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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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.

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Stilted Writing

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The word stilted is defined as stiff, self-conscious, and/or unnatural. In a book, this concept is just as unwelcomed. For example…

It was a starry night. An owl flew low beneath the moon. Joe loved Jane so much that he thought his heart might burst. But nothing would stand in their way now. He swept her off her feet and carried her through the threshold of their lives together.

“Stop right there,” said the shadowy figure coming from behind the light post.

“No, not you!” Jane gasped.

“Have you forgotten about your husband?” the stranger barked.

“Sir, you must reconsider your approach,” Joe said.

The above passage forms a parade of clichés, passive verbs, hackneyed concepts, repetitions, invariable sentence structure, overly formal speech, and talking heads. Neither entertaining nor enlightening, these issues combine to stultify the reader. Let’s discuss a few of these problems.

Clichés, passive verbs, repetitions, overly formal speech, and even hackneyed concepts boil down to laziness on part of the writer. To complicate their existence, writers may become comfortable with these phrases and scenes during multiple readings to the point where a false sense of confidence in the prose arises. This is why cooling off periods—days or weeks if allowable between revisions—are vital to identifying problematic writing. Try to think of these issues as placeholders that will be replaced with stronger phrasing and construction. If the writer is not surprised or energized by his/her words, then no one else will be.

Talking head syndrome occurs when the characters provide information that either they should already know (i.e. “Hello, I’m Bob, your uncle.”) or barely relates to the conversation. This happens when the writer tries to relate narrative information through the character’s mouths. It is always obvious, and it saps momentum and authenticity from the work. In the example above, the entire dialogue should be replaced.

Invariable sentence structure, which is typically a repetition of subject-verb sentences without changes in presentation or structure, reveals the writer’s skill level or lack thereof. Fluctuations stimulate the reader’s mind. Changing sentence structure also is used in relation to the tone of the story. For example, short and quick sentences work for action scenes and humor, especially punch lines. Longer sentences can be found in romantic prose. Leading and trailing phrases form a variety of transitions. The list here is long and can be observed in any good literature and nonfiction narrative.

Many early writers are so eager to get their ideas on paper that they overlook the words themselves. On face value, that statement seems like a paradox, but it is only the normal course of a writer’s development. Skilled writers won’t accept stilted writing in their work, and during the revision process, they learn to identify their particular bad habits and eliminate them.

Here’s a cliché: All writing is rewriting. It also happens to be an axiom of the process.

Next in the The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

Previously in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice 

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

by Laurence Gonzales
W.W.Norton

book review by Christopher Klim (with commentary from the Eric Hoffer Book Award)

“The design of the human condition makes it easy for us to conceal the obvious from ourselves, especially under strain and pressure.”

Accidents cover a wide spectrum of often life-threatening scenarios. On the surface, survival appears random or at the very least circumstantial, but the survivors or top performers when challenged are those that use logic in harmony with inbred animal instincts or emotions, and they never follow the rules, not even their own, yet keep in touch with all of their knowledge and resources, their very position on the planet.

Author and journalist Gonzales offers a comprehensive examination of the path through living and dying in crisis. The answers aren’t singular or predictable. Just the stories alone, as retold by Gonzales with passion and a journalist’s conciseness, are worth the read, and they are intermittently supported by science and research to complete the picture.

The book is divided into two parts—accident and aftermath—and it’s the latter, the stories of survival, that are even more compelling, as well as illustrative of the human experience and the way the mind operates. Unfazed by its promising title, this eloquently written and well researched investigation of survival through crisis entertains, informs, and incites. From the flawless landing of a military jet plane on a moving ship in the dead of night, to the miraculous drifting to safety through shark infested waters, one act of survival after another is described in minute detail.

