Get Ready, Get Set, Retreat!

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: January 4, 2016
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wilderness-cabinSee that red-roofed cabin nesting in the forest by the river? I took this photo in the Wallawa Mountains in Northwest Oregon, nowhere near the next site of the Scrivas retreat, which is a house in the high desert near the Warm Springs reservation. Still, the retreat factors will be the same. Relative isolation. Quiet. Nature. Room to let the mind expand. A comfortable setting so the body won’t interfere.

We Scrivas have been on retreats before, and we’ve blogged about them a bunch. Liz’s A Tale of Three Retreats is a good example. Why another post? Frankly, I can’t give myself enough reminders to carve out the time and space needed to let creativity blossom. True for you, too?

So, here’s the deal. Resolve this year to give the writer side of you a treat on a regular basis. You don’t have to go to some cabin in the woods or desert. Find a quiet space with another writer friend, carve out a couple hours of non-con (no conversation), and settle in. Write. Repeat the treat. Re-treat. Retreat.

Happy 2016, and as John Ciardi used to say, “Good words to you.”

Pick Your Holiday, Bring On the Light

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: December 5, 2015
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sun-on-earthIt’s December, according to a popular calendar. In the days deemed to fit within December, there will be a holiday or two for many of us, including Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and, for some Muslims this year, the birth of the prophet Muhammad.

We Scrivas sprout from a variety of faith traditions, but we share a common location: a spot in the Northern Hemisphere just a bit closer to the North Pole than to the equator. December is dark where we are now, and getting darker. The light is leaving us. And even if we know intellectually that the sun will return, still there remains the urge to brighten our spirits if not our days.

And so, yes, Viva Scriva celebrates during these days of waning sunlight. When we meet for the December critique, we eat chocolate (well, actually, we do that year round), and we exchange gifts. A favorite activity is one that Scriva Liz started. She gleans books from her own shelves, and then gives one book to each of us to enjoy and perhaps pass around. Some of us do the same. The book exchange is fun, of course, but what really brings on the light is the easy laughter and camaraderie that follows.

I could get metaphorical here. I could try for a “deep thought” sentence about bringing the promise of light to those dark places of the mind and soul that both stifle creativity and engender the passions poured out in story.

Nah.

I’ll simply wish you a December filled with delight.

 

Spreading the Word on Short Sentences…

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: November 4, 2015
Categories: Basics, Craft
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keep-it-shortHere’s a longish post by Demian Farnworth, from the copy blogger site, about keeping things short. Maybe you’ve seen this already. Maybe not. Demian’s post is worth repeating, so take it away, Demian.

“Short sentences are gospel truths when it comes to clear, concise writing.

In fact, no lesson about writing for the web is complete without the statement “use short sentences.”

And who is not going to use short sentences when they were cherished by Papa? Nobody. Because you don’t want Hemingway on your bad side.

Yet, instructions on how to actually write short sentences are in short supply. I aim to fix that today.

In this post, you’ll find six exercises that can help you write short, clear sentences that pack a punch — plus three tips on removing unnecessary words.

Don’t forget to download your free worksheet following the lesson. Have fun!

1. Describe a broad or complex subject in 100 words or fewer

Choose a subject you love. One you know well.

Maybe it’s quantum mechanics or the history of Western civilization.

It could be a current event with lots of twists and turns.

Once you’ve described the subject in 100 words or fewer, shoot for 50 words. Then 10 words.

Find a new topic, and repeat.

2. Describe a topic using only monosyllabic words

You know … monosyllabic … words created from just one syllable.

Like: bone, two, fierce, lie, spade, blow, hill, brain, dark.

Think this will be easy? It won’t.

To describe a table (a word with two syllables) I had to use 12 words (and one polysyllabic word): “Flat surface with four legs made out of wood, metal, or glass.”

Can you describe it with 12 or fewer?

You’ll probably need a thesaurus for this exercise. Then work your way through that list of monosyllabic words I listed above, starting with “bone.”

3. Write a 100-word article that contains only active verbs

Focus on the subject performing the action.

