Author Jon Levy’s “The 2 A.M. Principle” jumps off the shelf. For starters, its cover has a spinning wheel featuring the fundamental framework of his book. Inside, the book is separated with helpful diagrams and charts. Each chapter is introduced by a location setting and time, reminiscent of an adventure TV show. Which makes sense, because Levy set out to explore the science of adventure several years ago.
“There’s nothing wrong with the way that people go out,” Levy said. “But there’s also no intentionality behind it. Just like there’s nothing wrong with sitting at home and playing video games — it’s fun. But the point is: If you’re already going to dedicate the time, you should really make the effort to maximize the enjoyment from the experience.”
That’s what Levy set out to do with “The 2 A.M. Principle,” in which he riffs off the phrase made famous by an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” “Nothing good happens after 2 A.M.... except the most EPIC experiences of your life.” The diction was deliberate, as EPIC is the acronym for Levy’s framework — “Establish, Push Boundaries, Increase, and Continue.”
“I think a better analogy is: If you’re going to bake a cake, you might as well use a really great recipe. You’re going to be eating it after. There’s nothing wrong with eating Duncan Hines. But if you’re also going to make the effort, if it’s going to take the same amount of time, then maybe understand that switching this one ingredient, or adding this one additional element, will really give it a more robust flavor.
“People have fun. And that’s great. Now let’s take it to the next level: Let’s have it not only be fun, but how do we make it more engaging? How do we bond with more people? How do we increase our social circle? How do we figure out how to surround ourselves with just the right people so that we fall in love with the experience of being with them? I really didn’t start off with the premise that there was anything wrong with, frankly, anyone but me. A lot of this stuff is born from insecurity.”
Levy’s book has four stages to adventure, but reads very differently from your standard non-fiction book. It featured a lot of first-person stories, wild enough to entertain, but built on fundamental awareness and introspection. This was by design:
“I think that there’s a difference between information and storytelling that’s critical to understand. You might have a lot of knowledge you want to share, and a story is the way to make it most memorable, because that’s what we’re wired for. But sometimes, you just need a user manual,” said Levy. “So if you’re just trying to give information, you have to have a really compelling story or series of stories to engage people. Otherwise, it’s a technical manual.”
Sometimes, Levy said, the idea might not be big enough to make an entire book about. Creating a full book increases the production costs, time, effort, and lengthens the writing and review process, whereas an idea might be simple enough or best conveyed through a blog post, or even a Tweet.
“I don’t know the clear answer. But my inclination about what makes something one thing or another, is you can try levelling up,” said Levy. “You can initially write it as a blog post. And frankly, I’m a big fan of constraints. Trying to limit yourself to 500 words forces you to get into the core of an idea a lot better than you’d expect, because you can’t waste anything. You have to get really good at expressing things in short-form.”
Levy’s advice is reminiscent of author Sarah Cooper’s method, where she tests ideas with a small Facebook group to see which is likely to resonate with readers after she publishes.
“It’s kind of like the six-word essays, and then go up to a Tweet level. How do you describe the science of adventure in 140 characters? It would be, ‘Say yes, and be willing to be uncomfortable.’ That would be the Tweet version of it. Or, ‘Embrace discomfort, and say yes to everything.’ What’s the blog version? The four stages.”
And he said of the four stages of his book, “Originally, it even had five stages. I was like, ‘No, no.’ There’s this awesome quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he’s the guy who wrote ‘The Little Prince,’ and it goes like this: ‘It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to be subtracted.’ So, I believe that it is our job as authors to not waste words. There’s a Jewish saying that goes, ‘If it is not necessary to say it, it is necessary not to say it.’ So it doesn’t really matter how you feel about these things. It matters the value they provide to the reader. Frankly, if there were another five chapters, that would’ve been an exhausting book. I realized that I could simplify the information and be just as effective.”
There’s a difference between making a really great book, and making a book that sells a lot of copies, that author Gordon Korman has also spoken about. Levy learned the lesson firsthand. “This wasn’t the advice that I got, but this is a lesson that I learned. There’s a difference between producing a phenomenal book, and writing a successful book. Successful could be defined in a lot of ways: I mean a book that sells over 10,000 copies. Will my book sell over 10,000 copies over the next year? Maybe in total, I have no idea how many it sold. They don’t give writers that information.”
“I think that there’s a big difference between the two. I don’t know what it takes to span the gap. I wish I did. It’s my first book, first time doing this, still figuring it out a little. I would say that if you even speak to experience, authors are super confused because the publishing industry is changing so much. You’ll get a lot of advice, but I don’t know if any of it is accurate. The advice you tend to ask is like, J.K. Rowling, but she sold a billion books.
“The advice often, I think, for the very top isn’t necessarily that useful because it’s not relevant to where you are. Not that it’s not good, I don’t know how useful it is. It’s good advice, those guys are smart, it’s just not really applicable.”
If you liked this conversation, you can learn more about Jon Levy’s work here. You can also have a look at my conversation with Levy’s literary agent Marc Gerald.