The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

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.

Much regarding point of view (POV) is the artist’s decision. A good choice can add salient new insight to a familiar subject, as seen for example in Picasso’s cubism or Patti Smith’s Instagram account. In both, they don’t necessarily discuss themselves, but over the course of time, we learn about the artist and more importantly their subject matter. In literature, the POV is the person or thing guiding the narrative, and the subject is the consequence of their focus.

POV comes in a variety of shades and colors. Simply put, the story narrative will appear in either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they). Everything else is a hybrid of these three basic modes. POV might vary within a given work, but each POV requires the reader to suspend disbelief differently in order to engage with the narrative. First person asks the reader to get inside the skin of the narrator, second person asks the reader to be the narrator, and third person provides distance from the narrator.

Second person is the trickiest, requiring the reader to relate to the narrator at least in a general sense. In contrast, most readers could wear the skin of a serial killer in first person, since the reader understands that he/she is secretly slipping inside the abhorrent mind of the narrator, but a second person narrative asks the reader to be the serial killer, which is hopefully a no-go area for most readers. Finally, third person can be described—and perhaps over-described by literature and writing teachers—as providing a variety of distances from the subject, ranging from a nearby viewer, who reveals what he/she sees, hears, or induces, to an omnipresent seer, who can relate everything from the minds of the players to that which has happened off-screen and any point on the timeline.

In all POVs, the narrator is further moderated by reliability. As with real people, the narrator is effected by his/her own past and thought patterns, and therefore interprets events through this lens. The narrator might also be self-deluded for a variety of reasons (i.e. fear, conceit, mental illness, etc.). When intervieweing people at a crime scene, investigators will hear vastly different accounts of the same event. A narrator who runs askew of the facts is referred to as an “unreliable narrator.” Everything from the events, and especially the reasons for them, cannot be trusted from an unreliable narrator, and the reader may only learn this over time. Lolita‘s self-deluded child predator, Humbert Humbert, is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Nabokov, helped by the fact that Lolita is no angel, manages dark irony through Humbolt’s ultimately pathetic voice.

Regardless of your choice of POV, two factors emerge to support the work: authenticity and saliency.

Authenticity is not necessarily reliability. Authentic narrators involve accuracy in the character’s portrayal. An obsessed narrator, as Lolita‘s Humbert, or a mentally ill narrator, as in Everything Burns’s pyromaniac Oscar Van Hise, form gripping reads. Neither of these narrators are reliable, but they are true to their deluded selves and draw razor sharp accuracy of events. Both characters form the archetype of a villain, which can be useful narration for the story. Therefore, their characters are authentic, holding the reader in place and heightening the drama. Deriving authenticity in the narrator is not only essential, but it requires deep understanding of the character. An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to commute the story, but an inauthentic character portrayal will ground the story to a halt.

On the other hand, saliency in the POV character involves that which stands head and shoulders above all else. This speaks directly to the choice of POV character. The modern world presents a great deal of navel gazing characters, and therefore the popular voice in literature today is predominantly a deep first person narrative, whether it be reliable or not. Here we follow the slipstream of consciousness—that ebb and flow of self-awareness—but is first person the best choice for the story? Sometimes it’s more effective to take a step away within a third person narration, allowing a wider view of events while avoiding unnecessary and uninteresting intimate details. In first person, the author tends to have to account for every moment in time, often moving forward by only breaking from the scene. Meanwhile, third person allows for the easy passage of time, skipping around the timeline, events, and details as needed.

Which choice of POV character is the best? This selection is not always clear. Changing the POV provides a different level of experience, maturity, and perspective. What is the story trying to accomplish? What is the story’s theme, tone, or genre? How much does the narrator need to know or get involved? Each of these questions must be answered before the narrator takes control. A story crashes when a POV character suddenly narrates out of character. She may know things she couldn’t. He may appear at a moment where he shouldn’t. He or she may do or feel as they would not. Forced POV is as obvious as an awkward metaphor.

There are many ways to select a weak POV. Most recently, there’s been a preponderance of a child’s POV dominating adult novels. While this might work for the short form, often a better choice exists with an adult POV character. Even if events surrounding a child are dramatic, a child’s ability to interpret events is limited. Remember, readers must not only be compelled to engage the narrative, but the reader needs to be convinced to stay with it.

Study those who have gone before. The choice of Lolita as the predominant character in Lolita would have stifled the narrative and eliminated the irony. The story would have been different, pathetic even. Never revealing Oscar Van Hise’s motivations for arson would have reduced both the depth and urgency of Everything Burn‘s drama. Van Hise’s reclusive, secretive nature would have been impossible to capture, and he’d be a two-dimensional antagonist, found so popularly in television crime dramas. In each, the POV character was vital to what the author was trying to accomplish beyond the events of the story alone. The reader is left feeling and thinking in a particular way. The POV characters took them to those heights, or lows, in an authentic and natural way.

In the end, art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer. Otherwise the work derives little lasting meaning. In all art dialogues, the secrets of the artist are laid bare, but we are not typically focused on them. To paraphrase seminal playwright Arthur Miller: Our best work occurs where we are most naked. As the viewer of the work, we delve into the core of the narrative as dictated by the POV and subconsciously digest the author’s insights and bits of the author as well. In the best of art, wrought through a transporting POV, we leave with new insights of our own.

Next in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Previously in The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

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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

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.