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

The Beginning of the Affair: What the US Review Sees in Book Starts

Again and again, we notice a pattern at the start of a successful book. Great nonfiction, a genre designed to inform, employs a compelling narrative to connect with the reader, while great fiction, a genre for storytelling, informs the reader about life. Each genre delves into the others’ skill set to engage and teach with equal measure. The nexus between the two is universal truth, and after only a few pages, the reader must desire to uncover the truth in a book.

“With the truth, you need to get rid of it as soon as possible and pass it on to someone else.”Jean Baudrillard

The question in any book is equally about what the author has learned as much as what the reader needs to discover. If the author has done the work, both aspects are featured up front—as in immediately at the start of the book. A successful nonfiction effort presents the lesson plan and suggests what the reader will take away, while fiction launches the journey and hints at a possible ending. For both, the essence of the book is either overtly mentioned or found in the subtext (i.e. tone, setting, pacing, etc.). The author is in control from the start—not the second, third, or fourth chapter. This might seem obvious, but too often while reading a book for review, we encounter directionless narratives. While we’ll eventually uncover its main thrust, the average reader will not, having moved on long before it reaches that point.

“Life will not bear refinement. You must do as other people do.”Samuel Johnson

Every book has a singular purpose. This is why editors, booksellers, and the media are constantly asking for a tagline: What is the single sentence description of the book? They know that a reader won’t pick up a book unless it is well defined and promises the aforementioned truth. The book’s opening pages affirm that this truth will be fulfilled. By this point, the reader has traveled a long way on the journey and is probably hooked. Whether it’s an excellent biography on Benjamin Franklin or a tawdry human-dinosaur sex romp—yes, those books exist—the purpose and direction are established with lightning speed and often within the first few paragraphs.

“There is no such thing as chaos. It’s just a pattern you haven’t learned to recognize yet.”Albert Einstein

The complexity of an opening narrative widely ranges from genre to genre and from author to author, but the work required from the author hasn’t changed in centuries. Readers, who comprise the most intelligent segment of society but are overwhelmingly not writers, have been trained to sniff out the truth or utility of a book in short order. A book that quickly establishes its predominant narrator, tone, and story question/thesis holds the reader for the duration, as well as the next book by the same author.

“[Writers] achieve clarity in a preponderance of words, as opposed to the poundage of the pages. Smart writers are greedy with words.”Write to Publish, Christopher Klim

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

The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has maintained consistency and integrity. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, and da Vinci Eye; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over one hundred prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff (i.e. inexperienced general readers). The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

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.

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