Archives: May 2011

Innies & Outies: Respecting Differences in Critique Process

by Amber Keyser
Published on: May 26, 2011
Categories: Critique Process
Comments: 3 Comments

Recently Addie posted When Talking is Better Than Writing.  It really resonated with me because I am one of those people who will spew words about anything and everything.  I love talking about my work in progress with anyone brave enough to bear the onslaught.  So my comment was something like “Why the heck doesn’t everyone talk about their writing all the time?”  In her typically gentle way, Ruth reminded me, “Amber Dear, sometimes the work is fragile for a while.”

Hmm… Cogs turned in my head.  Yes, I could see that.  Sort of.  But I am not very fragile (usually) and my work/ideas can take a beating.  Then one of our brilliant readers sent an email that illuminated this cobwebbed corner of the writing process (and maybe my marriage, too!)

She said:

I have learned over the years that there are basically two major groups (though most likely there may be shades of gray in there as well). Inward processors and Outward processors.

I am in the latter group. Things make so much more sense when I can talk it out.

Innies get so upset when Outies want to talk before *they* are ready. Outies NEED to talk before they burst into flames.


I should have realized this before since I (like our reader claimed to be) am an outie married to an innie! It’s taken me a decade of marriage to be comfortable with the way my husband works through things and for me to realize that if I want to process out loud, I should grab an outie friend before I subject my husband to my unformed ramblings.

As for critique, I see now why one of my previous groups was so disastrous for me. It had a rule that the person being critiqued could not speak or ask questions.  I might as well have been hog-tied in the corner with duct tape over my mouth.  No asking questions?  No discussion?  It was stifling. Does that mean it was a flawed structure?  No.  It means it was a bad fit for me.

There are both innies and outies in the Scrivas.  Outies are more likely to bring an idea and run it by us before writing.  Innies may wait until the entire first draft is done to start sharing.  Sometimes we have heated discussions propelled by questions asked by the writer about her work.  Sometimes comments are shared and then allowed to lay fallow, taking shape in the writers mind slowly.

I think one of the secrets of Scriva mojo is that we each feel comfortable asking for the kind of eyes we need on a manuscript. Therein lies the key… the writer drives the discussion so that it takes shape in the way she needs it to take shape.


Law School, Critique, and Creativity

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: May 23, 2011
Comments: 2 Comments

case law

An eon ago in law school I studied the 1929 case of Hawkins v. McGee. Here’s the plot: Hawkins injures his hand and goes to Dr. McGee. McGee says he’ll fix that hand as good as new. He does a skin graft from Hawkins’s chest, resulting in the hairiest palm you ever did see. Hawkins is not a happy camper.

In class that day, my professor let me get nice and comfortable arguing for poor, hairy-palmed Hawkins. Then, bam! He forced me to defend Dr. McGee. Unfair! How could I make the case for such an unscrupulous quack?

Now I see how well my law professor would have fit into Viva Scriva. The Hawkins-McGee flip pushed my brain to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Discomfort puts our brains on alert. It can spark curiosity, if we are lucky—or fear, if we are not. Too much discomfort and we freeze. Too much comfort and we stagnate. The mental gymnastics of a Hawkins-McGee exercise helps us to find the right balance that keeps us moving. It’s a way to shake up the primordial soup that nourishes creativity and sustains a good story.

A critique group session works best for me when it travels into the discomfort zone and then assures me that I’ll somehow manage to turn my discomfort into a better manuscript. So my advice to you: Get comfortable with discomfort. Argue the other side. And watch out for skin grafts.

Editing and Boot Camp

by Addie Boswell
Published on: May 20, 2011
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Pulling on an old pair of pants, I was surprised that they fit better.  Well, what do you know? This made me think of my novel. Let me explain. For the last three months, my partner and I have been following the P90X regime, a ninety-day full-body workout program with a cult-like following. Besides the brutality of the workouts (prison cell push-ups, squat jacks, seated crunchy frogs), one is instructed to take photos “in progress.”

As you might expect, the first photos were appalling and deflating. But we kept on. On the second month’s photo, we could see marked improvement. In fact, we were starting to look like we thought we looked at the start. Great. It was only in the third month that something magical happened. Clothes started fitting better. I could feel my abs. (First time ever.) And while I continued to dread the work-outs, I didn’t struggle against them so much.

