A challenge: putting yourself in the shoes of ALL readers

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 12, 2015
Categories: Challenges
Comments: No Comments

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 1.03.38 PMAt the beginning of any new project, one of the things I need to figure out is who I am writing for. Is my audience four to six-year-olds or fourteen to eighteen-year-olds? Who will be doing the actual reading—Parents? A developing reader? A word ninja?

Having a clear sense of who the book is meant for will direct the many choices I have to make along the way. I have to decide on format—Picture book, graphic novel, something longer? Do the words need to leave space for illustrations or will the words do all the heavy-lifting? My reader will influence everything from story structure to word choice.

Now that I’ve been writing for as long as I have, many of the decisions come easily. I know from long practice the kind of language I can employ for different readers. I know the shape of the stories that they might need.

But I am not done.

Not by a long shot.

I have been carefully following the conversations surrounding the picture book A FINE DESSERT, and its depiction of slave children. This book was crafted with care by an author and an illustrator at the top of their game. Both do top-notch work for children and approach their work with the absolutely best intentions.

But they failed readers.

I urge you to read the summary of this conversation here and also to listen to Daniel Jose Older’s panel discussion on the topic. Additionally, please read his article in the Guardian about how children’s literature can and should reinforce #BlackLivesMatter. (Also follow the work of We Need Diverse Books.)

The thing about white privilege is that it allows white writers (and reviewers) to define the “ideal reader,” however unconsciously, as a white reader. I suspect this is why the creators of A FINE DESSERT made the choices they did.

In order to perceive the problems with the book, they would have needed to put themselves in the shoes of a black child reading the book and in the shoes of the parents reading this book aloud. As Older says in the video, “Slavery is an open wound in America.” And I will add that the horrors of this open wound are not equally shared. Calling slavery “case closed” is easy for white people, impossible for people of color.

So this is my challenge to myself and to each of you… Let us consider our readers—all of our readers—as we embark on new projects. I want to do everything in my power to consider the impact of my words on the child holding the book. Not just one child but the multitude of children (especially ones who differ from me in significant ways) who will bring their own life experiences and world view to the story. I want each and every one of them to find a place among my words.

To do this requires listening—to children, to people of color, to people who challenge me out of my comfort zone. It requires vulnerability—to make mistakes, to be corrected, to admit my failures. It requires empathy—to the open wounds, to the traumas, to the need to be heard.

I want to be that kind of writer.

I will try.


Spreading the Word on Short Sentences…

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: November 4, 2015
Categories: Basics, Craft
Comments: No Comments

keep-it-shortHere’s a longish post by Demian Farnworth, from the copy blogger site, about keeping things short. Maybe you’ve seen this already. Maybe not. Demian’s post is worth repeating, so take it away, Demian.

“Short sentences are gospel truths when it comes to clear, concise writing.

In fact, no lesson about writing for the web is complete without the statement “use short sentences.”

And who is not going to use short sentences when they were cherished by Papa? Nobody. Because you don’t want Hemingway on your bad side.

Yet, instructions on how to actually write short sentences are in short supply. I aim to fix that today.

In this post, you’ll find six exercises that can help you write short, clear sentences that pack a punch — plus three tips on removing unnecessary words.

Don’t forget to download your free worksheet following the lesson. Have fun!

1. Describe a broad or complex subject in 100 words or fewer

Choose a subject you love. One you know well.

Maybe it’s quantum mechanics or the history of Western civilization.

It could be a current event with lots of twists and turns.

Once you’ve described the subject in 100 words or fewer, shoot for 50 words. Then 10 words.

Find a new topic, and repeat.

2. Describe a topic using only monosyllabic words

You know … monosyllabic … words created from just one syllable.

Like: bone, two, fierce, lie, spade, blow, hill, brain, dark.

Think this will be easy? It won’t.

To describe a table (a word with two syllables) I had to use 12 words (and one polysyllabic word): “Flat surface with four legs made out of wood, metal, or glass.”

Can you describe it with 12 or fewer?

You’ll probably need a thesaurus for this exercise. Then work your way through that list of monosyllabic words I listed above, starting with “bone.”

3. Write a 100-word article that contains only active verbs

Focus on the subject performing the action.

Active verbs are faster and more descriptive than if an object performs an action.

For example:

  • “Dorothy yelled at the waiter.”
  • “The rhino gored the pumpkin.”
  • “The twister devastated Joplin.”


  • “The waiter was yelled at by Dorothy.”
  • “The pumpkin was gored by the rhino.”
  • “Joplin was devastated by the twister.”

Those verbs are passive, and they inflate your word count.

There’s a more important reason to prefer active over passive voice: active assigns responsibility.

