Finding Useful Feedback: Art

Continuing on from my previous post, I thought I’d talk about how to get useful feedback on one’s art. Unlike prose, visual media is something we passively ingest every waking moment of our life. I think developing a critical eye around art is a challenge because of the commodification of the form; our eyes gloss across reams of visual information as we scroll social media, and much without actually engaging with it, to say nothing of how algorithms then tailor what we Like to show us more of the same, shaping our visual tastes without our consent. This is all to say, I find people’s knowledge and critical thinking around the visual mediums I’m involved with (illustration and, especially, comics) to be lacking. So, if you’re not going to art school or have access to formal means of critique, how can you get useful feedback on your art?

Experience: To echo some previous points, let’s start with orienting critic and artist again. Understanding your critic’s experience level re: giving critique, their taste in art, and setting up expectations before the reading begins is an important step. They may have knowledge around a certain style of art, a particular medium, and frame their feedback according to their knowledge base instead of what would be helpful to you. Helping them understand your experience is also key to recieve beneficial critique.

So how do you orient yourselves towards each other? Give the critic specifics: locate where you think there are strengths/weaknesses in the piece. Tell them if this is your first attempt at something or a skill you’ve been practicing for a long time. Tell them what type of feedback you want eg. nitpicky, blunt, a light touch. Let the critic know; again, it’s okay to protect your ego or the esteem of your work. If the critic has no experience and isn’t particularly knowledgeable around art terminology, maybe they can provide a more gut-level type of feedback. The simplest subjective questions (eg. What do you like/dislike? What does it make you feel?) can be helpful to some degree.

Medium: What’s your critic’s familiarity with the medium and style you’re working? Will they understand the traditions and tropes you’re working with? Will they be able to call you out on cliches? If they work in a different medium, what are the benefits of the genre that you’d like to draw into your own work? Can you give this critic a questionnaire that interrogates that aspect of their experience more specifically? EG. maybe you’re trying to become an animator but your critic specializes in realist paintings. Maybe you can have them focus on overall composition or establishing a visual hierarchy. Honing in on what your critic is most likely to notice will help you get more specific, beneficial feedback.

Intent: Again, cold read critique can be useful. But aiming your critic’s eye is a great way to get useful critique. Otherwise a critic may spend time on 1) things you already know need to be fixed 2) things that don’t need to be fixed. It’s at this point you can establish goals or intent for your work—style, mood, visual touchstones, and where you want the trajectory of your work to go. With these goalposts in mind, the critic can then measure their experience against what you intended and share whether your piece hit the mark for them or missed. You can also share with your critic the amount of work you’re willing to do to improve the piece: will you overhaul the entire thing or simply be fixing up tinier mistakes? Perhaps you’re open to abandoning it completely. Knowing this, a critic may choose to focus in on certain elements to critique or provide a more comprehensive amount of feedback.

Patterns: Part of art is muscle memory; that is, your body records procedural physical movements from how you move your implement to how you hold it, with what grip and pressure. Part of developing your work is breaking muscle memory to introduce new ways to move your implement; when you don’t consciously ‘break’ how you draw on a physical level, it reinforces the pattern you see in your mind. The mark and the movement becomes entangled and sometimes invisible to the artist. How does this feed into getting useful critique? Providing a critic with multiple examples of your work, a whole portfolio or simply the same subject drawn many times, will give them the opportunity to notice patterns in our work that we can’t see ourselves. On a broader level, this can also reveal other patterns beyond technical flaws like repetitive color palettes or repetitive compositions.

To end this post, I thought of this quote from Sontag’s Against Interpretation: “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.”

Part of processing any critique you get is deciding where your specific sensory truth ends and another’s begins and deciding, between the two, whose you want to follow.

Finding Useful Feedback: Prose

Part of growing as an artist is finding how to develop yourself creatively by doing solo, internal work but also through external avenues. For some artists, that means attending workshops, hiring editors, and attending creative programs. For artists without that sort of access, it takes a little bit more ingenuity and work to find feedback to help them on their journey. As an artist who took the latter journey when developing her own creative practice, I thought I’d share a little about my process of getting beneficial feedback from both readers and creative peers. I’ll start with writing and then move to art in another post, though I think a lot of my thoughts are applicable to both mediums.

I won’t go deeply into how to find writing partners or a writing group; there’s resources galore regarding that particular endeavor. Instead, I’ll focus on considerations when approaching someone for feedback. How do you get the best feedback you can out of them? As I’ve gotten critiques from new acquaintances and close friends, readers and creatives at different stages in their practices, I’ve come to think that orienting your critic beforehand is crucial. Some things to think about in the early stages of the exchange:

Experience: What’s the critic’s level of experience re: giving feedback? A lot of writers will jump at the chance of having their manuscript read but if the critic is poor at expressing themselves, unnecessarily harsh, or overly prescriptive, this can be detrimental to the writer and a waste of time for both of you. Understanding your critic’s experience level and setting up expectations before the reading begins is an important step. One way to do that is to give your critic a list of questions to answer as they read or after. If it’s more informal, it’d be good to frame the state of your work: are you trying something new in this story and want a light touch critique? Is this draft #58 and you want concise, blunt feedback? Let the critic know; it’s okay to protect your ego or the esteem of your work. If they have no experience and aren’t particularly knowledgeable around ‘craft lingo’, maybe they can provide a more gut-level type of feedback. The simplest questions (eg. What parts were boring? What parts were fun?) can be helpful to some degree.

Genre: What’s your critic’s familiarity with the genre you’re working? Will they understand the traditions and tropes you’re working with? Will they be able to call you out on cliches? If they work in a different genre, what are the benefits of the genre that you’d like to draw into your own work? Can you give this critic a questionnaire that interrogates that aspect of their experience more specifically? EG. maybe you’re writing fun, action-y fantasy epics but your critic writes dark romance. Maybe you can have them focus on finding spots in the work that could use more character interiority or suggest where to deepen emotional dynamics between characters. Honing in on what your critic is most likely to notice will help you get more specific and beneficial feedback.

Identity: This is obviously a large aspect to consider. In Salesses’ book Craft in the Real World, he tells us, “In fifteen years of workshop, I have heard many comments that amount to “How unrelatable!” but none has been anything other than an attempt to avoid talking about craft. To say a work of fiction is unrelatable is to say, “I am not the implied audience, so I refuse to engage with the choices the author has made.” If relatability were somehow a goal of craft, then the question should be: How can a writer go about trying to make a piece of fiction relatable? If we mean “relatable” as sharing a reader’s experience, the first place to go is audience. We must always ask: Relatable to whom? Which brings us back to the elephant in the room—to call a manuscript “relatable” is really to make a claim about who the audience is or should be.”

And in another relevant section, “Craft is about how the words on the page do this: what expectations the writer engages with imply whom both the implied reader and implied author are and what they should believe in and care about, what they need explained and/or named, where they should focus their attention, what meaning to draw from the text.”

I highly recommend reading this book whether your a storyteller or a reader, it’s illuminating how even the most facile parts of what we choose to engage with or ignore, both as storytellers and readers, constructs a complex implied reader: one whose identity (and, therefore, life experience) your critic may not share or enjoy. Orienting your critic who the audience is you’re writing for will be important in setting them up for maximum understanding. For example, suppose you’re writing for an implied reader who understands Hawaiian slang and cultural behaviors; if your critic is not familiar with Hawaiian culture, this can be alienating and their critique will say as much. They may feel like they can’t even engage with the work at all. But If you prepare them beforehand, they’ll realize this was your intent and frame their critique accordingly.

This also ties into the literary traditions the reader knows and is approaching the work from. For some examples, here’s a list of story structures from around the world. Narrative choices that may seem rote to you, may seem strange and glaringly odd to them. This isn’t a judgment on the choice you make but it’s another element to think about–who are you writing for? Is there space in there for connection for those that aren’t your implied reader? Does there need to be? Or is it more important to be faithful to your implied reader’s knowledge and sensibility?

Intent: Cold reads may also be useful, that is, letting someone dive into your manuscript without any context or introduction. But sometimes that results in a critic spending a lot of time on 1) things you already know need to be fixed 2) things that don’t need to be fixed. It’s at this point you can establish the big picture elements—themes, genre, tone, and implied reader—you’re aiming for. You could even provide examples of other authors whose style or approach to story is someone you’d like to emulate as a way to help your critic frame their feedback. With these goalposts in mind, the critic can then measure their experience against what you intended and share whether your piece hit the mark for them or missed.

When processing feedback, I like what Salesses’ says: “If we in fact critique other people’s writing through our own writing perspective, that critique helps us to understand ourselves. Since the weaknesses we perceive in a manuscript are weaknesses we perceive, our solutions might be most helpful to the problems we face in our own work. But one writer’s treasure is another writer’s trash. In the two years I spent writing myself out of my novel, I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. I could tell I was getting good advice—I couldn’t tell that it was good advice for someone else.”

