)

Prologues as a Whisper to Your Reader

Author Bharti Kirchner wrote an excellent article for The Writer magazine in which she explains that a prologue, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy novels, “can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins.” Consider the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In it, three men of the Night’s Watch —a military group guarding a great northern wall — search the wilderness for eight dead bodies. As the three men discuss what killed these people — did they freeze to death? — the reader is overhearing their conversation, thereby learning all sorts of tidbits about Martin’s fictional world.

After the men discover that the bodies are missing, they’re attacked by a group of mysterious creatures. One of the Night’s Watch men, Will, watches as a terrifying shadow confronts Royce, his Night’s Watch compatriot:

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees.

Will then witnesses an event that will become pivotal to the Game of Thrones universe for five books to come (and counting). He sees that Royce doesn’t stand a chance in fighting this fearsome apparition because its weapon causes Royce’s sword to shatter:

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles… He [Will] found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning.

This prologue notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is written in the close third-person, with each chapter told from the point-of-view of a different main character. At the book’s outset, none of these characters have seen an “Other,” as these creatures are called, so Martin used his prologue to establish a delicious, suspenseful case of dramatic irony: The reader knows that the Others are real, but the book’s narrators don’t. In an interview with The Writerauthor Jennie Shortridge described this situation well: “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she said.

Many newbie writers withhold information from the reader for too long in an attempt to create suspense. But why should a reader care about a mystery if they don’t even know its parameters? In Game of Thrones, Martin provides just enough information to make the reader terrified of the White Walkers (let’s just drop this “Others” nonsense), but little enough to let the reader join the book’s characters in solving the myriad mysteries surrounding them.

Prologues That Are Actually Chapter Ones (And Chapter Ones That Are Actually Prologues)

As an editor, I often notice that the first 50 pages of a manuscript contain a handful of sections that could each be the book’s first page. The author didn’t know where to begin, so instead of choosing a beginning, they chose two or three, and then struggled with how to sequence them. I call these “false starts,” and they’re usually well-written because the author imagined each as the grandiose opening sequence. These paragraphs stand out because they don’t integrate well with the surrounding material.

A clumsy solution to this multiplicity of false starts is to make one of them the prologue. In an interview forThe Writer, author Jennie Shortridge said that “the most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.”

While a good prologue stands apart from the rest of the story — taking place in a different time, or told from a different point-of-view — an unnecessary prologue is often told by the same narrator, and written in the same style, as the rest of the book. Even if well-written, this type of prologue might turn an agent off because it indicates that the author simply couldn’t figure out how to integrate the prologue’s material somewhere else. “They [prologues] are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device,” literary agent Andrea Hurst told The Writer. “Better for writers to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”

The Book Thief is an example of a prologue that’s good, but might as well have been called Chapter 1. In it, the book’s omniscient narrator, Death Himself (a grim reaper type figure), tells the reader about the book’s protagonist, a girl who he calls the book thief. He (Death) informs the reader that terrible things will happen in this girl’s future, and Chapter 1 begins by detailing the first of these terrible things.

Alluding to future (or past) events in an omniscient voice is classic prologue material, but in this particular case, it turns out that the entire book is narrated by this glib Death guy, and he oftentimes alludes coyly to future events. The Book Thief’s prologue could easily have been the the first chapter. The litmus test is to simply imagine that the prologue is labeled “Chapter 1,” and that the current Chapter 1 is labeled “Chapter 2.” If everything still makes sense (or reads even better, as might be the case), then you probably have a chapter, not a prologue.

We also see Chapter Ones that would have made great prologues. The first Harry Potter book is a perfect example. Remember that opening scene where Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid bring baby Harry to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep? That scene conspicuously stands apart from the rest of the book, which is mostly told from the limited perspective of 10-year-old Harry. In the opening, though, an omniscient narrator holds the reigns, and we glimpse the inner thoughts of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Harry’s aunt and uncle.

Yet that opening is labeled Chapter One. The commencement of Harry Potter’s POV starts with Chapter Two, and Chapter Two begins with a sentence that effectively bridges the 10-year gap between the two chapters: “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all.”

This little quark in one of the world’s most widely-read books reminds us that “chapter” and “prologue” are just labels, after all, and while there are widely-recognized formats for which label correspond to which narrative tactic, authors sidestep the rules all the time. In his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez evaded the issue altogether by using unlabeled breaks between chunks of text rather than parts and chapters. Marquez’ unique decision reminds us that whatever the label, those spaces of white between sections do seem to be vitally important. Whatever the case, most remember the opening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being a prologue; indeed, a quick Google search revealed bloggers using it as an example of an effective prologue.

Another Chapter One that’s really a prologue is the first chapter of Fight Club, where Edward Norton, errrr, the book’s unnamed protagonist holds a gun to his throat/Tyler Durden’s throat. Who knows, maybe someone told both Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling that literary agents don’t like prologues, so they slapped on a Chapter One.

So… Should I Keep My Prologue?

If you’ve carefully considered the components of a bad prologue and are still convinced that yours is good, go ahead and keep it if you’re planning to self-publish. If you’re querying agents, you can tailor your strategy query-by-query. If an agent has specified that they don’t like prologues, you should query without it, or make your prologue the first chapter instead—absolutely don’t this, though, if changing the prologue to “Chapter 1” creates a bad transition into Chapter 2. If you don’t know an agent’s stance toward prologues, the safer bet might still be to cut the prologue since prologue hostility seems widespread.

