Tell me your bookish thoughts

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.


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. 

Comments on Tell me your bookish thoughts
  • Trace, I think all of this depends on the subject. Like, I love both of Mary Roach’s books (Spook and Stiff) which are broken down into longish chapters and have TOCs. But each chapter is a pretty discrete thing. They don’t really depend on a narrative.

    I’m not a huge fan of the short chapter because, to me, it sometimes gets in the way of the storytelling. If you’re going to make the structure part of the story (like Eliz. Gilbert does), it makes sense, but otherwise? Eh.

    Ditto with breaking separating out flashbacks from the present material. That said, Margaret Atwood uses them to awesome effect in Alias Grace--they bring suspense and add character development/surprises. And Dave Eggars’s What Is the What is super-super masterful in the flashback stuff. In that last one, I think it works so great because it help the book have two plots in a way: the flashback stuff keeps the reader going because she’s wondering all the narrator endured, and the present-tense stuff keeps the reader going because she wonders if, even though he survived all the flashback stuff, will this current crisis be the one that does him in? It’s like a double incentive to get to the end.

    Oh my. I could go on.

    Jennifer Niesslein on Jan 25, 2008

  • It’s hard for me to say what worked for me organization-wise about the two most recent books I loved. They are both Young Adult titles. I read Speak (Karen Halse Anderson) with my 7th Grade Class and I read Elsewhere (Gabrielle Zevin, I think) on the advice of two of my students. I highly recommend both. I can say that the writing styles of the authors are very different. Speak is filled with figurative language. It is the story of a young woman who is ostracized and misunderstood by her friends and family but who finds her Voice through art and one friendship, thus becoming able to tell about a tragic event in her life. Elsewhere is the story of a young girl who dies but who wakes up in “Elsewhere.” It has no figurative language and isn’t as well-written as Speak, but it is fascinating and imaginative. But they are both traditionally organized. I am in the midst of two other novels, Mrs. Mike (recently discussed in an issue of O magazine) and The Book Thief--which is narrated by Death (and is also a young adult novel).

    Donna on Jan 26, 2008

  • Hi, Trace.

    I very much like Shaw’s intros to his plays, and although Trollope didn’t supply intros to his novels, he has an equivalent blurb on each one in his Autobiography that I nearly always look at before or after enjoying one of his works of fiction.  Anyhow, generally think intros are useful and, of course, they’re always optional for the reader anyhow.

    I don’t have any particular preference regarding chapter length.

    Finally, as you know, I hate Elizabeth Gilbert with an almost visceral hate.  After all, my first ever blog was a sort of paeon to that bile my body produced while reading her book.



    walter horn on Jan 26, 2008

  • Trace,

    The only intro that ever stayed with me was the one by Walker Percy for Confederacy of Dunces, most likely because it relayed the unbelievable story of Toole and what his mother went through to get the manuscript noticed.

    I prefer not-too-short chapters with short titles, mixing past and present.

    T on Jan 30, 2008

  • To intro or not: if it’s an author I’m not familiar with, or if it’s a new genre for me/her, I do read the intro.  If it’s someone I’ve read before and the book is in the same general vein, I may skip it.  The tone in an intro is often very different (more/less chatty/formal, etc.) than the rest of the book - I hate when that happens!

    TOC and chapter titles I often don’t read because I’m engrossed in the writing.  I often miss the cute quotes or chapter titles that some authors put in to foreshadow the chapter contents and only notice on a second reading.

    Chapter length, to me, works when it matches the content.  For example, Gilbert was using the device of the prayer beads to tell a different story/vignette in each chapter. Lots of snippets = short chapters.  A novel set in Victorian times, when life was supposedly slower, works for me when there are longer chapters.  I guess I don’t really pay attention to the page breaks unless the content is too obviously trying to be “cute.” Eat,Pray was awfully close to “too cute.”

    Time shifting, for me, works when it’s integrated.  A story is rarely linear—you travel somewhere new (Rome) but read about the Pieta when you were a kid, so the flashback happens as you’re standing there looking at the Pieta.  It would seem too artificial to take it out and stick it into a chapter on “stuff I saw before I ever got here.”

    Good luck!

    Monica on Jan 31, 2008

  • Hey, Trace, have you seen this?--

    Walto on Feb 13, 2008

  • Heh. As we said, the Eat, Pray, Love backlash continues. It’s funny ‘cause I just found that site and linked to it a few weeks back (World Hum).

    Enjoyed both the writer’s “boy version” of EPL and the observation of one commenter who pointed out that the boy version is just like every Henry Miller novel ever.

    Tracy on Feb 13, 2008

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