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

That Famous Fig Leaf: Uncovering the Holiness of Our Bodies

by Chad W. Thompson

Cascade Books

book review by Nicole Yurcaba

The body was not designed to be enjoyed apart from the spirit that resides inside.”

This work explores the history and psychology of the body and its connection to the mind and, more importantly, the spirit. By examining church leaders’ stances, psychological and sociological studies, biblical studies, and a large swath of literature, this book researches society and religion’s seemingly imposed dichotomy between the body and the spirit, and it poses why no dichotomy should exist whatsoever. By exploring how members of Western society predominantly shape their attitudes towards their bodies during childhood and adolescence, this book examines how an oversexed society loses respect for itself and its members through body objectification and how through an understanding of where these ideas develop and the disconnect that often occurs between body image, body acceptance, and faith, believers in any faith can accept their bodies and their sexuality as inseparable from their spirit.

This book offers insights for those struggling with tough questions. With its focus on modern-day questions and attitudes towards teaching children about their bodies, about emphasizing to teenagers the importance of accepting their bodies as theirs and God’s, and about carrying positive body attitudes throughout one’s life as one grows in his or her faith, this book becomes a must-read for anyone interested in the history and the research behind many Western attitudes towards nudity, sex, and the body. Supported with a variety of both religious and secular research, this book provides fresh insights about age-old questions and struggles. It is a must-read for those who prefer a more academic approach to faith and spirituality, but it is also recommended for anyone seeking to provide insights to young adults and teenagers about coping with body issues, sexuality, and faith.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

by Christopher Hitchens

Grove Press New York

book review by Christopher Klim

“To begin with, a summary of Paine’s astonishing life and career is to commence with a sense of wonder that he was ever able to emerge at all.”

Now that radical elements are attempting to erase history, Thomas Paine might laugh in his grave. As the singular most important figure in the birth of modern democracy, the promoter of human liberty, and the author of an American bestseller only eclipsed by the Bible, Paine should have a monument in Washington, DC at least as big as the “founding fathers,” but he has been mostly forgotten—and that occurred before he even left the planet.

Born the son and later apprentice of a corset maker, Paine stumbled into London after escaping death at sea during the outside of The Seven Years War between England and France. There his Quaker roots crossed paths with the freethinking denizens of the city. He fumbled through professions and a marriage, while expanding in radical thought. In 1774, he appeared in Philadelphia alone with a modest letter of recommendation and a recent acquaintance with Benjamin Franklin. Two years later, he published a half million copies of Common Sense—a pamphlet that challenged British authority and monarchy in plain and ingenious language. Often referred to as the greatest American bestseller, Common Sense was either read by or to read to nearly every colonists and became the catalyst that altered history.

Later, with The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, Paine influenced generations forward and still does today. This latter work, which challenged the papacy, rejected the fantastical elements of belief in God, and even criticized George Washington, caused a backlash among his peers and isolated him from society. After a stint abroad fanning the flames of The French Revolution, the father of two national freedom movements spent time in prison, narrowly escaped execution, and returned to America in anonymity to die nearly a pauper in the New York. Like a true zealot, Paine had alienated himself from even his staunchest supporters in the end.

With his usual wit, economy of words, and deft deployment of facts, Hitchens paints a wonderful and honest portrait of Paine centering around The Rights of Man—a brilliant discourse on the nature of humanity and that rights are inherent to man and not bestowed by any earthly authority. It is existential and timeless as it is practical and current. Hitchens never minces words or arguments, and it’s clear that he is passionate about his subject matter. If Paine was a singular gift to humanity, then Hitchens’ handling is reverent and as needed now as much as ever.

RECOMMENDED

Loserthink

by Scott Adams

Portfolio

book review by Christopher Klim

“If any part of your argument depends on asking critics to ‘prove it isn’t true,’ you are thinking like a cult member.”

