The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Inferior Word Choice

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

A weak vocabulary is exposed not only by the range of words used, but also by their poor application within a sentence. In both fiction or nonfiction, strong word choices reveal a skilled writer. Word choices show the author’s character and talent, but mostly his or her level of discipline. Let’s investigate areas of concern, including examples of inferior word choices.

Invented Words

Demonstrating the worst abuse of language, lazy writers invent words that do not exist. Other writers hyphenate ridiculous combinations of words rather than construct a more intelligent sentence or employ the single word that relates a similar meaning.

Jane went on a date with Bill, irregardless of his past. (Not only is irregardless not a real word, it is no different in use or meaning than regardless.)

Because he was crazy-excited, Bill advance-planned for his date with the super-good-looking Jane. (A writer with a fifth grade vocabulary might say: Nervous, Bill prepared for his date with Jane, the beauty.)

Misused Words

When a word is misused, the writer either doesn’t understand its meaning or is working with an alternate definition so far down the dictionary that no one but an experienced linguist understands how it applies. The wrong word choice misleads the reader and creates absurd results. Some word choices fall out of context, running askew of the narrative or theme of the book.

Jane delineates that Bill will make a suitable companion. (Jane seems like a real warm and cozy person.)

The caveman chased the mastodon like a bus at rush hour. (This caveman appears to possess the ability to time travel.)

The coffee table size book fits nicely in any collection. (That giant book will fit in no collection.) 

Ambiguous Words

Many words are meant to be vague, and a number of reasons exist for employing them, not the least of which is diplomacy. Good writing shuns diplomacy, displaying the courage of precision whether it disturbs the reader or not. On the other hand, ambiguity summons boredom.

Jane realized that Bill had an unpleasing smell. (Does Jane like stinky men or not?) 

Bill would prefer not to deal with Jane ever again. (Bill is so boring that she’ll forever avoid him.)

Clichés

We’ve all heard clichés and used them too many times. This is how they become cliché—tired, overwrought words and expressions. While conversation tolerates this fault, a written work attempts to inform and illuminate through saliency. By the way, repetition—using the same words over and over, no matter what the words are—create a self-contained cliché within a narrative.

The next time Bill saw Jane, he would give her a piece of his mind. (If this were a horror story, it might actually turn out to be interesting)

Jane was really steamed at Bill’s attitude. (Jane is apparently angry, but we fell asleep during her narrative.)

Jargon and Slang

Like dialect, jargon and slang add color to a book, but when the terms are esoteric or regional, their meanings can be obfuscated. Furthermore, too much jargon or slang make the narrative appear like an alternate language. Unless it is essential to the story, avoid this whenever possible. Instead, sprinkle colloquialisms and obtuse terms into the narrative, and the reader will gather its flavor while comprehending the actual meaning.

In full techie-mode, Bob found the SIMM and gave the SOB gizmo another reboot before 86’ing it altogether. (Translated: Bob found the missing memory card and restarted the hateful computer, longing to dump it in the ocean.)

Weak Verbs and Nouns

Journeyman writers activate weak verbs (i.e. is, was, had, be, are, etc.) wherever possible by replacing them with powerful and specific choices. Unfortunately, some writers remedy this by arranging verbs and adverbs, as well as nouns and adjectives, into shotgun marriages on the page. Still others assemble them like boxcars extending for miles. This wordiness prompts readers to skim the page. Collapse these combinations into precise verbs and nouns to gain a tighter and more lucid sentence.

The small, soft, and squishy Mediterranean citrus with loose skin had briefly wobbled on the edge of the stairs before it quickly bounced along the steps and stopped at the base near the front door with a forceful bang. (Revised: The overripe Clementine teetered and then skipped downstairs, crashing into the entrance.)

