Archives: October 2011

The Lone Voice

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: October 27, 2011
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According to the Web (a dubious authority), Mahatma Gandhi, a great leader and master of nonviolent resistance, once said: “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” That may be so in many cases, but not for critiquing someone else’s writing. I’ve been the minority of one in Viva Scriva, so I should know.

While there are truths galore in what is written, truth is a rarity in how it is written. GandhiYes, we have rules for grammar and punctuation, and guidelines for such components as narrative arc, point of view, and character development. But the only truth I can think of rests in whether a piece of writing has done the hard work of conveying something that the reader completes in his or her mind and gut.

As a reader, I can say if something “rings true.” As a critiquer, I can venture an opinion why. Certainly, every opinion—including the lone voice—contributes something in a critique group. That’s a given. But when no other Scriva sees things my way, it’s definitely time to give my perspective a second look. What have I missed? What can I learn? That’s the beauty of a critique group. Every time you participate, you have an opportunity to receive more than you give. And that’s the truth.

Women Channeling Teenage Boys

by Addie Boswell
Published on: October 24, 2011
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S.E. Hinton knows boys, in the Outsiders.

This year, the Scrivas have featured quite a few teen and preteen boy characters in our novels, along with multicultural, historical, and superhero characters of both genders. Considering that we are white, middle-class women spanning the middle decades (as many childrens’ writers, librarians, and teachers tend to be), I believe we do a good job of letting our characters speak in their own, distinctive voices.

But the fact remains: we’ve never been teenage boys.  And raising them, or befriending them, or having them as brothers and boyfriends (even wanting to be them, in my case) is not the same as walking the walk. When writing my current YA novel, I sometimes wondered if I was getting 16-year-old Carlos’s reactions “right”? And also, in an edgy, coming-of-age boy book, is it honest to avoid cursing and sex and (god forbid) masturbation altogether?

Even in fiction, writing “true” means doing your research. It is a lesson I have learned well, for Scrivas are painstaking and thorough when researching their nonfiction and historical fiction titles. This is what most helped me get closer to boy-think.

  • Read what boys are reading. There is a common belief in publishing that boy readers skip YA altogether and go straight to adult fantasy and nonfiction. But I hope not, because it would be a shame to miss the excellent body of YA “boy” books out there. One thing I loved in these books: Action Rules, plots move quickly, and dialogue is clipped and to the point. Note: I found sex and slang both understated; a little goes a long way.
  • Read kick-ass boy protagonists by kick-ass male authors. Some of my favorites: The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier, Chaos Walking series, Patrick Ness, Punkzilla, Adam Rapp, Tales of the Madman Underground, John Barnes, Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi, Whale Talk, Chris Crutcher, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Markus Zusak. I’ve read plenty of kick-ass boys written by women as well — find titles at Guys Read or Guys Lit Wire.
  • Watch teenage boys in action. Recently ScrivaMelissa and I met at Burgerville during high school lunch hour and observed the species up close. What slang! What quick speech and movements! (We almost saw a fight!) I also hung out with some Brazilian teenagers, and was amazed by how affectionate the guys were with each other. Into the book it all goes.

It goes without saying that that the children’s publishing industry needs more racial diversity and gender balance. I would love to see teenage boys writing about their own lives. But in the meantime, we women have work to do, and we will strive to do right by our characters.

Add Fudge Here

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: October 19, 2011
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In a critique group that has met for a number of years, different members become famous (within the group) for certain skills. Hilarious limericks roll off the tongue of ScrivaMary almost at will. ScrivaAddie can write intense YA scenes that stop you from breathing. (True, you might actually gag, but that is the reaction she’s going for.) And ScrivaNicole writes Fudge.

Yes, fudge. Sweet, amazing, rich, addictive descriptions that you can down without being aware of what you are doing. ScrivaNicole’s fudge is so intoxicating that you forget that as a responsible critiquer, you are supposed to be thinking and analyzing the writing and the story. You just keep reading and reading and reading, getting lost in lush descriptions of her fictional world. You finish a submission, lick your fingers and rub your tummy, hardly remembering that you were critiquing at all.

All the Scrivas have experienced this. So now we have a new saying: Add More Fudge. We laugh when we offer it as a suggestion, but we all know what it means. It means write more vivid description, using all the senses. It means drop me in your world. It means make your fictional world so real, so vivid that I forget my own world.

We can’t all make fudge as well as ScrivaNicole. But we sure can try.

Yum, Yum.

Elizabeth Rusch

Writer’s Groups Throughout History- Thoughts from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: October 13, 2011
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Orchard House- where Louisa May Alcott wrote LITTLE WOMEN

During a recent family trip to Boston, Massachusetts, I was able to make my pilgrimage to Concord (yes, I’ve gone several times in my life already) to Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott where she wrote one of my all-time favorite classic books, Little Women.

While I stood inside Louisa’s bedroom and stared at the half-moon wooden desk her father built for her where she wrote all 400-plus pages of what was at first two books, each called Little Women and Good Wives, it got me to wondering– Did she have a critique or a writer’s group?  Who did she share her early drafts with? Did she share them with members of Concord’s literary society, like her family’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson? Her own father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who was a writer and social/educational reformer in his own right?  Neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne?  Family friend, Henry David Thoreau?

I do know that Louisa shared her early writings (her “theatricals”) with her sisters, as they performed them when they were young and lived in the house next door to Orchard House, which is now known as The Wayside but was then known as Hillside to the Alcotts.  She also began Flower Fables here, which I can’t imagine her not sharing with her sisters.  In Little Women, Jo is seen reading her work quite a bit to her sisters.  I can’t help but wonder if they ever offered advice or critique to her.  It’s very possible that they, or some of the others mentioned above, did.


The Wayside- known as Hillside to the Alcott girls when they lived there from 1845-1848


The Wayside in 1845 when it was known as Hillside



I always feel a sense of kinship with famous writers of the  past whenever I learn about their writing processes, and knowing whether or not they were part of a writing group brings about that same feeling since I am a member of Viva Scriva.  Having a group to either critique with, bounce around ideas with, or just have a sense of artistic camaraderie with is such an important part of my writing career, and I am fascinated when I find other writers who were part of a group themselves.

After my visit to Orchard House an my thoughts about Louisa, I decided to Google famous writer’s groups, and here is a small list that I found.




The Eagle and Child pub- the meeting place for The Inklings

The Inklings

 (According to Wikipedia– “The more regular members of the Inklings, many of them academics at the University, included J. R. R. “Tollers” TolkienC. S. “Jack” LewisOwen BarfieldCharles WilliamsChristopher Tolkien (J. R. R. Tolkien’s son), Warren “Warnie” Lewis (C. S. Lewis’s elder brother), Roger Lancelyn GreenAdam FoxHugo DysonR. A. “Humphrey” HavardJ. A. W. BennettLord David Cecil, and Nevill Coghill. Other less frequent attenders at their meetings included Percy BatesCharles Leslie Wrenn, Colin Hardie, James Dundas-Grant, John David Arnett, Jon Fromke[2] John WainR. B. McCallum, Gervase Mathew, and C. E. Stevens. Guests included author E. R. Eddison and South African poet Roy Campbell.”)

The Bloomsbury Group

 (According to Wikipedia– “This English collective of friends and relatives lived, worked or studied near Bloomsbury in London during the first half of the twentieth century. ‘Although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts’.[2] Their work deeply influenced literatureaestheticscriticism, andeconomics as well as modern attitudes towards feminismpacifism, and sexuality.[3] Its best known members were Virginia WoolfJohn Maynard KeynesE. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey.”)



Algonquin Round Table

(According to Wikipedia– “Members and associates of the Algonquin Round Table: (l-r) Art SamuelsCharles MacArthurHarpo MarxDorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott“)



Shakespeare And Company Writers

(According to Wikipedia– “Writers and artists of the “Lost Generation,” such as Ernest HemingwayEzra PoundF. Scott FitzgeraldGertrude SteinGeorge Antheil and Man Rayspent a great deal of time at Shakespeare and Company, and it was nicknamed “Stratford-on-Odéon” by James Joyce, who used it as his office.”)


Wow!  What a list!  And this is only the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure.  Yes, there are writers who really do work without other people’s input, but since writing is so solitary, having the right group to be a part of can really keep writers inspired, encouraged, and part of something greater than themselves as well as help their work be the best it can be.

I’m so thankful to my Scrivas for being my “sisters”and listening to my “theatricals,” just as Louisa’s listened to hers.  I definitely recommend joining a writer’s group, and if the first one doesn’t work out, try, try again.





“In MY Version of Your Story,” Revisited

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: October 12, 2011
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Back in August, Addie wrote about the importance of not imposing one’s views when critiquing a manuscript. [Read her post here.] Everything she said is worth studying and thoughtfully applying.

And yet… At the risk of sounding like the wolf in Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, I want to offer some additional thoughts to stand alongside the important things Addie said.

Yes, dear reader, I am the “In MY version of your story” Scriva. The phrase arose some years ago, before Viva Scriva existed, when Nicole and I met weekly to write. At times we discussed our works-in-progress. Nicole had begun her novel Mercury’s Daughter, set in 16th century Flanders and involving astronomy and lace-making.

You know how sometimes you read a book, or see a movie, that’s so intriguing you keep mulling it over? Nicole’s novel was that good. However, it wasn’t finished yet! So, nature abhorring a vacuum, my brain raced ahead with how the story might develop. In one place, I married elements present in the story to felicitously resolve later matters.

There’s good trust and friendship between us, so when I blabbed to Nicole about the thing I’d imagined as though it was in fact in her book, we both got a kick out of it. Just recently, I learned she liked my idea so well she’s using it.

“In MY version of your story” acknowledges that what I’ve come up with is not necessarily what you are doing. It’s a possible path your story can take, an option for you to consider—if it rings true to you, if it inspires you in the direction you want to go. If you like it, great, use it. If you don’t, no problem.

