Tags: novel

Liberate Your Story By Placing Your Characters in a Web of Constraints

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 7, 2011
Categories: Craft, Creativity
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My current project is writing a young adult novel set in the Angel Punk universe.  Angel Punk is a transmedia project that uses a feature film, a comic book series, a fan engagement site, and a novel to tell interwoven but non-overlapping stories.  Here’s the teaser:

Power. Greed. Tragedy. Forgiveness. 

Angels Turned Mortal

A Supernatural World Divided

The Angel Punk saga follows Mara Layil on a journey of discovery as she’s unwittingly thrust into a millennia-old struggle between supernatural dynasties. This hidden world of ancient wonders and dark secrets forces the orphaned teen to accept her own incredible power and confront her family’s mysterious past.  Awakened to the truth, Mara must choose sides. Hidden assassins, shattered oaths, exiled eternals and warring Nephilim all play a part in the greatest supernatural conflict of all time.

The most common question I get asked is this one: “Did they give you an outline to follow?”  The subtext is either (1) if I did get an outline, doesn’t that undermine me as a creative person and (2) if I didn’t get an outline, do I fight all the time with the rest of the team?

I’ll answer the question and then get to the point of this post.  When I took the gig, I read the movie and comic scripts as well as the in-depth legacy (background) document on the universe.  It was a crash course in the characters, the mythology, the socio-political structure, and the history of all things Angel Punk.  I did not get an outline for the novel.

In initial meetings, we decided that the inciting event for the action of the novel should be the climatic scene of the movie.  The action of the novel would begin where comic book issue #3 ends.  And the novel would end when…  (I can’t tell you that!)  That was the extent of my “outline.”  Yet the plot is constrained by all of the other properties.  My story must be consistent with and extend the stories in the movie and comics.

OK. Finally, I’m at the point of this post.  Constraints are a good thing.  Every good story operates within constraints.  A story without them is a shapeless mass of whatever you’ve dumped out of your subconscious mind.  In other words, NOT a story.  It’s true that writers invent worlds, but the worlds have to have rules that are consistent.


Every world has physical laws (gravity, planetary orbits, etc), environmental conditions (weather, habitat, inhabitants), and rules that govern how plants, animals, and people behave.  Your story occurs in a particular time, at a season, in a place.  These are good constraints and you have to stick with them.  One key is to balance the strange with the familiar.  There has to be enough that is familiar for us to relate to but also be unique.  This is true whether you’re writing sci-fi or about the Inuit.  I adore Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, but the Keys to the Kingdom lost me because I never got grounded in the rules of the place.


Realistic characters are constrained in their choices by their history and their personalities.  Plot occurs when characters make choices.  They have to do things that are consistent with “who they are.”  You might want your character to jump a freight train because you need the plot to move to another city, but if she is too short (or too shy) to reach up into an empty boxcar, she can’t do it.  Boom – you are constrained.


We give our characters and our worlds histories.  Those histories must logically lead to the decisions characters make and to the structure of our worlds.  A war-torn people can not suddenly lay down arms.  You have to make me believe that is a logical outgrowth of the action.

The take-home message: your story is actually liberated by the constraints you place upon it.  Conflict is critical to a good story.  Placing characters inside of a system of constraints causes conflict.  The result is emotional truth.

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





Giving the full draft of a novel the Scriva treatment

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 23, 2011
Categories: Critique Process, Genre
Comments: No Comments

Most writers find the words to the left rather satisfying to write.  Of course, we also know that the end is never the end until the mss is pried from our zombie fingers.

When a Scriva finishes the first draft of a novel (or book length nonfiction), we usually want to get a global perspective from the other Scrivas.  It’s the only way to properly assess voice, story arc, plot consistency, character development, and other features that must be sustained throughout the entire piece.

To do this, we scrap our typical meeting structure and move into novel mode. We dedicate an entire meeting to the novel.  The writer prints and mails a full copy to each of us as far in advance as possible (ideally 3-4 weeks).  We each do a full read.  We try to resist line edits (difficult for Scrivas) because we know the details may change.  We’re reading for the bones.

Typically we provide overall feedback and pull out example passages that are really working (and therefore should be the writer’s model for revision) and ones that miss the mark.  It is helpful to suggest novels with similar features for the writer to read.

Our goals are to give the writer a concrete plan of attack for the revision and the encouragement to get right to it.


Interested in using critique to boost your craft? Blog coming soon!

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 12, 2011
Categories: Craft, Critique Process
Comments: No Comments

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