Archives: January 2012

Make your writers group a place of inspiration and hope in addition to a workshop of craft

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 30, 2012
Comments: 2 Comments

Every year, the Viva Scrivas hold a goal setting meeting.  Scriva Addie usually leads us in a series of activities designed to reflect upon the last year and create a plan for the new year. In the past, we’ve prioritized projects to work on, analyzed work-life balance, or identified strengths and weaknesses in our writer=small business owner activities.

This year, we ended up more like group therapy. There is discouragement among us.  The economic downturn has been hard on many of us – lost day jobs, fewer book sales, fewer school visits, glacially-slow acquisitions.  Many of us have had personal struggles.  We needed to vent, to share, to cry, and to re-focus on why we write when it is hard and hardly pays.

To start us out, Addie handed us each nine little slips of paper with the following words:

I really admire/am inspired by the way you…

The word(s) that come to mind first when I think about your writing are…

If I could wish anything for your writing life this year, it would be…

She asked us to fill one out for each member of our group including ourselves.  We put the slips of paper into envelopes and took them home to read later.

Wow!  Between our conversation yesterday and these slips of paper, I came away more focused, less troubled, and ready to take on the challenges of building a sustainable (both emotionally and financially) writing life.

I thought I’d share the list of words my Scrivas used to describe my writing.  I hope some of them will share their lists as well.

inspirational, on, more, razor-sharp, relevant, precise, powerful, strong, amazing VOICE, empowering, exciting, cutting-edge, passionate, intense, thought-provoking, cinematic, soulful, gut-wrenching (in a good way), visceral, brash, fast-paced, adventurous, edgy, creative, punchy, tight, interesting

 It’s important to remember why we do this AND that we can do it well.  Remember!


Managing the Monster

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: January 27, 2012
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O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, scene 3. The line was spoken by the villain Iago, who used jealousy to advance his own ends—but, still, Iago got it right. Jealousy toys with us cruelly and then eats us alive.

We writers tend to be a kind bunch, a welcoming and supportive community. Still, we wouldn’t be human if at some point, in the blissful sunflower field of compassionate companionship, there didn’t arise—horrors!—that green-eyed monster. We are suddenly green with envy, sick at heart.

Let’s be frank. This is the season that breeds jealousy. It’s the season of awards and top ten lists. It’s the season of choosings. It’s the season of not being chosen.

I’m in the fortunate position of being ineligible for any awards this season, but I’ll bet by this time next year, jealousy will have at me. So I’m sharing my counterattack in advance. Remind me when you see that soul-snagging look in my eyes.

1. Give the monster one minute. A clinical social worker once explained to me that emotions rush through our hormonal systems faster than we can stop them. Let them happen guilt free and panic free. It’s easier to get rid of them that way.

2. Sit quietly and breathe! Get ready for a shift.

3. Use left-brain strengths (language, logic) to reframe the picture, revise the narrative, change the point of view. We are writers, folks. We can do this better than most people.

4. Widen your focus. That’s where Viva Scriva works best for me. The more I identify with the successes of the awesome writers and artists in my critique group, the less likely I am to feel jealousy. I might not have won something, be one of the Scrivas did. So nah! And it’s a safe place to say, “None of us got that award? That totally sucks!”

5. Competition is not jealousy. Allow yourself to feel competitive. You can rise to the challenge of writing as well as the writer sitting across the table from you. You will sink into an unproductive funk if you are jealous of him or her—for more than a minute.

One thousand one, one thousand two…

Dreams, Hopes, Goals …and just Being

by Addie Boswell
Published on: January 25, 2012
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It is that time of year. Time to clean out the cobwebs, recommit to lost intentions, and generally look at your life afresh. By the first week of January, I’ve usually written a new business plan with goals and objectives, color-coded my new planner, set income projections, figured my taxes, consulted the Tarot and made a vision board for the year. (I love to plan.) But this year I’ve been running into the idea of letting it all go. First, the Scrivas shared this post by Jeff Korhan: Forget Goals – Plan for Being Happy in 2012.  Then the New York Times kicked January off with the laughable success rate of both Resolutions and Dieting. Sabina recently wrote this post about the need for intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. And all of this is striking a chord with my own growing frustration: my career is in a bit of a rut and I need to approach something differently.

My mother says if you run into the same person three separate times, it means they have a message for you. I would say the same thing of ideas. The message I’m taking for myself is to stop thinking so much about the outcomes and returns I want and reconnect to the process.  For  what I want more than anything is to be absorbed and enlivened by my work.

Is it as hard to change your perspective as it is to change your waistline? Can I let go of my propensity for daily lists? I’m not sure. But the Scrivas are having our annual business and goals meeting next week, and the conversation will continue.  These are some of the questions we will be reflecting on.

  • When you look back on your career in 2011, when were you the happiest?
  • Why do you continue to write?
  • What can you offer the world that no one else can?


Who’s on First? What’s on Second? (Part II)

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: January 21, 2012
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Part Two: Who gives comments first?

If you’ve given many verbal critiques in your life, you know that it can be a bummer to be the last person to speak. Everyone has already said everything you were going to say! The only thing worse is if you are ALWAYS thelast person to give a critique.

So how can you make sure this doesn’t happen in your critique group? It depends on your group.

If you are all considerate, thoughtful, self-aware people, you might not have to do anything formal. Someone excited to give comments will start and you jump around as people volunteer. Or after someone starts, you go around the table from there. This works if no one tries to go first or second more than once. (This is mostly how the Scrivas handle it.)

If someone seems to go first more often than not, or if someone always seems to be stuck last, there is a simple solution. Start with the person to the left of the writer whose work is being critiqued and go clockwise from there. Everyone goes first, everyone goes last, and everyone is happy.

P.S. I don’t mind going last. I like tailoring my comments to what has already been said. And hearing other people’s comments gives me more ideas which I can share on the spot.

Elizabeth Rusch


Interview with Michaela MacColl, author of PROMISE THE NIGHT

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 20, 2012
Categories: Other Topics
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I am thrilled to welcome Michaela MacColl to VivaScriva!  Her book PROMISE THE NIGHT tells the story of young Beryl Markham, who grew up to be a record-breaking aviatrix, an adventurer, a nonconformist, and a writer.  

Read an excerpt here.

Below you’ll find the conversation we shared about her lovely book.


The blog focuses on critique and the writing process so let’s start there.  Do you have a critique group?  What role did critique play in PROMISE THE NIGHT?

I have a lovely critique group. We’ve met weekly for six or seven years now. Most of us are published, but we didn’t start out that way. I have to admit that my group saved the world from a very bad biography of Beryl Markham.

When I first decided to write about her, I found that the only kids’ biographies were very dated. Aha! I thought. (And I can’t believe I even said this) How hard can it be to write a biography? Apparently it is really hard. I couldn’t get away from the fictionalized story I wanted to tell. Finally my group metaphorically shook me and said “Just write a novel!” They were right and so supportive.

When I’m writing nonfiction, I find that the book falls into place when I discover the right format for the story.  In PROMISE THE NIGHT, you alternate eleven-year-old Beryl’s narrative with grown-up Beryl’s flight across the Atlantic.  How did you decide on this structure?

One of my greatest challenges was how to write a story about Beryl the child, when Beryl the adult is the one who did something famous (she was the first to cross the Atlantic East to West solo).  At first I wrote the flight as an epilogue, but it felt too tacked on. I had to find a way to show how Beryl’s adventures as a child enabled her to break flying records as an adult. It was complicated because I wanted to relate each adult vignette to a childhood chapter – but after many outlines and a ridiculous number of post-its, I came up with a structure that worked.

I loved Beryl Markham’s own book WEST WITH THE NIGHT.  How did her writing influence yours?

On the one hand, it’s a gift to have her own words in front of me. I learned so much about her personality from the way she described her childhood. On the other hand, it’s pretty daunting since the memoir is so good.  Ultimately, I tried to channel her spare prose into mine. I ruthlessly trimmed (and then my editor got started) until I told the story in as few words as possible. Beryl wouldn’t have wasted words, neither should I!

Of course this was such a departure from my first book, Prisoners in the Palace about Princess Victoria. There the language is ornate, layered and thick.

You had to deal with some tough (and very adult) topics—male circumcision, the Captain’s relationship with Emma, his concerns over Beryl’s interactions with Kibii and Mehru.  Some might have said it couldn’t be done in a middle grade novel, yet you pulled it off.  Can you tell us how you found your way in this area?

I’m pretty squeamish, so I didn’t want to make people squirm. I’m also the parent of two teenage daughters and it’s important to me that kids can read my books without feeling too uncomfortable. Ultimately the answer to dealing with these issues was to plant my narration firmly in Beryl’s point of view. She’s not shocked so why should the reader be?

Beryl Markham chafed against the rigid social and gender roles of her time.  How do you think she would have responded to the opportunity and freedoms girls have today?

I’ve wondered about that. Thoroughbred racing and flying were inherently exciting and a natural destination for a risk-seeker no matter how inappropriate they were for a girl to do. But I think if she were alive today, she would be taking even greater risks. Ultimately though, Beryl didn’t think of herself as a girl breaking gender barriers, she was just doing what she wanted to do.  The first page in Promise the Night is a quotation from Beryl where she says she wants to fly the Atlantic not as a society girl but as pilot. No gender specified. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the heros of the Golden Age of Exploration like Beryl Markham, Ernest Shackleton and Edmund Hillary.  What do you think drove them to take such risks in their quests to be first?

They say that thoroughbred stallions are bred to win.  They run fast to achieve dominance over their peers (so to speak). I think the explorers and the pioneers are all trying to win the acclaim of the other explorers and pioneers. But there is also a financial consideration. The person who breaks the record is the one who gets the sponsorship deals, the speaking engagements, even the movie gig.

Are there any new frontiers for girls today? 

The first thing that comes to mind is President of the United States… And if that’s the last frontier, then girls are doing well!

True confessions—my daughter is named Beryl and my son is Shackleton.  Do you think I’m crazy?

Yes!  (I had to talk my husband out of naming our first daughter Cassandra. Can you imagine a more ill-omened name?)

What is the most interesting thing that you learned about Beryl Markham but couldn’t include in the book—and why couldn’t you?

Beryl’s childhood is full of instances when she challenges the societal norms and does purely as she likes.  When she continued to do this as an adult, the stakes get higher. The most fascinating thing I found out about Beryl involved her love life. She married Lord Markham in her late 20’s, but at the same time, she also had a very public affair with the Duke of Gloucester (the brother of the Prince of Wales) when he visited Africa on safari. Her husband got fed up and threatened to name the Duke in the divorce. Needless to say Buckingham Palace had a strong opinion about this; Markham was told in no uncertain terms to involve the Duke.  He replied that he wasn’t going to support her. So until the day she died, Beryl received a pension from Buckingham Palace.  It’s a great story, right? So inappropriate for middle grade!

PROMISE THE NIGHT focuses on a narrow window of Beryl Markham’s extraordinary life.  Were you ready to let go?

I wouldn’t mind going back and writing about her life as a racehorse trainer. I grew up on the Black Stallion novels and I would love to write about racing. Otherwise, on to the next novel!



Weekly Writing Workshops

by Addie Boswell
Published on: January 19, 2012
Categories: Other Topics
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How Writing Groups Can Work For You

Check out this post from Write It Sideways, where Susan Bearman talks about a different kind of group: workshops that meet weekly and have guest speakers.

On Motivation: In Search of “Efficious”

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: January 17, 2012
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Put your dictionaries away. “Efficious” is not in the Oxford English Dictionary…yet. It’s my own coinage combining “efficient” with “delicious.”


Some Scrivas awe me with their efficiency and productivity. They get 8 or 9 stars, maybe even 10 out of 10, as regards these quantifiers. I haven’t asked, but I imagine they grew up disciplined even while young ‘uns. Who knows, maybe they were born that way: you know, popping into the world in the minimum time allowed by the medical establishment.

While I… I haven’t asked my mother how long it took for me to make my appearance, but based on later events, I’d guess I took my sweet time about it. I didn’t learn efficiency at my mother’s knee, didn’t manage to get it drummed into me at school, and I continue to strive for it. Some battle the bulge, or fiscal solvency, while I battle time management. Getting things done. Accomplishing what I wish to get done, what I set out to do.

So at different times I come up with different ways to move forward, at least for a little bit. And then to move forward some more.

I tried a couple of different methods with my writing in 2011. Here’s the story.


Last spring and summer I took time chiefly to write. My mental space was clear, and I was reasonably successful. What most helped me was deciding to apply for a writing fellowship with a late-June deadline. I had already written enough that, though applying was a big reach, my goal was doable. I met it. There’s nothing like a realistic unbudgeable deadline for making things happen.

I aimed to continue my momentum by submitting at each month’s Viva Scriva meeting. In July I garnered wows (along with, yes, plenty of things to fix) as the Scrivas saw again several polished chapters.

I loved their reaction, and wanted again that cat-licking-up-cream feeling. But I couldn’t yank myself out of the morass of endless polishing to punch out later chapters in a timely fashion. That, combined with non-writerly concerns that encroached on my mental space, dissipated my plan of monthly Viva Scriva submissions.

In late fall I came up with new carrots—or were they sticks?—to turbo-charge my writing. One: I would do a mini-NaNo (National Novel Writing Month), taking ten days to flood my laptop with myriads of words that would unfold to me my story. I’d produced that much some years before. Two: I would finish a whole draft of my book in time for the application deadline for a wonderful novel revision workshop.

I didn’t meet either of these goals, both of which I now see as unrealistic. A big new time commitment intervened, and, surprisingly, sleep still hasn’t become wholly optional.


Around that time, I dipped into Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I was tickled by his idea of intrinsic motivation resulting in real success. I decided to reconnect with my pleasure in writing. To write not for the extrinsic reasons of getting praise from the Scrivas, of meeting self-imposed myriad-word goals, of having a chance at a fellowship, or getting into a select writing workshop. No. Just for the intrinsic motivation of Enjoying the Story.

It was a lovely time. I let go of big goals, of unrealistic goals, or even of measuring anything at all. This reconnection with my joy in the story was fruitful. I learned I don’t know enough about my heroine’s relationship with her father. An inspiring older cousin wanted to enter the story. Other works-in-progress I’d sequestered away beckoned to me with nuggets for their storylines.

Some time later, I saw I’d strayed away from my path. I had tracked woodland birds, eaten wild strawberries, and tumbled in meadows. But I had forgotten I was on a path to a destination, the completion of my novel.


So I returned to a happy medium, the golden mean. I don’t need “Extrinsic” or “Intrinsic VS. Extrinsic.” Rather, “Extrinsic AND Intrinsic” are necessary to move a story along and make it the rich place I want it to be. I need goals and measurable stepping stones—as well as time to savor being in my story, twirling around within it, taking a bite of metaphorical honeycomb or burrowing my face in barely-fragrant star magnolias.

Just in time for our goal meeting in late January, I believe in the importance of goals again. Of both “accomplishing” goals and “enjoying” sort of goals. I want my writing work to be efficient AND delicious. Efficious.


Umm… Remember that fellowship I was applying for back in June? I just learned I won it—I am the Young Readers Literature recipient for the 2012 Oregon Literary Fellowships. See? Extrinsic motivation works. And Intrinsic. Together, they are best. Efficious.


-Sabina I. Rascol

Don’t Fear the Critiquer – words of advice from @HelenLandalf

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 11, 2012
Categories: Critique Process
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Great post, Helen!

Don’t fear the critiquer

I’ve had my writing critiqued too many times to count over the course of my writing career. In addition to my twice-monthly meetings with my critique group, I’ve gotten feedback on my work from editors and agents at conferences and from professional authors through theWestern Washington chapter of SCBWI. I’ve even paid freelance editors to critique my writing.

In the early years, all I wanted from a critique was to hear that my work was fantastic, that, at most, all I needed to do was delete a comma here and add a quotation mark there. Honestly, critiques frightened me. I wore my ego on my sleeve, and honest criticism of my work could send me spiraling into depression for days.

Now, I welcome constructive criticism.


Need Some Inspiration? Read!

by Michelle McCann
Published on: January 7, 2012
Categories: Craft, Inspiration
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I teach a class at Portland State University called “Publishing for Middle Grade & Young Adults.” I can’t believe I get paid to teach it because it’s way too much fun to be work, really. I, and a small group of publishing grad students, read 18 middle grade and young adult titles in 10 weeks: old classics like Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, along with spanking brand new titles that are either massively critically acclaimed (therefore working for that adult audience/filter) or massively popular (therefore bypassing the critical adult filters). As we work our way through several feet of stories, we discuss what gives them staying power or makes them so damned popular. We pick apart the writing as we learn good editing practices, we pick apart the covers as we learn good design, and we pick apart the websites and marketing campaigns as we learn how to generate buzz and sales.

Useful to children’s book writers? Well, I think so. When I’m critiquing a manuscript and find a particular issue, I will often (if not always) recommend some great books and authors to check out who have wrestled with and possibly conquered the same challenge. YA sex scene not as hot as you want it? Check out Graceling or Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Want to write boy characters that really resonate with boy readers? Time for some Neal Schusterman. Wonder if your unlikeable narrator will turn readers off? Try Feed or anything by M.T. Anderson to see how it’s done.

Here are the books we read last term (2011) and what children’s book writers might glean from them:

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Historical fiction that is still engaging to teens more than 50 years later. It’s also a good example of a narrator who is much younger than the intended audience, but still works.

2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)

Wonderful example of historical fiction that is not at all boring. Also a unique narrator to look at: Death. And the Grim Reaper is funny, even in a story set in Germany during WWII. How does Zusak do it?

3. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

It’s amazing how fun and creative his middle grade fantasy still reads. And what a main character! That Dorothy is a heroine for the ages.