Distinguishing bad advice from good is only one step when considering critique; the next part is distinguishing good advice from advice applicable to your story and your intentions for the story.

On Purple Prose

Hiroyuki Katou & Keisuke Gotou

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll get as a writer is not to write purple prose and it’s almost uniformly the thing editors will par away when confronted with in a manuscript. What is purple prose? From Wordsmith: “An overly ornate piece of writing. Two synonyms of the term are ‘purple passage’ and ‘purple patch’. The idea comes from Latin pannus purpureus (purple patch), a phrase used by the poet Horace in his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) to suggest a patch of royal fabric on an ordinary cloth, a brilliant piece of writing in an overall dull work. Purple was the color of choice by the royalty as the purple dye was the rarest and hence most expensive.” The connotations in the origins of the term aren’t as negative as I expected. True, there is an imbalance suggested here, a lack of cohesion, and a measure of pretension; but there’s also a sense of reaching for the fantastic and unattainable, an exhibition of something rare and treasured.

Continue reading “On Purple Prose”

End of Year Wrap Up

Like last year, 2021 passed too quickly. It felt like nothing happened except an atemporal creative depression and misanthropic mania. So I’m trying something new and compiling a little end-of-year wrap-up to reflect. I still didn’t do as much as I like but there were some nice surprises and creative developments this year.

One of the highlights was releasing Graveneye, my first graphic novel as a writer instead of artist/writer! I got to collaborate with an artist I really admire, Anna Bowles, and the artwork she did for this story continues to amaze me. I feel so lucky to have created this story with her and can’t wait to work with Anna more! She brought such an impressive visual vocabulary and technical knowledge to our comic and it still astounds me as I re-read it all the little details she’s managed to carefully intertwine in each panel. I’ve done a lot of interviews and podcasts talking about the book but my favorite might be the one here at Off Panel with David Harper.

We also got some incredible blurbs, one from Paul Tremblay who said of the book, “GRAVENEYE is a lush, blood, gothic feast. A Kaleidoscopic mix of desire, hunger and revenge. Home is where the transformed heart is.” And one from Garth Ennis (!!!) who said “An expert blend of writing and art weaves a wonderful, macabre spell.” We’ve also gotten tons of lovely reviews which really thrills me; when people connect to our story on a macro and micro level, it’s truly a wonderful feeling as an artist and person. I was stressed about launching a second (!!!) book during the pandemic but thankfully it’s debut has gone okay.

I was also nominated for my first Eisner Award in the Best Publication for Teens and my received 3rd Ignatz nomination in the Outstanding Graphic Novel category for my graphic novel A Map to the Sun.

I was pretty bummed debuting Maps last year during the pandemic because that meant not only did I not get to do a proper IRL book tour but that shops were very conservative ordering it and my publisher was conservative in marketing it. It’s sales did below-average/okay and I was feeling pretty bitter about how it might just disappear from the the public eye before anyone could even read it. So getting these two nominations and bringing it to the fore of the comics reading scene was a real boost to my morale!

I also ran my first Kickstarter with my friend and co-editor Cassie for an illustrated horror anthology! Altogether we have 26 pieces of short fiction with accompanying originals illustrations for each. We also commissioned some beautiful cover art from Angie Wang with typography by my favorite graphic designer, Darius Ou.

This project was spawned during a conversation with a bunch of PoC authors in March about feeling barred from the general horror fiction scene and, feeling cooped up and manic, I roped in Cassie, planned the campaign, and launched it in August. I was shocked it was a success and now I’m really excited to see what other projects I can bring to life with a more direct line to people who like my work or my taste in other’s work. I’m closing pre-orders for the print edition of the anthology the first week of January so if you’d still like a copy, grab it here ASAP! Otherwise, it will be available digitally next Fall.

Outside of comics, I’ve been writing prose quite a bit. The sci-fi novel I wrote in 2020 is currently on submission to publishers and I published 4 stories to Dark Matter Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Buckman Journal, one piece of flash fiction at Dread Machine, and one piece of non-fiction at Apex Magazine. You can find links to all my available writing here.

This year I sold new short fiction to Dark Matter Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Analog Magazine and Bamboo Ridge to debut next year.

Another rewarding development was being involved in helping others manifest their stories in the medium of their choice. I was invited to be apart of a BIPOC writer mentoring initiative run by Ancestral Futures which was really fun and personally enlightening! Along with other a few other mentoring opportunities, I’ve started freelance developmental editing for fiction writers, comic writers, and cartoonists. I’m hoping to pick up more mentoring and editing work next year and make it a regular part of creative practice. You can find more information on that here if you’re interested!

