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.

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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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