Last weekend, I participated in my first Flights of Foundry, a free online convention for speculative fiction run by Dream Foundry. I had a good time and a pleasant experience, especially as someone who had four (4!!!) panels to speak on, as well as a chill-and-chat. Three of the panels were editing-related, and the fourth panel was on decolonization of (Western) narrative traditions.
The decolonization panel is going to need its own post and, quite possibly, a series of posts. I have strong feelings regarding colonization and how that's shaped Western science fiction and fantasy and our view of the Other because Western colonization has directly impacted how women of color are viewed and treated in Western society today. You can draw a straight line, basically, from things like the French invasion of Vietnam and Polynesia to violence committed against Asian and Pacific Islander women anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi 2022.
That's getting a bit dark for this particular post, so I'm going to put a pin in that (this is now a phrase I lean on a whole lot? Apologies). This first post is about my panel, "Fiction Critiques: What to Take and Leave Behind." I got to sit on this panel with my lovely moderator, George Jreije (author of Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria), and co-panelists Nino Cipri and Monica Louzon. And we had a great time thanks to George's editorial experience and relaxed, conversational moderation style.
I did some prep prior to the panel, and I figured it'd be useful for newer writers or newer critics (sounds really judgy, yikes) to share that here. One of the most common questions I see is, "How do I give critique?" This is a broad question, so I ended up breaking it down into two categories: action feedback and vibes feedback.
But before I address what those mean, I need to lay some foundational work. The best critique experience you'll have as either a writer or a critic/reader is to be specific in your parameters about what you want. That specificity will inform the type of critique you receive. So often, writers will ask for feedback from a reader and receive crit that's too harsh and too specific, or too nebulous or too general. Before you send out something to be read, think about what your goals are. I promise that you do have goals more specific than, "Is this good?"
So: the types of critique. A lot of people talk about useful critique and not-useful critique, which makes sense to a writer because not all critique can be acted upon, whether it's because it's the wrong critique for you ("I don't get the Asian part") or critique that's incapable of engendering action ("I couldn't stay interested"). However, I'd like to reframe utility itself. Instead of calling crit useful or not, let's look at it as action-based critique and vibes/emotional/mood-based critique.
Action-based critique, or action feedback, is specific and nonjudgmental. It is feedback that points to concrete aspects of your story and may indicate a solution. For example, "Too many events feel crowded into the middle or end and not the front" is actionable pacing critique. "I thought the inciting incident happened in chapter x on page n, and that occurred too far in for me" is also actionable because you can compare what your reader thought to what you intended and retune your story if there's a mismatch.
Vibes-based critique, or vibes feedback, is vague and based on the reader experience. You can call vibes mood or emotion or feeling or gut. Vibes feedback is the reaction video of feedback. Reaction videos never give advice--and why would they? It's not like the creator of the video is able to fix anything now that the video is out. "The pacing felt off" is vibes feedback, as is "I couldn't connect to this character." This particular type of feedback has no immediate solution and may result in the writer going, "What does that mean? How do I fix this?" This doesn't mean vibes feedback isn't useful, though. It's data. Collect enough of it, and a pattern may emerge that you can then address in revision.
To get a good crit experience, arrive at the table already knowing what you want. Do you want a gut check/up-down vote? That's vibes feedback or data collection feedback and puts the least amount of burden on your reader. This is not a bad way to test out potential readers, actually. Swap chapters, read for vibes, give your opinion (notice I did not say assessment). If you want something specific and actionable, ask for it. Do you feel your pacing/characterization/worldbuilding is off? Ask your reader to look at those things. If there's other feedback, that's a bonus!
The opening moments of the panel were devoted to types of critique, and I rattled off several that got the audience asking questions. Essentially, as a writer, you can ask for a positivity pass, a gut check or first impression, or a detailed look at certain aspects of your story. These are and/or situations, but again, to alleviate reader burden, it's best to start with just one. A positivity pass is a read with positive feedback only. Gut checks ask the question, "Would you read on? Have I hooked you?" And the detailed look falls into the realm of the critique partner, the person who takes a magnifying glass to your story and zeroes in on its weaknesses.
Ah, the critique partner. This term can be interchangeable with the beta reader or exist along the beta reader-critique partner continuum. Personally, I divide my readers into alpha readers, beta readers, and critique partners. My husband is my alpha reader, the person who sees whatever it was I just vomited and gives some general opinion-based feedback. He operates in the Mr. Le Guin sphere where he reads my thing and says, "That's good, honey," and that's all I want or expect from him. My writing friends are potential beta readers who read a chapter or two or half the book or the whole book and cheer me on or yell at me as needed. And my critique partner, of which I only have one currently, is my microscope user who watches my progress from chiseling the rock out of the mountain, to hauling it back to the studio, to staring at it to find what I'm going to sculpt, to smashing my thumb multiple times as I am tapping away. She gives me detailed breakdowns of chapters, an overarching look at characters, pace, and plot, and points out discrepancies in timeline of events and language usage.
One warning, though, to close out this post, which is based on personal experience because we've all needed to start from somewhere (it's me, I was the asshole, and now I'm a copyeditor, so at least the nitpickiness was put to good use). Do not, unless the writer asks you to, "fix" grammar in someone's manuscript. Simply do not do it. It's overwhelming, first of all, and it's surface-level reading. Don't let the dressing of the writing distract you from the substance of the writing. Gently query the places where you are confused. But for the most part, you should be able to understand the intent and meaning of the piece you're reading without hauling the red pen out.
Okay! That's the end of this incredibly disjointed and bumpy post. Next time, hopefully, I'll talk about the decolonization panel, which needed to be much longer than fifty minutes and could just be a course in itself.
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Mia is a musician, teacher, writer, editor, and occasional photographer whose formal education is in music, psychology, and pedagogy. She enjoys reading a lot, thinking while on long drives, finding songs for each moment, and snoozing with her cat.