How introductions improve nonfiction books

Here’s a few pitfalls I’ve noticed in nonfiction books. No need to name names, as these problems are common enough that you may have noticed them in your own reading, too.

One problem is that, in giving advice, authors sometimes say things that are dreadfully obvious. “The goal is to complete the project.” “It’s better to do things well than to do them poorly.” And so on. This can happen with books that document facts, too. Sometimes it seems as if the book is just a list of facts. The facts struggle to elevate to the level of a concept, and they don’t reach the level of story. Even if the facts are obscure, they are “obvious” in the sense that they already exist in an encyclopedia somewhere in much the same format. Whatever unique meaning the author might have lent them in a book-length treatment isn’t fully delivered.

Another is that, in classifying problems, authors sometimes juxtapose problems of wildly different severities and psychological impacts. “Sometimes you have a bad day: you know, you stub your toe, or your child dies.” “Cultivate your personal network so you can get a good job and escape the country if there’s a genocide.” It’s hard to keep track of the author’s originally intended point when the examples muddy the emotional content.

One overarching problem can lead to both of these bad results: The author’s neglect to explain why they wanted to write this book in the first place. Here’s my theory of how that works.

Presumably the author knows a lot and cares about their thesis. They don’t think what they are saying is factually obvious; they want to add something new. They’re also aware that the phenomenon they’re pointing out has many different manifestations with different emotional and moral meanings and applications; as an expert, they’re probably capable of making those distinctions. But if the author doesn’t open the book explaining their qualifications and interests, and if they don’t make the case that this book needs to exist and that they’re the best person to create it, then the book doesn’t get off on the right foot. The writer may not yet have adequately interrogated their knowledge base or their agenda (in which case they really aren’t quite prepared to write the book) or they may simply lack confidence in themselves. Without a proper introduction, the reader, similarly, has no basis on which to have confidence in the author. Furthermore, the reader may not trust the author to handle a psychologically deep topic. The writer has not extended their own voice and made the personal connection with the reader.

That’s why I believe nonfiction introductions are important. When the author establishes their qualifications and passions up front, they are less likely to make the mistake of endlessly listing platitudes and facts and winding up with bizarre and insensitive juxtapositions. They will remember why they are writing the book. When the book is complete, readers will appreciate coming along for the ride.

Why is ‘Ten Past Noon’ 480 pages?

Ebook distributors estimate Ten Past Noon to be around 320 pages. The paperback takes up 480 printed pages because I selected a large, beautiful font that’s easy on the eyes.

But why is it not, say, 150 pages? Why didn’t I write a book that was half the length?

I am reminded of a dialogue from when I was a high school student over twenty years ago.

“Expectations for this class: A final paper,” the teacher said. “Ten pages I want.”

“I can’t write that much,” a student said.

“You have all year,” the teacher said.

“Can it be two?” the bargain began.

“No, ten,” the teacher said. “They are qualitatively different arguments: the two-pager and the ten-pager. It’s ten I want.”

Short sentences are arresting and therefore memorable. They are a good delivery method for complex information made simple. Short sentences are how we communicate “a message.”

But not all information packages are reducible to two pages nor even two hundred. Sometimes an author labors for years, gathers expertise, and develops an idea that is big and nuanced. Then the author no longer has a single message, but a thesis. A teacher often wants a student to demonstrate that they have worked hard, learned many things, and grasped subtleties. That’s what this teacher wanted to see: a thesis.

An early draft of Ten Past Noon was less than a hundred pages. My readers were bored to tears. When I doubled, then tripled the length of my draft, those same readers became increasingly interested. This particular book needed to be long. That’s because Ten Past Noon doesn’t deliver a simple message. It has complex theses, and it works partly through its poetry. Reading it is an artistic experience.

Can a book ever be too long?

Why, yes, yes, yes, it can be. That pitfall, in fact, lies at the heart of Ten Past Noon. The risk of writing too much is part of what I wrote about. So give the book a spin to find out my answer to that question.

Who’s going to write your book?

