blog: Following Constructive Feedback in Writing

Strangers & Karma

A Literary Journal

Following Constructive Feedback in Writing

This post is part of our ongoing Engagement Project series, where writers, editors, and beta readers give feedback and suggest edits for our feature story, Redfin. None of the feedback is altered, all feedback is considered, and much of it will go into the production of Redfin’s final version. The novel will become available once the Engagement Project concludes.

For those interested in giving feedback and becoming a Strangers & Karma contributor, please contact us  here.

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Redfin Review, by Kayla Sosa

Our previous blog post was Strangers & Karma’s first contributor post, written by Kayla Sosa. Her review (and the below feedback) is for Karma’s first feature story, Redfin, which, among other poignant observations, compares the relationship between protagonist and antagonist to Nietzsche’s master-slave morality. It was such a great kick-off to this project.

Kayla Sosa, Writer and Editor
Contact

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Redfin Feedback, Prologue

Feedback 1: Michaeli Knight, Editor
Editsbyknight.com

I feel like this begins a bit abruptly. Is there a way to ease into it, perhaps by giving a little information about why everything collapsed? I understand wanting to keep some things for later, to be revealed in the story, but we don’t want the reader to start reading and immediately go, “Huh?”

Some of the sentences are a bit long; it has the same feel of the bio you sent me, remember? It’s clinical, almost as though it was being read out by a robot, or from a propaganda pamphlet. You may want to make it a bit… I dunno, softer? I’m not sure if that makes sense. If it was straight-up history I think it would be fine, but you throw in things that sound more philosophical (for example: “there was a collective yearning to maintain peace?) so the tone doesn’t quite fit.

You could use it as a quote and attribute it to some made-up scholar or text (I’ve seen authors do this) but then you’d probably need to have “excerpts” from it throughout the story (like at the beginning of each chapter) so that it didn’t come off as a throwaway. It does have the feeling of an academic text, so that would definitely be an option; the only drawback I see is the need to add bits of it throughout. It might be difficult to do, though, since it talks about Redfin; it would be difficult for someone to be able to study!

Feedback 2: Amy Craig, Writer
@AuthorAmyCraig

Active wording might be the biggest opportunity to tighten the narration. I pointed out a few instances in the prologue, but one of my comments has a guideline for how to find passive structure throughout your work. I see a lot of passive structure in science fiction because it lends an "air of mystery", but a lot of editors also dislike the style... so you be the informed boss :)

The prologue was very concise and efficient, but I'm not sure if you need it or if it has a big enough "hook" to draw in readers. Neal Asher's sci-fi novel Gridlinked starts with a technician exploding inside a teleportation device and causing a nuclear explosion... and the next chapter switches to the protagonist. That's a gripping prologue! Can you turn Roy's recalled rope punishment scene into the prologue scene? Maybe the rope breaks and Melanie gets out a fresh one. Shudder.

[Article shared from writermag.com ] The Pleasures and Perils of Prologues

Considerations

I’m very appreciative of Michaeli Knight and Amy Craig’s openness to share their thoughts because 1) it’s not easy to give constructive feedback, and 2) doing so typically improves a story by introducing different perspectives that the writer may assume the reader already understands.

Michaeli Knight suggested the prologue should feel softer, less textbook. She suggested shedding light on the cause of the collapse in order to ease the reader into the story, instead of starting at the collapse.

I had written a previous version that went over the causes, but I kept getting the “been there, done that” feeling. I felt that going over such causes, regardless of how unique they were to the story, made the prologue lengthy and cliché. I feel that science fiction is oversaturated with the detailed depictions of horrific acts and events that lead to a global collapse.

Though it’s a relatively minor detail to the protagonist as an individual, who, because of their age, geolocation, class, and race, they were by and large unaffected by it. That was, until the death of a character later in the story, a death that was wholly ushered in by the collapse.

