Archives: May 2014

Conversations with Oneself

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: May 31, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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conversations with oneself-talk bubbleWhat do you know? I was using a writerly tool beloved by some top writers without knowing I was part of a tradition. You yourself may be using this tool too. Or you can consider adopting it, if it suits your style.

When discussing outlining in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell notes an alternative to the traditional outline. He got the idea from David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing.  Morrell, in his turn, got the idea from an interview with Harold Robbins, who got it from… OK, that I don’t know.

What is the tool? Conversations with oneself.  Written conversations.

Per Bell in Plot & Structure (p. 154; see also pp. 165-66), this is what David Morrell does.

“He likes to start a free-form letter to himself as the subject takes shape in his mind. He’ll add to it daily, letting the thing grow in whatever direction his mind takes him. What this method does is mine rich ore in the subconscious and imagination, yielding deeper story structure.”

In The Successful Novelist’s “Lesson 2, Getting Focused,” Morrell describes how most writers get started on their story. They talk with friends, their subconscious working as the story gains focus. Then they put these ideas in a dull outline. Then maybe they lose interest—or forget what got them excited about the story in the first place.

“What’s to be done?” Morrell asks on page 17. “For starters, let’s identify the inadequacies of the process I just described. One limitation would be that a plot outline puts too much emphasis on the surface of events and not enough on their thematic and emotional significance. As a consequence, the book that results from the outline sometimes feels thin and mechanical. Another limitation would be that an outline doesn’t provide a step-by-step record of the psychological process that you went through to work out the story. It only documents the final result. As a consequence, if you become too familiar with the story and lose interest in it, you have difficulty re-creating the initial enthusiasm. Still a further problem relates to those conversations you had with your friends or your significant other. Hemingway insisted that a writer shouldn’t talk about a story before it was written. He felt that too many good ideas ended in the air rather than on the page and, worse, that the emotional release of talking about a story took away the pressure of needing to write it. — Writing. That’s the point. While all this thinking and talking has been going on, not a lot of writing has been accomplished. But a writer, like a concert pianist, has to keep in daily practice.”

Though I, in the last couple of years, have started having occasional, judicious conversations about my novels with the Scrivas, all along, my main place to consider story ideas is a document I titled “Thoughts While Writing.” Every time I sit down to write, besides the appropriate story chapter, I open too “Thoughts While Writing.” I use this multi-part document (I start a new file when one gets too long) in many ways.

I prime myself by jotting down what I did before sitting down to write, or what I’ll do when I finish. I record plot developments to remember for later parts of the story line. I try bits of dialogue. I pray—for wisdom, inspiration, persistence. I debate the merits of new ideas, finding holes I need to plug in and stumbling across wonderful connections. I color-code the main threads I’m weaving through my novel. Everything that goes on in my mind related to my story gets written down as it comes. It’s not lost. It’s stored, ready, available. With apologies to J. K. Rowling, it’s like my own personal Pensieve.

Of course, these written conversations don’t require a computer. They can take place just as well in a notebook. Some writers have a general writing notebook storing all idea nuggets that work their way up from their subconscious, ideas for all current and possible stories. It seems to me, though, that for full benefits of Morrell’s idea, one notebook should  be dedicated to the conversations a writer is having with himself about one particular book.

So try it. Take it from me—or from James Scott Bell, David Morrell, Harold Robbins… Hold some conversations with yourself. Write them down. They’ll be useful in many ways later.


-Sabina I. Rascol


Editing…Without Touching a Word

by Addie Boswell
Published on: May 24, 2014
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imagesWhen writers meet up, one of the first questions parried is, “How’s the writing going?” Recently I had this conversation with another Scriva. Both of us have been overwhelmed with non-writing life, and said (rather dejectedly and a little shamefully), “I haven’t been writing.” And then we proceeded to talk about the new developments in the books we “haven’t been writing” for an hour or two. She was reading Writing the Breakout Novel and trying to decide which of her six plot elements was most important. (What story do I have to tell?) She was also thinking about combining characters and waking up earlier to steal some writing time. I have been ruminating on something an agent told me months ago. And though I haven’t sat down with my laptop for months, my main character keeps visiting me at odd times and explaining more of his backstory (I actually hear his voice in my head.) I’m getting more clarity on my main theme, all without touching a word.

It only really struck me the next day: We are still editing! I have missed my story in the months I have been away from it. That is a healthy thing. Not healthy is the feeling that I have betrayed myself by letting it languish. Less healthy still: the despair that I’ll never get back to my book, and it will never, ever be published. But stories are not quite the same as children or pets. They can be ignored and not perish. They can be argued with and not suffer. They can be put in a drawer and … Well, you get the point. Our characters can be trusted to rise again. If you are mourning your own writing, or just not sure where to go next, here are some non-traditional editing ideas.

  • Read an inspiring writing book that really gets your blood going.
  • Re-read authors in your genre who blow your mind.
  • Try to dream about your characters.
  • Imagine your characters interacting with the real world (like when you’re at the grocery store).
  • Talk about your book with your friends.
  • Talk to your characters, in your head or in your journal.
  • Watch movies that reflect the setting in your book.
  • Make a soundtrack for your main character’s life.

A Tense Surprise

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: May 20, 2014
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In an earlier post about how I sometimes do multiple simultaneous drafts of the same manuscript, I mentioned how a critiquer had suggested trying to rewrite my picture book biography of piano inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori in present tense. PRESENT TENSE? A biography from 1700s, late Renaissance Italy, in PRESENT TENSE? Sounds crazy. I balked, as did the rest of my fellow critiquers.

But I have a little rule for myself to at least give most suggestions, even the ones I don’t agree with, a try. Especially if its something I can do easily or test out with a small section. So I did it. I rewrote the whole thing in present tense.

I didn’t really look at the manuscript again until reading the two versions aloud at a critique group meeting. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, the present tense version of the story came to life. It jumped off the page. It sang. I knew it as I read it and the comments were unanimous: “I didn’t think the present tense would work, but I love it.”

So there you have it. Two lessons for me from this experience: Even if you don’t agree with a suggestion, consider giving it a try. And play around with tense. You never what how it could transform your manuscript.

Elizabeth Rusch


The Power of Words– A Little Writerly Pick-Me-Up

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: May 15, 2014
Categories: Inspiration, Other Topics
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This short YouTube video really spoke to me about the power we writers have with our words.  If any of you are feeling down or stuck or like your work and words don’t matter, this will help pick you up.

Remember, “Change your words.  Change your world.”

We writers make a difference!  Our work MATTERS!



Happy Writing!


-Nicole Marie Schreiber

What is YA anyhow? Smart stuff from editor Cheryl Klein

by Amber Keyser
Published on: May 12, 2014
Categories: Craft, Genre, Other Topics
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My dear friend and kick-ass writer, Cidney Swanson, gave me a copy of Cheryl Klein‘s book SECOND SIGHT: AN EDITOR’S TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING & PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS.  It is so awesome.

My favorite parts, which you should definitely read ASAP, are the sections when she shows multiple drafts of the same manuscript chapter through multiple rounds of revision.  This will help you learn to revise more than anything I can think of.  Go buy the book now!

But what I wanted to call out in this post is the chapter entitled “Theory: A Definition of Young Adult Literature.”  Since many of us Scrivas (Nicole, Mary, Ruth, Melissa, Addie, and me) write YA fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good YA novel.  Cheryl Klein’s exploration of the form is spot on brilliant.

She says:

So I’ve been thinking off and on about a practical definition of YA literature — something I could look at to help me decide whether a manuscript is an adult novel or a middle-grade novel or, indeed, a YA. Such delineations don’t matter to me as a reader — a good book is a good book — but they do matter to me as an editor and publisher, because I want every book I publish to find the audience that is right for it, and sometimes, despite a child or teenage protagonist, a manuscript is meant for an adult audience. Hence I have written the definition below to help me think through these situations as they come up. This is very much a WORKING theory; I hope you all will offer challenges, counterexamples, additions or arguments to help me improve what I’m saying here. But here’s what I have right now — the definition broken into five parts for easier parsing:

  1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of

  2. its teenage protagonist(s),

  3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the

  4. story,

  5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.


In the complete post, which you really must read, she deconstructs each of these points and adds a sixth implicit feature of YA.  I really thought Cheryl’s thoughts were wonderful.  Enjoy!

Rebar and Writing: John Green’s Model

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: May 5, 2014
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Laying-rebar-cropFor months now, a slew of humans and machines have been constructing the Janey II, an apartment/condo building within sight of my dining room balcony. I decided to see which would be done first, the Janey II or my Book Three, and I’m tracking the progress of both on my website.

The Janey II is at the rebar (reinforcing bar) stage. This blurry photo shows a construction guy building the mesh of heavy steel wires that provide tensile strength to the concrete walls. (Yes, guy. I’ve seen no construction women on site. Sigh.) Rebar helps to support and spread the load. You don’t see rebar in the finished structure, but you’re glad it’s there.

