Beauty is a Wound

by Eka Kurniawan
New Directions Publishing

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead twenty-one years.”

Kurniawan’s poignant and at times rollicking novel covers a century of Indonesian history from the death throes of Dutch rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and into the nation’s late-century struggle for independence. Centering on the fictional shore town of Halimunda, the story covers the exploits and trials of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, each sired by a different father during critical points of her life. These are strong if not capricious women who are self-determined and at times reckless in their path through time. They form unique characters who are ultimately metaphors for the primary facets of modern Indonesian history and its struggle to enter the twenty-first century.

Dewi Ayu, who is part Dutch by blood, sees her status fall as the Europeans evacuate during World War II. After enduring Japanese imprisonment, she is pressed into service as a comfort women—a crime against humanity that the Japanese remain unapologetic for. Ironically she reverses this fortune by becoming the most famous and sought-after prostitute in all the land.

In time, Dewi Ayu’s oldest three daughters marry a head of the military, the most feared criminal in town, and a leading socialist activist respectively. As much as they must witness their husbands’ wrath on Halimunda, each daughter, like their mother, experiences unimaginable cruelty, as well as a unique reconciliation with love. For these women, beauty is both a weapon and a burden that costs them more than they deserve. The suffering of these exotic, compelling mixed-blood women summons their ability to overcome extreme circumstance in a way that only a woman can.

Turning the tables on the exploitation of what we hold dear in our eyes, Dewi Ayu’s youngest daughter forms a hideous sight by any standard. She is shunned by her community and mockingly named Beauty by her own mother who abandons her by dying shortly after her birth. Through the girl Beauty and the events to which all the women are exposed, author Kurniawan indicts the inhumanity against man brought by foreign occupation and the ensuing fight for independence. Here, there is scarcely anyone either not guilty or a victim of violence and a lust for power. Too often, less developed nations are dragged into the future by the worst men have to offer.

Like the intergenerational curse that lords over the family, much of this tale is tragic. However, it gains momentum and entertainment in its use of folklore, verisimilitude of setting, and spectacular storytelling that harkens the classic novel form. A hint of contemporary verbiage exists that may or may not have been introduced by Annie Tucker’s clean and consistent translation. The writing is markedly mature by achieving both broad palette concepts and distinct character details at the same time. This is a large novel about a country and a handful of interesting people delivered by an interesting new author on the English-speaking scene.

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.

 

 

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.

The Problem with Book Advertising

A true bestselling author (not a momentary flash on AMAZON Kindle, which creates “bestselling” authors we will never hear from again) has a large publisher spending piles of money to cover their hefty royalty advance. This repeated and wide-ranging advertising makes people aware of the book release and hopefully locks in sales. It’s an expensive luxury that happens for less than 1% of published authors. When you attend Book Expo, you’ll discover these authors peering down from forty-foot high banners hanging from the ceiling of New York’s Javtis Center. We all want to be the focus of such vanity. I want to be on a forty-foot banner, but for most authors, this type of expenditure will never be a reality.

That is fine. After all, the golden age of the author has ended. It died with authors like Styron, Vonnegut, and Vidal. The authors with forty-foot banners mark the end of this age, but unlike William Styron, the modern, banner-sized authors are not writers of literature. They are entertainers and commodity producers—a different sphere of the written word. And that is fine as well. Styron once said that he was surprised by the celebrity that came his way and not surprised by the general disappearance of it.

Also changing with the times is the way we communicate with each other. Most of us have grown up during the dawn of the Information Age and been bombarded with increased advertising during our lives. For Baby Boomers, the hot new devices were TVs and VCRs that skipped commercials. Millennials now do this subconsciously. Before advertising became super-saturated within our culture, a message was received after only three repetitions. Today, it takes thousands of occurrences if the message is received at all.

This makes effective advertising cost prohibitive for authors. However, annually we contribute a great deal in total to keep these old, tired, and useless modes of book advertising alive. We buy slots in print and Internet publications and the equivalence of e-mail spamming, and none of us see significant results. The total volume of it works against us.

The current generation is savvy about acquiring information, as well as how to separate the corporate appeals from what they desire. To some degree, most of us have adapted along those lines. For example, one premiere publishing trade magazine sells its cover to advertisers. This cover had always been a sign of “making it” in the industry, but I cannot tell you who or what was on the cover last week, much less in the last ten years. News radio stations prattle on about the next great mystery novel redux, but I can’t remember who or what they were talking about. A great article in a top writing association magazine had a large author advertisement on the opposing page, but I cannot recall the book or author. It might have been for the author who was the focus of the article, but I’ve obviously learned to filter out the noise, and so have you.

