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: 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: 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

Professional Revisions – Executing the Process

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

EXECUTING REVISIONS

The four level revision process in Write to Publish a top down approach. Work the levels in iterations. Be comfortable with the work at one level, before moving onto the next. This builds the structure of the story before fixing the mess wrought by the construction. It also saves time. Why perfect a scene or paragraph that might not remain in the finished version? Upon passing from level two to three, a solid story stands in place. All scenes will remain on the story line and in their current position. It is now a matter of making them resonate in the reader’s mind.

A story is a unique creation, requiring a special effort to complete. During the draft process, pause to make note of ideas, weaknesses, and potential areas of research. I record story ideas and research information in a composition book. I also number revision concerns from the last page toward the front. I fill six to ten pages of notes on grammar, theme, tone, research requirements, and other specific story concerns. These are concrete problems, and I won’t slow the momentum of the draft to solve them. I might use too many passive verbs or fudge the details of an unfamiliar profession. Bad habits and the assumption of guesswork as fact are two comfortably dangerous behaviors, but the back of my composition book saves me, detailing my story’s shortcomings. It holds a checklist of needed revisions.

While good draft work is often brave and ground-breaking, the revision process requires another kind of courage. It is akin to self-surgery, knowing when to amputate one of your limbs. Be ruthless with your prose. If a word, sentence, scene, or chapter doesn’t serve the story, lop it off. It might contain the most brilliant prose of the piece, but it is cancer to the story, driving it off course and killing reader interest. Save it for another day. It might form the centerpiece of a new story. Trust your ability to think of even better words down the line.

SOLICITING FEEDBACK

There comes a point when a writer desires objectivity. Cultivate a trusted reader. I have a target reader in mind when I write, someone who appreciates the same aspects of storytelling. She knows when I miss the mark, and she is not afraid to tell me. I argue. I curse and moan, but in the end, I know she is right. She is not a writer. She is a reader. She doesn’t stay up at night considering character flaws or lifestyle element. She knows a good story. She laughs. She cries. She is entertained, and if I cannot do this for her, I have missed my objective.

Beyond that, build a reading circle. This is also com-posed of readers. Writers are a dangerous group to critique a work in progress. Each writer has a personal vision of a story, and it is often not yours. Good members of a reading circle are well read. They are just as happy with a biography of FDR, as the latest Robert Stone. They pick up TV Guide and The Economist in the same shopping trip. They love the written word. They are authorities to give the thumbs up or down on your work. They are a mere sample of the reading public. Try to remove your emotion and listen to them.

WHEN IS A STORY FINISHED?

Who knows? There comes a time when a writer must put the work down and move on. Writers often get a brain-storm and return to a particular piece with ideas to elevate the story, but overall, a point arrives when the writer can go no further and must let it rest on its laurels.

For my first published novel, I accepted countless pieces of advice from editors and agents, tweaking each nuance of the story. I reached a point where I was changing sentences because I was tired of reading the same lines over and over. I’d clearly spent too long with the story. I finally threw my hands up and told my writing mentor that I was finished accepting the often inane feedback leveled on my novel. An amazing thing happened. It was a moment out of a grainy kung fu movie. “Son,” my mentor said. “You’re ready to go to the next level.”

When the work is as good as it can be, move on. Begin another story. Hope for enlightenment, but learn when to quit spinning your wheels. If Michelangelo sought perfection – and he was darn near perfect in his art – he’d have chipped away at the statue of David, until it was small enough to clip on a key chain.

Finally, be patient with your talent at its current level. If you aspire to improve, you will sacrifice and work every day. You will get better. You will tell the stories you want to tell. Great artists learn to work in a vacuum, producing ideal works of art that hold a mirror to humanity, society, and themselves. Be brave.

EXERCISES

Outline your revision process. What do your talents require? Are you concentrating on your weaknesses? Can the ordinary be elevated?

Resurrect your old writing and run it through the aforementioned revision process. If the work is old enough, certain flaws will immediately stand out. See if the process doesn’t improve the story structure and prose.

Transpose a favorite writer’s passage to paper. Observe the sentence structure, pacing, and word selection.

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.

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Four: Presentation

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

by Bandi
Grove Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.”

