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

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

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

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

So how do you survive the first cut?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Your Character in Character: 6 Tips

What the...?

What the…?

You’re reading along and a character makes a comment that jerks you out of the scene, because what they say or think doesn’t mesh with who they are.

Such as— poor, backwoods boy describes a girl wearing a “vintage sleeveless red gingham blouse with black, high waisted denim shorts and vintage cowboy boots.”

Since many, if not most,  guys are oblivious to the details of women’s clothing, and are more interested in what an outfit does or doesn’t reveal, this might make a reader wonder who is this guy.

He said she was taking him to buy school clothes because he has no idea what to wear, but now he sounds like a closet fashionista.

The point is small things can trip up writers trying to create realistic, flesh and blood characters. It’s especially true in first or limited third person where everything that’s said or observed comes from a character’s POV.

So how do we keep our characters in character? Here are six simple tips.

  1. Keep in mind what a character knows or doesn’t know. If the character has never left a poor village, they shouldn’t compare the forest to a cathedral.
  2. Define your character by personal strengths, interests and experiences. They might not be race car drivers or play in a band, but they might follow sports or music and have an encyclopedic knowledge that colors how they talk or the metaphors they use.
  3. If your character wouldn’t normally notice something (like fashion details), give that job to another character who would.
  4. Double-check that the character’s dialogue is consistent whether it’s sophisticated, naive or run of the mill. The Frenchman who speaks almost fluent English shouldn’t ask, “How do you say,” then throw out a common word or phrase.
  5. Let your character’s speech grow or devolve as they do. Characters can become more sophisticated and aware on their journey which means they earn the right to use words or phrases they wouldn’t have before. Or they might fall apart and lose their articulateness.
  6. If something a character says is inexplicably out of character, give the reader a reason. They are a fan of ______. Their mom forced them to do years of __________ lessons. Anticipate what could throw your reader and address it.

Now, back to keeping my characters in character.

Catherine Linka is the author of the series, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more on writing at

Say It Without Saying It: Thoughts on Subtext

pear behind back
I’ve been thinking about how to write better dialogue a lot lately, and looking for insight, I turned to Deborah Tannen who writes popular books on linguistics. She claims that in every conversation two people try to balance their need for connection against maintaining their power in the relationship. As Tannen says, it’s all about intimacy versus control.
When writers craft characters, we use dialogue to reveal who they are, and to build or break their relationships with other characters. And our characters use dialogue to get what they want or need. Again, intimacy versus control.
As people juggle intimacy and control in real life conversations, they often avoid being direct. They speak indirectly so they can say what they want to say, but dodge conflict and hopefully, keep their relationships intact.
So it makes sense that dialogue engages us through subtext or “the conversation beneath the conversation.”
The idea of subtext sounds intimidating and abstract, but we use it every day when we inject humor to deflect or redirect a conversation we’d rather not have, or to approach someone when we’re afraid we’ll be rejected.
Through sarcasm we can assert power or express our unwillingness to go down without a fight.
We use metaphor or story-telling to tell someone a truth they need to hear, but to try to minimize the pain.
We forge connection through in jokes or a shared language (think “Okay.” “Okay.” in The Fault in Our Stars.)
And linked to that, we try to build or reconstruct bonds with remembrances of a shared experience.
We hold onto control when we change the subject or answer a different question than what we were asked.
And subtext is present when we attack something unrelated to the real reason we’re angry.
Silence gives us the power to reveal acquiescence or disagreement, while innuendo expresses truths we don’t dare say directly.
man hiding face
And gesture is our truest form of speech, especially when it contradicts what is said.
I offer up these examples to spark your thinking about subtext, and the push-pull between intimacy and control. If our goal is to write dialogue that is unexpected, subtext is a great place to explore.
Catherine Linka is the author of the two book series, A Girl Called Fearless. For more of her thoughts on writing, visit

5 Tips for No Fail Author Visits

Young people at music festival

This week, I spoke to three very different audiences: college students in a creative writing class, public high school students in LA, and elementary and middle school kids and their parents at a Barnes & Noble book fair. I slammed it out of the park with two of those talks and bunted with the other.

Why the fail? Because I didn’t follow my own advice for author visits. It’s a short list, five points, but addresses the biggest reasons a visit falls flat.

1.Size up the audience.

I usually contact my host before my visit, and ask questions about the audience. The more I know, the better I can tailor my talk to them. College students who choose to take a creative writing class are nothing like high school students herded into a library by their English teacher.

2.  Size up my host.

Often I’m invited to speak by teachers, librarians, school administrators or bookstore staff. Sometimes my hosts want me to inspire kids to read, or to understand the importance of revision. One asked me to talk about how I write scenes in longhand first to let my creativity flow, because she wanted parents to hear that cursive is still important. And bookstore staff always want me to remind listeners that they can buy my books here.

3. Get my host’s support.

Just as I want to support my host, I want the host to support me. If I’m working with a library or a bookstore, I want to know they have copies of my books on the shelf. If my host is a teacher, I encourage him or her to assign students to read the free sample chapters from my book before I arrive.

4. Determine what will interest THIS audience.

Unhappy boy in art class

I can talk about writing my books in many ways, but I need to find the one that connects with the audience in front of me. I’ve spoken in prep schools about girl’s rights around the globe, talked to foster kids about surviving publishing rejection, and talked to writers about writing and the realities of publishing. While I always talk about my books, I try to imagine what these listeners care about.

My fail this week? I didn’t sex it up. These teens needed more drama,  and I didn’t make my book intriguing enough. Looking back, I should have read a high action scene, and talked about firing an M-4 semi-automatic during my research. That would have caught their attention.

5. Partner with my partner.

This week, I partnered with other writers for two of the events. Fortunately, I knew both writers, and we laid out in advance what we wanted to cover. But advance planning can’t eliminate all the differences in speaking styles or personal agendas.

While I’m fine with letting another person take the lead, I was reminded that I am responsible to myself for making sure I get to talk about what is important to me and my book. And that might mean politely and assertively redirecting the discussion. It’s not my partner’s fault if I don’t get to cover all my points, it’s mine.

Now I’m getting ready for the next round of visits and you can bet, I’m looking for the heart-pounding scene that will get a teenage boy’s attention.

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can read her novella, Sparrow’s Story: A Girl Defiant for free on

What The #$&@ Does My Character Want Anyway?

questioning girl

When I showed up for my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was surprised at how many discussions centered around “what does the main character want?”

Why is that so important, I wondered. What if the character doesn’t know what she wants at the beginning? She’s a teenager. How is she supposed to know? And even if she does know, that doesn’t mean that what she wants now won’t change.

My first epiphany came during a lecture about how a writer can get to the essence of their story by summarizing it this way:

My character (insert name)

wants (person/place/thing)

but when (event) happens

he/she must choose between (option one) and (option two).

My protagonist will struggle to get what he/she wants, because of his/her (character flaw or weakness.)

Suddenly, I saw that want was the driver that sent the character on their journey. Every choice, every decision the character made had to tie back to getting what the character wanted.

Identifying what my character wanted was easy when it involved goals like winning the race or getting the guy, but I struggled when faced with a character who didn’t have a conscious desire or goal.

day dreaming girl

I floundered about until I discovered FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. In his chapter called “Yearning,” I experienced my second epiphany.

“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.”

Yearning or hungering for something–even if the character wasn’t capable of verbalizing  their feelings–now that made sense. All those unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged dreams–the feelings we are only half-conscious of, the flutters we try to ignore–they can change the course of our lives even if we don’t fully understand them.

And Butler crystalized the power of yearning when he said “plot represents the dynamics of desire.” Plot is how the character satisfies their desires.

Now I could identify what was underneath my character’s skin and what my protagonist knew they wanted, as well as what they might not admit they wanted, but which drove them nonetheless.

But I still felt uneasy when my character’s desire changed.

My most recent epiphany came when I was struggling to write the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, because my character was no longer the girl she was when the story began. Avie wasn’t innocent or naive anymore. On the run from a planned marriage, and hoping for freedom in Canada, Avie’s future was now complicated with an important, but unwanted mission that might kill her.

At a retreat with Martha Alderson, the “Plot Whisperer”, Martha emphasized the parallel between the character’s emotional development and the plot’s story action, and I realized that even though my protagonist still longed for love and freedom, she would struggle in the sequel with a growing sense that she needed to serve a greater purpose.

It was now clear to me that our characters evolve through their stories, and so what they want must also evolve. As writers we have to allow our characters to abandon what they first thought they wanted and let them hunger for something even greater.


Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can connect with her on twitter @cblinka or


Poetry Invites Prose by zu vincent

balloon jpeg
Last summer a friend and I began exchanging a poem a week. She’s a visual artist and I’m a writer, but neither of us consider ourselves poets. We just love poems and wanted to grow a few between us. At first, we used the works of established poets to plant the seeds, poems we liked that made us feel we had something of our own to say on the subject. But we soon found we didn’t need the prompt and began writing simply from the stuff of life. We wrote narrative poems, three line poems, silly poems, serious poems, poems that tackled the biggies such as joy, love and grief, and poems that seemed to bubble up from the unconscious with no warning at all. For me, the resulting harvest is rich with story ideas and language I might not have tilled any other way.

Poetry, as Newbery author Karen Hesse says, is addicting. “It’s like chocolate, once you start eating it you can’t stop” It’s also a great way to see more deeply into your prose, which is why poetry is at the heart of the VCFAWC residency this summer. For starters, each faculty lecture includes a poem or poetic reference. Visiting author Karen Hesse wowed folks with her twelve inch thick (at least!) binder of her poetry output for a year. And a faculty panel discussion featuring Tom Birdseye, Amanda Jenkins, Louise Hawes and Sharon Darrow dissected what poetry means to each of the panelists on a personal and professional level.

paracheute jpegWhile some of these distinguished writers don’t mind calling themselves poets, others shy away from the term. But they all read, respect and love poetry. That’s the beauty of what they had to say, which is that poetry is not scary or inaccessible or meant only for the erudite few. Poetry is for everyone. And poetic language is everywhere, as familiar as our heartbeat. From ads, to nursery rhymes, to popular songs, to prose lines to daily free poems on Writer’s Almanac. And for writers, reading and practicing poetry can enhance your prose and narrative non-fiction in several ways.


Here are a few suggestions:

Try rewording your paragraphs sentence by sentence with an eye to word choice and poetic line breaks, this can be a revelation when it comes to cutting unnecessary words and phrases, and in general sharpens your voice.

Write a poem from each of your character’s points of view to help you discover motivation and voice.

colorful balloon jpegAnd as Louise Hawes suggests, write a poem for each scene or chapter of your novel as a way to uncover the main emotion you need to convey in that scene or chapter. When seen in poetic form, you can more easily note any gaps in your narrative arc, or missing elements from your beginning, middle or end. (Lou as she’s affectionately known, holds word play workshops she calls Play Shops around the globe).

In his lecture on metaphor, VCFA faculty and author Mark Karlins notes that metaphor “can’t be translated.” Rather, you must intuit your way in. Because metaphor goes “deeper than thought, and is rooted in the human soul. That place where the inner self and the world merge.” That place is the stuff of poetry. Poetry distills. Poetry re-sees. Poetry provides a metaphorical lens that isn’t about thinking, but about intuiting. And it does this most often by capturing a moment that speaks to what is larger than that moment, and larger than ourselves. The world in a grain of sand.

Often these grains of sand can add up to larger works. You might find your next book in your poetry, as Karen Hesse did. Or that, like author Pam Houston (whom I spoke with last spring and whose process seems to me so like poetry writing that I wanted to mention her here), you are developing your own poetic form. Houston’s novel, Contents May Have Shifted, while not written in verse, is a series of short chapters that hover between genres and flash off the page in a form she calls “glimmer writing.” Glimmer writing, Houston explains, is about opening yourself to the world each day, and recording what sticks, what sparks insight and holds richness, much like the contents of a poem.  What says, in her words, “Hey writer, over here, pay attention.”  In encouraging writers to capture their own glimmers, Houston believes that what sticks, what coalesces on the page, will provide the themes and storylines you’re meant to tell.

Reach for the poetic in your writing. Find those glimmers and keep them as a poem or a paragraph, because in the very act of giving a moment attention, it becomes a habit of deep listening, both to the outer world and your own inner experience of it. That’s were words resonate. In that space beneath and beyond the self that lives for the reader. That space between the marks on the page and the life created as one reads them.

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. 

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.

A Mentor Talks About Mentoring: Kathryn Fitzmaurice

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s keynote at the Women’s National Book Association Writers Conference. Kathryn spoke eloquently about her mentor, her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson.

At lunch, Kathryn and I talked about how after becoming the successful author of several award winning/starred middle grade novels including The Year the Swallows Came Early, Diamond in the Dust, and Destiny Rewritten, she is now mentoring an aspiring writer.  I asked Kathryn if I could share her experience.

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Tell, me who are you mentoring and what are you working on together?

KF:  Her name is PB Rippey and she’s a member of  SCBWI in Northern California.  The title of her work in progress is “Trouble Beneath the Waves,” a wonderful story about a young girl with special powers.  I won’t say any more!

How were you two connected?

 KF: We were connected when I received an invitation from Catherine Meyers, who is the ARA to Patricia Newman, the RA for the Northern California SCBWI chapter.

 I understand this is a new program that the chapter is trying out and that you are one of several published writers who are mentors in this “digital mentorship” program. What are you expected to do?

 KF:  I am expected to stand along side her and do everything I can to help her bring her work-in-progress to a place where it is publishable.  I would like to see her obtain an agent and have the agent sell this story.

DestinyRewritten hc c

You wrote in a blog post that there are several mentors in the program that you would have liked to have been paired with as a young writer. Who among your fellow writers would have been your dream mentor? 

KF: I would have loved to have been paired with someone like Gary D. Schmidt, who is my very favorite middle grade author.  I was able to meet him last year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where I was on a middle grade panel with him, and Katherine Applegate, and Linda Urban.  Mr. Schmidt is so talented as an author, with one of his novels winning a Newbery Honor Medal, (The Wednesday Wars).  My favorite book he has written is Okay For Now.  Every time I read it, I find some genius page where Mr. Schmidt has made me cry, or laugh.   But even more, he is very nice.  In addition to writing, he teaches English at a college in Michigan.

 The aspiring writers had to submit several pages of a manuscript and a synopsis, and then the mentors chose their mentees based on the work. Can you remember what about PB’s story resonated with you? 

 KF: I remember when I read her pages, I thought to myself, I can see what might be missing, (it wasn’t much really), and I think I can help her bring the manuscript around to a place where we can cut some of the things that don’t need to be there, and bring in some things that will move the story forward faster.  PB is really quite lovely, she wants her story to be published and I believe it will be.  She is a hard worker.  She’s also a poet and has published a few poems.  Not every one can be a poet.  You have to understand rhythm and how words work together in a sentence.  It’s complicated to see this sometimes.  But she sees these connections.  She understands how words can be written to make the reader fall in love.

This is a one year program  in which the mentor is expected to read the writer’s entire manuscript between November and January, then do a video chat and provide a first round of editorial notes. The writer is supposed to have a rewrite by the end of March,  which the mentor then reads, and does a second video chat and editorial notes. 

Is this how the program is actually working for you and PB?

KF: After I go through her manuscript, I send my notes, (using track changes on word), to her and she reads through them.  Then we make an appointment for a Skype call and go through everything together.  We probably speak a lot more, though, than the rules say, because I have told her that she may contact me whenever she needs to.  I want her to know that I am available to her any time of day, for whatever reason she may want to discuss.  Because sometimes every author has, (including me), times when we need to discuss a very important idea.

 What do you find yourselves talking about during those Skype calls?

KF: We really discuss her main character and how she is growing, what she has learned, and how she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  Together, we do everything we can to cut out the things that aren’t working, and keep the things that are working in her story.  But honestly, her story is really very good.

What is the best part of being a mentor?

 KF: It’s always nice to help other people realize their own dreams.  I remember when my agent, Jen Rofe, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, called to tell me she had sold my first book.  I want PB to have that same feeling.  I want her to be able to jump up and down and say she sold her novel.  That would be so wonderful!

 Lastly, I understand you’re working on a book that’s very different from your other novels. Can you give us a peek into what you’re writing now?

 KF: I’m on my third revision of a novel that I will continue to write until it is good enough to sell.  I keep going back and fixing it.  Everyday, I revise the story, so that my main character is growing, so she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  I am using a bit a magical realism, which I have never done before.  This is the part that is testing me.  I keep coming back to these sections and reworking them.

 Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your mentoring experience. We look forward to watching PB on her journey. 

 To read Kathryn’s moving blog post about her relationship with her own mentor:

Conveying Emotion Through a Powerful Object

 Today the Tollbooth welcomes writer Mary Cronin who posts about the emotional significance that two objects possess for the main character of her work-in-progress. 

“What if there’s no novel yet?” That was my main question when I won November’s “Fantastic Tollbooth  Contest” hosted by VCFA faculty member Garret Freymann-Wehr. Garret had asked for entries about an object of emotional significance to a character. My entry, about a boy named Tom and some of his beautiful treasures, was chosen as the winner.

But there’s no novel. Yet. A title, yes. Tomfoolery. And a notebook.

I’m a huge fan of pre-writing. So I have a notebook filled with character sketches and maps and anecdotes and family trees. About Tom, his best friends, his feisty grandmother, his itinerant musician mother, his job in a vintage clothing store. Most importantly, I know what Tom lacks.

Some of the college courses I teach in Early Childhood Education feed directly into my writing.


So I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out what assets my character has in his life, and what he lacks. Maslow’s Hierarchy serves as an inventory of sorts, about areas of strength in a character’s life, but especially about areas of need—what I think of as the “pot holes” in a character’s life. Using this tool, I can pinpoint those pot holes (basic needs like shelter?  A sense of belonging?), and how my protagonist has attempted to fill those pot holes. Have the “patches” been successful, or not?

Once I truly understand these things about my character,  I have compassion for him. And when I write from a place of compassion, the words flow.


I picked up a swizzle stick a few years ago when I had the best gin and tonic ever at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Some time last year, I stuck that swizzle stick in my pencil case. I knew it was important to Tom, just like the tea tin with the picture of Princess Kate on it that sits in my kitchen cabinet.

tea tin

I knew this because Tom lacks his mother, and Tom longs for beauty in the way a young artistic soul thirsts for it when he is deprived of loveliness. The beauty, the glamour, the royalty: these are the patches he has used to try and fill the empty place his mother left behind, the “pot hole” in his sense of security. Once I know what my character longs for, I begin to understand what objects might have almost magical meaning for him. And there was that lovely swizzle stick.

I encourage all the writers I work with to use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand their characters, just as I advise my teachers-in-training to use it as a tool to understand the needs and motivations of their young students.

Thanks to Through the Tollbooth, and Garrett, a little bit of fairy dust was sprinkled on my Tomfoolery notebook, which will indeed grow into a novel.

I think Tom would approve.

Mary E. Cronin


Mary E. Cronin graduated from VCFA in January 2011. A resident of Cape Cod, she teaches Early Childhood Ed. and English at two Massachusetts colleges. Mary is currently revising her middle-grade time travel novel and polishing a few picture book manuscripts; Tomfoolery is waiting in the wings.