Let’s Get Critical! How Book Reviewing Can Make You A Better Storyteller
About a month ago, writer and editor Sheldon Lee Compton posted on Facebook: “I don’t just want to be a better writer, but a better reader.” I’m, of course, paraphrasing, because the statement is of the type that most writers make on a occasion (okay, constantly) on social media, and to be blunt, I’m feeling a little lazy and don’t feel up to scrolling through Compton’s FB feed to find the actual quote. I responded—also paraphrasing—"You should try reviewing, that’ll definitely make you a better reader." After typing my response, I moved on, made some witty comments on a few other posts and then logged off. But then I started thinking about reviewing, and more specifically about writing critically.
Over the last five years, I’ve published—more or less—around 500,000 words. Now mind you, I’ve written a lot more, but like most writers, I write tons more than I publish. But for the material I’ve been paid for, it’s around 500,000 words. Now if I broke that down between fiction and nonfiction, chances are my critical work far outweighs the amount of fiction I’ve published. At one point in my career, a statement like this would’ve made me kind of sad, because I started writing for the express purpose of becoming a novelist, but somewhere between the past and the here and now, I became “just” a writer instead. But in the here and now, I think it’s fucking great to be able to get paid to put words down on the page no matter what form it is.
But I’m veering away from the point I’m trying to make, which is: Does reviewing books make you a better reader, and more importantly, does it make you a better writer? As far as making you a better reader, the answer, of course, is yes. If you read between 4-to-6 books a month and then write your thoughts down about those books, you tend to start figuring out what you like and don’t like. When I was a teenager, I used to think every novel I read was fantastic—and, yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point—but as my reading grew wider and my tastes broadened, and I actually made it a point to put my thoughts about whatever I was reading down on paper, I figured out there was a lot of shit out there as far as novels were concerned, and most importantly, I learned how to avoid the shit.
Now you’re probably asking, how does avoiding shit books actually improve your voice as a fiction writer (you know, beyond the obvious of wasting your precious time), and how does reviewing improve or help create your voice? Well, here’s a few reasons:
This one should be an obvious no-brainer, because the whole reason you started writing was because you read some kick-ass book that made you want to sit down at the machine and pound out your own stories. (Or at least I hope that's why you started writing, and not for silly shit like fame or money. Because guess what, boyo, neither one of those things is part of the world of the novelist). And I know most of you are thinking, what kind of writer—particularly one who wants to become a novelist—doesn’t read? The answer is there’s a lot of writers, just like the vast majority of every day working people, who don’t read. Over the past few years, I’ve run into more than a few writers who claim they simply just don’t have the time to read, and guess what? What they’re writing is absolute shit. The manuscripts from the non-reading individuals I’ve had the misfortune of reading are typically derivative—or at least they're derivative to me, but to the non-reading motherfucker it’s probably pure gold—uninspired, and flat out unreadable.
The fact is, non-reading wannabe writer folks, you’re not Cormac McCarthy or Philip Roth—two novelists who’ve both admitted they no longer read novels, but, you know, have spent a lifetime both reading and writing—so crack open a novel EVERY day before or after you’re done with your writing, and if you think about it, jot down a few thoughts about what you’re reading, because it might help you out with my next bullet point.
Beginning, middle, end. Simple, right? Every good story contains all three, right? Right? No, actually, quite a few novels don’t contain these elements, or they only contain one or two of them. Yeah I know there are certain experimental works that aren’t meant to contain these elements, but it takes a special kind of genius write something along those lines. But let me tell you, most writers aren’t in possession of that kind of brilliance. Yes, I know, all of us are special and unique snowflakes and you’re all ever so precious and house your own distinct inventiveness. But, when it comes right down to it, if you’re looking to make a living as a novelist, or even just make money at it, you should probably stick with traditional structure when you’re first starting out and worry about experimentation once you have the basics down.
But here’s the issue, quite a few novelists have serious problems with this simple structure. Some novelists write nothing but beginnings where they’re vomiting details of characters and settings and then revisiting those same details over and over again as opposed to moving the story along. Or they write nothing but middles, where they make the assumption that the reader knows and loves the characters just as much as they do, and don’t provide any real reason to love the characters or even remotely care about them. And, yeah, there’s novelists who only write endings. It’s rare, but they’re out there. When you’re reading and writing critically, you learn to recognize these weaknesses in storytelling and it actually helps you eliminate or improve these missteps in you own writing, and helps you develop the most important bullet point of this rant/essay.
In the past, I’ve stated that the short story is a great training ground for becoming a novelist, and rightfully so, I’ve had my head ripped off. Because the fact is, short stories are an entirely separate beast and their own art form in-and-of themselves. I will, however, say that reviewing is a far better training ground for future novelists, and on a personal level, here’s why.
Three or four years ago, a good friend of mine made an observation that when reading my stories, he could never quite nail down my individual voice because I veered into so many different styles from story-to-story and sometimes within the story itself. At the time, the statement hurt a bit, because, like you, I am ever so precious, and sometimes criticism of any kind stings like a motherfucker. This particular critique cut me deep, because I thought I was developing my own voice, and the friend offering the appraisal was not only someone I liked, but who I respected as well.
For a couple of years, I didn’t write all that much fiction. Sure, I kicked around a few stories, I even plodded through a massive abortion of a novel, but in the back of my mind, my friend's opinion still sat there shitting on my every word. So instead of working on developing my fictional voice, I concentrated on creating my critical one, and something funny happened. As I reviewed more and more novels, wrote more and more essays and critical pieces, I developed a real sense of freedom through my nonfiction, and then something clicked. All of the sudden, the free flowing, get me out of bed at three in the morning with inspiration nonfiction voice was transferring over into my fiction, and finally, I was excited about writing stories again.
Since February (yes, the revelation took root before then, but, you know, inspiration had to strike), I’ve written 70,000 words of a novel that I’m very proud of (yes, I’m still working on it, but I can feel it’s starting to wind down now) and I’ve completed fifteen new stories that I’m happy with. I don’t know if anyone else will be as happy with them, but a few editors that I’ve submitted them to seem to like them. And, of course, there’s the nonfiction pieces I’ve published here at LitReactor, on my blog, and at a few other upcoming venues that I’m super proud of.
Look, I know not everyone is going to have the same kind of revelations I had from writing book reviews and critical pieces, but if you’re struggling with your voice, or even with finishing a piece of writing, maybe you should think about reviewing the next book you read? Maybe the change in perspective and style might kickstart something in you that’s been missing for a while, and if it doesn’t, well, at least you have a review of a book you love to post to Amazon or Goodreads, and at the very least, chances are it will make the author of the book you’re reviewing happy. And who knows, maybe you can even make a bit of a career out of it.
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