Archives: April 2011

Ocean, Mountains, or Desert? DIY Retreats (and Baked Oatmeal for Breakfast)

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: April 30, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments

Come. Grab your calendar and something to drink. We’re talking Viva Scriva retreats.

Our group started with the monthly critique evenings that are at the core of our existence. As our respect, trust, and liking for each other as writers and people grew, we were ready for something more. We gathered therefore one evening in Liz’s artsy attic to discuss Process.

This was a potent meeting. We opened up about personal obstacles to writing. We imagined, then shared, what our theoretical business advisers might say about our writing careers (thanks for the exercise, Addie!). It connected us deeper, and left us wanting more. More time together to talk, discuss process, and especially, to write. So, like Queen Esther’s banquet, this gathering led to another: our first writing retreat!

We decided to do everything ourselves in order to save money and have exactly the kind of time we wanted. You can learn what we consider essential, and “taste” a Viva Scriva retreat, by reading all the way down.

That late February, the Scrivas hunkered down to write at a relative’s house in the Oregon desert. We fell in love with the location, and that place and time became our official “annual retreat.”

The benefit of a writing retreat is solid blocks of hours to work on projects. Oftentimes, new works are started and long-suffered works are completed. (I myself began my main work-in-progress at our second annual retreat. I love seeing the date and location underneath the title on the first draft: “2/20/2010, ——, Oregon”.) Working together spurs us on. It’s inspiring to look up and see other Scrivas furiously typing, marking up manuscript pages, or staring off into space gathering story threads. Then after our satisfying labors, we reconnect as people and fellow writers.

In 2010, to our February retreat we added one in May, then another in October. We learned that three writing retreats a year are wonderful, but not everyone will be able to make them. That makes us sad, since we like all being together.

This January, several Scrivas jaunting off to job interviews abroad or East Coast writing conferences, we couldn’t take additional time away for our beloved February retreat. It was a mistake. Scrivas became cranky. We needed and wanted together time to write, talk, and process. We’ve planned a make-up retreat, which took a lot of juggling around. (OK, this is where everyone pulls out her calendar…and hair.)

As we’re entering our third retreat year, we’ve come to see that planning retreat dates by ear doesn’t cut it. Each of us has too many things going on: school, family, religious, holiday, and work commitments, besides writing conferences. We hate missing retreats, or having a dear Scriva not attend because of previous plans. The Scrivas therefore decided on weekends “set in…paper,” when we will retreat henceforth. Early November and late February work best for us, with possibly a third retreat in early June for all who can make it. Now we can guard those dates from the other good things that invariably will beckon. On those weekends, we’re booked. It’s time for our books.



-A FREE OR LOW-COST PLACE TO STAY. So far, family and friends have opened their houses to us while they were away. Soon we will go on a retreat at the Oregon coast, Addie having found a rental that’s reasonable when split eight ways.

-AS FEW CARS AS POSSIBLE. One year, when only seven of us went, we all packed light and squeezed into one van. Except for missing Mary, it was wonderful. The best advantage of carpooling is continuing the mix of book, craft, and personal talk that is the never-have-enough-time-for Viva Scriva conversation.

-SIGN-UPS FOR YUMMY MEALS. Wouldn’t you like:

Sabina’s baked oatmeal, by popular acclaim become the official Saturday breakfast (leftovers to be enjoyed the whole retreat long)?

Nicole’s tea sandwiches and scones for lunch?

Vegetable lasagna, chili, or Liz’s soup (drop in hominy and your choice of goodies in chicken broth), for dinner?

On top of that, everyone brings whatever snacks she wishes to help us survive from one great meal to the next.


Self-serve breakfast for each person to partake of as she wakes, then moseys to a chosen spot to write.

A whole morning to write!

Lunch together and conversation. But we don’t linger.

More quiet writing time in the afternoon (with Scrivas perhaps shifting around so others can relish favored spots, like the loveseat overlooking a desert vista, or the couch in front of the fireplace).

(Scrivas go on walks or runs as they wish, in the morning or afternoon.)

In the evening, it’s time for cocktails and letting down hair as Amber pours. Margaritas? Lemon drops? Chrysanthemums?

After dinner, a joint activity. One time, we discussed the creativity classic Art and Fear. Another time, each Scriva crafted a strand of powerfully symbolic Writing Beads and shared their significance. (One of us will blog about Writing Beads in the future.)

Before leaving, everyone pitches in to clean the house (unless it’s a rental where the cleaning fee takes care of it).

