Tags: process

Dedicate Your Writing to Someone

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: November 20, 2013
Comments: 2 Comments
Sheila Schmid of NW Yoga in Portland, Oregon

Sheila Schmid of NW Yoga in Portland, Oregon

O.K., so I’m on a little yoga/writing roll, so I thought I’d share something else from a yoga class that I have applied to writing.

At the beginning of several recent yoga classes at Yoga NW, my teacher Sheila said:

“Take a moment to think about why you are here. Consider dedicating your yoga practice today to someone.”

Cool idea, I thought. I pictured several people in my head and tried to keep them in my heart as I practiced. The class, though challenging, was a joy. I didn’t do anything differently in class – the class just felt more meaningful and more joyful.

After a shower and breakfast, I headed off for a day of writing at the library. I liked Sheila’s idea so much that I decided to dedicate my writing day to someone. Since I write for children, I picked a child I know and tried to keep that child in my heart as I wrote.

That writing day felt more meaningful and joyful.

I am trying to make this a regular practice. Sometime I pick a family member or a friend. Sometimes I choose a child I know. Sometimes I pick a fellow writer, like one of my beloved Scrivas. Sometimes I choose a group such as kids who are passionate about science, or kids who live in poverty, or kids who read books to escape something horrible in their lives, or kids who love the ocean, or kids who have never been to the ocean. Sometimes I hold in my heart other people important to our world or somehow connected to the book such librarians, English teachers, science teachers, pianists or historians.

Dedicating a writing session to someone is like sending a prayer for them out into the world. I will never know if my writing, my dedication to them, my prayer for them made any difference in their lives. But I know it makes a difference in mine.

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.

Brilliant editor Emma Dryden cooks up the perfect critique group

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 11, 2013
Categories: Critique Process
Comments: No Comments


Emma Dryden of drydenbks was my editor for the still-not-out-yet (sigh) novel THE HUNT FOR MARA LAYIL so I know first hand that she is smart, insightful, and deeply creative.

I loved this post from her blog about critique groups.  She describes the Scrivas perfectly!

Emma was kind enough to let me share her entire post here but check out her blog and website and definitely follow her on Twitter.  She has a wealth of expertise and is generous in sharing it.


Are You Being Served? A Recipe for a Great Critique Group

– 2-12 dedicated authors (can be of different genres & formats; can be of same genre & format)
– heaping doses of imagination
– heaping doses of respect
– heaping doses of sensitivity
– liberal doses of gentle honesty (if you opt for brutal, critique group will become too tough and hard to swallow)
– open-mindedness and creative flexibility
– willingness to ask questions and listen to answers
– generous sprinkles of laughter (can use hysteria and guffaws if desired)
– timer (enables fair attention paid to each author)
 cough drops & water (enables requisite read-alouds)
– bathroom & stretch breaks
– delicious food
– comfortable setting (a cozy setting is even better, if you can find it)
– wine or spirits (for after critiques are completed! Some may find wine or spirits appropriate during, but proceed with caution)
– optional: friendly dog and/or cat; fireplace; views (ocean, woodland, mountains, etc.); anything else to enhance experience
Gather ingredients together on a regular basis. Stir with professionalism, exuberance, imagination, and inspiration. Surprises may result. Quiet moments of reflection may be required. Questions can be asked for which there may be no immediate or clear answers. That’s ok. Allow for staying open to possibilities; critique groups vary based upon the ratio and balance of ingredients.
Caution: If each author doesn’t feel heard and respected, the ratio of ingredients has gone awry and you will most assuredly want to double-check your recipe.
Note: Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to add a one-time ingredient to this recipe, such as a professional editor or published author who will provide a new voice and perspective to the discussion – this can best be achieved over a weekend. For a sample taste of this sort of enhanced group experience, go to this post from the Route 19 Writers blog.
This recipe serves many, including a richer society of writers and readers.
(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

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!



2012 Challenge: REVISE like a pro – Scriva secrets for applying critique to your mss

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 1, 2012
Categories: Craft
Comments: 1 Comment

My notes from Scriva meeting

You might expect me to start the New Year off with a motivational post.

But you’d be wrong.  Dead wrong!

I’m rolling up my sleeves and commanding you to get dirty.  In other words: REVISE.  Say you’ve formed a great critique group and you’ve been submitting manuscripts.  You’ll come home with something like this: eight copies of your manuscript hacked up by eight different writers.  You might also come home with a panic attack.  What are you going to do with all those comments?

Here’s what I do.

I take detailed notes during Scriva meetings, which I organize by Scriva.  At the end, I’ll have several sheets of notepaper where I have listed the big picture comments that the Scrivas felt were important enough to say out-loud (as opposed to leaving for me to review on my own).  Often this list mirrors the summary comments some Scrivas include with my manuscript.  I begin with these big picture comments.  I read through all of them and look for common threads.  If several Scrivas mention a lag in pacing in Chapter 5 or a completely confusing battle scene or a lapse in voice in Chapter 6, I know those are things I need to look at.  I make a list of issues with the hardest, biggest ones at the TOP.

