The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Poor Revisions – Executing the Process

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.

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.

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Four, Presentation

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Poor Revisions – Level Four, Presentation

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.

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 in The Book Killers Series: Poor Revisions – Executing the Process

Previous in The Book Killers seriesPoor Revisions – Level Three, Style

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Poor Revisions – Level Three, Style

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.

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 in the Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Four, Presentation

Previous on the Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Two, Struture/Content

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Poor Revisions – Level One, The Opening

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.

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 in The Books Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Two, Structure/Content

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – The First Look

 

 

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Poor Revisions – The First Look

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.

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. It should be accomplished as uninhibited as possible, held apart from the unforgiving conscience of the self-editor. The style of draft work varies between authors, from a bare bones outline to pregnant prose. Revising the draft involves the craft of writing. Prose is expanded and contracted, and elucidation is achieved. Writers spend most of their time rewriting. They make up for their perceived deficiencies in talent and level the playing field.

Another important precept of writing is that all drafts are bad. Bad is a general category, ranging from not too bad to pretty damn bad. In draft work, writers sometimes deliver lines that are pretty damn bad. An honest writer admits that the draft process is an inescapable flirtation with disaster. As he attempts to elevate his prose, he sometimes misses and suffers a bad fall. This is expected. The revision process exists to recognize the fall and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

THE FIRST LOOK

Revision requires time and space. Allow time to forget the prose and return with the fresh eyes of a reader. After a story is drafted, put it aside and work on something different. This is also true during the revision process. The prose be-comes so familiar that the writer anticipates the words before reading them. When I spend too much time with a piece, my eyes see earlier versions, regardless of the words on the paper. I’m reading in my mind, instead of the pages in front of me.

Juxtaposing the cathartic process of draft work with the labor-intensive act of revision creates balance in the day-to-day life of a writer. Take a break during the draft of a story to write a nonfiction piece to completion. While performing lengthy revisions, pause to design your next creative project. One process feeds the other. It is a lot like absorbing and releasing energy.

After giving the draft work a rest, read it through with little or no pause. Prepare to be both surprised and embarrassed with the words on the paper. A writer delivers stunning lines in the draft, gems that pass from revision to revision untouched. A writer also drafts lousy prose – inappropriate, limp, or downright goofy phrases. Both good and ugly writing leap off the page. Keep the good, knock down the ugly, and aspire to elevate the mediocre.

This book introduces the elements of a solid story and methods for obtaining them. Try to embrace a few techniques, while modifying others to suit your storytelling approach. The following section details a process for draft revision. Take what you can use and incorporate it into your own revision process. Make note of the revision aspects that you like the least. Those are probably areas where you need work.

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 in The Books Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level One, The Opening

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wooden Characters

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wooden Characters

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.

My Iroquois grandmother once asked me who I was. She wasn’t losing her vision or slipping into dementia. She had a keen eye on the horizon, like her young grandson, and kept a small gun beneath her shawl in case that horizon offered unexpected trouble. Listening to her was like bird watching. Rewards came with a quiet, patient effort.

That day, her question was completely lost on me. I was ten years old—a recent refugee from the city and living in a small tract housing neighborhood at the end of the woods. It was a so-called better life, but I was frightened by my change in circumstance. The steel and concrete was gone—no city buzz or crime. This was not a better life. I’d been dropped into the country, and along with a small band of friends—one relocated from Brooklyn and another from Newark, NJ—we roamed the birch forests. My grandmother noticed that I lacked the simplest outdoor skills, and even more so that I had no sense of how I fit in the world. Her question had asked me to begin looking inward for answers.

Often, when reviewing books and manuscripts, I encounter characters who appear to be lost in a story. They’re being forced through plots lines by their authors. They speak and move unnaturally because the writer hasn’t asked two basic questions of their characters—questions they probably hadn’t asked themselves in full: Who am? Why am I here? These questions were a gift from my grandmother, and I employ them until this very day. For creators of stories, they are fundamental. Let’s break each of these down.

Who am I?

