Critiquing, Diversity

What does a sensitivity reader do?

I first heard of sensitivity readers a couple of years ago. Like many writers, the concept of someone examining my depiction of other cultures and genders intrigued and alarmed me at the same time. In theory, I liked the idea, but what if I failed to measure up? What if I was unintentionally racist or sexist? Then I had the chance to play a sensitivity reader myself, and saw what a difference a sensitivity reader could make.

The writer I agreed to help was writing Lone Ranger fan-fiction. Her goal was to update the Lone Ranger for modern times — deliberately ignoring the disastrous Johnny Depp movie — and she had already added a few scenes in support of her goal. For example, at one point, the story has a scene in which Tonto explains to the Lone Ranger that the law is not on the sides of non-whites. However, she was not sure she had done enough to realize her goal, so she asked for help.

From the first, I was painfully aware of how unprepared I was for the role. I am of Cornish and English descent, and my knowledge of First Nations is specifically centered on the tribes of British Columbia, from whom I buy art and whom I support with a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest art. From the first, I made clear that I had no experience of the Apache or Comanches, the tribes mentioned in the story.

All the same I brought two qualifications to the reading. First, I knew that research is one of the keys to depicting other cultures as human. Second, while the local cultures have no cultural relation to the Apache and Comanches, most First Nations share a common history of oppression by the dominant European-based culture in North America, a history full of broken faith and lies on the settlers’ side, and suspicion and of mistrust on the First Nations side. Only the details differ.

Doing the reading

After doing some research, I was able to make a few concrete suggestions. To start with, while acknowledging the violence of Apache raids, I suggested that it should also be mentioned that settlers committed their own share of atrocities against the Apaches.

However, most of my suggestions centered on Tonto. “Comanche” is not what members of his nation called themselves — that would be “Numinu” or something spelled similarly. More importantly, based on the ethnology of Tonto’s tribe, I could suggest some possible traits and habit that go beyond the stolid “faithful Indian companion” of TV and film. For example, he might tend to give older man respect, because the old men governed his tribe. He would almost certainly have knowledge and interest in the buffalo, whom his people relied upon. Probably, he would use a travois to carry his goods. All these are simple points, but even they start to flesh out the character.

What really matters, though, is that the mythos makes Tonto an orphan. Could that mean that he had never gone through the standard initiation for Comanche men, killing a buffalo on his own and going on a vision-quest? If so, that would explain his position as an outsider. He could be expected to feel himself lacking, and a stranger to the culture of his birth. Such feelings would also find their counterparts in the Lone Ranger, which would explain their friendships. Both would feel themselves exiled from their own cultures, and strangers in each other’s. Basically, they would be mirror images of each other.

The Revision

I sent these comments to the author, emphasizing that these comments were basic and she should do more research herself. Several months passed before I saw the revised story.

Unfortunately, she did not seem to have done the additional research I suggested, which I am sure would have improved her story still further. But she had listened to most of my comments, and I found the results interesting.

The simple mention of settler atrocities made mention of Apache raids more ambiguous. Even more interestingly, when added to her habit of giving Tonto more of a voice, my comments had helped to transform Tonto from a supporting character to something of a shared lead. In places, he schooled the Lone Ranger, even correcting his views. He came across clearly as a lonely man, rather than a figure of stoicism. For the first time, he became interesting. Much more than I would have imagined possible, he had become a character in his own right, no longer simply part of the background to the Lone Ranger’s story.

Could I have said more? Undoubtedly. But I was new to sensitivity reading, and working for free. All the same, it was gratifying to see the results of my comments. From the story as well the author’s comments, I had played a part in helping her goals.

Sensitivity reading, like any critique, is probably what you make it. Still, judging from this experience, I am convinced that it can be a useful exercise so long as a writer is willing to listen. Although I think I avoided any major mistakes, I believe that, the next time I attempt to do a sensitivity reading, I can do a better job.

Critiquing

Lessons I’ve Learned from My Critiquing Partner

I’ve had half-hearted critiques from people who would rather be reading anything else.  I’ve had promised critiques that were late, incomplete, or never sent. Then there was the critiquer who got side-tracked by his own expectations, and expected my militias named for animals to become shape-changers, and urged me to make a secondary character the hero. All these experiences leave me grateful for my critiquing partner of the last six months, Jessica Larson-Wang. Her contributions have improved my work in so many ways that I can only name a few.

