Message to the Void: You Don’t Own Me


We are lonesome animals. We spend all our live trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” John Steinbeck

I wrote my first novel in a small room next to the kitchen during teacher vacations. I sat alone, day after day, week after week. Though I had written a couple of short stories and many poems before, I had never written a novel.

I had never been alone with myself that much.

I grew up with four siblings. My childhood friends had large families. As a teacher, I spent my days with thirty or more young people, and as many staff members.

Novel writing means sitting in a void of silence and solitude. It is painful. For me it can feel nonhuman. Making up pretend people who do pretend things seems, at times, beside the point. Why not be with living people who do real things?

Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god. –Aristotle

But still, the need to write tugs.

At first I found all sorts of reasons not to sit in that small room alone. The dog needed to go out. I should call my mother. The bills, the dishes, the laundry were unfinished. Voices called me, helped me make excuses, helped pull me away from the hardest thing about writing: The struggle of isolation.

I forced myself, my eye on the prize of getting a novel written. Gradually I got attached to my characters, and interested in my story for its own sake. By some miracle, I finished the book. It was in no way polished, but when I finished the draft a few people read it. I revised it and sent it to an agent or two but it eventually took up a space on my shelf, gathering dust.

The second book was about the same. I wrote while wrestling with solitude. When the draft was done, I think three people read it, including me.

The third book was a NaNoWriMo novel that I drafted in a month. No one, thankfully, ever read that book, or most of the subsequent revisions.

I submitted revised opening of the third book with my application to Vermont College of Fine Arts Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Attending VCFA was like waking up to find myself in an enormous, multi-generational family the likes of which I’d never seen.

I met people. Writerly people. Fun, kind, interesting, brilliant, stimulating people. Suddenly, I was part of a far-reaching human collective that didn’t go away, even when I was alone.

Now when I wrote at home, I no longer felt like I was in a little room, writing into a grey fog. I had an advisor expecting my work. I had to submit to the critique group. Fellow students shared work with me. At each residency, I made new friends who loved writing for children.

Facebook widened my circle of writer buddies: I had friends to cheer for and who cheered me on. Attending conferences and retreats added more folks to my network that includes writers and readers from around the world. I joined a regular critique group.

Most of my friends are writers, teachers, artists or a combination of these.

Most of my friends care about my success, as I care about theirs.

My daily news is filled with new books, author visits and possibilities for writers. It’s also got reality checks, like how many zillion times you need to send work out before it gets bought. Or sad news of publishers leaving, or fine editors and agents quitting, or books going out of print.

Every single day I learn something new from a friend that I didn’t have when I began my first book alone so many years ago.

I still struggle with the poverty of solitude. I avoid my writing. I act like an orphan, alone and afraid. But I am not.

As I stare at my screen or my journal, loneliness does not take me over.

In this very bleak time in American history, when the void flicks an evil finger at me, I can say resolutely: You do not own me. I have my people. And they have me.

We are here holding our places in the creative world.

This saves me every moment of every day.

Linden McNeilly


Writing Retreat Review: Loon Song


img_6197This past September, I had the honor to attend the inaugural Loon Song Retreat in rural Minnesota. It was amazing. Inspiring. Life changing. Want to know more? I thought so. Without further ado, here are Ten Things I Loved About The Loon Song Writing Retreat (In No Particular Order)*

1. Katherine Paterson. I’m not sure I need to say more. Her talk. Her humor. Her candor. Her wonderful sense of writing, stories, and the social responsibilities of being a good author and good human. I soaked in everything she said, and the page of notes I wrote while she was talking has already been revisited many, many times.

2. The setting. Okay, at first it was a little spooky. Delta decided to delay my flight for, oh, seven hours, leaving me alone in a terminal who’s repertoire of food options included: bagels (that’s it). So, I arrived at dark o’clock, driving a rental car about fifteen miles outside of the teeny tiny town that’s nearby. A very long, windy dirt road indeed. Luckily, friends were waiting to help me find my cabin when I arrived, otherwise I might have slept in my car and made friends with the wildlife. And there is such wildlife! After my turbulent travel day, I awoke for a sunrise pontoon ride on the most idyllic, peaceful gorgeous lake. Between the cabins and the quiet and the lake and the loons, Loon Song is where you want to go write, trust me. img_6138

3. Kekla Magoon. I’ve had the great fortune to know Kekla over the years, and her lectures always open up my mind in a new direction. For this weekend she discussed outlining as breathing in and drafting as breathing out. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that just feels so natural. And actually explains a lot…

4. Marion Dane Bauer. Marion gave a talk about staying relevant in the swiftly evolving world of children’s publishing, and what’s more, she talked about sustaining happiness through a long writing career. This is something I needed to hear. I’m only a few years into my writing career and for too long I’ve been sprinting. Marion talked about how a writing career is a journey and imparted the message that I should enjoy the scenery and not keep my head buried in my work.

