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If you are a minority of one form or another writing fiction (or creative nonfiction) about your experience, we are pleased to offer you 20% off a standard manuscript critique when you book a Yellow Bird editor in September or October 2016.

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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.


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 and 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.


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.

Travel Like a Writer: Using Local Color to Enhance the Setting of Your Novel or Nonfiction Book

We weren’t even 15 minutes down the road from Austin to San Diego when we smelled gas fumes filling her green Mazda coupe. I twisted in the passenger seat so that I could sniff toward the backseat. Sure enough the odor was coming from the propane tank we’d crammed back there. I turned around and cracked the window, but we didn’t stop. We just laughed and kept on driving.

At least that’s the story I tell now. After I hit the highway this summer to recreate that August 1995 trip, the memories will probably change. At the very least, I hope they’ll become textured with the sights, sounds, touches, feelings, scents, tastes, and tears of what my friend Kathy and I called our Thelma & Louise road trip.

I’m reliving our journey because my next book is a memoir about our complicated friendship. It wasn’t until I determined to recreate our 1995 trip that I realized we’d said goodbye to each other in San Diego—she was moving there and I was helping her move, hence the reason for the trip—exactly 20 years after we said our final goodbye. Kathy died on September 1, 2015.

Twenty-one years later, as hard as I try to recall, my memories of that trip consist only of snippets of scenes—not a story, not a plot, and certainly not a story with conflict, change, and growth.

I know, though, that if I follow that road again, stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon, search for a 2 A.M. hotel room in Las Vegas, and finally watch the sun set behind the Pacific, I’ll remember and our book will come.

I’m far from the only author who has ever traveled for a memoir—some to recreate memories, some to create memories, almost all to cope, to change, and to grow as a person. Cheryl Strayed for Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert for Eat Pray Love immediately come to mind.

But traveling for a book isn’t limited to nonfiction. It can be equally imperative to fiction.

Sure, at the touch of our fingertips we have Google maps, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and newspapers and television broadcasts from across the world, all of which allow us to virtually visit any place on Earth—or outer space, for that matter. Those virtual visits definitely help us weave necessary details into our work and even fact check our scenes.

But virtual visits aren’t the same as standing in a locale and seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling what’s around us. For example, for years I read and watched news reports about the deadly air pollution in China. I didn’t realize how horrific the pollution was, though, until I stood on a hilltop in China, staring over miles and miles of farmland, and watched a lone worker guide a wooden plow behind a sorrel horse. In that rustic, rural setting, without a smokestack or car in sight, the pollution was so milky thick that I felt I could hold it in my hand as easily I could a gray ball of yarn.

As I think back to that day that sweltered with pollution, I recall the landowner who smiled at me. He seemingly yearned to have his photograph taken with me, as much as I yearned to have mine taken with him. After I returned from my walk through his farmlands, he reappeared, freshly showered and wearing a clean white shirt that matched my own. We stood next to each other as a friend quickly snapped our photo. Then it was time to go. But I didn’t want to leave this man. He was tall and lean. His eyes crinkled and twinkled in the hot, hazy sunlight. And there was something about him that seemed so familiar, something that pulled me to him, that made me want to hug him and hold him and never leave him.

I thought I knew then what it was. When I got home and studied our photo, I knew for sure. This tall, lean, smiling Chinese farmer with the crinkling, twinkling eyes resembled my not-so-tall, yet lean, partly Jewish father whose eyes crinkled and twinkled when he smiled. It was as though my dad had been reincarnated in China.

Remembering that is almost bringing a novel and plot into my brain.

Award-winning novelist Amanda Eyre Ward traveled to Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, California, to research her fifth novel, The Same Sky, a story about motherhood, resilience, and faith. A reader can see the influence of those trips in her scene setting:

“The sun in California is different. Just as bright as in Texas, it somehow lacks saturation, plenitude. … And the air seems thinner, somehow, scented mildly with juniper and salt from a nearby ocean.”

A writer isn’t going to glean that sort of information from Google or YouTube.

But Ward also went to those border cities for her plot, because her plot is about the intersecting and conflicting lives of a successful American mom and a desperate immigrant child who illegally entered the United States without a parent to protect her. “Every kid talked about food. As most had faced starvation either at home or along the journey to the US, every corn muffin, cookie, and bottle of clean water was described in loving detail,” Ward wrote on her website.

“Why had they come? Many had been left with relatives who had died or could no longer care for them. Some had joined (and been tattooed by) a gang and then a different gang had taken over their town. They were hungry. They wanted their moms. They wanted to be adopted. They told me God had brought them, and God would find them families in the US.

