Who Purchases Book Reviews?

The short answer is everyone does, although it might not be evident at first. National publishing trade magazines present the illusion that they are fair and balanced—a familiar phrase—in their review coverage, but given a closer look, these publications thrive on the sales of expensive advertising space, including their front and back covers. Other national trades don’t even hide the fact that they charge hundreds of dollars per review. You’ll notice that very few small publishers are mentioned in their pages. The presses that cannot afford ad space and review fees coincidentally go unmentioned, and all independent presses (i.e. micro presses and self-publishers) are typically barred from book review consideration.

Consider that advertising fees are built into the budgets of large press books, and when you purchase one, you are in effect paying for their media coverage somewhere along the line. There is simply no justification for highlighting or featuring the next chick-lit-murder-mystery redux novel in any of the media outlets, other than it is big business for the monolithic presses and they have the dollars to push their product. We are a capitalist society, and profit drives many editorial decisions. Any author who manages his/her own marketing has run into a media outlet (print, radio, etc.) that has promised increased coverage with the purchase of advertising space or time. While many local newspapers still hold an air of integrity, these venues are drying up faster than the rapidly fading printed news industry.

This state of affairs casts a long shadow over literature. One byproduct is that the large commercial presses, by virtue of supplying the economic lifeblood to the publishing media, control what reaches the reading public. Due to either politics or economics, certain genres and ideas are not desirable to large presses, and therefore, vital topics are kept from the public discourse, while excellent independent press authors go unnoticed. In the end, they turn to the Internet for help.

A survey of the web reveals hundreds of review outlets—some specialized, others general. Many of these reviewers write for free, and their coverage is professionally uneven. These are hobby sites. Meanwhile the Internet has killed the three-headed monster of publishing: paper, ink, and distribution. Through the years, paper and ink became increasingly expensive, and most recently rising gas prices (i.e. a distribution cost) was the death knell for most brick and mortar publications, but in the digital age, the Internet can more than fill the need while providing work for dedicated journalists.

The US Review of Books was created for two reasons: first, to provide inexpensive access to professional book reviewers for all authors and, second, to pay the writers a fair wage for their work. In less than a decade, the US Review has employed dozens of reviewers and written over twelve thousand reviews to mostly happy authors. They are mostly happy, because the USR’s reviewers are honest and thoughtful. If a book is hackneyed or wasn’t properly edited, perhaps for style and spelling, the review is going to mention these facts. Luckily that isn’t the norm, and the large presses are starting to notice and quietly submit their books for value media coverage as the USR climbs to the top of search engines. Seeing the future, publicity agents and author services companies are also integrating the US Review into their marketing plans. Good books deserve serious consideration and discussion, regardless of where and how the book is published.

As the millennials—sometimes called the Digital Generation—assumes authority, the Internet and all modes of digital transfer will take control. It makes sense; it’s convenient and mostly green technology. Outlets like the US Review of Books will continue to expand in order to fill authors’ marketing needs while providing employment opportunities to the writing/journalist force.

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The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. Unfortunately, many national book awards are closed to small, academic, and independent press authors, and their practices can be just as exclusive and suspect as your local government. (See earlier article: The Eric Hoffer Book Award: Righting the Wrongs.)

While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has elevated our book award to international prominence. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, and da Vinci Eye; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over one hundred prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff (i.e. inexperienced general readers). The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

The 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: 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

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