by Janet Kobobel Grant
I’ve previously extolled the benefits for me in reading Publishers Weekly. Each issue I peruse provides me with some insight or confirms I’m correct (or that I’m incorrect) about some aspect of publishing. Because publishing is like an ever-turning wheel, changes in trends and in publishing houses are challenging to keep up with. Publishers Weekly is of considerable help.
The First Knell
As I read the March 4 issue of the publication, the title of a reviewed nonfiction book caught my eye: Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. Since I wasn’t sure who would fit the description of an accidental president or how they changed our country, I read the review.
It begins with, “Cohen [the author]…explores the power transitions of eight U.S. vice presidents who took over the presidency upon the deaths of their predecessors in this entertaining but clunky history.”
Clunky? Oops, that sounds like a death knell to me.
And, Yet, Something to Admire
The next sentence reads, “Positing that ‘the matter of succession has been trivialized by voters, candidates and lawmakers,’ Cohen presents brief, confidently told narratives of each transition.”
Confidently told. That sounds good. So what’s with the usage of the word clunky?
The reviewer explains that Cohen’s premise is that the process of selecting vice presidents should be improved, perhaps even requiring them to have previously run for president. Certainly they should not be chosen by campaign teams.
This book sounds thought-provoking to me. But clearly something goes amiss in the concept’s execution, if the reviewer is correct.
The Second Knell
Apparently, multiple anecdotes of near deaths of presidents and “overdoses of contextual details too often take precedence over the ostensible analytical focus.”
Ah, the manuscript veered away from its supposed reason for existing.
Let that be a lesson to us all: Regardless how fascinating we might find a rabbit trail we discovered as we researched, we must not give in to our own interest in this offshoot of the book’s concept. If we promise through the title, subtitle, and stated premise what the book will consist of, then we must deliver on that promise in a satisfying way.
The same goes for fiction. Sometimes a novelist finds a colorful secondary character so fun to be around, that the character takes over from the protagonist. Oh-oh, the story has just veered out of the author’s control.
Noting What’s Good
The reviewer doesn’t find fault with the writing. “…The pacing is brisk, the writing is clear and engaging, and Cohen’s characterizations of the presidents are mostly vivid.”
But said reviewer does object to Cohen not fulfilling his promised exploration of the theme. “…The conclusions he draws feel slight. This colorful, occasionally amusing but somewhat shaggy book may strike readers of history as…”
The Third Tolling Bell
And here comes the final knell: “as lacking in urgency.”
I was startled by this perceptive and forceful way of expressing what was amiss with the book. It lacked urgency because the author didn’t stay focused and more fully develop his premise. (By the way, I think his premise is one I’d like to read about and ponder.)
Lacking in urgency.
Let that be a lesson to all of us. Here are some questions to ask yourself regarding your work-in-progress:
- Does my material meander rather than move with clarity of vision to its intended purpose for existing?
- Have I let myself to be charmed away from the book’s path by some bunny trail I’m enjoying?
- Does the manuscript deliver what I’ve promised, either as a nonfiction concept, or as the type of novel-reading experience I’ve promised in its title and opening?
- Have I continued to feel urgency about conveying all that I had hoped when I first formed the concept?
Lest any of us have fallen into feeling a lack of urgency, let’s take a lesson from this review and examine our work from this perspective.
Why do you think authors lose their sense of urgency as they work on a book concept? How do you think a writer can maintain that urgency?
Pitfalls authors are prone to falling into. Click to tweet.
What’s the most important aspect of a book that authors can lose sight of? Click to tweet.