Archives: March 2014

Reading Up: Studying Writing

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: March 31, 2014
Categories: Craft, Inspiration
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blue studyingSome years ago I heard Kirby Larson speak about the genesis of her Newberry-Honor winning novel, Hattie Big Sky.

As I remember (though know that I do not have my mother’s phenomenal memory!)—as I remember from that talk, at one point Kirby had a long-lasting case of writer’s block. She was officially Not Writing. However, after her grandmother provided the “wild horses” kernel for the novel (read more about it here), Kirby did all sorts of things that moved her toward writing this story, all while continuing to tell herself that she wasn’t writing. She conducted research of one sort and another. She traveled to Montana more than once. And she typed out a copy of a novel she admired, intimately learning its timing, pacing, phrasing…  I guess it’s somewhat like art students copying master paintings to learn from the giants who had come before.

While I never yet took the time to learn by typing out a favorite book, I remain intrigued by the idea.

Here are a couple of novels I’ve read lately that I’d think of typing out–or, at any rate, studying more—and what it is I want to study further:


1)      A Girl Named Disaster, by Nancy Farmer

-I like the sweep of a longer novel for young readers, with an intricate plot and many places and stages in the heroine’s life.

-I like how so much cultural information about a world far removed from the North American reader’s is pocketed interestingly here and there, without the feeling of an information dump.

-And I like the satisfying ending that ties up questions from the beginning of the novel about the heroine’s parentage. Many novels, even for young readers, leave things open, which can be OK, but I’ve noticed that I like a good sense of rounding off, of closure in a novel.


2)      Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, by Katherine Paterson AND The Great Gilly Hopkins, AND

-I like how in all her books Ms. Paterson subtly paints people and the dynamics of the relationships between them, how she uses words to create in us, her readers, the emotions she wants us to have, the feelings her heroes and heroines have.


3)      Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

-I like how Ann Patchett moves us along to being wholly enmeshed in the lives and fates of her characters, coming to care deeply about both the hostages and their captors.


What about you? What novels have you read recently that you would like to study more closely and apply their lessons to your own work?


-Sabina I. Rascol

Cheating on my Novel

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: March 23, 2014
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I am currently cheating on my middle grade historical with a contemporary YA.

I’m not sure if this is anything serious, yet. I thought I would give the YA a two-three month trial just to see how things pan out.  It feels right to be doing this, even though I’ve had a goal to finish my middle grade for a long, long, time.

The affair started back at the beginning of February, during an overnight retreat with my Scrivas.  This YA idea has been brewing for some time within me– slowly taking over not only my brain but my entire being.  It will not let up.  I had to do something about it, so I decided to take the YA idea out on a date of sorts, literally an overnight date on the retreat.  (Edgy for a first date, I know…)

Twenty-something pages later, I knew this new idea wasn’t going to be easily pacified like so many others that I’ve been attracted to while trying to write my current middle grade.  Those ideas were easily satisfied with being “written down and filed away,” but not this YA one.  This new one is demanding, relentless, and needs immediate attention, so I am giving it a couple of months.  I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, and I know cheating on my middle grade sounds absolutely crazy since I have been working on finishing it for so long, but I have to get this YA out of my brain before I can get back to my other one.

The clock is ticking…

Has this happened to any of you?  If so, how did you deal with it?


Happy Writing!


-Nicole Marie Schreiber



The Madness of Multiple Versions

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: March 20, 2014
Categories: Other Topics
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So what does the Nike swoosh have to do with writing? Well, it’s more the motto than the logo, actually.

Let me explain. As you might know from past posts, I’m working on a nonfiction picture book biography about Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano in Renaissance Italy in the late 1600s. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a draft that we submitted to one editor in the fall. She turned it down. Instead of submitting the manuscript elsewhere, I put on the brakes so I could keep working on it. So what exactly am I doing? Multiple drafts.

I don’t mean multiple drafts that follow each other, draft5, draft6, draft7. Rather I am writing starkly different versions of the same story at the same time. I’m working on:

1. A radically shortened version of a 32 page book. This one I am cutting mercilessly. I’m seeing if by dramatically shortening it, I can find a musicality and fluidity to the story. (This worked with a book I wrote on Mexican-American chemists Mario Molina, which will be published in 2016.)

2. I am revising a medium 32-page version based on feedback from the Scrivas and my other critique group. (Revising based on feedback always makes my books better.)

3. I’m rewriting the medium 32-page version into present tense, to see if it helps makes the story more lively. (I’ve never done a tense revision, but someone suggested it, and I thought I should try it.)

4. I’m expanding the story into a 48-page version where I tell everything I know and present primary source material as I go. This will help me identify all the very best, most important material so I will be sure to include it in the final version.

5. I am also dummying out a 40-page version to see if that is the right length for the book.

Why would I subject myself to the madness of writing and dummying out so many different versions? Because I’ve learned from experience that sometimes I should JUST DO IT.  I will never know for sure if present tense is the best way to tell the story unless I try it. I will never know if the book should be shorter or longer if I don’t see the 32-, 40- and 48-page versions side by side. I will never know if I should include primary source material in the main story or save it for the back matter if I don’t give each way my best shot.

This may not be the most efficient way to write a book, but I know that when I’m done, I will be satisfied that I found the best way for me to tell this story.  And if it’s true that we learn to write by writing, then banging out all these versions should make me a better writer.

So maybe there is a method to my madness.

Elizabeth Rusch

P.S. Just so you don’t think I’m completely insane, I want you to know that I’m not trying absolutely everything people suggested. Someone suggested I write a middle-grade version of the story that delves into the Renaissance and the Medici and I knew instinctively that that was not the story I wanted to tell. So that’s it. I’m limiting myself to five different versions. For now…

Don’t Play It Safe, a guest post from editor Emma D. Dryden

by Amber Keyser
Published on: March 12, 2014
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
Comments: 3 Comments

Today the Scrivas are thrilled to have freelance editor Emma D. Dryden blogging about the risky business of writing.

(Originally posted here.)

Scriva Amber had the good fortune to work with Emma on THE HUNT FOR MARA LAYIL (Relium Media, 2014). She wishes Emma could edit all her books!

If you want to up your game, make sure to check out Emma’s website, blog, and twitter.


Why Playing It Safe May Be the Most Dangerous Game of All

I read some exchanges recently between picture book authors in which one posed the question (and I’m paraphrasing here) as to whether she could do whatever she wanted with her main character in her manuscript, or whether it was better to perhaps “play it safe.”

A few authors responded right away that it’s important to “play it safe” and they meant that it’s probably best to stay in familiar territory for picture book age readers who are too young to understand the dangers of certain activities, or too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.  I hastened to add my voice to the comments with a quick DON’T PLAY IT SAFE! message and this got me to thinking, if any authors are out there assuming they have to play it safe for picture book age readers, my position on how detrimental that way of thinking is deserves a bit more space than a Facebook comment box allows.

As someone who’s edited and published hundreds of picture books, my position has never flagged on one particular point about what makes a great picture book:  whether your characters are human, animal, or otherwise; whether your story is realistic or fantasy; whether your story is contemporary or historical; whether your approach is serious or funny; whether your story is practical or completely off the wall…anything goes as long as a very young child will be able to relate to your main character’s emotions, perspectives, and world view.

A story can open with our main character in a kitchen with mom and dad and dog all safely and soundly situated—to many readers, that’s familiar, but to other readers such a scene will be a fantasy and not familiar at all—not by a long shot. A story can open with our main character caped and masked and flying through the trees—to many readers, that will be familiar because it’s exactly how they think of themselves all the time, but to other readers it will be a brand new idea, maybe a little scary, but maybe a little fantastic, too.  As long as the trajectory of the picture book story taps into the emotions and feelings a very young child will find familiar, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as the emotional needs, interests, and resolutions of the main character in a picture book resonate with the very young reader’s emotional knowledge and capacity, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as that’s solid, the trappings and settings and structuring of the picture book can be whatever your imagination can conjure—and here’s the very place where I see most new picture book authors not pushing themselves enough.

Authors need to allow their imaginations to take them all over the place, particularly out of safety zones—if authors play it too safe, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to our young readers. Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same?  And if we don’t do all this in stories for children, I shudder at the cost that will take on our collective imaginations and creativity.

We wrap our children too tightly in bubble wrap sometimes—and sometimes, indeed, it’s completely necessary, but not in stories. Stories are where we must let our children play and dream and imagine roles and lives for themselves that they’ve never thought about before; that’s how stories help children explore their sense of empathy, sharpen their resolve, enrich their dreams, and expand their imaginations. There’s no harm in that at all as long as the stories we provide as the vehicle for this ride carry within them the emotional core young children will be able to understand as their own.

If we push ourselves out of the familiar to ask “what if?” and to find the magic in the world, think how much more interested our children will be in doing the same. The safest route is rarely the most scenic. So feel free to explore creatively and imaginatively in your stories so children can explore the world in the same way. And if you find yourself spinning your wheels in a safety zone, go listen to young children telling each other stories and have them tell stories to you. I promise, the emotions will be familiar, but the stories will be out of this world–and that’s a trip well worth taking.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

Good Advice from Ira Glass

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: March 10, 2014
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I found this video very encouraging. Ira talks about how long it takes to get good at your craft and the key to getting better: Put yourself on a schedule!

Watch it here.

Hello Out There: Skyping with Sabina

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: March 3, 2014
Comments: 1 Comment

skype-sabina-01-2014The Scrivas are a get-together kind of writing critique group. We meet for dinner and a lengthy discussion of Scriva submissions. Recently, though, Sabina was out of town for our monthly meeting, and she wanted to be a part of the conversation. We turned to Skype.

It seems we’re not the only ones. According to, on April 3, 2013, Skype users spent two billion minutes connecting with each other. TWO BILLION MINUTES ON THAT ONE DAY! The Skype folks calculate that number to be nearly 38 centuries of sharing in a 24-hour period. This boggles my mind big time.

So much for quality. What about the quality of those two billion minutes? I confess that I use Skype and Facetime rarely. I’m not as relaxed with screen time as I am when I’m emailing or speaking to someone on the phone. Better yet, let’s walk and talk…but I digress.

Skyping with Sabina went better than I thought it would, and it was very much better than not having her with us at all. We used a lap top, so that we could move Sabina close to whichever Scriva was giving a critique. She missed the wine and food, but could get at least some of the conversation. Not everything. And she was limited to hearing much of what the rest of us saw and heard. A couple of times we lost the connection, meaning the electronic connection. But Skyping with Sabina meant that we didn’t lose the human connection. I’m in no position to speak intelligently about 1,999,999,880 Skype minutes on Viva Scriva Critique Day, but the Scrivas’ 120 minutes with Sabina were definitely Skyping well spent.


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