Desperately Seeking Discipline

My desk. With me not sitting at it.

My desk. With me NOT sitting at it.

It’s just after 8:00 am. The kids have left for school, and you finally have the house for yourself. You pour yourself a second cup of coffee and open your laptop. Just as you’re about to click on your work-in-progress, the phone rings. Or a text pings. Or an email alert flickers from the corner of your screen. Maybe a neighbor stops by to chat, or the dog looks up at you with big puppy eyes begging, “Walk now?” And suddenly you’re sliding down that slippery slope into full-blown procrastination mode. You’ll write later, you promise yourself…

 And then you don’t.

If you’re like me, this scenario is unfortunately all too common. I’m desperately in need of discipline. So when my friend, Ellen Sussman, an award-winning adult author (, told me about a method she uses called the unit system, I was intrigued. While her technique (detailed below) didn’t turn out to be the panacea I’d hoped for, experimenting with the novelty of a new routine did motivate me to research the work habits of other authors I admire. Why reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write, if I can benefit from the innovative ways others have solved the discipline dilemma? So I turned to some of the best minds I know in the business—my VCFA critique group—to interview them about their writerly habits. How do you trick your brain into concentrating, I asked? What kind of routines and rituals work for you? While I found no single winning formula, there was consensus in the collective wisdom on a few common themes—like the importance of routine.

The Unit System: Based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing theses, this system helps writers break down long blocks of time into manageable segments.

time-297498_640“[You] divide your work time into units,” explains Sussman. “Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. Then no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk and do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to do the work.” This might include tasks like watering the plants, throwing a ball for the dog, putting in a load of laundry, or chopping up vegetables for dinner—but no emails, texts or “thinking work.”

The theory is, people have an easier time of focusing if they know they have to do it for only 45 minutes. “Anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering—and there’s the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end,” says Sussman. “The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. [During that time] I’m not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for unit two, I’m suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment.”

Routine: The consensus is that routine is essential. “Novelists especially need to write daily,” Sussman stresses. “It takes a lot to hold a novel in one’s head. Novels don’t get written when inspiration strikes; they get written on days when you’re feeling lousy, on days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.”

“If I let myself off the hook,” agrees Ann Jacobus (  “it gets harder and harder to get back.”

“Many of us are our own worst enemies,” admits Linden McNeilly (  “So, systems that are not negotiable are the best ones for me.”

Set working hours: It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you stick to a timetable.  “My most productive hours are in the morning,” Jacobus says,  “so I get to my computer by 7:30 but by 8:30 at the latest.”

“There are so many GOOD reasons not to get down to writing,” Christine Dowd concedes. “So, if I don’t start in the morning, the day tends to get away from me.”

Afternoons are best for Sharry Wright (  who says, “I sit down at my desk, quickly check email and then turn off the Internet connection. I read over what I wrote the day before, allow myself half an hour to “tweak” and then move on to what comes next. After an hour, I get up, stretch, have a cup of miso, throw in a load of laundry and check for any urgent emails, then sit back down at my desk. I work until 3:00, then stop for lunch and reading for a half an hour. Then I’m back working until 4:30.”

In contrast, Annemarie O’Brien ( binge writes. “I essentially schedule chunks of time, leave my house, and have marathon writing sessions,” she explains. “I have often started at six in the morning and have worked through the day until midnight. I realize this is crazy and most normal people wouldn’t work this way, but I need to get into my character’s world and stay there. It is very hard for me to jump in and out of my story and do it justice if I can’t immerse myself fully.”

Give yourself a daily minimum word count. Many swear by this method. But be realistic when it comes to the word count and then stick to it—on good days, you can always write more.

“It starts with a deadline for the whole work,” Linden McNeilly explains. “That is usually dependent on some outside [event] I am committed to, like attending a conference. I back map from there into weekly word count requirements, and then daily ones. Writing specific scenes works well to help me get to my daily word count. I always end my writing sessions [by journaling] about what’s coming next, and outline scenes at least a little into the future.”


Prewriting rituals: Meditation, prayer, lighting candles, reading inspirational passages, and jogging were some of the most raved-about routines. Exercise happens to be my favorite prewriting routine with spin class winning out as the most effective epiphany-inducing technique. Somewhere between slightly breathless and heart-stopping hard, solutions to my plot problems and story questions start surfacing, glimmering like lightning bugs on a summer night. If I can’t get to the gym before I write, I’ll stand on my head instead. Bring on the blood flow!

Turn off the Internet: Everyone agrees this is essential. If you’ve got the willpower to ignore the siren song of cyberspace, great; otherwise, download and use an Internet blocking app like Freedom. “I manually turn off my access to the Internet,” says McNeilly. “I allow myself to turn it back on in specific intervals of 30 minutes, but only to check correspondence, then off it goes.”

Getting in the Mood: Notice those earbuds our kids never take off?  Mood music helps us rev up, relax, feel romantic, nostalgic, adventurous or afraid. It can also help us connect with our characters when searching for the emotional heart of a scene.   background-313389_640

“When I’m revising a manuscript, I like to listen to movie soundtracks while I work,” Frances Lee Hall ( explains. “Soundtracks are meant to evoke a wide range of emotions and follow the movie’s plot. You could argue that the music alone can tell a story from beginning to end. While I was revising Fried Wonton, I listened to the soundtrack from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I love Yo Yo Ma’s cello combined with Tan Dun’s majestic score. When I was in an emotional part in my story, a song called Yearning of the Sword came on at that exact moment when I needed it most. It’s sad, longing cello sounds put me in the mood that I needed to be.”

Snacks: Be sure to feed your body and your

Tea and coffee win out as favorite beverages with chocolate as the best-loved snack. I also liked Jacobus’s trick of keeping dried fruit and nuts at her desk to munch on if she’s on a roll and doesn’t want to stop.

“Don’t wait for the muse to whisper in your ear,” Sussman says. I agree. If we expect life to get in the way of our writing and have a strategy for dealing with hard times and temptations—instead of using them as an excuse—we’ll be more likely to find the discipline we need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of tea and turn off the Internet.

Helen Pyne (






Safari or Zoo: Improving Writing Craft through Books


How does a writer choose (or learn) the best craft technique for a particular story?  Cori McCarthy’s recent Tollbooth post, In Defense of the Present Tense, touched on this topic, causing me to consider various opinions I’ve read in craft books about present tense.

Sarah Johnson feeding Giraffe (Nigeria)

Sarah Feeding a Giraffe in a Zoo

When a writer detects a craft problem  challenge in their work in progress (either while revising or writing), he or she needs to turn to craft. What can one do if one doesn’t have the answer or yet have that particular writing skill? One approach is to turn to books.

Nigeria countryside

African Countryside.
Photo by Sarah Blake Johnson

For example, if a writer wants to learn more about present tense, she could read novels written in present tense such as Cori McCarthy’s book, The Color of Rain and Uma Krishnaswami’s book The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic.  Both writers chose present tense for specific reasons because they feel present tense is the best way to tell their stories.  Or you could read a craft book that discusses present tense. The first approach is like going on a safari in Africa while the other is like visiting a zoo. I feel if the writer is, for example studying present tense, it’s ideal to read books in present tense as well as read about present tense.

1. The Safari: Become a detective.

Nigeria mammal

Mammal in Nigeria, Africa
Photo by Sarah Blake Johnson

Examine several books and dissect the craft question at hand in that book. This is a great way to learn, especially as the specific craft question has not been pulled out of its element. To expand the books that you read, ask other writers about books that are good examples of a craft technique that you wish to examine as well as books that are a poor example.

It may take searching to find what you are looking for. Or like in my photo here of this mammal in Africa, you may discover something you hadn’t realized was there.

Nigeria zoo

Photo taken by Sarah Blake Johnson

2. The Zoo: Read a book about writing craft. Reading some of these books is also helpful and can help a writer learn about craft issues they had never before considered. Also, not all authors of these books agree about specific craft techniques, so a writer can learn different opinions.


Here is a sampling of some craft books I’ve found useful.

The Basics

Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin

What’s Your Story?: A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer

The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife and K.D. Sullivan

Some Staples

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway


Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Specific Topics

Character: Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen

Plot: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Revising: Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein

Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from Vermont College of Jauss-book coverFine Arts, lectures from VCFA MFA in Writing Faculty

One more craft book and the book that contains the best essay I’ve read about present tense:

Alone with all that Could Happen: rethinking conventional wisdom about the Craft of Fiction Writing by David Jauss

What are your favorite craft books and why? I’d love to read about them in the comments.


Sarah Blake Johnson



Guest Post from Steve Bramucci: On Equal Representation, Fear, & White Male Privilege


Note from Caroline: Today I’m happy to welcome Steve Bramucci to the Tollbooth. Steve is a storyteller, travel writer, and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in writing for children. His first novel for young readers, RONALD ZUPAN AND THE PIRATES OF BORNEO!, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter at @stevebram.

In April, when BookCon announced that their ambitiously named Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kid Authors that Dazzle panel would be made up of four white men, the door leading to brave conversations about equal representation for women and authors of color on book panels, shelves, and in the media was flung wide. Besides sparking a lot of impassioned tweets, the story also spurred some incredible think pieces by middle grade and YA authors like Kate Messner, Megan Frazer, and Anne Ursu, whose entire blog should be read immediately by anyone with any interest in the representation conversation. I read these pieces and the Twitter conversations they sparked, did my best to listen closely, tweeted out my thoughts, and eventually emailed my friend Caroline Carlson with questions about how I might be a better ally to the cause.

Caroline let me know in no uncertain terms that most of the vocal supporters of a more diverse panel lineup had been women and people of color. Not many of the white men in our community had spoken up one way or the other, and a small number had actually opposed the whole idea of making the panel more diverse. After a few more emails, she offered me the chance to write a blog post on the subject of being an ally to the cause of equal representation.

My first thought was, “Yes! Awesome!”

My second thought was, “Oooh, if I define myself as an ally, I’ll also have to admit that I’m in a position of privilege.”

My third thought was, “Wait, I’m not in a position of priv…oh shit.”

In the days that followed, I tried to dig into why I’d had that third response. Because I think it’s that moment of denial that sheds light on why we (white male writers—or let’s go for the privilege trifecta and say white heterosexual male writers) aren’t as good at being allies as we ought to be to those who are marginalized.

Post “oh shit” moment, the following justification bubbled up in me:

I’m a writer and just like every non-celebrity writer I know, I have scrapped and fought and struggled and worked and worked and worked to get my foot in the door. I have tried and failed and tried again to chase this dream and am just now finally making inroads. At every single turn, I have chosen “put passion before being comfortable” as another white heterosexual male, Macklemore, once put it. Besides, as a magazine journalist, I’ve never seen 90% of the editors I work for, and as a children’s author with the ink still wet on his first contract, I’ve not yet met my agent or editor. As far as I know, they couldn’t care less about my skin tone or gender. How could I possibly have received any privilege?

Of course, this argument collapses before ever crossing the threshold. Having privilege doesn’t mean that a person will automatically exploit said privilege (as this Onion article points out). In the days after the BookCon drama, I read an excellent explanation of white male privilege that I’ll paraphrase (I’ve looked for it and haven’t been able to track it down so pardon my lack of attribution): privilege doesn’t mean that your path has been easy, it just means it hasn’t been any harder due to your race, gender, or sexual orientation. That definition helped me to truly “get it.” But the knee-jerk desire I’d had to somehow minimize the privilege that I undeniably benefit from worried me. I may not have shown the same unapologetic refusal to understand the very definition of the term as this self-satisfied Princeton student, but for a moment, an unwillingness to “check my privilege” had indeed revealed itself.

Here’s the thing: the lame justification that reared its head as soon as I committed to writing this post? It’s 100% based in fear. The fear that in a world any less favorable to my race, sexual orientation, and gender I might not make it. The fear that by declaring myself an ally for a cause I know to be just, I might somehow rob myself of the opportunities that my race, sexual orientation, and gender unfairly entitle me to in the first place.

And fear is a terrible thing. Perhaps the worst thing. Fear is why systems that favor white heterosexual males have been propped up, over and over by white heterosexual males. Fear is why those same men have labeled feminists “men haters” (you should definitely open up a tab to read Lindy West’s evisceration of this brand of man).

As a writer, fear is something that every protagonist I put on the page has to go toe-to-toe with. And when they step into the ring with fear, I’m always there, cheering them on, hoping that they knock fear out cold. Like many writers, I’m not fond of tidy morals—but I am a fan of higher-level values, values like a spirit of fair play, a sense of justice, a desire for complete equality, and the rejection of fear-based thinking.

So I hope to reflect those same values when I say: white heterosexual male privilege is a real thing. It has benefitted me in a million tiny (and not so tiny) ways that I’ve never even had to bother noticing (because not having to notice privilege is the very nature of privilege). This privilege continues to benefit me and no matter what I do I can’t reject it.

What I can do is recognize it, affirm the inequity that comes with it, and stand up as an ally to say: We need diverse books. We need equal representation by women and people of color on panels. What I can do is ask, as my buddies Matt de la Peña and Varian Johnson have both done so well: Why do all the adventurous, best-selling, larger than life heroes seem to be so very white?

To cop to my privilege and announce myself as an ally at the beginning of my career is only a small step. It’s one droplet of water in the rising tide that will lift all ships. But it is what the fair-play-loving characters I write would counsel me to do, and what the young, fear-despising kids who will one day read my books will demand.

It’s a small step, yes, but that’s how all journeys start.



  • Rachel Renee Russell, author of Dork Diaries, has been added to the Blockbuster Reads panel at BookCon (which is going on this weekend)

In Defense of the Present Tense


I see him coming. 

A knife-slit narrow to his eyes, he’s charging up to my book signing line with The Angry Father Mission. He’s the one in the audience who glared through my reading and asked rhetorical questions about why is YA so dark and terrible.

He’s coming for me–the author of the teen prostitute in space book. Oh God.

I groan inwardly and make sure he’s not packing a pitchfork. 

He waits his turn. 

And then, I say, “Hi.”

“First person present tense?” He scoffs. “Seriously?”

Huh? Are you serious, dude?

AdiSince I made the decision to write about human trafficking for the YA reader, I’ve prepared myself to answer angry adults. But nothing could prepare me for the backlash of people who hate the present tense. And I mean hate in a bold way. A loathing, blame-it-for-everything-wrong-with-the-book kind of way.

I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in being caught off guard here. Brand-spanking-new author Adi Rule told me, “I didn’t even know present tense was a controversial thing until my book came out and people started marking points off for it in reviews.”

I took this topic for a spin on Facebook and got some expectedly heated responses. Writer Wendie Old said, “Can’t stand present tense, especially first person present tense, which is probably why I dislike most YA books because YA writers seem to think it’s the best way to write.”

Writer Annie Downer said, “I hate it.”

Even my own brother told me, “It seems to me that books written in the present tense demand some sort of flashback or other gimmick to help provide backstory. My question: is this really necessary, or is it a cop-out?

Yikes. Wow.

On the flipside, avid reader Tina said, “Books written in the present tense are always among my favorite because I feel like I’m living the story through the eyes of that character. Their thoughts and emotions become mine and for a little while I get to escape reality and live out their stories.

I feel the same way as Tina–that the present tense provides more of an experience than a story. More on that in a moment.

The present tense controversy troubles me not because people have strong opinions about it, but because they too often want to discount it completely. After all, aren’t there different tenses in writing for the same reason that there are different genres? Different POVs? It’s a stylistic choice, perhaps not one that all writers do their best with, but that can be said of any element in the literary world.

Writer Rachel Lieberman explains her own choices rather well: “I decided to write in first person past tense, because the protagonist is kind of a bully during the story and I wanted her to be able to tell it through the eyes of someone who’s since changed. The project before that was first person present because the protagonist there was very innocent and I wanted the reader to be able to grow with her.”

Grow with a character? Intriguing. Sounds like we’re circling back to the idea of revealing experience.

For Rachel, tense is a choice. And yet, it isn’t for me. When I sat down to write The Color of Rain, I didn’t set out to write first person present. I closed my eyes and started to type.

This came out:

Bumper Sticker

Author Tim Wynne-Jones seems to have a similar style. “For me tense usually comes alone with voice all in that first sploosh onto the page.” (Ten points for the word sploosh, Tim :-) )

So maybe tense choice is also about feeling the story’s true Voice. And perhaps writers should feel free to run with that feeling more often. Author Janet Fox does! “I’m working in present tense right now and love it. It’s sci-fi, and feels immediate and sharp, which is the mood I want.”

B & CWhen RAIN came out and I found myself drilled by readers, I realized that I had to come up with an answer to why present tense. Well, Rain is a teen prostitute and her decisions are the driving force of the novel, so I say, “The book is in present tense because the reader feels Rain’s decisions as they happen. The story unveils through each sentence. There is no safety of past tense’s hindsight. Also, in being a thriller, the rush of being locked in the moment keeps the stakes at nosebleed level.”

Of course, this choice led to one of my closest friends telling me that my book gave her a stomachache.

This probably has to do with what writer Erin Hagar admitted: “I often find first person present tense to be quite exhausting. In high-stakes, action sequences, I’m right there. But I need a break from that as a reader sometimes, to pull back into a more comforting narrative approach that uses distance (either through tense or POV) to let me know that things are going to turn out okay.”

Hmmm, that’s a good point. But the thing is, I never wanted the reader to get a reprieve from Rain’s journey. Rain never did, so why should the reader? After all, I wanted to convey the downhill whirlwind of seriously bad decisions. The experience. So, while I am sorry about the stomachache, dear Anna, if a book about a girl whose circumstances are so bleak that she trades her own body doesn’t twist you up inside, I think I’ve failed.

I’m not sure it could be better worded than by writer LoriGoe Pérez Nowak: “I believe that first person present works well when the character is experiencing/working through a trauma. A character’s ability to interpret and analyze her experience is proportionate to the length of time that she is removed from the experience (time locus of the narrator).

“In first person present, since the time locus of the narrator is the same as the time locus of the events of the story, the character is limited in her ability to draw sophisticated conclusions about her experiences. I feel this deepens the connection between character and reader because there is no room for pretense, and the character is completely vulnerable because she is unable to hide any judgment errors or embarrassing physical/emotional choices & responses. Character and reader work through the events together.”

HGI won’t say that reading a story in present tense isn’t hard. I’ll simply point out that maybe it’s supposed to be hard. After all, let’s not forget Katniss—the first person present tense window into a world that Suzanne Collins wanted her young reader to see through. To be hurt by. To fear.

I’d like to take a moment to tackle one hard truth about present tense hatred (particularly first person present): that it’s overused in “bad YA.” Yes, this might be true. But keep in mind that if a book doesn’t make you feel for the character or understand the plot, it’s likely that the author failed to use his or her voice in a clear and engaging way. The tense might have something to do with it, but it does not have everything to do with it. Promise.

As writers, it then becomes our job to question why a book isn’t working on a level much deeper than tense. It can only help our own work, yes?

On a final note, there is a strange reality I’d like to share—particularly with readers who run screaming from present tense and writers who dismiss it out of fear of prosecution from  literary purists. I’ve had many people question my use of present tense. But only adults.

I have never had a complaint from a teen reader.

Writer Jim Hill has an interesting take on this: “Young readers have achieved media literacy in a First Person world, primarily through video game play. Many video games feature narrative story lines layered on top of the “shoot-punch-click” gameplay. Immediacy and reward are built into their media expectations. First Person POV delivers that experience in text format.

(There’s that word experience again.)

I hope what I can impart is that present tense is a lot of things. It’s a stylistic choice. It’s a feeling. Its popularity is on the rise ~ and it’s a victim of literary pretentions. It’s sometimes done well for strong reasons. It’s sometimes done horribly for no perceptible reason. It’s good. It’s bad. It’s everywhere!

Now, let’s try this on for size for a little twist:

I saw him coming.

Knife-slit narrowed eyes, he charged up to my book signing line with The Angry Father Mission. He was the one in the audience who glared through my reading and asked rhetorical questions about why is YA so dark and terrible.

He came for me–the author of the teen prostitute in space book. Oh God.

I groaned inwardly and made sure he wasn’t packing a pitchfork.

He waited his turn.

And then, I said, “Hi.”

“First person present tense?” He scoffed. “Seriously?”

Now, that fits a bit differently, doesn’t it? Whereas the present tense version was a little ominous and leading, this version feels more snarky and inevitable.

And that’s because the difference between present tense and past tense is the difference between experience and story. Is one of those wrong or better? I don’t think so. Do they both have a place in the literary world?

I hope that you will say yes.

As my best writery friend Amy Rose Capetta says, “If a book is well-written, I don’t even remember what tense it was written in.”

TheColorOfRainCoverCori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013) and Breaking Sky (forthcoming from Sourcebooks, 2015). She writes in whatever tense the mood takes her. Including writing short bios in third person present, which is a tad weird, now isn’t it?

Follow her @CoriMcCarthy

Or check out her website

Teach What You Need To Learn


This gallery contains 10 photos.


“Editor. Writer. Teacher.” That’s what my website says I am. But it’s only in the past few years that I have been able to claim the last title. Thanks, in part, to my experiences as an instructor with a program … Continue reading



Holla, Shadowcat!

Lately I’ve been a little overwhelmed with the good news from other writers. Don’t get me wrong, I am super-thrilled to hear about their book deals, new agents, and launch days. I kid you not. I love seeing their success, how far they’ve come, and the amazing things they’re doing. The problem is that, in comparison, my own success, my own progress, and the amazing things I’m doing feel as intangible as Kitty Pryde phasing through a crowd of New York Times Best selling authors.

I bet you wouldn’t be surprised to know I’m not alone in this emotional tide pool. In fact, through conversations with other writers, I know for sure that I’m not. What might surprise you (it surprises me) is hearing this same story from writers at different stages of their careers. Stages that I, unpublished naïf that I am, view as the various pinnacles of success.

There’s a scorecard I keep in my mind, a checklist of sorts, as I work towards what I hope is a career in writing. It goes something like this:

  • Decide to write
  • Go to a Writers Conference
  • Get an MFA in Writing
  • Write a Book
  • Revise that book
  • Speak at a Conference
  • Query Agents
  • Get an Agent
  • Get a Book Deal. Maybe a Multi-Book Deal! At Auction!!
  • Movie Deal!!! Toys!!!! Merchandise!!!!!

You get the point. For the most part, I feel pretty damn good about my progress. I have a plan. I’m doing the work.

Then I see that [REDACTED] has an agent, or [REDACTED] scored a multi-book deal, and I’m all, “[REDACTED], [REDACTED], [REDACTED]!”

Which is to say the voices in my head take a trip to the Dark Side.

Help me, Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope.

This week two Obi-Wan Kenobis spoke to me as I barreled down a trench in the Death Star on the lookout for a small, thermal exhaust port in which to drop my figurative torpedo. Where did I find multiple Kenobis? The internet, of course.

I discovered Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent TEDTalk, Success, Failure And The Drive To Keep Creating. In it, the author of the mega-successful Eat, Pray, Love talks about the pressure to have another mega-hit, and how destructive the pressure of outcome is to the writing process. And, you know, the living process.

There’s a lot to takeaway from her talk, but this is the quote I tacked up on my wall:

“I will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live.”

The second voice of Jedi-wisdom comes from friend-of-the-blog Steve Bramucci, a guy so easy going and likable, never mind talented, that you’d think he’d be immune to the vicissitudes of publishing. Nah. Turns out he’s human too.

He wrote a wonderful piece at Ingrid Sundberg’s place about feeling the anxiety of outcome, and dealing with it. He proposes a four step checklist (I love checklists) to keep our keels even. The step that resonated with me the most was the first one: Gratitude (and I did so read them all, don’t look at me that way).

It reminded me that I am grateful for the good feeling that comes with turning ideas into words, into pages, into stories. It reminded me that this is a pretty great privilege. And it reminded me of all the good folks in my life that cheer for my success. Heck yeah, I’ve got a lot to be grateful about.

Even stupid [REDACTED]’s latest big announcement.


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to  pack for NESCBWI so I can check off item number six on my personal scorecard.

It’s a matter of trust


trust11Recently On my newsletter, Monday Motivation, I posted some thoughts about trust.

I was amazed by the number of responses I received. It seemed that there were a lot of writers out there still grappling with trust. I heard from writers at the beginning of their journeys…and some who have been publishing for a very long time. It seemed that no matter what we were working on…where we were…what kind of feedback we were receiving…trust was still an issue.


Here is that post.

It begins with a question:

“If you could give new writers one piece of advice, what would it be?”

My answer could not be contained. (No surprise!!!) I had a lot to say, but after a while, I could see a theme, and this was TRUST.

Golda Meir said: Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.


Writers, this should be our motto!


Trust is such a huge part of the writing process.

In the beginning, I have to trust myself to write badly, to know that even though the words I’m putting down aren’t the ones I’ll end up with, that they will lead to something.

In the middle, I must trust my vision, my voice, my friends–especially when they tell me that something is working.

I have to trust my instinct to understand my characters and their motivations. And to be brave. To write down the true story…not the one that I think will end up well.

And then I must trust my editor. I must trust that the choices we have made are the best for the story. And that I agree with them! And that even if reviews aren’t great, that it’s okay.

These days, I know a lot of writers who are tough on themselves. We get down when writing isn’y easy/when the words don’t come/when roadblocks appear in our stories or in the submission process. We think it is OUR fault. That we’re not doing enough. Or not good enough. Or that the world is simply not fair. And then we get upset when we don’t measure up to our peers in other ways–when we compare ourselves to other parents or writers or professionals.

