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

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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

Know What You Write

Every once in a while the following advice pops up in blogs and at writers’ conferences like a bad rash.

Write what you know.

What uninspired genius devised this rule? It wasn’t a writer of fiction. If authors heeded those words, the balance of modern literature might encompass little more than travel logs, odes to typewriters and keyboards, and tours of every gin mill in the country. Let’s face it. We don’t do much else. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman. That would make a gripping action-packed thriller: Broker Bob Jones is hot on the trail of client Donna Smith. Can he get her to sign a life insurance policy before the monthly quota statements?

Consider the authors of great novels. Was Tom Clancy a Russian submarine commander? Was Thomas Harris a genius cannibal? Was Ralph Ellison an invisible man? I don’t think so, but they did the research and wrote from those viewpoints with confidence and style. It is better to say ‘know what you write.’ That makes more sense.

When it comes to choosing your story details, you are only limited by research and the depth of your determination to uncover the details. What interests you? Go after it. Submerse yourself if necessary. We live in the Information Age with access to people and data like never before. It’s so easy that you can become lazy if you aren’t careful.

And how do you research being an invisible man? Observe anyone handing out flyers on a street corner.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including 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—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

When Writing, Know Your Control System

Like the cockpit of the space shuttle or even the thermostat in your residence, a written piece has specific parameters to guide it successfully. If a cockpit needs airspeed and attitude controls to maintain flight, then a written piece requires unique methodology to garner truth. Not only does the terminology need to be established, it also needs to be consistent and replete throughout the piece. Careless, mixed, or wandering terminology undermines the entire work.

The concept of a control system in writing inevitably drills down to word choice. A writer must be aware of the words, phrasing, and cadence associated with a specific passage, as well as the entire piece. If the passage involves quick action or comedy, the sentence structure tends to be short, even blunt. If the scene takes place inside a military installation, acronyms will flow through both the dialogue and exposition. If the scene takes place in history, the words selected will match the time period.

Consider the following passage from a prehistoric age genre novel: The clan leader leapt from the bushes and came down upon the beast like a bus at rush hour. This type of metaphor happens more often than one might imagine and in subtle, less obvious ways. When digesting the aforementioned sentence, the reader understands that the clan leader was moving quickly and heavily upon the beast, but the reader is also jarred from the time period by the writer’s unfortunate out-of-time-period metaphor. If the clan leader were waiting for a bus at rush hour, he’d be waiting a very long time.

The control system selected for a piece will be pervasive, extending beyond the obvious passages. One of the joys of reading is to enter the mind of the characters on the page. If that character is a professional diver, his/her actions and viewpoint on life will be reflective of the sea and perhaps the constant dangers he’s exposed to. Even in relationships with others, that character will measure people against what he knows—brooding dark waters, a relentless shark, or the fanciful circus of a coral reef—otherwise that character will be acting out of his/her own control system. Even if that character is a mad, unpredictable genius, he will be guided, and therefore described, by a specific set of parameters using the precise words to delineate his actions or speech. And all of this will be moderated by the overarching terminology of the entire work.

Establishing and employing the proper control system establishes both authenticity and confidence in writing, and it requires a level of detail that many journeyman writers either overlook or fail to do the research and editing required. Study any master writer—a real master writer, not a self-proclaimed master bestseller on the Internet—and uncover the details of the control system established for a specific work. Once you’ve put in the effort, you’ll find yourself reaching for the correct dialogue and descriptions that fit the piece.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including 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—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

 

 

Choosing the Writer’s Subject

It’s a fact that an author tends to write about only two or three subjects during their career. No matter how veiled or reinterpreted the narrative, an author will continue to converge on the same concepts.

In a recent review of Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance , I discovered yet again his references to the old Cold War Communist Party. Kundera is an escapee from Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia, but has been a longtime resident of free Paris. Meanwhile, his communist party collapsed decades ago and has reformulated twice into its present day pseudo-dictatorship under Vladimir Putin, but Kundera is still fascinated with old-Communist thinking. In contrast, he’s also writes about the smallness of life, sourcing various tributaries in each literary venture as well.  It’s another consistent theme for the author. At 86 years of age after an illustrious career, he probably isn’t going to dip his literary spade into fresh soil.

A writer will never be condemned for his choice of subject matter (or at least he shouldn’t be), but he will be admonished (or at least ignored) for not being focused on it. He uses all of his literary strength to dig at the root of his subject, helping to bring it to light for the reader. Like a painter, an author will present her subject, depending on her particular style, in a range from the absurdly surreal to the cuttingly real. This presentation often determines the desired emotion or effect of the material, but nevertheless the author has not strayed from her core subject matter. Kundera has used various forms, from magical realism to straight storytelling to evoke the dehumanization of communism and the horror of man’s inhumanity against man.

What the author chooses to write about isn’t always a conscious decision. It’s akin to understanding the self. While a student, Kundera was rumored to have been an informant to the Czech secret police, but later escaped to the west and became an outspoken agent against communism. The author has refused these allegations, but they persist with credible testimony  exposed during the fall of the Soviet Union. In regard to Kundera the author, it is easy to see how this potential change of conscience (or at least the oppression of living within a communist system) might become a driving force inside his literary expression.

Kundera is a singular example of how great authors circle around a mere handful of concepts during their lifetimes. Research your favorite authors to see not only how each draw from place and experience as subject matter, but to recognize your own core concepts through your attraction to theirs.

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.