Professional Revisions – The First Look

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. It should be accomplished as uninhibited as possible, held apart from the unforgiving conscience of the self-editor. The style of draft work varies between authors, from a bare bones outline to pregnant prose. Revising the draft involves the craft of writing. Prose is expanded and contracted, and elucidation is achieved. Writers spend most of their time rewriting. They make up for their perceived deficiencies in talent and level the playing field.

Another important precept of writing is that all drafts are bad. Bad is a general category, ranging from not too bad to pretty damn bad. In draft work, writers sometimes deliver lines that are pretty damn bad. An honest writer admits that the draft process is an inescapable flirtation with disaster. As he attempts to elevate his prose, he sometimes misses and suffers a bad fall. This is expected. The revision process exists to recognize the fall and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

THE FIRST LOOK

Revision requires time and space. Allow time to forget the prose and return with the fresh eyes of a reader. After a story is drafted, put it aside and work on something different. This is also true during the revision process. The prose be-comes so familiar that the writer anticipates the words before reading them. When I spend too much time with a piece, my eyes see earlier versions, regardless of the words on the paper. I’m reading in my mind, instead of the pages in front of me.

Juxtaposing the cathartic process of draft work with the labor-intensive act of revision creates balance in the day-to-day life of a writer. Take a break during the draft of a story to write a nonfiction piece to completion. While performing lengthy revisions, pause to design your next creative project. One process feeds the other. It is a lot like absorbing and releasing energy.

After giving the draft work a rest, read it through with little or no pause. Prepare to be both surprised and embarrassed with the words on the paper. A writer delivers stunning lines in the draft, gems that pass from revision to revision untouched. A writer also drafts lousy prose – inappropriate, limp, or downright goofy phrases. Both good and ugly writing leap off the page. Keep the good, knock down the ugly, and aspire to elevate the mediocre.

This book introduces the elements of a solid story and methods for obtaining them. Try to embrace a few techniques, while modifying others to suit your storytelling approach. The following section details a process for draft revision. Take what you can use and incorporate it into your own revision process. Make note of the revision aspects that you like the least. Those are probably areas where you need work.

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.

Next: Professional Revisions – Level One: The Opening

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The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wooden Characters

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.

My Iroquois grandmother once asked me who I was. She wasn’t losing her vision or slipping into dementia. She had a keen eye on the horizon, like her young grandson, and kept a small gun beneath her shawl in case that horizon offered unexpected trouble. Listening to her was like bird watching. Rewards came with a quiet, patient effort.

That day, her question was completely lost on me. I was ten years old—a recent refugee from the city and living in a small tract housing neighborhood at the end of the woods. It was a so-called better life, but I was frightened by my change in circumstance. The steel and concrete was gone—no city buzz or crime. This was not a better life. I’d been dropped into the country, and along with a small band of friends—one relocated from Brooklyn and another from Newark, NJ—we roamed the birch forests. My grandmother noticed that I lacked the simplest outdoor skills, and even more so that I had no sense of how I fit in the world. Her question had asked me to begin looking inward for answers.

Often, when reviewing books and manuscripts, I encounter characters who appear to be lost in a story. They’re being forced through plots lines by their authors. They speak and move unnaturally because the writer hasn’t asked two basic questions of their characters—questions they probably hadn’t asked themselves in full: Who am? Why am I here? These questions were a gift from my grandmother, and I employ them until this very day. For creators of stories, they are fundamental. Let’s break each of these down.

Who am I?

Writers are brave souls. We are downright precocious. We dissect the human condition and attempt to make sense of it. Genuine storytellers translate their findings about humanity into words. And it can only begin after we truly understand who these people are moving across the page. Sometimes we know because we’ve been thinking about them for years, but more often, we need to do the research. One surefire method is to perform a character sketch, an autopsy before they are dead and buried. Here are the absolute basics for each character:

Name – People have names, and so do your story characters. A name suggests ethnic background and even country of origin. It speaks of the character’s parents. All names mean something.

Body Specifics – Story characters possess genetic characteristics that follow them throughout life. These include their age, gender, height, weight, body dimensions, facial structure, hair, and voice. The list of physical details is endless. Memorable details stick in the reader’s mind better than a name.

Body Language – Psychology begins to enter when we discuss human body dynamics. How we position our bodies in space reveals our personalities and betrays our inner thoughts.

Presentation – Many of the aforementioned character details are a culmination of fate and circumstance, but the way a character presents himself to the world is a personal decision. Clothing, hairstyle, and speech pattern are cognitive decisions of character. They speak of social status, education, financial inclination, overall preference, and personality type.

Background – Characters don’t arrive in a story as fully formed people. They had prior lives. They grew up and experienced certain events. They acquired various skills. As in real life, a character is in large part a culmination of their abilities and experiences. You may not use any of this, but you’ll understand better what this person is capable of doing based on their history.

Psyche  – At this point, we have sketched a pretty good character from the outside, poking a finger or two into the interior. Let’s ponder two important questions. How does the character view the world, and how does the character place himself in it? Answering theses questions goes a long way to anticipating a character’s reaction to story situations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – Select strengths that will support the resolution of each character’s goals and desires, and select weakness that will sabotage their chances of success.  We all have positive and negative traits that govern our personalities. Major traits rule each character, for better or for worse.

Motivation – When sketching story characters, pass from the physical into the psychological and uncover their motivations. That is the most interesting detail of anyone you’ll meet. Why does an individual behave in a particular way?  By uncovering a character’s motivation, we not only understand them more fully, we predict their moves and plot an appropriate course for them in a story.

Why am I here?

A story journey begins when a character asks: what do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Good story people take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. Confusing, unpredictable people in life are individuals who don’t fully understand themselves. Wooden characters in stories are individuals who the writer doesn’t fully understand.

Not until decades after my grandmother’s death did I began the process of asking myself who I was and why I was here. I am a scribe, part of the ancient clan that reaches back as far as the Iroquois themselves. Scribes document history and try to make sense of the people and things that pass through time and emerge within it. While this isn’t my only avocation in life, it wasn’t long before I applied my grandmother’s two vital questions to my story characters. It was only then that I began to bring life to my characters and uncovered their stories in a worthwhile and authentic way.

 

Previously in The Book Killers series: White Room

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: White Room

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.

White room syndrome happens when a writer fails to give sufficient information about the setting. For the reader, this can be disorienting if not completely boring. Perhaps there are times when the writer desires this effect, but it isn’t the norm. Setting is the writer’s friend, and it should be exploited at every opportunity. A good writer employs the most interesting aspects of location to strengthen the drama. A great writer paints the entire landscape with a single sentence.

In theory, a story spans a particular time period. Booksellers like to classify stories as historical, contemporary, and futuristic. This is nothing more than past, present, and future respectively, and each changes the parameters of setting. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

The Past

The past is recorded in the annals of history. The writer connects with this information through personal experience, experts, and documentation. While expert sources are good, our own memory of the past is unreliable and must be verified. We often don’t remember things exactly as they were, even once familiar details. We also romanticize the past. Hanging clothes on the line, piece by piece, on a warm spring afternoon sounds sweet, but it was never as nice as shoving them in the dryer.

Another aspect of the past involves historical events. Consider history in two ways: as a backdrop or as an immediate surrounding. In the opening to The World According to Garp, World War II is a backdrop. It fills the air with tension, although the specifics of war never enter the picture. In the film, Pearl Harbor the surprise attack takes over the story and frankly crowds the personal stories. If a story gets close to a major historical event, it will dominate the narrative.

The Present

A story in current times includes the tangible past and future. The writer is not redesigning the world but employing it for dramatic effect. Regardless, intriguing locations exist in present times: a peek inside surgery, life on an oil drilling platform, or the machinations of a textile factory in China. Most people haven’t viewed these locations up close, but each writer has witnessed unique settings and might make use of them.

The Future

Fifty years ago, we were projected to be commuting to the space wheel in the sky, with a four-day workweek and loads of playtime for interesting new social games. It appears that the experts guessed wrong. By all accounts, the coming years will be dirtier, noisier, and more crowded, if not busier. This is what made the movie Blade Runner so special, besides the twisted ending. The future is open to interpretation, but whatever world is designed for a story, it must be a logical extension of its own history. In Dune, the author included a lexicon inn the back pages, and, to his many readers, it’s a road map for a real world.

Where is the story location?

Story scenes occur in one or more locations. These are physical locations on the planet or in the imaginary world of the writer, although placement is not the only consideration of setting location. A story focus varies from a wide to a tight view. One writer may traverse the global landscape in pursuit of a story, while another remains in the same room for the duration. In either case, writers seek the extraordinary details, and much like character details, even the most mundane parts can achieve intrigue and brilliance.

What is life like in the story?

This is a broad question, involving many aspects of life at a particular location and moment in time. A writer considers food, clothing, transportation, education, occupation, religion, and language, and the list of possibilities is much larger. Any social behavior or lifestyle element may be useful to the story. The Pennsylvania Amish live differently than people fifty miles away in downtown Philadelphia. While each is somewhat aware of the other, individuals remain bound to the customs and circumstances of geography and culture.