Writers are brave souls. We are downright precocious. We dissect the human condition and attempt to make sense of it. Genuine storytellers translate their findings about humanity into words. And it can only begin after we truly understand who these people are moving across the page. Sometimes we know because we’ve been thinking about them for years, but more often, we need to do the research. One surefire method is to perform a character sketch, an autopsy before they are dead and buried. Here are the absolute basics for each character:

Name – People have names, and so do your story characters. A name suggests ethnic background and even country of origin. It speaks of the character’s parents. All names mean something.

Body Specifics – Story characters possess genetic characteristics that follow them throughout life. These include their age, gender, height, weight, body dimensions, facial structure, hair, and voice. The list of physical details is endless. Memorable details stick in the reader’s mind better than a name.

Body Language – Psychology begins to enter when we discuss human body dynamics. How we position our bodies in space reveals our personalities and betrays our inner thoughts.

Presentation – Many of the aforementioned character details are a culmination of fate and circumstance, but the way a character presents himself to the world is a personal decision. Clothing, hairstyle, and speech pattern are cognitive decisions of character. They speak of social status, education, financial inclination, overall preference, and personality type.

Background – Characters don’t arrive in a story as fully formed people. They had prior lives. They grew up and experienced certain events. They acquired various skills. As in real life, a character is in large part a culmination of their abilities and experiences. You may not use any of this, but you’ll understand better what this person is capable of doing based on their history.

Psyche  – At this point, we have sketched a pretty good character from the outside, poking a finger or two into the interior. Let’s ponder two important questions. How does the character view the world, and how does the character place himself in it? Answering theses questions goes a long way to anticipating a character’s reaction to story situations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – Select strengths that will support the resolution of each character’s goals and desires, and select weakness that will sabotage their chances of success.  We all have positive and negative traits that govern our personalities. Major traits rule each character, for better or for worse.

Motivation – When sketching story characters, pass from the physical into the psychological and uncover their motivations. That is the most interesting detail of anyone you’ll meet. Why does an individual behave in a particular way?  By uncovering a character’s motivation, we not only understand them more fully, we predict their moves and plot an appropriate course for them in a story.

Why am I here?

A story journey begins when a character asks: what do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Good story people take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. Confusing, unpredictable people in life are individuals who don’t fully understand themselves. Wooden characters in stories are individuals who the writer doesn’t fully understand.

Not until decades after my grandmother’s death did I began the process of asking myself who I was and why I was here. I am a scribe, part of the ancient clan that reaches back as far as the Iroquois themselves. Scribes document history and try to make sense of the people and things that pass through time and emerge within it. While this isn’t my only avocation in life, it wasn’t long before I applied my grandmother’s two vital questions to my story characters. It was only then that I began to bring life to my characters and uncovered their stories in a worthwhile and authentic way.

 

Next in the The Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – The First Look

Previously in The Book Killers series: White Room

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.

Next in The Books Killers series: Wooden Characters

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

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.

Much regarding point of view (POV) is the artist’s decision. A good choice can add salient new insight to a familiar subject, as seen for example in Picasso’s cubism or Patti Smith’s Instagram account. In both, they don’t necessarily discuss themselves, but over the course of time, we learn about the artist and more importantly their subject matter. In literature, the POV is the person or thing guiding the narrative, and the subject is the consequence of their focus.

POV comes in a variety of shades and colors. Simply put, the story narrative will appear in either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they). Everything else is a hybrid of these three basic modes. POV might vary within a given work, but each POV requires the reader to suspend disbelief differently in order to engage with the narrative. First person asks the reader to get inside the skin of the narrator, second person asks the reader to be the narrator, and third person provides distance from the narrator.

Second person is the trickiest, requiring the reader to relate to the narrator at least in a general sense. In contrast, most readers could wear the skin of a serial killer in first person, since the reader understands that he/she is secretly slipping inside the abhorrent mind of the narrator, but a second person narrative asks the reader to be the serial killer, which is hopefully a no-go area for most readers. Finally, third person can be described—and perhaps over-described by literature and writing teachers—as providing a variety of distances from the subject, ranging from a nearby viewer, who reveals what he/she sees, hears, or induces, to an omnipresent seer, who can relate everything from the minds of the players to that which has happened off-screen and any point on the timeline.