On the face of things, we make odd partners. More than two decades separate us. I am a childless widower, while she is married and the mother of two. I have never been off the North American continent, while she lived for fourteen years in China. Nor have we ever met, except online. Yet we share the common experiences of teaching and selling non-fiction, and both of us are widely read. Somehow, against the odds, with hardly any effort at all, we have reached a state of sympathetic interest in each others’ work in progress combined with a diplomatic frankness that allows us to discusss almost anything. We’ve even gone beyond critiques to writing this blog together called Prentice Pieces.

Unsurprisingly, we chat daily online. Often, our conversations drift into brainstorming sessions. Recently, for instance, a discussion of whether I should re-name a character caused me to create an origin story for the character. His name, I decided, had the same effect as the name of the narrator in “A Boy Named Sue,” causing him to become a hardened fighter when people mocked him as a boy.

Similarly, I turned to her when I considered aging my characters from sixteen to seventeen or eighteen. Nineteen seemed too much, but some of their thoughts and actions seemed too old for sixteen. A year or two can make a huge difference at that age. Besides, the story’s background events would benefit if they happened over a longer time. Discussing the pros and cons, we meandered through the history of marriage and the dividing line between Young Adult and general Fantasy. By the time we were done, I had decided that my characters would become eighteen in the next draft, and my critiquing partner had decided to write about age in fiction in a blog. In fact, a lot of our discussions seem to turn into blog topics, at least when we are not gossiping or discussing TV shows and books.

Even more importantly, her critiques regularly reveal weaknesses that I am too close to my story to see. More — she comes up with solutions to the weaknesses, not always immediately nor at first  try, but reliably. For instance, after reading my prologue, she pointed out that my picture of a six year old boy facing a monster was not as true to life as it should have been. He might be stoic, but, as she said, at that age he would also be terrified. So I rewrote the scene with him fighting back tears, and suddenly the character came alive as never before. People who read the revised prologue instantly identify him as the hero, which didn’t happen with the original version.

Later in the story, the same character, now a teenager, was separated from his lover in the wilderness, and underwent a series of uncanny encounters before she reappeared. Worried about how long the chapter was getting, I had made the character nonchalant about about the reunion. This, as my critiquing partner patiently explained, would never do. The character needed to react, and I needed to explain what his lover had being doing in the meanwhile. The moment I read the comment, I knew at once that my partner was right, so I didn’t hesitate to revise. The length of the chapter didn’t matter as much as the characters being true to themselves.

At another point, I have a magical item show up that could only be used by members of my male character’s family. This trope, my partner noted, had been done to death too many times. Besides, we agreed, after so many generations, how much heredity could my character share with his remote ancestors? Forced to think, I also admitted that the implied racialism did not belong in a book being written with diversity in mind.

Maybe, my partner suggested, the magical item would take my character’s betrothed as a member of the family?There would be no heredity involved, but magic is arbitrary after all. I liked the idea of the item bringing these two characters closer together, but the family requirement no longer seemed tenable. Instead, I substituted another requirement, and if it was a bit cornball, as my partner pointed out, fantasy is allowed to be cornball sometimes. It’s almost required, in fact.

Yet perhaps the greatest benefit my partner has gifted me so far is the name of my novel. Early on, I had chosen the working title “Raven Winter,” but I had always thought that bland. Finally, two-thirds of the way through my first draft, I wanted to solve the problem of the title once and for all. I came up with names based on the characters, on the big picture in the story, and on the small. I even got symbolic. Several dozen titles later, I was no closer to settling on a title than I was when I started.

At that point, I turned to my partner. She immediately suggested titles that I had already discarded, showing that we were at least thinking along similar lines. Then, just as I was about to abandon the quest for a while, she suggested “The Bone Ransom,” plucking a phrase out of my manuscript. Immediately, I knew perfection when I heard it. “The Bone Ransom” referred to a major plot element, and a quick poll showed not a single person disliked the phrase, and almost everyone was intrigued by it. I also knew how the title would require me to rewrite in my second draft. Beyond that, knowing the title of what I am writing always increases my confidence. Yet while the title phrase was meant to be atmospheric, I might never have thought of using it by myself.

These are only the insights that I remember first. There are many more. But I mention them as examples of what a trusted critiquing partnership can do for your writing. Like an editor, a critiquing partner should have an interest in making you look as good as possible. I can only hope that I have reciprocated. Otherwise, I am indebted so deeply that I have no hopes of repaying.

