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

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Three Things to Consider When Purchasing a Book Review

With hundreds of thousands of books published annually, marketing your book can be a daunting task. One of your choices will inevitably come down to whether or not to purchase a book review. Here are three major factors to consider:

Be suspicious of a publication that refuses to reveal a reviewer’s name or credentials.

Professional Writing – A number of aspects go into a professionally written review. First, is the staff populated by professionals? This seems obvious, but many review sites are writer mills, allowing virtually anyone who is interested to pen a review. Other review sites barely compose a staff. These are mom and pop shops that tend to hang an Internet shingle for business, purport authority, and write reviews on their own. These are not professionals at work, no matter how slick or jazzy their websites appear. Look at the publication’s staff page, if it even has one. Are there more than a handful of writers? Be suspicious of a publication that refuses to reveal its reviewers’ names. The byline credit is a basic courtesy given to a professional freelancer, and virtually none would work without obtaining a byline for their portfolio. Second, is the review publication consistent across the masthead? A professional review publication has guidelines and an editor who keeps its staff and articles in line. Each review should have consistency, generating both authority and confidence in the publication. Third, does the reviewer address both the book content and the writing? Any sixth-grader can write a book summary, but a professional will critique a book through informed commentary that also addresses the writing itself. If the review narratives appear summary-driven, conversational, or employ a first-person tense, these are not professional writers at work.

Here’s a dirty little secret about the industry: Many review publications are purchasing Twitter and Facebook followers to create the illusion of having a large audience…

Authentic Readership – Are there dedicated subscribers, visitors, and followers of the review publication? A professional review means nothing if no one reads the publication. Weekly, monthly, and annual visitors are metrics that can be easily measured (and provided to the author). Does the publication have a subscriber base? If not (or if it’s insignificant), the publication cannot assert relevance for its work. And if the publication merely dumps its reviews on an on-line aggregator (that next to no one reads), it will not be of any service to the author. Next, validate the publication’s social media following with one of the free analytical tools, such as TwitterAudit for Twitter followers and LikeAnalyzer for Facebook likes. Here’s a dirty little secret about the industry: Many review publications are purchasing Twitter and Facebook followers to create the illusion of having a large audience, when in fact it is only a fraction of what it appears to be. This is useless to the author, as well as unethical on the part of the publication. See our article on this subject: Fake Social Media: More Common Than You Think.

A high price does not guarantee quality or readership.

Cost-Effectiveness – Most authors’ budgets are limited, and spending hundreds of dollars for a book review is not acceptable. Often these reviews are no better than that which you can obtain from a free book review site like The Midwest Book Review, which ranges from good, semi-professional coverage to amateur reviews. A high price does not guarantee quality or readership. A professional book review can be obtained for less than one hundred dollars, but be certain to closely examine the publication’s writing and readership in advance.

…you have to ask: What business is the review publication really in?

Warning: If the publication or its editors are up-selling manuscript editing services or the like, you have to ask: What business is the review publication really in? Are they a review publication, or are they a money-milking operation? The work of an editor and the work of a reviewer should never cross paths. An editor ensures quality, and a reviewer measures it. When the reviewer and editor become one entity, integrity flies out the window. (Hmmm… let us review the wonderful manuscript we just helped you edit… hmmm… not very trustworthy.) Furthermore, many of the side marketing services offered by review publications are built on a promise of viewership and not supported by real data. Ask for site traffic data or evidence of real of readership. For example, The US Review of Books is consistently a top Google search for “book reviews” in a very crowded field and has a strong monthly readership in the tens of thousands, as well as thousands of additional on-line visitors and followers on social media.

Remember, a book review is only the beginning of an essential conversation about the book.

Deciding to purchase a book review can be an effective tool when marketing a book. It can provide pull-quotes for marketing and stock materials for a media kit and press releases. It can even seed eventual sales. Remember, a book review is only the beginning of and essential conversation about the book, but it will neRead this article on creating a feedback loop to help kick-start your marketing efforts.

The US Review of Books is a professional review publication sent to more than 18,000 monthly subscribers, including thousands of additional followers on Facebook and Twitter. The US Review is staffed by professionals and is highly praised by authors and publishers

The Book

by Julius Freedman
Old Stone Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Books, I tell my students, are objects with stories both over and secret.”

