Find Your Pea Vision: Write from the Antagonist’s Point of View




While visiting my eldest son in Oregon this month, I spent a morning picking peas on his farm. After showing me how to choose the plumpest pods that were ready for harvesting, my son handed me a bucket to fill. As I worked my way down the row of trellised vines, peering out from under my sun hat into the dappled green depths, I picked what I thought was every last ripe pod.

It wasn’t until I went back for a second pass, that I saw the rogue pods that had escaped me. They seemed to have popped out like magic right in front of my eyes. I stared at them as they dangled jewel-like from the stalks, their plump exteriors bulging from the tender bumps inside. How had I missed them before?

One of the farm interns chuckled. “It takes awhile to get your pea vision,” he said, “and yours just kicked in.”

          images-5   Pea vision, as I define it, is when something obscure becomes suddenly clear. It’s all about perspective. Writers need to find their form of pea vision too—especially when it comes to characters. Figuring out how a protagonist acts, thinks, feels and talks rarely happens in a single blinding flash of insight. It takes time to get to know a character. When I walked back down that row of peas, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. Why? Because I changed the way I looked at the vines. Searching from a new angle, picking pods from the other side of the trellis, and risking bug bites and sore muscles to kneel in the dirt enabled me to better see what was ripe for the taking.

In writing, a different vantage point can result in a similar bounty. Our stories play out in real life from a single perspective—our own. But in novels, we can narrate from multiple points of view. I’ve always loved books where different characters give their version of the same series of events. In books like Tim Wynne-Jones’ Blink and Caution, Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s Feral series, and Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, each narrator’s perspective fills in a piece of the story.

“Write what you know,” goes the old adage. But writers should do exactly the opposite too. Mine your life, sure, but stretch yourself as well to write what you don’t know, what you don’t understand, as a way of figuring it out. I love writing about people on the edge, for example. The people who trigger us—whose behavior makes our blood boil—can sometimes be our best teachers. The traits in them that most disturb us may tell us a lot about ourselves (and our fictional characters). Antagonist

Which is why I like to give my writing students the following exercise: rewrite an existing scene in your story from the antagonist’s POV. The point is to write from the perspective of someone whose behavior is strange, disturbing or even incomprehensible. The goal is to find the commonalities, because I believe that people, no matter where we come from or how we grow up, have more things in common than we have differences. Afterwards I ask my students, “How did that change your story?”

Currently, I’m writing a book narrated from three points of view. One of the POV’s is my antagonist, a man very different from me. An obsessive-compulsive computer programmer with PTSD, he’s awkward, unattractive and antisocial. He has no friends and spends his days coding and his nights playing video games. He also commits a terrible crime. How do I get into his whackjob mindset? By looking for emotions we’ve shared, instead of the life experiences we haven’t. Like my antagonist, I too have felt lonely, jealous and powerless—and that is how I access him.

Writing from the antagonist’s perspective can make the invisible visible. It does so by enabling writers to understand things about the world of their story that they may not seen before. Both my antagonist and the teenage girl he’s obsessed with undergo pivotal transformations when they recognize in each other some of the emotional issues they struggle with themselves.

In addition, exploring the antagonist’s POV can help avoid stereotypes. In a recent VCFA lecture on diversity in fiction, author Cynthia Leitich-Smith talked about the challenges and rewards of writing fiction from the POV of multicultural characters who may be different from ourselves. (Differences, she pointed out, can manifest themselves in many ways such as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic levels, physical and mental health issues and abilities to name a few.) “Our characters shouldn’t be two dimensional excuses for social studies lessons,” Leitich-Smith said. “We are all accountable for the impact of our stories on young readers.” I came away from her lecture determined not to make assumptions. The danger of a single story is real.

Third, writing about characters antithetical to ourselves cultivates empathy. Never judge a person’s insides by his outside, my husband frequently says. When I remember to do that, I can step more easily into the other person’s shoes, and our differences matter less. When Wonder author R.J. Palacio decided to write a new chapter from the bully’s perspective, many readers felt that Julian’s narrative was the best one of all. UnknownBad guys may not be all bad, even when they do bad things. My antagonist is deeply flawed, dangerously hurt and he’s got a backstory full of baggage. But I didn’t understand all that until I began writing from his POV. I recommend two YA books, in particular, as stellar examples of antagonists who are protagonists: Tenderness by Robert Cormier and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. Although the narrators are deeply disturbed teenage boys, I found myself still caring about them, despite their horrific acts.

So go find your pea vision by getting curious about your antagonist’s world. Give him a mouthpiece, ask him questions and listen with your heart. How does it change your story?


A Blackdog Farmstead harvest

How does it change you?


