Writing

Know What You Write

Every once in a while the following advice pops up in blogs and at writers’ conferences like a bad rash.

Write what you know.

What uninspired genius devised this rule? It wasn’t a writer of fiction. If authors heeded those words, the balance of modern literature might encompass little more than travel logs, odes to typewriters and keyboards, and tours of every gin mill in the country. Let’s face it. We don’t do much else. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman. That would make a gripping action-packed thriller: Broker Bob Jones is hot on the trail of client Donna Smith. Can he get her to sign a life insurance policy before the monthly quota statements?

Consider the authors of great novels. Was Tom Clancy a Russian submarine commander? Was Thomas Harris a genius cannibal? Was Ralph Ellison an invisible man? I don’t think so, but they did the research and wrote from those viewpoints with confidence and style. It is better to say ‘know what you write.’ That makes more sense.

When it comes to choosing your story details, you are only limited by research and the depth of your determination to uncover the details. What interests you? Go after it. Submerse yourself if necessary. We live in the Information Age with access to people and data like never before. It’s so easy that you can become lazy if you aren’t careful.

And how do you research being an invisible man? Observe anyone handing out flyers on a street corner.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

Shuttle-Cockpit

When Writing, Know Your Control System

Like the cockpit of the space shuttle or even the thermostat in your residence, a written piece has specific parameters to guide it successfully. If a cockpit needs airspeed and attitude controls to maintain flight, then a written piece requires unique methodology to garner truth. Not only does the terminology need to be established, it also needs to be consistent and replete throughout the piece. Careless, mixed, or wandering terminology undermines the entire work.

The concept of a control system in writing inevitably drills down to word choice. A writer must be aware of the words, phrasing, and cadence associated with a specific passage, as well as the entire piece. If the passage involves quick action or comedy, the sentence structure tends to be short, even blunt. If the scene takes place inside a military installation, acronyms will flow through both the dialogue and exposition. If the scene takes place in history, the words selected will match the time period.

Consider the following passage from a prehistoric age genre novel: The clan leader leapt from the bushes and came down upon the beast like a bus at rush hour. This type of metaphor happens more often than one might imagine and in subtle, less obvious ways. When digesting the aforementioned sentence, the reader understands that the clan leader was moving quickly and heavily upon the beast, but the reader is also jarred from the time period by the writer’s unfortunate out-of-time-period metaphor. If the clan leader were waiting for a bus at rush hour, he’d be waiting a very long time.

The control system selected for a piece will be pervasive, extending beyond the obvious passages. One of the joys of reading is to enter the mind of the characters on the page. If that character is a professional diver, his/her actions and viewpoint on life will be reflective of the sea and perhaps the constant dangers he’s exposed to. Even in relationships with others, that character will measure people against what he knows—brooding dark waters, a relentless shark, or the fanciful circus of a coral reef—otherwise that character will be acting out of his/her own control system. Even if that character is a mad, unpredictable genius, he will be guided, and therefore described, by a specific set of parameters using the precise words to delineate his actions or speech. And all of this will be moderated by the overarching terminology of the entire work.

Establishing and employing the proper control system establishes both authenticity and confidence in writing, and it requires a level of detail that many journeyman writers either overlook or fail to do the research and editing required. Study any master writer—a real master writer, not a self-proclaimed master bestseller on the Internet—and uncover the details of the control system established for a specific work. Once you’ve put in the effort, you’ll find yourself reaching for the correct dialogue and descriptions that fit the piece.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

 

 

Obsession

The Writing Passion… Obsession

We are told that obsession is wrong. However for any artist, their craft is an obsession. We split our thoughts between the task at hand and our projects in waiting. We search for channels of inspiration even within the mundane. We passionately revise and rework. Time spent working can be absorbing and rewarding, while time spent away from our art can be breathless. Long droughts away from work transform life into a spiritual desert. For most artists, everyday life forms the gaps between creating the new.

“You become what you think about all day long.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The question of whether or not you will write is not one of “if” but a question of “when.” Dedicated writers offer their best hours to their craft. For many, this is the morning hours after the soul of the artist emerges from its nighttime meditation. Throughout the centuries, great minds have cultivated a habit of pondering questions prior to sleep, often awaking with viable solutions. Sculptures, songs, and stories can be structured in this way. Rare connections can be achieved with the constant mulling through the woods of disparate ideas.