It’s been a decade since an art book has taken the grand prize for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, but this beauty kept rising to the top of our judges’ scoring cards. Have you ever seen a book after it becomes wet and dries? It screams, with a puffed chest of curling pages like the arms of a roiling sea monster. Julius Freedman shows us this and more, as he takes on the book as both physical and symbolic object. In a sequence of building images, The Book begins with a book as art in its purest form—its complex leather bindings, the embedded tabs of a dictionary, the pages of sophisticated rag or weave. Then books begin to take flight, with pages misshapen, eventually cracking and splitting from their spines, the print itself escaping, until we enter the realm of collage, yet always tethered to the concept of a book itself.

Is a book a mere extension of our memories, or does it go deeper than its byproduct overlap with our brains? If Gabriel Garcia Marquez created a book to fit his prose, it might result in one of Freedman’s constructions. The organization, as well as thoughtful commentary by Pico Iyer and Jill Gage, strike the right balance with the art presentation. Unique, whimsy, thought-provoking, this beautiful coffee table edition is worthy of any collection. but it is so much more. It envelopes the very concept of the book itself. Bravo.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Book Reviews - US Review of Books

How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

Book Reviews - US Review of Books

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

by Kristin Hersh
University of Texas Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Hope’ has always stuck in my head. You hated hope, said it was misguided.”

If your introduction to Vic Chesnutt was the benefit album Sweet Relief II, you quickly moved past the great celebrity performances and asked: Who is this songwriter and why haven’t I heard of him before? If you still haven’t heard of Chesnutt—or the author of this book for that matter—you’d better go record shopping this afternoon before someone spots your musical blind spot. Regardless, in this haunting, poetic, musical road show memoir, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh takes us inside her friendship with Chesnutt. Her experience is as insightful to a musician’s life as it is to the human existence—constantly probing and reevaluating self-understanding along with her footing on the planet.

Chesnutt, paralyzed since eighteen years of age, is a songwriter’s songwriter, whose catalogue has been rerecorded and admired for decades. He passed away on Christmas 2009 after an apparent self-induced overdose. He would likely find the sentimentality of that date to be nauseating. There was very little he wouldn’t poke fun of, including himself. He came across as somewhat twisted by life’s cruel blows and ironies, but he was beautiful as well, like a modern sculpture that acknowledges the past but rearranges it in a compelling way. As Hersh says, “he was broken in all the right places.” Listening to his songs, you had the feeling that you were always hearing the real Vic Chesnutt.

Much of this book covers a shared tour when Chesnutt was a decade or more into a brilliant career launch and Hersh was composing one of her best solo albums. You’ll understand Hersh’s must-have Sunny Border Blue better after reading this book. The line between Chesnutt’s everyday discourse and songs will be blurred. From town to town and stop to stop, as their vigilant spouses watch and occasionally mop up after them, Chesnutt and Hersh bounce off each other intellectually and emotionally, achieving spare equilibrium in one of the truly unique musical relationships.

The ending is the curtain fall you expected, although the author fights hard to meter her words while the songwriter fights just as hard to mute her sound regarding the event. Grief doesn’t get processed in a minute, a day, a year. Grief puts a new song in your head, one you never wanted to hear. Hersh sketches the loss, that song.

While a smidge more orientation would have been appreciated in general, this narrative isn’t about place and time. The writing is a lot like Hersh’s songs—focusing on moments, reflections, and the stray-dog objects that compose life. There are lines you’ll never forget, and you can’t help but love the adorable, self-sabotaging, curmudgeon Chesnutt revealed in these pages. You’ll wish you’d been there to absorb his flak backstage or in the southern sun. On balance, this book stands as a testament to the sincerity of his songwriting.