Kick It up A Notch At The Auction – With Cori McCarthy and Jim Hill


What a week it’s been, heading into this year’s Alumni Mini Residency and – best of all- Writing For Children and Young Adults Auction! It’s the best VCFA auction ever because this year you don’t have to be in Montpelier. The auction is coming to you, online. And everyone is invited! Check it out and register to bid.

We’re excited about these spectacular new lots-

A FULL picture book or ten page novel critique by Allyn Johnston, Vice President and Publisher Beach Lane Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) !!!!

allyn-johnstonAllyn has been working in children’s publishing in her native California for twenty-four years. Among the authors and illustrators with whom she works are Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, Marla Frazee, Cynthia Rylant, Debra Frasier, Arthur Howard, Jan Thomas, Avi, and M. T. Anderson. Recent titles she’s edited are New York Times bestseller Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee and New York Times bestseller All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, both of which received a Caldecott Honor. And if you’re the winner of this critique she’ll work with you!

Or how about this–

Stop the pressBioPhotoCheng (2)! This is a big one!

Running Press Kids’ Lisa Cheng is offering a critique- 20 pages or your first three chapters plus your query!

Lisa Cheng is a Senior Editor at Running Press Kids, an imprint of Running Press Book Publishers, which is a member of the Perseus Books Group. She acquires and edits both fiction and nonfiction middle grade, YA, and picture books. She has previously worked at Margaret K. McElderry Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, and also at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She has had the pleasure of working with such authors and illustrators as Emma Trevayne, Eric Devine, Tara Altebrando, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Maria Andreu, Ethan Long, Toni Buzzeo, Sachiko Yoshikawa, and Connah Brecon. And most especially VCFA’s own Cori McCarthy!

Speaking of Cori it’s time to meet more of the people behind this year’s auction– so first up, our hero, Cori McCarthy.

CoriCori graduated in the January 2011 class. Her debut novel, The Color of Rain, was published in 2013 by Running Press, and her second novel, Breaking Sky, came out in March from Sourcebooks. Her third book, You Were Here, is coming out in 2016. She lives in Michigan and is represented by Sarah Davies at Greenhouse.

Hi, Cori. It seems funny to welcome you to the Tollbooth, since you’re a regular member of the Tollbooth crew, but great to see you here and at the auction. What’s your favorite item/something you’d love to win in this year’s auction (live auction or white box)?

My favorite item is something that I’ve already won (so to speak), and that the winning bidder now has a chance to experience: my agent Sarah Davies’ critique. Here is the description:

“Ready to query? Sarah Davies will critique your query and first five manuscript pages then consult with you by phone. Questions about markets? Editors? Timing? Rights and International Sales? Contract terms? How can your query stand out from the crowd?

Sarah’s an expert. She represents many VCFA grads and she is consistently ranked as one of the very top selling literary agents in the world. Bid, win and she’ll share her knowledge with you.”

This critique reminds me of my very first conversation with Sarah—wherein she discussed the market, the business, and my manuscript, as well as how she views writers as more than debut deals. Sarah has a career in mind when she launches an author, and it shows through all her wisdom and guidance!

You’re absolutely right! Sarah represents me (and Tami, too) She’s smart and caring. As far as I’m concerned there’s nobody better. What are you writing now?

I am currently working on a MG novel in verse that has plagued me since my last semester at VCFA. Uncharacteristically of my writing style, the story entitled Name Me America has remained half-finished for five years—although I did nab the MG Katherine Paterson prize through Hunger Mountain with it last year. Something is holding me back! I think it’s the fact that it is middle grade and not young adult. Middle school was so much harder for me than high school, and I do believe it’s turned me gun-shy on middle grade.

Here’s the link to read the beginning on Hunger Mountain!

I’m excitedly planning my trip to Bath Spa University with the inaugural VCFA WCYA residency in July and hoping that Martine Leavitt and Tim Wynne-Jones can break me of my nervousness and fear. Fingers crossed!

McVities-Chocolate-HobnobsBath Spa! I’m jealous. I’ll have to be content buying a White Box Raffle Ticket for the Basket of British Goodies! I’ll drown my sorrows in a tube of Hob Nobs.



Next up– Jim Hill, also no stranger to the Tollbooth. Good to see you here, Jim! What auction item would you love to win?

JimTrying to pick just one from the list is impossible, so here’s a handful with reasons:
1) An in-depth critique from an agent would be huge. I’m about to enter the querying-fray portion of my life, and any guidance to help clear the slush pile would be pretty much the best thing ever. Let me tell you, hearing the range of querying experience from fellow writers makes it sound like either a bolt of lighting from the blue (“I got my agent by accident!”) to a Sisyphean task (“I’ve queried sixty agents at this point…”). Ugh. So, if those are the edges of the bell curve, I’d be happy to land in the middle (“I accidentally queried thirty agents?”) and guidance (or maybe even an offer) from the likes of Sarah Davies, Emily Van Beek, Janine Le, Tricia Lawrence, Linda Camacho, and Erin Harris sounds like just the ticket.
2) The Adam Rex Critique makes me want to remortgage my house. I mean who wouldn’t want to critique Adam’s work? Wait, what? You mean he’ll critique the winners work? Either Three, count’em three, picture book manuscripts (and/or dummies) or up to 25K words of a middle-grade novel? 
Oh. That’s even better.
Tomfoolery aside, this is an amazing item. Adam’s work is an inspiration to me, starting with his picture book work on Tree Ring Circus, Pssst!, Chloe and the Lion, The Frankenstein books and all the way through his novels. In fact The True Meaning of Smekday was a big part of my critical thesis. I had a chance to do an email interview with him for it, and as expected, he proved to be a funny, smart, and generous guy. Why am I talking about this. Dang. It should be a secret. 
3) The Skype visits from either Kathi Appelt Skype Visit or Kelly Bingham for my sons classroom. For whatever reason (geography primarily) Cape Cod doesn’t seem to draw many visiting authors and I would love to share one of these with my son’s second grade classroom next year.
What are you writing these days?
I’ve just completed a YA novel, the Age of Supers. It’s the story of Thorn, a teen sidekick whose life is turned upside down when his hero, Atlas, murders his mentor, and then takes over the world. Thorn goes deep underground intent to avenge the dead and bring justice to the living. His mission begins with protecting the girl who could change him as dramatically as Atlas changed everything else.
Anything Else?
This year’s auction is a little more complicated and a lot more exciting now that we’re really taking it online AND live on Saturday night. I’m thrilled to be one of the Live Auction team, and a guest auctioneer during the event. Previous auctioneer’s include M.T. Anderson and Tim Wynne-Jones. This is probably the only time I’ll see my name on a list with those two!
Your spot on the stage is ready– and I for one can’t wait!
But everybody can bid online now!
Online bidding is open at
I’ll meet you there!





11221594_10205503830973373_4189816087672062783_nThis week in the Tollbooth we’re all about the VCFA Writing For Children and Young Adults AUCTION!

If you haven’t checked out Sarah Aronson’s item- Teach Teach Teach– do it! You’ll be a full participant in one of her online writing courses- Manuscript Workshop: Writing For Children or Jumpstart Your Novel: Writing For Children and YA class where you’ll post work and give and receive critiques. Ordinarily tuition for these classes is $295- $340. 

But that’s not all– if you win this auction item you’ll also be her teaching apprentice, learning all about the craft of nurturing writers right by her side. This is an unique opportunity to work one on one to absorb Sarah’s time tested techniques and to decide whether teaching is for you.

Sarah is as excited about mentoring upcoming teachers as she is about teaching writers. Please consider bidding on this item and joining her in her online classroom, in September, January or May– your choice.

For the first time this year, like Sarah’s writing classes, the whole auction is available online as well as live in Montpelier. Anyone can bid, anyone can win! Of course there are lots of great people behind the auction. Volunteers and VCFA pros. Today let’s meet the VCFA staff who are bringing the auction to your laptop– Sabrina Fadial and Alissa Auerbach!

Sabrina Fadail is the Director of Alumni Relations at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Welcome to the Tollbooth, Sabrina! Tell us about your work.

SabrinaThroughout my career I have been integral to bringing art into the communities in which I live. My teaching experiences ranges from elementary to graduate school. I hold a BFA in Textile Design from Rhode Island School of Design, an MFA in Visual Art from Vermont College of Norwich University, and a Graduate Certificate in Non Profit Management from Marlboro College.

As a sculptor my work is both a documentation and celebration of an Endangered Beauty. I extract the innate essence found within detritus from industry and nature. Evoking grace, fluidity, fragility, and vulnerability through seemingly contradictory materials I poeticizes the commonplace. Subject, material and maker are all that which are culturally marginalized, rusty metal, seed husks, and women. Like women these sculptures evoke Beauty as strength, resilience and potential.

It’s great to have a full time Alumni Director at VCFA– and great to have the auction fully online this year. Which auction item would you like to win?westhampton 3

Westhampton Beach get away is what I would most like to win at the auction.

YOU AND EVERYBODY ELSE! That auction item is HOT HOT HOT! What’s new in Alumni Affairs? We hear a portion of this year’s auction proceeds will help pay for a new Alumni website with an all new forum. Can you tell us more?

New to Alumni Affairs, the website, regional chapters, and the inaugural Hi-Res in September. The website is in the works. Those with more technologic know how are mired in the details now. The NW Alumni Chapter had their first get together in June. The San Francisco Bay Chapter has had two events since May! NYC Chapter is setting dates now for an incredible event to be unveiled shortly. Once the AMR is over I will be getting the inaugural Hi-Res off the ground. This is going to be a most exciting mind expanding weekend. Alumni from all programs meeting on campus together for the first time. I look forward to the cross program pollination. The theme is Art as Advocacy.

Anything else?

I love VCFA! My life was transformed like so many others who come through these hallowed halls. I am truly fortunate to be in a position to give back to the community that gave so much to me.

Thanks Sabrina.

AlissaOh! Here’s Alissa Auerbach in the Tollbooth!

Alissa Auerbach started at VCFA in December 2014 and feels lucky to part of such a unique and dynamic institution. Originally from New York, Alissa has made a home here in Vermont and is working toward achieving the ever-elusive Vermonter status. While not working hard on raising money for VCFA as the Director of the VCFA Fund, Alissa can be found onstage performing in shows with Burlington’s Lyric Theatre Company. She also enjoys reading, singing, pretending to be a skilled gardener, and being the best Aunt to her two-year-old twin niece and nephew. Welcome, Alissa!

What would you love to win in this year’s auction?

I’d love to win the house in Westhampton, too! What a gorgeous place. Not too hard for me to imagine myself relaxing there on a beautiful summer day…

Guess what- You’ll have to fight Sabrina for it! Or maybe vacation together.  What is your job at VCFA?

I am the Director of the VCFA Fund, but also oversee all fundraising, both restricted and unrestricted, for the college.

What’s the Fund for VCFA? What does the money raised pay for?

The Fund for VCFA is the only avenue for unrestricting giving at VCFA. Basically, gifts to the VCFA Fund support all that’s going on at the college from providing scholarship funds (the VCFA Fund supports half of all scholarships given out each year) to bringing in incredible faculty to creating new programs and initiatives for current students, alumni, and the community.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

As a new addition to VCFA (I came aboard in December), I have enjoyed learning all I can about the college and its history and am amazed by the dedication of VCFA’s alumni and community of friends. There is such an amazing network of support here- both for the college and for each other! I feel lucky to work at a place that is doing so much to support artists around the country and world.

Everybody–  You can visit the VCFA Auction website at Please do check out my learning and teaching apprenticeship. Bidding on everything is open online NOW. You can even buy tickets for the White Box Raffle- they’re only $2. Or drop into the auction in Montpelier. We’ll be partying and bidding June 20, starting at 8:30 pm. All are welcome!

Tea With Katherine? Join Us At The Auction

images-6 4.41.38 PM
What would you do if Katherine Paterson invited you to tea at her house?
Guess what– you are invited.

R.S.V.P. by checking out this item at the VCFA auction- Tea For Two With Katherine Paterson.

Then bid to win!

Katherine is a living legend. She’s also a kind easy to talk to person and a good friend of VCFA. Once you have your tea party she’ll be YOUR GOOD FRIEND, TOO!

It’s auction time at VCFA and this year the auction isn’t just in Montpelier. It’s online, too. You can bid wherever you are, whenever you want, right up to June 20.

11221594_10205503830973373_4189816087672062783_nThis week we’re exploring the auction booty and meeting the people behind this year’s auction.

Tami Lewis Brown chairs this year’s auction. She left a career as a trial lawyer to write books for children. She graduated from VCFA in January ‘06 and has served on the Board of Trustees (along with Katherine P. and M. T. Anderson) since the independent institution was founded. You may already know her one of the founding members of Through The Tollbooth.

Tami’s books, SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME and the upcoming RADIANT MAN are published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. Tami lives with her husband and a pack of wild spaniels in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. She is represented by Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency.

What would you love to win in this year’s auction?

There are so many auction lots I really love! I’m so thrilled with the donations we’ve received! If I wasn’t already represented by Sarah Davies I’d love to bid on her query critique and consultation. You can ask Sarah anything and she’s a genuine genius on the business of publishing. Consulting with Sarah would jumpstart anyone’s writing career. I’m also bidding on a new author photo by Amy Rose Capetta– I really really really hope I win that one. I hope she can make me half as glamorous as Caroline Carlson!

image64Some of my other favorite things are in the White Box Raffle. It’s only $2 a ticket for a chance to win. I’ll be buying lots of tickets for the beautiful handmade jewelry. There are a pair of Goodnight Moon earrings I’m crazy about!

What are you writing now?

I’m finishing up a picture book biography about Keith Haring. The title is RADIANT MAN and it will be published by Joy Peskin (there’s a 45 minute telephone consultation with her in the live auction, too )

This book is a true Vermont College of Fine Arts baby. I wrote it for my all VCFA alum critique group in Washington DC and read it two weeks later at the VCFA Writing Novels for Young People Retreat (we have an amazing VIP package with reduced tuition for it in the auction! )  Joy heard the manuscript and wanted to publish it and now we’re almost finished with the manuscript. We hope it will hit bookshelves in Spring 2017. Dreams really do come true at VCFA!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This year the Auction and the White Box Raffle is online as well as live. This means alums and current students (as well as faculty) who can’t be at the Alumni Mini-Rez can bid and win. But this year it won’t only be VCFA insiders at the auction.  Everyone, VCFA friends old and new, are invited to be a part of this celebration of VCFA. Please spread the word to all your writer friends.

