Categories: Challenges

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.

 

A challenge: putting yourself in the shoes of ALL readers

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 12, 2015
Categories: Challenges
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Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 1.03.38 PMAt the beginning of any new project, one of the things I need to figure out is who I am writing for. Is my audience four to six-year-olds or fourteen to eighteen-year-olds? Who will be doing the actual reading—Parents? A developing reader? A word ninja?

Having a clear sense of who the book is meant for will direct the many choices I have to make along the way. I have to decide on format—Picture book, graphic novel, something longer? Do the words need to leave space for illustrations or will the words do all the heavy-lifting? My reader will influence everything from story structure to word choice.

Now that I’ve been writing for as long as I have, many of the decisions come easily. I know from long practice the kind of language I can employ for different readers. I know the shape of the stories that they might need.

But I am not done.

Not by a long shot.

I have been carefully following the conversations surrounding the picture book A FINE DESSERT, and its depiction of slave children. This book was crafted with care by an author and an illustrator at the top of their game. Both do top-notch work for children and approach their work with the absolutely best intentions.

But they failed readers.

I urge you to read the summary of this conversation here and also to listen to Daniel Jose Older’s panel discussion on the topic. Additionally, please read his article in the Guardian about how children’s literature can and should reinforce #BlackLivesMatter. (Also follow the work of We Need Diverse Books.)

The thing about white privilege is that it allows white writers (and reviewers) to define the “ideal reader,” however unconsciously, as a white reader. I suspect this is why the creators of A FINE DESSERT made the choices they did.

In order to perceive the problems with the book, they would have needed to put themselves in the shoes of a black child reading the book and in the shoes of the parents reading this book aloud. As Older says in the video, “Slavery is an open wound in America.” And I will add that the horrors of this open wound are not equally shared. Calling slavery “case closed” is easy for white people, impossible for people of color.

So this is my challenge to myself and to each of you… Let us consider our readers—all of our readers—as we embark on new projects. I want to do everything in my power to consider the impact of my words on the child holding the book. Not just one child but the multitude of children (especially ones who differ from me in significant ways) who will bring their own life experiences and world view to the story. I want each and every one of them to find a place among my words.

To do this requires listening—to children, to people of color, to people who challenge me out of my comfort zone. It requires vulnerability—to make mistakes, to be corrected, to admit my failures. It requires empathy—to the open wounds, to the traumas, to the need to be heard.

I want to be that kind of writer.

I will try.

The Emotional Stages of Revision

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: October 20, 2015
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As I’m revising my middle grade novel, I feel distracted. I feel alone. I feel like no one has ever felt this lousy and distracted and unproductive while revising a novel ever before in the history of literature.

So what do I do? I google my problem. I type in “revising a novel sucks.” I think I want to tell someone (the google search box?) how much it sucks. And I think maybe someone has blogged about it and I can read it so I won’t feel so alone. (Also, this googling mean I’m not working on revising my novel for the moment, which is good cause REVISING SUCKS.)

Anyway, I found this: The Ten Emotional Stages of Revising a Novel, by Farrah Penn on Bustle.com.

I have been in all of these stages! Resentment. Second guessing. Fear. Distraction. Maybe not always in this order but I have BEEN IN ALL OF THEM!

And I’ve come out on the other side before. So maybe I will again.

And maybe if you’re stuck in one of these stages, you will too.

Feel free to tell me all about. Turns out we are not alone…

Elizabeth Rusch

Writer Wanted—A Job Description

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 16, 2015
Categories: Challenges, Creativity, Humor
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Requirements of the position:

  1. Navigate social media with authentic (non-threatening) mastery
  2. Engage constantly (except during twice weekly showers)
  3. Market yourself and your work with love (not slime)
  4. Advance causes without being didactic or confrontational (use hashtags)
  5. Teach at every opportunity (schools, libraries, conferences, bus stops, laundromats)
  6. Juggle everything (deadlines, family, second jobs, fire, occasional small carnivores)
  7. Manage complicated projects (including life) on extremely limited funds (the reward is the doing)
  8. Be a role model for everything (all the time)

waldorf_and_statler

Snark aside, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a working writer. There are many expectations (see above). Some of them (maybe not juggling fire) do seem to be required of the position. But what does it really mean to do this job? What are my “responsibilities”?

Only this… to think hard about what makes people tick, to open myself to deep emotions, to tell stories that move me, and to wrestle with words until a world is born anew on the page.

This is my job.

And it is good.

irvine-welsh

Pushing Beyond What We Think We Can Do

by Amber Keyser
Published on: September 12, 2015
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Writing–at least Scriva-style writing–is NOT about playing it safe. We push each other to go deeper, to cross boundaries, and to trust in the story to carry its own weight. Pushing beyond is about offering encouragement and being a kind listener, but its also about thinking of the reader and what he or she may need.

As I worked on THE V-WORD, an anthology of essays about first time sexual experiences, the Scrivas and I had many conversations about what readers needed from the collection–good experiences and bad ones, unplanned and planned, and even stories of waiting to have sex.

The Scrivas supported me as I worked with contributors to meet those needs. As the editor of THE V-WORD, I was frequently in the position of having to push the writers to go deeper, to reveal more, to find the right words.

It was hard for me and even harder for them. Contributor Karen Jensen says this about the process:

If I’m being honest, this was one of the most difficult things I have ever written. On this blog I have shared about my history of sexual abuse, I have shared about my economic woes, and I have even shared about my struggles with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. But writing about having sex for the first time was hands down the hardest writing I have ever done. It’s so personal. Sex is something that is still so taboo to talk about…

Read the rest of her blog post here.

But I think all of us would agree that pushing beyond was worth it. We grew as people and writers. The book is far better because of it. And it is what readers (at least some readers) will need. Look for THE V-WORD on February 2, 2016. It is full of brave writers and honest writing.

 

The V-Word Cover

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!

 

How to Deal with a Huge Pile of Comments

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: August 20, 2015
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Have you ever felt buried under a pile of manuscripts comments? My two critique groups generously agreed to read my whole middle-grade novel April Fool. So I had 10 copies printed and mailed them off.

All 10 members read them, poured their hearts, souls and intellects into reading and commenting. And now I face this:

Pile of April Fool manuscripts

(Wow, it looks so much more intimidating on my desk…believe me, its a huge pile.)

When I met with the two groups, the members gave me oral comments and I took notes furiously. But I don’t want to miss anything they may have written in addition, so I have to go through this huge pile. Did I mention that it is huge.?Or at least feels huge…

So how do I take a pile of marked up manuscripts and turn it into a plan? I start by pulling the first manuscript off the pile. I begin to read the comments. In Word I start two files: One is a list of notes on comments that I know I want to address. These comments and suggestions resonate with me, and I have a hunch that by making these suggested changes the manuscript will not only be better but will also be closer to what I want the book to be. The second Word doc is a list of notes on suggestions that I think are interesting but that I’m not sure I want do.

The first list becomes my master TO DO list for revision. The second list I will consider again after I have finished those revisions. After working with the manuscript on the first set of notes, I usually have a better idea of whether these suggestions will take me in the direction I want to go.

There is one more step to this manuscript mountain climbing process. The height of the pile is partially my own fault. Instead of printing the manuscripts double-sided to save paper, I print single-sided. That way I can flip through a manuscript, taking out all the pages that have no comments or that have comments or edits that I don’t want to do. This leaves me with a much smaller pile of the pages that have important comments or line edits that I want to input. Ahh, a smaller mountain.

This reviewing and sorting and weeding process helps me both ponder comments at my own pace and sets me up with a clear list of revisions I know I want to make.

And when I’m done with all these revisions and I’m ready to print out my new improved manuscript, I’ll have lots of recycled paper to print it on 🙂

Happy revising.

Elizabeth Rusch

Present to Past Tense

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: July 20, 2015
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Ah, the tense tango continues. You may remember in an earlier post how I rewrote my nonfiction picture book manuscript called THE MUSIC OF LIFE: BARTOLOMEO CRISTOFORI AND THE INVENTION OF THE PIANO from past tense to present tense. That rewrite breathed life into the manuscript. Writing about late Renaissance history as if it were unfolding made the story so much more lively.

tenseWell switcho-changeo, now I’m rewriting a middle grade novel from present tense into past. The novel, APRIL FOOL, about a serious kid with practical jokester parents, is something I’ve been working on for more than a decade. And for more than a decade people have been saying: “I’m not sure about the present tense. It feels awkward — a bit self-conscious.”  And for about a decade, I ignored these comments.

Then at a recent meeting of my other critique group, where we read pages out loud, the member seemed unanimous in their desire to see the chapter I read in past tense. So I rewrote a chapter. And lo and behold, once again, my critiquers were correct. The original tense I had chosen (and clung on to for dear life) was not the best tense for the story. The past tense actually added a measure of mystery to the story that keeps you reading.

So the last few days have seemed like one long grammar lesson as I have plowed through changing present tense to past. Will this exercise help me get the tense right the first time around? I don’t think so. But it does remind me, once again, that in writing not to get too tense about tense. Change it up and see what happens.

A Lot to Read

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: June 20, 2015
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There have been times in the history of the Viva Scrivas when only one or two people were submitting work to be read most months. We wrung our hands about what to do about it, how everyone should be able to get something out of the meeting even if they didn’t submit, how to keep the group vital while reading only one or two people’s work.

Pile of PapersThe pendulum has swung recently. Everyone is super productive and super eager to get feedback on mostly long work. In our last meeting, we had 60 pages of an alternate history YA, 92 pages (single spaced) of a YA with documentary film making teen, 100 pages of a YA coming of age novel, and the last hunk of a YA novel set in Brazil.

The next month we’ll be tackling a whole MG novel (150 pages) and two chunks (50-100 pages) of two of the YA novels.

That’s a fair amount of reading.

So how do we do it?

First of all, when things seem to be heating up, when it seems like a lot of people want to share big chunks, we sketch out a schedule for submissions. That way we know what is coming when and can set aside reading time. It also helps prevent meetings with nothing to read and others with too much to read.

Also, we have a guideline (sometimes followed, sometimes not) that if you are submitting a large chunk (50 pages or more) you must submit a month, rather than just a week, before. Also as a courtesy, we offer print outs for longer chunks, especially full novels.

How do I personally manage all that reading? For one thing, I really look forward to it. I am excited to read my fellow-writers work, whether its pages I’ve never seen or a revision where I can see a work getting better and better.

I also print out all the submissions as the come in and put them on a table in my livingroom with a pen nearby, so I can curl up on the couch with the pages in the evening, away from my desk.

I try to get everything read a few days before the meeting so I have some time to let my thoughts percolate. I will often add a few notes last notes a few days after reading something or at the meeting itself.

Mostly I welcome a lot of reading from the Viva Scrivas. It means the group and the individual writers are on a roll. It means I have lots of great reading ahead. And finally, it means that I will likely learn a lot as I read and as we gather to share our thoughts on all this wonderful work. As ScrivaAmber once said: We learn as much by reading and commenting as we do by getting comments on our work.

Elizabeth Rusch

 

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.

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