The book makes an important contribution to the survival literature from both an academic and a practical standpoint, as it incorporates fact and humanity, science and soul. Not only valuable reading for individuals engaged in high risk activities, it’s for all who will face emotional, physical, or financial distress at some point in our lives. And how do you know when that will come? You don’t. One of the central messages is to be prepared b developing a core to fall back upon when it is most needed. The last thing you want to discover in crisis is that you don’t have a core or much of one to guide you. Then you’ll literally freeze up like a deer in the headlights, like a stuck machine, like most people.

And what type of life is it if you do not? As Eric Hoffer once said, “The remarkable thing is that it is the crowded life that is most easily remembered. A life full of turns, achievements, disappointments, surprises, and crises is a life full of landmarks.” A crowded life also brings danger, even crisis, and those who survive are not always obvious.

This updated edition is the Eric Hoffer Book Award Gran Prize Winner and has been appreciated by a wide array of people and careers. It just might change the way you think.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Inferior Word Choice

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

A weak vocabulary is exposed not only by the range of words used, but also by their poor application within a sentence. In both fiction or nonfiction, strong word choices reveal a skilled writer. Word choices show the author’s character and talent, but mostly his or her level of discipline. Let’s investigate areas of concern, including examples of inferior word choices.

Invented Words

Demonstrating the worst abuse of language, lazy writers invent words that do not exist. Other writers hyphenate ridiculous combinations of words rather than construct a more intelligent sentence or employ the single word that relates a similar meaning.

Jane went on a date with Bill, irregardless of his past. (Not only is irregardless not a real word, it is no different in use or meaning than regardless.)

Because he was crazy-excited, Bill advance-planned for his date with the super-good-looking Jane. (A writer with a fifth grade vocabulary might say: Nervous, Bill prepared for his date with Jane, the beauty.)

Misused Words

When a word is misused, the writer either doesn’t understand its meaning or is working with an alternate definition so far down the dictionary that no one but an experienced linguist understands how it applies. The wrong word choice misleads the reader and creates absurd results. Some word choices fall out of context, running askew of the narrative or theme of the book.

Jane delineates that Bill will make a suitable companion. (Jane seems like a real warm and cozy person.)

The caveman chased the mastodon like a bus at rush hour. (This caveman appears to possess the ability to time travel.)

The coffee table size book fits nicely in any collection. (That giant book will fit in no collection.) 

Ambiguous Words

Many words are meant to be vague, and a number of reasons exist for employing them, not the least of which is diplomacy. Good writing shuns diplomacy, displaying the courage of precision whether it disturbs the reader or not. On the other hand, ambiguity summons boredom.

Jane realized that Bill had an unpleasing smell. (Does Jane like stinky men or not?) 

Bill would prefer not to deal with Jane ever again. (Bill is so boring that she’ll forever avoid him.)

Clichés

We’ve all heard clichés and used them too many times. This is how they become cliché—tired, overwrought words and expressions. While conversation tolerates this fault, a written work attempts to inform and illuminate through saliency. By the way, repetition—using the same words over and over, no matter what the words are—create a self-contained cliché within a narrative.

The next time Bill saw Jane, he would give her a piece of his mind. (If this were a horror story, it might actually turn out to be interesting)

Jane was really steamed at Bill’s attitude. (Jane is apparently angry, but we fell asleep during her narrative.)

Jargon and Slang

Like dialect, jargon and slang add color to a book, but when the terms are esoteric or regional, their meanings can be obfuscated. Furthermore, too much jargon or slang make the narrative appear like an alternate language. Unless it is essential to the story, avoid this whenever possible. Instead, sprinkle colloquialisms and obtuse terms into the narrative, and the reader will gather its flavor while comprehending the actual meaning.

In full techie-mode, Bob found the SIMM and gave the SOB gizmo another reboot before 86’ing it altogether. (Translated: Bob found the missing memory card and restarted the hateful computer, longing to dump it in the ocean.)