5. VCFA and non-VCFA. I was pretty delighted to not only see old friends from VCFA at Loon Song, but to meet other writers from other circles. There is an instant connection that can be made when you and another person love children’s literature, and it was so wonderful to meet new kindred spirits.

img_61246. Readings, lectures, talks, workshops, time for writing/inspiration. I think this note explains itself, but I was particularly jazzed that on top of the talks and panels, we had free time to relax and converse. I even did a bit of writing which has never happened at a writing conference/retreat before.

7. Structure panel. There was a panel on structure! Which is awesome. You know why? Because it’s just too easy to believe that there’s one way to plot, to outline, to craft a book. This panel illuminated how several different incredibly talented and decorated writers all use different methods.

8. Will Alexander. Will talked about science fiction and fantasy with the kind of passion that inspires. He explained, illuminated, and ruminated. All of which has left my new science fiction story idea bubbling inside of me.

img_61799. Winding Oak’s marketing expertise and positivity. On top of having authors from all walks of life, an agent and an editor, Loon Song also brought in Winding Oak—a marketing duo that are rife with positivity and informed straight talk about how authors can take their careers, readerships, and websites to the next level and beyond.

10. Expanded horizons. Picture book discussions by Kathi Appelt! So I have been sticking my toe into the pool of picture books for awhile, and I’ve finally decided to try my hand in earnest. This is entirely because Kathi shared her process and journey for several of her books.

Sometimes you just need to see the road that someone else traveled to have the courage to set out on your own…


*Yes, this is a shout out to Kekla Magoon’s fabulous book 37 Things I love (In No Particular Order).

Cori McCarthy is the author of four YA books and a freelance editor at Yellow Bird Editors. Find out more at

How to Win (or Lose) Writing Contests: Tips from a Judge

img_0538Over the last ten years, I’ve judged a dozen or more writing contests. The writers have ranged from elementary school kids to published and not-yet-published adults, and the prizes have been as varied as a certificate with a gold star, a live reading by a professional actor, advice from a hot agent or mentoring by a published writer, but the winning submissions did the same things right.

I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll snag the top prize, but you’ll probably make it through more rounds than if you don’t.

When judges get a pile of contest submissions, they do a first cut. They don’t want to spend a lot of time considering stories or poems that don’t have a chance of winning. Their goal is to eliminate the “losers” fast.

So how do you survive the first cut?

  1. Follow instructions. If there’s a writing prompt or a theme, submit a piece that fits it. Don’t send in your WIP thinking your brilliance will overcome the fact that it doesn’t conform to the rules. It won’t.
  2.  Proofread and spellcheck. Don’t give me an excuse to throw out your story because your grammar or spelling are atrocious, which I will— unless you’re a first grader whose inventive spelling makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose.
  3. Match your synopsis to your submission. If your synopsis was amazing, but your story doesn’t fulfill the promise, I will be really disappointed.

Let’s assume you made it past the first cut. Between half and three quarters of the submissions have been placed in a “go no farther” pile. Sometimes, judges are given a rubric which tells us specific things to look for, like inventiveness, adherence to a theme, or compelling characters, and we use the rubric to winnow down the submissions to a handful that get serious consideration.

Sadly, only once have I been asked to write comments that would be returned to the writer explaining how they could improve their chances.

So here are some of the things I would say to writers whose pieces did not win.

4. Assume the bar is high and aim for it. Study published stories so you know what it takes to succeed.

5. Polish your story until it’s the best you can write it. Listen to your critique group’s concerns. It will only take a judge a page or so to determine if your story deserves another look.

6. Dump the cliches. The last girl in the universe who writes in a scavenged paper journal? Puh-lease.

7. It’s not you, it’s me. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, any team can win. They are all that good. When judges gets to the final handful of contest submissions, any one of them could take the prize, so the final decision is entirely personal. The judges will choose what moves or intrigues them.

8. Don’t give up. (See 7.) If you’re honest with yourself, maybe your story needs more work. However, if you submitted a piece that your peers or advisors feel is compelling and perfectly written, then this wasn’t your turn, but you’ll hit it on the next try.

Author photo and book jacketCatherine Linka is the author of the series A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more advice from Catherine at her website:

Writers Dreaming

Hu Jundi

Hu Jundi







This is the writer’s journey, the deeper we dig into our characters, the more we are able to unmask monsters of our own. 

Rock Me

A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.

Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.

A cradle that’s dwelt in its dream house for years,

rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled

by air it reeks like only old cardboard can, a scritch-scratch-scritch

from inside as if tiny claws or limbs scrabble to climb out.

A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,

and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made

to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.

Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,

paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,

questions such as these.

Not the best poetry, but dreams are useful things for writers. You might have noticed this is my character’s dream. And I’m using it to uncover something about her.

We’ve all heard the stories, inspiration for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web came to E. B. White through his dreams. A gift that has also come to singers, scientists and artists of all kinds. But this exercise is a bit different, this is about deepening your characters by letting them dream.

A friend of mine who studies Jungian psychology tells me the best way to understand a dream is to ask yourself what each element represents of you. In other words, you are not just the dreamer, but the cradle, the bed, the walls, the floor, and yes, the creepy creature trying to get out. What about your character? What does she dream? What images belong to her at night? How do they manifest and illuminate her deepest fears and desires? If each element represents her, what does this dream say about her?

Like the poem suggests, our dreams are nightly hallucinations, necessary to our psyche’s balance during the day. Which means your character’s dreams are full of telling details. Especially when her dreams turn, as ours do, from pleasure to torture, and express daytime tension and conflict as nightmares.

A word about disturbing dreams. My dream expert says that when you’re being chased in a dream, or otherwise overwhelmed by some dream villain, Jungian theory holds you should stop running, turn and confront the monster. This is how we discover what’s behind the monster curtain, because standing up to it reveals it for what it really is. And when it’s revealed, it loses power.

How like the hero’s journey this is. When your character uses her new tools to return to the fray, suck it up and confront the villain, she’s really confronting her own deepest fears. In other words, the real monster is not the physical thing, the villain, but the fear in the hero that she must overcome to face the villain. And how a character grapples with this fear throughout the story creates her emotional arc. You can use your character’s dreams to help you uncover and strengthen this arc.

I like doing this in free form poetry, present tense, but to relax your critical mind you might also try writing or drawing a character’s dream with your non-dominate hand.

Your character’s dreams may not always show up in your final manuscript, but they can help your character show up. A casual observer might not see it, but for me, the dream analysis below revealed what I’d been missing about my character’s inability to connect with others, that she’s a foster child.

Digging Down the Dream

If I am the cradle I have held up as such

through years of dust and disinterest.

If I am the room I have good, solid floors,

but my walls are plain and stark.

If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,

barely slept in. If I am the dreamer

I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming

myself. If I am the creature

inside the cradle I am trapped

of my own accord.

                                        –zu vincent



Research That Rocks

What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

unknown-3These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:


  • YouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence Agency— According to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

 Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource.  “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!” 51vfdcq7jml-_sy412_bo1204203200_

It was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

cover_temple_mount_medcover_fine_dangerous_season_med_02For his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction. The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

unknown-1 Her only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

 How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook.  “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book.  “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!




When Your System Needs An Update- Reboot HERE

Lots of us have developed writing habits and techniques, even shortcuts.   (there’s a big contest at the end of this post but don’t take the short cut and scroll right to it– read the post first!)


(Personally I work best with a beehive and plenty of hairspray, staring at my rotary telephone. Call me analog.)

But one of the beauties of the practice of writing is there’s always something new to learn. There’s always a different way to approach your craft and hone your art. There’s always a way to reboot your system.

The trick is finding a program that won’t crash your manuscript and your writing practice. My favorite source is Sarah Aronson and my favorite site for growing and experimenting as a writer and creative person in general is the Writing Novels For Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Next year’s retreat will be March 17-19, 2017, with early arrival March 16.