Active verbs are faster and more descriptive than if an object performs an action.

For example:

  • “Dorothy yelled at the waiter.”
  • “The rhino gored the pumpkin.”
  • “The twister devastated Joplin.”

Avoid:

  • “The waiter was yelled at by Dorothy.”
  • “The pumpkin was gored by the rhino.”
  • “Joplin was devastated by the twister.”

Those verbs are passive, and they inflate your word count.

There’s a more important reason to prefer active over passive voice: active assigns responsibility.

4. Write a 100-word article using only simple sentences

Revisit exercise number one above, but this time, limit your sentences to no more than four or five words. And don’t forget about single-word sentences.

Short and snappy will be the sound you hear when you read the article aloud.

Here’s what 52 words look like:

Dorothy watched the rhino. It sniffed the pumpkin. She sneezed. The rhino raised its head. Snorted. Dorothy waved. The rhino pawed the earth. She threw a high heel. It hit the rhino. The rhino ate the shoe. She yelled, “Hey!” Stomped her foot. “That was my shoe!” The rhino ate the pumpkin.

5. Describe a topic in a sonnet

This is another variation on exercise number one where you explain a broad or complex subject within the framework of a sonnet.

Here is my attempt at describing grief:

Everyone knows about love, but no one
really understands how it works. Death,

on the other hand, is pretty cut and dry.
And you can’t fight it off any more than

a small boy waiting up for his alcoholic
father can fight off sleep — it just arrives,

crashing through the blossoms, upsetting
a table, chairs. And you don’t need the Royal

Society of Medicine to tell you
what you already know: no one gets out alive.

What you need is someone to explain why,
when someone dies you’re unglued in an

apocalyptic way, cold as a urinal,
stiff like iron stairs and desperate to die.

As you can see, you don’t have to rhyme or get the perfect iambic pentameter for each line; just get your story into 14 lines and aim for about 10 syllables per line.

This will teach you how to write within boundaries, and you’ll learn a little about poetry, which can help define your style.

6. Describe a topic using the PAS formula

PAS stands for Problem-Agitate-Solve, and the formula helps you limit your idea to only two sentences or fewer per element.

It looks like this:

Insecure? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. However, stay that way and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance. Fortunately, there’s a book called Insecure No More, which will teach you how to be confident and courageous in just 30 days. Buy it now.

There was a period in my career when I had to write hundreds of succinct product descriptions.

The same is true when I wrote dozens of text ads for a long-running Google AdWords campaign. Without this formula, I would’ve struggled.

Your job is to look at 10 products or ideas you love and then write about them using PAS.

Now let’s look at a few tips about removing unnecessary words from your sentences.

Cut redundant words

Here are two different versions of similar phrases:

  • Added bonus” and “Bonus”
  • “We currently have vacant rooms” and “We have vacant rooms”
  • “Get to the point as quickly as possible” and “Get to the point”

All the italicized words waste space. They are useless.

We write this way because we often talk this way. We think we add severity by saying “Get to the point as quickly as possible.

But when someone says, “Get to the point,” don’t we always snap to attention?

It’s like a crack of the whip.

Avoid modifiers

Modifiers clutter up your copy. The following italicized words are modifiers:

  • “That’s fairly good copy.”
  • “I totally understand.”
  • Actually, that’s not what I meant.”

You can eliminate every single word I italicized without losing your meaning.

In fact, you can create a stronger sentence by replacing both the modifier and the word it modifies with a more detailed description or a stronger, more accurate word.

Eliminate the word “make”

The next time you write a first draft, review your document and count how many times you use the word “make” before you edit your text. My hunch is it will be a lot.

Make is the lazy writer’s favorite verb. (All first drafts are written by lazy writers.)

  • “Make her give me my money.”
  • “Who made up that song?”
  • “Will you make me an iced tea?”

Replace “make” with active verbs:

  • “Break her arm if she doesn’t give me my money.”
  • “Who wrote that song?”
  • “Will you brew me some iced tea?”

