Saturday, December 2, 2017

So You Want To Be A Short SFF Reviewer?

Hi. My name is Charles Payseur and I began reviewing short SFF in early 2014 for Tangent Online, with Dave Truesdale as my guide and mentor. If you shuddered just a bit there, I’m sorry. But imagine, little baby queer me, just getting into the field in my mid 20s, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. And running into that. I’ve had an Education. One that’s been somewhat dearly bought, but here I am, closing in on four years later.

Short SFF is a field dominated by broken stairs and strange pitfalls. What's more, it seems to attract some (fairly loud) people who really like to make objective statements of merit with regards to stories and are absolute shit at admitting when they’re in the wrong while simultaneously being wrong fairly frequently and jerks generally. It's a field that chews and spits out a great many excellent reviewers while seeming to find time to praise and promote the most toxic and insensitive. It's often tiring, draining, and infuriating. But it's also kind of amazing. Welcome!

My general goal in this is just to give something of a guide for people wanting to get started in short SFF reviewing. Because the field needs more and more diverse voices if it's to self-govern away from the most toxic examples of short SFF reviewer. It's not a comprehensive guide, but I've left my contact info toward the bottom if you have any more questions. So yeah, let's get started!

Step 1: The Road to Hell

Let’s talk about intentions. If you’re getting into short SFF reviewing, you probably have reasons. Now might be a good time to visit them. Or revisit them. I hope you, like me, are coming from a place of enthusiasm and joy and wanting to be a part of something as awesome as short SFF. I hope you want to share your feelings and opinions about stories you hope to connect to and engage with. Because, let me tell you, it’s rather hard. It’s often hard to maintain a love of a field that is often toxic and where you’re probably not going to feel the most welcome. Depending on how much you want to review, it’s also often a lot of (probably underpaid if not always underappreciated) work. Mostly, though, I hope you want to get into short SFF reviewing because you like reviewing.

Now, those aren't the only reasons. I started Quick Sip Reviews out of spite, anger, and a deep wish to atone for what I'd been a part of at Tangent. If you're motivated by any of those things right now, excellent. But at some point that's going to wear off, and trying to push a long-term project through on spite is no way to live (infinite thanks to Rose Lemberg for this advice, which I will try to pass along as best I can). At some point the work has to be rewarding in itself. I hope it will be. It has been for me, though I'd never say it's been easy of that I haven't wanted to rage-quit often enough.

A few warnings. I personally don’t much care for reviews that seek to narrow the field. There’s so much excellent short SFF out there that I find any attempt to classify any reviewing as complete or even comprehensive is naive at best and arrogant and gatekeeping at worst. I review as much as I can. I miss so, so much. I don’t review even half the stories that are coming out at Big Publishers. So. If you’re hoping to read everything or be able to speak with any authority over the whole of short SFF—probably don’t. Not that you can’t speak from your reading and experiences. Not that you can’t be trying to find your favorite short SFF stories out there (in fact, I'd love to know). But trying to find "the best” is not something I personally have much use for.

Step 2: Means, Motive, & Opportunity

Ah, now we’re into the actual question of what your reviewing might look like. Where to host it, how to maybe try to earn some money for it, how to balance life and reviewing, etc. This is both a really cool opportunity and an utterly terrifying one, because you can do almost anything. But let’s start small.

There aren’t too many established review sites out there. The good news is that if you have friends that want to do this with you, you can start together doing a group blog and get some regular posts going and very quickly become a resource for people. That’s amazing! You can also join an existing group blog, if they are open to new people. There aren’t too many at the moment, but Short SFF Reviews is new and I’ve been appreciating a lot of what they’ve been doing.

Or you can go it solo. When I started Quick Sip Reviews I was just posting my thoughts to a blog as fast as I could, and (while I’m not rolling in money, power, or influence) I have something of a following now and even make a little money at it. The truth is that the situation out there is so dire that anyone willing to act in good faith and engage in stories will often find a receptive audience for reviews. The bad news is that people not really acting in good faith also tend to find a receptive audience. So. You can host really wherever. Blogger is perhaps not the fanciest or "most legit," but it does allow free hosting and a range of tools and while it is painful in some ways to learn, as long as you don't mind that .blogspot in url it really shouldn't matter. I'm not super tech-y, so if you're like me I'd recommend just getting a free blog you're comfortable with and getting started. The where doesn't matter so much because, in truth, you'll be getting most traffic from links from social media. Which I'm afraid can be rather necessary as most people find reviews from social media. I Tweet links to my daily reviews three times a day if I can manage it (though I'll only @ an author or publication once, to avoid spamming them with stuff...and a gentle reminder that @-ing an author can be a tricky thing at times, but @-ing a publication is normally a much safer idea, unless all of your reviews are overall rather negative).

