Ask an Opinionated Writer: Chapters


Do you have burning questions about the craft of writing? Do you want someone to give you thoroughly subjective and opinionated advice about your authorial trials and tribulations? Maybe you don’t, but I am going to give it to you anyway in this new, very occasional blog series, Ask an Opinionated Writer.

Here’s how this thing works: You, the writers of the world, ask my opinion about a craft-related topic. I, after very little research or sleep, dispense my advice. Ideally, someone will learn something along the way. Does that sound like fun to you? Too bad.

Today’s unsolicited and possibly unsubstantiated craft advice is all about that humble building block of story structure: the chapter.

Dear Opinionated Writer, does my book even need to have chapters?

Of course not. Not all stories benefit from being broken into discrete segments. If you’re writing anything longer than a picture book or a piece of flash fiction, however, you’ll probably want to give your readers a few places to rest their eyes between scenes. They’ll need to get up to grab some more cookies from the kitchen, and you’ll need a chance to change your focus to another character, skip ahead in time, or pause for emphasis. Those pauses don’t have to be chapter breaks, of course; they can be lines of white space, or even those little asterisks that look like someone’s squashed a bug between the pages of your book.

The useful thing about chapter breaks, though, is that they are large and emphatic, like a really big squashed bug. Think about the effect you get from a single line of white space, and then think about how much stronger that effect would be if you used half a page of the stuff! The difference between a scene break and a chapter break is sort of like the difference between a comma and a period—they’re both pauses, but one is subtle while the other is decidedly less so. If you want to give a section of your book a decisive ending, switch to a new setting or point of view, or knock your readers out of the story for a moment (not always a bad thing), a chapter break could be just the solution for you.

How long should my chapters be, anyway?

I would say that’s up to you, but then I wouldn’t be very opinionated, would I? I personally like longer chapters. My chapters usually consist of at least two scenes, which works out to about 10 to 15 double-spaced typed pages. Chapters this length give readers a chance to snuggle comfortably into the world of the story without any jarring interruptions, and this effect is exactly what I want in the books I write, which are mostly medium-paced and sort of old-fashioned. If I were writing a thriller, though, I’d probably want to use shorter chapters to keep my readers a little less comfortable and a little more unsettled.

However long your chapters may be, dear authors, please do me a favor: Unless you are writing an early reader with very strict structural rules, don’t keep your chapters short only because you don’t think young readers will be able to handle longer chapters. If your story is the sort that requires lengthy chapters and kids aren’t up to reading more than a few pages at a time, they’ll find a natural stopping place within each chapter. Besides, you are such a good writer that you’ll draw them into the story, and they’ll be on to the next chapter before they know it.

How do I know when my chapter is finished?

Your chapter has achieved its purpose in life when it has advanced the story’s external plot, its internal character arc, or (ideally) both.

I am stealing this idea from author and VCFA faculty member Leda Schubert, who says in her lecture Exit, Pursued by a Bear that “advancing story and revealing character are the central purpose of scenes. … Your protagonist should be in a different place by the end of the scene; something will have changed.” You’ll notice that Leda is talking specifically about scenes here, but since a chapter usually contains at least one scene, I’d argue that these guidelines hold true for chapters, too. I try to make sure that each of my chapters contains at least one major plot development—a twist, a setback, or a triumphant resolution to a previous complication. I also like to flip my characters’ emotions on their heads: If my heroes are happy at the beginning of a chapter, they should probably be miserable by the end of it.

If you’re not sure whether a chapter is pulling its weight, imagine cutting it out of the rest of the story. Would the remaining manuscript still make perfect sense? If it would, then your chapter should be doing more to move the story forward. Maybe you’re ending the chapter too soon, before the real meat of the scene actually starts. Or maybe you’re including information that doesn’t need to be in the story after all.

My chapter won’t end! How do I get it to stop?