It may have happened to you too. Problems are pointed out in a manuscript and you know exactly how to fix them. Occasionally, though, you’re stuck in the dark. The person critiquing doesn’t know how to fix the problem, either, but only that something isn’t working. Liz is famous among us for saying, “I don’t know how you’ll do it, but I know you can!” We love her confidence in us, and this has become a Viva Scriva catchphrase.

In our group, manuscripts can be, and are, submitted over and over. It’s a tremendous benefit we offer each other. Interestingly, we don’t weary of reading the same material, but marvel at the progress made as Scrivas revise per past comments. So we have more than one shot at resolving issues that don’t work. Still, at times doing so feels like playing Blind Man’s Buff, or that other children’s game where an object is hidden and you must find it guided only by cries of “Warm, cold, warm, warmer, HOT!”

That’s why I appreciate it when the Scrivas offer ideas about how to fix a problem—which, in fact, they do often enough. Of course, the Scrivas are seasoned and/or professional writers, not newbies learning how to critique or how to write at a professional level. Sometimes their ideas may be integrated as offered, or they can serve as a starting point for solutions that feel right to the writer. The crucial thing, what makes it work, is that ideas are offered, not prescribed or pushed on anyone.

It reminds me of years ago, when I lived with housemates as dear to me as sisters. When J. Lynne got married, three of us accompanied her as she shopped for a wedding dress. Upstairs in that elegant brownstone in South Philly, J. Lynne tried on a zillion dresses, then had to decide among her three favorites. What did we think?

It turned out that each of us liked a different dress best. That was good. “It frees me to pick the dress I really want,” she said. And she did. It wasn’t my contender, if you’re wondering. She looked absolutely beautiful anyway.

But enough about that. Let’s talk now about my version of YOUR story…

-Sabina I. Rascol

Liberate Your Story By Placing Your Characters in a Web of Constraints

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 7, 2011
Categories: Craft, Creativity
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My current project is writing a young adult novel set in the Angel Punk universe.  Angel Punk is a transmedia project that uses a feature film, a comic book series, a fan engagement site, and a novel to tell interwoven but non-overlapping stories.  Here’s the teaser:

Power. Greed. Tragedy. Forgiveness. 

Angels Turned Mortal

A Supernatural World Divided

The Angel Punk saga follows Mara Layil on a journey of discovery as she’s unwittingly thrust into a millennia-old struggle between supernatural dynasties. This hidden world of ancient wonders and dark secrets forces the orphaned teen to accept her own incredible power and confront her family’s mysterious past.  Awakened to the truth, Mara must choose sides. Hidden assassins, shattered oaths, exiled eternals and warring Nephilim all play a part in the greatest supernatural conflict of all time.

The most common question I get asked is this one: “Did they give you an outline to follow?”  The subtext is either (1) if I did get an outline, doesn’t that undermine me as a creative person and (2) if I didn’t get an outline, do I fight all the time with the rest of the team?

I’ll answer the question and then get to the point of this post.  When I took the gig, I read the movie and comic scripts as well as the in-depth legacy (background) document on the universe.  It was a crash course in the characters, the mythology, the socio-political structure, and the history of all things Angel Punk.  I did not get an outline for the novel.

In initial meetings, we decided that the inciting event for the action of the novel should be the climatic scene of the movie.  The action of the novel would begin where comic book issue #3 ends.  And the novel would end when…  (I can’t tell you that!)  That was the extent of my “outline.”  Yet the plot is constrained by all of the other properties.  My story must be consistent with and extend the stories in the movie and comics.

OK. Finally, I’m at the point of this post.  Constraints are a good thing.  Every good story operates within constraints.  A story without them is a shapeless mass of whatever you’ve dumped out of your subconscious mind.  In other words, NOT a story.  It’s true that writers invent worlds, but the worlds have to have rules that are consistent.


Every world has physical laws (gravity, planetary orbits, etc), environmental conditions (weather, habitat, inhabitants), and rules that govern how plants, animals, and people behave.  Your story occurs in a particular time, at a season, in a place.  These are good constraints and you have to stick with them.  One key is to balance the strange with the familiar.  There has to be enough that is familiar for us to relate to but also be unique.  This is true whether you’re writing sci-fi or about the Inuit.  I adore Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, but the Keys to the Kingdom lost me because I never got grounded in the rules of the place.


Realistic characters are constrained in their choices by their history and their personalities.  Plot occurs when characters make choices.  They have to do things that are consistent with “who they are.”  You might want your character to jump a freight train because you need the plot to move to another city, but if she is too short (or too shy) to reach up into an empty boxcar, she can’t do it.  Boom – you are constrained.


We give our characters and our worlds histories.  Those histories must logically lead to the decisions characters make and to the structure of our worlds.  A war-torn people can not suddenly lay down arms.  You have to make me believe that is a logical outgrowth of the action.

The take-home message: your story is actually liberated by the constraints you place upon it.  Conflict is critical to a good story.  Placing characters inside of a system of constraints causes conflict.  The result is emotional truth.

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