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

 

 

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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 

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

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Poor Structure

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.

Keeping organized is a challenge for many artists, writers included. Order is not intuitive for creative people attempting to push boundaries, but clear structure, even in a work of fiction, provides a recognizable thought process for the reader. As always, the goal is for the reader to understand the writer’s words, not for the writer to confuse or make a stumbling attempt to impress. The human mind seeks order, and a book’s structure is essentially the map of its narrative. The easier it is to read the map, the easier it will be for the writer to deliver even complex details or the high art of fine writing.

For nonfiction writers, the need for structure should be obvious. Nonfiction books attempt to teach certain subjects. The very best of these simultaneously entertain. Regardless, a book’s organization forms the lesson plan, each section building upon the next. While tools like the table of contents, index, and appendixes make the information more accessible, the narrative should assume a sequence and stick to it throughout the book. This allows the reader to not only rely on its direction but anticipate the flow, even if the details are surprising or unpredictable. Various methods of order include alphabetic/numeric (by letters and numbers), chronologic (by occurrences in time), geographic (by locations on the globe), hierarchic (by structures of authority), and thematic (by relevant concepts).

With this in mind, it’s easy to see that fiction assumes a structure and creates a rhythm that moves subconsciously through the reader’s mind. For example, books that shift in time tend to reveal a pattern: two chapters in the present, followed by one in the past, and so on. The same holds true for shifting points of view, where characters A, B, and C rotate through the narrative in a recognizable pattern, even if character A dominates the text.

When it’s working, structure is received subconsciously, because the pattern is clear and therefore the reader doesn’t have to think about it. If the organization is haphazard, the reader will direct focus away from the content and onto decoding the structure or, in this case, figuring out the writer’s mishandling of basic technique. Of course there will always be exceptions. Twelve Monkeys randomly skips through time to make the reader feel the chaos of time travel, but, for most books, this is an unnecessary conceit.

Albert Einstein blew out the chaos theorists by realizing that what appeared to be disorganized—the big bang theory, a chemical reaction, or even a kindergarten class at play—was merely a pattern that we hadn’t recognized yet. Most people aren’t Einstein. Readers will abandon a poorly or chaotically organized book. It will not be received as clever or brilliant, but as pretentious and undisciplined.

Some emerging artists think of structure as restrictive, but skilled writers know that structure is the cornerstone upon which true change and enlightenment can be built. When a book inhabits a mind with a recognizable pattern, the ability to make the reader think and feel is limitless.

Next in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

Previously in The Book Killers series: Bad Grammar

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

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 first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure