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.

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Advertisements

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout

by Lauren Redniss
It Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“We lived in preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.”

Before STEM Programs, before Title 9, before the Suffragettes, Marie “Madame” Curie blazed a path for science and women that marks history. Pioneering research in radioactivity—a word coined by her—Curie discovered two elements (Polonium, named for her beloved Poland, and Radium). In doing so, she established a new science and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only person to win it twice for science. For a scientist, filling in even one square on the periodic table is a big deal, and she discovered two. Her research sprawls through chemistry, physics, and medicine to this day, including its long-lasting cultural implications. She ultimately sacrificed her life, dying from radiation exposure prior to a true understanding of the risk. Effectively she pioneered this research as well.

Curie is a progenitor of the Nuclear Age, and the book branches out tangentially in subject matter, never leaving the realm of radiation and its effect upon society. In addition to Curie and her beloved co-scientist Pierre, alternate voices speak throughout the narrative, such as friend and colleague Albert Einstein or the man who dug nuclear bomb test site tunnels in Nevada. Some of these witnesses to radiation knew Curie; others only benefited or saw their life redirected by her discoveries. Together they quilt a complete picture, not only of Curie’s life and work, but of the way we live now.

Few books form a lasting record. Insightful, gorgeous, a luxury of thought and sight, Redniss’ book delivers one such gift. It tantalizes both the scientist and the layman with gorgeous illustrations, accessible science, and personal reflections of the great scientist. It steps back to take a wider view, examining the course of history through radiation, and it’s bound together with an artist’s touch. It’s the kind of book that makes you think who should be awarded it as a gift.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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

Last Stories

by William Trevor
Viking

book review by Christopher Klim

“He slept and waited still, but he knew in dreams that only angels were is solace.”

William Trevor posthumously delivers his final collection of stories in the aptly titled, Last Stories. Widely considered a master of the short form, Trevor does not disappoint in this assembly of late and mostly unseen work. We’ll dispense quickly with the accolades, which include prizes short and tall and at least ten New York Times bestsellers, some of which occurred in a time when the public has nearly ceased reading literary works and especially short stories. It suffices to say that more than one writer, during Trevor’s eighty-eight years, today works in the short form because of this author, and this trend will no doubt continue.

Trevor inhabits his characters, running the nuance of their thoughts without the navel-gazing of too many modern writers. These are not always likable people. We are appalled by their humanity, we blush at their foolishness, and we sometimes desire to close the book on them, but we have to know. These are not archetypes. There are no heroes, and we won’t be bowled over with pyrotechnics or punched by absurdity, but the characters will resonate and linger. Trevor appeared to love people for all their warts and wants. This and his entire body of work proves it.

During his narratives, the author throttles with expert control. Whether it be the express train or, as seen more often, the local crawl, all of this is taking us somewhere, most often to Trevor’s patented final twist. Unless you’re familiar with his work, it’s difficult to explain exactly how he does it. We should anticipate a final shift during the read, but it takes us by surprise. When his insights are laid bare, he exists without another word. This economy is part of his craft. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve been given the privilege of entering a Trevor live character sketch and suddenly a story pops up around it.

So that’s the crash course in William Trevor.

In honor of Mr. Trevor and in keeping with the spirit of his work, we’re going to keep this review short, and without knowing whether Trevor was a tea toddler or not, we raise a glass of fine whiskey to a glorious life in letters. We hope you pick up this latest work or one of his other exquisite collections. You couldn’t pass a summer’s day in better fashion.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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 Russian Hoax

by Gregg Jarrett
Broadside Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“…based on this record, no other conclusion is reasonably supportable.”

Thinking people remember where they were when former FBI Director James Comey gave his famous July 5, 2016 news conference absolving then-candidate Hillary Clinton of criminal behavior regarding her mishandling of secure government documents on an insecure server while Secretary of State and then covering up her error in judgment after it became evident. Let’s pause for a moment and think about that sentence: A U.S. Secretary of State placed an insecure server in her private residence, passing countless classified documents during a four-year period, and then attempted to hide the fact when it was exposed, and yet no clear crime was identified by the U.S. Justice Department, of which the FBI is an entity. How could this possibly not be a problem or a clear violation of the Espionage Act, if not obstruction of justice at the very least?

As the server story unraveled, along with the working machinations of the Clinton Foundation, more unprosecuted crimes emerged regarding their conduct. The Clintons, who have been given a pass for decades for questionable dealings with the simplistic excuse of merely toeing the line of the law, have evidently been caught way over the line in a number of areas. Classified documents were handled outside of all established protocol, exposing national secrets and safety to foreign entities. During this investigation, details of the Clinton Foundation’s quid pro quo dealings saw the light of day. While these facts were being uncovered, other U.S. citizens were being prosecuted for similar espionage violations and public officials were being jury-trialed for similar abuses of power for personal gain. The power of the office of the Secretary of State does not excuse or lessen these crimes; in many ways, it makes them worse.

Clinton’s e-mail server is the starting point for MSNBC and Fox News anchor and legal analyst Gregg Jarrett’s clear, insightful, and stunning exposé of the entire “Russian collusion” fraud, as prosecuted daily in the news media. Through heavily footnoted and supported facts, as opposed to the media opinion du jour, Jarrett reveals the major crimes of the Clintons, the cover-up, and then the Russian hoax designed to damage a political candidate and his ensuing presidency through an unverified, at times comical, document known as “the dossier.”

What is the dossier and how was it used? Jarrett summarizes the key points that no one denies. Here’s what we know: The dossier is a Clinton-funded collection of allegations against candidate Donald Trump, assembled from “raw” Russian intelligence through former British spy, Christopher Steele. The document claims that Trump associates Carter Page and Paul Manafort met with Russian agents to gather information against Hillary Clinton. It further asserts that Trump had been groomed for political office by Vladimir Putin. While all parties deny these charges, it is important to know that none of its claims have been verified to date, no one in both the FBI and CIA bothered to verify them, and when placed under oath in British court, Christopher Steele admitted that the dossier was essentially bogus.

Steele likely believed the dossier would only be used as a political campaign smear tactic, while he collected a multi-million dollar paycheck for his work. He couldn’t have possibly known that the unverifiable dossier, because it appears to be entirely false, would eventually become the centerpiece for obtaining a FISA warrant against a presidential candidate, and then the impetus for a special council run by Robert Muller and his band of avowed Clinton supporters. It’s important also to keep in mind that while charges have been leveled on Trump’s associates, not a single charge has been leveled regarding so-called Russian collusion. It’s also important to understand that Russian collusion in of itself is not a crime. So what are we doing here?

The entire Russian hoax has a secondary political function beyond an unconstitutional attempt to unseat a duly elected president. Through the use of a willing media, it serves as a distraction to the Clinton’s, the FBI’s, and the Justice Department’s clear violations of the law. It is unlawful to misrepresent facts or lie to a judge in order to obtain a warrant. It is unlawful to deny a citizen’s Constitutional rights. It is unlawful to use a government office for personal or political benefit. It is unlawful to mishandle and expose privileged and secure government documents. It is unlawful to obstruct justice. FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Intelligence Chief James Clapper, Bruce Ohr, and the notorious Peter Strzok and his girlfriend, Lisa Page, appear to have done much of this and more. The web of lies and people involved is bigger, and given its scope and the evidence uncovered to date, it’s become impossible to believe that President Obama and his inner circle, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, had no understanding of their actions.

Be angry about what these arrogant people have done. They’ve justified breaking the law in order to protect their ideals and way of life. This is what happens when diversity of opinion is actively rooted out and group think takes over. It’s fascism in its purest form. Government has been poisoned by group think. We see it in the news and all over the Internet. Group think always leads to pervasive ignorance, while purporting to be the wisest entity in the room.

While the country is saddled with a demoralizing special council which appears to have the sole purpose of unearthing any dirt whatsoever on President Trump—anyone remember Ken Starr—former FBI Director James Comey has since gone on a sycophantic book tour, maintaining his innocence with palpable doses of self-righteousness. On one hand, you can hardly blame him. It appears that he was influenced by Clinton-beholden and then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to support one political candidate by forgiving her of criminal behavior, and then launched an unfounded investigation against another to destroy him. He’s gone too far down the road to perdition to turn around, and his commitment to a life-defining, career-destroying, and eminently corrupt path is clear. However if justice still exists in the U.S., he and the aforementioned government officials will face a jury of peers for various charges.

Jarrett’s book is perhaps the most insightful and clearest description of what has happened and where we are right now within this unholy mess. The United States needs its justice department cleaned up. Our system of laws badly relies on it. Jarrett helps shine a light.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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