Your Literary Estate, Part Two: Managing Your Work

When you pass from this life, your literary executor will be hard at work. (see Your Literary Estate, Part One: Assigning a Literary Executor) A literary executor with full power will manage your work for the benefit of your heirs and receive some form of payment as a result. Some of your literary executor’s duties will include

  • overseeing existing work and contracts,
  • negotiating contracts for published and unpublished works,
  • perhaps canceling contracts or activating contract options,
  • managing your letters and papers, including perhaps disposing of portions,
  • filing the proper papers regarding rights and copyright,
  • evaluating your literary estate for various assessment purposes, and
  • assigning a successor to his duties if he/she cannot perform them.

Your literary executor will not have control of your work’s copyright (i.e. ownership). That will belong to your heirs. However, a literary executor with full power will not have to consult your heirs during negotiation of those rights. If you do not want your literary executor to manage certain work or have specific powers, including exclusive negotiation rights or the assignment of a successor, these aspects should be specifically outlined in the document that assigns your literary executor. One compromise is to have your literary executor act as an experienced advisor to your heirs, consulting with them on all decisions and then implementing agreed upon terms.

Assigning a literary executor is not all about contract negotiation and oversight. It also involves handling your literary papers and letters. Robert Gover had told me that some of his manuscripts and letters were already stored at the Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, and so it made sense to move his remaining papers to that institute—a process that took over a year to bring to fruition. Otherwise, I would have had to locate a respectful archive for his papers.

For the Eric Hoffer estate, his papers had already been stored at the Hoover Institute, but with regular rights inquiries, it was important to have access to existing contracts in order to help avoid copyright conflicts. I began collecting contracts before his initial heir died. (I was not there when Hoffer died, but brought on by his initial heir.) Obtaining copies of existing contracts is a protracted process. In my experience, publishers will be intentionally unhelpful. They have a long history of hiding royalties from authors, as well as assuming rights that they had never obtained. Make sure your literary executor knows everything you do, so he/she can make the best decisions. Slapping a firm letter on a publisher with the power of an informed literary executor is better on any day than filing a lawsuit. The big publishers will out-wait and out-lawyer you every time.

Unless something unusual happens like a late surge in the popularity of your work, managing your literary estate requires the most work immediately following your death. First, there are your papers to deal with. Also, your literary executor might be called upon to assess the value of your literary estate. During probate or later financial inquiries, your literary estate might be measured regarding worth and potential earnings.

Perhaps one of the most important factors of managing your literary estate is maintaining the integrity and control of your work. Try to have your literary executor understand you and your work as much as possible, and inform your literary executor as much in advance about your literary state of affairs. Provide copies of all literary contracts and letters of concern. Specify where you want your papers stored and when they can be viewed by family and the public. (Sometimes a hold on access for a period after your death is appropriate.)

Your literary executor might even have to destroy portions of your papers in order to preserve your legacy. If you trust your literary executor, and you should, give him/her that right. He/She will be looking out for you in your absence. As authors, we sometimes hold onto early, inferior manuscripts that we should have burned a long time before our passing. Do you think Emily Dickinson wishes she had a literary executor who might have destroyed the so-so novel of a legendary poet and kept it from being published? From what I’ve learned about her demanding and independent personality, I would guess the answer is yes.

Considering the effort that might be in store for your literary executor, a 10% to 20% payment on royalties is reasonable. (Again, your state laws may limit/specify executor payments.) Your literary executor likely will be doing all of the work, while your heirs cash checks. For Gover, I do it as a labor of love. For the Hoffer estate, I field regular rights and usage inquiries that must be investigated, negotiated, and perhaps declined. It is a nontrivial effort, which the earnings percentage that I receive helps salve.

As I write this article, I realize that I have not yet considered my own literary executor. I have published several books and scripts, and there are various contracts, royalties, and projects in the works at stake. Furthermore, I have specific desires about how I’d like my work to be managed in perpetuity, and I also need to consider the succession for the literary estates that I handle. While I hope to be around for some time yet, I plan on lining up my literary executor and successors well in advance. Many of those people are already obvious to me. I imagine your potential literary executor will be obvious to you. Don’t wait too long. Solidify your literary legacy now.

The above article is practical advice for authors, not legal advice for individuals setting up a will. Probate laws and requirements vary from state to state. Seek professional advice where necessary.

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.

