The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: White Room

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

White room syndrome happens when a writer fails to give sufficient information about the setting. For the reader, this can be disorienting if not completely boring. Perhaps there are times when the writer desires this effect, but it isn’t the norm. Setting is the writer’s friend, and it should be exploited at every opportunity. A good writer employs the most interesting aspects of location to strengthen the drama. A great writer paints the entire landscape with a single sentence.

In theory, a story spans a particular time period. Booksellers like to classify stories as historical, contemporary, and futuristic. This is nothing more than past, present, and future respectively, and each changes the parameters of setting. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

The Past

The past is recorded in the annals of history. The writer connects with this information through personal experience, experts, and documentation. While expert sources are good, our own memory of the past is unreliable and must be verified. We often don’t remember things exactly as they were, even once familiar details. We also romanticize the past. Hanging clothes on the line, piece by piece, on a warm spring afternoon sounds sweet, but it was never as nice as shoving them in the dryer.

Another aspect of the past involves historical events. Consider history in two ways: as a backdrop or as an immediate surrounding. In the opening to The World According to Garp, World War II is a backdrop. It fills the air with tension, although the specifics of war never enter the picture. In the film, Pearl Harbor the surprise attack takes over the story and frankly crowds the personal stories. If a story gets close to a major historical event, it will dominate the narrative.

The Present

A story in current times includes the tangible past and future. The writer is not redesigning the world but employing it for dramatic effect. Regardless, intriguing locations exist in present times: a peek inside surgery, life on an oil drilling platform, or the machinations of a textile factory in China. Most people haven’t viewed these locations up close, but each writer has witnessed unique settings and might make use of them.

The Future

Fifty years ago, we were projected to be commuting to the space wheel in the sky, with a four-day workweek and loads of playtime for interesting new social games. It appears that the experts guessed wrong. By all accounts, the coming years will be dirtier, noisier, and more crowded, if not busier. This is what made the movie Blade Runner so special, besides the twisted ending. The future is open to interpretation, but whatever world is designed for a story, it must be a logical extension of its own history. In Dune, the author included a lexicon inn the back pages, and, to his many readers, it’s a road map for a real world.

Where is the story location?

Story scenes occur in one or more locations. These are physical locations on the planet or in the imaginary world of the writer, although placement is not the only consideration of setting location. A story focus varies from a wide to a tight view. One writer may traverse the global landscape in pursuit of a story, while another remains in the same room for the duration. In either case, writers seek the extraordinary details, and much like character details, even the most mundane parts can achieve intrigue and brilliance.

What is life like in the story?

This is a broad question, involving many aspects of life at a particular location and moment in time. A writer considers food, clothing, transportation, education, occupation, religion, and language, and the list of possibilities is much larger. Any social behavior or lifestyle element may be useful to the story. The Pennsylvania Amish live differently than people fifty miles away in downtown Philadelphia. While each is somewhat aware of the other, individuals remain bound to the customs and circumstances of geography and culture.

Tips for Applying Setting:

  • Using setting details is a lot like using character details. Apply them in proportion to their importance to and impact on the story. Every word that appears in the text garners attention. If the writer embellishes a particular aspect, the reader will assume it’s important.
  • Seek interesting details, over the common or mundane. In a present day setting, everyone has a good idea how a steaming coffee mug looks, smells, and feels. On the other hand, the same cup of coffee assumes a new dimension in another time period. In 1776, coffee might take thirty minutes to prepare, while in 2220, coffee might enter your hydration tube at the mere thought of it.
  • Employ characters to interpret the setting in their thoughts and words, rather than straightforward narrative passages. The story will perform double duty, fleshing out the characters and surroundings at the same time.
  • If the story must include pure descriptions in the narrative, try embedding inside passages of dialogue. The landscape will be built without the reader hearing your construction noises in the background.
  • When incorporating setting into a scene, try to include all of the senses. Most of us absorb life with our eyes, followed by our ears and nose, but remember to include touch and taste. These senses become more poignant in a well-crafted story.
  • Setting can facilitate entrances and exits to scenes. The natural machinations of a particular place can provide opportunities to nail down the point and exit the scene.
  • Certain settings can amplify the tension—a bad storm, a lousy neighborhood, a creaking floor.

