Archives: January 2013

Precommitment: A New-Old Tool for Writers

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: January 31, 2013
Categories: Challenges
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red pen contractVictor Hugo had his valet confiscate his clothes so he would stay home and write. Anthony Trollope, he of the prodigious writing output, loved to sleep mornings. So he paid a servant extra to wake him early each morning. At least one time the hireling had to pour water over Trollope’s face to get him out of bed.


I came across the idea of precommitment in Daniel Akst’s book We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. Akst writes about first-order desires—what we want NOW, consequences be damned—and second-order desires: what our best selves, our long-term considering selves, really want. He closes his book discussing the unreliability of willpower and our need to help ourselves—through enlisting other people, re-arranging our environment, and creating habits—to do what we ultimately want. Pre-committing.


Akst’s book references the binding-contract website (“Put a contract out on yourself!”) as one tool available in this modern age, where few of us have valets or other hirelings, to help ourselves to fulfill second-order desires.


Some writerly precommitment strategies employed by Scrivas include:

– Liz’s treasured, set aside once a week writing day at the library;

– book contracts with tight deadlines for at least Ruth and Amber;

– Addie submitting her YA novel to a Portland State editing class;

– NaNoWriMo, the novel-writing challenge I participated in this last November.


What about you? What are some writing precommitment strategies you’ve successfully employed or are considering now to help you with your writing? Do these include involving other people? changing your environment? or creating a habit?


-Sabina I. Rascol


Creative Heroes

by Addie Boswell
Published on: January 24, 2013
Categories: Other Topics
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My paper portrait of Thoreau

As a painter, portraits are one of my great loves. There is an unspeakable magic that happens when you sit in front of a person for an hour and look at them more closely than they’ve ever been looked at. The model feels the same communion (sometimes they blush under the scrutiny.) This month, for a new art show, I have been working on portraits of my creative heroes. Frida Kahlo, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, Louie Armstrong, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Austen. I draw them in loose fashion and transfer those drawings to cut paper.

Though I’ll never get up close to my heroes (sigh), even looking at their photographs and really studying the lines of their faces has given me the same lift. It has also reminded me of all one person can accomplish in a lifetime. As Thoreau puts it, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” My heroes have this in common: they didn’t find careers that suited, so they created their own. So Dr. Seuss kept to his strange characters and birthed modern illustration. So Austen forwent marriage for her stories. So Thoreau went to the woods. So I continue on, remembering to be uplifted by those who have gone before. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite lines.

Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. — Henry David Thoreau

They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold, and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price. — Kahil Gibran

One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar. — Helen Keller

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elemental truth… that the moment one definitively commits oneself, then providence moves too.  — W.H. Murray

You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.  It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.  — Kafka

Finite to fail, but infinite to venture. — Emily Dickinson

I know nothing with any certainty.  But the sight of stars makes me dream. — Van Gogh

It occurs to me to wonder and to ask how much I see or am capable of seeing. — John Steinbeck.

When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest. 
– Henry David Thoreau

To be nobody but yourself in a world doing its best to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can ever fight and never stop fighting. —  e.e. cummings

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware of urges that motivate you.  Keep the channel open. —  Martha Graham, as told to choreographer Agnes DeMille in Dance to the Piper.

By poverty is meant enough money to live upon.  That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind.  But no more.  Not a penny more. — Virginia Woolf

The Beauty of Open Questions

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: January 20, 2013
Categories: Challenges, Craft
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My beloved Viva Scrivas and another critique group I belong to have been giving me wonderful, detailed, challenging feedback on the script for my graphic novel Muddy Max. While I am eternally grateful for their feedback, and I know deeply that their comments ALWAYS make my work better, it can be daunting to sit down and face a giant pile of comments. Sometimes I flip through them quickly, just trying to get a sense of how much work I might need to do. Invariable, it looks like a lot of work. A HUGE amount of work. An OVERWHELMING amount of work.

In fact, I will admit, I sometimes feel so overwhelmed that I just can’t get started on the revisions.

But I’ve found a way to overcome that revision block. I tell myself that in my first pass I won’t even try to resolve difficult questions or tackle really hard sections. I’ll just do what I know I want to do and that I know I can do easily.

So I work my way through the marked up manuscripts, making the easy revisions. If I don’t know if I want to make a change based on a comment, or if I think I do but it will be really hard, I just make a big circle around, rip off that page, and put it in a separate pile. Those are what I call “open questions.”

There are several advantages to this approach. For one, it gets you working. For another, it literally whittles down the pile. While I may have four or five inches of manuscripts when I start, I rarely have even an inch after that first pass. The pile is literally physically less intimating.

This approach also helps you hone your real “to do” list for the revision. Once you have your pile of open questions, you can go through that pile and pull out all the things you know you want to do.  You can even write them in a list, so you can break your revision work into manageable chunks. Once you’ve tackled those, your open questions pile is even smaller.

The final issues are comments or suggestion that you don’t know if you want to do, suggestions that you don’t know if you agree with. I even usually include in this pile comments that I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with because who knows, I might change my mind.

I take different approaches to this open questions list. I might just ignore them for a while. This sounds lame but I know they are there, I know what they are, and by not addressing them, I give my subconscious time to work on them.  Sometimes ideas, solutions, or clarity come me while on a run or making a tuna sandwich. After some period of time, I might try tackling some of these final open questions just to see what I learn.  Or, I might bring them to the next critique group meeting to discuss.