Your turn

So, here’s the thing: don’t be overwhelmed by all these exercises.

Consider tackling just one exercise a day. Or one a week. But schedule a reminder so you don’t forget.

You can download our editable PDF worksheet (82 KB) to help you get started.”

…..

Thanks, Demian. Good job!

 

 

The Vicarious Release!

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: October 5, 2015
Categories: Celebrations, Inspiration
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Amber-signingThe vicarious release. Sounds kinda sexy, no? Anyway, I can tell you this: the vicarious release is a delight. It’s like playing with someone else’s puppy or watching your team’s winning soccer goal, only a lot better.

The vicarious release happens when another Viva Scriva launches a book into the world, particularly a book that has grown up and come to fruition under the Viva Scriva mojo.

Vicarious release is what happened a few days ago when Amber’s debut novel, The Way Back from Broken, officially left the nest. Here’s the gal herself signing the title page.

Viva Scriva has had the pleasure of numerous releases. One of the most memorable recent ones was Liz’s Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek. Let me just say that mud was involved. There will be more releases to come, for sure, from every member of Viva Scriva. With luck, even from me. I will celebrate and enjoy, and be inspired by, every single one.

I Want To Pick Your Brain

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: September 4, 2015
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brain-in-handCritique groups offer a font of knowledge, and Viva Scriva is no exception. Of course, there are the usual bits about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. That’s likely why you started your critique group in the first place. But there’s also the mojo factor. What “feels right” when it comes to asking about, or revealing, the non-writer parts of the individuals in your group? I might want to pick your brain, but should I? I see three aspects to this form of “sharing.”

  • Factoids. Nearly every work-in-progress I’ve seen, even sci-fi or fantasy, is grounded in some aspect of reality. Your critique group members might have just the factoid you are searching for, which recently for me was whether chickens would use human hair as nesting material. I could have googled chicken behavior, which I did without much success, or interviewed a poultry farmer, which I didn’t try to do at all. Instead I had a quick conversation with a Scriva who happens to raise chickens. When it comes to most factoids, go ahead, pick your colleagues’ brains. Expect them to pick yours.
  • Emotions. This area gets trickier. Let’s say your manuscript involves a teenager who suffers from bi-polar depression, and you have no first-hand experience with this situation. First off, count yourself lucky! But then, what kind of comments should you expect from your critique group colleagues? What’s private? What should be shared for the sake of a better manuscript? We are not talking chickens here. We’re talking painful stuff. Perhaps it feels more comfortable to ask for, or convey, information one-on-one rather than in a group setting, or in an email rather than face-to-face. Pick brains with care.
  • Life. Yes, there is life beyond writing. And, yes, shit happens. Now we are talking definitely tricky. What’s intrusive? What’s supportive? The Viva Scrivas over the years have developed a mojo that I’d like to think recognizes that we writers are people first. When one of the Scrivas is going through a hard time, we want to be there for her. That’s part of who we are. But prying is not on the agenda.

I’m picking your brain now. What works for your group? What doesn’t? Happy writing!

 

Still Making the Magic Happen

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: August 12, 2015
Categories: Basics, Critique Process
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ATTENTION! ATTENTION!  This is not my post. It’s brought to you by ScrivaAmber; I’m just the cyber go-between. Four years ago, Amber clued you in to the general model of a Scriva meeting. Not much has changed since then, which is a good thing, a very good thing. In case you didn’t follow this blog back then, here is a repeat of the basics, aka Amber’s “Scriva Structure: This Is How We Make the Magic Happen.”

Amber-spiralThe Scrivas tend toward free-form in our meetings, but we do have some structure in place.

We submit mss via email 1 week prior to meetings.  These are critiqued on a first-come, first-served basis (Liz is almost always first!)  Late?  Scrivas try to read but are not obligated.  Almost all of us print the mss and mark up with ink.  Maximum length is around 30 pages.  We deal with whole novels in a different way (see tomorrow’s post).

Along with the mss, we ask for the kind of critique we want (line edits, help with voice, general comments on approach, etc).

