Hey, Newsflash! Your Writing Stinks!

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!

It happens!

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!

Hello, My Name Is N. D. Mahshid!

I was born in the 70’s, when there was no internet, no video games except a couple, and no satellite channels. Where I lived, there weren’t many TV channels either. Right after my birth, there was a revolution in my country, and right after the revolution, there was a war which lasted for eight years. I remember there were blackouts for hours, no grocery in supermarkets, sometimes no supermarkets at all; we had shortage of food and gas and smiles and hope… One thing, though, we had a lot: books.

My mother was a reader; she had books from her college days, novels, French literature, Russian literature, short stories; all translated into Farsi. She also had Persian literature, which was not easy to find after the revolution. Two of my uncles, my father’s brothers, were into books as well. My youngest uncle died of cancer when he was in his thirties and he left us his books and his writings. My oldest uncle, he lived a long life, and thanks to him, I had access to an open library with all kinds of books; fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, magazines… He was a collector too, and always let me play with his stamps or matches collections. His small library was my Disneyland when I was a kid.

Many bookshops and publishing companies went out of business in war, like many other businesses. When your life is at stake, you hardly think about reading, I guess. I don’t remember buying many books when I was small; there weren’t many books to sell, after all. Instead, I remember inheriting books, either from people who were dead – like my young uncle – or people who were alive. They knew I was a bookworm, so anyone who had a bookshelf, opened their doors to me and I started to discover more relatives with magical shelves in their homes, my cousin one of them. The first book she gave me, I fell in love with its main character and cried for hours when he died at the end of the story. I used to borrow two or three books from her every week and finished them all in one day. I read them so fast my mother believed I didn’t read them thoroughly! I somehow broke the record of finishing books in the family. 400 pages in two or three hours!

Unfortunately, children’s books were short and they finished soon. I must have read each of Tin Tin’s comics more than a hundred times. I had read all of my brother’s and cousins’ books, so I started reading the books my parents kept by their bed. I somehow read my father’s pharmacological magazines too, and it was when I decided that I just loved to read, no matter what. Fortunately, French and Russian novels were never short!

It was war outside, but inside my world, there were stories from all over the globe. I sat for hours in a corner with a book from Dumas, or a story about the Forbidden City in Beijing, a love story in Moscow, and I grew up in all these different countries far from mine. When I was in middle school, I started writing cheesy love stories that I hid from my mother. I had a secret book club in my school where I – the huge nerd with thick glasses – was a celebrity! My classmates read my stories and encouraged me to write more. It was when I met my first muse, who had just moved to my hometown with her family. We became best friends. I wrote, she read, and eventually, we started a story together that happened in Italy, about a handsome young man called Alberto, and a young teenage girl called Laura. It was 1990, when Mahshid and I started our longest story that never ended. We were in high school and the story hadn’t finished yet. When we were 18, I moved to Tehran to go to college and she stayed in our hometown. We stopped writing our story but continued to write letters to each other; no email then. A year later, I heard she had a suitor and was thinking to get married. Her father was in another city so she was going to see him with her mom to get his permission for getting married. It was April. I was in Tehran, going to college. A windy day, and I tried to keep my scarf on my head in the wind; suddenly I heard a crash. Horrified, I looked around for the accident. Nothing but the wind. But I could swear that I had heard a car crash close to me.

The same evening my mother called. Mahshid and her mother had been in a car accident, she told me. Their car had crashed a tree on the road when they were going to see her father.

I was frozen. I had written this, her accident. In my story, in our story, I had killed a character just like that: on the road, with their car hitting a tree, but I had let a little boy live. A boy named Paolo.

Every year, on the third week of April, I mourn her. It’s been twenty years, but it feels like yesterday, that windy morning when I was walking to Tehran University and I heard a crash. Two days later, I stood by her grave and made a promise, to her and to myself, that I finish our story and read it to the world; every year, I go back there and telling her that I’m still on my word.

All our friends who were there in that secret book club still live in my hometown; they have these parties every month when they gather and talk and have a good time. I hadn’t heard of them in a long time, until one of them found me and I finally found the courage to go and meet, after twenty years. They had all grown up, gotten married, were moms, whereas I felt to be the same eighteen-year-old who had last seen every one of them in Mahshid’s funeral. We talked about her a bit, shared old memories and we shed tears. They were happy to know that I was pursuing my dream, mine and Mahshid’s. I was still their little celebrity!

As you see, this piece was not about writing. Or perhaps it was. Or maybe I just told you a little story about how I became a writer. And of course, now you know where my weird author’s name comes from. Almost!

But I want to draw your attention to something that I did there, which I owe to my drama classes in college. If you haven’t noticed, when I was telling you my story, I followed a pattern: first I began with an introduction (when I was born), then I gave you a little background and history (the war), I threw you a small conflict and engaged you (the books situation), you met a few characters who helped me get through the conflict (my mother, uncles, cousin), then I jumped to another story which could be a subplot (my secret book club), I introduced you to a leading character (Mahshid) and I engaged you in a second conflict (writing a never-ending story), until my beloved character died in a tragic way – a car accident. I didn’t finish there, though. And you kept reading to see how I survived after her.

