Archives: November 2011

What do you REALLY want from a manuscript critique?

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 30, 2011
Categories: Critique Process
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I challenge you to give that question some thought.  The answer may surprise you.  The answer may change.  My own answers may help you attack the question.

I have gone to a paid manuscript critique hoping to be acquired. I was new at this business. I’d worked hard on my story (a picture book manuscript that has yet to see the light of day). I was psyched when Big New York Agent (aka BNYA) was assigned my piece.  I sat down and the first thing he said was that no one wanted any more ugly duckling stories and it was poorly written (as far as he could tell from skimming it in the two minute interval between the previous victim and myself) and that I should toss that thing in the trash.  I rallied with some questions about nonfiction (my other genre at the time) and our little tete-a-tete finished up with BNYA saying something like, “Well that’s a cool idea assuming you could write it, but judging from this manuscript, you can’t.”  Ouch! (P.S. Now I have a Nice New York Agent known as NNYA, who pulled me out of the slush pile.  I’ll keep him!)

I have gone to a paid manuscript critique to get ten-minute access to the brain of a publishing professional.  I survived the horror of BNYA and figured out that the beauty of the conference critique with agents and editors is the opportunity to get their unique perspective. It’s not the place to get in-depth critique on a manuscript.  Instead, you get to see your manuscript filtered through a brain that has been through the slush piles.  She’s seen what’s being acquired and what’s not.  She knows what’s trending, what’s unique, and where your book might (or might not) fit.  You should believe that editors and agents really can tell a LOT about your entire 90K word novel from the first ten pages.  Pay attention to the off-hand comment.  I had one editor tell me that she was keen my idea of a updated version of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Huh?  My novel didn’t go that way at all, but I realized that I had used the word “knight” meaning that my MC would become a champion in his new world, but there was nothing medieval about the universe.  I changed “knight” to “archer” and that change of word and mindset altered the entire novel for the better.

I have asked someone to read a manuscript hoping to be praised and encouraged. There is nothing wrong with this.  Sometimes we need a pep talk and a high five.  When new writers ask me to read something I try to sense the vibe behind the question.  Are they wavering with this piece?  Do they wonder if it is worth the effort of finishing?  Sometimes what we need to hear is YES!  Finish the thing!  Are there things to work on?  Sure.  But right now, believe in it.  Finish it.

I have hoped for insight into problems I couldn’t figure out how to solve.  I often have very specific directions for the Scrivas when I hand over a manuscript.  Most recently, I was struggling with the POV in the Angel Punk novel.  I asked for them to focus on that piece of the puzzle.  Good critique partners can offer multiple solutions to manuscript issues.  Often that will help you focus in on the right one for you.

I have sent manuscripts hoping for the toughest of tough love.  Just today, I got back comments on the first 2/3 of Angel Punk from the other writers on the team.  (Hence the inspiration for this post.)  I have to admit that I wish they’d been a little harder on me. Seriously.  I’m glad that they are feeling good about the way the novel is shaping up, but I know how much work it needs, and I was ready for a lot more meat.  I’m new to the team so they might be being careful not to scare me off, but I told them they were pussycats (those big guys) compared to the Scrivas.  The thing about the in-depth and gloves-off critiques of the Scrivas is that when they do praise something – and they always do – I feel like I’ve won a marathon.  When the Scrivas say I’ve done well then, dammit, I’ve nailed it!


What do you want from a critique?





The Gift of Recommended Reading

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: November 28, 2011
Categories: Craft, Inspiration
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Sam-Nana readLet’s face it. I’m never going to be able to read everything I want to and still have the gazillion hours I need to write my next book. Not even when grandson Sam and I spend together time getting lost in our individual stories. Not happening. No way.

The books I choose to read now are often on a list of the top ten this or the five best that, which goes against my usual tendency to browse the bookshelves and decide for myself.  Writing is work, and sometimes reading is as well. There are some books I simply must read. Many of them are excellent, which is the reward for all that  eyeball time.

I mine Viva Scriva meetings for recommended reading, particularly because the Scrivas know exactly what I’m writing. Sara Ryan’s The Rules for Hearts is by my bedside with Amber’s suggestion to look at the “quiet girl” who resembles the main character in my sequel to Blue Thread. I devoured Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution on Scriva advice that I look at the time travel of a modern girl back to 18th century Paris (my sequel involves a 1960s girl and 11th century Paris). You get the picture.