Weak Verbs and Nouns

Journeyman writers activate weak verbs (i.e. is, was, had, be, are, etc.) wherever possible by replacing them with powerful and specific choices. Unfortunately, some writers remedy this by arranging verbs and adverbs, as well as nouns and adjectives, into shotgun marriages on the page. Still others assemble them like boxcars extending for miles. This wordiness prompts readers to skim the page. Collapse these combinations into precise verbs and nouns to gain a tighter and more lucid sentence.

The small, soft, and squishy Mediterranean citrus with loose skin had briefly wobbled on the edge of the stairs before it quickly bounced along the steps and stopped at the base near the front door with a forceful bang. (Revised: The overripe Clementine teetered and then skipped downstairs, crashing into the entrance.)

In Conclusion

The previous suggestions all boil down to cogency—being clear, logical, and convincing. Great word choices ring so true that they go unquestioned, achieving deeper meaning within the narrative. During the revision and editing process, writers scrutinize word choices for exactness, so that the truth of their sentences appeals to the reader. A master writer develops a control system (i.e. a vocabulary relating to the character, scene, and theme) that supplies a language for the reader to understand a particular book, and this changes from book to book. However, that is a discussion for another time.

Next in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing 

Previously in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution

by Tom Shachtman
St. Martin’s Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Conclusions that appear inevitable often require the most time and effort to make happen.”

Early in the American Revolution, a French emissary for Louis XVI, a king who fancied replacing the British handhold on America with his own, secretly visited the colonies to both measure the resistance and consider future prospects. The emissary was impressed, if not startled, by America’s resolve to achieve independence. France’s expectations needed to be adjusted. Their best hopes were to weaken and humiliate England by assisting the rebels. However, given the tentative truce in Europe, this needed to be launched under cover for as long as possible. Thus begins Tom Shachtman’s unique perspective of how a rebellion succeeded.

For more than two hundred years, the American Revolution has been characterized as a colonial uprising by brave upstarts against an underestimating motherland that eventually found itself worn out and overwhelmed. This legend is typically recited in history classes across the United States, but that’s only part of the story. The first half of the revolution can be classified as a series of blunders, misfortunes, and narrow escapes from utter defeat. If it weren’t for the timely aide in the form of supplies and experience from the French, the foolhardy resilience of the Americans, and the constant political maneuvering on the part of both, the colonial campaign against the British would have collapsed.

George Washington, as documented in his letters and pleas to congress, staff, and just about anyone who would listen, understood the plight and urgency of the revolt as well as anyone. Not only did he overcome his own miscues, he learned to expect nothing to go as planned. His military officers coveted their own agendas, supplies and reinforcements showed up days or weeks late, and his troops were woefully unprepared. Although the troops were never perfect, France may have been the key factor in helping Washington’s army to act like one.

Eventually, Europe recognized more opportunity in America than opposition, and the tide of war turned. Together the colonists and France marched to Yorktown where Washington laid siege and finished the war, or at least this phase of America’s birth. The country was still a mostly unknown continent to form over decades with liens against it from various foreign factions that needed to be resolved by guile and force. Here, at the midpoint of Shachtman’s unique and studied contribution to U.S. history, the book pivots to further expand France’s role in securing America’s foothold after victory.

Shachtman is a detailed researcher, who is both a historian’s and biographer’s dream. With books such as Rumspringa, Whoever Fights Monsters, and American Iconoclast, he delves into the parts that others overlook to form a complete picture. He goes for the extra third of information, the deep research that leaves little debate regarding events. One of his greatest strengths is that his opinion rarely bleeds onto the pages, yet he still interjects unique observational skills and the occasional takeaway line. He becomes fascinated with the subject, not arbiter of it as many modern biographers tend to be.

How the French Saved America follows the mode of Dumas Malone’s classic study of Jefferson, where the story is unearthed through the discovery of fact. The book is heavily annotated and indexed, leaning toward scholarly but eminently readable. Since history has reduced much of France’s involvement in the American Revolution to exchanges between Washington and Lafayette, Shachtman’s new accounting reveals the enormous contribution France made in blood, treasure, and political capital to secure America’s independence.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review