In all POVs, the narrator is further moderated by reliability. As with real people, the narrator is effected by his/her own past and thought patterns, and therefore interprets events through this lens. The narrator might also be self-deluded for a variety of reasons (i.e. fear, conceit, mental illness, etc.). When intervieweing people at a crime scene, investigators will hear vastly different accounts of the same event. A narrator who runs askew of the facts is referred to as an “unreliable narrator.” Everything from the events, and especially the reasons for them, cannot be trusted from an unreliable narrator, and the reader may only learn this over time. Lolita‘s self-deluded child predator, Humbert Humbert, is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Nabokov, helped by the fact that Lolita is no angel, manages dark irony through Humbolt’s ultimately pathetic voice.

Regardless of your choice of POV, two factors emerge to support the work: authenticity and saliency.

Authenticity is not necessarily reliability. Authentic narrators involve accuracy in the character’s portrayal. An obsessed narrator, as Lolita‘s Humbert, or a mentally ill narrator, as in Everything Burns’s pyromaniac Oscar Van Hise, form gripping reads. Neither of these narrators are reliable, but they are true to their deluded selves and draw razor sharp accuracy of events. Both characters form the archetype of a villain, which can be useful narration for the story. Therefore, their characters are authentic, holding the reader in place and heightening the drama. Deriving authenticity in the narrator is not only essential, but it requires deep understanding of the character. An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to commute the story, but an inauthentic character portrayal will ground the story to a halt.

On the other hand, saliency in the POV character involves that which stands head and shoulders above all else. This speaks directly to the choice of POV character. The modern world presents a great deal of navel gazing characters, and therefore the popular voice in literature today is predominantly a deep first person narrative, whether it be reliable or not. Here we follow the slipstream of consciousness—that ebb and flow of self-awareness—but is first person the best choice for the story? Sometimes it’s more effective to take a step away within a third person narration, allowing a wider view of events while avoiding unnecessary and uninteresting intimate details. In first person, the author tends to have to account for every moment in time, often moving forward by only breaking from the scene. Meanwhile, third person allows for the easy passage of time, skipping around the timeline, events, and details as needed.

Which choice of POV character is the best? This selection is not always clear. Changing the POV provides a different level of experience, maturity, and perspective. What is the story trying to accomplish? What is the story’s theme, tone, or genre? How much does the narrator need to know or get involved? Each of these questions must be answered before the narrator takes control. A story crashes when a POV character suddenly narrates out of character. She may know things she couldn’t. He may appear at a moment where he shouldn’t. He or she may do or feel as they would not. Forced POV is as obvious as an awkward metaphor.

There are many ways to select a weak POV. Most recently, there’s been a preponderance of a child’s POV dominating adult novels. While this might work for the short form, often a better choice exists with an adult POV character. Even if events surrounding a child are dramatic, a child’s ability to interpret events is limited. Remember, readers must not only be compelled to engage the narrative, but the reader needs to be convinced to stay with it.

Study those who have gone before. The choice of Lolita as the predominant character in Lolita would have stifled the narrative and eliminated the irony. The story would have been different, pathetic even. Never revealing Oscar Van Hise’s motivations for arson would have reduced both the depth and urgency of Everything Burn‘s drama. Van Hise’s reclusive, secretive nature would have been impossible to capture, and he’d be a two-dimensional antagonist, found so popularly in television crime dramas. In each, the POV character was vital to what the author was trying to accomplish beyond the events of the story alone. The reader is left feeling and thinking in a particular way. The POV characters took them to those heights, or lows, in an authentic and natural way.

In the end, art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer. Otherwise the work derives little lasting meaning. In all art dialogues, the secrets of the artist are laid bare, but we are not typically focused on them. To paraphrase seminal playwright Arthur Miller: Our best work occurs where we are most naked. As the viewer of the work, we delve into the core of the narrative as dictated by the POV and subconsciously digest the author’s insights and bits of the author as well. In the best of art, wrought through a transporting POV, we leave with new insights of our own.

Next in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Previously in The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings