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. 

Taking Time to Meditate: A Tool for Writers




We writers love our tools. From software programs like Scrivener, Evernote, and Google docs to apps that block online distractions, we all swear by our systems. Some of us even write using treadmill desks and stability balls to keep our backs in shape. But have you ever considered adding a meditation practice to your writer’s toolbox?

I’m always looking for a competitive edge. Will exercise, coffee, vitamins or a good night’s sleep help me to write better? So, when I read that science has proven meditation actually restructures the brain, I was intrigued. After all, in Silicon Valley where I live, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have been offering “Search Inside Yourself” training for years.  Classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy make for lunch hours that “maximize mindfulness” and spark creativity.

So when a friend told me about an 8-week mindfulness mediation course offered by Teri Dahlbeck, an executive coach with a background in neuroscience,, I agreed to give it a try. Dahlbeck introduced me to the work of several meditation teachers, including author Sharon Salzberg. “The adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. “Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences.”


Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with New Age crystals, Tarot cards, religion or runes. It’s simply a way of training our attention so that we become more aware of our inner feelings as well as what’s happening around us in the outside world. There is no one right way to do it too; you can focus on the breath, a mantra, an image, do a body scan, etc. The important thing is that meditation cultivates three key skills: concentration, mindfulness and compassion—also known as lovingkindness. For writers, these brain-changing skills can have game-changing results. Here’s why.


Concentration: Meditation helps improve our powers of concentration. Making it a daily practice reinforces habits of discipline and the ability to let go of distractions. If I’m stressed, the chatter in my mind often intensifies, robbing me of the ability to write. Niggling thoughts, worries and doubts flit like gnats in and out of my brain, blocking my creativity. So how do we find that heightened mental state known as “flow,” where the outside world falls away and we feel alert and able to focus with laser sharp intensity? Meditation can help get us there, in part because it eases anxiety.  images-1

In a post on the link between meditation and creativity in writer Jane Friedman’s blog, author Orna Ross says, “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, day after day, in words. It makes us a little crazy—vulnerable, edgy, raw sometimes. Meditation soothes those edges and creates a place of safety from where we can take risks.” Ross, too, cites the science behind the claims. “Brain scans show that meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. It allows us to become, as Flaubert suggested we should, steady and well-ordered in our life so we can be fierce and original in our work.”

Mindfulness: Remember the adage, “show don’t tell”? Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions and notice where strong feelings are felt in the body. I often ask my writing students, what did you notice today? My goal is to get them to slow down and focus on moment-to-moment awareness. To pay attention to what’s going on in and around them, including how things smell and taste and sound. If we’re nervous, for instance, how do we hold our hands or move our bodies? Do we bite our lips, grit our teeth, or jiggle our legs? Emotions are rarely a single, solid sentiment. Anger, for example, may also include feelings of frustration, helplessness, sadness and fear. Realizing this can help us all write better scenes.

“Try to have a direct physical and tactile experience as you’re performing everyday activities,” Salzberg instructs. “Feel a water glass against your hands as a cool hardness. When you sweep the floor, sense the exertion in your arms, the tug on the muscles of your back and neck.”

With practice, my awareness too has begun to improve. I’m noticing how emotions like anxiety can cause my chest to swell up like an overinflated balloon. Or how the scent of a cup of chamomile tea and the steam rising in my face can cause my shoulders to drop and my breath to slow. The things your characters notice speak volumes about them. So, if you want to slip into someone’s skin, practice focusing on “just this moment now.”

Compassion or LovingKindness: In order to understand how our protagonists feel, writers must have empathy and compassion.

imagesI believe that the best way to create authentic, complex characters, whose humanness readers can recognize no matter how badly they behave, is to walk a mile in their shoes. Meditation encourages us to extend this kind of lovingkindness to others as well as to ourselves.


Whatever our excuses are for not writing—or not succeeding at our writing—it’s always tempting to throw in the towel. With other kinds of work, I know I can finish the job if I just put in the hours. But writing is different, because we can’t force creativity. In meditation, I’m encouraged to be kind and gentle to myself even when I fail. Whether my distractions are positive or negative, I’m learning how to accept interruptions, gently forgive myself for wandering, and then keep on keeping on. “If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine,” says Salzberg. “That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath [one page] at a time.”images-4


Helen Pyne

Beyond the Five Senses: Using Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, Taste, and other senses in storytelling


Five Senses

Are there only five senses?

