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The Blog

Long, yes. But also nimble.

I'm on a much-needed break in my tour to talk about The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It's a good moment to say a few words abut the writing of this book.

There's one word that has appeared in almost every review: "long." Well, I can't argue. It is long, without question. Vanderbilt led an extraordinarily long and eventful life, and certainly deserved an "epic" biography.

The question a reader naturally asks is, Will I get bogged down in it? I hope the answer is a resounding no. I consciously took a few steps to make it as nimble as possible.

First, I learned something from perhaps my favorite writer of all: Tolstoy. No, I can't write like Tolstoy, but I noticed something about his two epic novels: He broke them into little chapters, often only a page or two long. That meant that you always had a natural stopping point just ahead. There was no sense of being lost in a sea of pages. My chapters are much longer, but I introduced breaks every few pages, to offer the same sort of relief to a hard-pressed reader. With a book like this, you need to be able to pick it up, put it down, and pick it up again later. I tried to make it easier.

The other thing I tried to do was to keep the narrative moving. One of my favorite definitions of plot is the creation of expectations, followed by their fulfillment. The fulfillment might not be what you think it will be, but you know there's resolution coming. The point is, as a writer I try to give the reader a reason to read the next page, and the next chapter. I try to create a sense that something is going to happen, that something will be revealed—that events are moving toward a climax (or, in my book, a succession of ever-growing climaxes).

I tried to end each chapter by opening a door to the next. Generally speaking, each chapter in my book is defined by a business conflict, which usually comes to some kind of resolution (or pause) by the end of the chapter. But there was always something looming over the horizon for Vanderbilt, and I tried to get the reader interested in discovering what was coming next.
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