Your Literary Estate, Part One: Assigning a Literary Executor

No one likes to think about wills or insurance policies. It’s the stuff that reminds us of our mortality, yet helps define our legacy. Legacy planning requires thoughtful reflection and the selection of the correct, living people to manage it. When you’re gone, you’ll have little control over what happens next. You can either prepare for the best outcome while you walk the Earth or leave your heirs with chaos, feuding, and probate courts. Your heirs will have varying degrees of concern for your legacy, ranging from not-at-all through avarice to sincere compassion for your work. Get control of the process now.

As an author, you have a special addendum to your legacy known as your literary estate. This involves the administration of your published and unpublished work, letters, papers, royalties, and contracts. You’ll need someone you can trust to manage your literary estate who will look after both your interests and integrity as an author. The reason why you don’t see the Ernest Hemingway Big Game Rifle or the Jack Kerouac Touring Tires is because they have the correct person managing their legacies. The person who will manage your literary estate is known as a Literary Executor.

Most people are familiar with an Estate Executor—the appointed person who manages the affairs of a dearly departed. State laws moderate what an estate executor can do and how much he/she can be paid for doing it. This person is often an attorney who knows how to navigate the law and has experience dealing with heirs. Unfortunately, this person has general experience for estates and often little to no experience with the literary world and all of its pitfalls and trap doors. For that, you’ll want to appoint a Literary Executor to administrate your literary estate apart from your general estate concerns.

Your literary executor would optimally be someone who is both involved in the business of publishing and is familiar with you and your heirs. It could be an editor, agent, or fellow writer. He/She should understand both your work and intentions. This is uncovered through knowing you and maintaining an ongoing dialogue about your work. After your death, your literary executor will act in your place, even appointing the next literary executor to succeed him/her.

In the years leading up to his death, bestselling author Robert Gover asked me to become his literary executor. I was the natural choice. He was my writing mentor before I was published. I admired and understood his work. Over the years, we became peers in the industry, and in addition to being published on my own, I edited his latter novels. We were friends, and I came to know his wife and children (i.e. his eventual heirs). This is the optimal of all situations. While you’ll benefit from assigning someone who knows your heirs, aim for a literary executor who understands the business first, and then your work next.

Gover knew that his heirs would trust me and my eventual decisions, but I was powerless in managing his literary estate unless it was official. However, I learned that almost no one had information on this topic. I am a member of the Author’s Guild, which defends authors on various copyright and literary concerns, but even their legal council had no advice other than a general disclaimer that they would not be advising me on this matter. Furthermore, Gover had limited funds near the time of this death, and so hiring the correct yet expensive attorney to draw up paperwork was out of the question. If you own a wealthy literary estate or you possess the financial means, you should hire a publishing-experienced attorney to establish your literary legacy. Unfortunately for most authors, the cost of this attorney would erase any hope of profit and thereby eliminate a primary factor of managing a literary estate in perpetuity.

In the case of Gover’s literary estate, I sought a document that assigned my position. The answer was a simple letter from Gover, declaring me as his literary executor to manage all of the aforementioned factors that go with those duties in the event of his death. In his advanced age, I typed it up for him and had a professional notarize the document. A Notary Public can be found at a nearby bank, post office, shipper, or even an attorney’s office. You might have one in the family. The point was to have Gover assign me as his literary executor (and my appointed duties) in clear language on a document with a witnessed signature. Having secured that, I was a literary executor for the first time. Without that document, all control of his literary estate would be left in the hands of his heirs.

If your literary estate is significant—that which will generate an inheritance tax for example—consider having your literary executor specified in your will. This will require a visit to an experienced attorney. It’s also a good idea to sit down with your heirs in advance and explain to them who will be managing your literary estate if it will not be your heirs directly. You want no surprises. Your death will be an emotional time, and surprises will create unnecessary contentions with or among your heirs. Keep in mind that after your death, your literary executor conceptually will be the steward of your work, but in reality will be working on behalf of your heirs.

In the second installment, we’ll discuss the functions of a Literary Executor and the factors involved in managing a literary estate. (see Your Literary Estate, Part Two: Managing Your Work)

The above article is practical advice for authors, not legal advice for individuals setting up a will. Probate laws and requirements vary from state to state. Seek professional advice where necessary.

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.