Knight had a brilliant take on the historic records approach, too, in case I wanted to make the textbook style work. That sounded so rad to me! But like she points out, it would mean a lotta work with rewriting, tweaking. After all, this is my first novel, and rewriting for a novice is a nightmare… it never stops.

I’ve done quite a bit of commercial copy and technical writing, which has likely influenced a textbook style. Though I’d rather have an exciting or entertaining opener, gripping… over something that felt flatly technical.

This brings us to Amy Craig’s feedback, which aligns with Knight’s. “Concise and efficient,” to me, nicely translates to “technical” and… possibly, maybe, a tiny bit “boring.”  She shared a link from The Writer that explains that a prologue is a “preliminary act, a teaser, if you will, used to usher a reader into the story, generally happening in a different time period and place. It sets the stage for the main actions to take place. It tantalizes.”

Craig later gives an excellent example, the prologue of Gridlinked, which is, indeed, a really fantastic prologue for many reasons, and particularly for what she’s pointed out — its gripping passive structure.

While Redfin is very quiet (soft social science fiction), it does have scenes where something very disturbing suddenly happens that changes the story’s tone completely. The rope that Craig mentions in her feedback is one instance, but I’m apprehensive to place that in the prologue because I fear readers will assume the story is about abuse, which it isn’t. Still, Craig’s advice was not lost on me!

After reading the article she provided and considering her suggestion to move a section from another chapter into the prologue, I was delighted. I instantly recalled a chapter that I had written (ch. 10, Three Blind Monks). The chapter always felt out of place, though it was essential to the story and therefore remained. Initially, the monk’s story was placed smack-dab in the middle of the story, where the characters (a close-knit group of monks) had never been introduced previously. Initially this was done as an ah-ha! moment, to show the reader what had motivated the actions of well-intending characters. I’m really glad that Amy made the suggestion because (wow!) it fits in the prologue!

I think placing much of the chapter about the monks into the prologue would take care of most concerns voiced in the feedback. It will also be a great opportunity to shorten the sentences and mention more about the causes of this troubled world’s collapse. It’ll be very interesting to see how I connect the monks’ story to [our goddess of honor] Redfin’s role.

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Redfin Prologue

(Revised)

In a peaceful, verdant countryside beyond the Urb, there sat a monastery. Its wooden architecture was kept pristine on all sides, with curving walls that enclosed well-tended gardens. They were bordered and divided by dirt paths with a small clearing at the center. It was truly a sanctuary of life with sprawling plants and small, roaming animals, a place called Far Noble.

The monastery was home to four friendly monks with individual qualities that complimented those lacking in their peers. The group had been meticulously vetted by the highest ranks of the land that governed Far Noble, a place aptly called Noble.

Zopa was an innovator; he had ideas. Kaizan was a craftsman; he liked to build. Bankai was the wise one with lessons and foretelling, somewhat a captain or father figure. Anzan was the happy one, childlike and almost always the subject of Bankai’s lessons.

They had all been placed in Far Noble after a collapse that brought death and disease to most of the world, including natural disasters, war, famine. Their purpose there was to harvest food from gardens and collect water, daily, to nourish an unknown people from an unknown network.

This morning had begun and ended like every other for the monks. They all woke to the sound of animals congregating outside their screened bedrooms — all monks but one, Anzan, who woke most predictably to the soft chiming of Bankai’s singing bowls. This morning was seemingly no different from others.

Each man wrapped himself in a cowl that consisted of many pieces of repurposed cloth sewn together, in dyes of yellow and orange.

Once dressed, Zopa, Bankai, and Kaizan greeted each other outside in the back curvature of the gardens, where all paths met at a small clearing. They began sweeping the paths clear of fallen leaves while Anzan made his way to the edge of the property to fetch a trunk-like pod on wheels. He grabbed the handle on its backend and rolled it up the path to the others tidying the grounds. One by one, as each finished sweeping the paths, they retrieved four baskets from the pod and occupied a designated garden. After an hour or so, each baskets was filled with fresh vegetables. They returned to the trunk, dropped the filled baskets inside and pulled out four canvas sleeves, filled with empty, brown cylinders. Each slung them over the shoulder while making their way down a path to a nearby waterhole.

From the very beginning of their partnership in Far Noble, the monks insisted not to cultivate water that was sacred to the animals and ecosystems. They suggested, instead, to harvest its fog, and the practice of doing so was cathartic; the exercise alone was more than beneficial to their well-being. The small details of walking the path to the waterhole made it a ritual the monks thoroughly savored. Canoes carried overhead amplified the sound of coarse rock and broken shell crunching underfoot; moments like this enlivened the senses with the bright crescendo of thick ripples of deep water in melodic pose.

Floating on the surface of the water in the center of the large pond was Zopa’s fog harvesting system. It consisted of five sets of two long, narrow bamboo trays tied together and anchored from underneath. Four rows of dime-sized divots carved into the tops of each tray cradled cylindrical tubes filled with condensed fog from the night before.

Two monks to each canoe lined the long sides of the trays. As one monk began removing filled tubes, the monk beside him grabbed an empty tube from the canvas sleeve. By one hand, the end of the filled cylinder was quickly corked and exchanged for an empty tube that rested inside the divot to catch and condense gathering fog by the next morning’s harvest. Like a well-oiled machine, the four monks would have all harvested four hundred cylinders within an hour. Kaizon was the quickest, and Anzan was the slowest, so as a pair, they balanced the rhythmic Yin and Yang among the group quite harmoniously.

Afterwards, the monks returned to the monastery and happily gave alms to each other, exchanging one of each specimen of the finest picks of the day. Following the exchange was their daily practice of Vipassana, a meditative chant for inner strength and enlightenment.

Once their alms were prepared for consumption, they met again in the peaceful clearing of the gardens. While noshing, they contemplated the hunger of those who would soon share in the nourishment they, themselves, were enjoying.

They contemplated the blessings of phenomenal strength required to deliver nourishments to a place of people they knew nothing about.

They contemplated their own desires and the reward of sustenance; they contemplated the joy of rewarding the desires of others.

Lastly, they contemplated the journey of such reward, delivered to the place where strangers were in their greatest suffering of the day. This final contemplation eventually led each monk back to the first, again and again, until they felt the weight of existential gravity lift from their bodies. In that cycling of mind and spirit came an abundance of personal truth, conscious of purpose while living for the purpose of others.

Once the meal was finished, the monks greeted their final phase of work and gathered by the trunk. They hoisted it up and carried it with each corner resting on their inside shoulders. In quick, rhythmic steps, they carried it to the end of the property where it glided down tracks that lined a large hole in the ground. They listened for it to roll away into the darkness and returned to their home to wash and rest.

Like clockwork, and without fail, this was their daily routine. Little did they know that this beautiful, productive day would be their last as Far Noble’s group of four monks. The day following would be a wrinkle in time that would cause great suffering across multiple networks, most notably to Far Noble, and particularly the most vulnerable of the Urb.

Great suffering, and to no end.

Meanwhile, on a large farm, quiet and loamy, a supernatural being sat in the tall grass of Tallulah Gorge, a network of the Burb located two galaxies away from Far Noble. Quiet and still, wrapped in fox fur, Redfin listened as their celestial powers warned of a thickening plot, deep in the underground of the Urb.

One man arrives to occupy shadows, sent from high space, to help his own kind. By the turn of his hand, Talulah will fall. A trail of his blood becomes a flood of destruction, and all that is good will be swallowed by fire. Keep watch on those who keep watch on the young, and you will be spared to see the next dawn.

For the first time in two centuries, Redfin stood trembling. Slowly creeping through the prairie, making their way to the nanny and her charge, they waited for a queue to change form and be heard.