Making Your Book Unputdownable

March 31, 2010

A patient complains to his psychiatrist: “Nobody pays any attention to me.”

The psychiatrist says: “Next.”

The desire to hear, tell and read stories is part of what makes us human. Stories explain the inexplicable. They help us to learn, grow, come to terms with life and ourselves, and to escape from our problems by transporting us to places where only stories can take us.

A critic named Moses Hadas once said of a book: “Once you put it down, you can’t pick it up.” If you want agents and editors to pay attention to you, write a book they can’t put down (pun intended). They are perpetual optimists, always hoping that the next manuscript they pick up will be unputdownable.

What makes a novel or narrative nonfiction book impossible to put down?

  • A fast-paced plot that keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next
  • Characters you care about so much about that you have to find out what happens to them
  • Settings so inviting and vividly described you don’t want to leave them
  • An action-packed or life-changing opening that forces readers to keep reading by making them want to know what happens next
  • The use of telling details to make people, places and situations come alive
  • Interesting information about real events, people, places and cultures 
  • Surprises
  • An effective blend of people, setting and story
  • Each scene starting as late as possible
  • A literary or commercial style that is an irresistible pleasure to read
  • An ending that is like the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal

Do you know where you can always find authors who write books like this consistently? On bestseller lists! Ready to join them? Write a page-turner. If you can keep your readers turning the pages, it doesn’t make any difference what you write about.

Agents, editors and readers are always eager to discover new writers, and they will be delighted to help you attain the fame and fortune you want.

Go for it!

I’d be glad to add to the list if there is anything else that makes books unputdownable.

Writers Do it One Word at a Time

March 26, 2010

No good book is ever too long. No bad book is ever too short.


Hemingway rewrote the last page of For Whom the Bell Tolls 39 times. When someone asked him what the problem was, he replied: “Getting the words right.”

The book that tells how to do this most concisely and that most affects my writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, Jr.  The rule on composition that guides my writing is number six: “Omit needless words.”  This is the ultimate rule of writing, because if you eliminate needless words, the only words you have left are those you do need.

As powerful as it is brief, this rule is a testament to the power of less. Your time-starved readers, online and off,  make being relentlessly rigorous about your prose more imperative than ever. It means that:

  • Form is as important as content.
  • Every word you write must justify your readers’ most precious asset: their time.

This timeless, universal rule challenges you to make your writing impeccable. It doesn’t mean that what you write has to be short, only that you must serve your readers well or you’ll lose them faster than ever.

You also have to make your work a pleasure to read by ornamenting it with grace notes—warmth, passion, life, humor, inspiration, and stories that help you achieve your literary goals. The more people you want to reach, the simpler and more enjoyable your prose must be.

Every word you write must pull its own weight both in communicating your message and strengthening its impact.   It’s a disservice to your idea and your readers to present  your work before it is ready.

Agents and editors read for a living. They can tell from the first sentence whether someone can write. The first weak word or idea will make their editorial antennae quiver. If it’s not too serious, they’ll keep reading but with an uneasy, usually justified, dread that enough transgressions will follow to justify a rejection.

Michelangelo believed that his statues were waiting for him inside blocks of marble waiting for him to chip away at until he liberated them. The idea for your book is a block of marble inside of which the best embodiment of your idea is waiting for you to bring it to life. So keep chipping away at your idea until it becomes the reality you want it to be. Only your last draft counts.

Comments and questions welcome.

Writing for Yourself or the Marketplace?

March 23, 2010

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard

Someone once indelicately said that if you don’t understand the obscurity in Eliot’s poetry, it’s TS. This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, author of the bestseller The Corrections. He described two models for novelists that I think can apply to nonfiction writers as well: the status model and the contract model.

The Status Model

The status model is that of literary artist whose mission is to create the most artistic combination of characters, plot and setting that they can devise. How commercial their work is, or how well readers can understand it, is not their primary concern. If Umberto Eco wants to start Focault’s Pendulum with six lines of Hebrew, and you don’t know Hebrew, it’s tough, er, darts. But Eco’s The Name of the Rose does prove that literary writing can be entertaining as well as erudite and enlightening.

If University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Vikram Chandra uses so many Hindi words in his otherwise accessible bestseller, Sacred Games, that many of his sentences are unintelligible, it’s our problem, not his. But Chandra is a gifted storyteller, and it didn’t keep him from getting a million-dollar advance. And it made his use of Hindi Harpercollins’s problem.

Herman Melville may be the ultimate example of a status writer. He wanted to write books that are “said to fail,” and he succeeded. Moby Dick sold less than 500 copies during the forty years that Melville lived after writing it. (But as George Carlin once wondered: “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”)

My bias: I can’t sustain the suspension of disbelief when I read something I don’t understand. It takes me out of being immersed in the story and annoys me that the author has interrupted my enjoyment. But if you were born to be a literary artist, you won’t let my bourgeois failing stop you. Nor should it.

For me, the status model for nonfiction writers is represented by those who feel liberated from the demands of the marketplace. Their mission is presenting their ideas or story however seems best to them, without using successful books like theirs as models. As agents, Elizabeth and I can sometimes tell from the first line of nonfiction submissions, sometimes even the cover letters, that the writers’ only concern is delivering their message, regardless of how well they do it or its salability. But thanks to technology, status nonfiction writers are always assured of getting their books published because print-on-demand and e-book publishers will do it for free.

The Contract Model

The premise of Franzen’s “contract model” is that when you buy a novel, you’re buying entertainment: the author has entered into a contract to entertain you. That becomes the criterion for everything in the book: Does it entertain? Does it, as Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the parts that people skip.

Since readers can’t be entertained by what they don’t understand, being incomprehensible isn’t an option. Most of the literary novelists you see on bestseller lists thrive on making their books understandable as well as entertaining.

For nonfiction, I think the contract is that the book will deliver the benefit that the title promises well enough to justify the time and money you spend on it. Reviews and sampling a book can usually lead you to the right decision about whether to buy it.

Since the fate of most books is uncertain, you’ve got to love writing them to produce your best work. Books you love to read will lead you to the books you were born to write. But no matter what you write, the challenge is to find the right place for your work on the spectrum between art and commerce, between writing for yourself and writing for the marketplace.

Happy trails!

Comments and questions welcome.

The S Theory of Compelling Storytelling

March 19, 2010

  Forcing Fiction and Narrative Nonfiction Readers to Turn the Page

 The first page sells the book.   –Mickey Spillane

 Agents, editors and book buyers only read far enough to make a decision. If they don’t like what they read on page one, they won’t turn the page. Book buyers may not read the second sentence of a book in a bookstore. This leads to “The S Theory of Storytelling” for fiction and narrative nonfiction that writers want to read like novels:






Something Said

or Something Else

on page one must be compelling enough

to make agents, editors, and book buyers turn the page.

Your book will compete with the growing number of ways consumers can use their free time and discretionary income. So every word you write is an audition to get your readers to read the next word. Every line you write must convince your readers to read the next line. Assume you have only one sentence to convince browsers to keep reading. Every page you write must arouse enough interest to keep readers turning the pages. And you face that challenge on every page you write except the last one.

The last page sells the next book. –Mickey Spillane


8 Paradoxes of Technology

March 17, 2010

Here’s an incomplete list of the paradoxes created by technology:

 1. The Internet simultaneously connects people to the world and isolates them.

 2. We are doomed to be in a state of information overload and information deficit simultaneously, and there’s nothing we can do about either of them.

 3. Computer technology was supposed to give us paperless offices, but it has generated more paper than any preceding technology.

 4. Technology creates “symbiotic antagonisms.” As former AT&T CEO Robert Allen once said of Microsoft: “They can be your partner and your enemy at the same time.”

 5. Technology can control everything except technology.

 6. Innovation enables technology companies to become and stay successful, but the larger they become, the less able they are to innovate.

 7. The faster technology gets, the more impatient we get with it when it slows down or malfunctions.

 8. The more time-saving devices we have, the less time we have. The logical extension of this is that one day we won’t have to do anything, but we won’t have the time to do it.

 (And yes, there’s a book in it.)

 A quarter of the world’s population, 1.7 billion people, are already online, so technology will continue to

  • Get smaller, faster, cheaper, and easier to use
  • Be ubiquitous, unpredictable, and disruptive
  • Become more powerful
  • Have more control over our lives

 But in its ability to help writers research, write, sell, promote, and build communities, technology is both the greatest gift to writers since the printing press and an inexhaustible source of ideas.

 More paradoxes welcome.

The Greatest Challenge Writers Can Hope For

March 12, 2010

Writing Before the Moment of Reckoning

What a great time to be a writer! There comes a moment of reckoning when the outcome of a process is decided. The planet is approaching moments of reckoning for meeting the challenges it faces.

Charles Darwin wrote that it’s not the strongest or smartest species that survive; it’s the most adaptable. The human family is going to have to adapt more in this century than it ever has. The less able government is to respond to the challenges we face, the more needed writers are to help mobilize the will and creativity we need to navigate the swirling waters of accelerating change.

You have more forms and media in which to communicate with readers around the world who need and want to hear what you have to say. What ou don’t have is a long time in which to do it.

We’re plunging headlong into an future that no one can predict, understand or control. Our future depends on finding effective solutions for climate control, the use of technology, the effects of globalization, religious and political extremism, and  regulating financial institutions.

Power corrupts. Business and government, prisoners of their own needs and systems, can’t solve our problems. This leaves the fate of the planet is the hands of individuals and institutions that can come up with new ideas for solving our problems and mobilize the public will to change.

In Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman wrote that you can’t stop 6 billion people all going in the same direction. Writers can play a crucial role in persuading people united by technology and shared problems to take the same path.

Apart from the problems the planet faces are the challenges of how to

  • Give individuals and institutions enough power to be effective but not enough to be corrupted
  • Integrate the ability to respond to rapid change and renew themselves into how institutions are run
  • Use reason to change the minds of people whose beliefs are not based on reason

Novelists and nonfiction writers are essential agents of change, providing ideas, stories, information, and inspiration to help solve the world’s problems. Blogs, articles, short stories, books, podcasts, videos, and posting to blogs, groups, and social media are all part of a continuing conversation. If you want to join the most important conversation on the planet and be part of the greatest challenge you can ask for, let this be your moment of reckoning.

Napoleon believed that humanity is only limited by its imagination. If we survive our follies, our future will be glorious.

If you need more convincing, read Soulwise: How to Create A Conspiracy of Hope, Health and Harmony by Dr. Phil Johnson ( It’s a life-changing, world-changing combination of advice, wisdom and inspiration that will help you find the path you were born to tread.

Comments and questions welcome.

Publishing at the Point of No Returns

March 9, 2010

In a conversation CSPAN taped at the Brooklyn bookstore of the publisher Melville House, Colin Robinson, co-founder of the new publisher OR Books, noted that publishing has come to a point of no returns. OR Books is eliminating returns of unsold books from booksellers by selling e-books and printing books on demand in response to orders. Of course, technology has led to a point of no return for writers and publishers.

Publishers started allowing booksellers to return unsold books during the Depression to encourage them to stock more books than they could otherwise afford. Now returns symbolize the dysfunctional state of the industry. Forty percent of new books are returned to be pulped and become new books.

Robinson was having a moderated discussion with Richard Nash, the founder of Cursor Books, another new house that does e-books and POD books, and relies on building online communities to reach readers.

Nash feels that the role of publishers is to connect writers and readers. He and Robinson believe that they can connnect with book buyers better than big houses by using the money they save by not giving more than half of the cover price to the chains in discounts and promotional allowances.

Robinson believes that it’s getting harder to read while it’s getting easier to write. He feels that the number of choices readers face confuses them and turns them off. Nash mentioned another aspect of the competition for books: the ways people can spend an hour besides reading: listening to 18 songs, watching two sitcoms or half a movie.

Nash lets his communities vote on cover designs. He finds that people feel valued by being asked, even if he doesn’t take their advice. Nash admitted that he caters to people’s passions. He wants to publish what people love to read.

What does all this mean to writers?

  • Write what people love to read because they help, inspire, enlighten, or entertain readers so well they’ll forsake the other ways they have to spend their discretionary time and income.
  • Start building communities as soon as you start writing your book.
  • Choose the right publishing model for you and your book.

Comments and questions welcome.

Transforming Chicken Soup into Gold

March 4, 2010

From Bouillon to Bullion: Transforming Chicken Soup into Gold

The role of the author is to make bouillon cubes out of chicken soup.                                                        –author Susan Sontag

The comedian Buddy Hackett once said that when he was growing up, there were always two choices at dinner: take it or leave it. One of the essential survival tools for getting through winter nights is my wife and partner Elizabeth’s chicken soup. She takes a chicken, an onion, celery, carrots, garlic, and other spices, puts them in a big pot, and voila!, a week’s worth of main courses. I always take it.

One reason why now is the best time ever to be a writer is that if you want to write, the opportunities for you to reach and build relationships with readers are like a huge vat of chicken soup:

Online, you can:

  • Post comments on blogs
  • Write your own blog, articles, short stories, poetry, an ezine, e-newsletter, and books
  • Participate in social networks, groups, chat rooms, message boards and forums
  • Do videos, podcasts and teleseminars
  • Be a guest on radio or television shows and start your own

You can harness the power of the Web to reach readers with words enhanced with voice, music, images, video, animation, graphics and the power of links to enrich your work. Readers around the world can access your work on computers, telephones, and e-readers.

Off-line, you can get published and appear in the media. Your books may become films or audiobooks. You may be able to use your knowledge to speak, teach, consult, coach or train people.

You can integrate your on- and off-line efforts for maximum promotional synergy. The challenge is to condense this bubbling pot of possibilities into bullion: the writing life that nourishes you creatively while earning you the income you need to lead the life you want. More on what this means to you in another post.

Comments and questions welcome.

Writing the Crest of Change

March 2, 2010

There’s a catalog that sells a T-shirt that says: “Almost as smart as my phone.” Technology keeps supplying us with a dazzling array of new gadgets and services. It’s also driving us at an accelerating rate into a future that no one can predict, understand, manage or control.

Technology enables you to express yourself and your ideas, and use more media to reach more readers in more places faster than ever. If as the saying goes, luck is ability meeting opportunity, you are part of the luckiest generation of writers that ever lived. The biggest challenge for writers is to use their craft, passion, knowledge, creativity and commitment to help people surf this tidal wave of change.

How can you help your readers to lead more fulfilling lives? How can you help them:

  • Balance change and stability
  • Integrate their on- and off-line lives
  • Create meaningful personal and professional lives and relationships in a time of accelerating change
  • Fulfill their obligations to the concentric circles of our existence: ourselves, our families, neighbhors, community, state, country, and world

What inexhaustible sources of stories, information and advice these needs are! You are urgently needed to create the myths, stories and metaphors that bring hope and meaning to our lives. No matter what you write, I hope you find ways to join the great conversation and that this blog will help you achieve your goals.

Comments and questions welcome.