Some readers, I think, have ADD when it comes to reading. They are the sort of readers who simply want to dive right in, skip to the meat of the story, and completely look over whatever boring introduction the author might be offering in the foreword.
Fortunately for these readers (and perhaps unfortunately for the troubled author), this is usually a great idea. In most cases, I’ve found that completely skipping an author’s preface is far more enjoyable than bothering to read it. The only reason I know this is because I actually do read author prefaces and find them to be, for the most part, completely awful. This should not be the case.
The sad truth, however, is that most author prefaces I’ve read are full of distracting excuses, bullshit, and general whining that, had he or she eliminated the preface from his or her books to begin with, would have made for a much better novel without the attention-whoring melodrama (supposing the book is actually any good).
Let’s start you off with an example.
Take, for example, the fantasy novel Storm Glass by Maria V. Snyder. When reading this book (admittedly awful compared to her other novels), reading Snyder’s preface pulled me too far away from the actual story. It gave me too much of a visual of the author behind her computer sitting and scrunching her nose in thought as she crafted the tale. Snyder’s entire preface consists of her explanation for how the story came to be, what sort of strategies she used to help bring its adventures to life, etc — but it wasn’t helpful at all. Instead of giving me a deeper understanding for her work that got me pumped to dive into her story, it forced me to picture her typing as I read, forced me to imagine her drawing from her experiences in the real world when, instead, I should have been focused more deeply in her actual tale. Her preface, in other words, completely distracted me.
… Of course, Storm Glass kinda sucked, and I often felt like I was forcing myself to labor through it rather than enjoy it, so that might explain why her terrible preface haunted me throughout its pages. Perhaps if the story was awesome, I would have been more “wow”ed. But you get what I mean.
On the flip side, the late fiction author, Michael Crichton, I’ve found, completely avoids prefaces (or the editions of his two books I just finished up simply didn’t include his prefaces). Therefore, no distractions. Also, his story spinning is so richly lined with real knowledge, scientific fact, and medical history that it becomes tough to determine what in his books are real from what is not. He’s a master of his craft. He doesn’t need the explanation for why he’s writing. What you see is what you get, and what you get is an amazing adventure.
But not everyone is a Crichton-level storyteller.
And thus, most authors feel that they need a preface.
And in my experience, most prefaces suck ass-balls.
What a Preface Should Look Like:
Having just finished Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain in compilation with another of his pieces, The Terminal Man (then lending this book to a friend who I’m excited to discuss it with), I’ve finally moved onto a new book: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene. Non-Fiction, Science-based.
Maybe it’s just the deeply analytical subject matter that fascinates me (I’m obsessed with psychoanalytic theory lately), but Greene manages to write a preface that does exactly what it is supposed to do. That is, his preface introduces me to his work in a way that is relatable, gets me excited to turn the page, and pumps me up to discover the ideas he only hints at. No full-blown explanation for what is what and why or how — just a nod towards what I’m about to dive into, with the reassurance that turning the page will better describe the simple fragments of thought in his foreword.
This particular section in his preface, for example, got me stoked to dive in:
“Although the book agent to whom I first showed my proposal rejected it outright—understandably predicting that the subject was too specialized to attract a mainstream publisher—I could feel the enthusiasm for the science when I was lecturing in the field. It was palpable.
The Elegant Universe tapped into this enthusiasm, and the gratifying response it has received is testament to the innate drive so many of us have to explore thoroughly and courageously this place we call home. It also affirmed my belief that physics provides an author with some of the most wonderful material imaginable. We all love a good story. We all love a tantalizing mystery. We all love the underdog pressing onward against seemingly unsurmountable odds. We all, in one form or another, are trying to make sense of the world around us. And all of these elements lie at the core of modern physics.
The story is among the grandest—the unfolding of the entire universe; the mystery is among the toughest—figuring out how the cosmos came to be; the odds are among the most daunting—bipeds, newly arrived by cosmic time scales trying to reveal the secrets of the ages; and the quest is among the deepest—the search for fundamental laws to explain all we see and beyond, from the tiniest particles to the most distant galaxies. It’s hard to imagine a richer point of departure.”
The over analytical geek in me just had a braingasm reading that. I’m stoked to read the rest of his book thanks to that carrot dangled in my face.
But, of course, not everyone can write a solid preface.
What Not to Include in a Preface:
I’ll be using Snyder’s book, Storm Glass again in this example.
In Snyder’s preface to Storm Glass, she does a few things right, sure. She introduces her story, acknowledges those who helped her publish it, explains how it came to be, why she began to write it, and why she felt particularly attracted to the adventure behind the leading antagonist. However, rather than simply hinting towards the gems her readers might discover through her book, she instead fully explains every process within her novel down to the minute detail.
Again, it’s distracting.
I believe the term is “spoiler” — when something is revealed that brings something into awareness that would have been better left as a surprise via organic means. That is, the material she uses in her preface is too deep and too involved to begin discussing right away. The content she uses in her preface–in my opinion, really, which doesn’t mean much in the large scope of things–would have been much better suited as a supplement to the actual story to make the fictional tale she’s writing seem more realistic. So it’s not that what she included in her preface was terrible. It’s that she involved the reader too early with concepts better left for deeper reading. Or in other words, she hand-fed us the bait rather than luring us in with the hook.
Preface-style might vary by genre.
Fantasy and Fiction stories are, of course, probably a bit tougher to write than Non-Fiction pieces based on solid research and known fact (though this can be argued, I’m sure). In Fantasy and Fiction, it is up to the author to build a world where the reader can “live” while diving into the piece.
Knowing this, it makes sense why Snyder may have felt the need to further explain her fantasy story. Some concepts may have been too abstract to grasp for her target audience. But again, her preface did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Instead of supplementing her story, it made her novel seem weak. It made it seem–to me, anyway–as if, had she left out the preface entirely, her story would not only have fallen flat, but fallen further than it did before being supplemented by the introduction.
Fiction author Crichton, however (and I keep using him as an example because he’s really just a fantastic fiction author), rather than filling a preface with spoilers and nonsense describing down to the details the science behind his madness, uses the characters in his story to embody the passion behind these ideas. Through the characters and environments in his books, he projects the reasons why and the motivations behind what. He understands that the story itself should convey the message rather than the foreword. His pieces are solid. They make the argument for him without any need for introduction. That is, Crichton uses the fictional worlds of his work to better describe what he may have included in the foreword and, therefore, makes the unbelievable believable. Pure skill, really.
If you suck at prefaces, don’t write one at all.
Some points to take away from this piece:
- Use your preface only to hint at what you’re about to introduce to your readers — don’t give away too many spoilers.
- Carve the bulk of your ideas out throughout your actual story.
- If you’re working with fiction or fantasy, embody the ideas and experiences you feel the need to share in your preface instead through the characters and environments in your writing.
- Bait or hook your readers with your preface. Your introduction is merely the lure, not the actual reward.
- Don’t spend too long explaining why you wrote your piece. Instead, work on the actual piece with the aim to completely eliminate the need for a preface. Don’t write one at all. Focus on solidifying your ideas within your actual work, a la Crichton.
But again, what do I know? /Shrug.
Sunday reading with a hot cup of black tea,
XOXO Cheri XOXO