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.

 

 

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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 

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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.

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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.

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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 

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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

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The Book Killers: Poor Structure

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.

Keeping organized is a challenge for many artists, writers included. Order is not intuitive for creative people attempting to push boundaries, but clear structure, even in a work of fiction, provides a recognizable thought process for the reader. As always, the goal is for the reader to understand the writer’s words, not for the writer to confuse or make a stumbling attempt to impress. The human mind seeks order, and a book’s structure is essentially the map of its narrative. The easier it is to read the map, the easier it will be for the writer to deliver even complex details or the high art of fine writing.

For nonfiction writers, the need for structure should be obvious. Nonfiction books attempt to teach certain subjects. The very best of these simultaneously entertain. Regardless, a book’s organization forms the lesson plan, each section building upon the next. While tools like the table of contents, index, and appendixes make the information more accessible, the narrative should assume a sequence and stick to it throughout the book. This allows the reader to not only rely on its direction but anticipate the flow, even if the details are surprising or unpredictable. Various methods of order include alphabetic/numeric (by letters and numbers), chronologic (by occurrences in time), geographic (by locations on the globe), hierarchic (by structures of authority), and thematic (by relevant concepts).

With this in mind, it’s easy to see that fiction assumes a structure and creates a rhythm that moves subconsciously through the reader’s mind. For example, books that shift in time tend to reveal a pattern: two chapters in the present, followed by one in the past, and so on. The same holds true for shifting points of view, where characters A, B, and C rotate through the narrative in a recognizable pattern, even if character A dominates the text.

When it’s working, structure is received subconsciously, because the pattern is clear and therefore the reader doesn’t have to think about it. If the organization is haphazard, the reader will direct focus away from the content and onto decoding the structure or, in this case, figuring out the writer’s mishandling of basic technique. Of course there will always be exceptions. Twelve Monkeys randomly skips through time to make the reader feel the chaos of time travel, but, for most books, this is an unnecessary conceit.

Albert Einstein blew out the chaos theorists by realizing that what appeared to be disorganized—the big bang theory, a chemical reaction, or even a kindergarten class at play—was merely a pattern that we hadn’t recognized yet. Most people aren’t Einstein. Readers will abandon a poorly or chaotically organized book. It will not be received as clever or brilliant, but as pretentious and undisciplined.

Some emerging artists think of structure as restrictive, but skilled writers know that structure is the cornerstone upon which true change and enlightenment can be built. When a book inhabits a mind with a recognizable pattern, the ability to make the reader think and feel is limitless.

Next in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

Previously in The Book Killers series: Bad Grammar