-THANK YOU CARD AND/OR SMALL PRESENT (copies of Scriva books?) for the absent hosts, who have meanwhile been added to the Viva Scriva “Patrons of Art” Roll.

There it is, the Viva Scriva retreat. No patent is pending, so jump right in, be inspired by us to craft your own based on your needs and resources. And, because every person who has ever savored the Black Rock Baked Oatmeal invariably asks for the recipe, you may as well have it now. Now your cup—and bowl—can run over.

BAKED OATMEAL (adapted from recipe from Black Rock Retreat Center in Pennsylvania)

For eight people, and because we love the leftovers, I triple the recipe below. One third (a regular recipe) is made without milk for those who don’t do dairy, and goes in its own 9×9” pan. The doubled recipe gets a bigger 9×13” pan. Everything can be prepped the night before and popped in the oven by the first person to wake. Enjoy!

1 / 2 c. oil

1 / 2 c. white sugar

1 / 2 c. brown sugar

2 beaten eggs

1 c. milk

3 c. oatmeal (quick or regular)

1 t. baking powder

1 t. salt

2 t. cinnamon


Mix oatmeal with baking powder and cinnamon, then add raisins and milk. Combine this with the egg mixture. Spread into a greased (optional) 9×9” pan and bake 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees. You may add chocolate chips, chopped nuts, dried or fresh fruits or whatever to this recipe. Serve with milk as a cereal, or, warm or cool, as a coffee cake.

–Sabina I. Rascol

Community is the key to not-quitting

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 29, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments

Monday night ScrivaRuth, ScrivaLiz, and I attended the Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.  We sat together watching as writer after writer rose to accept awards and express their passion for creating through the written word.  We were part of a vibrant, inspiring community.

I was reminded of an Art Process session that the Scrivas held a few years back to discuss barriers to making art.


In Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland make the claim that the most important part of artmaking is not-quitting.  No small feat!  But they say two simple things may keep you going.  First, share your work with a group, and second, consider that group your primary audience.  Instead of the Newbery or Caldecott or Printz committee, focus on that group of skilled, supportive, passionate people that form your immediate writing community.

Viva Scriva does much more than critique craft.  We set goals and hold each other to them.  We buoy the discouraged and cheer the enthused.  We are both safe haven and task master. We are the audience.  When the Scrivas say I’ve hit the mark, I believe them!


Beyond Critique: Group Business Meetings

by Addie Boswell
Published on: April 27, 2011
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Comments: 1 Comment

The "pie chart" is one of my favorite assessment tools. I modified this from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.

It started one January with a conversation on Setting Goals. We all had goals in mind, of course, but we needed to write them down and be held accountable to them. So the Scrivas set aside a weekday afternoon to delve into career planning. I had been part of a Women’s Business Group for years, so I led the first meeting. For three hours, we brainstormed and scribbled and shared, emailing our finished goals to each other later.

The new year’s goal-setting meeting has become a loose tradition, but since then, the Scrivas have held business meetings on many other topics:

  • Writing a tag line/mission statement
  • Defining your writing ‘brand’
  • Analyzing the publishing career of writers you admire
  • Prioritizing writing projects based on a set of criteria

Some ideas come from conferences we attend or books and blogs we read, and some are areas of natural expertise. (I am always amazed by the knowledge and experience in this group.) So start thinking: What would you like to learn?  What do you have to teach?  And once you’ve come up with a list of topics, here are some very basic rules:

  1. Appoint a facilitator to bring the content, lead exercises, and keep time.
  2. Pick a venue you can get comfortable in. We tend to congregate at our houses, splitting a babysitter if needed.
  3. Share! Partnership exercises are great, and sharing and posting the end results will keep you accountable.
  4. Don’t mix business with critique. With busy schedules, its tempting to try, but critique time is sacred.  Set aside different hours for business.

Want to make your own pie chart? This is an especially good exercise to do when you’re feeling frazzled.

  • Divide a circle into eight slices. Label the slices: finances, work-life balance, professional growth, support & connections, motivation & inspiration, focus & clarity, work space, and energy out (otherwise known as marketing).
  • Ask yourself, “How do I feel about this aspect of my career at this moment?” Give each slice a score from 1 to 10. (10: it couldn’t get any better!!! 1: it couldn’t get any worse.) Note that this is not a ranking, so many slices can have the same score.
  • Fill in the slice based on the score you gave it, for the full pie chart effect. I like to also jot notes down while I’m thinking about each slice.
  • Finally, peruse your chart. If this was a wheel, how would it be rolling? Ka-Thunk, ka-thunk? Decide which areas or ‘slices’ you want to work on, and write down specific tasks to improve your scores.
  • Share with friends and loved ones. The pie chart is a great way to check in with your partner or your writing buddy. For a more general “life” chart, use these headings instead: Career, Finances, Spirituality & Personal Growth, Personal Space & Environment, Health, Fun & Recreation, Friends & Family, and Significant Other.

