Categories: Critique Process

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.

Good Notes

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: April 1, 2015
Categories: Critique Process
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Creativity Inc.On this blog about critique (as well as very much about the writing process), I offer a plug for Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull. A graphic artist friend recommended the book, and indeed people of all stripes will find plenty to mine within. Animators, writers, managers, artists, moviemakers, CEOs… and members of critique groups!

 

There’s plenty about effective critiquing interspersed throughout. (The book has a good index: I recommend tracking “Braintrust” if you can’t take on reading the whole book.) But here’s a lovely summary by Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation, about the “good notes” that Pixar leaders offered each other from the beginning:

 

“A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. “I’m writhing with boredom,” is not a good note.” (p. 103).

 

May we all give, and receive, the best of good notes.

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

 

Plagiarize, Plagiarize, Plagiarize!

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: February 4, 2015
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With credit to Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

With credit to Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

PLAGIARIZE!

Now that I have I caught your attention, let’s clarify. I do not want you to take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Nope. Not good. A definite no-no.

Still, I offer you this ironic line from an old song by Tom Lehrer about a Russian mathematician. “Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize. Only be sure to call it please research.”

Research is exactly what I’m talking about, research into how the best authors craft a sentence, paragraph, or scene. Here’s what Ursula K. Le Guin, writer extraordinaire, says in her “how to” book, Steering the Craft:

A rational fear of plagiarizing, and an individualistic valuation of originality, have stopped many prose writers from using deliberate imitation as a learning tool…. I think conscious, deliberate imitation of a piece of prose one admires can be good training, a means towards finding one’s own voice as a writer…. What is essential is the consciousness. When imitating, it’s necessary to remember the work, however successful, is practice, not an end in itself, but a means towards the end of writing with skill and freedom in one’s own voice.

Thank you, Ursula. Enough said.

Let Me Count the Ways

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: November 25, 2014
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I’ve been part of Viva Scriva for seven years, and I’ve learned and received so much from them, individually and collectively.

Inspiration, and a demonstration of the value of Perspiration.

One time we were talking frankly about envy. I had to say that, interestingly, I wasn’t jealous of different members’ success, because, “If I’d worked as hard, I’d be further along too.”

Writing. Submitting. Revising. Revising. Repeating. Sending off to agents or publishers. Writing again, writing something different. Letting a project rest for a while. Picking it up again. No agent, wrong agent, new agent, right agent.

Perseverance. Stick-to-it-ivenss. Keeping on going.

Fun

-Crysanthemums, gum drops, and other delights served up Saturday evenings at retreats

-Viva Scriva salutes (forming a VS with our hands when all agreed on a comment at a critique meeting)

-Presents, most of them components of the “Viva Scriva outfit.” Ruth actually knit each one of us personalized socks (can you believe it?); colorful wraps from Brazil from Addie; wear-them-ten-ways hoodies from Amber; Czech bracelets from Nicole, customized VS pendants commissioned by Liz, logo Ts from Mary; wool scarves from Ecuador… (My contribution was culinary rather than sartorial: hand-carved wooden spoons from Romania.)

Thought-provoking Reflection

-Addie’s incredibly valuable, pretty-much annual, reflective exercises.

-Liz’s coaching about pursuing “low hanging fruit,” query letters, market overviews, etc.

-Amber’s review of careers of favorite authors as inspirational guides.

-Liz’s gratitude beads.

Support as we in turn went through professional or personal or family cares. Commiserating during setbacks. Celebrating accomplishments.

Retreats. Business meetings. Writing days. Art as process meetings.

Oh, yeah—and the monthly Critique Meetings that started and undergird everything. I received invaluable feedback on my manuscripts, and learned so much from others’ comments and writing even the months when I hadn’t submitted a manuscript.

-Respect and kindness (the praise sandwich).

-Truth (things said graciously, but everything that needed to be said, said).

-Sometime inadvertent tutelage about story arcs, motivations, trying it different ways, tight writing…

-Brainstorming manuscript problems, or process/approach, during one’s 20 Minutes.

-Encouragement: “This is so great.” “I know you can do it.” “I can’t wait to read more.”

-So much received from each Scriva and her particular “eye,” approach, and writerly-personality; from Addie, Amber, Liz, Mary, Michelle, Nicole, Ruth.

 

Reflecting on these and other gifts from these seven years, I have to paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse. How do I appreciate you, Scrivas? Let me count the ways.

Thank you, Scrivas.

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

Credit where Credit is Due

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: October 20, 2014
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COVER FINAL FEB 2014My newest book The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans just published.  Hurrah!

Thanks to wonderful Scriva critiques, it is a Junior Library Guild selection and has gotten a starred review from Kirkus, which called it “timely” and “important.”  As I read the review, I thought about comments Scrivas had given me on early drafts and how they were responsible for much of the praise in the review. Here are some snippets from the review that I can thank the Scrivas for:

“well-written…” thanks to comments that pointed out each part that was not as well-written as it could be…comments like “you could condense this,” “tighten?” and all the copyedits that fixed awkward constructions and grammar problems.

“She draws in young readers…” thanks to comments that highlighted the adult-speak in early drafts and that pointed out the most kid-friendly parts and suggested I do more like that.

“clear explanations,” thanks to comments that pointed out sections that were confusing.

“appropriately focused and interesting…” thanks to comments that highlighted sections that went off topic or “could perhaps be presented in a more interesting way” (read: BORING!).

Without the excellent critiques I get, I believe my books would be rather mediocre. Critique groups help you do your very best work.  So Scrivas, WE got a great review! Thanks for all your help with the book!

Scriva Liz

Critique as Creative Collective

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: August 20, 2014
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I read a wonderful article in the Sunday New York Times called “The End of Genius” that I think captures why we Scrivas, and you and other writers, thrive in critique groups.

It’s about how our brains are wired to be in conversation with others about our ideas, about our creative work. Though this researcher focused on creative pairs and many critiques groups include more than two people, the idea of creative conversation still applies, I think. When we Scrivas critique, we go around and give comments one at a time. We address our comments directly to the writer. The conversation for each critique is mostly one-on-one. People do pipe in (interrupt politely) and add comments. But in most cases these comments are productive, broadening, focusing or stirring the conversation.

I have heard that in some critique groups, the writer being critique is supposed to remain quiet the whole time, taking notes. In both my critique groups, the writer certainly listens quietly and take notes at first, but most critiques become conversations, and I think that is good thing. Do you?

Scriva Liz

Laurie Ann Thompson: Scriva for a Night

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: August 4, 2014
Categories: Critique Process
Comments: 2 Comments

laurie-thompsoncropped-Blog-header-2-1024x198Viva Scriva is a tight-knit group. After all this time together and our myriad critiques, how could we not be? Rarely do we invite others to attend a meeting, and usually it’s with an eye toward joining our group. We’re not snobs. We simply take our writing seriously. A few weeks ago, we made an exception, and I got more out of that meeting than I’d expected.

Laurie Ann Thompson, a Washington-based writer, was visiting Portland and staying with a Scriva during the evening of one of our meetings. We invited Laurie to come. I checked her out on the Web first (an addiction of mine), and this is what she has to say for herself:

I write for children and young adults to help my readers—and myself—make better sense of the world we live in so we can contribute to making it a better place. I strive to write nonfiction that gives wings to active imaginations and fiction that taps into our universal human truths. I believe that each of us is capable of doing amazing things once we discover our passion, talent, and purpose. Reading is a great place to start.

At the Scriva meeting, we talked a bit about Laurie’s upcoming book, BE A CHANGEMAKER, which offers young adults ways to effect social change in our world. Mostly, though, the conversation centered on the Scriva submissions, none of which Laurie had read beforehand. So how could she have contributed to the critique? I noticed two key ways that Scriva for a Night engendered creativity and added to the process:

  • We Scrivas for The Long Haul brought Laurie into the conversation by summarizing our latest projects and describing what we were trying to say in our writing. It’s amazing how much clarity comes from hearing yourself encapsulate your own work for someone else!
  • Like many good writers, Laurie has perfected the art of listening. She augmented our comments by synthesizing what she’d heard and adding her own thoughts with a fresh voice and a fresh angle.

Maybe having a guest at our critique meeting worked so well because Laurie Ann Thompson turned out to be the ideal Scriva for a Night. Maybe it would have been equally enjoyable and productive to have invited another writer of Laurie’s caliber. Who’s to say? Either way, if Laurie ever finds her way to Portland on another meeting night, I’d welcome her back for another Scriva for a Night critique.

Scriva Ruth

 

 

Sabina’s Style

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: July 4, 2014
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Sabinas-styleI’ve been a member of Viva Scriva for years now, and each of the Scrivas is dear to me. Scriva characters invade my brain. Scriva works-in-progress tickle my editor’s fancy. Scriva nonfiction research becomes part of my dinner table conversation. No surprise, then, that when I saw this sign I immediately thought of Scriva Sabina Rascol’s latest draft. Sabina’s Style is a dress shop? Really? No. Sabina’s style is intricate, cultured, and poetic. Kind of like the sign.

It’s a given: I respect and admire Sabina’s writing style. Recently, however, instead of critiquing a portion of the draft Sabina submitted to Viva Scriva, I rewrote several hundred words in Ruth’s style. I wanted to show Sabina exactly what I meant, and so I showed her rather than told her. I showed her word by word by word in my way. Totally my way. Hardly a Sabina syllable in sight. Oy! How could I have done such violence?

The story ends happily, folks. Sabina received the make-over in the same Scriva-esque crazy humor with which I sent it. I got to edit someone else’s words at a time when I was finding it particularly difficult to work on my own book. I also got to examine Sabina’s style down to every word of every sentence I “critiqued,” which meant that I got back into the guts and sinews of the writing craft. I’d wager that it would be a productive exercise to rewrite Hemingway in John Green’s style and vice versa. (Would that I could write as well as either guy.)

The truth is that I never want Sabina to write just like me. She knows that (thanks for understanding, Sabina). I know that. One Scriva Ruth is enough!

 

 

NEVER Give Up on a Book You Believe In

Don’t give upWhen I was pregnant with my second child, who is now 10 years old, I started writing a picture book called Squeaks, Stumps, and Surprises: A Big Brother’s Guide to Life with a New Baby. I was trying to see my second pregnancy and the appearance of a new baby in the family through my first child’s eyes. I asked him and his friends what they thought about pregnancy and new babies, especially new siblings. And I learned that little kids don’t see things the way we adults do.

In the book, I tried to capture the voice of a slightly older, wiser kid giving insider advice about what life with a new baby would really be like. I loved writing it, I loved revising it, and when I submitted it to publishers, I got nice notes back about the writing and the concept. But all agreed it wouldn’t stand out in the crowded New Baby market.

So I went back to it, revising it again, making the voice stronger, fresher, funnier. This went on for several years (I had a new baby at home after all) before I submitted again. This time I found a few editors who liked it, too. It went to acquisitions several times, but alas, no one bought it.

I got busy with other projects, busy with my two kids, and forgot about the manuscript for a while, perhaps years. If I happened to think of it, I would open the most recent version and read it. I’d think: “I still really like this book.” Sometimes I’d play around with it again. I changed the boy to a girl. I broke the book into sections. I added more dialogue, more funny lists, more punch lines. I cut it radically. I added more material. I cut again. I went from one narrator to two: a boy and a girl.

I started working with a wonderful agent who sold some of my manuscripts. When I first showed her this one, she said something to the effect of: “I’m not sure this would stand out in the crowded New Baby market.” Sound familiar? So I put it away again.

In the meantime, I started writing a graphic novel. (MUDDY MAX, coming this August!) Sometime while working on the graphic novel, I took yet another peek at the new baby book. I thought: “I still really like this book.” And I had an idea. What if the book was a picture book/graphic novel hybrid with some main narrative text and some funny scenes in comic form? I carved out some time to try this, got great feedback from my critique groups, revised again and showed my agent. This time she said: “All right, let’s give it a try.”

And I am happy, ecstatic, thrilled to report, that TEN YEARS after first writing the book, we got an offer on it. I am still in shock that it actually happened. Look for The Big Kids’ Guide to Life with a New Baby sometime in 2016!

And don’t EVER give up on a book project you believe in.

Elizabeth Rusch

P.S. In case it’s not obvious from the story above, it is OK to put a manuscript aside for a while (months or even years), play around with it a lot, try some radical revisions, get feedback, put it away again, revisit it again. But if you like it, if you believe in it, if there is something in there you think is special, don’t give up, don’t ever give up.

Crafting Characters? Take Your Scarecrow to Lunch

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: June 4, 2014
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Scarecrow-cropA while back, the Scrivas had a weekend retreat at a farm in Hood River. Outside the living room window “stood” this scarecrow, a stark reminder to me that the main characters in novels have to be more than the literary equivalent of a headless sack of straw and old clothes. Characters like that are for the birds. Readers deserve fully formed people, whether sympathetic or scary, if you want them to flock to your story.

There are lots of ways to create strong characters. This flowchart has made the rounds about how to craft strong, memorable female characters. I admit that I’m not as thorough. Still, I try to get to know my main characters before I introduce them to their readers. I can’t hope to make them strong until I know them well enough and craft them fully enough so that they don’t fall apart in the editing process. Here’s what works for me.

  • I craft a complete physical description, including an image or two from a magazine, Google, or a photo service such as Getty’s iStock.
  • I include flaws, talents, habits, or other traits, which can get the reader’s attention and serve as a way to identify that character to others in the story. Does he or she collect bubble gum wrappers, count to 18 before crossing the street, bake pineapple upside cakes during hurricanes, or, as in my work-in-progress, suffer from magical thinking about a dead parent? We all have quirks; we all are wounded in some way.
  • I give the character a clear and forthright voice (at least for this one time) so that he or she can join me for a day and comment on everything I do (well, almost everything). “Why spend your time knitting socks when you could be river rafting?” “I’d never walk this slow.” “Don’t you ever eat cheeseburgers?” “Wow, so this is the library you go to. I’ve never seen anything so elegant!” You get the picture. I set the chatterbox to full throttle and listen, listen, listen.

japan-scarecrowOnce I’ve followed my character-creating routine, my character might look more like this scarecrow found in a field in Japan. Now he or she is ready to meet THE CHALLENGES, whatever it is that the character has to overcome in order to, well, become an even stronger character, just like in real life.

Here’s where things get tricky. Next up, a Scriva critique. I might find something vital that I missed in developing that character. Or I might realize that the character … although not my main one … yet… doesn’t have what it takes to move the plot along in any meaningful manner. Then it’s good-bye. No matter how colorful or quirky, my character gets voted off Work-In-Progress Island.

Scarecrows and stories have been around since forever minus epsilon. So have stories about scarecrows, including one about Kuebiko dating back to the eighth century, but that’s for another post.

 

 

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