One great way we’re including everyone is our “Virtual Wine Pit” We’re live broadcasting readings by M. T. Anderson, Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Sharon Darrow and Shelly Tanaka. It’s going to be spectacular! You can be a part of it all on the VCFA Auction website at 7 pm on this Friday, June 19!  Of course while you’re there we hope you’ll browse the Auction and White Box items and find something you can’t live without!

Now meet Rose Houghton

rose_1UPverticalRose Houghton holds an MFA from VCFA, A BA from George Mason University, studied art at Old Dominion University and the Corcoran, and trained as a RN at the Mercer Hospital School of Nursing. The illustrator of three published picture books, she has been a nurse, an economist, a muralist, a puppeteer and a writer. Born on an island off the coast of Germany shortly after WWII, she emigrated with her parents and her brother to an American farm under a program wherein they agreed to work for seven years. She married a naval officer and traveled the world with him and their daughter. She resides in Annapolis, Maryland and writes and illustrates graphic and YA novels full time.

What are you working on now, Rose?

 I’m working on a YA fiction. From the Jersey Shore to Istanbul, Gabriel Diangelo risks his life to save what matters most, only what matters most is not always as it seems after he makes a pack with the Devil. Time should never stand still when dealing with the Devil.  I’m also creating a graphic novel to accompany the novel.
Have any of the auction items caught your eye? 
A complete manuscript review would be something I’d love to bid for and win from any of those wonderful and generous agents or editors offering that prize. (There are manuscript reviews by Emily Van Beek, Rebecca Maizel, Janine Lee, Linda Camacho, ADAM REX(!!) Erin Harris and more! You can check them all out here.) The item would be better than a triple scoop of butter pecan ice cream offered up by that great shop on the river bank in Burlington.

Thanks, Rose. And here’s Will Brown–

William-Hayden-Brown-205x300Will Brown is pursuing an MA (Honours) in Art History the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is a painter, rows with the St Andrews Boat Club, and is writing his first book for young people. After studying at Sotheby’s in London Will volunteered to assist with the 2014 VCFA WCYA auction. We are lucky to have Will back on the auction team in 2015!




What would you love to win in this year’s auction?

CapeCodWritersBrochCvr2015I’m writing my first book now and I know how valuable the VCFA experience has been to other writers. I’d love to take part in the  VCFA Writing Novels for Young People Retreat  Unfortunately I’ll be in school in Scotland during next spring’s retreat but I hope to register for one as soon as I graduate. So I guess I’d like to win the Cape Cod gift basket. I love Cape Cod Chips and chocolate.  And I could enjoy that at the Cape Cod Writers Conference this summer! I checked out the Cape Cod brochure and the classes look great– plus who doesn’t love Cape Cod?


What are you writing?
I’m still in university so I spend a lot of time writing Art History papers and doing research for my dissertation. Some of the research I’ve done inspired me to start work on a nonfiction picture book. I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet but I hope to finish a solid draft this summer.

Thanks for visiting the Tollbooth! I’m ready to put a bid in for some of these items NOW! I’m heading to!

It’s Happening at the VCFA Auction

11221594_10205503830973373_4189816087672062783_nLook out! Here it comes! The VCFA Auction is just a week away, on June 20. This year it’s online and live! And anybody can bid!

Critiques? Check out the dozen agents critiques! Consultations with editors and publicists! Marketing packages with Swag, Book Trailers… Food baskets, Artwork, Jewelry It’s all here!

The VCFA WCYA auction raises money for the Fund for VCFA and for scholarships for students in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program. As the college’s highest fundraising priority, the Fund for VCFA makes a major contribution to faculty salaries, program operations, scholarships, facilities upgrades and improvements, and new program development. In addition to scholarships, this year’s auction will support a brand new alumni website– WITH A CUSTOM BUILT COMMUNICATION FORUM!

Leading up to the auction the Tollbooth crew thought you might like to meet some of the people working behind the scenes– and find out more about some of the incredible items going up for auction.
Meet Auction volunteer and the Chair of this year’s Alumni Mini-Rez Debbie Gonzales!

Debbie A career educator, Deb Gonzales graduated from VCFA with the Cliffhangers in 2008. She has worked as a classroom teacher, educational consultant, school administrator, adjunct professor, and curriculum specialist. Deb’s represented by Melissa Nasson of Rubin Pfeffer, Inc. and has published six early readers with a New Zealand press. When not spit polishing her middle-grade novel, enjoying life in Ann Arbor with her husband John, or walking her three-legged chocolate Lab Tripod, she’s hard at work as a freelancer creating teacher guides for new releases. To find out more about Deb Gonzales access her website at

What auction item would you love to win?

westhampton 3

The Westhampton Beach Retreat Weekend has my name written all over it. I can see it now wine…water…and lots of words flowing from my fingertips. I sure hope whoever wins this item considers inviting me to retreat with them. I’ll try to behave, but I can’t promise anything.


When I’m not working on Teacher Guides (you can bid on one of Deb’s great guides at the auction- click here,) I’m poking away at Whistle Punk, a  middle grade novel set in the Pacific Northwest. I’m considering setting it aside, however, to revise a YA about a fast-pitch softball player I’ve had in the drawer for a while. I have to see what my agent feels about these plans. Stay tuned.

Anything else?

This year’s AMR is going to be one of the very best. Not only do we have an incredible line up of speakers, faculty, agents, editors, and a publicist, we get to have the entire campus to ourselves! I’m looking forward to hanging out in Dewey Lounge with my ‘homies’, chatting about the topic we love best – Kid lit!

Thanks for visiting the Tollbooth, Debbie! Now it’s everybody’s turn to visit and BID!

You can check out all the auction and White Box raffle items on the auction crew’s Pinterest Board
       Follow Jim’s board The VCFA auction on Pinterest.
Tweet it out with #VCFAauction  and of course visit the website, register and bid.

The art of feeling successful


successSuccess is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
-Winston Churchill

Hi Writers,

Recently, I posted my 100th newsletter. 100 Mondays in a row. I spent some time writing and thinking about success. And a lot of people wrote back. As writers, we have a tenuous (at best) relationship with success. 

Here’s what people said:

“I never feel successful. Someone is always doing better than I’m doing.”

“I read every bad review. What’s wrong with me?”

“I am so sick of calling myself pre-published. I get great rejections. Why am I doing this?”

For me, when I rely on the extrinsic milestones–the money–the fame–I’m SUNK. For me, success has to come from within. It comes more from how I’m feeling creatively. This might be TMI, but I need to feel safe and secure to write. But when I do, I (almost) like writing. 

As all my friends know, I also like to reward myself. 

My most famous rule: When I hit page 100 of a manuscript, I always make Thai seafood soup. (You can find the recipe here!)  Why? I celebrate because 100 is cool! More important, I know if I can get to page 100, it also means I’m going to be able to finish the draft. (That’s party because at page 70, I usually get a big dose of writer’s panic and block!)

For me, 100 is a symbol of success.

But there are a lot of other successes along the way.

Like a new idea.

Or a new chapter.

Or a day off from writing with a good friend.

Tackling a challenge I was afraid to try before. 

And don’t we all write better when we embrace these successes?  When we feel successful, we feel excited. We look forward to the work. The bumps along the way stop being obstacles and feel like opportunities. 

Feeling successful allows us the confidence to find our voices.

Ask Diane von Furstenberg.

dress(Wouldn’t that dress look great on me? Sorry!!!)

Anyway, SHE SAYS that to find success, we must first trust ourselves!

(I love her.)

“I think the relationship you have with yourself is everywhere, every moment of the day — to be able to be alone, to be able to think, to be able to count on yourself, to be able to console yourself, to be able to inspire yourself, to be able to give yourself advice. You are your best friend.”


Finding success is motivating–and in lieu of the usual barometers of success (i.e.: money), celebrating milestones along the journey of writing–is essential! We all know–it’s very easy to get discouraged before that first big YES arrives. But there are a million successes before that first YES.

There is the idea.
There is every good line that you write down.
There is every failure that you accept.
There is every day you sit down again to get that story RIGHT.

One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to offer other writers a little hope and strength as they make their ways from one success to another. It’s what I like about this blog, too. Because we ALL need support. Community. Cheers. We all need TIPS. We all need MOTIVATION. We all need new ways to approach the work in a fresh and different way.

Can you count your successes today? This week? Every week? You don’t have to brag. But you do have to pat yourself on the back! Writing is a journey–one that goes faster when we recognize each positive step.


You can sign up for Sarah’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, Under TIPS.

The Heavy Lifting of Revision



I don’t like to exercise. I never get an endorphin high. EVER. All I ever get is tired and achy. But it might not be my fault! Scientists have identified a couch potato gene! 

Still, despite being able to blame my parents for my laziness, I know that exercise is important to my health. So I do it. I drag my lazy, endorphin-deprived butt to the gym at least twice a week to work out with a trainer. He pushes me. He increases the weight and makes me do extra reps, when all I want to do is curl up in the fetal position and cry. Then I stagger home, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My abs are far from rock-hard, but I’ve got muscles.

For the last few months I’ve been struggling with another task I dislike–Revision. I know, I know, most of you are saying, But I love revision. Well, I don’t. I’m waiting for scientists to report some genetic malfunction that will help me explain this away too. It’s not that I dislike all revision. The first revisions after the shitty first draft are exciting. But somehow that doesn’t seem like revision to me, that’s all part of writing the story. It is often when I find a nugget in my writing that makes me believe I’m a genius. The revision I dislike are the ones in-between the full rewrites (where you know that pretty much everything in your story sucks and you chuck the entire thing and start over from scratch) and the ones where you’re tweaking–adding a bit more to this character, pulling a thread all the way through the story, cutting out the number of times you used the word “just” or “like” or how many times your character’s smile looked like the rising sun.


What I’m struggling with now is an old, old, old story that I pull out of the drawer every year or so, fiddle with and then stick back in the drawer. I love the story. I love the characters. I love their journey. And, I’m told by readers and my agent that it is worth working on, but somehow I’m not getting it right. I’ve been working on this story now for about a year and am about a third of the way through yet another significant revision and I’m not sure I can face it. I’d really rather sit on the couch and read or work on that shiny new idea that is twinkling in the back of my head.

This kind of revision hurts. It makes my muscles and my head ache. I want to curl into a fetal position and cry. So, I have a small team of “trainers” who check in with me–sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. They encourage me to write just one more scene, and make me do the heavy lifting of revision. Then I stagger down the hall from my office to my bathroom, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My story is still far from rock-hard, but it’s got muscles.




When Writing Doesn’t Look Like It


There always comes a time in drafting a story when I need to see it better. I need it to be something more than just the words on the screen or page. I need it to become a little more 3-D.

And since I love making messes art, I get out my scissors and glue and whatever other miscellaneous doodads seem appropriate. Making something tangible and visual helps make my story feel more concrete and real. The added bonus is that by tapping into a different part of my brain, I always learn something new about my characters and their world.

It’s all about the writing, even if it doesn’t look like it!

collage.treePOSTER COLLAGE:

Simple or complex, paper collages are an excellent way to combine visual images and words to represent a story.

I suppose Pinterest is a sort of online version of the same idea, but I really like the kinesthetic experience of finding the right image, and then cutting it out, finding the right place for it, and finally gluing it down. It takes more time, and there’s the element of surprise. More often than not I find something perfect that I hadn’t even thought about. But when I see that just right object, face, word, or color, I know it.

My Best Everything Theme boxBOX COLLAGE:

For my YA novel, MY BEST EVERYTHING, I wanted to include some three-dimensional objects. I took a field trip with a friend to various thrift stores, on the hunt for… whatever happened to catch my eye. Mixed with pictures from magazines, I ended up with a memento box for Lulu’s summer of making moonshine.

I’ve got the bottles and the moon, obviously, but I also have references to the junkyard where Lulu works, a tiny gold cowgirl hat for her best friend Roni, and a boy riding his bike through the woods. There’s a rosary–Lulu is a “good” Catholic girl, after all–and scripture verses. There’s also key chain since she’s learning to drive, as well as a few other assorted items.  And of course I had to include the recipe for a science experiment involving yeast and a flying grape. That’s kind of like making moonshine, right?

Scrapbook Collage


Same basic idea, different layout.

This particular one is still a work in progress, but it’s for a story where the past heavily influences the present. It made sense for me to have separate pages for different time periods. Here’s a compilation photo of some of the pages.



Maps are not just for epic fantasy novels. They’re a wonderful way to world-build, regardless of your genre and/or setting. You can map an area as big (the world) or as small (a bedroom), as you like. I’m including a very simple one here, but you should definitely check out the amazing book, MAP ART LAB by Jill K Berry and fellow VCFA alum, Linden McNeilly. They’ve compiled a multitude of gorgeous projects to inspire you!



Happy Mess-Making!

Sarah Tomp


Yes, You CAN Do That At A School Visit!


Before my first children’s book was published, I hadn’t set foot in a fourth-grade classroom since I was a fourth-grader. I’d been to plenty of author visits in my time, but I’d always been the kid sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed on the floor, not the wise, adult author who (presumably) knew exactly what she was doing. I’d never been much of a public speaker, and the prospect of walking into an elementary school and talking to students about my writing was terrifying: What if I forgot what I was saying? What if I bored the kids? What if I offended the teachers? What if no one called my name in Red Rover, which is what happened the last time I was in fourth grade?

