Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Invented Ideologies And Lexica

My blog series on the most common problems I found in the self-published, non-fiction books I recently judged for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards continues. In part one, I discussed books written by authors who are not qualified experts in their chosen subjects. In part two, I wrote about authors who come across as dabblers or flakes in their author bio. Part three was about memoirs masquerading as reference books. In today’s post, the last in the series, I’ll address the type of book that introduces an author-invented ideology and a new lexicon to go with it.

An ideology is a body of belief that guides an individual, group or social movement. For example, Freemasonry, veganism and all the religions of the world are based in ideologies. Many more ideologies are introduced in self-help books; Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is one example. An ideology often has its own lexicon, or vocabulary. For instance, Scientologists are on a quest to become “clear” and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) practitioners use “tapping” to eliminate negative feelings.

Obviously, all ideologies were ‘invented’ by some person or group and if you’ve hit on a new body of belief about something, you may have to develop new terminology to explain it. However, your new concepts and ideas can only resonate with the reader if the reader understands them. Successful education in any new subject always begins with a foundation of basic ideas and concepts, ideally using examples drawn from the learner’s everyday life or experience. If you intend to teach the reader an entirely new way of thinking or being, it’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for the reader to learn and comprehend.

Several of the books I read were filled with needlessly complicated explanations of relatively simple concepts. I’m not sure if the authors were trying to impress readers with their huge vocabularies (or huge Thesauruses), or were genuinely incapable of communicating their ideas more simply. In either case the resulting books were a chore to read, difficult to understand, and not at all likely to inspire me to adopt the author’s professed ideology—assuming I could ever figure it out. The following two sentences should illustrate my point:

Track your resting cardiac and pulmonary throughput, as elevated rates of cardiovascular and respiratory activity in a resting state are often indicative of incumbent physical, mental or emotional demands on a systemic level.

Pay attention to your heart rate and breathing when you’re not being physically active, as an elevated pulse or labored breathing at such times may be a sign of physical, mental or emotional stress.

Believe it or not, both sentences communicate the same thing. Which one would you rather read? Now imagine 2-300 pages of the first type of sentence; would you want to read that book?

The poor choices with existing language were challenging enough in these books, but a couple of the authors went a step further by introducing positively baroque terminology of their own—with the words and phrases frequently bearing trademarks. I realize there are instances where an invented word or phrase is needed to make a strong impact, or to describe something that’s never been described before. I also know that inventing and trademarking a name for some concept is a way of laying claim to the discovery of that concept.

Nevertheless, the reader of a mass-market self-help book isn’t expecting to learn a whole new language, and probably has no desire to do so. She bought Freedom to Imagine* in the hope of learning how to spark her creativity, not to be told that her Creative Collective of Pattern Recognition (CCPR)™ is an Imaginational Oppositional Hindrance (IOH)™ to her ability to Futuretask™ and achieve a Creatively Cooperative Psycho-State (CCPS)™. None of those terms are real (as far as I know), but I saw equally annoying jargon in some of the books I read. There are several problems here.

First and most important is the fact that the author didn’t have to invent any new terms. All that the above sentence says is that old habits and patterns can prevent people from being open to new ways of thinking and doing. Rather than communicate this idea in plain English, the author forces his readers to decipher and memorize new terms and acronyms.

Secondly, if new acronyms are introduced every few pages, it’s only a matter of time before the reader begins confusing them or forgetting what they stand for. The author’s use of new terms and acronyms hasn’t made his ideology easier to understand, and in fact he’s made confusion and wrong conclusions much more likely.

Third is the risk that the author’s made-up lexicon will just seem silly to the reader. Seriously, didn’t you have to stifle a giggle while reading the jargon-heavy sentence?

Finally, all that invented terminology makes the book hard and unpleasant to read. Persistent use of unfamiliar terms and acronyms breaks up the flow of sentences and paragraphs, often forcing the reader to re-read entire sections of the book.

Sometimes it truly is necessary to develop new terms and teach them to readers, but only when the thing you’re trying to explain cannot possibly be explained any more clearly with words already in use. In the books I’m talking about, it seemed to me that the authors’ motives had nothing to do with clear explanation. Rather, it seemed they were trying to lay claim to concepts by naming them (and sometimes, trademarking the names).

