Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Everyone's a Critic. Or Should Be.

As the heading says, I am a humble writer, with much to be humble about. What accomplishment I can point to is largely due to the encouragement and support of Stephanie Padilla, the editor of New Mystery Reader. Through a series of questionable decisions probably attributable to sleep deprivation, Stephanie has seen fit to publish over eighty of my reviews, four short stories, four author interviews, and an appreciation of the late Ed McBain.

In addition to the much appreciated writing credits, producing reviews has definitely made me a better fiction writer. All writers must develop critical reading skills, both to learn what works and to unmask what doesn’t. That’s not news; everyone who read this far knows that. What writing reviews does—or should do—is force you to justify your opinions.

Declan Burke speaks a little of this at Crime Always Pays. To wit:

[Crime fiction as a genre] deserves more from me, certainly, than reviews that run along the lines of, “This is a great book because I liked it and I liked it because it’s a great book.”

No point asking how many of you have read reviews like the one he describes; we all have. Written by well-known reviewers for major publications, too. Maybe that’s enough for the casual reader who wants to be sure the body count meets his standard. Serious readers—and anyone wishing to call himself a writer must, of necessity, be a serious reader—need more. Speaking personally, I can forgive plot holes if I’m enjoying the trip; the more enjoyable the trip, the more holes I can tolerate. True, a point can be reached where there are so many holes the fabric of the story doesn’t hold together no matter how entertaining the reading, but a book that reads more like a chore than a pleasure had better be damn near perfect in its plot.

This is where proper criticism can step up. A bit of synopsis is needed; the reader may be able to eliminate a book from his potential To Be Read pile by that alone, and a reviewer’s first duty is to that reader and her twenty-five bucks. The synopsis alone is but a recitation of facts; a book report. At best, it can tell a reader whether a book is worth reading at all, when placed in conjunction with the reader’s tastes. The reviewer’s real value comes from explaining why, or why not, the reader should invest time and money.

It’s not enough to say you liked the characters; why did you like them? What is it makes them people you enjoyed spending several hours with in the already crowded confines of your head? Did the dialog help or hurt? How? Why? Justify everything. If you think the banter between Parker, Louis, and Angel brings John Connolly’s books alive in a similar manner to the interplay between Spenser and Hawk, then don’t settle for “I liked the dialog. It was good.” Make the comparison. Reversing the situation, if the author is writing in the style of someone else and doesn’t quite pull it off, say so. But tell where he falls short.

This is not an altruistic endeavor; it will improve your fiction. Having to justify your opinions in writing forces you to examine them. This constant re-evaluation can only deepen your comprehension of your strengths and weaknesses, and, hopefully, help you to understand whether to leverage a strength, improve a weakness, or find another way to write a troublesome passage.

Reviewing makes you read for a different level of comprehension, as well as to improve your expressiveness of that new level of appreciation. Opportunities are not scarce; the proliferation of online venues means you should be able to find an outlet. Too busy to add another obligation to your plate? Write them for yourself when you want to think more on a recently read book. Have fun with it. Write it up as a conversation. Compile comments on several books into a manifesto of your writing philosophy.

All writers, especially new ones, search for the voice that will tell their stories in their unique way. How do find that voice—or voices, as different stories may demand different methods—is always vexing. It may be impossible without a more complete knowledge of your own tastes and abilities than can be obtained by reading along. Law school has been said to sharpen the mind by narrowing it; reviewing may sharper your skills by examining them.

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