Five tips for writing a book introduction

When you buy a novel, you’re paying for a story. That’s why storytellers drop you right into the action. Never keep a customer waiting.

Nonfiction is different. Readers buy books to reap benefits — whether it’s to learn something or gain expertise. They want to go somewhere, and your introduction is the entrance ramp to their highway.

The next time you’re ready to write an intro, consider these five guidelines:

1. Create thirst, don’t slake it.
Feed them pretzels and point to the water.

2. Offer samples.
Delight your readers with a few surprises right up front and they’ll want more.

3. Keep it timeless.
If you’re rushing a book to market on an explosive event, go for the moment. But if your theme is timeless (e.g., prayer), resist the urge to anchor it in today’s news. Todays news is tomorrow’s old newspapers. Bring transcendence instead.

4. Skip the obvious, and never condescend.
Even if we’re unhappy with the way things are, we don’t need to be told we’re unhappy. We know that already. Show us some light. Walk us through the woods and reveal a scenic vista. And don’t assume we’re wringing our hands. Even concerned readers are seldom quaking in their boots. More often they’re exploring what others have to say. Always write to a reader more intelligent than yourself. That person wants to know what you think.

5. Make it personal without making it about you (unless it’s a memoir!).
Readers welcome a companion. Especially one who shares colorful or valuable experience. But they seldom tolerate egotism. Intros that are all about the author leave no room for the reader. Unless your story is what they paid to read. David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man begins with eleven paragraphs about himself. Here is one of them:

“My boyhood hero had been Lloyd George, and I had expected to become Prime Minister when I grew up. Instead, I became an advertising agent on Madison Avenue; the revenues of my nineteen clients are now greater than the revenue of Her Majesty’s Government.”

These two sentences — both about the author — so intrigued me I stayed with him through all eleven chapters that followed.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but a nudge toward effective first impressions. Jerry Jenkins recently blogged about first lines. They’re worth every hour it takes to craft them. So are intros. Entice, amaze, whet, and compel. Guarantee a hearing. You’re making new friends, and you want them to stick around.

Humility in writing and pastoring

The greatest challenge with wielding influence is getting out of the way. Whether I’m writing, teaching, or praying, my focus often drifts back to me — and I am not the point. Brett Lott references this theme in Letters & Life, his slim volume on being a writer:

I saw, suddenly and fully, that a story was about the people involved. I saw that embellishment brought to the table an unwanted intruder: the author. . . . [that] I had to be the last one heard from in this pile of words I was arranging, and that humility was the most valuable tool I could have, because the people about whom I wanted to write mattered so very much more than the paltry desires of the writer himself. . . . To be a writer is to be humble. To be a writer means to get oneself out of the way” (pgs. 105, 108).

Moving others toward their Lord requires stepping back. Making room. As it turns out, spiritual renewal is preceded by receding.

You see, the only life that pleases God and that can be victorious, is His life — never our life, no matter how hard we try. But inasmuch as our self-centered life is the exact opposite of His, we can never be filled with His life, unless we are prepared for God to bring our life constantly to death. And in that we must co-operate by our moral choice” (pgs. 25-26, The Calvary Road, by Roy Hession).

 

When writing for young men

Society can give its young men almost any job and they’ll figure how to do it. They’ll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for.*

When writing or publishing for young men, it’s crucial to visualize what outcomes you’re hoping for. Are they worthy of the readers you’re serving? Are you aiming high enough? Young men, properly motivated, possess an irrepressible will to achieve and prevail. Honoring your reader’s potential is the lynchpin of your message.

* This statement appears on page 154 of War, by Sebastian Junger. A sobering and thought-provoking snapshot of the war in Afghanistan, War also speaks to the nature and strength of America’s young men.

Wanting and doing

Characters want, therefore they do; desire drives the action. It is what makes characters real, and it is the writer’s job to connect the characters’ wants to the reader’s own longings. Like characters, readers want justice, love, redemption, freedom, connection. Desire propels. Mistakes, irrevocable blunders get made. The story quickens.

But while characters want things desperately, only rarely can they have them. Drama lies in the frustration of desires. (From WORD CRAFT: Driven by Desire, by Carol Edgarian)

Does our writing resonate? If our characters breathe, wince, and cheer, our readers will do the same.

The feel of a book

When an author makes you feel, she has you.

I remember reading a manuscript, enjoying the characters, and wondering where the story would lead. Then, in the middle of a conversation, one of them cocked his head. Something wasn’t right. A noise that shouldn’t be there. I felt a chill.

Suddenly, those wonderful characters — high school students — were engulfed in horror:

The first thing I noticed was the blood. It was everywhere, all over Kyle’s clothes and arms, soaked through the back of Daniel’s shirt and already dripping onto the sandy grass near Mani’s knees. It was so much darker than I had thought it would be — almost black — until I touched him, and my hands came away red.

A week later I was still replaying that scene, and I wasn’t alone. When it came time to title the book, one of the women on our team quoted a line from the story — and we all agreed. The author, Lisa McKay, had every one of us from that scene forward. What else would we call the book?

My Hands Came Away Red.

Epic creative tension

Hollywood is rediscovering the Bible. (You can read about it here.) They have this to say:

Hollywood has the best storytellers. And religion has the best stories.

Well, OK. And then there’s this:

There’s creative interpretation that goes into things that aren’t directly addressed in the underlying material, and so you always run the risk that people take exception to those stories.

Bingo.

Is it possible to please “those eager for a faith-based film” and “those searching for a ‘popcorn’ movie” with the same movie? What a challenge. Which asset should you honor — the storytelling, or the story? When the story serves the telling, it’s time for popcorn. But what if the story is true? What if it’s history? What if “creatively interpreting” the story misleads or brings harm to the viewer? Is that still good storytelling?

Some stories are sacred, and taking liberties violates them. Is it wrong for faith-based viewers to take exception to violated stories? On the flip side, honoring sacred stories often offends the popcorn audience because sacred stories pack a punch, whether conviction or outrage. Not what most people look for in a movie.

Moviegoers will soon get to see Russell Crowe playing Noah. The story of Noah involves the destruction of nearly every person on earth. (You can read that story in the Bible — see chapters 6-9 of Genesis.) How would you resolve the creative tension of telling Noah’s story? Would Mr. Crowe still want to play Noah? Who would pay money to see it? Would they leave the theater satisfied? Or convicted?

The geography of fiction

Novels are tricky. Is upbeat artificial? Is dystopian faithless? Are plot line and characterization exclusive? Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography, hints at the link between realistic characters and complex scenarios:

Geography is common sense, but it is not fate. Individual choice operates within a certain geographical and historical context, which affects decisions but leaves many possibilities open. The French philosopher Raymond Aron captured this spirit with his notion of “probabilistic determinism,” which leaves ample room for human agency. But before geography can be overcome, it must be respected. Our own foreign-policy elites are too enamored of beautiful ideas and too dismissive of physical facts-on-the-ground and the cultural differences that emanate from them. Successfully navigating today’s world demands that we focus first on constraints, and that means paying attention to maps. Only then can noble solutions follow (from The Wall Street Journal, 9/8/12italics mine).

In Unseduced and Unshaken, Rosalie de Rosset points to the realistic characterization of Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. “These women do not betray their convictions; they are not sentimentalists. [They] are ‘formidably self-possessed young women with detailed moral sensibilities’ who take themselves and are taken seriously. They don’t just respond; they decide what to do with their lives, every part of them” (from page 153).

The ultimate formula fiction: realistic geography + human agency = noble solutions.