How many do we use in our writing?

Utilizing senses in a scene is one of many techniques we use as we create an illusion of reality in our stories.

Sight and hearing are perhaps the most commonly used senses in a book. Vivid writing creates a picture in the reader’s mind, and so the reader should see and hear what the character does, especially if we want the reader to enter the story and fully experience it with the character.

Touch, smell, and taste are senses that often involve a closer psychic distance. Adding these senses can make a scene come alive. I once read a middle grade novel, where the sense of smell was used on the first page of every chapter. It was very effective, but I noticed the technique within a few chapters and then it felt formulaic.

There are other senses we can use, too.

Balance is a sense, especially if the character experiences losing her balance. Temperature is also a vivid sense, as is pain.

We do not need to say that the character “saw” or “heard” or “tasted” whatever they see or hear or taste. Though at times we may use these words, we should be aware that adding the sense words to the text could create another layer for the reader and increase the psychic distance.

Mixing senses in the same sentence is effective.

The senses can show what is actually happening:

The sentence, “Icy rain blew into my hood and dripped down my neck . . .”, uses both the sense of touch and temperature. This also invokes the visual setting of blowing rain. (Thief Eyes by Janni Simner)

Or can be a metaphor or simile:

“. . . when teachers try to say our real names, the sounds always get caught in their throats, sometimes, like crackers.” This sentence not only uses the sense of sound, but also taste, at least for me, because I almost feel a dry cracker crumbling down my throat when I read this. (My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson)

Picture book writers may choose to include senses that are not easily shown in illustrations. Sound words are common in picture books. The sense of smell is also powerful.

Senses are enhanced during periods of stress, so a writer may compress more senses into a paragraph or page in a way that would feel over the top in a slower scene. In an intense situation, a character may not feel senses in a typical way, especially in the moment, because they are in a state of sensory overload.

Senses mirror the emotions of the character. A character that is feeling sad, will not tell us about the beautiful rainbow in the sky (sight) and the smell of the roses blooming in the garden (smell), but would share about the rain and the dark clouds and the rotting mulch surrounding the garden plants.

A useful exercise: analyze a scene of your own or a scene in your favorite book by highlighting every sense, each in a different color. What senses are used? How often? Are there additional places where you can or should add a sense?

Using all the possible senses will add vividness to a manuscript and make the story feel life-like.

Sarah Blake Johnson

The Thriller- Part Deux



“(A) thriller plot tightens the noose around the protagonist’s neck.”

Catherine Linka




Last week Catherine Linka, our Tollbooth sister and author of the fabulous A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS dropped into the ‘Booth to spill her secrets about writing a thriller. And this week she’s back to explain the rest.

BookDetailBut first… Experience a great thriller first hand. Click on this image to read the first three chapters of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS.

(And while you’re there check out the rest of Catherine’s “thrilling” website. It’s super well done, just what a great author’s website should be.)

Wow, Catherine! You’ve nailed it. What are the key elements to creating suspense in a thriller?

Creating suspense in a thriller is a combination of things. Certainly the landscape of a thriller tends to feel darker and more shadowy than in other novels, because it reflects the protagonist’s inability to perceive all the threats that inhabit his or her world.

But even more important is the way a thriller plot tightens the noose around the protagonist’s neck. With each scene, the writer reveals a new threat or hints that yet another person shouldn’t be trusted.

The tension increases as the writer leads the character through a maze in which each of his or her attempts to solve the mystery or evade the impending threat hit a dead end. The reader should get to the point that he or she can’t see the way out. The character is trapped.

In A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, Avie is Contracted into a marriage she doesn’t want. To escape it she needs to get past her bodyguard and the video monitors in her house and school, and trust in Exodus, the underground railroad to Canada. Escape attempts are foiled as the man she is to marry convinces her best friend to spy on her. When Avie does get away, Exodus isn’t the way it was described. She’s with strangers, not knowing who to trust. Her fiance hires private Retrievers to get her back, and later government agents join the hunt. By the final chapters of the book, Avie is trapped and there is no apparent way out.

Writers have to craft the tone of the story to keep the tension going. Even in peaceful or romantic moments, the writer has to hint that the moment could be interrupted by a threat and come crashing down.

Part of crafting tone is language choice and sentence structure. Thrillers don’t require spare prose, but flowery prose is definitely out. Dialogue often reflects the protagonist trying to get information, while not revealing what he or she knows by answering questions without actually answering what was asked or using humor to avoid a straight answer.  The reader should feel the character attempting to discern the truth or to evade discovery–and deciding who to trust in the process.