“Even when I’m dead, I’ll swim through the Earth, like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones.”  -Jeffrey McDaniel

When these connections are made, they are not only unique; they are universal. They strike a person’s soul in the way truth satisfies the mind. It resolves. It lingers. It is the most an artist can ask for, and it calls upon all of the writer’s best energies.

“I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.” -­Margaret Atwood

Being obsessed with your writing is not only good; it is required. A half-hearted effort can get an artist through the laundry, dinner, and most tasks at their day job, but writing requires every resource at optimum speed.

book-bullet

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.

Previously in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing 

Comma_Final

In Defense of the Comma

While recently speaking with a fellow author, we commiserated about the lackadaisical syntax employed by many so-called professional writers. One glaring error was the misuse of commas when employing clauses or phrases. These writers have forgotten a basic principle of writing: A writer writes for someone else to receive a facsimile of the original meaning.

Many aspects go into building a cogent sentence, but the comma supplies proper syntax and meaning. When the meaning is vague or the reader must double-back to interpret a sentence, the writer has failed as a communicator. For example, the following sentence can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

When the shipment approaches westward transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters.

Let’s employ commas in different configurations to see how the meaning changes.

When the shipment approaches, westward transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [1]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [2]

When the shipment approaches westward transportation, vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [3]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [4]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives, providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [5]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives, providing increased security, and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [6]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions, as mandated by headquarters. [7]

[1] Suggests only an approaching shipment.

[2] Suggests a shipment approaching in a westward direction.

[3] Suggests a shipment approaching westward moving or positioned transportation.

[4] Suggests transportation will execute only the directives that provide increased security and necessary functions.

[5] Suggests directives will provide increased security and necessary functions.

[6] Suggests directives will provide increased security and that necessary functions were mandated by headquarters.

[7] Suggests directives and functions were both mandated by headquarters.

When proofing your work, it’s a good idea to consider the eventual reader and if he or she will receive the intended meaning. The reader will not be able to ask questions and shouldn’t have to. Precise meaning, wrought through proper syntax, builds confidence in the reader and a superior reputation as a professional.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Kundera

Choosing the Writer’s Subject

It’s a fact that an author tends to write about only two or three subjects during their career. No matter how veiled or reinterpreted the narrative, an author will continue to converge on the same concepts.

In a recent review of Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance , I discovered yet again his references to the old Cold War Communist Party. Kundera is an escapee from Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia, but has been a longtime resident of free Paris. Meanwhile, his communist party collapsed decades ago and has reformulated twice into its present day pseudo-dictatorship under Vladimir Putin, but Kundera is still fascinated with old-Communist thinking. In contrast, he’s also writes about the smallness of life, sourcing various tributaries in each literary venture as well.  It’s another consistent theme for the author. At 86 years of age after an illustrious career, he probably isn’t going to dip his literary spade into fresh soil.

A writer will never be condemned for his choice of subject matter (or at least he shouldn’t be), but he will be admonished (or at least ignored) for not being focused on it. He uses all of his literary strength to dig at the root of his subject, helping to bring it to light for the reader. Like a painter, an author will present her subject, depending on her particular style, in a range from the absurdly surreal to the cuttingly real. This presentation often determines the desired emotion or effect of the material, but nevertheless the author has not strayed from her core subject matter. Kundera has used various forms, from magical realism to straight storytelling to evoke the dehumanization of communism and the horror of man’s inhumanity against man.

What the author chooses to write about isn’t always a conscious decision. It’s akin to understanding the self. While a student, Kundera was rumored to have been an informant to the Czech secret police, but later escaped to the west and became an outspoken agent against communism. The author has refused these allegations, but they persist with credible testimony  exposed during the fall of the Soviet Union. In regard to Kundera the author, it is easy to see how this potential change of conscience (or at least the oppression of living within a communist system) might become a driving force inside his literary expression.

Kundera is a singular example of how great authors circle around a mere handful of concepts during their lifetimes. Research your favorite authors to see not only how each draw from place and experience as subject matter, but to recognize your own core concepts through your attraction to theirs.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Gold-Seal-Composite

The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. Unfortunately, many national book awards are closed to small, academic, and independent press authors, and their practices can be just as exclusive and suspect as your local government. (See earlier article: The Eric Hoffer Book Award: Righting the Wrongs.)

While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has elevated our book award to international prominence. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, and da Vinci Eye; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over seventy prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff. The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.