But really, blogs aren’t the only way. You can do reviews in Twitter threads directly that you can Storify or just leave as is. You can post to Facebook or other social media platforms. You can even launch a review blog directly onto something like Patreon, where you could post reviews free to all and give people the option of supporting you if they are so moved. I’m actually quite interested if hosting a review blog essentially on Patreon would be something that could work, because then you’re not splitting your time between multiple things if you do want to crowdfund for your work.

Which, of course, brings me to money. There aren’t many paid reviewing gigs out there for short SFF. That might change. And for many people, that’s fine. I didn’t launch a Patreon until summer 2016 in part because I was nervous asking and in part because the money wasn’t as important until some rather unpleasant things happened that meant I couldn’t give away so much time/labor unpaid. And even now I don’t make huge money writing reviews, but I greatly appreciate everyone who has helped me continue with Quick Sip Reviews. It is humbling and it is amazing. And it means that you don’t have to accept that you’ll never get paid. You might never get paid a lot, but it is possible to earn a little for your work, and that’s often vital.

How and when you decided to try and get paid is up to you, but if you’re doing the work I would encourage you to at least set up a Ko-Fi for yourself and put a link somewhere people can see. You are worth it.

Step 3: Pulling the Trigger

Okay, so you’ve figured out the why and cracked the mystery of the how—time to figure out the when and what. The good news is that there’s an awful lot out there to read and review. There really is a huge need for short SFF reviewers, people who can find the amazing stories that might otherwise be lost and overlooked and shout them at people. To engage with stories in a thoughtful, critical way to give people an idea of what’s out there and to further the discussion around short SFF. To enrich the community with commentary and care.

An easy place to start might be with your favorite publications. I encourage people to read whole issues of publications because there’s a general lack of that kind of reviewing. If that’s how you want to go, just make a list of the venues you want to read and begin. You can post reviews of individual stories or entire issues, depending on how you want to break up your content. I review whole issues or months, typically, but for some places will break up reviews into more manageable chunks.

You can also review just your favorite stories each month. These recommendation/review posts are often quite popular and fill a critical role in pointing people to stories you might feel are extra deserving of attention. It’s an accessible kind of review that avoids the specific pitfalls of having to review stories that you have strong negative feelings about.

Smol aside: you do kind of need to be careful with negative reviews, because there is a fine line between engaging stories openly and confronting why you reacting negatively and passing judgment on stories that weren’t what you wanted them to be. Especially if you’re coming to the stories with some serious privilege, it’s best to always be mindful of what harm you might be doing. At the same time, I find it important to be honest about your reactions to stories, and if there were aspects you didn’t like or that you feel might be harmful themselves, I see no issue in pointing it out. Owning your opinion is key, or at least has helped me through many a review.

There’s also the option of doing reviewing that focuses on a certain lack in the field. If you feel or have heard that certain kinds of stories don’t get enough critical engagement, and you feel you can bring something to the discussion, then maybe that’s an opportunity. Just as #ownvoices stories are a thing, so too is #ownvoices reviewing, and it can bring vital commentary to stories that might not otherwise approach stories in the same way. The field needs more diverse voices in reviewing, so especially if you are a person with a marginalized identity, I encourage you to get involved in whatever way you can. Even little things can make a big difference.

Nestled into this is actually acquiring stories and dealing with queries and a whole host of other little things. I’d caution people to be careful and go slow, especially at first when things can very quickly get out of had with enthusiasm and hope. There will be setbacks. You will want to quit. It’s not super easy. But I hope that, if you start, it’s something you find fulfilling. For me, it’s been an opportunity to learn more about short SFF and to grow as a reader, writer, reviewer, and person. I’m quite glad I’m here, even as I am also often disappointed at some of the current realities of short SFF reviewing. I recommend starting small and seeing what you're comfortable with and growing once you hit a stride or know what you can handle consistently. Because consistency does go a ways to establishing yourself in the field. It's not necessary, but people seem to appreciate it.