In Conclusion

The previous suggestions all boil down to cogency—being clear, logical, and convincing. Great word choices ring so true that they go unquestioned, achieving deeper meaning within the narrative. During the revision and editing process, writers scrutinize word choices for exactness, so that the truth of their sentences appeals to the reader. A master writer develops a control system (i.e. a vocabulary relating to the character, scene, and theme) that supplies a language for the reader to understand a particular book, and this changes from book to book. However, that is a discussion for another time.

Next in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing 

Previously in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

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.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

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

Learn From The Dead: There’s a reason they’re still with us

We live in an age where everyone seems most concerned with what comes next. But writers should never apologize for spending considerable time with what came before. The simple truth is that we can learn from the dead just as we do from the living. William Faulkner, an author who knew a thing or two about writing fiction, is quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He realized that as writers, we must forever be willing to re-examine, to look backward as well as forward, not just at our own work and experience, but that of others as well

While there are certainly contemporary authors we read, admire, and constantly learn from, we should also learn from writers who are no longer with us. Famous writers endure because their work touches different emotions in different people. So an immersion in the past need not be onerous. It can be as engaging as it is valuable. Ask yourself this question. Who are long gone writers that you admire, and why? Your answers will be your own. Here are three you may want to consider: Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry. They may indeed be gone, but their work continues to live and inspire via their distinctive voices.

Chandler elevated the detective novel from potboiler to mainstream literary fiction because he wrote, as one devotee said, like a “slumming angel.” No one could turn a phrase quite like Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe. His character became the archetype for all who would follow. But Chandler’s writing wasn’t mere linguistic sleight of hand. There was always acute observation and insight involved, as in The Long Goodbye, when Marlow casually tosses off the thought, “At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.”

Graham Greene’s sardonic, irony-laced tales literally drip with attitude. Often venomous, always filled with regret, they chronicle the fall of the British Empire as omnipresent Greek Chorus in stories set in sordid little backwaters of the world where one or another disenchanted Englishman finds himself having to deal with betrayal, irresponsibility, and honor or the lack of it. More often than not his characters come to a bad end. But just as often, they grudgingly accept it, as Greene’s Major Scobie laments in The Heart Of The Matter, “We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.”

And for an absolutely heavenly descent into hell, check out Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano. Reading of his protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin’s last twenty-four hours on earth, one is made mindful of the sad inadequacy one’s own vocabulary. Lowry’s explosive novel erupts from page to page as his alcoholic Consul spews a tsunami of words and phrases that turn into images and scenes and drama that one is unlikely to ever forget. Such as the last words Firmin utters when he’s finally stripped to realistic simplicity, “Christ,” he remarked, puzzled, “this is a dingy way to die.”

Make room for your own long gone but constantly remembered writers. Let them rent space in your brain. They will help keep the fires of inspiration burning. When it seems difficult to write something, read something you love. Nothing will help your writing more than having a head full of sources, styles, and stories to draw from. There is no better intellectual reservoir than a well-furnished mind. Keep yours filled with the work you truly enjoy, and don’t be shy about looking back to move forward with your fiction.

Joe Kilgore is contributor to The US Review of Books and an award-winning writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library recently featured one of his stories. Joe’s latest novella is The Horse Killer

Your Literary Estate, Part Two: Managing Your Work

When you pass from this life, your literary executor will be hard at work. (see Your Literary Estate, Part One: Assigning a Literary Executor) A literary executor with full power will manage your work for the benefit of your heirs and receive some form of payment as a result. Some of your literary executor’s duties will include

  • overseeing existing work and contracts,
  • negotiating contracts for published and unpublished works,
  • perhaps canceling contracts or activating contract options,
  • managing your letters and papers, including perhaps disposing of portions,
  • filing the proper papers regarding rights and copyright,
  • evaluating your literary estate for various assessment purposes, and
  • assigning a successor to his duties if he/she cannot perform them.