4. Write a 100-word article using only simple sentences

Revisit exercise number one above, but this time, limit your sentences to no more than four or five words. And don’t forget about single-word sentences.

Short and snappy will be the sound you hear when you read the article aloud.

Here’s what 52 words look like:

Dorothy watched the rhino. It sniffed the pumpkin. She sneezed. The rhino raised its head. Snorted. Dorothy waved. The rhino pawed the earth. She threw a high heel. It hit the rhino. The rhino ate the shoe. She yelled, “Hey!” Stomped her foot. “That was my shoe!” The rhino ate the pumpkin.

5. Describe a topic in a sonnet

This is another variation on exercise number one where you explain a broad or complex subject within the framework of a sonnet.

Here is my attempt at describing grief:

Everyone knows about love, but no one
really understands how it works. Death,

on the other hand, is pretty cut and dry.
And you can’t fight it off any more than

a small boy waiting up for his alcoholic
father can fight off sleep — it just arrives,

crashing through the blossoms, upsetting
a table, chairs. And you don’t need the Royal

Society of Medicine to tell you
what you already know: no one gets out alive.

What you need is someone to explain why,
when someone dies you’re unglued in an

apocalyptic way, cold as a urinal,
stiff like iron stairs and desperate to die.

As you can see, you don’t have to rhyme or get the perfect iambic pentameter for each line; just get your story into 14 lines and aim for about 10 syllables per line.

This will teach you how to write within boundaries, and you’ll learn a little about poetry, which can help define your style.

6. Describe a topic using the PAS formula

PAS stands for Problem-Agitate-Solve, and the formula helps you limit your idea to only two sentences or fewer per element.

It looks like this:

Insecure? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. However, stay that way and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance. Fortunately, there’s a book called Insecure No More, which will teach you how to be confident and courageous in just 30 days. Buy it now.

There was a period in my career when I had to write hundreds of succinct product descriptions.

The same is true when I wrote dozens of text ads for a long-running Google AdWords campaign. Without this formula, I would’ve struggled.

Your job is to look at 10 products or ideas you love and then write about them using PAS.

Now let’s look at a few tips about removing unnecessary words from your sentences.

Cut redundant words

Here are two different versions of similar phrases:

  • Added bonus” and “Bonus”
  • “We currently have vacant rooms” and “We have vacant rooms”
  • “Get to the point as quickly as possible” and “Get to the point”

All the italicized words waste space. They are useless.

We write this way because we often talk this way. We think we add severity by saying “Get to the point as quickly as possible.

But when someone says, “Get to the point,” don’t we always snap to attention?

It’s like a crack of the whip.

Avoid modifiers

Modifiers clutter up your copy. The following italicized words are modifiers:

  • “That’s fairly good copy.”
  • “I totally understand.”
  • Actually, that’s not what I meant.”

You can eliminate every single word I italicized without losing your meaning.

In fact, you can create a stronger sentence by replacing both the modifier and the word it modifies with a more detailed description or a stronger, more accurate word.

Eliminate the word “make”

The next time you write a first draft, review your document and count how many times you use the word “make” before you edit your text. My hunch is it will be a lot.

Make is the lazy writer’s favorite verb. (All first drafts are written by lazy writers.)

  • “Make her give me my money.”
  • “Who made up that song?”
  • “Will you make me an iced tea?”

Replace “make” with active verbs:

  • “Break her arm if she doesn’t give me my money.”
  • “Who wrote that song?”
  • “Will you brew me some iced tea?”

Your turn

So, here’s the thing: don’t be overwhelmed by all these exercises.

Consider tackling just one exercise a day. Or one a week. But schedule a reminder so you don’t forget.

You can download our editable PDF worksheet (82 KB) to help you get started.”


Thanks, Demian. Good job!




How Will I Know? (if a critique group is a good fit)

by Sara Ryan
Published on: October 23, 2015
Categories: Other Topics
Comments: 1 Comment

Hello folks, I’m Sara Ryan, the most recent addition to the Scrivas. Before I joined, I hadn’t been in a critique group for several years. I’d had some great previous group experiences, but I was hesitant. It’s a big commitment!

If you’re trying to figure out whether a group will work for you — particularly a group that’s been going on for a while — here are some suggestions.

1. Talk to a current member about how the group works. Get the basics: how often are the meetings, how many manuscripts are typically discussed, how far in advance do you turn in pages, how many pages, etc. See the Critique FAQs for other things to consider.

If the schedule and structure seem good, proceed to step 2.

2. Observe a meeting. Read the manuscripts in advance so you’ll be able to follow the discussion. Write up some thoughts if you want for your own reference, but don’t plan on giving critique.