The list of possible devices and uses is endless. Setting helps, but it’s not a cure-all. However, if the setting isn’t sufficient, the reader will be lost in white room syndrome without a sense of time and place.

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Advertisements
The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Last Stories

by William Trevor
Viking

book review by Christopher Klim

“He slept and waited still, but he knew in dreams that only angels were is solace.”

William Trevor posthumously delivers his final collection of stories in the aptly titled, Last Stories. Widely considered a master of the short form, Trevor does not disappoint in this assembly of late and mostly unseen work. We’ll dispense quickly with the accolades, which include prizes short and tall and at least ten New York Times bestsellers, some of which occurred in a time when the public has nearly ceased reading literary works and especially short stories. It suffices to say that more than one writer, during Trevor’s eighty-eight years, today works in the short form because of this author, and this trend will no doubt continue.

Trevor inhabits his characters, running the nuance of their thoughts without the navel-gazing of too many modern writers. These are not always likable people. We are appalled by their humanity, we blush at their foolishness, and we sometimes desire to close the book on them, but we have to know. These are not archetypes. There are no heroes, and we won’t be bowled over with pyrotechnics or punched by absurdity, but the characters will resonate and linger. Trevor appeared to love people for all their warts and wants. This and his entire body of work proves it.

During his narratives, the author throttles with expert control. Whether it be the express train or, as seen more often, the local crawl, all of this is taking us somewhere, most often to Trevor’s patented final twist. Unless you’re familiar with his work, it’s difficult to explain exactly how he does it. We should anticipate a final shift during the read, but it takes us by surprise. When his insights are laid bare, he exists without another word. This economy is part of his craft. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve been given the privilege of entering a Trevor live character sketch and suddenly a story pops up around it.

So that’s the crash course in William Trevor.

In honor of Mr. Trevor and in keeping with the spirit of his work, we’re going to keep this review short, and without knowing whether Trevor was a tea toddler or not, we raise a glass of fine whiskey to a glorious life in letters. We hope you pick up this latest work or one of his other exquisite collections. You couldn’t pass a summer’s day in better fashion.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Unfocused Openings

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Whether you are a commercial mystery writer or a high-art literary prose specialist, very few people will stay with a book if the opening chapter does not deliver a clear message. With the growing availability of media venues, the competition for people’s attention has never been greater. Even with books, the most successful entertainment or information offerings seize our attention from the outset. Here are some factors to consider when planning, drafting, and revising your opening:

Engagement

As emerging writers, we are told to create action or drama at the opening of our stories. Nonfiction writers, especially biographers, often foreshadow a significant event in their subject’s life, while fiction writers do the same by cherry-picking a critical point on the timeline, but this is not always practical. In general, reader engagement arises by presenting an aspect of the story that generates keen interest. For example, it could be humor or tension that is exemplary of the entire book. The biggest mistake is presenting large amounts of backstory or introductory information at the start. Another version of this misstep is beginning too soon on the timeline. Both of these approaches throw water on the spark of the story. This set up information can be folded into the story at a later time or even removed altogether. In modern times, think about eliminating chapters that begin with the words Foreword, Introduction, Prologue, and Preface—or even Epilogue for that matter because they sap energy from the book. Many readers receive these appendages like homework and skip them to get to the meat of the book.

Mission

A book should have a clearly defined purpose, otherwise it’s just a long and wandering diatribe. A nonfiction book has a thesis, while a work of fiction has a story question. Don’t let any fine writing teacher talk you out of this essential element of a book. All art from poetry to painting has a point. When it’s focused—because its creator knows precisely what it is—the reader or viewer becomes involved with the piece. The writer who says “I write to discover what the story’s about” should be pushed down a flight of stairs. This statement is disingenuous and impractical. While writers discover aspects of and hone down a story during its development, there comes a time when the writer makes a firm commitment to the mission of the book and then goes about amplifying it. A smart writer makes it clear in the opening pages and sometimes even the title.