Famed Dilbert cartoonist and public commentator, Scott Adams, wants to bust us from our mental prisons. We find ourselves trapped inside dead end thinking from time to time, some more often than others. He calls this “looserthink.” It’s essentially a flawed way of thinking—either through ignorance or bias—that blocks our success and even worse detracts from societal progress overall. The worst state of existing within mental bars, which occurs more often than we care to admit, is being unaware of its existence within ourselves. To escape, Adams says, it’s all a matter of training.

The book begins with a little background on the author’s own failures and eventual successes and then launches into various ways to literally think. This includes thinking like a psychologist, historian, artist, engineer, leader, scientist, entrepreneur, and economist. Separate chapters are devoted to each, and while they are insightful, it’s the economist chapter that lands most poignantly, given Adams’ past training and experience in business.

If you don’t recognized yourself in a dead-ended thought pattern—at least a tendency toward a few—he reminds us throughout the book that you are probably locked inside a mental prison of your own design. For example, “If you are arguing over the definition of a word rather than the best way forward, then you are not part of the productive world.” We see this repeated in the public discourse, if you can call the room full of mostly shouting and not listening souls connected to social media a true debate. Adams does however acknowledge the  Internet trolls for their help in the creation of this book. He has tangled with enough of them and indeed has become famous for his powers of persuasion demonstrated regularly on-line.

The book ends with helpful advice for breaking free of loserthink. Adams wields a kindly and concise delivery—the kind of teacher you most appreciate—when he could easily castigate the loserthinkers and close off the people who most need these lessons. We all need these lessons at some point. In the end, he believes that advancements in society have led us to the dawn of a new Golden Age, and we all need to pull together and add to the whole of a new greatness. Ditching the loserthink will unlock our minds to this possibility.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Learn From The Dead: There’s a reason they’re still with us

We live in an age where everyone seems most concerned with what comes next. But writers should never apologize for spending considerable time with what came before. The simple truth is that we can learn from the dead just as we do from the living. William Faulkner, an author who knew a thing or two about writing fiction, is quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He realized that as writers, we must forever be willing to re-examine, to look backward as well as forward, not just at our own work and experience, but that of others as well

While there are certainly contemporary authors we read, admire, and constantly learn from, we should also learn from writers who are no longer with us. Famous writers endure because their work touches different emotions in different people. So an immersion in the past need not be onerous. It can be as engaging as it is valuable. Ask yourself this question. Who are long gone writers that you admire, and why? Your answers will be your own. Here are three you may want to consider: Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry. They may indeed be gone, but their work continues to live and inspire via their distinctive voices.

Chandler elevated the detective novel from potboiler to mainstream literary fiction because he wrote, as one devotee said, like a “slumming angel.” No one could turn a phrase quite like Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe. His character became the archetype for all who would follow. But Chandler’s writing wasn’t mere linguistic sleight of hand. There was always acute observation and insight involved, as in The Long Goodbye, when Marlow casually tosses off the thought, “At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.”

Graham Greene’s sardonic, irony-laced tales literally drip with attitude. Often venomous, always filled with regret, they chronicle the fall of the British Empire as omnipresent Greek Chorus in stories set in sordid little backwaters of the world where one or another disenchanted Englishman finds himself having to deal with betrayal, irresponsibility, and honor or the lack of it. More often than not his characters come to a bad end. But just as often, they grudgingly accept it, as Greene’s Major Scobie laments in The Heart Of The Matter, “We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.”

And for an absolutely heavenly descent into hell, check out Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano. Reading of his protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin’s last twenty-four hours on earth, one is made mindful of the sad inadequacy one’s own vocabulary. Lowry’s explosive novel erupts from page to page as his alcoholic Consul spews a tsunami of words and phrases that turn into images and scenes and drama that one is unlikely to ever forget. Such as the last words Firmin utters when he’s finally stripped to realistic simplicity, “Christ,” he remarked, puzzled, “this is a dingy way to die.”

Make room for your own long gone but constantly remembered writers. Let them rent space in your brain. They will help keep the fires of inspiration burning. When it seems difficult to write something, read something you love. Nothing will help your writing more than having a head full of sources, styles, and stories to draw from. There is no better intellectual reservoir than a well-furnished mind. Keep yours filled with the work you truly enjoy, and don’t be shy about looking back to move forward with your fiction.

Joe Kilgore is contributor to The US Review of Books and an award-winning writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library recently featured one of his stories. Joe’s latest novella is The Horse Killer

The Crowded Hour:  Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

by Clay Risen

Scribner

book review by Christopher Klim

“Strictly speaking there is no single San Juan Hill.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, before America entered Europe to join the WWI campaign, the US was an isolationist country healing from the great war of the previous generation when its north and south did all but completely tear the union asunder. It had pushed to the California coast, claiming the nomadic plains from Native American tribes as well as Mexico’s Spanish legacy. The scars of battle were fading, but the mythology of the Wild West was taking hold. Both a romanticism and dread of the past competed in the American psyche, as it headed into a bold and fearsome future.

Meanwhile, the long reach of Spain, one of the last European empires, loosened if not entirely retracted. It’s holdings across the globe were no longer strictly under its control, and where Spain could, it kept the people in line through colonial brutality at the tip of a bayonet. Cuban was one such place, blown-up and divided via a series of indigenous revolts spread over more than one hundred years. For Cuba, independence was at stake. For Spain, the loss of its final new world foothold, including significant financial benefits, hung in the balance. Eventually, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, which may have been a military accident and not Spanish aggression, mobilized the US to Cuba’s side, thus beginning America’s longstanding policy of global intervention for freedom.

There exists periods in history when a man is born for the times. Theodore Roosevelt was one such man. Revered by many for his frontier exploits and often reviled by those in higher offices, Teddy Roosevelt had the capacity to charm, repel, lead, and recoil men. While benefiting from a privileged upbringing, stoic might be a primary word to describe him, but he wasn’t a quiet man. He lauded the selfless deeds of others, while booming his dissatisfaction with the military’s general lack of preparedness. As an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, he pushed for an increase in naval forces. While many in power lingered in the terrible memories of the Civil War, Roosevelt asserted that weakness in fact attracted outside aggression. After the Maine and against recommendation, he resigned his post to assemble a special force for the looming engagement with Spain.

This is the evolution of Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, a throwback cavalry ranging from greenhorns to seasoned adventurers, war veterans, and frelance cowboys who volunteered on horseback to avenge the Maine. In fact, they were the country’s first volunteer cavalry. Every bit of the American spirit and experience seemed to assemble outside San Antonio, and at first blush, Roosevelt wondered if they’d ever get this regiment of around one thousand men into working order. They were lean and rugged, and many barely operated with a sense of discipline. Order had to be maintained, even while rules were bent to accommodate those who’d spent a lifetime demonstrating the essence of liberty and independence on the frontier.

While the entire campaign is outlined in this book, the turning point, as well as one of Roosevelt’s personal high water marks, is superbly detailed during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In breadth, length, and barbarity, the battle fails in measure against any involving US troops before or after, yet it remains iconic in American history. Perhaps this was because the troops themselves were somewhat iconic even before they set sail from the Florida coast. For months, Roosevelt feared that the conflict might conclude before they reached Cuba, and although his troops eventually did land and see action, when the famous moment arrived along a rise known as Kettle Hill, he rushed forward with his charge almost out of a sense of overall frustration as much as his concern to protect his men. For the most part, the battle was paced and labored, gathering many casualties, not the storming uphill gallop depicted in art and lore.

In The Crowded Hour, eponymously named from Roosevelt’s battle description at San Juan Hill, journalist and author Clay Risen narrates a pivotal moment when the US rejoined in the aftermath of the Civil War and western expansionism and turned outward to launch its mandate of spreading democracy around the world, or at least pause the succession of imperial, dictatorial, or socialist growth.  As is always the case, motivations are never pure, and Risen does well to identify both the genesis of our actions and the naivety of the times.  He also dedicates significant pages to establishing the assembly of the troops and the attitudes surrounding them and those of their peers and countrymen. In many ways, these noncombat aspects are more important than following a roughly two-month “war” in the Caribbean. In the end, a maturing country had finally chased the last vestiges of the old world from the new world, while beginning a global policy that exists until this day.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review