In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. 

-Eleanor Roosevelt

You write your life story by the choices you make. You never know if they have been a mistake. Those moments of decision are so difficult. 

-Helen Mirren

Dear Writers,

It’s time for me to say goodbye to posting on Through the Tollbooth. I’ve learned so much preparing posts for this amazing blog, but now that I write my own newsletter, it is time to make room on this site for other voices.

Like everybody else, I’m also really busy. I am always trying to create balance in my writing life and my real life! I need to give myself time to play—to experiment and explore writing—to write without expectations so that  later, I can revise with intention. I’ve also been teaching a lot. And this month I’ve been reading submissions for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. This has been an extraordinary honor. My first job is the hardest: to choose a writer to work with.

This week, I’ve been thinking almost about nothing else. This month, I read and thought about 36 submissions. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

This process has taught me about reading. Or maybe I should say: reading like an editor. Or maybe: what an editor must do on a regular basis. Or maybe the problem is I am wishy washy!! Every day, when I look at the manuscripts, I think of Laura and I wish I knew her. I feel her enthusiasm and heart every time I sit down to read. I feel the weight of the responsibility.

I did not totally expect this.

I am used to reading manuscripts and stories of writers who I’m already working with. I open the document and I read–the first time like a reader. Then like a writer. That hasn’t changed. After reading all 36 submissions, I see so much potential. So many interesting characters. So many stories I would LOVE to work on.

I thought the perfect story would jump out at me.

The problem is: it has. All 36 times.

So what have I learned? What can I say about this process that might give you some insight as you start to submit?

  1. The first line is so important. I cannot say that enough. The first line tells me so much about the writer and the story. It tells me if the writer is fearless or if she is still dipping her toe. If she knows her character or if she is still unsure. The first line prepares me for the POV. The genre. The tone of the story. Time. Space.

This is true for every chapter’s first line. And every chapter’s last line, too.

Great first and last lines tell me that the writer has thought about pacing. It tells me that the writer knows where her story is going. It makes me want to read the whole thing.

**One of the BEST TIPS I ever received was from writer, Barbara O’Connor. She makes a list of all the first and last lines in her draft. It’s a GREAT way to analyze your pacing and see if you are managing your storytelling in parts that make sense. 


It is all about the characters!

The stories I can’t forget–that I’m grappling with–have interesting plots. But that’s because they already have distinct characters. Some are funny. Some are miserable. All are interesting. ALL YEARN FOR SOMETHING. There is some action early. Even if it comes too early, it is there.

  1. It’s about me, too. This is the hardest part for me to admit. The story has to appeal to me. The writing has to appeal to me. The writer’s topics must be interesting to me. I’m reading and wondering: who can I help the most? Will this story be fun to read five or six or ten times? (Sometimes a no really means no, not for me, but yes for someone else!)
  1. There can only be one. Oh, man. I hate saying no. I wake up thinking of ways I could say yes to at least six or seven or maybe all 36. I could start a class. Or a new workshop. I think about the story that will ultimately come in second and already, I feel awful!!! And I remember what that feels like–to come in second. And I think: how can I make this writer understand that her story has great, strong, amazing legs? And then I wonder if I’m making the wrong choice. I read the above quotes. Argh! I walk around the room second-guessing myself. I debate calling the organizers and asking if I can take two. Or three. Or four.

I remember when I was a young mother, I would take my kids into NYC for the day and tell them they could “beg” for one thing. (I really couldn’t say no to them either!!!) Most of the time, this worked. They waited until they saw something (a thing or an activity) they really wanted to do, and then the begging and giggling would commence. But a lot of the time, it meant, they never begged for anything. They held it in, waiting for something else to come along. Just in case. It gave me the opportunity to say no without saying no. It also gave me opportunities to surprise them with gifts and treats and celebration.

I also remember needing a “magic hat” to help me choose the advisors I wanted to work with during a semester at VCFA. My friends and I would write down all the names of the teachers we were considering. And then we would pull out names, one at a time. This was a sort of gut check. For me, if I felt great, I added the teacher to my list. It also relieved a lot of stress.

vermeer hat(Nice hat!)

Choices are hard. Making them is also essential–especially in the context of story. 

All our characters face choices. Really, those choices and actions are what keep the plot moving. They make our characters interesting. These moments are “show” moments. They change the vector of the protagonist’s journey. These are the moments that catch readers’ eyes and hook them. These are the moments that make our readers say YES.

Remember: Often, the plot starts turning when our characters do the wrong thing, even if they think it is right at the time.

Today, go to that first big choice in your WIP. Look at what your character does. Ask: could you make more conflict if your character did something else? Not sure? Ask yourself: who is this character? What does he/she want? What has happened in the past to get her/him to this moment? What are her controlling beliefs?

Does that first decision represent who your character is, including her/his flaws? Or are you being easy on your character. Or protecting her/him? OR are you expecting other characters to make the conflict happen? These moments make the difference between good and great stories and characters!

This post is also about the power of working together. About our writing community. About supporting each other. (An easy choice.)

This week, as I thought about how I wanted to say goodbye to The Tollbooth, I remembered a series of posts I did right at the beginning of this blog. They featured interviews with aspiring writers. Back then, we called the prepublished writers.

I have always hated that term.

Why? Because it means that becoming a “real writer” can only happen with a contract. It means our identities are tied to events we cannot control.

So this is what I say:

We are writers if we sit down and put words on paper. We are writers because we are committed to the craft. We should not wait for contracts to validate who we are and what we do and the power of story!

We are writers. Because we write. 

So back to those interviews. One of those writers was Elly Swartz.  She offered this advice:

Generally, my advice is to believe in yourself, stay dedicated to the story, and write, write, write! 


Don’t write for the market, write for yourself, the market will come. Eventually.

In the interview, she talked about a new manuscript. She talked about the need to have hope. And determination. She didn’t know when or if she would sell her book, but she believed in her story. When we had that chat, so long ago, we had just met. I hadn’t yet read her story about Molly. But now I have. And so will you. Finding Perfect is coming out October 18, 2016. It is a beautiful book. It is full of heart. It will make you laugh. And cry. It will change how you see kids who face internal obstacles that, at first, we do not see.

So… as I finish making my decision for the mentorship, I’m feeling a bit frustrated–I still want to work with them all–but I’m also feeling a bit sappy and grateful. I’m thinking a lot about all the writers I’ve worked with–in critique groups…at VCFA…at the VCFA Writing for Young People Retreat, in my classes and at Highlights. It’s such great work. Such great people. So many stories waiting to be shared.

The message I’d like to leave you with is this:

Work hard. Be true. Care deeply. Do not give up. Keep writing. Face your fears. Play, play, play, play, play. DO NOT GIVE UP!!! 

All of us have a story. Be a writer. Sit down and write it.

xo sarah

To sign up for Sarah Aronson’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, Look under tips. It’s there. All the way at the bottom!



Copy Cats

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation

-Herman Melville


Dear Writers,

When I was young, I learned to draw by tracing. I learned to sing (sort of) by trying to sound like Barbra! Before I ever wrote a word, I spent a lot of time reading. I typed sentences I really loved–sentences that stopped me for all the best reasons. Then I studied them to figure out why they were so good.

I first read Carolyn Coman’s WHAT JAMIE SAW when I was getting my MFA at VCFA. I immediately loved everything about that book. That first sentence blew me away. (From that moment on, I referred to it as “THE sentence.)

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved. 

It still gives me chills. I love it because it is scary to read. I see the baby in slow motion. Like I’m reading a movie.

From the moment I read it, I hoped that some day, I would be able to write  a sentence that great.

And so, with all due respect to Mr. Mellville, I tried to do just that. Over and over again, I tried to make ONE sentence that scanned the same way–that slowed down a moment–that offered the same master effect. I believed that by studying this classic, I could learn more about the power of words and how I could tell a story (or at least write one good sentence!!!).

As I wrote, I did not worry that I was guilty of theft. Or that most of my attempts were terrible and contrived. (One advisor thought I had a tic–or a problem with the word, AND.)

I also found other sentences to mimic. And then paragraphs and prologues. I tried writing in second. In third present. I challenged myself, over and over again, to experiment with techniques I enjoyed reading, and along the way, the best thing happened:

I began to develop my own voice.

I still collect sentences. And quotes. And good advice. Because writing is not always spontaneous. Most of the time, when I sit down, I need a prompt. A push. Some time to step away from my manuscript and play.

Imitation is just one game. It is one way to be inspired and to get the writing ball rolling. So is drawing. Or walking. But because we are in the business of WORDS, studying the language of my favorite books, more than anything else, helps me discover and practice my own voice, likes, and style.

Apparently, in the bigger world of ART, this is a bit controversial.  I know a couple of art students who have been DISCOURAGED from learning to paint in the classic styles. No imitation at all. It seems to me that all they care about is the voice they went to school with. To me, imitation is an opportunity–especially in the arts. It is a chance to learn, to see how the picture gets drawn. For us, a chance to experiment with every level of story.

So are you ready…to be a


Go ahead and pick up your latest favorite book. (Mine is CIRCUS MIRANDUS. It is an absolutely wonderful book. I actually had to stop reading to read it out loud to my husband.)

Now type the entire first chapter word for word and print it. Hold it in your hands. Read it outlaid  See what that beautiful writing looks like as a manuscript. If you like, dissect it. For white space. For meter. For words that make you pause.  Figure out why you love it. Pinpoint what appeals to you. Read it out of order. Figure out its secrets.

Then go back to your own work. If you like, play with the rhythms of a sentence. But don’t stop there. Take off! Let great writing imprint on your style. The more you read the more you will see how flexible writing is. Let it inspire you to write your own masterpiece in your own voice.

Or talk to a master herself.


I am DELIGHTED to tell you that Carolyn Coman will be one of the mentors for the upcoming Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA. Also coming are authors, Martine Leavitt and Micol Ostow, as well as editor Laura Schreiber. The dates are March 18-20. Registration starts November 1. (It will probably end Nov 1, too, so be ready to push the button THAT day.)

Why I love the retreat? It’s about craft. And experimentation. And discussion. And play. Want to be part of it? Email me. Or check my FB page.


Sarah Aronson is the cofounder and organizer of the Writing Novels for Young People retreat. She also teaches Whole Novel workshops for Highlights and other classes for Stay tuned for more information about her new books: Just like Rube Goldberg (Beach Lane) and a new chapter book series, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (Scholastic).

Kick It up A Notch At The Auction – With Cori McCarthy and Jim Hill

What a week it’s been, heading into this year’s Alumni Mini Residency and – best of all- Writing For Children and Young Adults Auction! It’s the best VCFA auction ever because this year you don’t have to be in Montpelier. The auction is coming to you, online. And everyone is invited! Check it out and register to bid.

We’re excited about these spectacular new lots-

A FULL picture book or ten page novel critique by Allyn Johnston, Vice President and Publisher Beach Lane Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) !!!!

allyn-johnstonAllyn has been working in children’s publishing in her native California for twenty-four years. Among the authors and illustrators with whom she works are Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, Marla Frazee, Cynthia Rylant, Debra Frasier, Arthur Howard, Jan Thomas, Avi, and M. T. Anderson. Recent titles she’s edited are New York Times bestseller Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee and New York Times bestseller All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, both of which received a Caldecott Honor. And if you’re the winner of this critique she’ll work with you!

Or how about this–

Stop the pressBioPhotoCheng (2)! This is a big one!

Running Press Kids’ Lisa Cheng is offering a critique- 20 pages or your first three chapters plus your query!

Lisa Cheng is a Senior Editor at Running Press Kids, an imprint of Running Press Book Publishers, which is a member of the Perseus Books Group. She acquires and edits both fiction and nonfiction middle grade, YA, and picture books. She has previously worked at Margaret K. McElderry Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, and also at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She has had the pleasure of working with such authors and illustrators as Emma Trevayne, Eric Devine, Tara Altebrando, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Maria Andreu, Ethan Long, Toni Buzzeo, Sachiko Yoshikawa, and Connah Brecon. And most especially VCFA’s own Cori McCarthy!

Speaking of Cori it’s time to meet more of the people behind this year’s auction– so first up, our hero, Cori McCarthy.

CoriCori graduated in the January 2011 class. Her debut novel, The Color of Rain, was published in 2013 by Running Press, and her second novel, Breaking Sky, came out in March from Sourcebooks. Her third book, You Were Here, is coming out in 2016. She lives in Michigan and is represented by Sarah Davies at Greenhouse.

Hi, Cori. It seems funny to welcome you to the Tollbooth, since you’re a regular member of the Tollbooth crew, but great to see you here and at the auction. What’s your favorite item/something you’d love to win in this year’s auction (live auction or white box)?

My favorite item is something that I’ve already won (so to speak), and that the winning bidder now has a chance to experience: my agent Sarah Davies’ critique. Here is the description:

“Ready to query? Sarah Davies will critique your query and first five manuscript pages then consult with you by phone. Questions about markets? Editors? Timing? Rights and International Sales? Contract terms? How can your query stand out from the crowd?

Sarah’s an expert. She represents many VCFA grads and she is consistently ranked as one of the very top selling literary agents in the world. Bid, win and she’ll share her knowledge with you.”

This critique reminds me of my very first conversation with Sarah—wherein she discussed the market, the business, and my manuscript, as well as how she views writers as more than debut deals. Sarah has a career in mind when she launches an author, and it shows through all her wisdom and guidance!

You’re absolutely right! Sarah represents me (and Tami, too) She’s smart and caring. As far as I’m concerned there’s nobody better. What are you writing now?

I am currently working on a MG novel in verse that has plagued me since my last semester at VCFA. Uncharacteristically of my writing style, the story entitled Name Me America has remained half-finished for five years—although I did nab the MG Katherine Paterson prize through Hunger Mountain with it last year. Something is holding me back! I think it’s the fact that it is middle grade and not young adult. Middle school was so much harder for me than high school, and I do believe it’s turned me gun-shy on middle grade.

Here’s the link to read the beginning on Hunger Mountain!

I’m excitedly planning my trip to Bath Spa University with the inaugural VCFA WCYA residency in July and hoping that Martine Leavitt and Tim Wynne-Jones can break me of my nervousness and fear. Fingers crossed!

McVities-Chocolate-HobnobsBath Spa! I’m jealous. I’ll have to be content buying a White Box Raffle Ticket for the Basket of British Goodies! I’ll drown my sorrows in a tube of Hob Nobs.



Next up– Jim Hill, also no stranger to the Tollbooth. Good to see you here, Jim! What auction item would you love to win?

JimTrying to pick just one from the list is impossible, so here’s a handful with reasons:
1) An in-depth critique from an agent would be huge. I’m about to enter the querying-fray portion of my life, and any guidance to help clear the slush pile would be pretty much the best thing ever. Let me tell you, hearing the range of querying experience from fellow writers makes it sound like either a bolt of lighting from the blue (“I got my agent by accident!”) to a Sisyphean task (“I’ve queried sixty agents at this point…”). Ugh. So, if those are the edges of the bell curve, I’d be happy to land in the middle (“I accidentally queried thirty agents?”) and guidance (or maybe even an offer) from the likes of Sarah Davies, Emily Van Beek, Janine Le, Tricia Lawrence, Linda Camacho, and Erin Harris sounds like just the ticket.
2) The Adam Rex Critique makes me want to remortgage my house. I mean who wouldn’t want to critique Adam’s work? Wait, what? You mean he’ll critique the winners work? Either Three, count’em three, picture book manuscripts (and/or dummies) or up to 25K words of a middle-grade novel? 
Oh. That’s even better.
Tomfoolery aside, this is an amazing item. Adam’s work is an inspiration to me, starting with his picture book work on Tree Ring Circus, Pssst!, Chloe and the Lion, The Frankenstein books and all the way through his novels. In fact The True Meaning of Smekday was a big part of my critical thesis. I had a chance to do an email interview with him for it, and as expected, he proved to be a funny, smart, and generous guy. Why am I talking about this. Dang. It should be a secret. 
3) The Skype visits from either Kathi Appelt Skype Visit or Kelly Bingham for my sons classroom. For whatever reason (geography primarily) Cape Cod doesn’t seem to draw many visiting authors and I would love to share one of these with my son’s second grade classroom next year.
What are you writing these days?
I’ve just completed a YA novel, the Age of Supers. It’s the story of Thorn, a teen sidekick whose life is turned upside down when his hero, Atlas, murders his mentor, and then takes over the world. Thorn goes deep underground intent to avenge the dead and bring justice to the living. His mission begins with protecting the girl who could change him as dramatically as Atlas changed everything else.
Anything Else?
This year’s auction is a little more complicated and a lot more exciting now that we’re really taking it online AND live on Saturday night. I’m thrilled to be one of the Live Auction team, and a guest auctioneer during the event. Previous auctioneer’s include M.T. Anderson and Tim Wynne-Jones. This is probably the only time I’ll see my name on a list with those two!
Your spot on the stage is ready– and I for one can’t wait!
But everybody can bid online now!
Online bidding is open at
I’ll meet you there!



Tea With Katherine? Join Us At The Auction

images-6 4.41.38 PM
What would you do if Katherine Paterson invited you to tea at her house?
Guess what– you are invited.

R.S.V.P. by checking out this item at the VCFA auction- Tea For Two With Katherine Paterson.

Then bid to win!

Katherine is a living legend. She’s also a kind easy to talk to person and a good friend of VCFA. Once you have your tea party she’ll be YOUR GOOD FRIEND, TOO!

It’s auction time at VCFA and this year the auction isn’t just in Montpelier. It’s online, too. You can bid wherever you are, whenever you want, right up to June 20.

11221594_10205503830973373_4189816087672062783_nThis week we’re exploring the auction booty and meeting the people behind this year’s auction.

Tami Lewis Brown chairs this year’s auction. She left a career as a trial lawyer to write books for children. She graduated from VCFA in January ‘06 and has served on the Board of Trustees (along with Katherine P. and M. T. Anderson) since the independent institution was founded. You may already know her one of the founding members of Through The Tollbooth.

Tami’s books, SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME and the upcoming RADIANT MAN are published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. Tami lives with her husband and a pack of wild spaniels in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. She is represented by Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency.

What would you love to win in this year’s auction?

There are so many auction lots I really love! I’m so thrilled with the donations we’ve received! If I wasn’t already represented by Sarah Davies I’d love to bid on her query critique and consultation. You can ask Sarah anything and she’s a genuine genius on the business of publishing. Consulting with Sarah would jumpstart anyone’s writing career. I’m also bidding on a new author photo by Amy Rose Capetta– I really really really hope I win that one. I hope she can make me half as glamorous as Caroline Carlson!

image64Some of my other favorite things are in the White Box Raffle. It’s only $2 a ticket for a chance to win. I’ll be buying lots of tickets for the beautiful handmade jewelry. There are a pair of Goodnight Moon earrings I’m crazy about!

What are you writing now?

I’m finishing up a picture book biography about Keith Haring. The title is RADIANT MAN and it will be published by Joy Peskin (there’s a 45 minute telephone consultation with her in the live auction, too )

This book is a true Vermont College of Fine Arts baby. I wrote it for my all VCFA alum critique group in Washington DC and read it two weeks later at the VCFA Writing Novels for Young People Retreat (we have an amazing VIP package with reduced tuition for it in the auction! )  Joy heard the manuscript and wanted to publish it and now we’re almost finished with the manuscript. We hope it will hit bookshelves in Spring 2017. Dreams really do come true at VCFA!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This year the Auction and the White Box Raffle is online as well as live. This means alums and current students (as well as faculty) who can’t be at the Alumni Mini-Rez can bid and win. But this year it won’t only be VCFA insiders at the auction.  Everyone, VCFA friends old and new, are invited to be a part of this celebration of VCFA. Please spread the word to all your writer friends.

One great way we’re including everyone is our “Virtual Wine Pit” We’re live broadcasting readings by M. T. Anderson, Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Sharon Darrow and Shelly Tanaka. It’s going to be spectacular! You can be a part of it all on the VCFA Auction website at 7 pm on this Friday, June 19!  Of course while you’re there we hope you’ll browse the Auction and White Box items and find something you can’t live without!

Now meet Rose Houghton

rose_1UPverticalRose Houghton holds an MFA from VCFA, A BA from George Mason University, studied art at Old Dominion University and the Corcoran, and trained as a RN at the Mercer Hospital School of Nursing. The illustrator of three published picture books, she has been a nurse, an economist, a muralist, a puppeteer and a writer. Born on an island off the coast of Germany shortly after WWII, she emigrated with her parents and her brother to an American farm under a program wherein they agreed to work for seven years. She married a naval officer and traveled the world with him and their daughter. She resides in Annapolis, Maryland and writes and illustrates graphic and YA novels full time.

What are you working on now, Rose?

 I’m working on a YA fiction. From the Jersey Shore to Istanbul, Gabriel Diangelo risks his life to save what matters most, only what matters most is not always as it seems after he makes a pack with the Devil. Time should never stand still when dealing with the Devil.  I’m also creating a graphic novel to accompany the novel.
Have any of the auction items caught your eye? 
A complete manuscript review would be something I’d love to bid for and win from any of those wonderful and generous agents or editors offering that prize. (There are manuscript reviews by Emily Van Beek, Rebecca Maizel, Janine Lee, Linda Camacho, ADAM REX(!!) Erin Harris and more! You can check them all out here.) The item would be better than a triple scoop of butter pecan ice cream offered up by that great shop on the river bank in Burlington.

Thanks, Rose. And here’s Will Brown–

William-Hayden-Brown-205x300Will Brown is pursuing an MA (Honours) in Art History the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is a painter, rows with the St Andrews Boat Club, and is writing his first book for young people. After studying at Sotheby’s in London Will volunteered to assist with the 2014 VCFA WCYA auction. We are lucky to have Will back on the auction team in 2015!




What would you love to win in this year’s auction?

CapeCodWritersBrochCvr2015I’m writing my first book now and I know how valuable the VCFA experience has been to other writers. I’d love to take part in the  VCFA Writing Novels for Young People Retreat  Unfortunately I’ll be in school in Scotland during next spring’s retreat but I hope to register for one as soon as I graduate. So I guess I’d like to win the Cape Cod gift basket. I love Cape Cod Chips and chocolate.  And I could enjoy that at the Cape Cod Writers Conference this summer! I checked out the Cape Cod brochure and the classes look great– plus who doesn’t love Cape Cod?


What are you writing?
I’m still in university so I spend a lot of time writing Art History papers and doing research for my dissertation. Some of the research I’ve done inspired me to start work on a nonfiction picture book. I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet but I hope to finish a solid draft this summer.

Thanks for visiting the Tollbooth! I’m ready to put a bid in for some of these items NOW! I’m heading to!

It’s Happening at the VCFA Auction

11221594_10205503830973373_4189816087672062783_nLook out! Here it comes! The VCFA Auction is just a week away, on June 20. This year it’s online and live! And anybody can bid!

Critiques? Check out the dozen agents critiques! Consultations with editors and publicists! Marketing packages with Swag, Book Trailers… Food baskets, Artwork, Jewelry It’s all here!

The VCFA WCYA auction raises money for the Fund for VCFA and for scholarships for students in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program. As the college’s highest fundraising priority, the Fund for VCFA makes a major contribution to faculty salaries, program operations, scholarships, facilities upgrades and improvements, and new program development. In addition to scholarships, this year’s auction will support a brand new alumni website– WITH A CUSTOM BUILT COMMUNICATION FORUM!

Leading up to the auction the Tollbooth crew thought you might like to meet some of the people working behind the scenes– and find out more about some of the incredible items going up for auction.
Meet Auction volunteer and the Chair of this year’s Alumni Mini-Rez Debbie Gonzales!

Debbie A career educator, Deb Gonzales graduated from VCFA with the Cliffhangers in 2008. She has worked as a classroom teacher, educational consultant, school administrator, adjunct professor, and curriculum specialist. Deb’s represented by Melissa Nasson of Rubin Pfeffer, Inc. and has published six early readers with a New Zealand press. When not spit polishing her middle-grade novel, enjoying life in Ann Arbor with her husband John, or walking her three-legged chocolate Lab Tripod, she’s hard at work as a freelancer creating teacher guides for new releases. To find out more about Deb Gonzales access her website at

What auction item would you love to win?

westhampton 3

The Westhampton Beach Retreat Weekend has my name written all over it. I can see it now wine…water…and lots of words flowing from my fingertips. I sure hope whoever wins this item considers inviting me to retreat with them. I’ll try to behave, but I can’t promise anything.


When I’m not working on Teacher Guides (you can bid on one of Deb’s great guides at the auction- click here,) I’m poking away at Whistle Punk, a  middle grade novel set in the Pacific Northwest. I’m considering setting it aside, however, to revise a YA about a fast-pitch softball player I’ve had in the drawer for a while. I have to see what my agent feels about these plans. Stay tuned.

Anything else?

This year’s AMR is going to be one of the very best. Not only do we have an incredible line up of speakers, faculty, agents, editors, and a publicist, we get to have the entire campus to ourselves! I’m looking forward to hanging out in Dewey Lounge with my ‘homies’, chatting about the topic we love best – Kid lit!

Thanks for visiting the Tollbooth, Debbie! Now it’s everybody’s turn to visit and BID!

You can check out all the auction and White Box raffle items on the auction crew’s Pinterest Board
       Follow Jim’s board The VCFA auction on Pinterest.
Tweet it out with #VCFAauction  and of course visit the website, register and bid.

The art of feeling successful

successSuccess is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
-Winston Churchill

Hi Writers,

Recently, I posted my 100th newsletter. 100 Mondays in a row. I spent some time writing and thinking about success. And a lot of people wrote back. As writers, we have a tenuous (at best) relationship with success. 

Here’s what people said:

“I never feel successful. Someone is always doing better than I’m doing.”

“I read every bad review. What’s wrong with me?”

“I am so sick of calling myself pre-published. I get great rejections. Why am I doing this?”

For me, when I rely on the extrinsic milestones–the money–the fame–I’m SUNK. For me, success has to come from within. It comes more from how I’m feeling creatively. This might be TMI, but I need to feel safe and secure to write. But when I do, I (almost) like writing. 

As all my friends know, I also like to reward myself. 

My most famous rule: When I hit page 100 of a manuscript, I always make Thai seafood soup. (You can find the recipe here!)  Why? I celebrate because 100 is cool! More important, I know if I can get to page 100, it also means I’m going to be able to finish the draft. (That’s party because at page 70, I usually get a big dose of writer’s panic and block!)

For me, 100 is a symbol of success.

But there are a lot of other successes along the way.

Like a new idea.

Or a new chapter.

Or a day off from writing with a good friend.

Tackling a challenge I was afraid to try before. 

And don’t we all write better when we embrace these successes?  When we feel successful, we feel excited. We look forward to the work. The bumps along the way stop being obstacles and feel like opportunities. 

Feeling successful allows us the confidence to find our voices.

Ask Diane von Furstenberg.

dress(Wouldn’t that dress look great on me? Sorry!!!)

Anyway, SHE SAYS that to find success, we must first trust ourselves!

(I love her.)

“I think the relationship you have with yourself is everywhere, every moment of the day — to be able to be alone, to be able to think, to be able to count on yourself, to be able to console yourself, to be able to inspire yourself, to be able to give yourself advice. You are your best friend.”


Finding success is motivating–and in lieu of the usual barometers of success (i.e.: money), celebrating milestones along the journey of writing–is essential! We all know–it’s very easy to get discouraged before that first big YES arrives. But there are a million successes before that first YES.

There is the idea.
There is every good line that you write down.
There is every failure that you accept.
There is every day you sit down again to get that story RIGHT.

One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to offer other writers a little hope and strength as they make their ways from one success to another. It’s what I like about this blog, too. Because we ALL need support. Community. Cheers. We all need TIPS. We all need MOTIVATION. We all need new ways to approach the work in a fresh and different way.

Can you count your successes today? This week? Every week? You don’t have to brag. But you do have to pat yourself on the back! Writing is a journey–one that goes faster when we recognize each positive step.


You can sign up for Sarah’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, Under TIPS.

It’s a matter of trust

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

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


Here is that post.

It begins with a question:

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

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

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


Writers, this should be our motto!


Trust is such a huge part of the writing process.

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

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

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

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

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

You know what I say?

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

Unless I TRUST.

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

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

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

Have a great writing week!


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

Talking about coincidences

photoCongratulations to all the winners of the ALA awards! It was very exciting to see so many colleagues receive recognition for work well done. Before I go further, I also want to congratulate EVERY writer, illustrator, and editor who published a book this year–even if you weren’t on the list.

Writing, editing, and releasing a book is not easy work. It requires practice and diligence. Together, we make the world better. We get people talking. I’m waving my pom poms today for all of us!

Now let’s get back to work!

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” -Albert Einstein

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” -Oprah Winfrey

There are some bits of writing advice that I will always be grateful for. Quite a few of them come from writer, Tim Wynne-Jones, who was my fourth semester advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is what he says about coincidence in fiction: you can rely on it ONCE. And THAT is in the inciting incident. After that, all your plot turns must be logical. The action must grow out of who the characters are and what they do. As I like to say to my students: Action/reaction.

Think about it.

We’ve all read stories where coincidence or fate (the ultimate in coincidences) provides the missing clue or wraps up the loose ends for characters and readers. Stuff like: EAVESDROPPING. When the main character can listen in on the missing conversation at just the right time, the reader notices. We see the author at work. And this is not good. We want to see the characters. We want the motor of the novel to be logical. We want the author to be in charge…without jumping in to get their protagonist to the next plot turn. We want the motivation of the characters to drive the story. We don’t want to feel the author step in!

So…why do coincidences happen?

Coincidence is often employed when the writer fails to properly plan a way to get a piece of information on the table. And to be fair, they are often important in the early drafting phase, if for no other reason than to get words on paper. But once you have a character who wants something, you owe it to that character to make the plot turns logical. It is often used when the writer hasn’t yet figured out how to get from point A to B. Coincidence is a glowing, flashing, sign that says look at me, I’m here to make this plot twist work or to explain what shouldn’t need explanation.

Coincidence makes a story putdownable. Rejectable. Sometimes throwable. (There is a dent in my wall to prove it.) Coincidence says to the reader: this cannot happen. It takes the reader out of the dream.

So are you ready to stretch those writing muscles???

Write with intention!

26278644.thm(ie: grab the keys to the car!)

Select three random objects. Weave these objects into a plausible, coherent story of 250 words that relies on logic! (You can do it!) The objective here is to underscore that YOU are in charge of the material and not the other way around. You should be able to manipulate the elements of a story or novel, using your imagination to invent alternate action and dialogue, characters, and incidents.

Do you like tips and exercises like this? Sign up for Monday Motivation at Or check out my classes at!