It’s incredibly popular, an instant sell out, and registration will open soon, at 9 am on November 1. Unless you win the contest at the end of this post. Then you’re golden.


Curious? Sarah Aronson, who, along with Cindy Faughnan, has guided this retreat since the start dropped in to tell us more. Hi Sarah! Tell us more about the retreat.

At the retreat, you can sign up for the kind of weekend that will help you take the next step with your novel. If you need feedback (and learn most from offering feedback), the critique track is for you. In the critique track, you participate in a small workshop of 4 writers. (We send you the submissions and critique guidelines ahead of time.) We also make sure that there is at least one VCFA grad or published writer in every group. This year, we are also offering a guided workshop with Jill Santopolo (and me)! It will be a great opportunity. Part of the critique track is also receiving a one on one critique from one of our master writers–our faculty. These meetings are always really informative. It’s your chance to talk to an expert specifically about your manuscript and the process.

But as great as that sounds, some people need time. And if you want to come and take the inspiration from lectures and WRITE, you can do that. That is what the writing track is all about. 

The bottom line: VCFA is a magical place. No matter which experience I sign up for, I learn something new. I come home with new ideas. I get pages written. The participants are all generous and knowledgable. There is so much to gain from this supportive community.


What can a new writer expect to get out of the experience? How about an experienced writer?

In my mind, if you have written a novel and revised it, you are experienced. Whether we have been lucky enough to be published, or not, we are all writers. We are all on a creative journey. Every writer that attends will go home with new tools, new insights, and a stronger spirit for the work. I always leave energized and excited. You leave with friends who understand that the craft of writing means sitting down and putting words on paper. It means taking risks. It means re-imagining and re-thinking and playing. 

What tips or lessons have you learned (as a writer) from being at all the retreats over the years?

I love this question!

Over the years, I’ve learned to play more! To enjoy my writing and experiment. I’ve learned that writing well takes a whole bunch of C’s: character, conflict, connectivity, and most of all, creativity. I’ve learned about world building! And the structure of story. I’ve learned that if I work very very hard, the answers are in my manuscript and my subconscious. 

I’ve also learned that writers are great people! And that I learn best when I am engaged in the conversation of craft. (That’s two more C’s.)


What has surprised you most?

Honestly, nothing surprises me anymore.


No! Writers are amazing. VCFA is a magical place. This is our 14th year. It gets better all the time.

What are your top tips for attendees– for registration, preparation, at the retreat and afterwards?

Be ready to fill in your online application at 9 am on 11/1 (but remember the contest at the end of this post. Comment to win.)   You can find out more on my Facebook page or the VCFA website. Email me if you have questions. 

Be ready to call yourself a writer! This is a place where we tell FEAR to take a hike!

Don’t feel you have to bring your most polished work. Bring the manuscript that energizes you–the one that you are open to explore. 

If you think you are ready for the MFA, make an appointment with program director Melissa Fisher. 

Come ready to learn, to listen, to talk about the craft. This is the place to do all those things. This is a weekend where writers grow and discover new things about their stories. 

Sort Merge and Restart your writing. This retreat changed my life! No joke. It can change yours, too.

OK now for the contest.

This retreat fills lightening speed FAST and every year dozens of hopeful writers miss the cut off.

So here’s the deal– The winner skips to the front of the line! Guaranteed retreat registration!

To enter leave a comment below about what writing skill you’d reboot at the novel writing retreat. Enter again by linking to this post on Facebook or Twitter.

The winner will be selected randomly from comments and links posted before 9 am EST next Thursday, October 6. You won’t be obligated to attend (you will still pay tuition and fees) but this retreat is too good to pass up. We know we’ll see you there!

xo  tami lewis brown


Waiting In Between Revisions

I’ve recently finished what I hope is the “final” revision of my WIP and sent it out to a trusted reader. Now I wait…


Waiting is extremely difficult, but something writers must deal with regularly. We wait between drafts, to give ourselves space from our own words. We wait to hear from our beta readers, who help us to birth our “babies”; and from our agents, whom we trust with our newborn creations. If you noticed a birthing theme it is because I recently spent three weeks helping my daughter and her husband after the birth of their second child.

img_1491Helping to care for this newest member of our family and his 2.5 year old brother was a joy (though and exhausting one). Not only did it feed my soul as a parent, but it also fed my writing soul. The timing of this child’s birth coincided perfectly with my work on my WIP. (Yet another reason I count myself as lucky). I was at that point where I needed to put it down and walk away. Putting a story out of my mind, after it’s been priority #1 for months, is not something that comes easily for me. But this time it was oh, so easy. I forgot all about plot structure, objective correlatives, character growth, and historical accuracy and thought only of changing diapers, playing “choo-choos”, doing laundry and dishes, going to the playground, playing cars and reading books, and doing more laundry.


In the week that I’ve been home, I re-read my story, tweaked it, and sent my “baby” out to be read. Now I am left with nothing to do. I know some writers move on immediately to their next project. They start researching and plotting and pre-writing. I can’t do that. I can work on smaller projects: picture books that will never see the light of day, or that pb biography of the sculptor whose story really should be told but I can’t quite figure out how to start. But even that sucks too much of my attention and I’ll have a hard time shifting gears to go back to make the revisions in my WIP I know are coming. I have cleaned my desk, though. It might not look like it to some of you, but trust me, THIS is clean.

So instead of moving onto my next project, I’ve returned to my life. It’s been nice to catch up with friends I didn’t see for the three weeks I was away and whom I ignored for the months prior to that when I was writing (thankfully, I have good friends who understand my obsessive work schedule). I’ve also been binge watching “Orange is the New Black” (which I started while rocking an infant while his mother napped). And I’ve been knitting, which I can do while binge watching “Orange is the New Black” so at least I feel as if I’m being semi-productive.

p9960168_b_v8_ad                     img_1581

Waiting is part of the process. And as exasperating as the waiting is, I wouldn’t trade it, or any other irksome part of the process (and there are a lot of them)  for anything.




Let’s Get Physical

Maybe it’s my stage of life, or maybe it’s working in middle schools, or maybe it’s a matter of diversity, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but I’ve been thinking about bodies. (However, this particular post will stay G-rated, family friendly.)

pirate-7In my writing I’ve never been interested in descriptions of my characters’ physical being. For me what matters, and what I am most interested in, is their inner workings of emotions and thoughts. The outside shell simply is a vessel to hold the stuff that matters. And yet, that outer shell is what others react to. It’s our most reliable way read someone else’s emotions. Sometimes we get those reading wrong, but other times it’s a fairly accurate assessment.

We often make assumptions based on those physical forms – which is where things can get slippery. That’s where a lot of messages get mixed or misinterpreted.

pirate-6But we also make choices as to how we project our inner selves. Clothes, accessories, hair styles, all work together to create a visual signpost and introduction. Sometimes we have more control over these external clues than others. We can’t change our gender or race or body type, and sometimes we have to wear something we’d rather avoid (why hello, hospital gowns and fast-food uniforms!) – but other times we choose what people see first. (And yet… who is that masked man – or is it a woman? Superhero or bandit?)

The physical world of your character can tap into the physical experience of your reader. This is why sensory details add richness to our writing. Consider your character’s physical body and explore ways to make it more personal. Change is one way to explore and examine physicality.

  • Give your character a physical injury – temporary or permanent.
  • Have his/her weight change dramatically.
  • Put her/him in different kinds of weather.
  • Force him/her to wear something uncomfortable.

The physical body and circumstance can be a way to start a story, too. Get your own body involved and create an image to represent a character. One rough and simple physical brainstorming exercise utilizes doodling or sketching. Start with a simple circle – the head as a vessel to hold all the inner workings, then accessorize. Here I’ve gone with two basic articles – an eye patch, which conjures the idea of a pirate, and a crown, which usually means royalty – and then mixed them a bit.









If you create your own physical images and cues of the external world – you might be surprised where your mind takes you. I think some of the most satisfying stories are the ones that start with the expected, then change it up! Surprise and curiosity goes a long way in engaging a reader. This can create more poignancy, humor, or intensity.

Let’s get physical!

~Sarah Tomp

Lessons From a High School Reunion I Didn’t Attend


My 40th high school reunion took place this week about 400 miles away. I didn’t attend. So I had a virtual reunion the following day: at home, in my sweats, looking at Facebook photos of people I haven’t seen for years. I recognized many of the women and almost none of the men, who seemed to have sent their middle aged fathers in their places.

