Categories: Writing Process

When the ice is thin…

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 12, 2014
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Frozen lake in Algonquin Park (Photo by Voyageur Quest)

Frozen lake in Algonquin Park (Photo by Voyageur Quest)

Currently I am in the very final revisions of a contemporary YA novel called THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN, which will be published in Fall 2015 by Carolrhoda Lab. At this stage in the process, I have moved from my usual methodical application of hardwork and craft to something more uncommon and harder to understand even for me.

As I work my way through the manuscript, I come upon passages that to my eyes and to my mind seem okay. The writing is tight. The descriptions are vivid. The dialogue feels real. But my gut says that something is off. It’s as if I am on a frozen lake and suddenly a subtle sense of danger grows. The ice is too thin here. It will support neither me or the story.

I sit and stare at the screen, imploring the page to reveal what is missing. I pace my office, wondering what is off-kilter about the emotion and sentiment in the paragraph. I imagine myself as each character, plumbing the depths of their inmost selves.

Eventually I will feel the way before me. I will caress the words. I will shape them into struts and support. They will become as thick as reality itself. It is both mystical and terrifying. I wonder if I will lose myself to the depths.

The Order of Things

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: October 27, 2014
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2014-10, Things Organized Neatly, Marianne Viero(AT LEFT: “Things Organized Neatly” or “Out of Order #1” by Marianne Viero)

Nicole and I started writing together a year or two before Viva Scriva came to be. She was working on a historical novel—and writing all the scenes in order. I was working on a fantasy novel— and finding out the story line by skipping and hopping, as the spirit led, from scene to merry scene.

Some time later, I set aside this and other works-in-progress to write the historical middle-grade novel I’m working on now. In this new book, I thought it was important to write the scenes in order, and I did so. I finished the earliest draft (that the Scrivas as a whole never saw) in this manner, as well as the almost-to-the-end re-write that followed.

In the meantime, Nicole attended a workshop with author Emily Whitman. One of the tips she came away with was to write the scenes she saw most clearly, or felt most strongly, first, then write the connecting bits later. That’s what she began to do, halfway through her novel.

You see what had happened, don’t you? We’d switched positions. She was now hopping around in her novel, while I was writing linearly.

More recently, I shook up my not-quite-finished novel and began to submit in a big way to the Scrivas. I gave them a fresh beginning, earlier in time than the version they’d seen before. But then… See, I need to have a finished draft to submit somewhere soon. And I realized that what I most needed, for my peace of mind, was to write the ending next. I finally knew how I wanted the book to end, and needed to know that I’d set that down.

So what did I do? I took a page from Nicole’s book. From my earlier story exploration. I wrote out of turn. Instead of revising my way through the middle of my story, and giving that to the Scrivas next, I skipped on to the end.

Then I backtracked and gave the middle to the Scrivas—well, the middle of the middle. Then they saw that section’s end.

Going forward, I’ll revise and fill in bits in the beginning, do the same with the first part of the middle, and then carry on all the way to the end.

Confused? So are the Scrivas. Still, they’ve been able to give me awesome comments, even though they (and I!) are looking forward to seeing the whole story in proper order.

The point of this post is that—learning from Nicole and me—at different times, for different reasons, you may need to write or revise your story linearly. At other times, you may need to skip around. Don’t worry about it. Just do what best serves the story and your current writing needs.

**

In case you’re wondering, what the Scrivas saw of my draft was:

-Beginning, 1
-End, 1
-End, 2
-Middle, 3
-Middle, 4

What they’ll see going forward:

-Beginning, 1—revised from above
-Beginning, 2
-Middle, 1—revised from a couple of years ago
-Middle, 2
-and so on, to a proper end.

 

Best wishes for your writing, in or out of turn.

 

-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

“I Bought It for the Book”

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: September 4, 2014
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Hand-bowlRecently Scriva Nicole posted her thoughts on engaging in experiences “for the writing,” and I can attest to her enthusiasm…and courage…to practice her own advice. Way to go, Nicole!

My variation on Nicole’s theme rests in the selfie you see of my hand. It’s a small ceramic bowl from Turkey, and I had the pleasure of buying it in Istanbul a couple of years ago. No, I didn’t go to Istanbul merely for the sake of my next novel, although doesn’t that sound romantic?  But there I was, on a regular old tour with regular old folks (OK, folks of a “certain age”), and we went to the obligatory ceramics store.

I need yet another bowl like houseflies need yet another receptor in their compound eyes. Still, this little gem was hand made in the style of the Iznik porcelain famous during the 16th century, at just the time of my book-to-be. The flowers were right. The colors were right. And, because of the bowl’s size, the price was, if not right, than at least not outrageous.

I am finally writing that book which includes 16th Century Istanbul. My bowl does evoke memories of the city, and for that reason alone I’m glad to have spent the money. But there’s more. I find now that this bit of faraway with its long-ago design beckons me to sit down and write the story that’s in my head and the imagination that rests in the palm of my hand.

 

Switch It Up

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: September 2, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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2014-08, changing switchesSwitch It Up – ONE

 

I read somewhere of a writer who writes at her desk but revises in an armchair.  Something like that.

 

And I’ve often read the advice to print out a manuscript when revising it, because we see it differently on the tactile page.

 

I stumbled across a similar switch-up that works for me: switching computer programs.

 

I used to write my drafts in Microsoft Word. A couple of months ago I decided to put my draft into Scrivener. This allowed me to take advantage of Scrivener’s ability to separate a manuscript into parts, sections, beats, and chapters. There’s lots I still don’t know about Scrivener, but overall the program worked well for me.

 

Now, though I’ve been writing in Scrivener, I send my manuscript to the Scrivas in Microsoft Word. Before sending them the chunk, I give the whole section one more gander. It’s amazing what I further find to correct and change, seeing my words lined up in a different way. After this further revision in Microsoft Word, the document goes to the Scrivas. (Then, yes, I paste the revised chapters back in Scrivener, to have the most updated version of my manuscript together in my main writing place.)

 

 

Switch It Up – TWO

 

Another way to switch things up is choosing another location to write in.

 

If writing in your usual place feels stale or tiresome, try taking your computer or notebook with you somewhere else. For several weeks straight, I’ve been writing regularly in a coffee shop. Recently, I pulled out my work while at the park. I felt refreshed, and approached my writing a different way, in a different environment. This also worked when writing in bed immediately after waking, instead of getting myself to my usual location.

 

So how do you switch things up for yourself to keep things fresh?

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

 

“Make friends with other writers…”

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: August 8, 2014
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“The right alliances will save your spirit — not to mention your career — during the dark nights of the soul. Spend some time getting to know what you want. It’s a shifting-sands industry, so you’ve gotta take responsibility for being familiar with your own priorities. And never, never, ever let the word ‘rejection’ apply to you. It’s not a rejection, it’s a pass, and they happen every day. But so do offers.”

I thought this was great advice from a newly published writer and it reminded me of the value of a critique group (and great group of friends :). You can read the rest of the interview here.

The First Act: Thirds, Fifths, or Sevenths?

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: June 30, 2014
Categories: Craft, Writing Process
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red-orange-yellow pieAristotle divided stories into three acts, Elizabethan dramatists preferred five. But exactly how long should the beginning be? Maybe you’ve never worried about how long the first act of your story should be, relative to the rest of your novel. But if you have, read along about my journey and how I settled this question.

 

Some time ago I dipped into How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel, edited by Carol Hoover. I went away with notes on the chapter “Proportion in Plot, contributed by F. M. Maupin. Maupin divides a theoretical 200 page novel into five acts, then discusses around what page number significant plot points tend to fall.

 

I liked this model and looked at a favorite published novel through its prism. First I had to do some mathematical contortions because, in Maupin’s model, the five acts get divided into four sections of varying lengths. So for now I set aside the five acts in favor of four sections. Below are their functions. (Note: The page numbers go with that 200 page novel; if the novel you are looking at, or writing, is a different length, divide it into five equal acts, then adjust the section pages accordingly.)

 

-Section 1 (Act I) = pages 1-40, setting up the background of the story

-Section 2 (Act II + first half of Act III) = pages 41-100, showing the developing crisis

-Section 3 (second half of Act III + all of Act IV + first half of Act V) = pages 101-180, leading up to the climax

-Section 4 (second half of Act V) = pages 181-200, wrapping everything up

 

The novel I studied proved this model. Important events fell exactly where Maupin said they should. But when I sought to apply the model to my own partial draft/outline, I got stuck. However you cut it, into acts or sections, the first part still ends up being ONE-FIFTH of the book. I didn’t think that would work for my story. Sure, I can write forty pages of introductory narrative. But given the amount of material I have for my middle, can I really spare a whole fifth of my limited pages for just introduction? I chewed and chewed on this: What to do?

 

I continued to write and dip into other books on writing. Eureka! It turns out that, while Maupin’s is an excellent model, it’s not the only one. Other authors vary in their opinions about what makes for the ideal proportion of a first act. Below, the caps are my emphasis.

 

Here’s the wonderful James Scott Bell about where to position the doorway that leads the reader from the first to the second act: “My rule of thumb is the one-fifth mark, THOUGH IT CAN HAPPEN SOONER.” (Plot and Structure, p. 33) Yippee! Hooray!

 

Wait, it gets better. David Morrell, in The Successful Novelist, “allows” a first act that’s only ONE SEVENTH long! (On pages 60-61, he proposes three acts or sections. The first and third acts are each one-seventh long, while the second/middle act is five-sevenths.)

 

And on page 61, Morrell documents Henry James’s The Ambassadors. Morrell sees the structure of this novel as two groups of six acts—which supplies a precedent for first acts that are ONE SIXTH long!

 

Robert Kernen is also a proponent of shorter first acts. “While the length of act one is, of course, flexible, I recommend keeping it to NO MORE THAN ONE-SIXTH of the entire length of your story. This may seem very brief and out of proportion to the following two acts, but you should compress your story’s opening act so that the audience has all the information it needs but can get quickly into the major thrust of the drama.” (Building Better Plots, p. 19)

 

My conclusion? We can choose the proportion that best suits our story. To paraphrase the famous phrase, “Don’t worry, keep writing.” 🙂

 

-Sabina I. Rascol

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.

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.
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