“One girl’s story was so harrowing and awful that my stomach hurt every time she said, ‘And then it was night.’ I racked my brain for something to say to make her smile. She was from El Salvador and her journey to California was different from the journey of the girl in The Same Sky (who had originally been named Elena).

“Nevertheless, I told her that the girl in my novel was a girl so strong and amazing that she had made it to safety. I told her I would name the girl after her, and I did. Her name is Carla.”

Previously, Ward had traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, for her third novel, Forgive Me, a story of love, memory, and motherhood. “That trip changed everything,” Ward explained on her website. “One night, I woke to the sound of dogs barking and loud voices and I had a sudden thought: you shouldn’t be here. You’re a mother now, you should be at home. Someday, I realized, my son could tell a therapist, ‘My mom left me when I was a baby and ran off to South Africa!’ I lay awake thinking, ‘Can I be a good mom and travel? Can I examine sadness and pain and still create a safe world for my son?’ It was a long night with the dogs and this tinny music coming from a bar nearby, and by morning, the book had changed and so had I.”

I don’t want anyone to think they have to make a special and expensive trip overseas to inform their work. Travel research can be incorporated into everyday life. That trek I took through the farmland of China was for a business trip that had nothing to do with my writing career. A business trip I made to Europe provided a solitary night in Paris that informed my Master’s thesis novel and its setting.

 Diesel fumes plugged my nostrils as I sat in the sidewalk café and poured mineral water over one measly ice cube. The incessant noise of the traffic almost drowned out the jet lag that rattled my brain…

I was angry that I’d picked a café on a street busy only with cars and no good looking strolling Frenchmen to distract my thoughts…

 I concentrated on the yellow headlights of the passing cars. I watched the flashing of the traffic lights. I felt alone and lost. In a foreign country killing time, wasting my life watching lights…

A random stroll with a Frenchman affected my plot as a variation of him became one of my characters.

A family vacation in New Orleans created more scenes and plot points, which I won’t share with you because they’re a bit like New Orleans—wreaking of spilled rum, mildew, piss, vomit, and nights better left forgotten … for my lead characters. In other words, they created action and conflict.

My point is that being there, standing there, where your scenes are set, where your characters are getting in trouble or falling in love or merely bunny-hopping, topless down Bourbon Street, they all create a feeling in your soul that translates to the words that come out of your fingertips.

In 2014, I interviewed New York Times bestselling novelist Sue Monk Kidd about her book The Invention of Wings, the fictionalized story of the very real Sarah Grimke, the 19th century daughter of a Charleston slave owner who disgraced her family by fighting against slavery, racism and sexism.

“I researched for six months and did nothing but read and travel to try to figure all of this out and then I wrote for three and a half years and I was continuing to research during that time too. So this was a four year effort for me,” Kidd said.

But the one thing that stuck with me—besides the fact that she outlines on butcher paper, which she wraps around her study—is the influence that traveling to Boston to stand by Sarah Grimke’s grave had on her and her book. Yes, Kidd could have seen on the internet a photo of Grimke’s headstone and noticed that the engraved words, “Sarah Moore Grimke,” were barely legible. I did that. Yes, she could have seen on that internet photo that the headstone was worn, pitted, and discolored from 140 winters. I did that. But only by standing there and seeing it in person would she have whispered in her mind, If you can hear this, Sarah, I want to do you justice. I want to do your life justice. I would love for people to know about you and your role and what you did.

I guess that’s why I’m taking this road trip this summer. I want to stand where Kathy and I stood and whisper into the wind and let my words drift out over the sea, “If you can hear this, Kathy, I want to do you justice. I want to do your life justice … because you changed me.”

SUZY SPENCER is an award-winning journalist and author of four nonfiction books — Wasted, a New York Times best-sellter and Violet Crown Award finalist; Wages of Sin, which was featured in the 2013 season of Investigation Discovery’sDeadly Sins; Breaking Point, a Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and The Fortune Hunter, which was called “riveting” and “block-buster” by Globe magazine. In 2012, the Berkley Books division of Penguin published Suzy’s first memoir,Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Secret Sex Lives was named a Publishers Weekly Fall 2012 pick, a Barnes & Noble editor’s recommendation, and a Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Book Award finalist, among other accolades. Suzy holds a Master’s of Professional Writing in fiction and screenwriting and a Master’s of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.


Genres of interest: Creative and narrative nonfiction, memoir, adult fiction including contemporary fiction, upmarket fiction, commercial fiction, women’s fiction, and thrillers.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter evaluations, nonfiction book proposal edits, private writing coaching, media 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