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

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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 

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

Professional Revisions – Level Four: Presentation

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 FOUR: PRESENTATION

With the hardest work in place, take time to examine the basics of language, before submitting your work to agents and editors. Mistakes in this category should never occur, but too often I receive student prose with grammar and spelling errors. Solid presentation separates you as a professional writer in every form of the medium, from advertising copy to fine literature. Make a habit of presenting clean copy.

Basic Order

Put stimulus and response in the proper order. The following is out of order.

Joe hit the ground, hearing the explosion.

Organize phrases and sentences in order of occurrence. The following sentence is out of order.

Joe won the race, after he filled out the entry application.

Build lists in order of increasing importance or impact. Without intending to be outrageous, the following is out of order.

Joe had a pretty bad year. His dog died. His wife left him. His computer caught fire. His mail arrived at the wrong address, and he stubbed a toe.

The passage suggests that Joe’s priorities are clearly out of whack. If this isn’t the case, the story must present a reasonable justification for Joe’s thinking.

Grammar

Obtain The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and memorize the first eleven rules. The English language is sinking into a lexicon of paraphrases, slang, buzzwords, and acronyms. Soon you will be one of the few remaining people who can still write and speak the language.

Spelling

Most of us work on a computer with a word processor. It is easy to check spelling. Don’t get caught with spelling errors, or you will appear as if you didn’t care enough to proofread your words. When in doubt, consult a dictionary. Computers won’t catch ‘bear’ when you meant to use ‘bare.’

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 – Executing the Process

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Three: Style

Professional Revisions – Level Three: Style

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 THREE: STYLE

When the story line is set and the character and setting details are brought into focus, concentrate on prose. A writer’s style of storytelling is evident from the beginning of the tale’s construction. It is an extension of his brain and the way he absorbs and interprets the world around him. With the arc of the story set, it is time to clarify the prose, as only he can do it.

Establish Consistent Tone

Tone refers to the quality and pitch of the prose. It is the emotional resonance of the story, albeit humorous, horrifying, or dramatic. Whatever the tone, search for inconsistent passages that sabotage the integrity of the story.

Simplify Sentence Structure

Always look to prune and clarify sentences. Be concise. One powerful phrase might replace a few fuzzier statements. At times, writers struggle for an exact description, circling the point with a collection of words. Take a moment to uncover the precise description in one brief phrase.

Vary Sentence Structure

The length and construction of sentences serve different purposes. Action scenes require crisp short sentences to maintain the pace. Long sentences serve panoramic scenes or deep introspection. Poetic phrases work for romance and comedy. See what works for your scenes. Play with the sentence structure.

Vary Paragraph, Scene, and Chapter Length

Changes keep readers attentive. Blocks of paragraphs of equal length create a visual monotony. I am getting sleepy just thinking about it. The same goes for scene and chapter lengths. Try a scene that is only one paragraph long or a chapter of just two pages. Search for variety.

Examine Word Choice

Root out vagueness. Replace words like something, anything, and everything with concrete nouns.

The thing about dessert is the calories.

The problem with dessert is the calories.

Select strong verbs. Replace verbs like was, is, would, should, and could with powerful and engaging verbs.

He was at the top of the corporate ladder, but he would rather be home with his family.

He fought his way to the top of the corporate ladder, but he missed his family at home.

Too many adjectives? Change noun and adjective combinations into one strong noun.

Tom drove the thin nail into the orange-yellow skin of the fruit.

Tom drove the brad into the ocher skin of the fruit.

Too many adverbs? Change verb and adverb combi-nations into one strong verb.

She slowly walked into the boardroom.

She sauntered into the boardroom.

Reduce compound descriptions. Use discrete words that relay the point. Observe the following passage:

A small, deep purple 3×5 note arrived in the mail. Joe recognized his former wife’s handwriting. She wanted him to return their children. She was coming to visit in a few days.

The passage might sound better as:

Joe’s ex-wife dropped him a maroon postcard: ‘I want the kids back. See you soon.’

Find the right word. Employ a thesaurus and dictionary. The appropriate word is out there for the taking.

Remove ‘said’ and ‘thought’

The person thinking or speaking in a story is often implied by his position in the text. Be creative. Use action or narration alongside the thought or dialogue to identify its owner. In the following example, use of  the words ‘said’ and ‘thought’ are unnecessary to identify Jane as the person doing the speaking and thinking.

Jane took the horse by the reins. “Git!” She dug in her spurs. I hope this old mare’s got enough left to make it.

Remove Instances of “Fine Writing”

Track down instances of fine writing and remove them. Fine writing occurs during wonderfully unnatural stretches of prose. It might be the flowery description of the chipped table in the office or the overblown insight to the human condition. When the writer pens these lines at 3 A.M., they often appear brilliant, but when they hit daylight, they are exposed like a pink bowtie. They are funny and overdone, when they intend otherwise. Readers will roll their eyes because the writer is trying too hard to impress.

Read Aloud

Reading the prose aloud identifies errant and clumsy passages. The writer stumbles over poor words, phrases, and sentences. Unnatural dialogue hits the ear like a spitball. Read your work aloud within the safe confines of your working space before exposing your errors to the public.

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 Four: Presentation

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Two: Struture/Content

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