Finding the Right Venue for Critique Groups

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: April 26, 2011
Categories: Basics
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Comments: 1 Comment

I am a sucker for ambience when it comes to my writing.  I love to write in cafes reminiscent of Paris, where the smell of coffee and pastries are prevalent, and there is a hum of noisy conversation in the air.  I love libraries, both modern and historic, and surrounding myself with books as I write.  I love looking out a window at a pretty view while I write, whether it be looking at a garden, or the lights of a big city, or the spires of Prague from a hotel window (been there!), or the Pacific Ocean from a B & B.  I love sitting outside on my porch swing and writing among other historic homes while finches visit my bird feeders and children walk home from the school down the street.   I even have an antique Victorian desk in my bedroom that I have been writing at recently that is next to an Art Nouveau stained glass window (hung there over my regular window on a chain).

I want my writing space, wherever it may be, to feel and look a certain way.  Yes, I can write in the car (and I have) or while waiting at the doctor’s office (done that too), but my best writing never comes from that.   Luckily, I am not too, too picky about my ambience, and have it in abundance in numerous places around town and at home.

So it makes sense for me to talk about how to find the right venue for a critique group, since “place” is very important to me.  Is the perfect place the same for every critique group?  No.  Of course not.  But there are probably a few things to consider when deciding where the right venue is for your group to meet.


  1. What type of “ambience” is your group looking for?

Not everyone needs a certain artsy or “writer” ambience in a critique group meeting place, but I have to say that it certainly doesn’t hurt!  But if your group doesn’t care about such things, then anywhere with a big table, enough chairs or couches, a restroom, and preferably beverages (treats aren’t a bad idea either) would do the trick!

2.  How far is the meeting place from everyone?

This is an important factor to consider, especially when everyone lives in all different directions.  A most central and “middle” location is ideal, but if one person lives far and the rest live relatively close or in the same direction to one another, then one person may have to drive a bit farther.  I drive pretty far for our Scriva meetings (30 minutes in the suburbs), but I don’t mind since it gives me a chance to change from my “mommy” and “preschool teacher” persona to my “artist” and “writer” persona.  I also love the artsy vibe of the Portland city center very much, so I like going into the city once a month or so to be a part of it.

3.  Do you want a public establishment (café, restaurant, bookstore, library, etc…) as your meeting place or someone’s home?

Let’s face it, some people have better houses to have meetings in than others.  My house, though I love it, is small, and with two kids under the age of six, a crazy 2 year-old lab, stinky cats, and a lot of clutter and noise. My house is definitely not the best place for a critique group meeting.  But other Scrivas do have excellent spots in their home to have our group meet, such as a loft or an office within the home, or their kids are older and moved out, so the entire house is ours, or the kids are older and in school, so the entire house is ours yet again, etc…  I don’t mind going to another Scriva’s home for our meetings when we need to or we are having a different kind of meeting (we had a marketing series, for example, and met at ScrivaLiz’s house for a while once a month for a few months outside of our regular critique meetings).  I do love the vibe of a great artsy café, though, so I am glad that we meet at one for our critique meetings now.

Be sure that everyone feels comfortable with the choice, however.  Some may be uncomfortable at a person’s home when it comes to critiquing, and may want the neutral territory of a library or cafe.  What is most important is that everyone feels comfortable in the space, which leads me to number four…

4.  Be watchful of individual members’ noise thresholds.

My tolerance for noise is pretty high—it has to be!  I have two sons under six years-old, a crazy but loveable dog, and I teach two and three-year-olds.  Plus, my husband and I are kind of loud at home, too.  I do not live in a quiet household.

But that doesn’t mean that all of my beloved Scrivas can handle a lot of noise.  So it is best to take a poll and see how much background noise your group members can handle.  We Scrivas had to move from one café to another when it became too noisy for some of our members.  It all comes down to comfort again.  Everyone should feel like they are in a safe, comfortable environment, especially when they are being critiqued.  It’s hard enough to get your work critiqued.  Not being able to hear what works and what doesn’t work in a manuscript piece is a nightmare!