Two books and a bunch of school visits later, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m slightly less terrified and a little more knowledgeable about the ingredients that go into a successful school visit. There’s a wealth of excellent advice on the topic out there already, so I won’t attempt to cover the basics here. Instead, I thought I’d share a few of the more surprising and unorthodox tips I’ve picked up so far:

Embarrass yourself! There is no more suitable place to be publicly shamed than an elementary school. Kids love to laugh—with you, at you, they don’t much care which. Show photos of yourself as a youngster, but be sure to choose a picture that’s as cringeworthy as possible. Wear a penguin hat. Read aloud from your very worst draft of that picture book you wrote when you were six. If the topic of your talk presents an opportunity for you to sing or dance (terribly), so much the better.

Scare the children! Just like the rest of us, kids face adversity and disappointment on a daily basis. It can be encouraging for them to see that even you—a famous author!—were rejected and humiliated and forced to type draft after draft until your fingers wore down to nubbins, which is why you should proudly present to them the terrifying visual evidence of your hard work. I like to show kids the lengthy editorial letters I receive, the pages of writing covered with crossouts and changes, and the piles of revisions I print out en route from rough draft to final book. Shannon Hale has a long, laminated scroll of rejection letters from publishers that she unfurls to kids’ horror and delight.

A terrifying tower of drafts

A terrifying tower of drafts

Create a ruckus! For kids, an author visit is a really special part of the school day: it doesn’t happen very often, it’s much more exciting than their regular classes, and since you’re not their teacher, the normal rules of school behavior don’t quite apply. You’ll have to take the temperature of each group before you attempt to create a ruckus, but if you think the students (and teachers) can handle it and you’re confident in your crowd control techniques, let the kids take a quick break from sitting quietly and listening. Have volunteers join you for an interactive storytelling game or a readers’ theater. Write a Mad Libs-style summary of your book and have kids fill in the blanks; then read the hilarious results. Write serious or silly questions on index cards, put them in a bag, and have kids draw cards and ask you the questions. Ask them to vote for their favorite character. If there’s a chance for kids to clap, cheer, or scream their lungs out, take it! (And then challenge them to get super quiet.)

Be honest. This might be my most radical tip, though it’s not nearly as much fun as the others. Kids are great at asking questions, and some of those questions can be tough. Is writing hard? Do you ever get scared when you’re writing? What’s your least favorite part of being a writer? Why don’t you have kids? Are you rich? Were you cool when you were my age? Who’s your favorite member of One Direction? These sorts of questions might make you want to reach for your SCBWI-branded whiskey flask before answering. Be tactful, of course, and be vague if you’d like (“Um, the one with the hair? Is his name, um, Larry?”), but please don’t lie. You’re a role model for the students you speak to, and they can handle the truth, delivered in a kid-friendly and down-to-earth way.

What am I missing? What unconventional school visit techniques have worked best for you? Let me know in the comments!

No wimps! A Checklist for Writing Active Characters


lounging women
At one point or another, most of us writers will be told that our character feels passive in a certain scene, and this can happen even in an action adventure story where our character is being chased or shot at.

So what exactly does it mean when our character appears “passive,” and how do we remedy that? Here’s a checklist that can help you identify problem spots in your story and how to fix them.

  1. Is your character silent during an argument or throwing back retorts in their head? An active character will voice their opinions, concerns and desires rather than glare silently, roll their eyes or mutter “whatever.” And the scene will be more interesting if the person they’re arguing with hears what the main character thinks.
  2. Does your character walk away when he or she is embarrassed, angry, or confused? Weak characters leave instead of engaging in an attempt to resolve or clarify a situation, while active characters dare to engage.
  3. Is your character letting someone else make decisions for them? An active character is in charge of decisions that affect them, or at least involved in the discussion of which direction to choose. This doesn’t mean that your character must dominate every decision in a story, but to be active, they must have a voice.
  4. Is your character letting things happen to them? When your character is active, things happen because of your character. Their choices and actions propel the story action forward.
  5. Is your character gazing at the ocean, binge watching television, or waiting for something to happen? Scenes in which a character is physically inactive can make the character feel passive, but no amount of physical activity can fix a character who always does what others think he or she should do.
  6. Does your character act to satisfy their wants and needs? Active characters are driven to get what they need. They will create a plan, try and fail, often more than once, on their journey.
  7. Does a teacher or ally appear and insist on teaching your character the skills they need to overcome the antagonist? Active characters search out people to give them the knowledge they need to prevail. They work hard to acquire new skills, and even fight for the right to obtain the knowledge they desperately need.
  8. Does your character allow another person to save them? Active characters are in the fight and their actions contribute to the successful downfall of the antagonist. Think of the latest generation of Disney heroines who aren’t waiting around for a prince to slay a dragon or release them from a spell. These girls make their own happy endings.

Good luck and happy writing!

Catherine Linka is the author of A Girl Called Fearless. The sequel and conclusion, A Girl Undone will be released by St. Martin’s Press on June 23, 2015.