What you want is to see to how the group functions.

Are the members both generous with praise and rigorous about identifying what isn’t working? (Watch out for mutual admiration societies: a group that gives nothing but praise is unlikely to advance the craft of its members.)

Does everyone seem to have similar taste? (The taste question is tricky: it’s helpful for a group to have some shared values about what makes for a strong story, but it’s also great when members bring very different ideas and perspectives to their reading.)

How do the writers being critiqued react? Do they appreciate the feedback, even if some of it’s negative?

How does the group treat you, the observer? Do they share in-jokes and shorthand and otherwise make you feel welcome?

If you and the group feel good after your observation, take it to the next level:

3. Participate in a meeting.You’re not an official member yet, but you’re going to both give and get critique.

How do other members take what you have to say about their writing? How do you feel about their critiques of yours? Of course you won’t agree with everything everyone says, that’s the nature of critique. But do the group’s comments help you see what’s working and what isn’t in your manuscript? (Sometimes it’s when you’re critiquing someone else’s manuscript that you see how to fix something in your own.)

Still feeling good? Seal the deal.

4. Join. (Celebratory Whitney Houston optional, but recommended.)







The Emotional Stages of Revision

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: October 20, 2015
Comments: No Comments

As I’m revising my middle grade novel, I feel distracted. I feel alone. I feel like no one has ever felt this lousy and distracted and unproductive while revising a novel ever before in the history of literature.

So what do I do? I google my problem. I type in “revising a novel sucks.” I think I want to tell someone (the google search box?) how much it sucks. And I think maybe someone has blogged about it and I can read it so I won’t feel so alone. (Also, this googling mean I’m not working on revising my novel for the moment, which is good cause REVISING SUCKS.)

Anyway, I found this: The Ten Emotional Stages of Revising a Novel, by Farrah Penn on Bustle.com.

I have been in all of these stages! Resentment. Second guessing. Fear. Distraction. Maybe not always in this order but I have BEEN IN ALL OF THEM!

And I’ve come out on the other side before. So maybe I will again.

And maybe if you’re stuck in one of these stages, you will too.

Feel free to tell me all about. Turns out we are not alone…

Elizabeth Rusch


Writer Wanted—A Job Description

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 16, 2015
Categories: Challenges, Creativity, Humor
Comments: No Comments

Requirements of the position:

  1. Navigate social media with authentic (non-threatening) mastery
  2. Engage constantly (except during twice weekly showers)
  3. Market yourself and your work with love (not slime)
  4. Advance causes without being didactic or confrontational (use hashtags)
  5. Teach at every opportunity (schools, libraries, conferences, bus stops, laundromats)
  6. Juggle everything (deadlines, family, second jobs, fire, occasional small carnivores)
  7. Manage complicated projects (including life) on extremely limited funds (the reward is the doing)
  8. Be a role model for everything (all the time)


Snark aside, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a working writer. There are many expectations (see above). Some of them (maybe not juggling fire) do seem to be required of the position. But what does it really mean to do this job? What are my “responsibilities”?

Only this… to think hard about what makes people tick, to open myself to deep emotions, to tell stories that move me, and to wrestle with words until a world is born anew on the page.

This is my job.

And it is good.



The Vicarious Release!

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: October 5, 2015
Categories: Celebrations, Inspiration
Comments: No Comments

Amber-signingThe vicarious release. Sounds kinda sexy, no? Anyway, I can tell you this: the vicarious release is a delight. It’s like playing with someone else’s puppy or watching your team’s winning soccer goal, only a lot better.

The vicarious release happens when another Viva Scriva launches a book into the world, particularly a book that has grown up and come to fruition under the Viva Scriva mojo.

Vicarious release is what happened a few days ago when Amber’s debut novel, The Way Back from Broken, officially left the nest. Here’s the gal herself signing the title page.

Viva Scriva has had the pleasure of numerous releases. One of the most memorable recent ones was Liz’s Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek. Let me just say that mud was involved. There will be more releases to come, for sure, from every member of Viva Scriva. With luck, even from me. I will celebrate and enjoy, and be inspired by, every single one.


Need a Pick-Me-Up?

by Addie Boswell
Published on: September 25, 2015
Categories: Other Topics
Tags:No Tags
Comments: No Comments

Listen to the podcasts at “This Creative Lifethiscreativelife-e1338485590717“: author Sara Zarr’s interviews with other authors and assorted creative types. Here, writers talk about how long it took them to publish, how hard it is to write with kids in the house, what it felt like to get their books optioned, to make the best-seller lists, to miss deadlines, to quit day jobs, to start day jobs, to succeed, to fail, and to keep going. Even learn what favorite pens some authors use. I guarantee that you will feel uplifted, and reminded that we are all in it together. Thanks, Sara.