That being said, agents dislike prologues only because they’ve read so many bad ones. It takes only one sentence to recognize good writing, so if your prologue has a good start, the agent will keep reading. A friend of mine received offers from two agents (and requests for full reads from many more) based on a submission that included a prologue—a very good prologue. In the end, it’s the writing that counts, and they’re not just saying that.


Katherine Don is a journalist and author or co-author of eight nonfiction books, including Power of the Dog from St. Martin’s Press, Armchair Reader: The Book of Myths and Misconceptions from Publications International, and The Story of Harper Lee, a YA biography of Harper Lee from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Katherine’s essays and journalism have appeared at Salon, The Atlantic online, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at Bustle.com and Romper.com. Her first screenplay, a short film that she co-wrote with a friend, was the first-place winner in the screenwriting category at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in literary journalism from NYU.

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Genres of interest: Narrative nonfiction, academic works, books of journalism, essay collections, memoir, health/wellness, book proposals, and other nonfiction book projects.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, query letter editing, and private writing coaching.

The Best Book Titles of all Time: How to Choose a Title that Stands Out and Sells Your Book

My mentor in grad school, Marion Dane Bauer, said that every good title should work on two levels. “What levels?” I asked. “That depends on the story,” she replied.

Years later, I’m still investigating the layers of title significance, and I can say with certainty that Marion was correct. Well, she’s written over eighty books, so she does know a thing or two about crafting a memorable title.

Let’s take a look at ten winningly-titled—and very different—books, and analyze not only what makes them stand out but ultimately mean something deeper to the reader. After all, there’s a huge difference between a book you’ve enjoyed, and a title that leaps out of your mouth every time you’re asked for a book recommendation.

10. PRIDE & PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (Timeless, Classic Love Story)

Clearly Lizzie Bennett is Pride and Mr. Darcy is Prejudice. Or wait…is it the other way around? I’ve often enjoyed hearing Austen fans debate this title. The truth is that it works either way, and the debate we have about which character is which keeps the title and important themes alive and at the forefront of the reader’s mind. Also as a shorthand, Something & Something is always going to cue a reader into a potential love story.

9. THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams (Adult Science-Fiction)

Genre expectations shine through in this title. You’re going to be reading sci-fi, sure, but you’re also going to be reading farce and comic-sassiness. Note that this title, like so many great titles, draws attention to one element of a story that also stands as a metaphor for the rest of said story.

 

8. EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck (Adult Literary Fiction)

Arguably, Grapes of Wrath jumps to mind when you think about Steinbeck, but I’ve never been able to satisfactorily connect that title to its story. East of Eden on the other hand draws attention to the biblical parallels in the story, while also setting a strong statement upfront that this story is not a religious story. I see a lot of writers wanting to title their stories after place names, and if you’re going to do that, I highly suggest being indirect.

7. PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (Young Adult Contemporary)

Like the title, this book is about Vera Dietz. Like the title, this book is about so much more than Vera Dietz. It’s about attitude and angst. And so much of this book is about what the characters don’t tell each other—what they’re ignoring—and the consequences of that choice.

 

 

6. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE by Raymond Carver (Short Stories)

Long titles don’t work. Unless they do. Unless they tell you exactly what a story is about in no uncertain or apologetic terms. Carver’s book of short stories is all about the uglies associated with love, and instead of tiptoeing around the theme, he draws frank attention to it. And it’s this frank attention that prepares the reader for the stories and offers honest support afterwards.

5. LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman (Free Verse Poetry)

Walt Whitman’s gorgeous collection of observations reads like a deep study of the United States, its people, and the strange rankings of cultural mistakes and personal joys. Not only does Whitman spend pages upon pages dissecting the subtle glory of nature—like individual blades of grass—but he also draws our attention to the ideas and struggles that characterize the American people. And boom that’s all in the title, isn’t it?

 

4. WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Book from Lecture)

Don’t bury the lead. Especially if you’re writing something with an important message. Adichie’s title for her speech—which became such a stunning, succinct book—is not only a wonderful read, but a reminder of the importance and inclusion that feminism should inspire. Say it aloud? We should all be feminists. Hits home and hard, doesn’t it?

3. THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie (Young Adult Semi-Autobiographical)

While Alexie’s main character named Junior is a fictional being, this book is based on his own experiences—the truth of which comes straight out of the title. I could say more, but I think that covers it.

 

 

2. THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt (Middle Grade with Animal POVs)

The two main kittens in the story are born beneath a porch dubbed, The Underneath. There, they are safe. There, they must be quiet and calm. But kittens are anything but quiet and calm, and when they get out into the sun, they’re faced with the true underneath. Underneath the sky they find adventures and perils—and then underneath all that is a deep history where good forces are at work…but then so are the bad ones as well.

1. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera (Adult Literary Philosophy)

This highfaluting title captures the philosophy and literary fiction angles of Milan Kundera’s masterpiece exquisitely. It prepares the reader for two very important meanings: everything matters excruciatingly AND nothing matters eventually. Ouch…I think I just hurt my own feelings.


Cori McCarthy holds three degrees in writing: a BA in poetry/memoir, a postgraduate in screenwriting, and an MFA in writing for children and young adults. She is also the author of four books and a freelance editor at Yellow Bird Editors. Find out more about writing with Cori at CoriMcCarthy.com.