I hope my little bits of advice are helpful to anyone interested in forming the best critique group for you.  Happy critiquing!

-Nicole Marie Schreiber


Giving the full draft of a novel the Scriva treatment

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 23, 2011
Categories: Critique Process, Genre
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Most writers find the words to the left rather satisfying to write.  Of course, we also know that the end is never the end until the mss is pried from our zombie fingers.

When a Scriva finishes the first draft of a novel (or book length nonfiction), we usually want to get a global perspective from the other Scrivas.  It’s the only way to properly assess voice, story arc, plot consistency, character development, and other features that must be sustained throughout the entire piece.

To do this, we scrap our typical meeting structure and move into novel mode. We dedicate an entire meeting to the novel.  The writer prints and mails a full copy to each of us as far in advance as possible (ideally 3-4 weeks).  We each do a full read.  We try to resist line edits (difficult for Scrivas) because we know the details may change.  We’re reading for the bones.

Typically we provide overall feedback and pull out example passages that are really working (and therefore should be the writer’s model for revision) and ones that miss the mark.  It is helpful to suggest novels with similar features for the writer to read.

Our goals are to give the writer a concrete plan of attack for the revision and the encouragement to get right to it.


Scriva Structure-This is how we make the magic happen

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 22, 2011
Categories: Basics, Critique Process
Comments: 1 Comment

The Scrivas tend toward free-form in our meetings, but we do have some structure in place.

We submit mss via email 1 week prior to meetings.  These are critiqued on a first-come, first-served basis (Liz is almost always first!)  Late?  Scrivas try to read but are not obligated.  Almost all of us print the mss and mark up with ink.  Maximum length is around 30 pages.  We deal with whole novels in a different way (see tomorrow’s post).

Along with the mss, we ask for the kind of critique we want (line edits, help with voice, general comments on approach, etc).

We meet once a month, in the evenings, at an undisclosed location with coffee, cocktails, food, and chocolate!

During our two and a half hour meetings, we look at the number of mss we have (usually 4-6) and divide up the time.  If we have a lot of mss, one of us (usually me) gets out a whip to keep us in line. We don’t share our comments in any particular order though we try to take turns going first (and getting the fun of saying all the meaty stuff).

While receiving comments, the writer scribbles notes, asks questions, and generally participates in an in-depth discussion of the work.  We try to let each person finish comments, but often ideas are bouncing around like the Weasley brothers fireworks.

If you were at the next table, you would hear lots of laughter, weird comments like I’m not sure about the characterization of the desk or you’ve got to kill that guy, and frequently squeals.  You would never, ever hear sobbing.

Oh, and one of our favorite things is to see the mss again after revision.  Scrivas have read many of my mss four or five times.  It is incredible how we can take the chaos of a first draft, add several iterations of critique and revision, and reveal an exquisite order.  It inspires me every single time it happens in a Scriva mss.

Why You Can’t Join Our Critique Group…But Why You Should Start Your Own

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: April 19, 2011
Categories: Basics, Other Topics
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The most common question I get about the Viva Scrivas is: Can I join?

 I wish you could. I wish you all could join and reap the benefits of this incredible group. But the sad answer is that you can’t. Here’s why:

 The biggest reason is that we are full. We are at capacity. We have eight writers and about two hours a month to discuss critiques. If we all have manuscripts ready for comments, time is super tight. We get down to business, bam, bam, bam. We can’t even really handle eight full critiques in one session. Luckily it has worked out so that we usually have two to six manuscripts to critique. Even if we only have one manuscript, we easily fill the time and then some.

 Even if some members moved on it would not necessarily open a slot. We have been sharing each others work, triumphs, and frustrations for enough years that we have built a level of trust that we all depend on. If we did get small enough that we wanted to invite a new member, many of us have dear friends in mind that we think would fit well.

 But we do want you to have a critique group as good or better than Viva Scrivas. That’s why we started this website and blog. A great critique group can enrich your writing and your life in so many ways. You will become a better writer and a better editor. You will feel connected to a larger writing community. You will feel supported. You will be challenged. You will grow.

 There is a magic in a good critique group, but amazing, talented people are all around you—and you can brew the magic yourself.

 The Scrivas tease me for always saying this but: You can do it. I know you can.