It goes both ways. I suggested that Sabina read Ruta Sepetys’s Between shades of gray and Robert Sharenow’s The Berlin Boxing Club because one of her writing projects includes historical fiction from World War II.  What you read does inform what you write. Recommended reading can be just the critique you need.

Congratulations, Scriva Liz! FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC wins Silver Honor from Eureka!

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 17, 2011
Categories: Other Topics
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The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart

By Elizabeth Rusch; Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher


Each year, The Eureka! Committee and the California Reading Association’s Board select a variety of excellent nonfiction children’s books to recognize and celebrate the genre. Award recipients were announced in a Eureka! Award session at the California Reading Association’s recent fall Professional Development Institute. The full list of recipients will be posted soon on CRA’s website,, and listed in the winter issue of the California Reading Association’s journal, “The California Reader.”

Welcome ScrivaMichelle!

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: November 16, 2011
Categories: Other Topics
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Comments: 1 Comment

The Viva Scrivas are proud to announce a new member to our group and to the blog: Michelle McCann. ScrivaLiz met Michelle more than a dozen years ago, when Michelle was a children’s book editor at Beyond Words. In fact, Michelle acquired Liz’s first children’s book, Generation Fix: Young ideas for better world. Soon after, Michelle went on maternity leave and didn’t end up editing the book, but Liz and Michelle hit it off and began meeting regularly to critique each other’s work. Nicole joined them briefly just before Michelle took a hiatus from writing to concentrate on editing and on her family. But writer Michelle is back, and we are thrilled to have her! Here’s Michelle’s bio and a list of her books:

Michelle Roehm McCann has worked as a children’s book editor and art director for more than twenty years, shepherding hundreds of children’s books into print. She has also written and compiled seven award-winning children’s books of her own. Michelle received a BA from Brown University, an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College, and currently teaches about children’s books and publishing at Portland State University. Michelle lives in Portland, Oregon with her family, their two cats, two rats, and one leopard gecko.

Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen (Tricycle Press/Random House, 2003)
Going Places (Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 2003)
Finding Fairies (Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 2001)
Boys Who Rocked the World (Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 2001)
Girls Who Rocked the World 2 (Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 1998)
Boys Know It All (Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 1998)
Girls Know Best (Beyond Words Publishing/Simon & Schuster, 1997)

The Joy of Running [Writing]

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: November 16, 2011
Comments: 2 Comments

Drops fall and course along my cheeks. I reach my hand and, for the nth time, squeeze sweat from strands of hair on either side of my face. It’s alright, my run is nearly over. Dry hair is coming.

Those who know me well are surprised at this new development in my life. Running. Yeah. Voluntarily. Me.

While I’ve done my fair share of running for buses in car-less days, I’ve never cared for running. Yet I’m not a couch potato, though I can spend the happy rare day curled up reading. I like to walk, hike, bicycle, scull, stretch/do yoga, ski.

Ah, skiing…! I started skiing six years ago when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, and soon became an addict. Now the ski season is about to start and I’m not in good enough shape. As several people through the years told me that running is a good way to get in shape, I took the plunge and started to run.

Punctuating a two-mile loop with four walking stretches, I aimed to run it without stopping eight days later. I surprised myself by meeting my goal, and, having built up endurance, actually enjoyed the run. I’m now increasing the distance, varying the route, thinking some about speed, and integrating a nearby hill that’s a workout even just to walk.

When I starting running, I could only look at the road in front of me, raising my eyes just to see how far to the next immediate goal. Some days are still like that. Other days, I can enjoy my surroundings and even greet passers-by. Braving the hill, my eyes are glued to the path again. I’m pushing myself, and the pushing takes a lot out of me.

A couple of refrains, words or pictures, regularly play in my mind as I run: “Legs and lungs, lungs and legs,” as a mountain-climbing friend told me. And: “Heather!” as in Meadows Ski Resort’s Heather Canyon. My second season skiing I was advised to stay off Heather Canyon until I was a better skier. I ski it now, but get tired. My goal in running is to be in such good shape that I don’t need to stop and rest when I ski Heather. I’ve got a ways to go, believe me. I plan to continue to push myself—running, bicycling, and otherwise working out—throughout the season and afterward, too.

So what does any of this have to do with writing?