Tips for Applying Setting:

  • Using setting details is a lot like using character details. Apply them in proportion to their importance to and impact on the story. Every word that appears in the text garners attention. If the writer embellishes a particular aspect, the reader will assume it’s important.
  • Seek interesting details, over the common or mundane. In a present day setting, everyone has a good idea how a steaming coffee mug looks, smells, and feels. On the other hand, the same cup of coffee assumes a new dimension in another time period. In 1776, coffee might take thirty minutes to prepare, while in 2220, coffee might enter your hydration tube at the mere thought of it.
  • Employ characters to interpret the setting in their thoughts and words, rather than straightforward narrative passages. The story will perform double duty, fleshing out the characters and surroundings at the same time.
  • If the story must include pure descriptions in the narrative, try embedding inside passages of dialogue. The landscape will be built without the reader hearing your construction noises in the background.
  • When incorporating setting into a scene, try to include all of the senses. Most of us absorb life with our eyes, followed by our ears and nose, but remember to include touch and taste. These senses become more poignant in a well-crafted story.
  • Setting can facilitate entrances and exits to scenes. The natural machinations of a particular place can provide opportunities to nail down the point and exit the scene.
  • Certain settings can amplify the tension—a bad storm, a lousy neighborhood, a creaking floor.

The list of possible devices and uses is endless. Setting helps, but it’s not a cure-all. However, if the setting isn’t sufficient, the reader will be lost in white room syndrome without a sense of time and place.

Next in The Books Killers series: Wooden Characters

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

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.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

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.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

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

Warlight

by Michael Ondaatje
Knopf

book review by Christopher Klim

“I wondered if this combination of ‘domestic life’ and a ‘life away’ was what first led my mother to accept and then change the path of her life.”

War never ceases. Even during ceasefire, war goes underground and waits for a chance to reemerge. During active war, nothing comes off cleanly, and rules are bent if not entirely broken. This uncertainty requires people to reevaluate what is important and what to preserve for the future. The intensity forces people to change. It places them out of position and off the beaten paths of their lives. On the largest scale, war is about power, but when the dust clears, all war is personal.

In Ondaatje’s latest novel, war is the landscape, but it is not the story. The book centers on Nathaniel or “stitch” as his mother dubs him. It is WWII in England, and it’s important to have an alias, because business can be secret, serious, and at times desperate. As the story unfolds, Nathaniel’s mother, Rose, and his father, who is a lesser figure in his life and not a focus of the story, disappear from the house, which leaves him and his sister under the care of shifty associates of their parents. His parents have said their good-byes, but it soon becomes evident that their reasons for leaving are false. The children are left without answers and to a large extent left to their own devices.

Their caretakers mean well and in fact serve as adult role models, but they are criminals and con men. The children become “that family” that exists in every neighborhood, where they don’t seem to have guidance, don’t seem to operate by common rules, and one wonders what the inside of their house looks like, but rarely gets to glimpse. The author provides glimpses. The house becomes a pass-through for a unique assortment of characters, who unbeknownst to the young Nathaniel, are playing parts in a larger scheme to keep the country safe.

Recently Ondaatje has become fascinated with the viewpoint of a child, which for most is a benign and limiting time in one’s life. True enough, Nathaniel is missing his parents and in some sense a childhood, which is compelling. The events that surround him are often grim and full of wonder, but however great the events of one’s youth might be, a child’s capacity to interpret it, even though fiction, is slim. It takes the adult Nathaniel, who arrives later in the story but sits somewhat as a narrator throughout, to make sense of the past. He searches through government archives and his distorted memories, because all of our childhood memories are unreliable, to locate his now-deceased mother. In Ondaatje quilt-work style, Nathaniel pieces together a story, or at least the reader does through the various perspectives and characters that compose Rose’s life. The trouble is that every character in the story is much more interesting than the narrator. In the end, Nathaniel finds that by a twist of fate he is somewhat like his mother. These discoveries will be personal, like the lingering effects of war.

It takes awhile for Ondaatje to find his lyrical prose, and he only slips in and out of it, concerned more with the storytelling than previous ventures. Like John Irving, Ondaatje loves dividing the then and the now—the lingering effects of inescapable events in the past. He might make a case for us humans that it is only those past traumas that we recall with clarity, and everything else becomes fuzzy over time. We gain attachment to them. We use them as signposts and watermarks. We forever attempt to define them.