As goes writing. For the last three years, I’ve been working on my first YA novel. I submitted the first draft to the Scrivas with starry eyes. They had lots of positive things to say, but there were multiple large problems. I left the meeting shell-shocked (see Nicole’s definition of PCSD). What a mess: where was I to start? But, after a couple of months, I sucked it up and kept on. On the second draft, the critique narrowed to a few problem areas. Now, on the third major draft, the writing is leaner and faster. Sometimes things fit together so well I get a little electrical charge. “It’s getting close…” the Scrivas say.

I am not a patient creature. Left to my own devices, I would have submitted my novel to publishers months ago, long before it was ready. Along with learning how to write, I am learning discipline. One crunchy frog and one sentence at a time.

When Talking is Better than Writing

by Addie Boswell
Published on: May 18, 2011
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Comments: 6 Comments

Holly Black spoke recently at the SCBWI-WWA Conference in Redmond, WA. Her keynote was excellent, based on a topic that seemed at first, well… simplistic. Her problem was plotting — not knowing where to start or what to do, even when great advice was given. The solution she happened upon? Talk therapy. When talking through the plot with friends or writers, she could distance herself from the book to see the major themes and edits needed.

I tried it that night, talking through my protagonist’s motivation problems with my partner. He asked one (rather obvious) question. It opened the book’s plot up for me. Next week, I talked it over some more with ScrivaMelissa, who knows the ms well. Now I had more clarity than I had in months of reading books and making charts. Full steam ahead on the writing!

The Scrivas have, unconsciously, adopted this method into the critique group. This year, we added an opt-in: If you don’t have a ms to critique on a given month, you can reserve your 20 minutes to talk about whatever you want. New stories, plot problems, querying agents, even life itself. We added this because our output varies drastically. While some Scrivas are on strict editing/publishing schedules, others are deep in the heart of first drafts, where critique can kill the momentum. And then there are those “life trumps book” moments (see Sucking it Up). The talk option allows us all to stay in touch with our characters and each other, even when the Muse is hiding under the couch.

A quick exercise: Talk your Way to a Great HOOK

I use this exercise with my writing students to practice hooks (which I find torturous to write.) All you need is  a partner, a piece of paper, and a stopwatch set for three minutes. The listener starts the watch and GO!

Talker: Pitch your book as best you can. Keep talking for the whole three minutes. (I’ve listed some talking points below if you get stuck).

Listener: Don’t say a word or ask a question, but DO take notes. Jot down anything that grabs you or sounds especially relevant or unique. When time is up, compose your notes into a short paragraph. Read the paragraph back to the talker. “What I heard you saying is…” This quick blurb becomes an INSTA-HOOK! Or at least a good first draft.

Have you described….
your character
their motivation and goals
how s/he grows and changes
the setting
the major problem
the plot
the pace
the driving question of the story
why it is unique to the genre
what compelled you to write it

Generosity and Spreading the Wealth

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: May 16, 2011
Comments: 1 Comment

I recently got a wonderful email from ScrivaAddie that reminded me of an important part of our critique group. We look out for each other and share career boosting opportunities with each other. I am working on a picture book biography on glass artists Dale Chihuly and ScrivaAddie sent me a link to a grant offered by The Creative Capital to support literary work that addresses contemporary art. PERFECT!

In addition to giving me a warm-fuzzy that Addie was thinking about me, my work and my career, it is a really great tip and I am going to apply for the grant. Thanks so much Addie! 

Addie’s generosity reminded me of how often I think of the Scrivas and send them notices of upcoming workshops, talks, presenting opportunities, and even writing jobs. We all want all the Scrivas to succeed and we back up that feeling with real tips, help, ideas, suggestions and leads. It is a big part of what makes our critique group special…

Elizabeth Rusch

PCSD (“Post-Critique Stress Disorder” and What to Do About It)

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: May 13, 2011
Comments: 2 Comments



You know you’ve felt it—the tensing up of the fingers as pools of sweat build at your temples, while your eyes stare blankly at the computer screen, moving from there to the many margin notes and cross-outs scrawled all over the freshly-critiqued manuscript you just received back the day before…

There’s no denying it.  You’ve come down with a case of PCSD, otherwise known as Post-Critique Stress Disorder.