Thanks, Jessica. I can’t say that my manuscript wouldn’t exist without you, but it definitely would be far worse.

Critiquing, General Writing

Working with What Is on the Page (and not with what isn’t)

“Test readers, however useful in some areas (spelling! grammar! continuity! O please yes!) can become a hazard when they begin, on the basis of incomplete information, trying in all good faith to help you to write some other book than the one you intend.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold

This quote applies equally for test readers, beta readers, alpha readers, and critique partners. When I teach creative writing, one lesson I give my students is how to be an effective critique partner. One of the lessons is “evaluate the story on its own terms.” That is, don’t critique the writer for not writing the story you wish he or she were writing, but accept the premise of the story, the internal logic of the story, and evaluate it based upon the values, the world and the rules the author has laid out. If you don’t like those fundamental things, you shouldn’t be working with that book or author, because you’re never going to give the author the sort of advice they need.

I would never agree to critique, for example, a military thriller and then tell the author that they should write it more like The Things They Carried. Just because I prefer lyrical literary anti-war war stories to action packed bro-drama doesn’t mean that the writer must write the former, but it does mean that if I can’t be objective about my preferences, maybe I shouldn’t critique the latter. I wouldn’t read a story written from soft-spoken character X’s point of view and suggest that cynical and sarcastic character Y is actually a better main character because I personally prefer cynical sarcastic main characters (I might, however, suggest how to make soft spoken character X a more compelling character, if that was a trouble spot). I wouldn’t tell someone who has a very direct and two the point style that I wish they would write in a more poetic way.

Agreeing to critique someone’s work, particularly in a long-term mutual partnership, should be based upon respect for that person as a writer, and an assumption that they have made their basic story and style choices for a reason. Unless they’ve specifically asked for a certain kind of critique, you must respect that their choices might not be your own choices but that their storytelling and their writing style is their own, and these choices are theirs to make. You can tell someone what is and what isn’t working, and suggest how it might work better within the set parameters of the story, but you shouldn’t bring your own assumptions to the table and suggest an entirely different story from the one the author is trying to tell.

This happens a lot more often than you might think. A well-meaning critique partner says “well, I liked the story, but it would be better with a romance.” If a publisher is saying, this book won’t sell without romance, that’s one thing, but as a critique partner you can assume that the author knows that romance is an option, and has chosen not to include a romance for their own reasons.  Perhaps a lack of romance will sink the project in the end, and that would be a pity, but it doesn’t change the fact that if the author had wanted there to be a romance, there would have been a romance?

So how do you know, which aspects of the story are part of the story’s own terms? Think about the terms of the story as the blueprints for a house. An architect has designed a house, and while the house is being built, you might make some minor tweaks here and there, you might even change some of the materials used to build the house. You can change the decorations of the house, change all of the fixtures, the trim, the color – but you cannot change the basic structure of the house without compromising the whole thing. So it goes with a story. A writer builds a story with a world, characters, a POV, a basic premise, and a rough plot. Details might need to be tweaked along the way, but just as we wouldn’t ask an architect to change an adobe house into a log cabin, we shouldn’t tell a writer his story would be better if it had Vampires and Werewolves. If the author wanted Vampires and Werewolves, they would be there already.

But what if the basic building blocks of the story really are posing a problem? You help the character solve the problem while remaining within the parameters of the story. Once you’ve ruled out the problem is your own personal and subjective preference (if I simply prefer books with a romantic subplot, that’s my problem, not the author’s), ask yourself, what is really the problem here? If I am suggesting sarcastic character Y makes a better main character than character X, what I’m really saying is that character X is weak, and his character needs to come across better on the page. If I think a book would be better with vampires and werewolves, what do I really want to say about this book? Certainly you’ve enjoyed books without vampires and werewolves in the past, so the lack of vampires and werewolves can’t really be the problem. Perhaps the world-building is flat? Perhaps the plot lacks sufficient stakes (pun intended)? Whatever the case may be, help the author solve that problem within the terms of the story. It can almost certainly be done.

And of course, sometimes the author is specifically asking for a certain type of feedback (“tell me if you think this would work better in first person POV instead of third?” or “I am feeling Y more than X these days, tell me if you think Y should be the main character?”), in which case none of the above is applicable. But here’s the thing? If you’re being asked for that sort of a critique, you’ll know it.