How do you create character in a genre that tends to be plot driven?

Character development can be buried under a thriller’s complex plot, but the most memorable thrillers often feature characters that fascinate us. Think of Lisbeth Salander from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. She is brilliant, deeply secretive, and perhaps psychotic. Readers want to know what her story is and how far she’ll stretch the boundaries of what is legal or moral.

As writers we build character in thrillers the same way we do in other genres, by showing how the character reacts to situations, how her or she makes decisions, how the character expresses him or herself through dialogue.

The faster pace of a thriller doesn’t offer characters time to explore their feelings about their past or their place in the world. They have to focus on surviving the unfolding crisis. And the looming threats make it challenging for a writer to introduce or build a romantic relationship, because love requires a character to trust enough to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable is the last thing a character in danger wants.

I’ve noticed that writers often show us the key to a character in the opening pages of the story. In Mary Elizabeth Summers TRUST ME, I’M LYING, readers learn that sophomore Julep Dupree is the daughter of a grifter who has a talent for lying, disguise and running scams–skills she will use to survive when her dad goes missing.

In THE PRINCE OF VENICE BEACH, Blake Nelson shows us how Cali, a teen runaway has survived living on the streets because of his talent for building relationships in the community and his honed awareness of what is happening around him. So as Cali is drawn into an increasingly dangerous situation, these character traits keep him alive.

In A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, my main character Avie says in the opening scene, “I’m not fearless, but I like that Yates thinks I am.” She doesn’t see herself as gutsy, but as the story progresses, it’s that quality that propels her forward and ultimately saves her and others.

Alternatively, much of the tension in a thriller comes from the character’s vulnerabilities that put them at risk of failure. Cali’s exposed out on the street, vulnerable to people who prey on street kids. And who in authority is going to believe a kid who lives on the streets? Avie lives in an America in which young women have become rare and valuable. Her knowledge of the world outside her home and school is deliberately restricted, making her vulnerable when she is Contracted into marriage without her consent and makes a run to freedom.

Thanks for the tips, Catherine. All through 2015 Zu Vincent and I are focusing on thrillers, chillers and writing that gets your pulse racing. Stay tuned for our next installments for more interviews, book discussions and practical tips!
~tami lewis brown

Thriller Writing


Author photo and book jacket



“Thrillers… lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival…”                                                Catherine Linka



What really makes a thriller an I can’t put it down read? That’s the question author Tami Lewis Brown and I wanted to explore. And what better place to start than with our own amazing master thriller writer, Catherine Linka, author of A Girl Called Fearless and the upcoming A Girl Undone.

Below is the first part of our two part series on Linka’s successful approach to YA thriller writing (or any genre for that matter). In the coming months we’ll be dissecting a few more thriller reads to see what makes them tick.

Catherine Linka calls her tense, tightly plotted dystopian novel, A Girl Called Fearless, both a love story and a thriller. Set in present day Los Angeles, Fearless is the compelling story of American teen, Avie, whose sequestered and controlled life is suddenly upended when she’s contracted to marry an older man. In Avie’s world, girls are now a precious and expensive commodity, after a synthetic hormone introduced in beef has killed fifty million women. The only way out for Avie is escape to Canada. Avie’s activist friend Yates wants to help her to freedom, but things heat up when Avie and Yates fall in love, and Avie gains knowledge she shouldn’t about leaders in the US government, who are hunting her down to silence her.

Because A Girl Called Fearless is not only a love story and a thriller, but a political and social commentary on our times, we began by asking Linka about the opportunities and issues writers face when including major themes and statements in a thriller, and what reading she’d suggest for writers wanting to delve into the world of thrillers, and the possibilities they hold for writers.


Linka book jacket



Catherine Linka:

I think it’s exciting that writers are free to explore a huge range of themes in thrillers. Naturally, thrillers are perfectly suited to write about crime, murder, greed, and corruption, but they also lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival. Plus, they offer the chance to delve into both normal and pathological ways in which humans behave.

Look at Gone Girl. It poses interesting questions about how we perceive innocence and guilt. Or the new novel, The Girl on the Train that asks how can you know the truth of what you did when you can’t remember?

These darker, more intense themes fit well with YA. These thrillers are often survival stories in which the main character is seeking justice for a crime that has been committed or attempting to head off a crime that may be repeated.

And the backgrounds and personalities of the main characters can add layers to the themes. Tess Sharpe’s protagonist in Far From You is a recovering addict who’s broken her family’s trust. Can she regain it? Wick in Romily Bernard’s Find Me hacks in secret to make extra money in case she needs run from her comfortable foster home.  And the narrators of Stephanie Kuehn’s psychological thrillers Charm & Strange and Complicit make the reader question what is real and true in the narrator’s version of the story.

Not surprisingly, we don’t see a lot of thrillers in middle grade, but one book that does come to mind is Blue Baillet’s Hold Fast in which a girl who is trying to figure out why her librarian father disappeared, realizes she’s being followed. It’s a much grittier story than others Baillet has written, but it explores themes of family and loyalty that put it squarely in middle grade fiction.


Linka book jacket for Undone



Of course I’d suggest writers read a lot of thrillers, both adult and YA. First, to get an instinctive feel for the genre and then to determine which type of thriller resonates with them: action, crime, literary, political, or psychological.

I consider Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys as thrillers, because even though they are historical fiction, the tension and threats ramp up and the character’s survival is clearly at stake.

But I also encourage writers to read about subjects, places, time periods or cultures that they’re passionately interested in. Really successful thriller writers often bring a unique twist to a story.

A great example of this is the best-selling The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro which is set in the Boston and New York art world.  Shapiro’s fascination with Isabella Gardner led her to write this story about a talented painter lured into painting a forgery who becomes tangled in a dangerous web of deceit.

In YA, Stephanie Kuehn won the Morris Award with her psychological thriller Charm & Strange. Her story is built on her deep knowledge of the human psyche which she undoubtedly gained while pursuing a Phd in clinical psychology.

For me, the choice was to write a political thriller, because I’m a total news junkie. People always ask me how much research I had to do to create my world, but it was actually very little, because I read about politics every day.


Catherine Linka is an author, and a childrens and young adult book buyer for an independent bookstore in Southern California. She studied international politics at Georgetown University before getting a masters in business at the University of North Carolina. After years in sales, marketing and advertising, she reimagined her life and pursued a masters in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of SCBWI, and a recurring speaker at SCBWI-Central Cal Writers Day. She blogs about writing here at Catherine is married and lives with her husband in the San Gabriel foothills. A Girl Called Fearless is her debut novel. The sequel A Girl Undone, will be released this spring.

                                                                                    —Zu Vincent


Baby Got Backstory


One of the things I love most about beginning a new writing project is figuring out the backstory: the history and culture of the world I’m building and of the characters who populate it. I’ll spend days thinking about my protagonist’s minor medical conditions, or the names and occupations of his relatives, or how the government of his city is structured. By the time I’m ready to start writing a first draft, I’ve collected a wealth of information about my characters and their world, and all I want to do is share this information with my readers. After all, it’s fascinating! Why shouldn’t I begin my book with a fifty-page description of every street in the city and each one of its residents?

At this point in the process, I remember that an infant story is sort of like an infant human: although they might be perfectly charming, your infant story’s burps and squeals are not nearly as interesting to normal people as they are to you. As I’ve drafted the first few chapters of my new project, I’ve had to figure out which pieces of backstory to include in the book, where to include them, and which pieces to discard—not because they’re bad in any way, but because they’re not helpful to the story. Here are a few of the guiding principles I’ve been attempting to follow recently:

Save that backstory for chapter two.

Okay, it doesn’t actually have to be chapter two. This is just shorthand for the idea that it can be helpful to start a story with a scene rather than with a big chunk of backstory-filled narration. The dramatic tension of the scene will draw readers into the book, and they’ll get to know about the protagonist and her goals. Then, when they reach the second scene or the second chapter and you hit ‘em with all that backstory, they’ll have some context for it and, more importantly, a reason to care about it. Get your readers hooked and invested first, and they’ll be craving those juicy backstory details as much as you are.

Sprinkles are just as effective as lumps.

I’m not very good at following my first guiding principle. Sometimes information just can’t wait until chapter two. How are readers supposed to understand the stakes of Melinda’s dramatic argument with her grandfather if they don’t know that her grandfather was the evil sorcerer who turned her into a fruit bat in the first place? When this is the case, I try to sprinkle backstory lightly over the scene, inserting it in between lines of dialogue, never in more than one or two sentences at a time, and certainly not in entire paragraphs. Something like this:

“I hate you!” Melinda said to her grandfather. He was, after all, responsible for her furry wings and her newfound powers of echolocation. “How am I supposed to go to the prom now?”