Step 4: Remorse

After the why and the how, the when and the what, you’re really only left with one thing. Yourself. Hi.

I’m not going to lie, short SFF reviewing is sometimes really disheartening and wretched. But it is also often wonderful and affirming. I have never been more blown away by human generosity and kindness than I have as a short SFF reviewer. It, in turn, inspires me to try and be better than what short SFF reviewing has often been and continues to be. We need a field of reviewers who are sharp and thoughtful, while also being sensitive and conscious of what they are engaged in. We need critical thinkers and people who enjoy not just what the field has been, but what it can be. Short SFF is magical in part because of the innovation possible, which comes best when people don’t appoint themselves gatekeepers and guardians of some concrete idea of what SFF should be. We need people who love short SFF for what it is and can be, for the ways it can push us to be better people while also entertaining the hell out of us.

If that sounds like something you want to do, then welcome. I’m here to help if I can, in whatever way I can. If you want more advice, or want assistance setting anything up, or want help getting into contact with anyone about review copy for publications or anything like that, please drop me a line at quicksipreviews@gmail.com. I might not always be the quickest at responding, but I will do my best.

Cheers!

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[also, just for fun, some stats! I did some polls on Twitter not too long ago about short SFF reviewing and they might help you get a better idea of what people who care about short SFF want and what some of their habits might be. It's really just random but I think it goes with some of my points and I've been meaning to post the results somewhere]

1. What LENGTH of short SFF review do people most want to read? Or, what length are you most likely to read? [130 votes]

A. 0-150 words (5%)
B. 151-300 (41%)
C. 301-600 (37%)
D. 601+ (17%)

There's a lot to take in here, but the general takeaway I have is that people don't have a super huge preference, though people seem to prefer not under 150 words. Anywhere between 151-600 is where the most votes fell, which means a general want of detail but probably a shorter attention span for the shorter fiction.

2. WHEN in your reading process do you MOST OFTEN want to check out short SFF reviews? [207 votes]
A. Before picking a story (33%)
B. Before starting a story (2%)
C. While reading a story (4%)
D. After reading a story (61%)

Most people don't read reviews until after they've read a story, but a solid third of people feel completely differently and mostly use them to get an idea of what to read next. So really, there's no winning wrt how you treat reviews. You can either decide on playing more toward one or you can sort of play all sides.

3. Why do you most often read a short SFF review of a story? [56 votes]

A. Saw link, was curious (63%)
B. Went looking specifically (13%)
C. Read reviews regularly (24%)

Again, a clear winner with people just sort of finding reviews because they were curious. It's what makes having a social media presence more important, because it's how a lot of people find reviews and review sites. That said, there are people who will find by seeking out reviews of a specific story and there are others who just regularly read reviews. So it's not like you can't do things if you don't have a social media footprint.

4. What do people want MOST from short SFF reviews? [166 votes]

A. Analysis (67%)
B. Content Advisories (9%)
C. Ratings (12%)
D. Summary (12%)

Yeah, people want some sort of discussion about the story rather than just ratings or summary or even content advisories. Not that you can't do a bit of everything but that people want some level of your opinion on things. Which is great. I personally don't like ratings but I think they can be very useful at times, as long as you have a clear statement on what the ratings mean and how people might be able to use them. I would strongly caution people away from ratings that just rely on a "was this good" system of merits and demerits. That said, many others probably disagree with me. 

So there you are, some stats! Hope it was interesting. Once again, cheers!

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https://www.patreon.com/quicksipreviews

3 comments:

  1. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this. I don't currently have any ambition to review beyond an occasion thought on GoodReads. But you've given me some good things to keep in mind even in that case.

    Most of all you set a wonderful example. Your reviews are generally positive and genuinely enthusiastic. When you do see something you find problematic, you handle it constructively. You clearly show it's your own impression, give your reasoning, and encourage people to check things out for themselves.

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  2. Hey Charles, I was *juuuust* about to send you a big email with these questions, so this blog post is ridiculously timely! Thank you for writing it!

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  3. Enjoyed reading this. Glad you are lighting the way and hope people will follow.

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