Tag Archives: Susan Forest

Organizing Critique Comments for Implementation

Guest Post by Susan Forest

You’ve chosen beta readers from more than one source who understand your genre, you’ve given them your best work so they don’t correct flaws you know about, and you receive their feedback. But how do you organize the feedback, process, and implement it?

Knowing how to effectively deal with feedback will greatly help and improve your manuscript and will turn beta readers into fans.

First, it’s helpful to receive your feedback, when possible, in both written form (line edits and/or written comments) and verbal form. A nice protocol is to invite your three beta readers over for snacks or out to a restaurant for coffee and dessert. This is not only a way to thank them, but to bring them together by a specified deadline, to give feedback.

During this meeting, ensure you set a tone of professionalism (it’s not just social) and take notes without interrupting (except to clarify misunderstandings). There is no point in taking up time explaining what your story was supposed to say—if they didn’t get your message, that’s feedback, too.

When I get home from such a meeting, I first organize my comments into two types: line edits and global revisions. The line edits are easy to get through fairly quickly. Here, you can clear up typos and small wording or sentence changes that you agree with. You can ignore the occasional edit that is clearly wrong, or at least, wrong for you.

Sometimes, a line edit your beta reader gives you includes something bigger: a place where the reader was confused, where their comment has implications for several places in the manuscript, or where the comment gets to deeper thematic or character arc issues. Make a note of these, and add them to your second type of comments: global revisions.

By doing line edits first, you accomplish something important to the book, improve your novel, and give yourself a sense of achievement—and staying positive about your novel is critical, especially in the face of multiple notes to make changes.

The global revisions, especially on a longer work such as a novel, can be daunting. Begin by putting them all into a single document (perhaps in point form), and reduce their number:

  • Delete any repetitions. But remember: if all three of your beta readers pointed out the same issue, it’s probably valid.
  • Delete any changes you’re not going to make. Perhaps your beta reader isn’t really your audience (if he or she doesn’t read or understand your genre, they might be off base), missed the point of your story, or—although you respect their point—you simply know: this is not a change you’re prepared to make. Hey, you’re the author, and this is your book.
  • Don’t try to please all tastes. If one reader wants you to make a certain change, a second gives you the opposite advice, and the third doesn’t want any change at all, remember that by trying to be all things to all people, you can edit the passion out of your story. Follow the critique of the reader whose vision is closest to what you are trying to achieve.

Next, phrase all comments in the positive. You can’t do anything with a negative comment. For instance, even if you agree that the comment, “Don’t make your protagonist weepy and weak” is valid, it can’t be implemented until you change it to “Angela should stand up for her own position in her relationship with Greg.” That is something you can work with.

Then, find out where (in which chapter and scene) you want to implement the change. In the above example, you might decide that Angela will tell Greg she intends to buy a cat in chapter 2, scene 1; choose the restaurant in chapter 9, scene 5; and demand he pay half the rent on their apartment in chapter 15, scene 4.

In some instances, a comment will be implemented in only one place in the book. In other cases, several different examples will find their way into different parts of the book (as in Angela’s example, above). In still other cases, the same detail will be applied to multiple places in the book. This could happen when you want to ensure rats are ubiquitous in your medieval fantasy.

Create a new copy of your manuscript (Angela and the Rat, v. 2.0) and insert the points you want to change at the top of each scene. You might want to use a different font for these notes, just to be sure the point doesn’t accidentally slip into your text. Now, instead of an overwhelming list of changes to make, you have anywhere from 2-5 points at the beginning of each scene—and some scenes will have no changes at all. This is much more manageable.

Revise each scene. You are likely to discover as you go through that some revisions simply won’t work. You might have thought you could slip in a reference to rats in chapter 3, but to do so turns out to be awkward and derails the point of the scene. No problem. When you’re revising chapter 4 you might find a more natural place to put it—and, if you already intend to refer to rats in 2-3 more places, you might not even need the chapter 3/4 reference.

You may find that implementing a change in one part of the book spawns other changes, such as the domino effect of logic and motivation, or a cool new idea that enriches and deepens your text.

And, when you have finished all the revisions (like the guy taking the wheelchair apart and putting it back together who discovers he has a handful of nuts and screws left over), you may find there are some revisions that somehow just never made it into the new draft. Do you really need them? Maybe. If so, go back and find a place to put them in. Or, maybe you don’t actually need them.

Read the entire manuscript again. This not only allows you to catch inconsistencies the revision process may have introduced, it gives you a chance to put your finger on the pulse of the book as a whole, so you can see how the build and flow of plot logic and emotions work together. This step has the added benefit of pumping up your enthusiasm for your novel: it is better! Revision worked! And, it wasn’t as painful as it first appeared.

It is a truism that, with rare exceptions, first drafts are not very good; that fiction comes to life under revision. It is also true that coming out of a meeting with your beta readers with a wheelbarrow full of suggested improvements can be daunting and depressing—so much so, it can be hard to even look at your creation again. By winnowing the comments down, rephrasing them with positive wording, and dividing them up into small, workable batches, you can really make use of their power, and come away with a vastly improved draft: one you are proud to send off to potential markets.

Susan writes SF, fantasy and horror, and is an award-winning fiction editor for Laksa Media. Her novel, BURSTS OF FIRE, will be out in 2019, followed by FLIGHTS OF MARIGOLDS. She has published over 25 short stories, contributes to When Words Collide, and has appeared at many international writing conventions. https://fineartemis.wordpress.com.

A Crash Course on the Best and Worst Elements of Writing

What an enlightening month November has been! If you ever wanted a crash course in what makes writing the best or the worst, this was it.

There is so much to learn about writing craft and storytelling from the masters yet we can learn equally from writing that doesn’t engage us. Deciding on the ‘best’ means we need to understand why we like what we do and what constitutes the best for each of us (Kristin Luna). It also means not disregarding other forms of fiction because the best stories use elements of both literary and commercial fiction and knowing how each works makes us better skilled writers (Susan Forest).

Elements in the best writing includes:
precision of word choice, great imagery and detail plus an author who gets right into his character’s heads (Clancy); a grasp on multi-sensory prose which like a dream, makes the fantastical normal and lifts the reader to a place of wonder (Brenda Sawatsky); cliffhangers and when multiple story lines crash together in a maelstrom of calamity at the end of a book (Evan); well executed diverse fiction that helps the reader understand the world we live in and cultivates respect (Kim May); story matters and being a good storyteller with proper pacing and resolutions is key, but before telling the story, think about how much you can tell us by each word, each sentence, and the beauty you strive for in bringing them together (Colette); it’s not just about the protagonist against the antagonist but about how every character interacts with every other character (Jace Sanders); heroes aren’t heroes all the time. They are just humans with something about them that is extraordinary, and the more flawed a character is, the more human they seem (Leigh Galbreath); the best writing has characters who strive for themselves along with sentences that soar on their own (James Van Pelt); successful prologues convey information without being an info dump and they promise a story/writing style upon which they deliver (Ace Jordyn); a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict along with psychological realism where characters behave consistently (Al Onia); the key to the ‘best’ has less to do with perfect prose, and more to do with story impact when what we’re writing matters, emotions rise up, and the reader can feel it (Adria Laycraft).

What constitutes the worst writing includes:
meandering prose that loses the reader and is boring and there’s no beginning, middle or end and no characters to invest in (Clancy); it’s a bad idea to mislead readers about what kind of story you are telling readers for pick up books because they’re hoping for a certain type of experience. (Mary); when writers grab hold of a culture’s cool elements—Samurai swords, martial arts, ninjas—and throw the rest out the window because the history, philosophy, sociology, and traditions are so intertwined and influential on the cool elements that you can’t separate the two and do it justice. (Kim May); it’s not possible to root for a guy who seems like a walking pity party or if the main character lacks any sense of wonder (James Van Pelt); prologues don’t work if they create expectations that the book doesn’t meet either in story content or style, if they’re an info dump or if they are used to foreshadow or tease (Ace Jordyn); when writers betray the promises set in the beginning of the book and shatter the reader’s bond with the story (Frank).

So how can we judge how we each measure up at being the best? We can compare our work to those we admire and like to read or, as Nathan Barra observed, we can learn by comparing our earlier works to our current ones and being motivated by that.

In case you want to follow up on any of the excellent points I’ve summarized, here is a list of November’s blogs. Just click on the title and the link will get you there.

Happy reading and writing!

Lee Child vs the Boring Clancy
Not What I Signed Up For Mary
The Dreamer Brenda Sawatzky
In Loving Appreciation of the Story Swirl Evan Braun
The Emperor and the Impostor Kim May
Kneeling in the Silver Light Mary
The Importance of Word Choice Colette
Learning from the Masters Jace Sanders
A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins Kristin Luna
The Not So likeable Hero Leigh Galbreath
Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work James Van Pelt
SSWS Writing Scholarship: Should YOU Apply?  Colette
Clive Cussler, Guy Gavriel Kay and DJ McIntosh are Masters at … Ace Jordyn
Writing What I Like to Read Al Onia
Writing Stories that Matter Adria Laycraft
Looking for Progress in a Mirror Nathan Barra
Don’t Break Your Promises Frank
Using the Tools of Both Literary and Commercial Fiction Susan Forest





Using the Tools of Both Literary and Commercial Fiction

A guest post by Susan Forest.

Have you noticed that readers and writers different genres of fiction can sometimes have very different approaches to story? At times readers and writers of literary fiction, and readers and writers of commercial fiction can seem to exist in very separate worlds, each knowing little about the other. As a writer who approaches my work from a commercial sensibility, I have been wrestling with this dichotomy, and over the past few years have come up with a framework that helps me with this struggle.

Two of my biggest inspirations in this struggle are Nancy Kress and Donald Maass. Nancy points out that work in any genre can be written in a more literary style or a more commercial style–or anywhere in between. For instance, although one tends to think of the genre of science fiction as primarily commercial, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake has a literary sensibility. In his 2012 book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, Donald Maass points out that the most successful books have elements typical of both commercial and literary fiction.

Neither style is better: it is the reader’s expectation that determines whether a book will be successful in its market. If a book is written from a more commercial sensibility, a reader who prefers a literary style may find the book confusing, exhausting and too focussed on external conflicts; If a book is written from a more literary sensibility, and reader who prefers a commercial style may find the book boring and too focussed on internal conflicts. Knowing some of the hallmarks of each style can help a writer to select those techniques that suit his or her purposes.

Commercial fiction, at least in the current market, often is centred on the character’s voice; in literary fiction, there is more room for the author’s voice to be heard. Commercial fiction is often fast-paced: the page-turning novel. Literary fiction may take more time to linger in beautiful imagery, to set place and era, or to develop background.

Commercial stories rely on characters who are active agents: who are impelled to take action to resolve their problems, and who are often sympathetic to the reader–or at least have human qualities that allow the reader to understand him or her, and therefore develop the desire to follow him or her. Literary characters may have more freedom to be reactive to their environments, or to have very complex and not always appealing qualities.

The point of view in a commercial story is frequently either first or third person, limited, with changes of point of view occurring only at scene or chapter breaks; readers of literary fiction are often more tolerant toward the omniscient narrator, and even to “hopping” from head to head within a scene.

Commercial fiction is usually written in scenic form, much like a movie unfolding in real time with scene breaks that indicate jump-shifts in time and/or place. There is more room in literary fiction for narration.

Commercial stories often begin in media res: in the action of the story; whereas, literary stories might take the time to set the scene before launching into the story problem.

Readers of commercial fiction may expect certain conventions to be followed in a story, such as the try/fail cycle. A murder mystery without a murder, a romance without a love story, or a fantasy without magic would be a disappointment. Literary fiction can tolerate more experimental structures that do not rely as heavily on conventions.

On the whole, stories written for a commercial audience typically resolve the conflict at the end: the hero may win or lose, but the resolution of the story’s problem is clear. In literary fiction, resolution may not be the point: an opportunity for the reader to grapple with big questions and allow big ideas to resonate in his or her psyche might be the goal instead. An example is Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Here, a young waiter becomes impatient waiting for an old man to finish his wine and leave, because the waiter wants to go home and make love to his wife. The middle-aged waiter cautions the younger waiter to be patient. Eventually, the old man finishes his wine and leaves; the young waiter goes home and makes love to his wife; and the middle-aged waiter goes to a bar and thinks about life. The end. This ending clearly lacks resolution, but resolution was never the point. As Nancy Kress so eloquently said: the story is about death, and even Hemingway, with his ego, could not resolve, or have the final word, on death. Neither approach–resolution or resonance–is right or wrong, but the author’s choice depends on the reader’s expectations.

Naturally, there is no such thing as a “purely” literary story that has no action, resolution, driven characters, and so on; or a “purely” commercial story that has no internal conflict, authorial voice, unexpected twists, etc. All stories fall somewhere on the continuum between these extremes. Donald Maass would suggest that the best stories use elements of both. Understanding these elements and consciously choosing to include–or not–specific commercial and literary techniques in one’s story is part of the professional writer’s bag of tools.

Susan3Three-time Prix Aurora Award finalist, Susan Forest is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and a fiction editor for Edge Press. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, OnSPEC Magazine, and The Urban Green Man, among others, and her collection of short fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales. Susan edits for Edge Press, teaches creative writing at the Alexandra Centre, and has appeared at numerous local and international writing conventions. Check her website at: www.speculative-fiction.ca.