Don’t force it.

Putting essential bits of background information into dialogue can seem like a clever way to weave backstory into a scene, but you really have to make sure that this information is something the characters would realistically say to each other. Don’t put awkward words into their mouths just to satisfy your insatiable lust for backstory.

“Do you remember, my dear Melinda,” said her grandfather, “when I, the evil sorcerer, turned you into a fruit bat?”

“Of course I do, you moron,” said Melinda. “It happened thirty seconds ago.”

If it’s not essential right now, save it for later. Or for never.

I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities to introduce the little morsels of backstory I’ve been saving up. If I want to tell readers that Melinda is allergic to peanut butter, I might slip this information into a scene at the grocery store or the cafeteria—a place where it’d naturally come up. Still, even if a piece of backstory fits perfectly into a scene, I won’t include it unless it’s (1) really funny, (2) important to the story right now, or (3) important to the story much later, but I want to plant a sneaky little foreshadowing clue about it early on. There are a lot of details I’ve worked on and loved that will never fall into any of these categories, so I write them into the story anyway, and then I delete them with a sigh. The sigh is important. It helps give you closure.

Now that I’ve told you how I’ve been wrangling my backstory, I’d like to hear from you. What tricks do you use to weave brilliant backstories into your books?

Reasons My Son is Crying*: Writing Edition


51tI7J2bq4L._SX300_My son wanted a toy train.

For days, we heard pleas for “a choo choo! A choo choo, please!” So in anticipation of one of those drop-his-father-off-at-the-airport-and-venture-through-the-mall-two-weeks-before-Christmas kind of Saturdays, I promised my son that if he listened and was patient during all of the running around, he’d get his prize.

It was seriously tough work for a three-year-old.

5454771899_58ef7a44c8Somehow he kept it together, and Thomas the Train was soon squeezed between his sticky, little fists as we ventured into the “playground” area of the mall. (Playground is in parenthesis here because it’s not your traditional slides and climbing area—it’s oversized breakfast food. Literally.)

Ordinarily, my son is in heaven on the breakfast food playground, but on the train day, he was The King of the Waffle. The Lord of the Cereal Bowl. The Master of the Sunnyside Up Eggs. Swarms of children from eight to eighteen months came over to see his train swoop down the bacon recliner.

IMG_0372It seemed like such a perfect day.

Then the boy with a toy car showed up.

At first, my son followed the boy, not so sneakily waiting to see if the boy might put the car down. When that didn’t work, he came crying to me. And when I didn’t steal the car from the five-year-old, my son dropped his new train in my lap and walked away sobbing, Charlie Brown style.

IMG_0367And this reminds me of writing! We all want our trains. Be it word count, draft, agent, editor, book deal, cover, advance, sales, what-have-you. We work hard, make terrible sacrifices, and then sometimes—SOMETIMES—we get our choo choos!

And yet, it seems like every time I’m sitting here patting my back about my 3,000 word writing day, someone emails/texts/posts that they wrote 4,000 words. Every. Time. Or maybe you finished the first draft of your story in six months, but someone on the YA Binders just posted that she wrote hers in six days. (Uggghhhhhhhh…)

IMG_0365Or maybe you finally sold a manuscript and you’re going to be published—on the same day that that guy from your graduating class announces that his book is being optioned to become a movie by J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson (they’re coming together to make the film because the story is THAT good).

Now you’re probably waiting for the punch line. The moment when I say, “But here’s the real story.” Nope. Sorry. I don’t have one. It’s the holidays, and I’m simply offering a hug. After all, my son is always going to cry if someone appears with a different toy than his.

Wait, there it is! You know what? That five-year-old boy had a ninety-nine cent, old Matchbox Car, while my son had a fancy new Thomas the Train set. He wasn’t crying because the boy had a better toy, he was crying because the boy had a different toy. After all, there was never anything wrong with his choo choo—and he worked damn hard for it!

Dearest lovely writer friends, my wish for this holiday season is that we can all be proud of what we’ve written no matter how fancy everyone else’s writing might seem. Remember that no one else could have written your story, and don’t get too down on yourself for turning a little green now and then. We all do it.

AND we are all awesome.

IMG_0371Plus regardless of internal contests, we ALL get to spend our working days on the breakfast food playground of children’s literature. And how freakin’ cool is that?

Come on. Let’s go jump on the waffle!



*Reasons My Son is Crying is a hilarious blog that displays all the sincere reasons that children sob their hearts out. Be it, “Mommy took a French fry” or “I didn’t want to wear a seatbelt”.

CM Headshot2Cori McCarthy is the author of Breaking Sky (forthcoming from Sourcebooks March ’15) and The Color of Rain (Running Press ’13). Come say hi @CoriMcCarthy or find out more at

Creating Character Contradictions


Think back on the books you love, and invariably it’s the protagonist who comes to mind. Characters are the heart and soul of our stories, and I’ve spent months and sometimes years getting to know mine. But in my systematic efforts to pin down their personalities, I sometimes sacrifice what’s most important: the element of surprise. Even when I think I know my protagonist—her pet peeve, greatest fear, secret ambition, which songs she sings in the shower, and what makes her cry—it doesn’t mean her actions should be consistent.

And that’s a good thing, because predictable characters are boring. Why bother to read about someone if you know exactly what she’s going to do? But if that same protagonist surprises us by doing something unexpected or “out of character,” our interest is piqued. Life is not black and white; our characters shouldn’t be either.

“Elderly people are not always craggy, wrinkled, stooped over, forgetful or wise,” writes Dani Shapiro in her book, Still Writing. “Babies aren’t always angelic, or even cute. Drunks don’t always slur their words. Characters aren’t types.” One way to avoid clichéd characters is to give them a mix of positive and negative traits–qualities that are both attractive and repellent.d940464aabf2822095ffd0ce607eb46f

In the movie Crash, for example, Matt Dillon plays an angry, racist white cop, whose actions can be as ugly as his words. Yet, when we see him at home tenderly and patiently caring for his sick father, we understand this ugly side is only part of the story.

In one of the film’s most tension-filled scenes (spoiler alert!), Dillon’s character heroically risks his life to pull a black woman from a burning car only seconds before it explodes. The irony is, he’d abused the same woman only days before by groping her during a traffic stop. Dillon’s partner, an idealistic white cop, wants to do the right thing, and yet he ends up shooting an innocent, black man. The fact that bad people do good, and good people do bad is what makes the characters in this thought-provoking film so authentic.


Oxymoronic complexities create unforgettable characters. Characters like Frankenstein (a sweet monster), Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (a gentle madman),


Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (an honest thief), and in real life, actor Robin Williams (the sad funny man). In contemporary YA, I couldn’t stop thinking about Keir Sarafian (a well meaning rapist) from Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable51NX92wCaRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

or Marcelo Sandoval, the autistic 17-year-old protagonist of Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World.  Initially, Marcelo appears isolated and incapable of relating to or understanding other people . But as we gradually come to see, it’s those other people in the story who are impaired—like Arturo, Marcelo’s high achieving, Harvard-educated, lawyer dad. Despite his intelligence, Arturo is blind when it comes to seeing the truth about the people around him. As a hypocritical, greedy, philandering father who genuinely loves his wife and kids, he too is full of incongruities. marcelo1

Character contradictions can help create empathy. When the thug reveals his vulnerability—through his fear of an abusive father or his worry about an incarcerated brother—that’s when we start to care. The superficial, shallow cheerleader can seem like a type—until she goes home to care for a handicapped sister or cancer-stricken mother.

A high school student of mine wrote a story about an impoverished 15-year-old living in the projects in Detroit. His protagonist, Jamal, is an honor student and a loving son to his single, hardworking mother. But Jamal also belongs to a gang. What I feel ultimately makes his character so interesting is the juxtaposition between his positive traits and his immoral actions. In the last scene, as Jamal picks up a pistol and heads out the door for a night of thieving, drug dealing, and possibly even murder, he almost forgets the duffle bag he’s packed. Grabbing it, he mumbles to himself, “Mom always said I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.”  This affectionate, kidlike statement stands in stark contrast to his criminal activities.

I try to focus on five essential elements when creating my characters: name, appearance, motive, history, and environment. Adding character contradictions to these categories can enhance every one.