Starvation, terror, death—this is the world of people trapped north of the Korean DMZ in a country led beneath the auspices of a single man who will do anything to preserve his fiefdom. And these conditions exist only in the best of favors. For many people, a minor offense, or perceived offense, results in banishment, generational curses, or hard labor—a sentence of sunup to sundown toil, torture, and thirst until a person is literally worked to death. The latter is what one expects from life under a socialist monarch, but it is the former, the everyday grueling aspects of ordinary life, that are captured within this insightful and harrowing collection of stories written about life in North Korea.

The author, who remains in North Korea, employs the pseudonym, Bandi, to protect his identity. He writes tales of people paying for the sins of their forefathers, sins that would be considered inconsequential in a free land, and sins they fear that they might commit in the future. Fear is the most powerful tool of a totalitarian regime. The cost is not only the theft individual liberty, but the draining away of the soul. Those who will not conform to fear, who will not be reformed by it, are simply eliminated—removed from society, cities, or the ranks of the living if necessary.

“City of Specters” is one of the most haunting in the collection—not because of physical brutality, but because of the way authoritarian control pervades the human spirit. At the outset, Han Gyeong-hee fights the crowds assembling in Pyongyang for an annual celebration honoring the supreme leader. She is strong and independent, contemptuous of her husband’s flaws, while struggling with the night terrors of her young son. Her son is frightened by the oversized images of Kim Jong-il posted throughout town. One in particular can be seen through their apartment window, reminding him of a legendary beast who punishes misbehaving children. Here, the normal trials of parenting collide with the pervasive demands to conform to society. After Gyeong-hee repeatedly draws her curtains to salve her son’s episodes from the public, she is reprimanded and warned for not keeping her window presentation in unison with the rest of the building. The overarching aspects of everyday life in a terrorist regime are on full display. Like an x-ray examining her thoughts, the government plumbs her business and plies it against her at will. It’s a slow burn that crushes her soul. Again and again, the party informers threaten Gyeong-hee, until her family is banished from the capital city, and a woman who seemed strong enough to persevere anything is psychologically broken.

Some intellects of free nations overemphasize their country’s imperfections, demanding greater control of a centralized government as a curative measure. This is a fear-driven philosophy that, as Bandi so aptly documents, results in fear throughout the land. Each of these misguided intellects either misinterprets or purposely skirts the central debate of individual liberty vs. authoritarian control, ignoring the endgame. Suppressing independent thought and action, so that the least equipped among us are safer, historically leads to diminished rights, self-expression, and prosperity. It in fact reverses the progress of civilization, not enhances it as some might claim. It does, however, empower and enrich the ruling class—albeit a military dictatorship, a communist regime, or an elected hierarchy that has become a corrupt and isolated faction apart from the people. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty brings potentially dangerous paths en route to creativity, success, and fulfillment. Authoritarianism delivers a stifling cocoon and a guaranteed dead end of personal misery. Bandi approaches this result in each of his stories. Acts that we take for granted in a free society will place his characters in peril.

Man’s inhumanity against man has been the overarching sin of the centuries, and Bandi reveals this abomination, resulting when one small group dominates the masses. Handwritten between 1989 and 1995 in native hangul, his stories are delivered in a simple style, but neither time nor translation lessen their impact. Although a brief afterword sketches the genesis of this book, one can only imagine what it took to both compose these stories and then smuggle them outside the country. Bandi has no doubt risked his life many times in the process. Let’s hope he’s still alive and continues to shed light on the many sins that his country’s tormentor badly wishes to hide.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Professional Revisions – Level Two: Structure/Content

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

LEVEL TWO: STRUCTURE/CONTENT

With the opening in place, consider the structure and content of the story. Analyze character, setting, plot, and their relationship to one another. Changes at this point may affect the entire story structure, causing new scenes to appear or existing scenes to disappear. Work at a high level to establish the arc of the story. Why perfect the details of a scene if it might be removed from the entire piece?

Verify the Plot

Is there at least one strong dramatization per chapter? Don’t let a chapter go by without serious conflict among the characters. Readers anticipate it.

Does every scene serve the story question? Scenes progress the story question, for better or worse, otherwise they wander off the thread of the story. This is the time to add and remove scenes as needed.

Does the conflict heighten en route to the climax? When the drama heightens, that becomes the new plateau for the story arc. It eventually becomes routine, unless the drama escalates. Keep raising the stakes for the characters during the story. The climax is a natural outgrowth of the pressure cooker constructed along the story journey.