You know what I say?

Be nice to yourself. For me, I cannot be creative unless I feel safe.

Unless I TRUST.

Trust that you are doing the right thing, that your story will find a home. Trust that your words are important. Trust that your day will come.

As J M Barrie said, “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” 

This week, look in the mirror. Pat yourself on the back. Take stock in how far you have come. Most of all, promise yourself that you will trust in your process and in yourself.

Have a great writing week!


This is the kind of post you can get every week when you subscribe to Monday Motivation. Find it at Or sign up for a class! Sarah will be participating in a Highlights Whole Novel Retreat this September with Nancy Werlin, Amanda Jenkins, and special guest, Nova Ren Suma!

Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)


This is Benedict Cumberbatch reading Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately you did not write Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately Benedict Cumberbatch is very unlikely to attend your next book event.

Unfortunately you’re going to have to do the reading yourself.


But fortunately, even though you aren’t Benedict Cumberbatch (if you are Benedict Cumberbatch please leave me a comment) you can give a great author reading.

But.. but… but… many author readings aren’t great. Some stink. Forget that. Your reading can be wonderful. It isn’t hard. It just takes thought, preparation, and practice. Without further ado here are my tips for a successful author reading:

1)   There’s really only one hard and fast rule.  HONOR YOUR WORDS.


Be proud of your accomplishment and share your pride with your audience.

How? Speak loud. Speak slow. Lift your chin and occasionally establish occasional eye contact with your audience. Enunciate. Read like you mean it.

While you’re at it, ham it up a little. Ordinary gestures look small when viewed from the audience. Ordinary enunciation sounds a little flat. Pump everything up, a little or a lot. Perform. You won’t seem ridiculous. You’ll be enchanting.

Don’t believe me? Video yourself reading with every day mannerisms, then repeat with a bit of exaggeration. The more flamboyant one is way better, isn’t it?

2)   But Also Chill

You aren’t giving the soliloquy in Hamlet. Just be you.

Watch J.K. Rowling read from her first Harry Potter book, H.P. and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a great reading but she’s not doing anything crazy. She’s just reading calmly, with color and enthusiasm, honoring her story (even when little kids run around, ignoring her.)

Some people calm down by imagining their audience in underwear (EEEWWWWW) Some people take a stiff drink (tempting but not recommended) Do whatever you need to do to settle down, whether it’s deep breathing or running in circles or shouting at the top of your lungs. Of course the best way to stay calm is to be very very very very well prepared.

3) Chose your text wisely.

Pick a lively section of your work- a section where interesting characters are doing interesting things. Make sure the scene you read is a grabber.

And here’s a secret. You can edit what you read. You can cut and paste. You can skip bits- words, sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters-  to create the ideal read-aloud portion. A story read on the page is different from one read out loud. When you read aloud your voice supplies the white space and transitions. If you need to make alterations to deliver the best reading possible go for it. Nobody’s going to sit in the audience with your book on their lap checking for deviations… and if they do you’re giving them a little “insider” thrill.

3) Two Words (okay three) Short And Sweet. Many excellent authors read WAY too many pages in the mistaken idea that they’ll impress an audience with a heaping load of steamy words. It does not work that way!

Keep them begging for more. Chances are you’re hoping to sell books, either at this event or somehow, some day, somewhere. If your audience feels stuffed and exhausted by your reading they won’t want to read the rest. Keep them hungry for more by serving a tempting morsel of your delicious work. They’ll clamor for the whole thing.


4)   Practice. Read aloud. Read aloud in front of a person. Or a dog. Or a person with a dog. Get your mouth around multisyllabic words. Test pauses and pace changes. Consider when to raise and lower your voice.

When you’re practicing time yourself. Make sure your reading fits comfortably into the time allotted. Then cut the amount you’re reading by about a quarter so you have no reason to feel rushed at the actual reading. The more you practice the better you’ll feel when all eyes and ears are on you and your book.

5)   For goodness sakes PLEASE don’t read with a dialect. Ever. Assuming you’re not Meryl Streep (who, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is not going to read your book) any accent you try is more likely to offend or, at least, distract your audience than enhance your reading.  No exceptions for dialog by hillbillies, people of color, elves, or anyone else. Do Not Do This. REALLY. DON’T READ IN DIALECT IT’S ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS WITHOUT EXCEPTION AWFUL I mean you, sort of famous author. Stop it!

6)   Don’t let other authors get to you. If you’re reading in a group some writers before you will tuck their chins to their chests and speak in nervous whispers, and for a minute you’ll be tempted to copy them. Because standing proud with your eyes on your audience and your voice raised high is….. showing off! Isn’t it? No. It’s honoring your work and your words. Even more it’s honoring your audience with the reading they deserve. Don’t cheat the people who’ve come to support you. Read it like you mean it.


7) Which brings me to my final point. Shy has nothing to do with a good reading. Good public readings are orchestrated. You don’t have to make spontaneous small talk. You don’t have to be cool. You read words off a page… and they are words you already know- you wrote them!

Practice until reading your passage feels like second nature, then pretend you’re happy to be reading in a room with a dozen or a hundred people. Or pretend you’re all alone in your bathrobe at home. After you leave the podium you can run out the back door.

Which authors do you think do a great job reading their work?

~tami lewis brown

A Shameless Plea


As the author of a funny adventure story for middle grade readers, I’ve found myself in a sort of unusual position over the past few months following my book release. I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel. (Author Anne Ursu wrote a great post about one of these appearances; you should read it immediately if you haven’t already.)

Without exception, my male co-panelists have been wonderful people, great writers, and thoughtful and funny speakers. I’ve been honored to sit alongside them, and I hope I’ll get many more chances to do so in the future. But the gender breakdown of our panels doesn’t usually come close to representing the gender breakdown in children’s publishing as a whole, or even in middle grade fiction in particular. My YA-writing friends tell me that in the world of teen lit, the reverse is sometimes true, and it’s not unusual for a YA panel to consist mostly of female authors. I’ve also seen panels about “books for girls” populated entirely by women, and panels about “books for boys” populated entirely by men; if you’ve attended a children’s literature conference recently, you probably have, too.

Lately, writers and readers have been asking for more representations of diversity in the books we read, the authors we’re exposed to, and the opportunities presented to all of us, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or the other traits that make us unique. While I can’t speak to all of these issues in the space of this blog post, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a shameless and specific plea for bringing groups of both male and female authors to speak to kids.

Here are just a few of the great things that can happen when men and women share the stage at an author panel or school visit:

Kids see themselves in the authors standing in front of them. I love speaking to elementary school students, telling them about how I became a writer, and showing them silly photos of myself when I was their age. I do this because I want kids to know that I was a lot like them when I was growing up, and that if they want to write books someday, that’s an utterly achievable dream. Bringing a group of both male and female authors to an elementary school shows kids in a concrete way that both boys and girls can grow up to be authors—and engaging, interesting speakers, too!    

Kids learn that both men and women can write all sorts of books. There’s a general perception—more of a stereotype, really—that men write funny, adventurous stories and women write quiet, heartwarming stories. A quick romp through any library will illustrate how inaccurate this idea really is. When we include women on panels about funny, adventurous stories, and when we include men on panels about quiet, heartwarming stories, we bust those stereotypes wide open, and that’s nothing but good for the kids (and adults) who attend these events.

Kids understand that both men and women write for boys and girls. Why do we so often assume that men write for boys and women write for girls? When I visit schools, I want boys to know that it is totally okay for them to read and enjoy my books, and I want girls to know that, too. I don’t write “for boys” or “for girls;” I write for whoever wants to read the stories I have to tell. I also know that my male author friends feel the same way. Some of our books might be about death-defying adventures, and others may be about friendship or family, but all of our books are for anyone who wants to read them: boys, girls, adults, postal workers, foreign dignitaries, and swamp monsters.

The elephant in the room gets a chance to leave. When there is a noticeable gender disparity on a panel, gender suddenly becomes a salient topic, even if it has nothing to do with what the speakers are actually talking about. This can be stressful, awkward, and distracting for presenters and audiences alike. As important as it is to discuss issues of gender, most of us would usually rather get down to the business of what we really love: talking about books written by—and for—everyone.

There’s far more to say on this subject, of course, and other smart people have already said much of it wonderfully, but I hope that all of us who write, publish, curate, share, and love children’s literature will keep this conversation going over the next few months and years. And if you find yourself organizing a panel, getting author friends together for a group school visit, or inviting speakers to a conference, please take a few moments to consider whether the authors in the group will represent a wide, diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints. It’s important, and it matters—not only to us, but also to the kids who read our stories.