4. The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi (2010)

Without Dorothy there would be no Eva Nine. This is a great example of a middle grade fantasy with a girl main character that BOYS still enjoy reading (hint: as my 10-year-old son explained, “She’s not a girly girl, Mom”). How DO you convince those finicky boys to read “girl” stories? Here’s a great example. The story has so many elements that boys are looking for: lots of action, short chapters, cool monsters, weapons and battles, spaceships… And a girl narrator. Ha!

5. The Candidates by Inara Scott

This is a local YA author who came to our class to talk about her very interesting publishing experience for her first two books. She was first published by Hyperion, but is now moving to an e-book publisher. We discussed the pros and cons of each experience.

6. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Why is this series so phenomenally popular? Especially with boys, when they hate Twilight? It’s another great example of a heroine who appeals to boys, and a storyline that contains romance but doesn’t turn off boy readers (50% of the potential audience, after all). Great action, and great example of a dystopian theme that resonates with teens right now.

7. Graceling by Kristin Cashore (2008)

Okay, I’m a sucker for fabulous heroines (still not enough of them in kid lit, if you ask me). And Katsa is my all-time favorite. Deadly assassin with a heart of gold. This is also a great book to read for writing sex scenes. The author has an excellent blog post on this topic as well.

8. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green& David Levithan (2011)

Thinking about co-writing a book with another author using alternating POVs? Can it be done? Check this one out. Green and Levithan, YA gods, go toe to toe. Also a great example of where lgbt YA lit is at right now. And funny as hell.

9. before I fall by Lauren Oliver (2010)

A heartbreaking, amazing bully story with an unlikeable narrator and a brilliant plot structure: it’s Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls.

10. Feed by M.T. Anderson (2002)

The granddaddy of dystopian YA, truly creepy future, and another unlikeable narrator. M.T. Anderson is also a great “boy book” author (quirky boys, that is) and has a truly unique author “voice.”

11. Unwind by Neal Schusterman (2007)

Schusterman is also a master of boy books, how to write palatable romance scenes for boys, and unnerving dystopian scenarios. Also fantastic website.

12. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2005)

I know there are a lot of haters out there, but you gotta read it. You can’t understand what’s happening now in YA if you don’t read Twilight. Plus, it has one of the best, hookiest first pages I’ve ever read. Ever. And funny, conflict-laden dialogue all the way through. And who can write a non-sex sex scene that gets the pulse pounding like Meyers? NO ONE!

13. I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (2010)

Okay, we read this one just to learn about James Frey’s “YA Factory” (which is how this book/movie was created). Disturbing, fascinating story in The Wall Street Journal. The book is a hack job, but boys LOVE is. Why? Action, action, action. Aliens. Weapons. Hot girls that want you. Lots of boy fantasies here.

14. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (1971)

The grandmother of the “drug novel.” You wouldn’t have Crank without Alice. Does it still hold up for today’s teens? Not really. But it’s still heavily banned, which means teens still seek it out. Also a good example of diary format. And some well-written drug trip descriptions. Not to mention a time trip to the good old seventies.

15. Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2004)

A drug novel writen in free verse? Could that ever work? Yes, and it could sell millions of copies and launch a YA brand. Hopkins is a masterful poet and each page is a tiny work of art.

16. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Book 1) by Art Spiegelman (1986)

Graphic novels are the fastest growing YA genre. This book is where it all started. With its publication and subsequent Pulitzer Prize (!), graphic novels finally started getting the literary recognition they deserved. Now they are winning all the literary awards. A novel about the Holocaust with cats as the Nazis and rats as the Jews? And it works beautifully! So much to learn from Spiegelman about panel layout and how to convey meaning and emotion through simple illustration.

17. Amulet (Book 1) by Kazu Kibuishi  (2008)

This is probably the most popular middle grade graphic novel series right now and it’s easy to see why. Another example of a female protagonist in a series that appeals strongly to boys. Like WondLa, it’s loaded with action, aliens, magic, weapons, monsters… everything those boys want. Plus a butt-kicking girl for the girl readers.

18. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Year 1) by J.K. Rowling (1998)

What can I say? Harry Potter changed everything in middle grade and YA literature. How they are written, how they are sold… everything. And why are they SO beloved by millions and millions of readers? I could write pages, but it’s worth rereading that first book to see how Rowling does dialogue, world building, chapter endings, and tension. She is a true master and worth studying.

Sometimes I’m distracted by the reused paper my critique manuscript comes back on

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 7, 2012
Categories: Humor
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Revision is hard for me so I’m easily sucked into the crazy reused paper that my crit group prints my mss on…

A science experiment.

People on the beach meditating.

Character sketches.


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