Your literary executor will not have control of your work’s copyright (i.e. ownership). That will belong to your heirs. However, a literary executor with full power will not have to consult your heirs during negotiation of those rights. If you do not want your literary executor to manage certain work or have specific powers, including exclusive negotiation rights or the assignment of a successor, these aspects should be specifically outlined in the document that assigns your literary executor. One compromise is to have your literary executor act as an experienced advisor to your heirs, consulting with them on all decisions and then implementing agreed upon terms.

Assigning a literary executor is not all about contract negotiation and oversight. It also involves handling your literary papers and letters. Robert Gover had told me that some of his manuscripts and letters were already stored at the Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, and so it made sense to move his remaining papers to that institute—a process that took over a year to bring to fruition. Otherwise, I would have had to locate a respectful archive for his papers.

For the Eric Hoffer estate, his papers had already been stored at the Hoover Institute, but with regular rights inquiries, it was important to have access to existing contracts in order to help avoid copyright conflicts. I began collecting contracts before his initial heir died. (I was not there when Hoffer died, but brought on by his initial heir.) Obtaining copies of existing contracts is a protracted process. In my experience, publishers will be intentionally unhelpful. They have a long history of hiding royalties from authors, as well as assuming rights that they had never obtained. Make sure your literary executor knows everything you do, so he/she can make the best decisions. Slapping a firm letter on a publisher with the power of an informed literary executor is better on any day than filing a lawsuit. The big publishers will out-wait and out-lawyer you every time.

Unless something unusual happens like a late surge in the popularity of your work, managing your literary estate requires the most work immediately following your death. First, there are your papers to deal with. Also, your literary executor might be called upon to assess the value of your literary estate. During probate or later financial inquiries, your literary estate might be measured regarding worth and potential earnings.

Perhaps one of the most important factors of managing your literary estate is maintaining the integrity and control of your work. Try to have your literary executor understand you and your work as much as possible, and inform your literary executor as much in advance about your literary state of affairs. Provide copies of all literary contracts and letters of concern. Specify where you want your papers stored and when they can be viewed by family and the public. (Sometimes a hold on access for a period after your death is appropriate.)

Your literary executor might even have to destroy portions of your papers in order to preserve your legacy. If you trust your literary executor, and you should, give him/her that right. He/She will be looking out for you in your absence. As authors, we sometimes hold onto early, inferior manuscripts that we should have burned a long time before our passing. Do you think Emily Dickinson wishes she had a literary executor who might have destroyed the so-so novel of a legendary poet and kept it from being published? From what I’ve learned about her demanding and independent personality, I would guess the answer is yes.

Considering the effort that might be in store for your literary executor, a 10% to 20% payment on royalties is reasonable. (Again, your state laws may limit/specify executor payments.) Your literary executor likely will be doing all of the work, while your heirs cash checks. For Gover, I do it as a labor of love. For the Hoffer estate, I field regular rights and usage inquiries that must be investigated, negotiated, and perhaps declined. It is a nontrivial effort, which the earnings percentage that I receive helps salve.

As I write this article, I realize that I have not yet considered my own literary executor. I have published several books and scripts, and there are various contracts, royalties, and projects in the works at stake. Furthermore, I have specific desires about how I’d like my work to be managed in perpetuity, and I also need to consider the succession for the literary estates that I handle. While I hope to be around for some time yet, I plan on lining up my literary executor and successors well in advance. Many of those people are already obvious to me. I imagine your potential literary executor will be obvious to you. Don’t wait too long. Solidify your literary legacy now.

The above article is practical advice for authors, not legal advice for individuals setting up a will. Probate laws and requirements vary from state to state. Seek professional advice where necessary.

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.

Your Literary Estate, Part One: Assigning a Literary Executor

No one likes to think about wills or insurance policies. It’s the stuff that reminds us of our mortality, yet helps define our legacy. Legacy planning requires thoughtful reflection and the selection of the correct, living people to manage it. When you’re gone, you’ll have little control over what happens next. You can either prepare for the best outcome while you walk the Earth or leave your heirs with chaos, feuding, and probate courts. Your heirs will have varying degrees of concern for your legacy, ranging from not-at-all through avarice to sincere compassion for your work. Get control of the process now.