Once your chapter has done its work of sufficiently advancing the story, you’ll probably want to end it… but how? Knowing where and how to end a chapter can be tricky because there’s not always one obvious solution. There are, however, a couple of common strategies you can try. One is to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, at the height of the scene’s tension. The other is to end the chapter right after the scene’s resolution, when the tension has been released. I like both of these strategies and use them both all the time in my own writing. It’s important to not rely too heavily on one strategy or the other, though; ending every chapter on a cliffhanger can quickly become exhausting for both readers and writers, and ending every chapter on a note of resolution can drain all the momentum from your story.

Cliffhanger chapter breaks are great because they’ll keep your readers turning the pages. If you’ve ever been unable to stop reading a book after “just one more chapter” because you’re dying to know what happens next, you’re well aware of the power of the cliffhanger. On the other hand, this type of break can feel gimmicky and manipulative if it’s not used judiciously, so try to use it only at a few major crisis points in your story—not when the shadowy figure who enters the room turns out to be the main character’s mother bringing her kids a bowl of popcorn.

Ending a chapter on a note of resolution is great, too, because it gives your readers a chance to put the book down and go to the bathroom. It’s also a very satisfying sort of ending. Maybe you’ve resolved the main problem presented at the beginning of the chapter, or maybe you’ve made the problem even worse, but either way, you’ve given your chapter a complete miniature story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s very considerate of you. This type of chapter break can be challenging, though, because it needs to happen as quickly as possible after that resolution has been achieved. Your characters will probably want to linger on for pages, making sandwiches and telling jokes. Don’t indulge them! End the chapter as soon as your characters’ actions and words become unessential to the story. I know it’s hard, but if you won’t do it for me, do it for John Gardner. He would have wanted you to, and he was even more opinionated than I am.

If you have a question for an opinionated writer, please ask it in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to answer it in a future post.

Go Ahead: Fall Down The Stairs


exit-downstairs-left-eec92-58-photoluminescent_1024x1024This past week, I finished writing a book.

Which is to say that I finished the first draft of a book that I will undoubtedly write four more times before it is a book. Really, this week I finished a manuscript, but calling it a book feels a little bit better. This might be akin to referring to one’s puppy as his or her baby, but alas, I wrote a book.

I WROTE A BOOK!photo-46

As you can see from my word count record, I wrote the first 11k words back in December, and then I wrote the remaining 40k in twelve days.

Now hang on, and please don’t kill me. Rest assured that this is a Shitty First Draft. A skeleton draft. A NaNoWriMo deal. Or what I affectionately refer to as my “Falling Down the Stairs Draft.”

There are many amazing reasons for getting a first draft down, and I’m sure you’ve heard them. The chief of these being that looking beyond the perfectionism of sentence level is key to reaching the end.  I certainly can’t say it any better than Anne Lamott does in Bird By Bird:

bird-by-bird-cover“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. […] Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

For me, I wrote my new story in under two weeks because I didn’t know what it was about. I had the characters, the plot points, and the end in my brain, but I didn’t know what any of that would feel like until I gave the whole shebang some words.

Let’s picture it like this: I had a lofty cloud of ideas and possibilities. It was a beautiful cloud, but to make the story real, I had to get it down to earth. Now I could have carefully, cautiously, painstakingly walked it down one step at a time, but instead, I threw both of us off the landing, unaware of what might happen at the bottom. Keep in mind that this is a violent metaphor because it knocks me around in the process. But in the end, I had done it. I WROTE A BOOK!

Now, I’m not silly enough to believe that the Falling Down The Stairs Draft is right for every writer or for every book. But I’d like to reach a hand out to all those writers who are doing the “one step forward, three steps back” dance with their story. I implore you to give the fast draft a try. And instead of telling you all the reasons in which this method will help you, I will talk about the snags, so that when you hit them you can KEEP WRITING.

1. Your writing will suck.

Yep. That’s going to happen. You won’t be writing prophetic poetry. You’ll be writing terrible things. Repetitive things. My favorite is a goofed dialogue tag I once wrote that read, “she said as a reply.” Niiice.