Are there too many coincidences? Coincidence is a helpful device for stories. Life forms pleasant occurrences, but if major plot points often hinge on chance encounters, the story becomes unbelievable. Limit it to one or two, although even one coincidence might be more than the story can bear. If a rare moon rock falls out of the sky and into the bed of Joe’s pickup truck, while he is on the way to a lunar geologist’s convention, where a million dollar prize for the top rock will be awarded, that might be more coincidence than the reader can handle. Keep coincidences subtle and useful.

Is there unneeded repetition? Repetition in grade school was useful, if not overbearing. Repetition in stories is useful to set up a later event. If Jane always parks her car in the same spot and suddenly changes to another, it might demonstrate a character change. In comedy, repetition sets up jokes. If Bob always sinks a hole in one on the golf course, it might be funny to see him miss when we most expect it. Repetition draws attention, and readers notice, but if Jane is always having a bad hair day, it begins to look silly.

Verify Character Details

Do character details appear in the story? Some level of character detail must exist for everyone in the story, even if they are only brief encounters for the reader.

Are the details proportional to importance? Apply character details in relation to their significance in the story. Every word builds a reader’s expectations. Secondary characters don’t deserve the detail required for primary characters.

Are the details consistent? If Jane has blue eyes or talks with a lisp on page 10, she will also have those attributes on page 200, unless appropriate explanation supports the change.

Are the details different? If every woman has blonde hair and a 38-inch chest, the story better take place inside the Playboy Mansion.

Is the dialogue realistic? Spoken language is casual, casting aside the rigid conventions of the written word. It is situational, attempting to address the line previously spoken. A single line of dialogue is a component of the whole conversation and often indecipherable when standing alone. If character are sketched with uniqueness and clarity, they will speak for themselves, defining the parameters of their langauge, moods, and attitudes.

“I’ve got the stuff,” Bob said.

“The what?” Jane replied.

“You know, the stuff.”

“I hate that garbage.”

“You always hate it.”

“There you go again.”

“Don’t start.”

“I’m not the one starting.”

Is there too much dialect? Some writers seek authenticity by recording dialogue verbatim, especially with the use of slang and accents. This is cumbersome to read. Pepper the dialogue with dialect, and readers will get the point, mentally filling in the blanks. It is better to know what a character is trying to say, than replicating speech with exactness.

Verify Setting Details

Do setting details appear in the story? Some level of setting detail must exist for each scene, even if we are only passing through a room. Otherwise the story is subject to ‘white room’ syndrome, where characters move in time and space with no sense of their surroundings.

Are the details proportional to importance? Apply setting details in relation to their significance in the story. Every word builds a reader’s expectations. If the writer spends a lot of time describing a certain aspect of setting, readers believe it to be vital to the story.

Are the details consistent? If Jane’s car is red on page 10, she will have a red car on page 200, unless appropriate explanation supports the change.

Are the details different? Variety in all aspects of the story entices mental acuity for the reader. In other words, it keeps people from becoming bored.

Are the details correct? This is the time to verify factual information. Correct assumptions about location and lifestyle (i.e. geography, professions, language, etc). These aspects illuminate the prose, yet invalidate a story if they are incorrect.

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.

Next: Professional Revisions – Level Three: Style

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level One: The Opening

Professional Revisions – Level One: The Opening

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

LEVEL ONE: THE OPENING

The opening is the first scene in a story, albeit a very crucial scene. It introduces the main character, her hopes and desires, and the point of view. Those are story basics, and not until they are known does the story get rolling.

The tricky part about drafting an opening is that this is the time when a writer knows the least about the characters and plot. Most writers agree that it takes roughly 100 pages to understand the main characters. This often invalidates earlier characterizations, and as a result, character desire and behavior seem unfocused or incorrect. Some writers toss out the first 100 pages and start over. That is a drastic measure, although it is common to labor over the first fifty pages and definitely the first twenty-five.

When revising, the opening must be arresting before I proceed. Everything falls out of the first line. Some writers say that the first line gives away the ending. Indeed, the open-ing scene starts the journey, and if it must change, the entire story path might change along with it. Try to get the opening in order before addressing the remaining story. You may return to tweak the prose, but it will be structurally sound before you edit the rest.

Chapter II of Write to Publish covers the important elements of story openings. Below is a checklist for review. The first three items are vital to the success of launching a story.

Introduce the Main Character

Show Predominant Point of View

Reveal the Story Question

Preview the Setting

Create Action

Set the Tone

Shorten the Time Line & Create Order

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.

Next: Professional Revisions – Level Two: Structure/Content

Previous: Professional Revisions – The First Look