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Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

New Clarkesworld Article

10.02.12
by Daniel Abraham

Just a head’s up, I have a new article up at Clarkesworld.

The thing is, I don’t write online book reviews. I signed up for Goodreads, and I get notifications all the time about things my friends have read and what they thought of them. When I get something from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Powell’s, I’ll cruise through the reviews and see what people said—not just about the book, but to one another in the comments about the reviews. But when the time comes to decide how many stars to give something I just finished, I almost never do.

It took me a long time to figure out why I’m so reluctant, but here’s what I’ve come to: The more I practice something, the better I get at it.

5 Responses »

  1. “Regardless, the point of a critique is to find fault—often to take a perfectly good story and reread it as many times as I have to in order to find something wrong, then think about how to fix it.”

    I’m not going to be able to fully express my disagreement with this statement in a comment, but I feel like this violently distorts the point of a proper critique. If a story is actually ‘perfectly good’ aside from a few rough edges here and there, one should point out the rough edges, but also tell the author what is working as clearly and forcefully as possible, to keep them from breaking it in response to other responses which subscribe to the “I must find fault!” approach.

    (I also suspect that we may have varying definitions of what ‘perfectly good’ means, but even aside from that, I feel like a critical approach that begins with the premise that fault must be found will inevitably find faults, even if it has to invent them. This, to my mind, is the first step towards cargo-cult criticism, where people go through the forms of critique without any understanding of what they’re about.)

    • Yeah, when I read that in my head, it’s a little more tongue-in-cheek than it may be in yours. :)

      I spent about ten years in a local workshop with Walter Jon Williams, S. M. Stirling, Ian Tregillis, George RR Martin, and Melinda Snodgrass. I also attend the Rio Hondo workshop almost every year, where I’ve gotten to work with James Patrick Kelly, Maureen McHugh, Kelly Link, and Karen Joy Fowler among many, many others.

      The best definition of critique I’ve heard is Maureen McHugh’s “Say something true and useful.”

      That said, it is my experience that sitting in critique and saying “Well, heck, it seems fine to me” leaves the critiquer (meaning, of course, me) feeling like I’m not holding up my end of the agreement. They’ve brought me something because I’m supposed to try to make it better. And if I can’t find anything but praise, I feel like I’m letting them down.

      • Re: the tongue-in-cheekness, that’s totally fair. That said, ‘Obligatory criticism’ is one of my hot-buttons right now, in part because I feel like there are an unfortunate number of people (including people I’ve workshopped with) who would read that paragraph completely literally and agree with it.

        I would also feel uncomfortable giving someone a response that was, “I dunno, it seemed fine to me,” more because if I really loved a story and thought it worked as-is, I feel like I should point out the bits that worked most powerfully for me and why – not only because that’s more helpful, but because otherwise it’s not clear I actually read the story.

        I guess, to my mind, critique needs to address both what’s working and what may not be, while also not scrabbling to find flaw? This is for two reasons: First, you don’t want to give the writer the sense that a story that mostly works is horribly flawed because of something you only noticed on the Nth re-read.

        Second, if people get expect everyone to be adopting the ‘shit sandwich’ approach, that can actually get in the way of them hearing you when what you’re saying isn’t “this was good, this was bad, this was good”, but “Make sure you keep these good bits, because you need to throw nearly everything else out and start over.”

        Anyway, that enough philosophy-of-critique ranting for tonight.

    • I have given the “there is nothing wrong with this story” critique. It was to Kelly Link’s “Lousie’s Ghost” and it was hard to tell her I could find nothing that would improve it, but it was already perfect.

  2. While I see Mr. Austin’s point, I tend toward the other side. That is (and it happens that I received a “nothing wrong with this story” critique moments ago), when I’m looking for critiques, I’m still trying to make the story better. A “this story is great” is a definite ego-boost, but it’s not as helpful as “this story is pretty bad, because…” There’s always something that can be done to improve any story, even if it’s very minor. (And actually this critique came with some helpful minor notes).

    Any critique needs to be taken with some seasoning. My first question is always “did the critiquer get what I was trying to do?” If they didn’t, that may show a problem in my writing, but it means I discount much of what they say – even if it’s good. If they did get the story, that means I’ve done my job at least partly, and that their comments are valuable – even if they’re negative. The thing is, I can tell the difference between “big plot problem” and “think about changing this word”. I assume other writers have the same sense. As a critiquer (“critic” meaning something entirely different) myself, it’s pretty rare that I can’t find one or two suggestions even about the best of stories, but I try to make it pretty clear what’s a show-stopper and what’s trivial.

    Reviews, now, that’s a different story. Whatever you’re reviewing is already written, and you’re writing for other readers, not another writer. Perhaps for that reason, I don’t have any trouble reading for pleasure and then reviewing. When I’m critiquing, I appreciate the quality of a story, but it’s more intellectual than emotional.

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