2. You’ll change your mind about something important.

20578939I once heard Coe Booth talking about a draft that she was writing in which her character had a little sister when he went to bed in the middle of the story and woke up the next day with a little brother. And Coe kept writing.*

The reason that you must run with the changes that occur in your manuscript is that they’re most likely coming from a flow state…and the only way you can stay with the flow is to keep writing.

3. You realize what the book is really about. 

EUREKA! You’ve done it! You can feel it! You can see it! Why keep going forward when you can turnaround and write it perfectly now?!  DON’T GIVE IN TO THIS! Keep writing. Keep going. What feels amazingly perfect one day is likely to fall apart the next day unless you’re looking at the whole darn thing. Promise.

4. You realize that this won’t be a draft you can send off to your beta readers or agent along with a shower of confetti glitter.

This draft is for you. No one else. It’s for your drawer or locked file for at least a month after writing it, regardless of whom you’re feeling daring enough to show it to you. After that well-deserved break, reread it yourself, and if you’re determined to share it with someone, pick the one reader who can overlook sixteen sentences in a row that start with “I was.”

falling_down_stairs5. You realize that you’re going to have to rewrite it.

Yes. You are. Possibly in a brand new .doc, but you know what? It’ll never be from scratch again because you’ve already scratched a complete story in your brain. Trust yourself. You will remember all the important pieces, and when you’re sitting down to write all the pretty words, you’ll find yourself no longer in the clouds but at ground level–the foundation already laid out. Ready to be built upon.

So what are you waiting for? Jump!


CM Headshot2

Cori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain and Breaking Sky (forthcoming March ’15). She holds a BA in Creative Writing, a professional degree in screenwriting, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults. She is also a writing coach and editor through Yellow Bird Editors and loves working with writers of all genres and walks of life.

Find out more about her antics at or follow her on Twitter @CoriMcCarthy


*I believe Coe was referring to her amazing debut Tyrell, which you should totally read. Also check out her brand new book Kinda Like Brothers, pictured above.

Four Tips for Writing Sequels That Work


For the last seven years, I’ve run a Teen Advisory Board at the bookstore which is a lot like watching a focus group of teen readers. Every month, I hear teens complain about how a sequel isn’t nearly as good as the first book. So when I started working on A GIRL UNDONE, the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, I was concerned with how to write a  sequel that would satisfy the fans.


Writing a sequel is a totally different from writing a first book. The characters and conflict are established, the world has been laid out, and the fans want to know what happened to the characters. But how do you keep the story fresh and exciting without going astray?

Here are four tips for writing sequels from writers who’ve done it well.

1. Write the same book, but completely new

My teen board members said over and over again that they want the same experience they had reading the first book, but they want to be surprised, too.

Recreating the experience of book one means, according to Rachel Searles, author of THE LOST PLANET, that writers must “remember the rules of your world, make sure your funny characters have funny lines and that their quirks are still there. And…if your first book is fast-paced and full of action, it’s probably not a good idea to fill the second book with chapters of introspective moping and lengthy dialogue scenes.”

The characters must remain themselves ,the world must continue in the way the writer left it at the end of book one, and the writing style has to mirror the first book. But that doesn’t mean that everything should stay the same.

Above world jpg

“It’s a balancing act to make the new book feel fresh and different while staying true to the tone and reader expectations established in the first volume,” says Jenn Reese author of ABOVE WORLD.  Reese looks at “the shape of the story: how it starts, how it builds, and what sort of internal and external factors lead to the climax. If this shape mirrors the first book too much, it will feel like the same thing all over again.”

The main character can’t spend two or three books doing the same thing over and over in the same way, because that becomes repetitious and boring. Instead, the writer must look for a way to give the main character new challenges, such as changing the external threat or antagonist, or increasing the threat posed by a character’s internal conflict.


Rachel Searles and Kristen Kittscher


 2. Grow your characters. 

A great sequel isn’t merely the next episode in the protagonist’s adventure. For a sequel to satisfy, the character must continue to evolve, because their emotional growth and success is as important and satisfying to the reader as surviving external threats.


One of the most scathing book reviews I heard from a teen reader on my board involved a female protagonist who turned from kickass in book one to lovestruck and wimpy in book two. It’s okay for a character to suffer a temporary setback, to falter when up against an overwhelming obstacle, but the character must retain the characteristics that made the reader love them in the first place.

The character growth doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be effective.  When Kristen Kittscher was writing the sequel to THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, she thought hard about “what habits and ways of thinking my characters had outgrown from the first book–what could they leave behind without it feeling inconsistent? What new challenges are they struggling with?”

As characters grow, they abandon what they might have done or thought. They are more aware and less innocent, but this often leaves openings for new challenges.

Jenn Reese says that the main characters’ “initial needs and wants may be met by the end of book one, so it’s important (and fun!) to ask yourself what the adventure cost them–do they have new emotional or physical scars? Have their feelings for each other changed, either during the events of book one or during the enigmatic white space between books?”

Change can cost our characters, leaving them with scars as well as triumphs.  A character can become less trusting or joyful, abandoning a pastime, place or friend they once loved.


But emotional growth can’t leave behind who that character is at the core. Caroline Carlson of THE VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES series explains,

“I don’t want my protagonist to struggle with the same emotional challenge over and over from one book to the next, because she needs to show real growth over the course of the series. On the other hand, giving her an entirely new emotional arc in each book would feel jarring. So I think about my protagonist’s core emotional desire–like a need for acceptance, love, or respect–and try to show that core desire through a slightly different lens in each book.”

wiginthewindowCoverSept copy

3. Use those secondary characters.

By bringing back minor characters, the writer can create continuity while also spurring the main character to grow. Kristen Kittscher spends time “thinking about which minor characters should reappear and why–how can they illuminate my main character’s changes? What consistent, necessary roles do they play?”

Caroline Carlson uses returning characters strategically, saying,  “When I need a new character, object, or plot twist to appear in a sequel, rather than creating something entirely new, I look back through earlier books for “throwaway” references or very minor characters who can be brought back into the sequel in a more purposeful way. My hope is that this strategy will give the whole series a sense of consistency and connectedness, plus it creates the illusion that I’m a much better planner than I really am!”

And a series allows a character time to interact with several secondary characters and to grow.  Jenn Reese explains that “One of the greatest joys of writing a story that spans several books is that you can give some characters the chance to change more slowly–and sometimes more profoundly–than if you’re trying to do it all in one book.”

 4. Plan ahead, but mess around.

Writing a sequel means not forgetting what’s come before, especially when it has to do with character details that readers are likely to remember.


“I had to be much more meticulous in my planning to make sure all the usual story elements were there as well as to account for all the threads left hanging from the previous book. I couldn’t have gotten through it with my sanity intact without keeping a storyboard, a timeline, and a character bible updated at every turn,” confesses Mary Elizabeth Summer, author of TRUST ME I’M LYING




While sequels are often written under insane deadlines that make writers want to write, write, write, Skylar Dorset, author of THE GIRL WHO NEVER WAS says, “Don’t be afraid to “waste a day *not* writing the sequel and instead just re-reading bits and pieces of the first book. Because you would think you would know what you wrote and it turned out that nope, my continuity on little issues was ALL over the place.”

Skyler Dorset


But at the same time, use a new story as an opportunity to have some fun. Throwing the main character a curve ball, can be thrilling for the writer. Kathryn Rose, author of CAMELOT BURNING says, “What really helped me write book two was thinking ahead to what options my characters would have down the road. Sometimes it was some extra planning, and sometimes it was as simple as looking at the characters’ strengths and weaknesses now that they’ve been introduced to the reader, and screwing with them.”

Thank you to all the authors here who shared their wisdom and insights.


Catherine Linka is the author of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and its upcoming sequel A GIRL UNDONE, May, 2015. You can read the first three chapters of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS at www.

Soon to Be Seen: Lindsey Lane’s Debut Novel


I am delighted to bring my classmate from Vermont College of Fine Arts, the talented Lindsey Lane, MFA to the Tollbooth in anticipation of her gorgeous debut novel, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to be released on September 16th. The story tells of what happens in a small Texas town when 16-year-old Tommy Smythe goes missing.

DW: In the fabulous interview on your website, you say that this story woke you up from a dream in which you saw a boy standing in a roadway pull-out. This image got you out of bed and you started to write. Have dreams often been a part of your writing? Or were the dreamtime origins of this story a unique experience?

LL: Actually dreams are not usually a part of my writing process. What’s important about this dream event for me was taking the leap and trusting the process of writing into an image or idea. The dream became the first section I wrote in the novel. I saw this small Mexican child in the pull-out, his chubby legs dusty with caliche dirt. He looked lonely and forlorn. I wondered what he was doing there. Gradually, I saw Maricela trudging up the side of a road to meet the other migrant workers who were waiting for the van to take them to the next field. A comic book she’d found in the migrant housing the night before was stuffed in her back pack. All she wants to do is get on the van and read her comic book and then something else happens. That sectionComic Bookled to others, each of them occurring in the pull-out, that strange disconnected place by the side of the road. It wasn’t until later that I found Tommy Smythe and discovered that he had gone missing from the pull-out, and that his disappearance weaves in and out of every story. So to answer your question, dreams are not a part of my writing process but I will say that drafting a story is a very dreamy otherworldly process. I will often get up from a first draft writing session and be very disoriented. Does that happen to you?

DW: Yes! As though we’re inhabiting other worlds. You have said you took risks with the form of Evidence of Things Not Seen, using multiple points of view, chapters as unique episodes that come together to build a whole, bringing in journals, and shifting between first and third person. These risks let storytelling magic happen. What was the hardest risk for you? From our time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I know that you have written wonderful short stories. Have you ever thought of this book as a secret short story cycle? Does that make it feel more or less risky?

LL: Originally the book was a linked short story cycle. I was interested in seeing how a place like the pull-out could be the setting for a series of epiphanies for characters who came there. Unfortunately, short story cycles are a tough sell and I needed to find a way to weave these stories together more tightly and make the book as a whole more compelling for the reader. I think the biggest risk I took was after I had sent the manuscript out to several agents and I realized I’d written an ending with a big fat bow. I pulled the manuscript from the agents, wrote myself a three page editorial letter and did a floor to ceiling kind of revision. That was the revision when I sharpened the first person sections and wove Tommy’s disappearance into all the stories. I worried a little bit about all these multiple perspectives but I feel that young adult readers are really sophisticated. They can hold multiple story lines in their head and are willing to accept ‘outside the norm’ storytelling.

DW: The gorgeous cover of Evidence of Things Not Seen picks up both the mysticism and physics that weave through your story. Can you tell us first about the journey for the cover creation—always exciting for a first novel—and also how you discovered that physics was such an integral part of Tommy’s character? Were there specific characters who brought in mysticism and faith, or do you see physics as naturally containing both those elements?

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 12.15.52 PM

LL: The cover was created by Elizabeth Clark, associate art director at MacMillan. She is remarkable. I happened to see a few of the covers that the design team ‘rejected’ when I went to New York last year and I have to say the folks at MacMillan completely understood the content of EVIDENCE. I love the boy standing on this big landscape, slightly ghosted to suggest his disappearance. I love the symbols around him which hint at the connections within the book as well as Tommy’s fascination with physics. And then, of course, the wide open space of the Texas landscape which holds the story is perfect. As for your question about mysticism, faith and physics, I think that physics is kind of a mind blow. Let’s just start with the big bang versus creationism. Physics calls into question our very existence. I think these ideas light kids’ brains on fire. It did for Tommy. And because Tommy was obsessed with these ideas, it touched everyone’s lives. I mean, if a brilliant kid, who thought time travel was possible, goes missing, would you consider the possibility? Or would you think he was dead in a ditch? Would you have faith that the unknown universe works in mysterious ways? All the characters touch upon faith in some way: from Tommy’s disappearance to the unknowability of what will happen tomorrow.

