Priscilla Chaves and the Art of Designing Book Covers

This week we’re lucky to have Priscilla Chaves, a book designer, visit the Tolllbooth!

Priscilla designs books of all genres—fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, children’s books, and more.

Ever since I worked with her last summer when she designed the cover for my novel, Crossings, I was curious about her job as a book designer. I learned that as a designer, she designs the front and back cover and spine of the book, and that she also designs the interiors. She works for Cedar Fort Publishing.

Welcome, Priscilla. 

What was your path to becoming a Book Designer?

I’ve always been interested in art since I was a little girl. In high school I took a few design classes and knew it was something I wanted to pursue. At college I studied design and loved it. After graduation I looked for design jobs, and the book design job found me.



What is your typical process to design a book cover?

Our authors are sent a design form where they tell me what they envision for their books. Once I receive that, I normally brainstorm ideas that go along the lines of the author’s ideas. Most of the time, I’ll draw sketches and pick the ones I think look best. Then I research ideas and look for images and typography that will work well on the cover. I’ll transfer those ideas to Photoshop and start designing. After the concepts are complete, I take them to my meeting. If it’s approved, great, if not, I go back to the drawing board.

In my case, she read the opening of my novel and other info I had sent to the publisher. Then she sent me an email that included some screen shots to see if she was heading in the right direction at capturing my “vision.” I gave her feedback. Then we talked about hair color. (Which meant I went back into the text and made sure it appeared in the first pages; it had been revised out of those pages.) Next, she finished the cover of Crossings, both the images and typography, showed me what she had designed, and got final approval from the publisher. Later in the process she designed the spine and back cover, and then the interior (working with an editor). I feel she did a wonderful job at capturing the tone and essence of my novel.


How do you collaborate with your authors?

Our first communication is when I introduce myself, and discuss their design document for their book with them. Frequently I check in to make sure I’m getting the right vision they want for their book. Normally there’s back and forth until we decided on something we both like.



In addition to the outer cover, what other aspects of book design are involved in preparing a book for publication?

The interiors of books are a collaboration between the copyeditor and myself. We choose text and flourishes that are compatible with the cover and go from there.




Where and how do you find the inspiration for your ideas for the covers?

I enjoy walking around bookstores and looking at other ideas. Covers that catch your eye stand out, so I try to emulate that in my own work.

Could you share a few of your favorite covers that you have designed?

Daughter of Ishmael, How to Become a Pirate Hunter, Chasing Red, In Spite of Lions, The Gnome Exchange Program: North Pole Rescue.

(These covers are all included in this interview.)




Thank you, Priscilla, for visiting us in the Tollbooth today.

~Sarah Blake Johnson

The Writer, The Reader, and Mirror Neurons

Imagine that you are hiking and you trip on a slick section of the trail, Cactus detail and a cactus spine pierces your palm—the sharp, focused pain spreads through the muscle and nerves, and the end catches inside your skin as you work to remove it.

Sometimes when one of my kids has had a shot, I flinch and the skin in my upper arm tingles, even though I’m not the one getting the shot.

Why and how do we have physical and emotional responses to what we see and what we read?

The answer may be mirror neurons.

Current theory states that the mirror neurons in our brain mirrors the actions, goals, intentions, thoughts, and emotions of another person’s actions, etc.

Our neurons fire in the same location in our brain when we move and when we observe the same movement by someone else. (Note: additional research shows that we do distinguish the difference between our own action versus someone else’s action.)  Neuroscientist, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, found that the brain shows the same activity with observing an action or reading words describing an action.

Perhaps mirror neurons are how readers can feel as if they have literally entered the story. “The discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond to fictional characters as real even though we know they are not. It explains our emotional responses to scary movies or action movies even though we know ‘it’s just a movie,'” said Normal N. Holland, PhD.

Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, suggested that theater events “are more powerful than real life events.” This may be because we can “fully simulate them.” In essence we mirror more effectively because we feel safe, therefore “our emotional involvement may be greater.” (The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Literary Studies: Interview with Vittorio Gallese)

One could theorize that stories and literature create greater emotional impact if we fully can connect with readers and directly access their brains (mirror neurons).

So what does this research mean to a writer?

  • Our writing needs to be specific and sensory filled.
  • Characters need to be well rounded and believable.
  • The plot needs to be well crafted and correctly paced.
  • The setting needs to be realistically described.

Good writing means readers’ mirror neurons will fire up and they will physically and emotionally experience the story along with the character. As they read, they will experience an illusion of reality.

Sarah Blake Johnson

6 Ideas for Creative Inspiration


Interior of Nileometer (measures the Nile level) Photo by Sarah Johnson

What is your creativity metaphor?

A whispering muse?

A well of water? A waterfall?

Forest trails?

What does a writer (or artist) do when the muse hides, the well freezes, or the trails fade or are overgrown? Ideally the well always is overflowing, the muse is always whispering in our ear, the trail is easy and clear and the words flow. But when words seem flat on the page, here are a few ideas that can help get creativity flowing again.

Write. Write and write and write. Write until the words flow. National Novel Writing Month taps into this approach.

Don’t write. A walk always helps me when I need inspiration. Kate Messner recently found a solution to a plot problem while hiking. Her post is an insightful read.  When Tim Wynne-Jones’ well ran dry, he stepped away from the computer and traveled for a year. Check out his great post.

Read. Read. Read more. Jane Smiley, when not satisfied with the way her writing was moving forward, decided to read 100 novels. She describes her journey in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

A class or program. Take a writing class, online or in your community. Or get a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This is a wonderful book that assists artists after a “creative injury” or artists who are looking for more inspiration in their creative path.

Writer’s groups or online writing communities. This is a great way to connect with other writers.

Live life fully. Susanne Langer wrote, “Imagination must be fed from the world: by new sights and sounds, actions and events and the artist’s interest in ways of human feeling must be kept up by actual living and feeling.”

What other activities do you suggest when creativity is having a slow day or a slow month? We’d love to hear your ideas.

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

Five Senses

Are there only five senses?

How many do we use in our writing?

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

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

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

There are other senses we can use, too.

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

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

Mixing senses in the same sentence is effective.

The senses can show what is actually happening:

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

Or can be a metaphor or simile:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Blake Johnson

The Writer is a Time Lord: Compressing Time through Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Why use summary?

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

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

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

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

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

Geese in Frankfurt, Germany

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

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

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

How do we use summary?

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

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

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

When to use summary?

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

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

When not to use:

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

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

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

Where do we use summary?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a Time Lord

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

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


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

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

Sarah Blake Johnson

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



Writing Inspiration

What inspires your writing?

Hints of spring waft in the air and birds sing, and I consider what inspires me in my writing. Walking in nature is one of my favorites. Other writers a big inspiration to me, so I asked several to share what inspires their writing. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I do.

Sandra NickelSandra Nickel

Madeleine L’Engle once said that being a writer can sometimes feel like you’re a battlefield with ‘a dark angel of destruction and bright angel of creativity wrestling.’ I think life can feel this way sometimes too. And I am drawn to write by both the dark and the bright, but especially the magic and surprise and so-very-human refusal to be less vivid just when it feels like the dark angel is about to take us down.

Sandra can be found at

Robin Prehn  Robin Prehn book cover

Reading other books definitely inspires my writing; not only do I want to take certain stories in a new direction, but I also feel that excitement of discovering a new world and want to create my own.  Being in nature also inspires writing, mostly because I let my mind wander as I walk and enjoy the sounds and sights around me.  My thoughts will touch on this and that, and often, a story emerges.

Robin can be found at

Rose Green Rose Green

As to inspiration, the biggest thing that inspires my writing is probably places. I’ve lived in 22 different houses spanning 9 states and three countries, and both the geography and the culture of all those places provide tons of writing fodder. A recent book I wrote was inspired by watching my in-laws’ bicultural prowess between rural mountain Idaho where they came from, and wealthy urban southern California where they’ve spent the past 40 years.

Rose can be found at

Sandra Tayler  Sandra Tayler

Everyone needs stories, but not everyone has the skill to tell them. The moments which most inspire my writing are the ones where I am able to give words to a story that someone else needs.

Sandra can be found at

Katherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley

I try to notice things around me, and put myself in situations where I will learn or do interesting things that will inspire me. I’ve received story ideas from Baby Animal Days, visiting the aquarium, indulging myself with a trip to an art museum, traveling to exotic locations, and becoming friends with people who are completely different than me. I also try to read widely: classic novels, science news, and history books on very specific subjects, like batteries. Most of the time there will be one or two ideas that stick out to me which I’ll record and stew over until I find the right match for a story idea.

Katherine can be found at

Christy LenziChristy Lenzi

Sometimes the books I read provoke questions, which spark my imagination. When questions from my fiction and non-fiction reading find their way to each other, that’s when the sparks start a fire. “What the heck is wrong with Heathcliff and Cathy? How would it feel to be slightly unhinged, like her? And what if, instead of the moors, I lived in the Ozarks during the Civil War? What would happen if the revivalist preacher wanted to save my demon-possessed soul and marry me, but the only person who understood me was this outlaw, hated and feared by everyone else?” My questions and curiosity inspire me to find the answers within the pages of my own book.

Christy can be found at

Melodye ShoreMelodye Shore

My writing is inspired by sunlight and shadows, though not in equal measure. I’m drawn to birdsong and rosebuds, and the skirted palm trees that rise from the desert floor, fronds lifted toward an impossibly blue sky. But I’m intrigued, too, by the mysteries that lurk just beneath the surface of things…the soul’s desperate yearnings, whispered secrets in the dark.  Writing invites me to stay fully present for (in) all of this—to appreciate each moment for the miracle it is, and to bear witness to the truth as I see it.

Melodye can be found at

Thank you to all these writers for sharing what inspires their writing. Their inspirations reinvigorate me and feed my creative energy. Feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to read your comments about what inspires you.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Creative Energy

When I have high creative energy, I can write anywhere and with all sorts of distractions.  There are days I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words flying onto the page.  The Muse is with me, and I walk with my characters in a fictional world, a world more real than reality.  But not every writing day is like that, and I have to work to access creative energy.

How does one always access the creative parts of her/his mind?

Goethe's Summer Writing Place

Goethe’s Summer Writing Place
Photo copyright Sarah Blake Johnson

Some writers make writing spaces in their homes, in a park, or in a special location as a way to encourage creative energy.

Creative energy abounds when writers gather together.  Residency at VCFA is a prime example of a place where the air is imbued with creative vibes. Writers also find creative energy at conferences and workshops.  Being with others who value creativity breeds more creativity.

Creative energy may be higher for some writers at certain times of day, such as early morning or late at night.

Here are a few ideas that help me access creative energy on the days when my words feel forced.

  • Sit down and write. Sometimes the process of writing allows creative work to flow.
  • Read a good book.
  • Switch to a different project and let the current WIP rest.
  • Meditate.
  • Walk or hike or other exercise.
  • Enter a dream state.
  • Set goals/work to meet deadlines.

What works best for you when you’re in the creative doldrums? Please share in the comments—I’d love to find more ways to connect with my muse.

Sarah Blake Johnson

A.B. Westrick: Novels as Survival Manuals

A.B.Westrick.cropped.low resI invited A. B. Westrick to join us in the Tollbooth today. She discusses novels as survival manuals. Welcome.

On the wide windowsill beside my writing desk sits a stack of novels. When I finish one, I move it to a bookshelf in another room, but I have the problem of acquiring novels faster than I can read them. So I recently split the stack in half, making two stacks, giving me a clear view out my window again. At exactly 7:21 a.m. the school bus stops at the end of the driveway next door and picks up Clare, the first-grader. If I’m having a good writing day, I’m still at my desk when, at exactly 2:42 p.m., I watch the bus return.

bus.ThruTheTollboothFirst I hear its engine grinding through the neighborhood. Then, if I lean slightly to my right, I can see Clare jump from the too-high step onto the asphalt. I lean back and watch her walk up the driveway with her grandmother and their golden-doodle puppy—that adorable new breed that doesn’t shed all over the house.

I like to think that Clare might someday read one of my books. Then I tell myself I should carve out reading time the way I carve out writing time; I need to tackle this stack of novels before I pick up any more. But later in the day, I happen to walk past a librareleanor and parky display that includes Eleanor & Park, a book I’ve heard something about. I skim the first page. Another page.

Back at my desk with Eleanor & Park in my hands, I don’t notice the school bus coming or going. For the next couple of days, where I am doesn’t matter because wherever it is, the space is only physical. Emotionally, I’ve disappeared inside Eleanor and Park’s world.

In chapter one, they’re on a school bus. I can smell it. Taste it. Hear it. Feel it. I’ve been on that bus before. It’s not a safe place. It’s not a good place, but on the page, I’m willing to go there again.

The new girl took a deep breath and stepped farther down the aisle. Nobody would look at her. Park tried not to, but it was kind of a train wreck/eclipse situation… She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.

I think about Clare next door, and about how she’ll learn to survive in the wild. I cringe remembering how hard it was sometimes. I cringe thinking about the weight of the responsibility that we authors bear when we write for young readers. I smile thinking about Eleanor and Park falling in love, about their relationship helping them survive, and about author Rainbow Rowell bringing them to life on the page.

I stare at my work-in-progress and my heart hurts over the ways my new characters are negotiating their relationships. They’re not on a bus—it’s summer music camp—but still, even the most loving parents can’t shield them from having to grow up. Sometimes the best we offer one another is a hand to hold. If we’re lucky, we might have a golden-doodle puppy. Or a grandmother. Or a stack of novels.

I look at the stack on my windowsill, knowing that for particular readers at particular times, novels serve as survival manuals. I can’t imagine any calling more worthy and more rewarding than writing for young readers.


Thank you for inviting me to guest-blog here! I met Sarah Johnson and almost all of the Tollbooth regulars at Vermont College, so while writing this post I’ve been thinking about campus friendships. I’ve followed this blog since its inception, and it’s great to be able to contribute some musings about writing for young readers.

Brotherhood COVER.low res

A.B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood, released last month from Viking (Penguin Young Readers). She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can visit with her at

Writing a Trilogy with Janni Simner

Janni Simner

Janni Simner

Janni Simner is the award-winning author of over 35 short stories which have been published in many anthologies, novels, and the distopian Faerie trilogy.  Janni writes an informative and fun blog. Be sure to go visit her.

Her latest book, Faerie After, will be released May 28.  You can read an excerpt on the book’s website.

Today in the Tollbooth, Janni answers some question about writing her Faerie trilogy.

Sarah: You have written about your writing process, which includes writing exploratory drafts, on your blog. Did you use the same process of an exploratory draft for Faerie After, the last book in the trilogy?

Janni: I did! I’ve learned for me the first draft of a book isn’t about telling the story so much as about getting a sense of the terrain the story will be told on. I basically go kind of stream-of consciousness as I write, following the words from one sentence to the next to see where I wind up. I’ve had friends with more orderly processes suggest that I do my thinking on the page instead of in my head, which may well be true–if so, thinking on the page works better for me than waiting until my thoughts are all neatly arranged to write.

And besides, it’s fun. 🙂

Sometimes my exploratory drafts have nothing at all in common with the final story–for one book, I wrote an exploratory draft set in the wrong town with the wrong characters in the wrong season with the wrong plot. Except “wrong” isn’t the best way of describing it, because I don’t think of my exploratory draft as a “mistake” so much as a necessary step on the road to my final story.

faerieafter400x600My exploratory draft for Faerie After was closer to the “right” story than some of my exploratory drafts, if you ignore the fact that it took 30,000 exploratory words to find the final book’s first scene. On the other hand, I really had to work harder than usual to get the last third of the book to work out, and added a sixth draft to my five-draft process just to focus on the final scenes.

Maybe that’s because saving the world is hard, and since Faerie After is the final book of the Bones of Faerie trilogy, it was both my and protagonist Liza’s last chance to try to save it. Or maybe it’s just because every book is different, and while knowing our own best processes is hugely helpful, each book has its own individual challenges, too.

Sarah : Any hints or useful tips about how to craft the overall plot arc for a trilogy? What about crafting the character arc over three books?

Janni: I didn’t start off planning to write a trilogy, though I did start off hoping I’d get to write more books in the Bones of Faerie universe. I wrote Bones of Faerie to stand alone, but was delighted when I got to write a second book, Faerie Winter, as well. Then I finished Faerie Winter, and realized that there was so much going on in that book that I needed a third book to make the trilogy feel complete. (Among other things, I’d always envisioned Faerie Winter as the book where Liza would return to the Faerie realm, but there was so much going on in the human world she never did! Instead that return is much of the focus of Faerie After, the third book.)

My editor gave me a useful bit of advice about my protagonist’s arc when we decided to continue the series. I’d been afraid Liza had become too powerful, by the end of Bones of Faerie, to remain a protagonist for future books. I was considering choosing a new protagonist for book two when my editor said, well, what if Liza’s challenges are bigger? This was both obvious and something I needed to hear directly. While each of the Bones of Faerie books are at least somewhat self-contained, each also now has stakes that are higher than–and that build upon–the challenges of the earlier books.

One other thing I did for the final book, Faerie After, was to re-visit some of the decisions my protagonist made in the first two books. I found that some of the things Liza did that were very right in Bones of Faerie were suddenly much more complicated and ambiguous in Faerie After. That strongly played into her growth as a character, too.

Sarah:  In addition to your novels, you have published numerous short stories. What differences have you found in world building for short stories versus the trilogy?

Janni: In some ways it’s not all that different. I take an idea, or a feeling, or a character, and I jump in with my messy writing process and see where it takes me. I think the difference is not so much in world-building as in final structure. With a short story, I usually stop after the main character’s first “turning” or moment of change, while in a novel there are several turnings, and how those turnings interact with one another to create the story is more complex. And in a trilogy, the turns and changes of multiple novels are interacting with each other, too.

It is also true that for a trilogy, every decision needs to be remembered across the whole series, and even small details can affect everything that comes later. What’s fun is getting to discover what those details mean in later books, because I don’t always know right away. In Bones of Faerie I knew I had a protagonist who didn’t like to lie, for instance, but it wasn’t until Faerie Winter that I thought about magic and faerie lore and realized that she couldn’t lie, even if she wanted to, and neither could anyone else with magic.

Sarah: You have said that part of the fun of writing is hands-on research. Did you have any fun research experiences while writing your Faerie trilogy? How did they appear in the books?

Janni: In a way, my research for the Bones of Faerie trilogy goes back decades, since the book is set in St. Louis, where I went to college. I had a lot of fun returning to St. Louis years later, map in hand, to trace Liza’s route for Bones of Faerie and to imagine how the city would change after the war with Faerie. I kept looking over my shoulder, imaging my characters watching me from the city’s post-apocalyptic future.

(Sarah: Here are some Photos from Janni’s research trip.)

I also did tons and tons of plant research for the trilogy, writing with printouts of Missouri plants and trees beside my computer, and I did some St. Louis-area hiking to observe the vegetation more closely. The trilogy’s wildlife research wasn’t quite as hands-on as for my Iceland-based Thief Eyes–for which I got to meet an arctic fox up close–but I did enjoy reading up on wolves and raptors for the books, too.

Actually, I’ve been doing lots of wildlife research for my next book (about endangered raven shapeshifters living in the New Mexico Wilderness), too. I think sometimes the process of writing and research can show us what our obsessions and fascinations really are, and provides a great place to explore them further!

Sarah: Thank you, Janni, for visiting the Tollbooth today.

Sarah Blake Johnson