As an author, you have a special addendum to your legacy known as your literary estate. This involves the administration of your published and unpublished work, letters, papers, royalties, and contracts. You’ll need someone you can trust to manage your literary estate who will look after both your interests and integrity as an author. The reason why you don’t see the Ernest Hemingway Big Game Rifle or the Jack Kerouac Touring Tires is because they have the correct person managing their legacies. The person who will manage your literary estate is known as a Literary Executor.

Most people are familiar with an Estate Executor—the appointed person who manages the affairs of a dearly departed. State laws moderate what an estate executor can do and how much he/she can be paid for doing it. This person is often an attorney who knows how to navigate the law and has experience dealing with heirs. Unfortunately, this person has general experience for estates and often little to no experience with the literary world and all of its pitfalls and trap doors. For that, you’ll want to appoint a Literary Executor to administrate your literary estate apart from your general estate concerns.

Your literary executor would optimally be someone who is both involved in the business of publishing and is familiar with you and your heirs. It could be an editor, agent, or fellow writer. He/She should understand both your work and intentions. This is uncovered through knowing you and maintaining an ongoing dialogue about your work. After your death, your literary executor will act in your place, even appointing the next literary executor to succeed him/her.

In the years leading up to his death, bestselling author Robert Gover asked me to become his literary executor. I was the natural choice. He was my writing mentor before I was published. I admired and understood his work. Over the years, we became peers in the industry, and in addition to being published on my own, I edited his latter novels. We were friends, and I came to know his wife and children (i.e. his eventual heirs). This is the optimal of all situations. While you’ll benefit from assigning someone who knows your heirs, aim for a literary executor who understands the business first, and then your work next.

Gover knew that his heirs would trust me and my eventual decisions, but I was powerless in managing his literary estate unless it was official. However, I learned that almost no one had information on this topic. I am a member of the Author’s Guild, which defends authors on various copyright and literary concerns, but even their legal council had no advice other than a general disclaimer that they would not be advising me on this matter. Furthermore, Gover had limited funds near the time of this death, and so hiring the correct yet expensive attorney to draw up paperwork was out of the question. If you own a wealthy literary estate or you possess the financial means, you should hire a publishing-experienced attorney to establish your literary legacy. Unfortunately for most authors, the cost of this attorney would erase any hope of profit and thereby eliminate a primary factor of managing a literary estate in perpetuity.

In the case of Gover’s literary estate, I sought a document that assigned my position. The answer was a simple letter from Gover, declaring me as his literary executor to manage all of the aforementioned factors that go with those duties in the event of his death. In his advanced age, I typed it up for him and had a professional notarize the document. A Notary Public can be found at a nearby bank, post office, shipper, or even an attorney’s office. You might have one in the family. The point was to have Gover assign me as his literary executor (and my appointed duties) in clear language on a document with a witnessed signature. Having secured that, I was a literary executor for the first time. Without that document, all control of his literary estate would be left in the hands of his heirs.

If your literary estate is significant—that which will generate an inheritance tax for example—consider having your literary executor specified in your will. This will require a visit to an experienced attorney. It’s also a good idea to sit down with your heirs in advance and explain to them who will be managing your literary estate if it will not be your heirs directly. You want no surprises. Your death will be an emotional time, and surprises will create unnecessary contentions with or among your heirs. Keep in mind that after your death, your literary executor conceptually will be the steward of your work, but in reality will be working on behalf of your heirs.

In the second installment, we’ll discuss the functions of a Literary Executor and the factors involved in managing a literary estate. (see Your Literary Estate, Part Two: Managing Your Work)

The above article is practical advice for authors, not legal advice for individuals setting up a will. Probate laws and requirements vary from state to state. Seek professional advice where necessary.

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.