But what can you do about it?  Never fear, because the Scrivas are here to help!

It’s very normal to feel bewildered and a little lost (or very, very lost) when you return to your story right after having it critiqued either by your critique group, an editor, agent, or published author at an SCBWI or other writing event, a paid critique person, or even your own editor or agent asking for revisions.  If you don’t happen to feel this way, that’s great!  You’ve bypassed the gauntlet of emotions that can sometimes happen, and you’re free and clear to whip that manuscript into shape.  But for many of us writers, rereading comments after a critique and applying them to our stories can be a daunting task that can sometimes make us feel like this:

  1. I’m a horrible writer and what am I wasting my time for?
  2. I’m not good enough to be among the other writers in my critique group and they probably wish that they could kick me out (or I’m not good enough to be at this writer’s conference and don’t belong here)
  3. I’m never going to make it (if you aren’t published yet)
  4. I’m finished and won’t ever publish again.  My other books were just a fluke. (Or I’ve lost my touch.)
  5. I’ll never be able to change genres, and I should just stick to non-fiction picture books (or whatever genre I’ve published in.)
  6. This story is terrible, and I should just give up.
  7. Oh, and did I say that I’m a horrible writer and what am I wasting my time for?

The list can go on and on, but you get the picture.  There are so many negative things that our “inner critic” can tell us, bringing us down.  Don’t listen to it!   Instead, you can try to overcome Post-Critique Stress Disorder with techniques such as these:

1.  Always think of THE WORK as a separate entity from YOURSELF.  Your manuscript is not you.  When it is being critiqued, don’t ever think of it as YOU being critiqued.  This is very hard for artists to do, but we must release our emotions over our manuscripts so that it can be shaped into the best piece of art it can be.

2.  Listen without speaking as your critique group, or whoever has critiqued your work, discusses your manuscript with you, and take all the comments in without judgment.  Now, hopefully you are having your manuscript critiqued by a professional who knows how to properly critique (bringing up what works and is positive about the piece as well as what could be improved).  If not, then the critique isn’t as meaningful, and you should get another opinion!

3.  Give yourself some “space” between you and your recent critique by waiting a few days before rereading over the comments given to you.  It’s amazing how you end up seeing the manuscript differently when you yourself haven’t read it in a while.

4.  Read your positive comments first (yes, there should ALWAYS be something positive about the piece) to give yourself courage to move on to what needs work.

5.  Write down all of your “inner critic’s” comments (like those negative ones mentioned above) and either burn them in the fireplace, throw them away, or stuff them into a box, never to be opened.  You are getting rid of them literally to free your mind up to the revisions ahead.  You don’t need all of that baggage.

6.  If you’ve had your work critiqued by a group, then when you do look over the critiques, notice where the comments “overlap.”  There is a reason why two or more people felt the same way about something.  This works for both positive comments and things that need improvement. “Overlapping comments” should be considered carefully and could be considered the beginning of a “revision roadmap” for you, helping to lessen the feeling of being “lost” when going back to your work.

7.  Be open to new ideas instead of fighting them.  It doesn’t hurt to try things a different way and then decide the best way for you. Remember, your work is your own, but always be open to new possibilities.  The best critique group (as well as other people critiquing your work) always want what is best for THE WORK, and are not out to hurt it or you.

8.  And finally, when all else fails, CHOCOLATE HELPS!  🙂

Happy revising!

-Nicole Marie Schreiber



Sucking it up

by Mary Rehmann
Published on: May 11, 2011
Categories: Challenges
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Comments: 2 Comments

Every once in a while I decide that I should drop out of Viva Scriva, the better to focus on my job as a first-year middle school teacher, meet the needs of my three kids, spend time exercising, complete some crossword puzzles, solve the energy crisis.  I spend a weepy evening composing my resignation email to the group.  Inevitably, I wake the next morning and, sometime between oatmeal and toothpaste, decide to suck it up and delete the unsent email.

I’m one of those over-committed people who juggle too many things, always flinching at the prospect of a dropped friendship, a missed assignment, a kid left at school (sorry, Andrew), or an unread manuscript.  The most amazing thing about a critique group, though, is that it provides a quiet space where all the energy lasers in on just one thing at a time.  The most amazing thing about the right critique group is that it provides the support and encouragement and focus and humor its members need.

