Archives for November 2009

Size matters

Skinny books can be more effective
Joel Orr

If you are writing a book, or thinking of writing one, you are probably at least somewhat aware of average book sizes in your field. In non-fiction, 220 pages is a common size.

But if your goal is for your book to be your “large business card,” your “credentializer,” or to replace your color brochure, it can be much smaller. In fact, it probably should be much smaller.

Excuse me if this sounds brutal, but most people who receive or buy your book won’t read it. They may scan it; they may start to read it; or they might not even crack it open.

Now, that sounds like very bad news, but it isn’t. The book itself establishes your authority, serves as your credential, and will probably not get thrown out. It will hang around, read or unread, and remind the owner of you. That’s much more than any brochure will do.

However, if you have important information to share with people–say, about the uniqueness of your approach to your profession, or simple things the reader can do to alleviate some pain, and so on–put it in a small book. 64 – 128 pages are plenty.

And although some might accuse you of “padding” if you use large type and lots of white space, your older readers will be grateful.

Copyblogger on paragraphs

I love Copyblogger! Here’s some more great stuff:

image of a paragraph symbol

Anyone can write a paragraph, but not everyone knows how to write one that other people want to read.

You’ve seen it:

You open a book, and the whole page is one long block of text.

Each sentence in the paragraph makes exactly the same point, said in a slightly different way, and you wonder why they didn’t just say it once and be done with it.

Click to continue…

Joel’s new book: “FastPencil Your Book in 30 Days or Less!”

If you’ve been following what I’ve been blogging about, you’re going to want to get a copy of my new book, FastPencil Your Book In 30 Days or Less! It takes you step-by-step through my trademark BookProgram process, within the context of And of course, I wrote it in!

Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake” software for fiction 80% off until Friday midnight

I don’t write fiction (at least, not intentionally). But if I did, I would use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. It’s like a fractally refined version of Joel’s BookProgram. Randy, besides being an accomplished author, is a physicist/programmer. And he has written software to make it as easy as possible to apply his method to writing. (“Easy as possible” does not mean “easy.” Writing fiction is not easy. “If you want easy, buy cotton candy,” says Randy.) Anyway, until Friday at midnight PST, the software (which runs on Mac, PC, Linux) is $20. If the thought of writing fiction has ever crossed your mind, you owe it to yourself to buy this. Go here.

Why NOT to write a book: 7 reasons

It just occurred to me: I’ve been telling people why they should write a book for a long time, and showing them how easy and quick it can be. I never thought about the flip side before.

So here are 7 reasons NOT to write a book:

  1. You have no urge or desire to communicate with lots of people, no advice or news you want to share with others. Good for you! Nowhere is it written that you must tell others what you know, or that you have to have a message for the world.
  2. Your career is just where you want it to be. You see your work life as being on track, and you are happy and fulfilled. You don’t need or want to establish yourself as an authority, or to convey to clients and others what makes you different. The Talmud says, “Who is rich? He who is content with his lot.”
  3. You are about doing, not writing. You are engaged with life; narrating the journey does not attract you.
  4. You have something to say, but you don’t want to build a business or a career around it. A blog suits you better, serving your needs without overwhelming you.
  5. You’re a private person and don’t want the attention.
  6. The thought of putting your ideas in a form that can be criticized by everyone nauseates you.
  7. The idea of “leaving a legacy” for family, friends, or others is of no interest; you’d rather leave acts of kindness, memories, or money.

Can you think of others? Write to me:

Copyblogger: When good writers write poorly

Brian Clark of Copyblogger shared this quote:

When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons:

Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express.

When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason:

They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.

~Robert McKee

Your thoughts?

My new book, “FastPencil Your Book in 30 Days!”, on

NYT: What to write when you’re stuck

(via Stuart Silverstone; thanks!)

I recently published a novel, and now it’s time to get back to work. If
you’re anything like me, figuring out what to write next can be a real
hassle. A flashy and experimental brain-bender, or a pointillist examination
of the dissolution of a typical American family? Generation-spanning
door-stopper or claustrophobic psychological sketch? Buncha novellas with a
minor character in common? To make things easier, I modified my dartboard a
few years ago. Now, when I’m overwhelmed by the untold stories out there, I
head down to the basement, throw a dart and see where it lands. Try it for

Encyclopedic Have you ever thought, There is a system that rules our
culture, and this system also determines interaction on the individual
level, and I have come up with a metaphor that describes both
manifestations, and can provide many examples? If so, you may be postmodern,
or postmodern-curious. E. M. Foster said, “Only connect,” and Lauryn Hill
seconded him, maintaining that “everything is everything.” They aren’t
postmodernists, but that’s the beauty of the postmodern ― it’s not what it
is, it’s what you say it is.

Realism Take this test. When you read “These dishes have been sitting in the
sink for days,” do you think (a) This is an indicator of my inner weather,
or (b) Why don’t they do the dishes? Does the phrase “I’m going as far away
from here as my broken transmission will get me, and then I’ll take it from
there” make you think (a) Somebody understands me, or (b) Why don’t they
stay and talk it out? What is more visually appealing, (a) a Pall Mall butt
floating in a coffee mug, or (b) those new Pop Art place mats in the Crate &
Barrel catalog? If you answered (a), do we have a genre for you.