Maybe the hardest part of all this is to try to be at peace with open questions. It’s OK to have open questions about a manuscript. It’s OK to let them percolate for a while. In fact, these open questions are probably closely related to something important that you are trying to do with your work. So as writer/philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves.”

Elizabeth Rusch

Inspiration from Chagall

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: January 15, 2013
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The Angel and the Reader by Marc Chagall- 1930

On a recent trip to the Portland Children’s Museum with my two boys, I came across an exhibit for children about Marc Chagall.  There were marvelous quotes from him posted all around copies of his work and the many interactive exhibits. One in particular really caught my eye, because if you change the word “color” in it to “stories,” the meaning becomes very close to my heart as a reader, a lover of books, and as a writer.

Here is my interpretation of Chagall’s quote.

“The same can be said about STORIES as

is said about music: the depth of STORIES

goes through the eyes and remains within

the soul, the same way music enters and

stays in the soul.”

Of course, changing the word to “writing” makes the quote just as powerful to an author.

Have a look:

“The same can be said about WRITING as is said about music: the depth

of WRITING goes through the eyes and remains within the soul,

the same way music enters and stays in the soul.”

 Someday, I hope to achieve the kind of depth in my writing that can be found in Chagall’s colors and art.  Maybe then, my stories will enter someone’s soul and stay there.  I’m sure the Scrivas would agree that it is the hope of all of us to be such a writer.  If that is also your dream, we hope it comes true for you, too.
Happy writing.
-Nicole Marie Schreiber

The Delicate and Crucial Task of Selecting Critique Partners via @greyhausagency

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 15, 2013
Categories: Critique Process
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Great post by agent Scott Egan on picking critique partners:

Finding The Right Critique Partner – It’s Probably Not Your Friend

Finding the best critique partner for your writing can be a huge challenge. Like marriage, this truly has to be a partnership that will work through all of the good times and the bad. Along the same lines, this has to be a relationship that can help each writer grow as writers.
Too often, I find authors picking critique partners for completely wrong reasons…

Read the rest of the post here.

Building a writing career: How long is this going to take?

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 8, 2013
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When established writers share the story of their paths to publication, aspiring writers hang on their every word.  Maybe there is a tip or secret that will be the key to unlocking our own futures. Of particular interest is the timeline.

If the timeline is short…  first novel, sold at auction, on a partial, two weeks after I contacted my first agent…  then hope flares in our hearts. This fairy tale could be mine!

If the timeline is long… best-selling fourth novel, rejected by fifteen agents and twelve publishers, finally sold after eight years… then we are reassured.  It’s not too late for me!

How long is this going take?

It’s a reasonable question and one I’ve been pondering a lot as I traverse a definite down period in my writing life. It’s been a long time since I’ve sold anything. I’ve had a series of heart-breaking rejections. I’m up close and personal with the hard realities of building a writing career.  How long is this going to take?

I turned to a book I’ve recommended for years but have never read with such desperate fervor: THE WRITERS BOOK OF HOPE by Ralph Keyes.  He shares many anecdotes of the troubled path traveled by many now-famous authors.  I’ve also been reading lots of news coverage on the current flux in the publishing industry.  Sure there are self-published flash-in-the-pan millionaire stories, but what interests me are the writers making a decent living developed over time.

My completely unscientific synthesis of all these anecdotes is that ten years is a reasonable time frame.  Ten years to break into and become established in traditional publishing.  Ten years to build a decent following (and therefore income) as a self-published author.  I read something recently about it taking an average of 10 years to build a small business to profitability.

I think the small business model is a good one for authors.  We have to think of ourselves that way and put in the necessary time and effort to build a business in addition to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to mastery of craft.

The take home for me is patience.  Always patience.  I’ve got to be in it for the long haul. Easy said than practiced with ease!  I’m glad I’ve got the Scrivas to buoy me up when I’m discouraged.

One last thought… you’ll notice I’ve been very careful to avoid the word “success.”  If we measure success by number of books sold, we are likely to be too discouraged to continue.  I prefer to hang onto the words of Maya Angelou:

 “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

― Maya Angelou

New Year’s Resolutions? Again? Really?

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: January 3, 2013
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I’ve been traveling around the sun long enough to understand the value of creating habits, finding excuses to start fresh, and using peer pressure to spur productivity. I applaud writers like Sabina for taking part in NaNoWriMo, and I enjoy the reflective goal-setting sessions that Viva Scriva schedules at the beginning of the year.

Still, I am not making any writing-related New Year’s resolutions for 2013. I’ll fess up. They don’t work for me. What seems to be a helpful companion at the start of the year will likely wind up the hyper-judgmental nag by Valentine’s Day. It’s the 800-pound gorilla that stares at my back and frowns. I hear that gorilla now:

Didn’t make your 500 words today? Tsk! Didn’t update your book blog today? Humph! You call that a decent editing job on Chapter Three? [Deep sigh].”

The deep sighs of my 800-pound gorilla send me into cookie-eating self-reproach, followed by a funk, followed by a resolution to do better. None of those activities produces decent writing.

This year, I take my inspiration from the writer-journalist Anaïs Nin, who is said to have declared:

I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.”

Don’t get me wrong. I will meet most of my externally imposed deadlines because I’ve been trained to deliver on time for nearly half a century. But as for those internally imposed deadlines…this year I’m sending my 800-pound gorilla back to the wild.

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