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



Layering Your Draft, Part Four: The Toothpick Test

If you’re just seeing this for the first time, you might want to start the blog series here! It’s all about how to build your novel like a layer cake, with lots of delicious flavors and character frosting.

Now that we’ve talked about what layering your draft means, and how to do it, I’m going to take on another important question. Why bother with layering? It can seem a little fussy, or unnecessary, or just like a lot of work. We’ve talked about how layering gives you the opportunity to tackle the story one thing at a time, so each aspect gets your full writerly attention and becomes much stronger than it could if you were trying to spread your attention out to too many places at once. (Ex: It’s much easier to draft with the arc of one character in mind than it is to draft with the trajectories of seven other characters, plus setting, plot, theme, and language.)

But there’s another sort of magic that layering brings to your finished draft. It gives it the depth and complexity of life. When I write an everythingallatonce draft, I might hit a few high points, but the truth is that the overall draft itself is going to feel flat when I compare it to real life–even on the most mundane day. That’s because when we walk through our days, we’re experiencing all of the layers at once, decoding them seamlessly and, for the most part, instantaneously. In a story, we have to build up a similar experience for our readers. We have to put in the time to construct the reality.

Don’t fear the layers! They look like hard work, but they’re delicious. And so worth it.

Don’t fear the layers! They look like hard work, but they’re delicious. And so worth it.

So, going back to our cake metaphors, what are we looking for in a finished product?

Texture: Does it have a light, springy feeling? Or is it dense and dark and delicious? I think of the story texture as a combination of the voice and the content. Is that texture what you want it to be? Have you given the manuscript to beta readers or tried reading out loud to make sure that it’s working?

Consistency of the bake: Is it the same all the way through? This might seem like an odd question, since of course the plot is going to progress and the characters will change and grow. But often, when a draft isn’t working, it’s because it’s changed or gotten away from us. Maybe a subplot or a character has dragged the story out of shape. Maybe the structure is off-kilter. Maybe the reader expectations that were set up in the beginning of the book have been abandoned. Maybe the themes haven’t come together yet. Make sure that you’re telling the same story from beginning to end.

Are the flavors coming through? This is an important one. Writers can talk all day about what they intended to write, or how they wanted it to come across, but in the end, the reader only has the manuscript. So if you take a look at the finished product, and an important element of the plot has gotten pushed to the side, or the characters’ emotions or motivations aren’t clear on the page, it’s time to go back and do another layer.

So with all of these layers to create, how do we know when we are done?

Writers use lots of different methods. Some go straight to beta readers. Others put the manuscript in a drawer and wait for a certain amount of time (a week, a month, or more) to give fresh perspective.

I recommend also trying The Toothpick Test. When we test a cake for doneness, we stick a toothpick right in the middle and see if it “comes out clean”–no uncooked goop, or sticky crumbs. When we apply the same idea to a manuscript draft, it’s a matter of opening the book to a random page (I do suggest the middle, since it’s where many manuscripts have the most undercooked bits,) and check to for doneness. When you read this page out of context, what impression do you get? Does the manuscript need a little more bake time, a few more layers, or are the flavors and texture exactly what you hoped for?

If it seems to be in good shape, stick a few more toothpicks into random places–just to be sure! (One toothpick is usually enough to be sure with a cake, but a novel requires a little more thoroughness.)

So, have you tried layering your drafts? How do you know when you are done? Sound off in the comments!

And happy novel baking!

Want to work with Amy Rose? She loves editing all kinds of fiction! Just click on the Contact tab and fill out the easy form to get started.

Layering Your Draft, Part Three: Frosting Your Characters

To start at the beginning of the series, click here!

Have you ever been told that your story has an interesting premise, a strong plot, and fine writing, but that the reader just didn’t “connect”? While there are many possible reasons for this, one of the most common has to do with character. The story in question needs more character-specific layers.

Character layers are the frosting of your story. People seem to think that frosting is what goes on top, but in a layer cake, the frosting runs in delicious seams throughout. It is always visible, always there, creating a beautiful depth and adding flavor to every bite. It is also BALANCED with the other story elements (ie the cake.) Character shouldn’t take over your story completely, and it shouldn’t be the only part they’re showing up for. Great frosting can’t make up for a dry cake!

This ratio looks so right to me.

This ratio looks so right to me.

Everyone has their own preferred frosting-to-cake ratio. Different genres can have different amounts of character development, and different ways to include said development. So what’s the best way to develop the balance in your work? Think about your own favorite stories, especially in the genre you’re working in. How do you connect to those characters? How do you want to use voice, banter, character desire lines, etc. to craft yours? Just remember: your cake needs frosting. Don’t skip it, and don’t skimp.