Presentation

Book openings are like a first date. The writer features what he does well and goes to it often during the course of his relationship with the reader. If the opening is phony, disorganized, or confusing, the reader will never get to the next chapter, and a match made in heaven has been squandered. Quickly establish as many of the following items as possible: the predominant point of view used, the main character(s), the typical setting, and the sequencing. While these aspects help authenticate the story, the latter involves the structure of the book. If the book darts back and forth through time, events, and/or characters, it’s critical to present a pattern from the start. As a result, your story organization will become a silent rhythm in the reader’s mind.

Tone

The tone of the story involves everything from word choice, to sentence structure, to the overall attitude of the narrative and characters. Most stories form a conundrum that ranges from solving a mystery to battling the internal complexities of the human spirit. This can be presented on a scale from terrifying to hilarious. Even if the story tone shifts for dramatic effect, the main tone should be delivered at the start. If the story is a romance, then it’s the longing of the heart. If it’s an intense mystery, then it’s a mangled corpse. If it’s an enduring quest, then the journey’s gauntlet must be cast down.

Epilogue

It’s a self-indulgent or inexperienced writer who does not recognize the trend to immediately engage the reader. In fact, it isn’t a trend, but a well-established precept of successful writing. If you are currently writing to figure out what the story is about or where the story begins, then stop! Park your pen and take a moment to do some sketching and outlining before you draft another word. Ask your characters why they’ve entered the room and what they want from the story. If they can’t tell you, then they either need to leave or you need to get to know them better before pushing them along their story line. Once you know their stories and what they want, find the first worst moment on their timeline and begin the story right there.

Next in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

Previously in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Stilted Writing

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The word stilted is defined as stiff, self-conscious, and/or unnatural. In a book, this concept is just as unwelcomed. For example…

It was a starry night. An owl flew low beneath the moon. Joe loved Jane so much that he thought his heart might burst. But nothing would stand in their way now. He swept her off her feet and carried her through the threshold of their lives together.

“Stop right there,” said the shadowy figure coming from behind the light post.

“No, not you!” Jane gasped.

“Have you forgotten about your husband?” the stranger barked.

“Sir, you must reconsider your approach,” Joe said.

The above passage forms a parade of clichés, passive verbs, hackneyed concepts, repetitions, invariable sentence structure, overly formal speech, and talking heads. Neither entertaining nor enlightening, these issues combine to stultify the reader. Let’s discuss a few of these problems.

Clichés, passive verbs, repetitions, overly formal speech, and even hackneyed concepts boil down to laziness on part of the writer. To complicate their existence, writers may become comfortable with these phrases and scenes during multiple readings to the point where a false sense of confidence in the prose arises. This is why cooling off periods—days or weeks if allowable between revisions—are vital to identifying problematic writing. Try to think of these issues as placeholders that will be replaced with stronger phrasing and construction. If the writer is not surprised or energized by his/her words, then no one else will be.

Talking head syndrome occurs when the characters provide information that either they should already know (i.e. “Hello, I’m Bob, your uncle.”) or barely relates to the conversation. This happens when the writer tries to relate narrative information through the character’s mouths. It is always obvious, and it saps momentum and authenticity from the work. In the example above, the entire dialogue should be replaced.

Invariable sentence structure, which is typically a repetition of subject-verb sentences without changes in presentation or structure, reveals the writer’s skill level or lack thereof. Fluctuations stimulate the reader’s mind. Changing sentence structure also is used in relation to the tone of the story. For example, short and quick sentences work for action scenes and humor, especially punch lines. Longer sentences can be found in romantic prose. Leading and trailing phrases form a variety of transitions. The list here is long and can be observed in any good literature and nonfiction narrative.

Many early writers are so eager to get their ideas on paper that they overlook the words themselves. On face value, that statement seems like a paradox, but it is only the normal course of a writer’s development. Skilled writers won’t accept stilted writing in their work, and during the revision process, they learn to identify their particular bad habits and eliminate them.

Here’s a cliché: All writing is rewriting. It also happens to be an axiom of the process.

Next in the The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

Previously in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice 

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Inferior Word Choice

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

A weak vocabulary is exposed not only by the range of words used, but also by their poor application within a sentence. In both fiction or nonfiction, strong word choices reveal a skilled writer. Word choices show the author’s character and talent, but mostly his or her level of discipline. Let’s investigate areas of concern, including examples of inferior word choices.

Invented Words

Demonstrating the worst abuse of language, lazy writers invent words that do not exist. Other writers hyphenate ridiculous combinations of words rather than construct a more intelligent sentence or employ the single word that relates a similar meaning.

Jane went on a date with Bill, irregardless of his past. (Not only is irregardless not a real word, it is no different in use or meaning than regardless.)

Because he was crazy-excited, Bill advance-planned for his date with the super-good-looking Jane. (A writer with a fifth grade vocabulary might say: Nervous, Bill prepared for his date with Jane, the beauty.)

Misused Words

When a word is misused, the writer either doesn’t understand its meaning or is working with an alternate definition so far down the dictionary that no one but an experienced linguist understands how it applies. The wrong word choice misleads the reader and creates absurd results. Some word choices fall out of context, running askew of the narrative or theme of the book.

Jane delineates that Bill will make a suitable companion. (Jane seems like a real warm and cozy person.)

The caveman chased the mastodon like a bus at rush hour. (This caveman appears to possess the ability to time travel.)

The coffee table size book fits nicely in any collection. (That giant book will fit in no collection.) 

Ambiguous Words

Many words are meant to be vague, and a number of reasons exist for employing them, not the least of which is diplomacy. Good writing shuns diplomacy, displaying the courage of precision whether it disturbs the reader or not. On the other hand, ambiguity summons boredom.

Jane realized that Bill had an unpleasing smell. (Does Jane like stinky men or not?) 

Bill would prefer not to deal with Jane ever again. (Bill is so boring that she’ll forever avoid him.)

Clichés

We’ve all heard clichés and used them too many times. This is how they become cliché—tired, overwrought words and expressions. While conversation tolerates this fault, a written work attempts to inform and illuminate through saliency. By the way, repetition—using the same words over and over, no matter what the words are—create a self-contained cliché within a narrative.

The next time Bill saw Jane, he would give her a piece of his mind. (If this were a horror story, it might actually turn out to be interesting)

Jane was really steamed at Bill’s attitude. (Jane is apparently angry, but we fell asleep during her narrative.)

Jargon and Slang

Like dialect, jargon and slang add color to a book, but when the terms are esoteric or regional, their meanings can be obfuscated. Furthermore, too much jargon or slang make the narrative appear like an alternate language. Unless it is essential to the story, avoid this whenever possible. Instead, sprinkle colloquialisms and obtuse terms into the narrative, and the reader will gather its flavor while comprehending the actual meaning.

In full techie-mode, Bob found the SIMM and gave the SOB gizmo another reboot before 86’ing it altogether. (Translated: Bob found the missing memory card and restarted the hateful computer, longing to dump it in the ocean.)

Weak Verbs and Nouns

Journeyman writers activate weak verbs (i.e. is, was, had, be, are, etc.) wherever possible by replacing them with powerful and specific choices. Unfortunately, some writers remedy this by arranging verbs and adverbs, as well as nouns and adjectives, into shotgun marriages on the page. Still others assemble them like boxcars extending for miles. This wordiness prompts readers to skim the page. Collapse these combinations into precise verbs and nouns to gain a tighter and more lucid sentence.

The small, soft, and squishy Mediterranean citrus with loose skin had briefly wobbled on the edge of the stairs before it quickly bounced along the steps and stopped at the base near the front door with a forceful bang. (Revised: The overripe Clementine teetered and then skipped downstairs, crashing into the entrance.)

In Conclusion

The previous suggestions all boil down to cogency—being clear, logical, and convincing. Great word choices ring so true that they go unquestioned, achieving deeper meaning within the narrative. During the revision and editing process, writers scrutinize word choices for exactness, so that the truth of their sentences appeals to the reader. A master writer develops a control system (i.e. a vocabulary relating to the character, scene, and theme) that supplies a language for the reader to understand a particular book, and this changes from book to book. However, that is a discussion for another time.

Next in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing 

Previously in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure