• Ellen Cassedy
  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE]: Are you sure you want to write a page-turner?
[TIPS OF THE TRADE]: Are you sure you want to write a page-turner?
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
November 2014
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
November 2014

At Book Expo America a couple of years ago, I was one of a long row of authors signing stacks of books.  In front of us, readers had queued up by the hundreds to receive their free copies.  As the lines inched forward, we authors signed as fast as we could. 


At one part in that breathless hour, a voice to my right caught my attention.  “I loved your book!” a gushing fan was saying to the author next to me.  “I read the whole thing in one afternoon.”


My fellow author responded graciously.  After she sent the enthusiastic reader on her way, I asked her out of the side of my mouth how the comment made her feel.   


“Not that great,” she muttered.  “Given that it took me four years to write it.”   


The term “page-turner” is high praise.  We all want to write a book that readers can’t put down.  


Or do we?


A page-turner goes down like soft-serve ice cream.  “I devoured it,” people say.  “I couldn’t get enough.” 


It can take a while for a writer to win my trust.  I often read slowly at the start of a book.  Once I feel secure in the writer’s hands, though, I let go.  Then, sometimes, I like to floor it and speed for the finish line, flipping the pages as fast as I can.  At two a.m., I’m rubbing my eyes, only 40 pages left.  I don’t care how painstakingly the author labored over those last pages.  I’m heading for the end.  Finally I slide onto the last page in a cloud of dust… and then it’s over.  What a great read!


But I may not remember that book in the morning.  I may not recommend that book to others.  The book I read as fast as I could may not turn out to be the one I find myself haunted by, the one that changes me.


When my children were growing up, they came up with an expression to describe being so lost in a book that they couldn’t be torn away.  “Book land,” they called it.  “Go away,” they’d say, shooing away distractions.  “I’m in book land.”    


But there are different kinds of terrain in book land, different kinds of immersion.   


Elmore Leonard (1925-2013), the prolific crime writer, is famous for his Tenth Rule: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”


Leonard’s prose is hardboiled, crystalline, dialogue-heavy, without a wasted word.   “If it sounds like writing,” he said, “I rewrite it.”


In a similar vein, recently I came across a product called Hemingway App.  Named after the writer with the famously blunt, concise prose style, it highlights the use of passive voice, adverbs, and “overly complicated” words and sentences so you can purge them from your work.  The goal:  to make your writing “bold and clear.”


I’m 100% sure that if you were to let this app roam at will over the English-language literary canon, it would flag some of the best-loved lines ever written.


In fact, when you run Hemingway’s own prose through the app, much of it fares quite poorly.    


I’m all for boldness and clarity.  I scour my work for unnecessary words.  But.


Sometimes – as a reader and as a writer – I prefer a writing style that does call attention to itself.  I like it when the syntax or the diction or the alternation of long and short sentences cries out for notice.  I like being forced to slow down and take my time.


A novel I read recently was written almost entirely in iambs, I realized partway through.  Every sentence scanned.  I paused often to savor its poetic riches.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  


Among the unique qualities that distinguish a book from a film is the level of participation required of the reader.   It’s up you as a reader to imagine what the characters look and sound like, to fill in the sights and sounds of street scenes and landscapes, to furnish the interiors.   Every reader’s novel is a little different.  My Jane Eyre doesn’t look like or sound exactly like yours.  


Doesn’t it take time for readers to carry out their side of the bargain, to fill in those details for themselves?


So lately I’ve been wondering about the page-turner.  Yes, I want my readers to turn the pages of my book – all of them, from cover to cover.  But I also want them to stop turning now and then.  To put the book down and take a breath.   To stroll rather than gallop, at least sometimes.   To slow down and let the writing work its magic.


*  *  *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.  Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.  See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.


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  • Karen Wilton

    It's true, those page turners are over in an instant and while I may not want to leave I can't wait to get to that final page. I'd never thought this was a bad thing for an author. You've certainly given me something to think about as my fingers tap away at the keys. If I'm in a rush to get the words down as the author will my readers be in the same rush to finish with my story and move on to the next?

  • Nina Angela McKissock

    Very funny Ellen! You're right.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Nina McKissock says:  "I would love it if the reader would ponder..."  I feel the same way -- just so long as the reader ponders and then comes back to the book!

  • Nina Angela McKissock

    Indeed. Most of my beta readers took a few weeks to read my manuscript. It's not the type of book to be read quickly; I would love if the reader would ponder, contemplate and reflect on the stories of my beloved hospice patients.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks, Pamela Olson, for fascinating comments on writing a page-turner. 

  • Pamela Olson

    This is a really excellent point. The best books I read tend to take quite a while to read, as I put the book down and pause every now and then, absorbing and collating a new image or idea into my own thread of perceived reality. Page turners with lots of gimmicks to induce suspense (and not a lot of substance) tend to be torn through and forgotten about quickly.

    It's nice (but rare) to occasionally find a book that's as engaging as a page-turner but has a lot of meaty ideas as well!

    It's tough in today's writing landscape not to use at least some techniques to keep people turning the pages. But going flat-out may sabotage your real writing instincts. As is said in the Tao Te Ching (and very hard to hear in a world that only seems to value sales):

    Fame or integrity: which is more important?
    Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
    Success of failure: which is more destructive?


    If you look to others for fulfillment,
    you will never truly be fulfilled.
    If your happiness depends on money,
    you will never be happy with yourself.


    Be content with what you have;
    rejoice in the way things are.
    When you realize there is nothing lacking,
    the whole world belongs to you.