What the authors fail to recognize is that there will never be a need to defend their claim to this or that term if nobody wants to read their books in the first place. Moreover, the authors can only defend their claim to the invented (and/or trademarked) name, not the concept described by the name. And how likely is it that some other author will make the fortune that was rightfully the first author's by throwing around terms like Imaginational Oppositional Hindrance (IOH)? Not very.

*not a real book

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Memoirs And Reference Books Are Entirely Different Things

My blog series on the most common problems I found in the self-published, non-fiction books I recently judged for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards continues. In part one, I discussed books written by authors who are not qualified experts in their chosen subjects. In part two, I wrote about authors who come across as dabblers or flakes in their author bio. Today, it’s about memoirs masquerading as reference books.

As with all the posts in this series, since I’m not allowed to reveal identifying details of the actual books I reviewed, the book names and specific contents discussed herein have been fabricated. While they serve to illustrate the types of problems I saw, they are not meant to refer to any real books.

Reference Books Are Supposed To Inform AND Educate

The jacket blurb describes Bicycling To Victory as a book filled with insight and advice for the competitive cyclist, and since it was written by a world-champion cyclist, there’s no reason to doubt that jacket copy. But in the book, the author merely relates his experiences on the competitive cycling circuit. No explicit advice is given, and at no point does the author finish up his retelling of a given incident by pointing out what he learned from the experience.

The cyclist has written a memoir, not a reference or educational book. His fans and fans of the sport may find the book interesting, but since it’s classified and described as a reference book, anyone who buys it is probably expecting to gain some instruction and practical tips. Those buyers will be disappointed.

Your Experiences May Not Be As Fascinating To Others As They Are To You

A body shop owner writes Bringing Back Baby, a book about his experiences in restoring numerous classic and rare cars over the many years of his career. Each chapter covers a different car, first describing how the car was obtained and what was wrong with it, then explaining what the body shop owner did to fix it. For example, one of the cars was missing its original headlamps so the body shop owner had to scour the internet and junk yards in four states in order to find the necessary replacement parts.

However, the book doesn’t offer any kind of detailed, step-by-step directions for working on the cars, and there’s nothing unique or special about the various strategies employed by the author in locating missing parts and necessary supplies. Finally, since each chapter is about a different car, and each car requires a specific repair that doesn’t relate to any of the other cars in the book, the book can’t even stand as an overview of classic car restoration.

This is another memoir, just like the cyclist’s book, but it’s a memoir that isn’t likely to interest anyone but the author and the owners of the cars he restored. I saw several examples of memoirs that had been wrongly classified by their authors as nonfiction, reference books, the contents of which would only be of interest to people with a personal connection to the subject matter.

If Your Book Is A Memoir/Self-Help Hybrid, Don’t Leave Out The Self-Help Part

The memoir/self-help hybrid is an increasingly common type of nonfiction book, but again, your accomplishments and experiences in overcoming various challenges don’t automatically make a book based on those things a self-help book.

Reading With My Mind Shut relates the inspiring story of a man who overcame dyslexia and Down Syndrome to complete his education and eventually become a special education teacher. The book names the facilities and programs which helped him along the way, and describes his personal experiences with those facilities and programs. However, while the book may be a terrific memoir, it’s useless as a self-help book because it doesn’t truly offer advice or instruction to the reader. It’s only a self-help book to the extent the reader is willing and able to utilize the exact same facilities and programs in the exact same ways as the author.

In Dance To The Tune That’s Playing, the author provides a series of anecdotes drawn from her experiences as a social worker serving the needs of battered women. The jacket copy suggests the book as a self-help manual for battered women, their friends and family. Each anecdote follows the same pattern of building trust, identifying the client’s specific needs or fears, and serving those specific needs or fears. But because each client’s circumstances are different and the author’s methods for building their trust and serving them are different in each case, no general conclusions can be drawn by the reader. The author hasn’t presented her anecdotes in a framework of methodology or instruction, nor concluded each story with an instructional passage explaining how readers can extrapolate from the story to address their own issues. So while the anecdotes may be interesting or even comforting to the target audience, they aren’t “helpful” in the self-help sense.

Coming Up Next Time: Invented Ideologies And Lexica