Another development was moving Salt & Honey, a podcast I co-host with my good friend Leslie Hung, over to Youtube! If you don’t know, Salt & Honey was a podcast where we discuss comics, movies, television, and storytelling. We wanted a visual element to our show since that’s a core aspect we often discuss, so moving to YT seemed like a good idea! We’ve also live streamed some of ours shows instead of pre-recording which has been really fun. You can subscribe to our Youtube or listen to our archive of almost 100 podcast episodes here!

Another exciting project I’ve signed on for that will span well into next year: I’m co-Programming Chair for the 2022 Flights of Foundry Literary Convention! My co-chair is the lovely Marissa James and we’ve already begun developing a solid little seed program to begin our venture! The con will be virtual and attendance will be free with an option to donate. I’m really excited to bring a lot of incredible creative people together for this con! Oh, and another thing I got to do with Dream Foundry this year was be a discussion leader for a comic book club! We read and talked weekly about Pichetshote’s comic Infidel which was enriching to chat about it.

Some other fun things of note: I did more first reading for the We the Indigenous reading series! At Kori Handwerker’s invitation, I gave a lecture on color over Zoom for Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. I got to voice a few lines in a Princess Mononoke dub organized by my amazing friend Sophia! I’m an LA Times Book Prize judge and have read over 100 graphic novels published this year! I paneled at the super-fun FIYAHcon and Nebulas Conference. I also was on a panel about Comparative Speculative Futures hosted by Brown University. I got to work in my first writer’s room (virtual of course) with Curtis Chen, Millie Ho, Jenn Reese and Monte Lin and created a season of ECHO PARK 2060. I started a virtual book club which has been going strong all year! My short story Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song is getting translated into Spanish! My first year of being in a regular critique group went amazing and I also got to be apart of a cool indie writing workshop hosted by M Tellez. After a long time of not playing games, I played/got obsessed with SMT 3 and Persona 5. I watched all of Sopranos (like everyone else). I also really got into ceramics. I also wrote probably close to 300k words across some solo and collaborative writing projects!

Next year I’m hoping to do a few things like finish Prism Stalker Book 2, to be published by Dark Horse, which was leaked somehow lol. I’ve been struggling with doing comics this year but I’m slowly building back up my inking stamina and creative focus. I also have a new slice-of-life graphic novel that’s in the process of final negotiations with a publisher which I’m hoping gets announced soon! And then I have two proposals on submission with me as writer on both and two incredible artists attached. Fingers crossed they find homes soon!

On the far future side of things, some goals and future projects I want to try and tackle are Kickstarting and hosting my own version of Manben focused on North American cartoonists, work on my next novel, and try to get my foot in the door with games writing. I also want to try and organize a non-hierarchical comics workshop where working cartoonists can come together (maybe in person even) and work, critique each other and give lectures or lead craft discussions! Maybe even a prose workshop, too….we’ll see!

All in all, a surprisingly busy year? I was totally convinced when I started writing this post that I did nothing!. Anyway, I’m looking forward to 2022 and hopinghopinghoping we’ll be in a safer state where we can emerge from our pandemic cocoons!

Inspiration, Ideas, and What’s Worth Pursuing

The most common questions I get as an artist are “What inspires your work?,” “Where do you find your ideas?,” and “How do you know what ideas are worth developing?”

Inspiration is often described as something that happens to us, an element out of our control that suddenly erupts unbidden into our consciousness. At least, that’s how it felt when I was a child but only because everything I experienced in my youth was shocking in its novelty. I was struck by the unknown all around me. I used to associate inspiration with a state of ideational flow and the emotion of joy, excitement. A sort of creative high. A common misconception people have is that the experience of inspiration stays the same throughout one’s life. That inspiration is a thing that just hits us out of nowhere. But as adults, we begin to lose out on encountering new and surprising things because of sheer experience. So how does one get inspired?

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What Makes Good Dialogue?

Recently, I was talking with a mentee about what makes good dialogue and wanted to compile some more thoughts here. The most common goal I hear from writers is how to make their dialogue realistic or natural. But good dialogue isn’t always realistic or natural dialogue. These two terms get conflated a lot which can be misleading. If you listen to people in conversation, they often speak in cliches, overuse idioms, repeat themselves and skirt a lot of context that exists between the speakers (depending on how deep their relationship is). This can make for very bland reading, though, sometimes that blandness can be intentional and making that choice is what matters.