Elizabeth Rusch

Miss Manners Meets Viva Scrivas

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: April 17, 2011
Categories: Critique Process
Tags:No Tags
Comments: 1 Comment

Cretiquette. It’s my fancy way of saying “critique group etiquette,” and it’s one of the main ingredients in Viva Scriva mojo. Although critique groups are more than the sum of their meetings, let’s focus on meetings for this blog. Cretiquette there will help your group to thrive. So, for starters…

1. Show up on time. If you can’t make it or will be late, tell someone in advance.

2. Attend a meeting regardless of whether you’ve submitted anything. In the rare instance that you haven’t to read a submission in advance, say so up front and offer to give additional comments to the author at a later date. Note: Ignore that last sentence if your group doesn’t submit in advance!

3. Take a few minutes to meet and greet. Writing is a business, but writers are people. We need schmooze time, and when a Scriva needs support, we are so there! But support can also come in a phone call or e-mail, or in person before or after the meeting.

4.  Check to see if anyone has to leave early.  If so, then let that person jump the queue.  If not, then take turns. Viva Scrivas usually present in the order in which they sent writing for review. First come, first served.

5. Ensure that everyone can present even if he or she hasn’t submitted anything for review. Perhaps a writing exercise? Or retreat plans? Or brainstorming a character? If you want meeting time without a submission, tell your group in advance.

6. Stick to time limits. You don’t need a stopwatch, unless you find out you do! Try one meeting with your eye on the clock to help people to focus on time constraints.

Viva Scriva meetings usually allow for twenty minutes per person. What happens when a Scriva has a 60,000-word manuscript to review? Good question. That’s a whole ‘nother blog.

When your submission is center stage:

7. Zip your lip, open your mind. Ask questions only as time permits. This is center stage, not the hot seat, and this is about your work, not you.

When it’s your turn to critique:

8. Describe what works in addition to what you think could be improved. Encourage, encourage, encourage.

9. Address the author rather than debate your viewpoint with another critiquer.

10. Stick to the highpoints, leaving copy edits or smaller changes for the author to review at another time.

11. Remember that there is no “right way” to tell a story.

12. Humor is honey. It can make the toughest critique stick in the mind of the author and taste sweeter.

“Etiquette,” according to Webster’s dictionary, comes from the French word for ticket.  Cretiquette is your ticket to success.


The Founding of the Viva Scrivas

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: April 15, 2011
Categories: Basics, Other Topics
Tags:No Tags
Comments: 3 Comments

I’ve been in critique groups before, for my magazine writing and for my children’s book writing. They faded away mostly because of busy schedules.

So in 2006, I found myself without a critique group but with a grave need for feedback on a number of picture book manuscript and a brewing middle grade novel.  I had met various people over the years whom I liked, respected, and admired. People who seemed like good writers, good critiquers, and good people. Niceness was a non-negotiable criteria. Funny a close second!

I thought of Nicole Schrieber, a graduate of Vermont College MFA in children’s literature. I knew two people from the program who told me to look her up when she moved to Portland from Los Angeles. I did and I liked her immediately. She joined another critique group in its last days, but it was enough time for me to tell that she was a talented writer and excellent critiquer. So I invited her. She brought along her friend Sabina Rascol, who had a delightful picturebook called The Impudent Rooster and more projects in the works.

I thought of Amber Keyser, who I met at an SCBWI conference in Seattle. We had both gravitated to the NONFICTION table at lunch time. We sat together and it was like the rest of the conference melted away. It was love at first sight. Here was a fellow mom, a scientist (I love science), and outdoor adventurer, and a children’s book author with this lovely book called Paddle My Own Canoe. I had kept her postcard about the book and now I had a reason to contact her. I did and she asked if her friend Ruth Feldman, a nonfiction kids book author who was writing a couple of middle grade novels, could also join. I said sure.

Then I contacted folks from another critique group that had petered out due to busy lives, new babies, new jobs. The clever, hilarious, talented Mary Rehmann was up for it. Yay!

I also knew of two amazing up-and-coming young writers. They had both served as interns/writers assistant to me so I knew first-hand that they were lovely, fun, and talented. They had commented on my work and I had seen their writing, so I knew they would be wonderful to have in the group. Melissa Dalton and Addie Boswell, who already sold her first picture book The Rain Stomper, joined us. Addie is also an artist and it’s such a wonderful viewpoint to have when you want comments on a picture book.

So I gathered all the emails, picked a place and time to meet, and the rest is history!

Interested in using critique to boost your craft? Blog coming soon!

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 12, 2011
Categories: Craft, Critique Process
Comments: No Comments

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