I happened to be reading John Green’s first book, Looking for Alaska, at the same time the rebar guy was doing his thing. That’s when it hit me. John Green is a genius at enmeshing literary rebar into his work. Looking for Alaska is such a solid story in part because it’s been built to last. Here’s what I mean:

  • Time. The novel is divided into two parts, labeled “before” and “after.” The key event is almost exactly in the middle. Rather than chapter headings, the before and after parts are divided into sections leading up to, and away from, the main event. The first section is entitled “one hundred thirty-six days before.” The last section of the novel is entitled “one hundred thirty-six days after.” How’s that for a sturdy structure? Talk about a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nice.
  • Place. Most of the story is narrowly focused on Culver Creek Boarding School, giving the reader a chance to get familiar with a single (and singular) setting. You know when you are and where you are. By the time the characters go to the smoke hole for the third time, you can practically lead them there.
  • Characters. There are only a handful, and they are a handful. Each one is memorable, from Alaska Young, whose actions drive the “before” and the “after,” to Dr. Hyde, the religion teacher, who guides the main characters and the reader into an exploration of death, guilt, and grief.
  • Humor. Looking for Alaska is not what you’d call a light-hearted tale. There are layers upon layers of serious stuff crammed into 136 days before and 136 days after. That said, our trusty author/rebar guy adds enough of the funny bits to spread the emotional load. Our skin-and-bones protagonist is nicknamed Pudge. We get to see several hilarious pranks, including one involving a male stripper and another involving blue dye. We get the laugh-out-loud and relatively innocent antics of a first “blow job.” Green treats us with care. As a reader, I’m grateful. As a writer, I’m taking notes!

I don’t know whether my Book Three or the Janey II will be finished first. I do know that I’m learning a bunch about crafting a novel as I watch the construction site, not the least of which is John Green’s rebar.


The Body Speaks

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: May 1, 2014
Categories: Other Topics
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benches Seal BeachSo there’s this pier at Seal Beach, the beach closest to where my Southern California-brother lives. My brother loves the pier, any pier, and he’s got a nice, strong personality. So pretty much every time we go to the beach there, or anywhere there’s a pier, we all walk on the pier, together, talking. Maybe we talk intensely, maybe we talk desultorily, but usually, all of us who come stick with my brother and walk with him on the pier.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy spending time with my brother, and I love walking on piers myself. But not every time, I realized a while ago when I happened to go to Seal Beach with my nephew instead. This surfing-mad nephew parked himself on the pier above the breaking surf. “I’m going to stay here and watch the waves,” he said. My younger sister had already peeled off, eventually finding the ice cream shop. And I? I began to walk on the pier, as we usually do. Then, ‘No, I’d rather sit right now!’ So I did.

Ah, how my body savored just sitting on that bench, the sea in front of me, nipping wind safely at my back, my thoughts freely wondering!

I noticed my body’s physiology, affected by my emotions and thoughts, and remembered a goal setting/visioning seminar I attended at the beginning of the year. One of the speakers said our bodies talk to us, if we’d only listen to them. They can even help us make decisions, if we think of options and look at how our body reacts. We observed ourselves by thinking of a difficult situation in our lives, and noticing our body’s reaction. Then we thought about a happy time…

I haven’t nailed it down yet, but I’ve been ruminating lately about this connection between thoughts, feelings, and body/physiology. There are ways to harness this connection for my writing that I haven’t gotten yet, but it feels important to continue to ponder. I think how differently I would have felt—and how different my physiology would have been—if, on that bench, rather than savoring a lovely choice, I would instead have been waiting for someone who was terribly late, and I in a terrible, terrible hurry…


I observed my thoughts-feelings-physiology connection another time, on a perfect beach outing that I didn’t want to end. As I kept expecting the announcement that it was time to leave, my stomach and mind tensed, siphoning off enjoyment. When the call to leave didn’t come as soon as I feared, my mind and body finally relaxed. I could again enjoy the sweep of seaside colors, of clean, warm air…

The fab instructors of Mt. Hood Meadows ski instructors host movement analysis sessions, where we get to think through how we teach. The point is not to just tell a student to do something. If he knew how to do it right, he’d already be doing it. Instead, we need to specify exactly what muscles he needs to use and in what ways to achieve a desired outcome.

So, too, we can listen to our body speak, and include specific muscle reactions when painting the mood or action in a particular scene we’re writing. Before falling asleep the other night, for example, I felt myself tense my upper arms because I remembered something I should have done that day that I hadn’t gotten done. I may one day use that physical reaction for a character. Maybe it will be something defining, that s/he does all the time, or it may signal a situation outside the norm.

Alright, my tensing stomach and arms are telling me that I’ve spent too much time on this blog post and it’s time to turn in. What is your current physiology alerting you to? Or what conclusions might you have come to, on the topic of physiology and writing, that you’d like to share?


-Sabina I. Rascol

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