I find when I come across mealy dialogue, it’s because of an over-dependence on realism or naturalism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with striving for realism but it’s not always acknowledged that grasping for the “real”–whatever that is–from a singular author will still give evidence of biases, limited experience and particular cultural contexts in a distilled form. Your real is only your real, not everyone else’s even if others recognize aspects as familiar. Some writers try to graft realism into their work, which often means relying on stereotypes and cliches in order to widen the scope of their story and therefore make it feel more global, heterogenous, but that often comes off as fake and shallow. So why strive for this false state of consensus reality when what’s made in the tunnel of your own mind is much more interesting?

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What Makes A Good Story?

From Kannou Sensei by Yoshida Motoi

So far, in the last two months, I’ve read over 200 short story submissions ranging between 1000-6000 words which means I’ve been inundated with the same question: what makes a good story? Answering this question involves another set of subquestions and the difficult challenge of identifying 1) what are the interesting and engaging aspects of a story, 2) what is working against the story and, 3) what can we change to improve the story.

Good storytelling and good art is something I’ve been thinking about a lot but especially in the last two years. In 2020, Leslie Hung and I ran a season-long comics mentorship with three mentees who were preparing proposals for graphic novels in a variety of genres. We provided developmental support and critique during biweekly meetings for several months. I also attended CRIT, a high impact writing workshop which required written critique of our cohorts’ stories which was both extremely challenging and rewarding. This year, I was a part of the Ancestral Futures Mentorship program and got to mentor an extremely talented Gothic speculative fiction writer. Most recently, I Kickstarted a BIPOC illustrated short fiction anthology which I’m co-editing with Cassie Hart.

In these roles, I’ve had to find a clear, constructive vocabulary to be able to communicate the answers to those questions and have constructed a sort of three-prong diagnostic tool to help with that. The three aspects of story (which can range from flash to short stories to novels) that I think about most often are style, movement, and insight. These three aspects are dials you can throttle back or crank up, not values per se. This could be a post-procedural tool for a story you feel is complete and needs refinement or a calibrator you can turn to during the writing stage.

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The Nature of a Natural Future

I got to write a non-fiction piece for the Indigenous Futurist issue of Apex Magazine! And an excerpt:

When we think of the future, what does mainstream media show us? On the side of the dystopic: behemoth brutalist architecture bathed in glaring neon billboards, holographic advertisements flashing through steam and smoke. Roaming drones and militarized robots. On the utopic: hermetically-sealed structures just as goliath but perhaps designed with a more open, translucent façade. Glass and steel intertwined with trees and ferns to suggest eco-civilized harmony; pristine white interior design with the occasional pop of green from an austere, well-placed bonsai. In these fictional hyper-Anthropocene futures, we grapple with our anthropocentric anxieties: resource scarcity, severe deprivation, and economic quality of life.

But where is nature, the very literal bedrock of our future, in all of these imaginings? In our global culture of capitalism and consumerism, nature has been reduced to a commodity and the futures explored by our most revered storytellers maintain this status quo of leaving the land out of the future. How can we disentangle capitalism, nature, and our narcissistic vision of the future? How is the concept of progress corrupted by imperialist capitalism? And what does a future look like with nature at the fore instead of our own “standard of living”?

You can read the full article here.

Art, Harm and Semiotics

(Yet another little collection of tweets from awhile back, just so I can archive and mull over it again later.)

People who cleave to the belief that ‘immoral’ art/fiction can do mind-altering harm often use the same line of reasoning to conclude that consuming ‘moral’ art/fiction makes you a morally better or more empathetic person. It’s a seductively easy and romantic binary to agree with and one that is fundamentally wrong. There’s a lot of elements at play with buying into that idea; art & stories are so often peddled as ‘empathy machines’. Disgust and offense and generally feeling bad are easy to categorize as ‘immoral’ so I understand the inclination.

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On Structure, Protagonists, and Conflict

Did I forget I had this blog? Maybe. Am I tired of trying to find decent newsletter platforms that aren’t a pain to use and allow discussion but aren’t funding bigots? Yes. So I’m back to this ancient WordPress site, to hopefully renew its use within a regular writing practice. I write a lot for myself but it never enters a state where it’s polished enough to share which is why most of my thoughts go half-baked on Twitter. But I’d like to get back to trying to write essays and express myself on a critical and theoretical level again. For now, here’s some thoughts I want to revisit. (Yes, originally they were tweets. Baby steps.)

Continue reading “On Structure, Protagonists, and Conflict”