The other day one of our editors, Dave Zimmerman, came to me with a proposal from a prospective author for a book. It was on prayer, mission, evangelism, the history of global Christianity, the future of Christianity, the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God and justice.
I looked at Dave and said, “First-Book Syndrome.” He grimly nodded in agreement.
What is First-Book Syndrome?
It’s something we see all the time at InterVarsity Press, and something other publishers see too. People who haven’t written a book before often have dozens of ideas swirling in their heads that are all somehow connected . They think they have to put all this stuff in one book, either because they cannot conceive of writing a second or third book, or because they are unable to separate any of the ideas from one another since they are so tightly interlinked.
The problem is that a book about everything is a book about nothing. Look at any nonfiction bestseller list. The books are on very specific topics—a biography of a famous person, a specific health plan, a plan to become wealthy, an analysis of current politics, and on it goes.
Dave’s and my author friend needed to find one topic among his dozen, figure out what was unique about that topic that hadn’t been said before, and zero in on that. It’s not enough to say that the unique thing is how the author puts these dozen topics together into a cohesive package—unless it is indeed one idea that links them. Then maybe the book can be about that one idea–maybe.
Life is complex. And I’m not saying we should oversimplify things. I’m just trying to echo what is attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: “I wouldn´t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
I am off for July. So I’m running some favorite Andy Unedited blasts from the past. This was originally posted July 2, 2007.
5 thoughts on “First-Book Syndrome”
I have first book syndrome. I’m sending another portion of my manuscript to an interested acquisitions editor tomorrow. But I’m working feverishly to cut away all the rabbit trails and false starts and blather. Oy. All I know is that I’ll do my next book very differently. Must we always write a bad book before we can write a good book?
Your posting reminds me of my English Composition teacher in High School in 1956-57, Mr. La Croix. He was bombastic, outspoken, opinionated, dogmatic, and doctrinaire to the point of absurdity. He advocated, among other things, very short sentences, very long sentences, only a few of the mediocre sentences (10-15 words), telling us that this was what the great writers had done, So I followed his advice, I used long sentences, very long sentences, short sentences, very short, and only a few of the mediocre sentences. But, and what a conjunction that was, I cited examples and instances of everything to the contrary. My source of help was perhaps the greatest writer on how to write novels that ever lived, Jack Woodford of Illinois, perhaps the sorriest novelist who ever lived. In his works on how to write and sell novels, Woodford cited all of the well-known authors of the twentieth century up to his day and all of the famous writers of the past. His acquaintance with literature was phenomenal. What a blast! My teacher loved the paper. He read it to the class. He gave me an “A”. I would say, “Mr. La Croix says.” Then I would quote him. After that I would say, “Bah!” In one instance, I cited Mr. La Croix’s demanded for variety in the length of sentences, then cited Faulkner as an example to the contrary. He even opens one of his books with a sentence that is eight pages long. Read it and weep!
Just thought I would josh you a little bit, Mr. Le Peau. My findings concerning editors has been that they want someone already well-known so sales will be guaranteed, a sure fire way to bring our literature to the depths of mediocrity, a reality coming to pass at a rate today that I find hard to comprehend. Of course, I am aware of the need for focus, for colloquialisms. Not that it matters much.
This sounds remarkably like “First Sermon Syndrome!”
Thanks for this encouragement. I’ve long wondered if I myself am ready to write a book…we’ll see.
From the Generals to the Particular, and from the Particulars to the General, the process is like a dance, a two-step waltz. It is like love and marriage, like a horse and a carriage, you can’t have one without the other, a delicate fugue of contrapuntals, if possible.
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