A New Life

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: September 22, 2015
Tags:No Tags
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Candlewick biography coverToday I want to share something that I didn’t know happened in the publishing world.

In September 2013, Candlewick Press released my picture book biography ELECTRICAL WIZARD: HOW NIKOLA TESLA LIT UP THE WORLD. The book has sold well, but to reach a broader audience they decided to  repackage and re-release the book in a new format.

The design has been changed to a smaller chapter book format, and the story has been broken into chapters and spread out to fifty-six pages. The book will publish as part of the Candlewick Biographies series for readers ages 8-12. While this is older than the original audience, the text has always skewed older and in the new format it looks just right.

We’ve been able to make an improvement, too. Early reviews complained about a lack of dates, so we added a timeline.

The new version has recently released simultaneously in hardcover and in paperback, the latter priced at a very affordable $4.99.

So with a bit of repackaging ELECTRICAL WIZARD gets a whole new life – ready to reach older readers and with the new low price, I hope a lot more readers!  I think it’s an example of a publisher doing something remarkable—and right – for a backlist book.

Thanks Candlewick!

P.S. The new version released September 8!


Pushing Beyond What We Think We Can Do

by Amber Keyser
Published on: September 12, 2015
Comments: No Comments

Writing–at least Scriva-style writing–is NOT about playing it safe. We push each other to go deeper, to cross boundaries, and to trust in the story to carry its own weight. Pushing beyond is about offering encouragement and being a kind listener, but its also about thinking of the reader and what he or she may need.

As I worked on THE V-WORD, an anthology of essays about first time sexual experiences, the Scrivas and I had many conversations about what readers needed from the collection–good experiences and bad ones, unplanned and planned, and even stories of waiting to have sex.

The Scrivas supported me as I worked with contributors to meet those needs. As the editor of THE V-WORD, I was frequently in the position of having to push the writers to go deeper, to reveal more, to find the right words.

It was hard for me and even harder for them. Contributor Karen Jensen says this about the process:

If I’m being honest, this was one of the most difficult things I have ever written. On this blog I have shared about my history of sexual abuse, I have shared about my economic woes, and I have even shared about my struggles with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. But writing about having sex for the first time was hands down the hardest writing I have ever done. It’s so personal. Sex is something that is still so taboo to talk about…

Read the rest of her blog post here.

But I think all of us would agree that pushing beyond was worth it. We grew as people and writers. The book is far better because of it. And it is what readers (at least some readers) will need. Look for THE V-WORD on February 2, 2016. It is full of brave writers and honest writing.


The V-Word Cover


I Want To Pick Your Brain

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: September 4, 2015
Comments: No Comments

brain-in-handCritique groups offer a font of knowledge, and Viva Scriva is no exception. Of course, there are the usual bits about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. That’s likely why you started your critique group in the first place. But there’s also the mojo factor. What “feels right” when it comes to asking about, or revealing, the non-writer parts of the individuals in your group? I might want to pick your brain, but should I? I see three aspects to this form of “sharing.”

  • Factoids. Nearly every work-in-progress I’ve seen, even sci-fi or fantasy, is grounded in some aspect of reality. Your critique group members might have just the factoid you are searching for, which recently for me was whether chickens would use human hair as nesting material. I could have googled chicken behavior, which I did without much success, or interviewed a poultry farmer, which I didn’t try to do at all. Instead I had a quick conversation with a Scriva who happens to raise chickens. When it comes to most factoids, go ahead, pick your colleagues’ brains. Expect them to pick yours.
  • Emotions. This area gets trickier. Let’s say your manuscript involves a teenager who suffers from bi-polar depression, and you have no first-hand experience with this situation. First off, count yourself lucky! But then, what kind of comments should you expect from your critique group colleagues? What’s private? What should be shared for the sake of a better manuscript? We are not talking chickens here. We’re talking painful stuff. Perhaps it feels more comfortable to ask for, or convey, information one-on-one rather than in a group setting, or in an email rather than face-to-face. Pick brains with care.
  • Life. Yes, there is life beyond writing. And, yes, shit happens. Now we are talking definitely tricky. What’s intrusive? What’s supportive? The Viva Scrivas over the years have developed a mojo that I’d like to think recognizes that we writers are people first. When one of the Scrivas is going through a hard time, we want to be there for her. That’s part of who we are. But prying is not on the agenda.

I’m picking your brain now. What works for your group? What doesn’t? Happy writing!


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Welcome , November 28, 2015