The first time I approached a draft with a layering technique, it went on to become my first published book. An early reader said that the story was working, and that the main character was coming across, but a secondary character was flat on the page. Here’s where I asked myself: what do I want from this character? Who is she in my head? Is she that person on the page?

Here are some practical tips for frosting your characters:

  • Isolate the scenes the character appears in. This works especially well for secondary characters. Create a document that includes only those scenes, so you can see the development and growth of that character, his/her subplots and how they are progressing without lots of other scenes getting in the way.
  • Break it down even farther. Are you focusing on the arc of a character’s desire line? Her dialogue? Her emotions or inner life? I’ve done passes for all of these things, and more. Sometimes a character needs a full overhaul, but often the more specific you can be about targeting what’s not there yet, the easier it becomes to add and tweak.
  • Look for the frosting gap. Often when I’m going back to do a character layer, I’ll find that I’ve left space to add. Certain moments just seem to open up when you look at the draft with an eye to deepening character!
  • What is strongest/most unique/most important about your character? Is that coming through in the draft?
  • Tie it into theme. In later drafts, you will want to make sure that your characters tie into the main themes of the story. Sometimes, characters who aren’t “working” are the ones who don’t have some connection to theme.
  • If you start with character, you might need to adjust or add more later. If you start with a character layer, just remember that as the story evolves, you might need to take another look at what you started with. Even if things change, that initial character work isn’t lost. In most cases, you’re not throwing out the frosting and making a new batch here. You’re just adjusting so it matches the cake perfectly.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut/combine. Sometimes a layer will be dedicated to taking out a character you really don’t need, or combining characters who are doing the same narrative job. If you isolate this in its own layer, it’s easier to adjust the rest of the story around it.
  • Let the main character take more than one layer. Don’t be nervous if you spend time on a character layer for your MC and people say she still needs some work. I usually devote 2-4 layers in each drafting process just for the MC. And, like I said above, I try to focus on specific drafting goals for each of these layers.

That’s all for this week—happy frosting!

~Amy Rose

PS In the last part of this series, I’ll talk about why layering works, and how to know when your novel is done baking!

Want to work with Amy Rose? She critiques, edits, and provides writing coaching for all sorts of fiction. Just click on the Contact tab and fill out the easy form to get started!

Who Hires a Book Editor?

“Who hires a book editor?” was my question when I joined Yellow Bird and another online editing company in 2014. I had spent 23 years writing and editing for large, traditional publishing companies before getting into the online, edit-for-anybody business.

Many authors in search of an editor are aspiring novelists, and the quality of their writing varies dramatically. Some are professional level. Others are great storytellers but their grammar is a disaster—or vice versa. I’m amazed by the number of fantasy and sci-fi submissions. Some of these books are in excess of 200,000 words, with the author often asserting that his or her initial book is the first of a trilogy. I edited one author who penned a 130,000-word fantasy novel and said it was the first book of a three-trilogy set! What’s 9 x 130,000?

I have edited both fiction and nonfiction over the last two years, and I’ve been blown away by the variety of the subject matter. These are some of the online nonfiction submissions I’ve edited:

  • Brennan, a special-ops soldier, wrote about his experiences in Iraq—about his desire to kill and how fellow soldiers exploded into pink mist before his eyes. Derek, a jaded platoon medic, told Brennan: “That’s why we’re dying. People want training and the military to be all soft and cuddly but then wonder why their overweight, television-addicted little pussy got his arms blown off because he wasn’t looking around properly because he has the attention span of a hummingbird.”
  • Jeff, a former Hollywood prostitute and Colt Studios model, wrote about the famous gay men he slept with, including Elton John!
  • Keena grew up in the African bush as the daughter of paleontologists. Her diaries discussed her life-and-death adventures with lions, hippos, and crazy baboons…and the scariest creatures of all: junior high girls when she returned to suburban Philadelphia.
  • Rex penned a biography of fellow Vietnam War veteran Ace Cozzalio, an eccentric, heroic helicopter pilot who always wore an 1800s cavalry uniform, complete with white hat and saber.
  • Tina was raised by a coldhearted mother who adopted (basically stole) Tina’s two children and prevented her from seeing them for 15 years.
  • Author Damon reminded me of a black Forest Gump. He was confined to juvenile detention simply because his father wanted him to be more disciplined; was unjustifiably bullied by cops on the streets of L.A.; lived through the Watts riot of 1965; and explored drugs in Vietnam, which caused him to attack his officer.
  • David, who created the live play-by-play technology that you see on and, described his court battles with Major League Baseball, which tried to use its legal muscle to invalidate his patents.
  • Tana was looking for a roommate after her divorce. She found a seemingly nice fellow who owned a house in Florida who agreed to rent her a room…then turned psycho and wouldn’t let her leave the house!

What’s your story?