DW: I love that Alexander Calder’s mobiles are part of your inspiration and indeed can see how his fractured spare shapes that move and float in space and yet create a unified whole, mirror the form of your book. What’s the story of how and when you discovered his work, and when you realized that these sculptures were connected to your writing?

LL: I have loved Alexander Calder’s work for forever. I love the way the elements (wind and light) interact with his sculptures. The moment he intersected my work as a writer was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor was the poet Julie Larios. I was attempting my first long work and I described my novel to her as lumps of clay, very unformed. She disagreed with me. She said that the way I wrote was like Alexander Calder’s mobiles. “I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile – light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. That’s what your writing is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.” I hope that readers of EVIDENCE will be able to see the whole as well as the pieces and how they interact with each other. I hope they will be struck by the notion of how light and shadow live next to each other.

DW: Over on Emu’s Debuts, I loved reading about your childhood closet filled with books and a pillowy place to read them, and was touched to learn that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty especially spoke to you because it “told the truth about love and cruelty—two impossible roommates in the human heart.” This is a book that I missed as a kid and only just read it about five or six years ago. When I read it, I was also struck by Black Beauty’s struggles to be good. The stereotypical bookish kid tends to be well behaved and not to be a rabble rouser. Because your work takes on tough topics and emotions with such insight I have the sense that for you, like Black, childhood was a time of struggling with complexity and struggling to be good. You have explained beautifully why you write edgy YA (link), but could you also speak more about the role of books in your life as a younger kid: Did books save you? Does your relationship with books when you were young play a role in how you write for young people today?

LL: Books held me. My world was pretty safe and middle class. Still, I think every kid in the world goes through moments, short or extended, where they feel at odds with their surroundings and pretty much at the effect of the adults in their lives. It’s part of growing up. During those times I folded myself into the pages of a book. I lost my awkwardness in those pages. I grew through the awkwardness.

You know, one of my characters in EVIDENCE says that treating other people like you like to be treated is ingrained in our collective cells (aka the golden rule). She believes Tommy will be found and nothing bad has happened. In other words, I think we all strive to goodness. Really. I think that’s the miracle and wonder of books. We can open the pages of a book and see characters struggle to hold on to their goodness. That’s why I opened books. I wanted to see the characters fall in love, get lost, get hurt, survive, overcome the odds. I wanted to experience how they wrestled with their problems. As a teen, I read way ahead of my age level, trying to grow up as fast as I could. I think it satisfied a curiosity but kept me safely on the sidelines. We may want our sixteen year olds to have sugarplums dancing in their heads forever but chances are pretty good they won’t. As I said in my blog, I think edgy YA addresses a need for kids who want to look over the edge but not jump.

I do want to be clear about something, though. I don’t write edgy just to write edgy. It has to come from the heart of the characters. It has to make sense in the context of the story. It can’t be gratuitous. It can’t distract from the plot. For example, in the section of EVIDENCE called The Proposal, Marshall takes Leann out to the pull-out to tell her he likes her and wants to be with her but Leann freezes up and asks to go home. The reader knows the disconnection comes from Leann’s history of incest. Her intimacy meter was broken years before but Marshall has no idea. I didn’t want to write about incest. I wanted to write about the unseen cost of incest in this one moment in time. Will readers get a flashback glimpse of incest? Yes. Will it be gratuitous? I sure hope not.

DW: In your terrific post “Debut Author To Do List”  writing the next book is one of your key items. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on next?

LL: I don’t want to say too much because it dilutes my energy of working on it. The working title is Inside the Notes. Here is the inciting incident: A young girl arrives in Boston. First time away from home. She is staying with a couple near the music conservatory where she is studying for four weeks. As she is unpacking, the clock radio in her room clicks on and she hears men’s voices reading poetry and letters. It is a prison radio show. The girl knows her father is in prison for killing her mother when she was two years old. It is the first time she has considered he might be real and have a voice.

DW: This sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and process with us. I can’t wait to hold my copy of Evidence of Things Not Seen in my hands on September 16th!

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


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“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