Categories: Craft

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.”

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 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

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.

What You Get from the Analysis of First Pages

by Amber Keyser
Published on: July 10, 2015
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When I was first getting started in this business, I thought it was terribly unfair to get a conference critique or agent feedback on just a chapter or two. After all, how could they know what I’ve done with the rest of the story?

Now, I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that issues which occur early in the story are almost always carried throughout. That’s why it is possible to give feedback on a few chapters. If the author can carry the changes throughout, they are usually end up with a much much better product at the end.

Most of these large scale issues are things like narrative voice, consistent POV, realistic dialogue, and showing vs. telling. When the Scrivas do critiques (for each other or through our paid critique services), we point out issues and try to offer ways to strengthen the manuscript. Ideally, these suggestions are things that the writer can implement on their own in the rest of the manuscript.

After a few thorough revisions, we Scrivas turn our eyes and little red pens to line edits, parsing through each sentence for word choice and phrasing. This is the stage at which the writer has the opportunity to make every line sing.

And when the book sells, launches, finds readers… when the book itself soars… then we celebrate this amazing process that begins, as all true stories do, with a blank page and ends with the creation of a new world we can all inhabit.

It turns out that it is true: first pages are the key to everything!

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.

 

 

REVISING SCENES

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: April 20, 2015
Comments: 1 Comment

While revising my middle-grade novel April Fool, I have found Donald Maass’ THE FIRE IN FICTION to be enormously helpful. The whole book is terrific, but I’ve been focused on Chapter 3: Scenes that Can’t Be Cut. I have heard many times that a character should want something in every scene and that something should change for the character in every scene, but I haven’t always been sure about how to accomplish that. Using exercises Maass offers at the end of this chapter, I have created a scene worksheet that I have found helpful. Pick a scene, answer the following questions, and then revise the scene with your answers in mind.  I hope you find it as powerful as I do! The questions from my worksheet, adapted from The Fire of Fiction, follow below:

The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great

WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT IN SCENE?

3 HINTS THAT HE/SHE MIGHT GET IT:

3 HINTS THAT HE/SHE WON’T:

NEW STRONG FIRST LINE:

NEW STRONG LAST LINE:

WHAT IS THE TURNING POINT, WHEN THINGS CHANGE?

HOW DOES THE CHARACTER SEE HIMSELF/HERSELF BEFORE TURNING POINT?

AFTER?

THREE SENSORY DETAILS DURING THE TURNING POINT:

FIVE SETTING DETAILS:

I hope you find this exercise as powerful as I do!

Elizabeth Rusch

Taking a Bubble Break

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: March 5, 2015
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Bubbles-crop2I captured this shot a few days ago, during one of the gloriously (and weirdly) warm days of non-winter. In lieu of snowflakes or raindrops in Jamison Square Park, we had bubbles. Really big bubbles, floating up into the sky.

The rational side of me knows where bubbles come from and how to make them. Here’s a whole list of links to recipes from bubbleblowers.com. Still, the kid in me was entranced by the magic. Like the child in the photo, I wanted to chase after a bubble and touch it.

The writer in me wants to create a scene that engenders this much intense attention in the reader. I want to write a scene that pulls the reader into the action on the page (or the screen), and keeps the reader there. I want to meld craft and creativity, until I can write such a scene. And then of course the challenge is to write another scene after that until there’s a whole narrative arc of scenes. It’s easier to make bubbles, believe me. But it’s the scene I’m after, so the bubble break is over. I’d better stop blathering and get back to work.

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