I was deeply affected by a collection of photo booth pictures in which alums posed with spouses or besties from high school. I scrolled through the friends arm in arm and wondered aloud, “Were they actually best friends in high school? I don’t remember them even hanging out together.”

The more I scrolled, the more disoriented I felt. Then I got on the phone with my high school best friend, who had gone to the event, and she identified some of the unknowns and we chatted about who was there and who hung out together. She clued me in to some of the long term friendships I had missed, which was most of them.

I started obsessing about those friendships that had escaped my notice. Then I wondered why I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I blamed my own myopic nature for missing the connections around me as I grew up. I felt dull and unaware. I wondered if I still was.

What does this have to do with writing? you ask.

A lot.

Relationships are everything in storytelling. I’ve been putting a lot of effort into establishing relationships in my main character’s family, his classmates and the people in his small village. But I haven’t thought much about the relationships in the background: how his brothers felt about each other, or how they feel about the kids down the road. Or whether or not my character’s mother has a friend in the village. I’ve kept my spotlight shined only on my main character and thus others stay in the dark, waiting only to come on stage when they are needed.

But now I can imagine a richer world. My character’s brothers could be competing over the affections of the same girl. His mother might feel alienated and lonely in the village, with no one to trade with or gossip with. His father could have a temper that the nearest neighbor witnesses, but keeps secret. His teacher may love the candle maker.

The best books have a thick web of connections, not all of which are directly related to the main character. Each new possibility offers new small plot contributions, denser air around the central story.

What are the unseen connections in your novel? How could you rethink the background relationships in your story? Perhaps what you haven’t paid attention to matters more than you think.

Past and Future– A Little Tollbooth History

I’m back!

After a year break (although I’ve been here all along, working behind the scenes on website issues) I’m back on board, out front, writing Tollbooth posts. Back in the ‘booth!


Sometimes everybody needs to slow down and refresh… This break made me stop and reflect– we have been doing The Tollbooth for awhile. A LONG WHILE. How long?


Things were different then. Blogs were fairly new. And writers read lots of them. Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s Cynsations started a few months earlier. The Longstockings were a big deal (although it seems it’s been erased now.)  The Blue Rose Girls were popular, too. And they’re still going strong! Blogs gave us a window into the secret life of editors  (who was Editorial Anonymous, anyway????? we all had theories) and agents– even the terrifying Miss Snark. Suddenly you could learn about the writing life, publishing… just about everything on the internet.

In the summer of 2007 a group of us decided Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults needed a web presence… there was no VCFA back then. No website for the program. Nothing.

Emails flew and soon the team was assembled.

We were all published or soon to be published. We were all Vermont College grads. We were all excited to do something really new.  I posted my first Through The Tollbooth post–the very first Tollbooth post– on October 8, 2007.


We had rules. Every post had to be informative and original. Each member was assigned a week- and we had to post five times– EVERY DAY– during week. Writing five original, informative posts was HARD. There would be interviews but no book reviews. And no snark.

We wanted to keep up the love we’d experienced at Vermont College. And we wanted to keep learning, by writing posts like the critical essays we wrote our first two semesters in the program. Frankly, it was exhausting. But it’s always been fun.

We’ve come a long way through the Tollbooth, past Live Journal (where you can still access all our posts 2007- 2012 (sorry the images seem to be broken LiveJournal is a rickety old thing), beyond a harrowing hack attack that destroyed our first  timestaking-ly crafted WordPress blog, on to our streamlined current look and team. Loads of VCFA alums have joined the Tollbooth crew, dozens more have visited for guess posts.  Many of us have gone on to new web and publishing ventures. Of the original group on Zu and I remain. For the last two year’s I’ve been blogging for VCFA at The LaunchPad but I’d never give the Tollbooth up

So without further ado here are some favorite Tollbooth posts I’ve written.


Showing Vs Telling

Time   and   Flashbacks

Finding An Agent (with more here and here and here)

How to Storyboard your novel

and probably my all time most popular–Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

It’s been a great run… and I’m on my mark… set… and ready to go again!

Nine years of posts! There’s a lot of rich, wonderful, thoughtful and provocative stuff here, written by a host of fabulous writers and thinkers.

Let’s create a “classics” list with links displayed on the sidebar. What are your favorite old (or new) Tollbooth posts?

~tami lewis brown