Some of us don’t want to give up on the big lie, especially new writers. They dream of fat book contracts, bestsellers, and forty-foot banners, but on publisher’s row in Manhattan, we have a better chance of getting hit by a taxi—a much better chance. The same is true for book advertising. Advertisers can provide circulation, visitor, and click data, but no one can provide a success rate (i.e. how it translates to actual sales), because it’s not sincerely traceable. So let’s line up a few realities about book promotion.

Print, radio, and television advertising is a bad bet for authors. Not only is it expensive and likely ignored, the target audience is a mere fraction of the people reached. In general, the reading public has always been a small portion of the entire population. Even if the advertising is done through a reader-specific outlet, we aren’t really paying attention after a handful of ads. Unless the author is a successful stockbroker, he or she will not have the resources to generate enough repetition to penetrate public awareness with advertising.

The author interview has always been an effective way to reach an audience. No matter the medium, readers come to a particular book through the author first. If the author is interesting or provides a compelling story or facts, then the reader will remember the author’s name and seek out the book.

Trusted secondary sources are valued by readers. Potential readers want to hear testimonies about a book from just about anyone but the author or publisher. Readers seek feedback from friends, commentary from known authors, the expertise of valued review publications, and the authority of reputable book awards. Each of these sources adds a layer of authenticity to the author and his/her book.

Word of mouth still works, only the methods of word of mouth have changed. A trusted book recommendation is king in the bookselling business. However, few people still stand on street corners or at cocktail parties and discuss the books they are reading. Social media is the new street corner of discussion, and here too, the personality of the author comes into play. The most compelling authors rarely mention their books. Like the author interview, people remember the author’s name and eventually seek out the book.

Let’s start employing more effective strategies through digital platforms. Leave the ads for soft drink and toothpaste companies. They have the cash, and everyone is interested in those items. An author’s audience is smaller and smarter, too. The goal is to draw an audience to the author and then create a feedback loop, which is the contemporary version of old fashion word of mouth. Within a feedback loop, readers will circulate book commentary that is both organically grown and culled from trusted voices of authority and expertise.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including 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. See his popular series on publishing: The Book Killers.

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

The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

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 first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

Create a Feedback Loop for Book Marketing

For sixty millenniums, civilization has exchanged information by word of mouth. Ideas rise and fall in discussion where messages are repeated again and again with others until a generally held belief is developed. Little has changed, except the method of talk. Whether you are promoting a book or tube of toothpaste, the name and message must be repeated, and if you control a small group of messages about your book, you can build a feedback loop that will drive its popularity.

Any experienced author knows that few members of the media provide original book coverage. For a variety of reasons, reporters digest the media kit and whatever information is available on the newsfeeds and repackage the existing information as a fresh offering for their audience. They are echoing the available feedback and, most specifically, the message your media kit presents. When fresh material appears, you get to choose what to incorporate into your ongoing campaign.

Readers behave this way as well. When they visit the major Internet stopping points for reader-generated book feedback, such as Amazon or GoodReads. they will not only decide to read a favorably reviewed book, but they will likely post similar experiences. This works for negative feedback as well. Whether accurate or not, a negative feedback loop is almost impossible to defeat. Just ask Monica Lewinski. The cycle of negativity launched against her did not occur organically. It was generated for political purposes and has been nurtured for twenty years. Again, the key is to control your own message.

When building talking points for a publicity campaign, first decide if your book is timely or timeless. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, timely books can be attached to current and relevant subjects. Each day, the news media drives people through specific topics and trends. Just saying your book is related will garner media attention. If your book is lucky enough to relate to the topic du jour or you are a topical expert, make the messaging about only that issue until the news cycle burns out.

If your book is a timeless read, identify the genre or subject matter that best identifies your book and highlight the many ways that your book is different or better than what exists on the shelves. As the author, your experience should enter the discussion. Remember, first the reader comes to the author, and then the reader notices the book. Like the book, there should be a singular description about you that helps pique interest and focus the message.

With the recent saturation of Twitter and Facebook promotional pages, publishers admit that social media isn’t what it once was, and they are returning emphasis to the three tier media approach: local, regional, and national, where each level builds on the other until a large feedback loop is underway. This fact likely makes veteran authors chuckle. For years, they’ve worked news clippings within their media kits to focus the discussion regarding their books. These clippings, by the way, are easily reintroduced and reposted on social media platforms. So again, not a lot has changed since the dawn of civilization. A few standout facts, placed in front of an interested audience, will be repeated, and the positive feedback will pile up.

The US Review of Books seeds feedback loops with professional reviews sent to 15,000 monthly subscribers, including additional followers on GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter.