Tags: critique

Gas and Brakes

How long does it take you to write a book? How fast do you work? I get asked these questions a lot, especially the first one by school-aged kids.  The answer is that it varies – dramatically.

My fastest book was a school library title on tennis (draft in a month, final in a few months) because that was how long the publisher gave me.  Next fastest was The Planet Hunter: The Story behind What Happened to Pluto which went from proposal to final approved manuscript ready to be illustrated in a handful of months. (My editor and I wanted to get that book out as fast as possible to explain the fascinating story behind why Pluto was no longer considered a planet.)

Typically, my books take much longer. I am working on a book now called Mario and the Hole in the Sky that will be published by Charlesbridge in 2016. I started working on it in 2007. That’s nine years for a picture book.  My graphic novel Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek which comes out this year (YAY!) began as a middle grade novel in 2006. That’s eight years. My book The Mighty Mars Rovers took a similar amount of time. I’m working on picture book now that I literally started a decade ago.

The reasons for these long periods of time can vary. Many times, I am writing multiple, completely different drafts of the same book – and that takes a long time. (Thank you Scrivas, for reading version after version after version!) Other times I get discouraged after submitting something that doesn’t sell and I put it aside for a while.

In fact, it would be misleading to suggest that I was working on all these projects all the time in those years. What is much more typical is that there are times in the life of project when I put on the gas and other times I put on the brakes.

A current project in development on the inventor of the piano is a good example. When I got the idea in 2010, I start researching furiously (gas). I worked on it off and on through summer of 2012 (little pumps of gas), when I took a research trip to Florence, Italy (gas, gas, gas). When I got back, I did some writing and thinking (gas). Then I got stuck and I got busy with some other deadlines (SCREEECH! Brakes).

I have to be careful because brakes are easier to sustain than gas (things at rest like to stay at rest.) I didn’t touch this project for almost a year. And that really bothered me because I really loved the idea. So I started to put on the gas – writing, rewriting, problem-solving, polishing. I heard that an editor I wanted to share it with would be going on maternity leave. So I put on the gas big time, getting the book ready to submit.

Alas, she turned it down.

I was disappointed but also a little relieved. I just felt like I need a little more time with the project – to do a few more drafts and try to get it just right. So instead of submitting it elsewhere, I put on the brakes. But only gently. I want to slow down but not stop.

In driving you’re not supposed to put your foot on the gas and brakes at the same time. But for writing, I’m going to try it. I need the gas to keep momentum. But I need the brakes, too, to give me time to get it right.

Elizabeth Rusch


by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: October 20, 2013
Comments: 1 Comment
Sheila Schmid of NW Yoga in Portland, OR

Sheila Schmid of NW Yoga in Portland, OR

How are yoga, writing and critique groups connected? I don’t know but I often find myself thinking about how much that happens in yoga class applies to my writing life.

During one recent class at Yoga NW, we were holding a warrior two pose for what seemed like FOREVER. My arms were burning, my legs ached and I was ready to be done.  Seeming to reading my mind, my yoga teacher said: “Just when you feel like giving up on the pose, instead try recommitting to it.”

Grrrrr, grumble, O.K, I’ll try, I thought.

I didn’t really do anything different. I just thought about recommitting to the pose and some energy swelled up and got me through it.

Being a writer is hard and can sometimes even be infuriating and deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes, I’m ready to be done. This can be on a daily scale, like I’m stuck, bored, having a hard time focusing and things like washing the muddy dog towels or grocery shopping seem like they would be a lot more satisfying.  Most of the time (not all the time), instead of washing the dog towels, I recommit to the writing. I stay in my seat, remind myself that I chose this work and try again. Most of the time (not all the time) I’ll get a little something done and feel satisfied about that.  Recommitment can get me through.

On a larger scale, I have been a writer long enough (since 1988) that I have faced a number of times when I ask myself: Why do I keep banging my head against this wall? Sometimes I do have to turn off my computer, take a break, take a vacation. But I have found that eventually, what I really need to do is recommit, to jump hard into a big revision or a new project.  And the energy swells up.

Our critique group has also been at it long enough that members have certainly faced times when we have wondered whether it’s worth coordinating schedules, missing evenings with our families, taking time to read the submissions, etc. But when I’ve faced these times, I think about how amazing the Scrivas are, I recommit and I have never regretted it.

Some things are worth recommitment.

Elizabeth Rusch

P.S. I just came back from another great yoga class and wanted to add this quote: This is not supposed to be easy. Surrender to the effort.

“I hate your manuscript” – Critiquing a manuscript that you don’t like

by Amber Keyser
Published on: June 11, 2012
Comments: 1 Comment

Eventually it will happen.  Whether you are in a new critique group or a neighbor has asked you to read his pages or you’re on the faculty for a writing conference, you will need to critique manuscripts that you really don’t like.

That’s okay.


As Beth Revis discusses in a wonderful post on how to deal with negative reviews (the other side of the coin we’re discussing), tastes differ.  Some people hate Harry Potter.  Some people think Where the Wild Things Are sucks.  You can and should acknowledge the genres or forms that you are just not into.

That does not, however, get you off the hook of providing critique.

You can’t say, “I don’t like it.”
You can’t say, “It’s not my thing.”
You can’t say, “This is terrible.”

You can say, “I am not familiar with the conventions of this genre.”
You can say, “I heard that Silly Willy Press publishes goofy rhyming picture books.”
You can say, “I was wondering who the target audience is.”

It’s even better if you can…

… try to get past the fact that you hate rhyming picture books and provide useful comments on structure or story arc or character development

… figure out what you don’t like and frame this constructively.  For example, you hate the main character, but instead you focus on what would help you connect with him.  Is he too passive?  Does he feel mean-spirited?  Can he do less self-talk and more action?

… remember that you are not trying to help your critique partner write a story you will like.  You are trying to help her write the story she is trying to write.

And above all… Do No Harm.  Many of us have experienced manuscripts that looked like lost causes and low and behold, the writer has revised and revised until her story has emerged solid and polished and, yes, likeable!

Interview with Michaela MacColl, author of PROMISE THE NIGHT

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 20, 2012
Categories: Other Topics
Comments: No Comments

I am thrilled to welcome Michaela MacColl to VivaScriva!  Her book PROMISE THE NIGHT tells the story of young Beryl Markham, who grew up to be a record-breaking aviatrix, an adventurer, a nonconformist, and a writer.  

Read an excerpt here.

Below you’ll find the conversation we shared about her lovely book.


The VivaScriva.com blog focuses on critique and the writing process so let’s start there.  Do you have a critique group?  What role did critique play in PROMISE THE NIGHT?

I have a lovely critique group. We’ve met weekly for six or seven years now. Most of us are published, but we didn’t start out that way. I have to admit that my group saved the world from a very bad biography of Beryl Markham.

When I first decided to write about her, I found that the only kids’ biographies were very dated. Aha! I thought. (And I can’t believe I even said this) How hard can it be to write a biography? Apparently it is really hard. I couldn’t get away from the fictionalized story I wanted to tell. Finally my group metaphorically shook me and said “Just write a novel!” They were right and so supportive.

When I’m writing nonfiction, I find that the book falls into place when I discover the right format for the story.  In PROMISE THE NIGHT, you alternate eleven-year-old Beryl’s narrative with grown-up Beryl’s flight across the Atlantic.  How did you decide on this structure?

One of my greatest challenges was how to write a story about Beryl the child, when Beryl the adult is the one who did something famous (she was the first to cross the Atlantic East to West solo).  At first I wrote the flight as an epilogue, but it felt too tacked on. I had to find a way to show how Beryl’s adventures as a child enabled her to break flying records as an adult. It was complicated because I wanted to relate each adult vignette to a childhood chapter – but after many outlines and a ridiculous number of post-its, I came up with a structure that worked.

I loved Beryl Markham’s own book WEST WITH THE NIGHT.  How did her writing influence yours?

On the one hand, it’s a gift to have her own words in front of me. I learned so much about her personality from the way she described her childhood. On the other hand, it’s pretty daunting since the memoir is so good.  Ultimately, I tried to channel her spare prose into mine. I ruthlessly trimmed (and then my editor got started) until I told the story in as few words as possible. Beryl wouldn’t have wasted words, neither should I!

Of course this was such a departure from my first book, Prisoners in the Palace about Princess Victoria. There the language is ornate, layered and thick.

You had to deal with some tough (and very adult) topics—male circumcision, the Captain’s relationship with Emma, his concerns over Beryl’s interactions with Kibii and Mehru.  Some might have said it couldn’t be done in a middle grade novel, yet you pulled it off.  Can you tell us how you found your way in this area?

I’m pretty squeamish, so I didn’t want to make people squirm. I’m also the parent of two teenage daughters and it’s important to me that kids can read my books without feeling too uncomfortable. Ultimately the answer to dealing with these issues was to plant my narration firmly in Beryl’s point of view. She’s not shocked so why should the reader be?

Beryl Markham chafed against the rigid social and gender roles of her time.  How do you think she would have responded to the opportunity and freedoms girls have today?

I’ve wondered about that. Thoroughbred racing and flying were inherently exciting and a natural destination for a risk-seeker no matter how inappropriate they were for a girl to do. But I think if she were alive today, she would be taking even greater risks. Ultimately though, Beryl didn’t think of herself as a girl breaking gender barriers, she was just doing what she wanted to do.  The first page in Promise the Night is a quotation from Beryl where she says she wants to fly the Atlantic not as a society girl but as pilot. No gender specified. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the heros of the Golden Age of Exploration like Beryl Markham, Ernest Shackleton and Edmund Hillary.  What do you think drove them to take such risks in their quests to be first?

They say that thoroughbred stallions are bred to win.  They run fast to achieve dominance over their peers (so to speak). I think the explorers and the pioneers are all trying to win the acclaim of the other explorers and pioneers. But there is also a financial consideration. The person who breaks the record is the one who gets the sponsorship deals, the speaking engagements, even the movie gig.

Are there any new frontiers for girls today? 

The first thing that comes to mind is President of the United States… And if that’s the last frontier, then girls are doing well!

True confessions—my daughter is named Beryl and my son is Shackleton.  Do you think I’m crazy?

Yes!  (I had to talk my husband out of naming our first daughter Cassandra. Can you imagine a more ill-omened name?)

What is the most interesting thing that you learned about Beryl Markham but couldn’t include in the book—and why couldn’t you?

Beryl’s childhood is full of instances when she challenges the societal norms and does purely as she likes.  When she continued to do this as an adult, the stakes get higher. The most fascinating thing I found out about Beryl involved her love life. She married Lord Markham in her late 20’s, but at the same time, she also had a very public affair with the Duke of Gloucester (the brother of the Prince of Wales) when he visited Africa on safari. Her husband got fed up and threatened to name the Duke in the divorce. Needless to say Buckingham Palace had a strong opinion about this; Markham was told in no uncertain terms to involve the Duke.  He replied that he wasn’t going to support her. So until the day she died, Beryl received a pension from Buckingham Palace.  It’s a great story, right? So inappropriate for middle grade!

PROMISE THE NIGHT focuses on a narrow window of Beryl Markham’s extraordinary life.  Were you ready to let go?

I wouldn’t mind going back and writing about her life as a racehorse trainer. I grew up on the Black Stallion novels and I would love to write about racing. Otherwise, on to the next novel!



Book Recommendation: The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide

by Amber Keyser
Published on: July 25, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments

The more I read Becky Levine‘s book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, the more impressed I am.  The depth and breadth of topics in this book are remarkable.  Case in point: the subheading reads “How to Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions.”

Yes, this book will help you create a functioning critique group.  But it also addresses craft with some serious chops.  The coolest features are the examples where she gives a critique on a manuscript and also a variety of worksheets that help you execute on the suggestions in the book.

The major sections include:

Choosing, joining, creating, and running a group.
Critiquing novel-length fiction
Critiquing nonfiction (yay – someone remembers us!)
Critiquing picture books
How to revise based on critique
How to grow your group as members evolve

Pick up a copy!  You will not be disappointed!

From the Files of Scriva Nicole

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: July 15, 2011
Comments: 1 Comment

My six –year-old son recently read the beginning of an early phonics reader to me, only to stop halfway through the book, look up at me, and say,

”You know, this story isn’t really any good.  I don’t think it’s very well written.  The author could have done better.  ”

This little “critique partner-in-training” went on to give me a full analysis of what this phonics reader truly needed in order to shine.

“Nothing’s happening, Mama.  I hate books like that.  Something needs to happen.”

He was absolutely right, of course.  The phonics reader had no plot, bad rhyme, and rudimentary illustrations.  But it was a book from his kindergarten class that he had to read, so read it we did.

Once again, he is six!

I realized then that my critique group had been rubbing off on him.  Now I am not only raising a boy and future man, but creating a “mini-Scriva,” or, since he is a boy, a “mini-Scrivo,” as well.  Not that there is anything wrong with this.  He has been forming quite an opinion about his book tastes lately, tending to gravitate toward fantasy (first Harry Potter, Roald Dahl books), friendship books with unlikely, opposite characters (Frog and Toad, Mr. Putter and Tabby, A Visitor for Bear, Dodsworth in New York, etc.), mysteries (Nate the Great and Magic Tree House), funny picture books like Yes Day by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, and science books like the Magic School Bus.  Favorite early readers are Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series.

Though my current WIP is not up his alley (upper mid-grade, coming-of-age historical with a female protagonist), he does cartwheels over Scriva Liz’s volcanoes and Mars Rovers and Scriva Sabina’s The Impudent Rooster. He has listened to me “talk books” with many a Scriva, has watched over my shoulder as I critique someone’s manuscript, and has asked me questions about what I look for in a manuscript when I am critiquing it.

What can you take away from all this?  A smile—a chuckle—and a reminder that a critique group can not only enhance your writing and your career, but also the literary life of your children as well.  And how great is that?

Happy critiquing!


– Nicole Marie Schreiber





Concrete Ways To Suss Out Potential Critique Group Members

by Amber Keyser
Published on: June 4, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments


Our readers often ask how they can find a group like ours.  In the FAQ section of this blog, we offer general suggestions for how to connect with other writers, but that is only the first step.  Once you’ve identified a list of people that all want a great critique group, how do you make it happen?

FIRST, ask questions up front to try and assess fit.

How long have you been writing?
How much time do you have for writing?
What are your writing goals?
How often would you like to meet?
How often will you have a piece to critique?
What is your writing/publishing experience?

There are all sorts of reasons we write, and there needs to be a match in terms of purpose.

I was in a group once where one woman was a visual artist who was writing to keep her creativity alive  until her kids were old enough for her to go back to oil painting.  I was trying to build a career as a professional writer.  Mismatch!

Another time I was with a group of women where everyone but me was primarily interested in writing stories for their own kids.  Again, mismatch!

Finally, I exchanged writing with one superbly, talented writer, who had a very demanding full-time job.  She and I could not keep the same pace. Mismatch!

SECOND, ask potential critique group members to participate in a book round table.  It would work like this.  I’ll use a picture book group as an example but this will work with any genre.  Ask each participant to bring in 2-4 picture books (published by strangers) and be prepared to point out what works and what does work about each one.  This is a non-threatening way to see what kind of a critique that person might give.  Plus it is a fun way to practice analyzing manuscripts.

THIRD, do a test drive manuscript exchange — a clean version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”  Read each other’s work.  This will enable you to assess whether you can get behind that person’s writing.  One key to Scriva mojo is that we have an immense amount of respect for the writing of the other Scrivas.  You’ll know quickly whether your potential critique partner is doing work that you can believe in.

The EXPERIENCE question.  A fit on the “experience” level is the trickiest.  The truth is that new writers benefit most from being with experienced writers.  Experienced writers tend to need each other while a group of new writers may not have the expertise to proceed effectively.  There is an obvious problem here.

What is a new writer to do?

Remember that many unpublished writers are very good writers and may be very good critiquers as well. The missing piece is knowledge about the business and professional connections.  A group of new writers can divvy up tasks and take steps to educate themselves.  (Wondering how to do this?  I’ll have to do a blog post!)  You can also invite more established, local writers to come as a guest to your critique group.  Many may be flattered by the opportunity to share their knowledge.

And you experience writing professionals out there…  consider taking a flyer on a newbie.  It just might be the best thing you ever did!



PCSD (“Post-Critique Stress Disorder” and What to Do About It)

by Nicole Marie Schreiber
Published on: May 13, 2011
Comments: 2 Comments



You know you’ve felt it—the tensing up of the fingers as pools of sweat build at your temples, while your eyes stare blankly at the computer screen, moving from there to the many margin notes and cross-outs scrawled all over the freshly-critiqued manuscript you just received back the day before…

There’s no denying it.  You’ve come down with a case of PCSD, otherwise known as Post-Critique Stress Disorder.

But what can you do about it?  Never fear, because the Scrivas are here to help!

It’s very normal to feel bewildered and a little lost (or very, very lost) when you return to your story right after having it critiqued either by your critique group, an editor, agent, or published author at an SCBWI or other writing event, a paid critique person, or even your own editor or agent asking for revisions.  If you don’t happen to feel this way, that’s great!  You’ve bypassed the gauntlet of emotions that can sometimes happen, and you’re free and clear to whip that manuscript into shape.  But for many of us writers, rereading comments after a critique and applying them to our stories can be a daunting task that can sometimes make us feel like this:

  1. I’m a horrible writer and what am I wasting my time for?
  2. I’m not good enough to be among the other writers in my critique group and they probably wish that they could kick me out (or I’m not good enough to be at this writer’s conference and don’t belong here)
  3. I’m never going to make it (if you aren’t published yet)
  4. I’m finished and won’t ever publish again.  My other books were just a fluke. (Or I’ve lost my touch.)
  5. I’ll never be able to change genres, and I should just stick to non-fiction picture books (or whatever genre I’ve published in.)
  6. This story is terrible, and I should just give up.
  7. Oh, and did I say that I’m a horrible writer and what am I wasting my time for?

The list can go on and on, but you get the picture.  There are so many negative things that our “inner critic” can tell us, bringing us down.  Don’t listen to it!   Instead, you can try to overcome Post-Critique Stress Disorder with techniques such as these:

1.  Always think of THE WORK as a separate entity from YOURSELF.  Your manuscript is not you.  When it is being critiqued, don’t ever think of it as YOU being critiqued.  This is very hard for artists to do, but we must release our emotions over our manuscripts so that it can be shaped into the best piece of art it can be.

2.  Listen without speaking as your critique group, or whoever has critiqued your work, discusses your manuscript with you, and take all the comments in without judgment.  Now, hopefully you are having your manuscript critiqued by a professional who knows how to properly critique (bringing up what works and is positive about the piece as well as what could be improved).  If not, then the critique isn’t as meaningful, and you should get another opinion!

3.  Give yourself some “space” between you and your recent critique by waiting a few days before rereading over the comments given to you.  It’s amazing how you end up seeing the manuscript differently when you yourself haven’t read it in a while.

4.  Read your positive comments first (yes, there should ALWAYS be something positive about the piece) to give yourself courage to move on to what needs work.

5.  Write down all of your “inner critic’s” comments (like those negative ones mentioned above) and either burn them in the fireplace, throw them away, or stuff them into a box, never to be opened.  You are getting rid of them literally to free your mind up to the revisions ahead.  You don’t need all of that baggage.

6.  If you’ve had your work critiqued by a group, then when you do look over the critiques, notice where the comments “overlap.”  There is a reason why two or more people felt the same way about something.  This works for both positive comments and things that need improvement. “Overlapping comments” should be considered carefully and could be considered the beginning of a “revision roadmap” for you, helping to lessen the feeling of being “lost” when going back to your work.

7.  Be open to new ideas instead of fighting them.  It doesn’t hurt to try things a different way and then decide the best way for you. Remember, your work is your own, but always be open to new possibilities.  The best critique group (as well as other people critiquing your work) always want what is best for THE WORK, and are not out to hurt it or you.

8.  And finally, when all else fails, CHOCOLATE HELPS!  🙂

Happy revising!

-Nicole Marie Schreiber





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