Be Your Own Worst Enemy
(Reading With A Critical Eye)
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees.
When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
— Stephen King
In my article Everything You Write Is Terrible I told you about my horribly-conceived short story A Moment of Crisis, one of my first pieces of work. At the time I thought it was the best thing in the history of the world. It didn’t help that my English teacher, Mr Judelson (a nervous, soft-hearted man on the cusp of retirement), gave me a B and praised my work to the class. He specifically picked it out as a highlight and called it “terrifying” and “inventive”. I practically did a backflip. Later that day, everyone wanted to read my story; a copy of it found its way around school through word of mouth. In my mind, I was officially the world’s greatest writer: I’d written a smash-hit.
Thankfully, I was soon brought back down to earth.
With a giant skull-crushing thud.
“To avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” ― Aristotle
The next year, following Mr. Judelson’s retirement, we were assigned a new teacher. A young, shapely blonde, who half the class wanted to be punished by (although, in spite of her good looks, I always found her nails to be long, unkempt and dirty — but that’s another story). In any case, in reviewing our GCSE coursework, she read my story and slaughtered it. I’d expected her to return it to me with equal praise, so I could then brag about how the hot English teacher loved my work.
Instead she picked apart every inconsistency, every awkward sentence or bad phrasing, and tore me open for my needless use of the word “pusillanimous” — which I’d clearly learned from an episode of Dawson’s Creek, or stumbled across when reading a WORD OF THE DAY calendar and thought it would make me seem smart. Ironically, it did the opposite. Or maybe not ironically; predictably, in fact. Using long words for the sake of it is the antithesis (too long?) of intelligence. Those with brains use words that are best suited, not attention-seeking quintuple-syllable words like pusillanimous which are merely searching for external validation. Hey guys, look at me, I know long words, do you like me yet?
At first I was disappointed by her negative feedback, and a little resentful. My story had been praised by the previous teacher and disseminated around school, receiving almost universal praise (one kid said it was boring, but I discounted his opinion because I didn’t like him anyway). So why was this hateful bitch calling my work bad? Maybe she didn’t like me, I thought.
Then, the more I read over her comments, the more I agreed with everything she pointed out. Not only did she mention my poor use of English, she also highlighted plot implausibilities and gave practical advice about my setting and characters. Finally, with my self-esteem bruised, I decided she’d been right and thanked her for the valuable input.
That was my first lesson in both rejection (which hurt) and objectivity (which opened up my naïve eyes to the truth: I’m not a writing king).
From that moment on I began trying to develop a more critical eye*.
(*Which sounds like I wanted an eye that’s been stabbed and taken to Intensive Care, but that’s not what I mean).
“Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” ― Benjamin Franklin
In order to develop your critical faculties, you need to read a lot of books over a wide spectrum of genres and pick them apart. Analyse their structure, the use of dialogue to convey action, the way they introduce and build characters. Look at both the good and the bad. If the book isn’t enjoyable, why not? What don’t you like about it? If you do like it, note the sections when you stop reading or put it aside. Why did you stop reading? Did the story slow down? Did the tension slack? Or was there a break in the narrative? If something bugs you — whether it’s plot or character based, or concerning dialogue or scene construction — mark it down. If a character scratches your nerves with jagged fingernails, try to work out what made you disengage with that character? Or why didn’t you feel an affinity with that character in the first place? A lack of sympathetic traits? Too arrogant? Too meek? All of these questions are important, but there’s no wrong answer.
Some writers/readers love certain types of characters, dialogue, settings, etc. What one person thinks is insightful, another person finds trite. That’s okay. What you’re trying to find out is what you like in a book. Then you can infuse your own novels with more of what you enjoy reading. Because first and foremost, your writing should impress yourself — you should be able to read your work and feel proud of it.
Once you realise what works in the writing of others and what doesn’t, you’ll be able to stamp out those bad habits from your own novels. Your book may be scarred with potholes that your brain has been navigating past all this time, but the moment you put them to the forefront of your mind, they’ll all begin to spring up; these horrible dark holes that need to be paved over. You might read a book and hate how the author repeated a scene in multiple ways. You’re frustrated by this, thinking He’s a bad guy, we get it! and then refer to your own work-in-progress and realise you’ve made a similar error. The more you see their flaws, the more you can pick at your own. Just peel those layers off until you find the darkness within.
In the end, once you can look at your work and know when it’s worthy or unworthy, you’re on the right track. If you’ve never written anything bad, you’re blind.
Or an unimaginable genius.
Because we all write something shit from time to time.
Even the greats occasionally churn out fat lumps of nothing.
But how do we analyse our own work if we think it’s great?
“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s
own reason and critical analysis.” — Dalai Lama
It’s easy to think our shit smells of roses. But when someone goes into the bathroom after you and comes out crying, maybe it’s not true. Sometimes we’re too close to our children to see their flaws.
Have you ever been in the house of someone who has a pack of dogs? Not all, but some dog owners’ houses stink of dog. All you can smell is piss and fur and dead rats hidden in the corners. This is doubly true for those with cats — their litters stink the house to high-heaven. But if you ask the owners about it, most times they’ll say they don’t notice it. Well that’s like your story sometimes: it’s a house full of stinking wet dog fur and you can’t see it or smell it. You’re too close to the material.
The only time these owners recognise how bad their house smells is usually after they go on a prolonged vacation for a month or so, then return from fresh air to a stinking cesspit of dead dogs and piles of festering shit. So in regards to your novel, leave it for a while. Go on holiday, breathe in that fresh air. Then come back to it with critical eyes. You’re no longer the writer — you’re a reader now. And you want to be entertained, goddammit.
Why is your main character doing this? Why is the plot turning this way?
Question it in the same way you would with someone you hate. When we like someone, we tend to justify their idiotic decisions. If our friend wears a green porkpie hat with a purple jacket and pink socks, we say: Oh, that’s just Rob. He’s like that. Kooky guy. But when someone you hate makes a similar fashion faux pas, the context changes. Now it’s merely a guy in a stupid purple jacket. Oh God, look at Rob. He’s so pretentious. I hate him even more now.
Look at your story with the eye of someone who wants to hate it. Search for faults that don’t exist. You don’t necessarily need to act on them (not right away; not while you’re in hate mode anyway), but it’s useful for you to know where the problem areas are. That way, later on, you can fix them. Objectivity is one of your most powerful tools.
In fact, later on I’ll objectively analyse everything I’ve written above and think: What a pile of rubbish. Overlong, overwritten with no real helpful tips for anyone.
Unfortunately for you, I’ve already decided to post it.
Too late to change it now . . .
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