Summary comments from Addie and Michelle

It’s tempting to go through and make the little picky changes first (word choice, punctation, rearrangement of clauses), but DON’T!  You will be wasting your time.  Many of these issues with change or vanish with major revision.  You’ve got to take on the big stuff first.  Trust me!

OK, so say I’m going to attack Chapter 5.  Scrivas mentioned a lag in pacing and a several sections where I fall out of POV (for example).  I will take a pass through the chapter ONLY thinking about POV.  I want to examine every sentence to make sure it keeps the correct POV.  I won’t refer back to the written comments from the Scrivas, but mentally I maintain a laser focus on POV.  Then I go back through Chapter 5 with the single purpose of speeding things up.  Can I replace description with dialogue?  Can I cut unnecessary or rambling sentences?  Can I make my sentences shorter and punchier?  All of this will help pacing.

Now, I take the printed manuscripts annotated with more specific comments and turn all of them to the first page of Chapter 5.  I go through page by page, collating and applying the comments from all the Scrivas to each page of the chapter.  Not all will still be relevant because of the way I addressed major issues in the first few passes through the chapter, but there will still be work to do.

A collection of critiqued copies of my mss

I’ll repeat this with each chapter, taking a single pass through for every area of concern before I go on to the next chapter.  Your brain might be able to revise for three things at once, but mine can’t.  I’d rather go through each one five times — or whatever it takes.  When I think I’m done, I go through the list of big picture comments again and check things off.   I don’t make all the changes the Scrivas suggest but I always consider each one carefully.

So here’s my 2012 challenge to you: Don’t be afraid of those critique comments.  Turn each one into a knife that will cut to the core of your story with deft precision.  And take it slow – one comment at a time.

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!

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!



Innies & Outies: Respecting Differences in Critique Process

by Amber Keyser
Published on: May 26, 2011
Categories: Critique Process
Comments: 3 Comments

Recently Addie posted When Talking is Better Than Writing.  It really resonated with me because I am one of those people who will spew words about anything and everything.  I love talking about my work in progress with anyone brave enough to bear the onslaught.  So my comment was something like “Why the heck doesn’t everyone talk about their writing all the time?”  In her typically gentle way, Ruth reminded me, “Amber Dear, sometimes the work is fragile for a while.”

Hmm… Cogs turned in my head.  Yes, I could see that.  Sort of.  But I am not very fragile (usually) and my work/ideas can take a beating.  Then one of our brilliant readers sent an email that illuminated this cobwebbed corner of the writing process (and maybe my marriage, too!)

She said:

I have learned over the years that there are basically two major groups (though most likely there may be shades of gray in there as well). Inward processors and Outward processors.

I am in the latter group. Things make so much more sense when I can talk it out.

Innies get so upset when Outies want to talk before *they* are ready. Outies NEED to talk before they burst into flames.


I should have realized this before since I (like our reader claimed to be) am an outie married to an innie! It’s taken me a decade of marriage to be comfortable with the way my husband works through things and for me to realize that if I want to process out loud, I should grab an outie friend before I subject my husband to my unformed ramblings.

As for critique, I see now why one of my previous groups was so disastrous for me. It had a rule that the person being critiqued could not speak or ask questions.  I might as well have been hog-tied in the corner with duct tape over my mouth.  No asking questions?  No discussion?  It was stifling. Does that mean it was a flawed structure?  No.  It means it was a bad fit for me.

There are both innies and outies in the Scrivas.  Outies are more likely to bring an idea and run it by us before writing.  Innies may wait until the entire first draft is done to start sharing.  Sometimes we have heated discussions propelled by questions asked by the writer about her work.  Sometimes comments are shared and then allowed to lay fallow, taking shape in the writers mind slowly.

I think one of the secrets of Scriva mojo is that we each feel comfortable asking for the kind of eyes we need on a manuscript. Therein lies the key… the writer drives the discussion so that it takes shape in the way she needs it to take shape.


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





Community is the key to not-quitting

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 29, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments

Monday night ScrivaRuth, ScrivaLiz, and I attended the Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.  We sat together watching as writer after writer rose to accept awards and express their passion for creating through the written word.  We were part of a vibrant, inspiring community.

I was reminded of an Art Process session that the Scrivas held a few years back to discuss barriers to making art.


In Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland make the claim that the most important part of artmaking is not-quitting.  No small feat!  But they say two simple things may keep you going.  First, share your work with a group, and second, consider that group your primary audience.  Instead of the Newbery or Caldecott or Printz committee, focus on that group of skilled, supportive, passionate people that form your immediate writing community.

Viva Scriva does much more than critique craft.  We set goals and hold each other to them.  We buoy the discouraged and cheer the enthused.  We are both safe haven and task master. We are the audience.  When the Scrivas say I’ve hit the mark, I believe them!


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