  • Names have associations and images. Would you call a jock Horace? A popular cheerleader Beulah or Gertrude? Give a shy, artistic guy the name of Spike? Probably not…unless there’s a reason to upend your reader’s expectations. Ironic names can be a hugely effective way to ignite a reader’s interest, surprise us or make us laugh.
  • Appearance. Clothes, hair, body type, fitness level, facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures and speech all provide clues to character. But throw in character contradictions—make that pouty blond in the mini skirt a rocket scientist—and the reader does a double take. My son’s wife wore dusty work boots under her beautiful gown at their wedding ceremony—a statement about their life as farmers.
    wedding boots

    wedding boots

    In Silicon Valley, CEO’s of start-ups saunter down the streets dressed in grungy jeans, tee-shirts and sneakers. But their youthful appearance and slacker attire belie their astounding net worth.

  • Motive. What does your character want more than anything in the world? The answer is the force that moves stories forward and determines plot and character. But motives can be contradictory too, and conflicting desires create drama. When we lie to protect others, or give up something or someone we love, we are living out these contradictions. Take the classic example of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, who at the end of Casablanca forces his true love, Ilsa, to leave him. Or brave Eleanor from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park who, after moving away from the boy she loves, chooses to ignore his letters and postcards despite her breaking heart.
  • History. Knowing your protagonist’s history is the key to understanding her motives. So, leaking backstory into the narrative can help a character’s contradictory actions make sense. In one of my students’ stories, where a young girl is being beaten by her drunk dad, I was startled by the following line: “[she] searched his eyes for any remnants of the kind, loving father she knew.” That’s the line that captured my attention, because it made me ask, “What happened to change everything? How did a loving Dad turn into this monster?” Incongruities like these can spark our interest and cause readers to engage more actively in the text.
  • Environment: Our environment shapes us, no question about it. Family, friends, school, home, work and physical settings are a few of the many factors that influence character. But you can also play with environment for humorous effect. Look at old sitcoms like the Beverly Hillbillies (poor, backwoods family moves to Beverly Hills) or Green Acres (city slickers move to a rural country farm). Or you can use environment as a vehicle for exploring serious, thought-provoking issues like in the Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black (upper middle class white girl goes to a federal prison).oitnb_pds_077_h_wide-d905a9eae1732d4b21dfff6820388699d6c112e7-s4-c85

Regardless of whether you’re writing about oxymoronic characters like rich hicks or well heeled convicts, environmental mismatches can provide story drama that results in valuable new insights for readers.

It’s only human nature to make assumptions about people based on what we see, but when we take the time to pair unlikely elements, the rewards can be rich indeed. Character contradictions are all around us. Notice them, appreciate their oxymoronic complexity, and incorporate them into the people you create on the page. Your stories will be more authentic for it.







The Writer is a Time Lord: Compressing Time through Summary


The writer who deftly uses SCENE and SUMMARY becomes the Time Lord of her fictional worlds. Summary allows the writer to compress and expand time, while scene occurs in a fixed time frame.

Midnight sunsets in Iceland--even in nature, the time of sunrise/sunset is flexible

Nature is also a Time Lord:                                           Midnight sunsets in Iceland.                                       Photos by Sarah Blake Johnson

While a scene occurs in “real” time, summary can cover a long period of time in a few words.

Typically a scene will “show,” while summary will “tell” as it races through time.  As writers we’re often told to show, not tell, but telling (summary) is also an important skill.

Why use summary?

Sometimes the reader needs to understand more about a character, her background, motive, or emotional state or even the history of the setting. Sometimes an overview is needed.

Some stories demand leaps of time: this can be from one season to another season or skipping over several decades.

Summary can alter the pacing of the novel. Summary can also be used to delay or even stop time, making it motionless.

Though counterintuitive, summary can intensify emotion. An insertion of summary, which uses backstory or another event, provides the reader with another view of the character.

A summary is not in the moment, and sometimes it combines many moments. In film, a similar technique is montage.

Geese in Frankfurt, Germany

Montage of geese during different seasons in Germany.        Photo by Sarah Blake Johnson

Many films use montage, little snippets or selections of related images or action to show passage of time or change of character. Juxtaposed together, these images become something greater. We can also create a written montage by use of summary.

We use summary when the reader needs information, but doesn’t need to experience the event play by play like in a scene. Summary explains efficiently.

How do we use summary?

It is critical to use vivid, concrete, sensory details. Summary does not mean bland. (A general, “boring” summary is better left out.)

Summary can be as short as a sentence. It also can be quite long, several pages even, though with children’s books a long summary may lose the readers’ attention.

The great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, said his personal motto was “hurry slowly.” Though he wasn’t necessarily applying “hurry slowly” to the technique of summary, that concept will strengthen our writing.

When to use summary?

We use summary when there are many important events and not all the events are needed in full to tell the story.

This means we need to know which scenes are most important. Basically, if nothing happens, but the info is necessary, don’t use a scene. Use summary instead.

When not to use:

We don’t use summary for key scenes or for actions and choices that significantly alter the character’s life or the plot. Don’t use it for any critical turning point, any moment of significance, or crisis scenes. All these moments need to be fully realized.

Summary often creates emotional distance—so don’t use it when the reader needs to be close and emotionally involved, and don’t use it when conflict or confrontation are in the scene. As with any writing advice, this isn’t always true. An example of an emotional summary is below.

And please don’t use summary when the story demands a live action scene. For example, in a romance novel readers expect to see/experience the kiss. The reader does not want to be told, “They kissed last night.”  That’s a way to get the book thrown across the room.

Where do we use summary?

One typical pattern in many books is a summary, followed by a scene. Also, summary can follow scene. Summary is useful for pacing. Scene after scene without summary does not give the reader time to rest or digest what has happened. Summary allows for a gentle pause.

Summary can be inserted in the middle of a scene, but if so should probably be short.

What can you do if you have too many scenes and you’ve decided that some aren’t needed in scene format?  Write a summary of the scene in as few (or as many words) as it takes and attach that summary before or after the associated scene.

We can also use summary to delay action and create suspense. In this regard, it is a powerful pacing tool.


1 – Summary of Past Events/Action: This is a common type of summary and a way to condense a needed flashback.

This example summary occurs right after Death holds out his hand to Keturah. “And then into my mind came a memory of Hatti Pennyworth’s son, who was dragged by a horse and should have died, but lived. And Jershun South, who went to sleep for two weeks and awoke one day as if he’d slept but a night. And what about my own cousin, who once ate a mushroom that killed big men? Though he was young, he survived. Death often sadly surprised us, but sometimes he gladly surprised us, too.” Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

2 – Less is More Summary: It is easy to overwrite and give too much information. This example of a summary shows how a few words can summarize a situation and how summary can pace the narrative.

This summary appears at the Beginning of Part 2: “The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart. From the lifeboat I saw something in the water.” Following this summary the story moves into a scene of Pi’s interactions with Richard Parker, the tiger. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

3 – Summary of Repetitive Action: This summary shows repeated action over time, a useful technique for skipping over weeks or months.

“Mostly, I missed Mal. I’d written to him every week, care of our regiment, but I hadn’t heard anything back. I knew the post could be unreliable and that his unit might have moved on from the Fold or might even be in West Ravka, but I still hoped that I would hear from him soon. . . . Every night, as I climbed the stairs to my room after another pointless, painful day, I would imagine the letter that might be waiting for me on my dressing table, and my steps would quicken. But the days passed, and no letter came.” Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

4 – Summary for Emotional Impact: This example is of a summary that has greater emotional impact than if written as a scene.

“We drove and ate, music booming and the road going straight, straight, straight, no signs, no stops, just fields and hills forever. Sometimes he looked away from the road just to smile at me. Maybe he was feeling like I was–that the day was enough under the candy-blue sky, the wind swooping into the car and taking parts of us away with it, swirling me and Wilder into the whole big moving world.” Dangerous by Shannon Hale

5 – Summary of Details and Non-Critical Events: This example takes a day of normal, uninteresting events and makes them interesting by summary. This is a transition summary that incorporates the character’s emotions and is an example of a summary that provides pacing.

“Dini spends lots of time riffling through Maddie’s bookshelves and watching Dolly videos, and then some time just sort of staring into the middle distance. As it turns out, the slow pace of the day is almost a relief after the frantic excitement of the day before.” The Problem of Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami

Be a Time Lord

Sands of Time Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, calls summary the “mortar of the story.” A story without summary would become too long and an epic of a thousand pages or more. Writing is an art, and so the writer chooses where to use summary through intuition and common sense.

As a writer, you are the Time Lord of your world. You can choose when to either play for hours in the sandbox of scene and when to compress time through the use of summary.


1. Take a scene and summarize it in 3-4 sentences.

2. Choose a book or print up a chapter of one of your stories. Highlight all the sections of summary. What types of summary did you highlight? Are they connective summaries appearing between scenes? Or are they in the middle of scenes? Should any of these summaries be scenes? Are these effective, vivid summaries?

Sarah Blake Johnson