This, my friends, is the classical pattern to write a story. You begin with an introduction, there is one, two, or as many conflicts as you wish, but remember to resolve them all by the end of your story. You need a peek, which is usually the breathtaking moment, where the cliffhangers work at their very best, and then it’s time to descend and move toward the ending.

This, the plot structure is what we’re going to discuss soon!

Until then, read more wisely!

Troy, Here I Come!

One of the most entertaining things I have done in more than a decade of passing courses on drama, was my research on Ancient Comedy of Greece and Rome, which ended in writing one thesis, one paper and one dissertation which were all about one main subject: entertaining the audience. This form of comedy continued until renaissance and is still performed and it’s still entertaining; tell you what, my best years of studying was reading Plautus’s plays, which I remember laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes. A play that was written more than 2000 years ago making you laugh, even though it’s a translation, why?

If you haven’t noticed, the Classic Comedy is highly character-oriented. The plot is usually a simple cliché with a happy ending, and unlike the Classic Tragedy, all the characters are static; they’re typical and predictable, either black or white, and we can easily decide who to love or hate even before the play starts. They’re not there to confuse or surprise us. There is a rich old man with a smart and funny servant, the man has a beautiful daughter who is in a secret love with a handsome young man however she is promised to a selfish and middle-aged captain or doctor, whom she hates. There are also others in the play like the young man’s servant, or the beautiful girl’s maid. Sometimes the story has a subplot like a hidden treasure or a twins-story besides the two lovers’ struggle to have their happily ever after. Usually, the most hated characters are the girl’s mean father and suitor, and the best of all is the servant whose jokes and tricks never get old!

Being a drama student, you succeed to read lots of plays, and naturally you start with the classics. The first thing that took my attention when reading comedy after tragedy, tragedy after comedy, was the bold difference between the characters, and it’s what they teach you in the first year, the first semester, almost the first session: tragedy characters are dynamic, while comedy characters are static. That’s like a rule or something. Could you write a dynamic character in a comedy? Perhaps you could, but the demanding audience of Ancient Greece and Rome, you would probably be booed from the first scene.

For those who might need more explanation, a dynamic character is a deep, unpredictable, complicated, multi-dimensional personality; in the Classic Tragedy, this character has a flaw or weakness – called Hamartia – that leads him to his doom (or her); as tragedy is supposed to finish with a disastrous ending, the character’s misery is usually where the story ends. The journey, the suffer, the punishment of our tragic hero leads to Catharsis, which in my idea is the sigh you let go of at the end of the play. The character’s story teaches you a lesson, and the huge change in the character at the end changes something in you. That, my friends, is the whole purpose of the Classic Tragedy: the effect of the character’s destiny on you.

Now a static character – as explained – is a flat, simple, predictable personality who does not have any dark secrets or Hamartia. They do have weaknesses, of course, but not like Achilles’s Heel weakness; they have trait tabs like greed or pride, jealousy or stupidity. And they’re not meant to change. They are punished, though, because of their flaws, but nothing big. The old and rich man loses his money or is forced to give it to his daughter and her handsome lover, which is a far cry from being struck by Zeus’s thunderbolt! It still teaches us a lesson, something like “greed is bad!” or “don’t be cocky!” that is a very mild version of the tragic Catharsis we talked about.

Now why did I make you sit in my drama class and listen to my lecture? The two types of characters, emerged from the Ancient Greece. Dynamic and Static Characters. Which one should we write?

Obviously, both.

Can we write just one of them in our story?

Sure, why not? It’s your story after all. You can write whatever you want! But before you escape my class – especially that I’m boring you with history lessons – and get busy typing away your star characters, let me bore you a little more about D and S characters; just a little, I promise.

Remember my description of D characters? Unpredictable, surprising, blabla? Not a good comparison, but I’d like you to picture a D character as a cancer cell, whereas a S character is a simple flu virus. The first one challenges you, scares you, and you can never tell what their next move is, while a flu virus is easy to deal with. It still gives you a headache, takes your time, ties you to bed and antibiotics, which doesn’t mean it’s an easy-peasy, but they’re everywhere and there’s too many of them, all alike, so you can even make use of catching a flu, for instance you can catch up with your long list of unread email or you can finish watching a zillion-season TV series you’ve never had time to watch.

A cancer cell, aka a D character, is UNIQUE. They may look familiar to you, but they keep you on the edge of your seat. They’re alarming, mysterious, one of a kind.

The only difference, in my idea, between a D character and a cancer call is that we like the first, the more the merrier, and because we create them ourselves, we can always make them do what we want. You can’t do that to cancer.

Now, once you start to scribble your masterpiece of a story, I want you to imagine your characters as viruses or disease, and your readers as medical students; when you create your characters, make sure you’re choosing enough of this, enough of that; you don’t want a ward full of bad news, because no one can survive so much drama. Too much complication could kill your story and scare your readers away. They need a break. So, send them to deal with flu once in a while. Entertain them, let them sit back for a few chapters and have fun with your Static patients, I mean characters. But if you want to teach them a lesson, bring that challenging patient and drill your students. Give your character a flaw, and not just a trait. Let them disobey the Olympus, kill their father and marry their mother, let them siege a city for ten years because of a fair dame; what’s stopping you? Be brave, like ancient poets and their ancient characters. Create your Electra, today!

And don’t forget, whatever you write, entertain your readers!

We’ll talk about it more!