It occurred to me that writing is a lot like running. Writing can be fun, but it isn’t necessarily. If it’s important to us, we have to keep doing it anyway. Though one can write just for writing’s sake (that’s what I do when I journal), the writing we do as authors is writing with a lofty goal. We each have a “Heather Canyon” at the forefront of our minds: the book we want to accomplish.

Once when I was doing a school visit, the teacher asked the children: “Wouldn’t it be sad if Sabina had gotten tired of writing and revising and we wouldn’t have The Impudent Rooster?” The children’s faces were priceless as they envisioned this tragedy, then were grateful that I had persevered, the tragedy had been averted and everyone could relish The Impudent Rooster.

I remember that teacher’s question sometimes when I write. Right now, I may wonder whether any of it is worth it, whether it matters that my book exists. I may wonder whether how the story should unwind, and whether I can write it well enough to accomplish what I intend. But then I think of people who one day may tell me that my book, which so often almost didn’t get written, somehow mattered for good in their lives.

In the book of Hebrews in the Bible it says that Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross. Can you imagine it? All that pain (it is from this method of execution that we get the word “excruciating”) was borne for the sake of joy. For the sake of Heather Canyon and the rest of the mountain, for my joy in skiing, I endure the running—coming to find enjoyment in it too along the way. For the joy of one-day readers who may be inspired, affirmed, encouraged, changed, by my books, I endure the sloughing through doubt and questioning and plenty of plain hard work.

There are many reasons why writers write. Ultimately, though, I think that’s why we do it: for joy.


-Sabina I. Rascol


Do you know your Reading Bias?

by Addie Boswell
Published on: November 15, 2011
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Comments: 1 Comment

Recently ScrivaAmber submitted a manuscript written in two points of view: a sarcastic male teenager, and a charming twelve-year old girl.

I was drawn to the teen character and wanted more of his voice. ScrivaLiz was drawn to the younger character and wanted more of her. The rest of us split somewhere between those two poles. This split happens sometimes, and tends to tell the writer: either direction would work, which do you favor? But it made me think more about how we critique and the bias we bring to the table.

For the last three years, I’ve been reading almost strictly YA titles, leaning towards male protagonists and gritty plots. No surprise that I favored the teen. Maybe no surprise that I can be hard on Middle Grade Novels, which sometimes leave me lukewarm. Where’s the drama? Where’s the tension?

That critique group was kind of an awakening. As a reader, I suppose there will always be bias — or to put it more gently — personal preference, in reading. But it is good to recognize my own, and it made me wonder: does objectivity just get harder the more we work together? Can you get entrenched in your genre if you read too much of it? I remain glad that the Scrivas write and read in a range of genres, because it expands my personal repertoire. It took three years of reading the fabulous nonfiction titles of Liz and Amber to make me appreciate that genre, and even want to write one myself.  Maybe I’ll even understand steampunk one of these days…

A Compelling Case for Longer Picturebooks

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: November 10, 2011
Categories: Other Topics
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ScrivaLiz found this article in the School Library Journal to be so, so true…

Scathing Review of the Movie Mozart’s Sister

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: November 10, 2011
Categories: Other Topics
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ScrivaLiz just posted a scathing review of the film Mozart’s Sister on INK, Interesting Nonfiction for Kids…

ScrivaLiz is the author of For the Love of Music: The remarkable story of Maria Anna Mozart, the only nonfiction book on Wolfgang’s sister published in English.



If you want an insider look at what a Scriva retreat looks like…

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 8, 2011
Categories: Events
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… You can check it out here.

We wrote.
We revised.
We laughed.
We ran on the beach.
We drank hot apple pies.
We ate baked oatmeal.
We answered that crazy old phone.
We missed our ScrivaMary.

… Can’t wait until next time!

Guest Blogging at Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing: Master McBean’s Machine

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 1, 2011
Categories: Business of Writing
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I thought you might be interested in my guest blog at Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.  I love this blog and the twitter feed that goes with it.  Make sure you check it out!


Mastering McBean’s Machine (Or How to Find Your Way in the Publishing World)

If you’re like me, you write stories because you want people to read them.  That means tangling with the illogical, capricious, and sometimes downright unfair business of publishing.  Sometimes the behemoth resembles the Star-On/Star-Off Machine of Sylvester McMonkey McBean, but deal with it we must.  So here’s my absolute best advice for you with examples from my own fledgling writing career.
1.  Strive to improve your craft.
2.  Cultivate meaningful relationships.
3.  Learn everything you can about McBean’s Machine.
… click here for the rest.
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