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“Our disconnectedness from the [imagined] older version of us,” psychologists believe, is “a surprisingly powerful subconscious influence on our behavior.” So wrote Leon Neyfakh in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe on January 6, 2013, in his article, “Meet Future You. Now Be Nice.”

The conundrum is that, the more we imagine that we will change significantly as we age, the less we want to sacrifice today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s happiness because it seems to us that tomorrow’s happiness will belong—somehow—to a different person. Why should people feel motivated to save money, give up dessert, tell the truth…if the benefits will go to their future selves that they can’t yet recognize as “themselves” in their imaginations today?

Neyfakh quoted psychologist Anne Wilson as saying: “You have to find that sweet spot. You need to feel connected enough and care enough about [your future self] in order to pursue [your goals], but not feel so close and connected that you just reap the benefits before you’ve actually done the work.”

Based on how I understand this article, I identify another sweet spot: You need to feel distant enough from your future self to understand that there’s a goal you haven’t achieved yet and into which you must therefore invest effort if you ever want to become that imagined future self, but not feel so distant that you resent working so hard as if you were doing it on behalf of a total stranger.

Hal Hershfield, a professor whose research interests include decision-making, was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s fine to think about that future self as another person—it just has to be another person you feel close to and have a lot of overlap with,” since “the marriages that work best and the friendships that work best are the ones where people feel like the other person is almost part of them.”

Today—having happened across the saved newsprint in my paper hoard—I think about this advice in the context of how much time we invest in our artistic projects. When I make any piece of serious art, I grow as a person just from the process of envisioning it, discovering a way to express it, and seeing it through to the end. When I think of certain accomplishments as very distant, as in, Someday I’ll be the sort of person who can write this book, the book doesn’t get written because I’m essentially telling myself I am not yet the sort of person who can do it. But when I think of certain accomplishments as achievable by me—because the accomplishments are, let’s say, in my “zone of proximal development”—I’m more likely to sit down and write a first draft. I realize I’ll have to grow and change a bit to see it through to the end properly, but it is still I, and not some barely imaginable stranger, who is able to put in the effort and take credit.

On failure in writing

“One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing,” she said, “is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people. They should write as if they might fail at it. To succeed at something mediocre is worse than to fail at something great.”

“Jamaica Kincaid on writing and critics.” Kate Tuttle. The Boston Sunday Globe, Nov. 3, 2013. p. N18.

“Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own.  Don’t put limitations on yourself. Other people will do that for you…failure has to be an option in art and exploration because it’s a leap of faith.  In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.” 

James Cameron, director of “Avatar,” at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference on Feb. 13, 2010. CNN.

“If you’re going to try anything, try something big,” [Stephen] Sondheim told the rapt audience during a visit to Brown in February.  “Make a big failure.  Big failures are dignified.  Little failures are shameful.”

“Why Write?”  L. G.  Brown Alumni Magazine, Mar/Apr 2010, p. 20.

“Why fixate on success when, as Bob Dylan once put it, ‘there’s no success like failure’ and ‘failure’s no success at all’?”

Bob Dylan. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”  Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia Records. March 1965. Quoted in Stephen Prothero. God is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperOne, 2010. p. 302.

“‘Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,’ Barthes tells the interviewer from Le Monde. ‘That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.’”

Ben Kafka. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. New York: Zone Books, 2012. p. 142.

When writing is hard

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When writing feels painful, I think about these statements.

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”

Charles Peguy, “The Honest People,” Basic Verities (1943), tr. Ann and Julian Green. Quoted in Robert D. Hare. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. (Originally from Atria, 1993.) Guilford Press, 2011.

“I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to feat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

“Solitude and Leadership.” William Deresiewicz. Lecture to the plebe class at the U.S. Military Academy in October 2009. Reprinted in The American Scholar. Spring 2010. p. 27.

“A writer is a person for whom language is a problem.”

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Gene Fowler, 1890-1960

On the other hand, though, just because it is difficult does not mean we should take it too seriously. Part of the hard work is learning to put our foolishness in perspective.

“To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 4