Last month, I crafted a beautifully worded missive to my Scrivas.  I wish I could paste it here; it was touching, spare, heartfelt, and all that.  But I sucked it up, deleted it, and went to our monthly meeting the next night.  And there, I got to suck up their enthusiasm, collective wisdom, support, and a PBR.  I can happily report that I didn’t drop a single friendship or manuscript.  The energy crisis, however, remains unsolved.


Shout out to Janice Hardy at The Other Side of the Story

by Amber Keyser
Published on: May 10, 2011
Categories: Basics, Craft
Comments: No Comments

Come all ye interested in learning how to be an expert giver of killer revision suggestions. On The Other Side of the Story, Janice Hardy has some great tips and then a fascinating example of the interplay between critique and revision.

May 6th blog on how to give a good critique.

May 7th blog on critique in action.

On Getting to Know Your Writing Process

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: May 8, 2011
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Comments: 2 Comments

“Every writer has to develop her own process: what works for her time and time again. Having no process is like having no craft. It leaves you dangling out there over the abyss, a potential victim of writer’s block. Having no process puts you at enormous risk because writing becomes a threat instead of a joy, something that you are terrified to begin each day because you are at the mercy of a Muse that you do not understand how to beckon…Your job is to discover your own process…”

–Elizabeth George, Write Away

So the question I’ve been asking myself lately is: How should I incorporate my critique group into my writing process?

It’s tricky trying to answer this question, as I am still figuring out what my process is exactly. Do I write in the morning or at night? Every day or a couple times a week? Alone or with friends? Plot and plan or write “by the seat of my pants”? Finish a whole draft first or send in the first few chapters when I’ve got them? The questions can seem endless and now here I am adding another.

But perhaps the answer is simple. Perhaps it’s not only about timing. Perhaps communication is key!

This means that when I hand over a new piece, I need to be clear about what I’d like the Scrivas to read for. If I’m sending in something in the gestation phase and I need to bounce ideas around, I should ask my fellow group members to refrain from line edits. Similarly, if I need a good polish on a query letter that I want to impress agents with, then I need to tell ’em to have at it with the red pen.

The best part of figuring out my process with a critique group is being side by side with fellow writers and seeing how they work through their own processes. It can be inspiring to see a Scriva come back again and again with her own revisions or a chart of a novel’s narrative arc. It causes me to push myself harder, try new approaches, and ultimately, get to know my own work better.

Yes, it is important to know when it’s time to share your work with your first readers. But even more important may be the ability to communicate where you are at with the piece and what you’d like others to help you with. Then be flexible and open-minded with the feedback that you get. Who knows what you may learn about yourself, and your writing process, along the way?


What the heck is a platform? Do I need a saw?

by Amber Keyser
Published on: May 4, 2011
Categories: Business of Writing
Comments: 7 Comments

I belong to a Yahoo group called NFforKids, dedicated to discussions about writing nonfiction for young readers.  In a recent discussion thread, we’ve been discussing (1) involvement in social media and (2) platform.  The two topics are closely related in my mind because effective involvement in social media (as a professional as opposed to strictly for fun) is about creating a brand or platform for oneself and still being real (that’s critical).

Inspired by a great workshop by Deborah Reber at SCBWI-WWA a few years back, the Scrivas held a working session to develop our “brands.”  At first I struggled to combine my nonfiction books about science and my fantasy/adventure fiction.  Now some might council that I use a pen name for my fiction and keep the two separate, but that would mean twice the work, right?  I mean, who has the time to maintain a social media presence for two online persona?

As we worked through a variety of exercises (including writing mission statements), I focused on the connections.  I like being a scientist because it’s about understanding how the world works.  I like writing fiction because it’s about understanding how people (and by extension, the world) works.  I use “story” to bring nonfiction to life, and I insert natural history (science) into my fiction at ever turn.

These realizations inform the way I decided to present myself on my website and in my interactions on social media.  I write about science and adventure for young readers because I’m trying to understand how the world works.  It’s been incredibly powerful for me to figure out what drives my curiosity and dedication to writing.

Go ahead, try it!  Explore your brand.  It’s not crass.  It’s empowering.  Who are you?  What are you bringing to the world?

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