We meet once a month, in the evenings, at an undisclosed location with coffee, cocktails, food, and chocolate!

During our two and a half hour meetings, we look at the number of mss we have (usually 4-6) and divide up the time.  If we have a lot of mss, one of us (usually me) gets out a whip to keep us in line. We don’t share our comments in any particular order though we try to take turns going first (and getting the fun of saying all the meaty stuff).

While receiving comments, the writer scribbles notes, asks questions, and generally participates in an in-depth discussion of the work.  We try to let each person finish comments, but often ideas are bouncing around like the Weasley brothers fireworks.

If you were at the next table, you would hear lots of laughter, weird comments like I’m not sure about the characterization of the desk or you’ve got to kill that guy, and frequently squeals.  You would never, ever hear sobbing.

Oh, and one of our favorite things is to see the mss again after revision.  Scrivas have read many of my mss four or five times.  It is incredible how we can take the chaos of a first draft, add several iterations of critique and revision, and reveal an exquisite order.  It inspires me every single time it happens in a Scriva mss.

Happy Birthday, Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: August 4, 2015
Categories: Basics, Creativity, Inspiration
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Painted by Alfred Clint

Painted by Alfred Clint

I take you now to Field Place, the West Sussex country estate of Sir Timothy Shelley, a member of the House of Lords. The date is August 4, 1792. The French Revolution is in full swing; the Americans are figuring out what to do after their new independence; and Timothy’s oldest (legitimate) son and heir is born: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Dear, dear Percy. Quite a character. Impetuous, charming, radical, creative, and, oh, so romantic!

Google the guy, and you’ll learn about his poetry, his politics, his loves, and his adventures. You’ll learn that the 16-year-old girl who ran away with him (he was married at the time) and later bore his child before the two married (after Shelley’s first wife, hugely pregnant, committed suicide), is in fact Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame. And that’s not the half of it.

What intrigues me about Shelley, however, is his “critique group.” They didn’t all sit around the table together and comment on works-in-progress, Viva Scriva style, but Shelley was eager to thrash out his philosophy and writings with others. His “critique group” included Mary, of course, as well as Lord Byron, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas Love Peacock (how’s that for a name?). Throughout his tumultuous (and short) life, Shelley spurned the chance to follow his father’s path into Parliament. He wrote like crazy, sometimes alone, often in collaboration with others.

On July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned when his small, custom-built sailing boat (dubbed Don Juan) sank off the coast of Italy. He was a month shy of 30. Some number of years later, on July 8, somewhere on Long Island, I was born. I grew up and did a bunch of stuff, and then I joined a critique group. I’d like to think that Shelley and I share the same pleasure in a gathering of writers. So, here’s to you, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Happy birthday.

 

Dear Wayback, I Knew You When…..

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: July 4, 2015
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Way-Back-from-Broken

July 4, 2015

Dear Wayback,

I hope you don’t mind your nickname. The Way Back from Broken is a great title, but I’ve known you since before you even had a title, and Wayback is how I think of you now. The Scrivas are swamped with works-in-progress at the moment, as Liz wrote recently. We all seem to be on a roll, especially Amber. Wayback, you’ll soon have several more of Amber’s works to keep you company on the bookshelves. Still, you’ll always be special to me.

The other Scrivas and I were there at your beginning. Well, not exactly. Amber wrote you into being first. Then the rest of us went over every part of you word by word, coaxing and critiquing, encouraging and suggesting. We watched your characters take shape and your subplots change. We cried at your tearful parts and sighed with deep satisfaction at your deeply satisfying parts. I’d like to say that we Scrivas nourished you until you were ready to nourish us…and soon the rest of your readers.

I hope to take part in your official launches, promotions, and social media buzz. That’s what Scrivas do for each other, with enthusiasm and delight. But this is a letter between you and me, a quiet celebration in the midst of July Fourth fireworks. Wayback, I just want to say that you snuck up on me halfway through your first draft and you snagged my heart.

Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Scriva Ruth

An Ironic Evolution of “Grandma”

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: June 4, 2015
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Grandma-case-cropI remember decorating this plastic case for Mother’s Day, 1955. I used glue and glitter back then, a basic art form that survives to this day. Everyone in the group was supposed to write GRANDMA, and dutiful me complied, even though my grandmothers were “Nana” (an English alternative to grandmother) and “Bubbe” (grandmother in Yiddish).  I figured that “grandma” was the correct term of address in America, the nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the kind that inhabited the Dick and Jane readers in my elementary school. I was white, so I was part way to respectability. I could pass.

Flash forward sixty years to an America that at least recognizes more diversity, although we still have a long way to go. The Scrivas and I write for a wider audience, with characters that are drawn from a broader slice of humanity. I, however, am still me. What would I write on my plastic box now?

A key benefit of being in a writer’s critique group is exposure to the backgrounds and perspectives of creative people who observe the world around them. OK, all of the Scrivas are white and female. Still we have a lot that’s not in common, and it’s that lack of commonality that “feeds” me. Among the “grandmothers” and “grandmas” in the Scriva world, we have a few Nanas, an Adyl (meaning precious) and Emme, and a Gram B.

Dick and Jane evolved over the years to include African American characters, which is a small step, I grant you. Just ask Walter Dean Myers, whose essay in the New York Times is entitled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” And yet, here’s the irony about “grandma.” Our characters have to be true to themselves as well as to the times and places in which they find themselves.

My latest work-in-progress includes an woman, Ly Tien, who was born during the Vietnam War era to an African American GI and a Vietnamese woman. She is later adopted into a white family in the United States, a Jewish family with roots in Denmark, Germany, and Turkey. It’s 2059 Portland and Ly Tien has a granddaughter. What does Ly Tien want to be called?

Grandma. It figures. Adamant as she is about preserving her mixed heritage, Ly Tien wants to be called by the same name that she called the only grandmother she knew, the one who was born in the U.S. in 1919 and wanted to be called “grandma.” Despite the current trend to sound anything but old, there’s still that pull to take on the title that is familiar and perhaps beloved. So, Ly Tien, this plastic box, which came back to me when my Nana died about fifty years ago, is for you.

See the Tree? No? I Do! A Lesson in Revising

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: May 4, 2015
Categories: Basics, Challenges, Craft
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no-treeHere’s the thing about revising. Taking another look…and yet another look…at a draft of your own writing deals with more than what’s still on the page. For me the harder part of the revising and revisioning process is dealing with what’s no longer on the page.

Take this picture, for instance. I’ve walked along this path about 3,000 times over the past few years. For the first 2,800 times, I saw a small fir tree in front of the metal screen. I barely noticed the screen. Instead, I enjoyed that tree. I watched it thrive. Then, for some reason, the tree sickened and died. One day the tree was gone, erased from the scene. All that was left was the screen, but I still kept remembering the tree. I still focused on what was gone rather than on what remained.

It’s that way with my writing. Sometimes I get rid of a character that’s not needed, or dialogue that doesn’t pull its weight, or a bit of backstory that bogs down the action. I know I’ve made the scene better, but I can’t yet wrap my mind around what I am sharing with the reader and what is still stuck in my head.

Do I have a foolproof plan for dealing with this after-image syndrome? No. Not really. I wish I could be more helpful here. I do have some tools, though.

  • The critique group. I take advantage of the mindset of every one of the Scrivas. They aren’t as wedded to my “fir tree” as I am, because I thought up that fir tree and they only read about it.
  • The know-nothing reader. I find another reader, preferably someone who doesn’t know much about the story, and I ask them to read the “with tree” and “without tree” versions. I want to get out of my head and into theirs.
  • Desensitizing. Bear with me on this one. It sounds like a weird technique, but it does work for me. I deliberately put the “fir tree” back in the scene, then take it out, then put it in again, then take it out again. Eventually I get to the point where I am good and sick of that tree. I am more interested in every other part of the scene. The tree is so yesterday’s draft.

Every once in a great while something that I’ve removed from a scene insists on returning. What happens then is… the subject for another blog.

 

 

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