There are two kinds of writers: those who think they have written a piece of crap, and those who believe they have created a masterpiece. Mainly! If you’re a writer, you might fit in the first group or the second. Let me tell you something funny; your piece of crap could be a masterpiece for your reader, and sometimes your masterpiece could be a total piece of crap!
Every reader is an individual critic of your work. I agree that you – the writer – should write for yourself not for your readers, however having readers helps you to see what they can see but you don’t, because it’s your baby after all, and no matter how noisy or ugly or smelly it is, it’s the cutest creature for you on Earth! Yet, readers can be misleading too. Sometimes, like you, they think your piece of crap is a masterpiece! Sometimes they clap for whatever you write, no matter how ugly or smelly! That’s why you need to learn to be your own critic before a real cruel critic tears your precious baby to pieces!
Usually the writers with academic background are in the first crappy group, because in college whatever you write is defined as a piece of crap; you have professors and teachers to make sure that you never feel pumped by your writing! When we were in our second year of college, my friend and I were told we would never ever be writers. She, as a result, changed her major, but guess what? She’s a scriptwriter now with a couple of TV series and plays which have been all success. So, you see, the cruel critic is not always right. Still, they’re not always wrong either.
Now let’s get back to the reader-based criticism. Your readers are usually either people who know you – relatives, friends, colleagues,… – or strangers; among people who know you, your family will always love what you write, because they’re proud of you and to be honest they never thought you could write anything worth publishing! Your relatives, some will love it and some will probably stop talking to you! Your friends will either support you or won’t simply care. And your colleagues, the ones who ‘write’, as Ernest Hemingway says in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: “You don’t want the opinion of another writer!” I don’t agree with this completely; as a writer, I’ve been supported by some of my writer friends (not all of them!), and I’ve tried to support them back, but I don’t deny feeling envious or jealous of them for publishing their tenth book when I’m still struggling with my first! Of course, I’ve had friends who were not as lucky as me to even have this struggle, and they were – trust me – good writers.
So, relatives, friends, colleagues… Helpful criticism or not? I’d say not!
What about strangers? Random readers who happen to discover your story and they are ‘hooked’ either by your character or the plot or your cover! Some of them become your fans after the first few chapters, and they – like your family – defend you even if you give them crap! They help you to go on, you need them to survive, and although they can keep you on track in your journey, their opinion doesn’t make you a better writer. They simply love your stories, no matter what you write. Still, it happens when a serious reader, a picky one, comes to your way. This kind or rare reader, my friends, is what we need; the one who is not satisfied easily. I call them the critic reader. They’re not sweet, they don’t clap after each chapter, and they read a lot. They’re not charmed by our main character’s dazzling smile! Seriously, we cannot fool these people. They demand good stories and I say we show them we can write! They prepare us to face the real world, the jungle out there, where a professional critic turns our masterpiece into a piece of crap with one single review!
These kinds of readers also teach us to be ruthless critics of our own work, and sometimes of the others’! I suggest we don’t judge our works immediately; after we’re done with a chapter, let’s skip that part of ‘Wow!’ or ‘Damn!’. It’s just natural if we’re proud of ourselves for creating something so unique, or if we feel that we have never been so pathetic to write something so useless; the masterpiece vs crap! Like I mentioned before, it could be just opposite, that’s why we need critics to point out the strength and weaknesses of our writing. That’s why, after we’re done with the chapter or with the whole story, we need to stop being the writer, and sit to read our book like a reader; not like our mom or our hardcore fan, but like a critic.
It’s not easy, but let’s give it a try.
Now, how to be a good critic?
I say, for practice, we start with another story, not with our own writing. I, personally, have the rule of ‘Three Chapters’ when I start a new book. If the chapters are short, I change my rule to ‘Five Chapters’. It means that I read the first three chapters and if I’m hooked, I go on reading. If not, no, thank you!
If it’s a well-written story, the first three chapters should introduce the main character, give you a background, it should engage you by a conflict, a question, a mystery, something to tempt you to go on. Because let’s face it, guys; thanks to technology and self-publishing, there are too many books, free books too, so you tell me, why should I waste my time with a badly-written novel that cannot prove itself to me in its first three chapters? There is a room full of cakes and they all look tasty. You need to make sure that your readers love the first bite, otherwise they throw your cake in the trash and go grab another one.
As a reader, we pay attention to the beginning of a book. Therefore, as a writer, we should do the same. The first few chapters are the entrance of your story. You open the door, let your readers have a peek; if they like what they see, they walk inside, may even sit to have a coffee with you. The first impression is so important; sometimes you need to deceive your readers, show them only the good stuff. Once they’re hooked, they stay. You don’t confuse them with too much information, you don’t bore them with long sentences or detailed descriptions; just give them a warm welcome, make them comfortable, and as soon as they’re buckled up, start the roller coaster!
The picky reader, though, does not always sit until the end of the ride; remember, the critic reader. Sometimes they get off in the middle, so you need to have more attractions for them after your first chapters. Organize your writing; make sure you have enough conflicts or ‘bombs’ as the general reader says. Don’t use them all at the beginning and don’t keep them for the end. I remember reading this novel which had good reviews and was being adapted for a movie; it was a pleasant read, with small conflicts that kept me reading for two hundred pages, super slowly, still three hundred to go! I was getting bored, waiting for that Wow Moment everyone was talking about. I stopped, then a friend told me ‘Nooooo! Keep reading! The good part hasn’t started yet!’
Okay, with all due respect to the bestselling author, two hundred pages and ‘the good part hasn’t started yet!’?
I took my friend’s advice, who had asked me not to judge fast (please, someone define ‘fast’ for me!) and resumed reading. She was right; the good part started at page two hundred and fifty! And the ride was crazy. I couldn’t put the book down. It had taken me a month to read the first two hundred pages, but it took me a day to read pages two hundred and fifty until four hundred! Then, I stopped again. Why? I felt disappointed. The writer had this great conflict, with an ongoing set of cliffhangers in a suspense/romance novel and had waited for half of the book to use them. It was like a dinner party, with appetizers being served on and on, while you’ve been told that the main dish is a blast, so you wait and wait for the main dish that doesn’t seem to be served ever! When it’s finally served, you’re stuffed with all the appetizers, and you’re tired of waiting, and no matter how good the main dish is, it’s cold! You don’t enjoy it anymore because they’ve served it too late!
See? Be the reader! If you’re already a reader, work on your skills. Challenge your favorite writer. Show them you know about conflicts, or different kinds of characters (dynamic vs static); show them that you’re a smart reader who needs more! Be the critic! And no, I don’t mean to be ruthless or cruel; analyze what you’re reading, and help your favorite writer improve. Trust me, every writer has enough family and fans to tell them they’re geniuses! What they need is realistic criticism, and if your favorite writer is a critic reader, they won’t feel offended by your criticism. Of course, first we need to learn how to criticize without hurting the writer’s feelings, especially if they’re in the group who see their work as a masterpiece! And I don’t guarantee if you’ll still be friends once you burst their bubble, but I believe that in the long run, the critic-based reader can improve the quality of the stories which are being published by the minute and second now, thanks to the self-publishing industry.
How to be a just critic? Let’s talk about it next!