Recommended for: The rumpled, drinky.

Ist Simply add -ist to any oddball or unlikely root word, and run with it.
You’d be surprised.

Ethnic Bildungsroman Your parents packed their bags and took a chance on a
dream called America. From Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, Bangladesh
and Beijing. Then you came along, with all your surly second-
generation-ness, and you wondered, Why do they eat that food, their accent
is so heavy, why can’t they leave me alone and let me play baseball? For you
are not like them, you Old World-eschewing, Otherness-contemplating,
bubble-gum-popping, shiksa-smooching, WASP bastion- charging, bootstrapping
young thing. You got moxie, kid, and just like Mary Tyler Moore, you’re
gonna make it after all.

Sample titles: “From Here, but Also Not”; “Annette Lipshitz for President.”

About A Little Known Historical Fact Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Find a little-known atrocity and claim squatter’s rights. Get in there so no
one can take your lynching, massacre or overlooked genocide away from you.
People like to be educated about tragedies that they’ve never shaken their
heads sadly over before. Getting them to say “I didn’t know about that” is a
surprisingly effective marketing tool. Practice speaking mellifluously ―
you’re going to be doing a lot of NPR.

Sample titles: “The Gridleysville Account”; “Shout! The Forgotten People.”

Fabulism Ladies with wings and men without mouths. Dancing trees and
talkative cows. If it’s for kids, it’s a fairy tale. If it’s for grown-ups,
it’s magic realism! Whether you’re 8 or 80, everybody loves magic. This is
the perfect genre for writers who may be tempted to throw out manuscript
pages when they get stuck ― with magic realism, you can just conjure up a
flaming tornado and whisk troublesome characters away. “Where’s Jasper?”
“Remember that legend I mentioned 25 pages ago, about the Flaming Tornado of
Red Creek?”

Historical Novel Sweeping. . . . Meticulously researched. . . . Something
about verandas. Welcome to the world of the historical novel. This is
different from a book About a Little Known Historical Fact in that you’re
taking a recognizable event or milieu, familiar from PBS documentaries and
Oscar-winning movies, and putting your own spin on it. If you get sick of
those tedious period details (gas-lamp, chamber-pot, chandler ― oy!),
consider cutting between the past and the present, where the narrator
discovers information about some ancestor’s role in things. Throw in a
real-life famous person ― Jimmy Hoffa, Emma Goldman, the Lindbergh baby ―
and watch the sparks fly.

Allegory This book is about the Black Death . . . or is it?

Sample titles: “The Forest”; “The Mound”; “The Illness”; “The Cubby”; “The

Domestic Why is Timmy spending so much time with his door closed? Did I hear
Janet sneaking out last night? Bert’s always working late these days, it’s
like I hardly see him. Jamie has started another affair ― she’s one of my
best friends but I don’t know what she’s thinking sometimes. I guess it all
began that fateful night when my car broke down.

Recommended for: People who stumble upon their muse in Aisle 8 of Whole

Thriller Nothing wrong with putting a little food on the table, especially
in these times of economic uncertainty.

Recommended for: Those who know only five adjectives, but know them really

Southern Novel of Black Misery Africans in America, cut your teeth on this
literary staple. Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the
legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of
Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers. Invent
nutty transliterations of what you think slaves talked like. But hurry up ―
the hounds are a- gittin’ closer!

Sample titles: “I’ll Love You Till the Gravy Runs Out and Then I’m Gonna
Lick Out the Skillet”; “Sore Bunions on a Dusty Road.”

Southern Novel of White Misery, OR Southern Novel What race problem?

Sample titles: “The Birthing Stone”; “The Gettin’ Place.”

Social Realism You: A canny observer in a white suit and a fine cravat. The
Culture: Just waiting for someone to explain it to itself. When these two
krazy kidz get together, it’s zeitgeist! Dig in and tell people how they
really live today. Convince the reader that your ear is attuned to the
modern vernacular, that your nose sniffs the tang of changing mores, and
that your fingers are on the pulse of our time, somewhere around the neck,
to better choke the life out of it. Hold up a mirror to our society, or at
least to the lives of book critics who will write that your book “holds up a
mirror to our society.” You’re not done until you come up with at least one
spot-on description that enters the national vocabulary. Here are some
freebies to start you off: “cyber galoots,” “walking kabobs,” “electric
ninnies.” But please, please, please ― know when you’re too old to pull it

Sample titles: “Yonder Lies the Glittery City”; “Sotto Voce.”

Remember, this is only a partial list ― there are literally dozens of kinds
of books out there waiting for the right writer to come along. Step right
up, and see what happens. It works for me.

Colson Whitehead’s novels include “The Intuitionist” (ist) and “John Henry
Days” (encyclopedic). His most recent book is “Sag Harbor.”
November 1, 2009
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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