January 23, 2008
Filed in: The Home Front
Holla, peeps: I turned on comments for this blog, which is a really big deal for me, because I’ve been working with and writing about the Internet for 15 years, so I know full on how many crazy over-opinionated flamers there are out there in cyberspace (wow, there’s a phrase you don’t hear much anymore).
But I NEED your input, dear well-read followers, so I’m hoping and praying you’ll take pity on me and comment.
HERE’S THE SCOOP:
I’m sitting here with a huge pile of books strewn all over my office floor, trying to work out the very best way to put together The 50th State. Mostly a book succeeds because of its subject and because of the way it’s written, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that at least a tiny part of why we finish a book or don’t comes down to physical things and organizational things.
From what I’ve been told, the lowly author has next to no control over cover art, typeface, size and heft and paper quality, but this lowly author does, at least in these early planning sessions, have some decisions to make about how my book will be organized and presented to the reader.
So think, O bookish ones, of a tome or two that you’ve loved, fiction or non (though, for my purposes I’ve been looking exclusively at non-fiction), and let me know what worked for you, organizationally. Specifically,
* What about an introduction, or a preface, or a foreword – do you ever read any of that stuff before or do you dive right in? Or do you perhaps look at that stuff in the book store but skip it after you’ve decided to actually read the book? (Bonus if someone can tell me the difference between an introduction and a preface. A foreword, I think, is written for the author by someone else, right?)
I have a weird habit, I usually go back and read the introduction after I’ve read the book, and then only if I liked it. Like I said, weird.
* Table of contents: do you like one in there at all, or not? If there is one, do you like chapter titles or just numbers? If you like titles, do you like long chatty titles (“In which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a woozle” ) or short, cryptic ones?
Me, I prefer titles to my chapters, in both fiction and non-fiction, and I like them to hint at what’s to come but not spill all the beans, to be like a riddle (and sorry to keep using children’s books as examples here, but nobody pulls off this trick better than J.K. Rowling). But obviously even serious authors have made their lasting mark on world literature with their chapter titles. Think of how everyone teaches/discusses Ulysses by its chapter titles, “Hades,” “Circe,” etc.
(On the other hand, as an experiment, I just pulled A Farewell to Arms, Lolita, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn off the shelf next to my desk, and they ain’t got no stinking chapter titles or tables of contents. So! Neither is strictly necessary for literary immortality, we can conclude.)
* On the chapters themselves: do you like long chapters, short ones or somewhere in between?
C and I read a series of YA historical fantasy books (The Seeing Stone et al.) where the chapters were literally 1-2 pages long at most and there were 100 of them per book. It started out feeling accessible and wound up being annoying (and then really, really annoying). I need to feel the author has done some work on my behalf, has gathered random ideas or plot developments into something larger and more cohesive.
On the other hand, a person, especially a busy, tired person who doesn’t at this stage of her life have much time for leisure reading, wants to feel like she’s getting somewhere, making some headway, and too-long chapters can feel like a slog. Especially chapters called “One” or “Seven” or “Nineteen.”
* Having said all that, Elizabeth Gilbert, who I was just harshing on in a recent post, does both of those things – has tons of tiny short numbered-only chapters, and I think it works brilliantly. In fact, I think it’s one of the things that makes people keep reading on, even through the stuff when she’s at the ashram (which I’m sorry to admit got for me kinda boring, bad unenlightened person that I am).
[For those of you who haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, the book is divided into three big chunks, for the three places she traveled (Italy, India and Bali). Then each chunk is divided into 36 mini-chapters, some not even a page long, which are supposed to correspond to the number of beads found in traditional Indian prayer beads.
The only reason this works is because she tells you the scheme in her introduction, which I suppose I must have read before I read the book.]
Sigh. Okay, so she breaks all of my rules and is making $2 billion a day on the bestseller list. Next!
* Speaking of forward motion, when you’re reading a book that has present day and past material mixed in (as my travel memoir will, but obvs as most fiction does as well), do you like it all integrated into one seamless narrative or pulled out into separate chapters?
I am thinking of breaking my flashback material out into separate chapters, but deep down I know this isn’t what a truly masterful writer would do. Just as our pasts are integrated into our present lives, whether consciously or unconsciously, so should it be on the page, right? Just makes it a LOT harder to write is all.
Bill Bryson does a great job of this in The Lost Continent, his driving-across-America book, where he moves back and forth seamlessly (there’s that word again) from his hilarious account of growing up in Iowa to his present-day road trip.
Okay, I’m done! Now be a buddy, grab a well-loved book off your shelf, and tell me what you liked about it, organization-wise.