About Tami Lewis Brown

Tami Lewis Brown lives in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. It is (mostly) ghost-free. She escaped from a career as a trial lawyer to obtain an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. And she’s the author of the forthcoming RADIANT MAN along with SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME, all published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Reader.

Sarah Johnson’s New Novel CROSSINGS!

We’re so proud of Tollboother Sarah Johnson. Her new novel, CROSSINGS, a Young Adult fantasy, is out in the world.

Eliinka, a young, orphaned harp player, was born with the gift of influencing people around her with her music. But in her home country of Pelto, she’s forced to hide this ability to avoid persecution from government authorities. When she contracts to work for Jereni, a woman from the neighboring country with whom Pelto has been at war, she soon finds herself trying to reconcile the two countries. Can Eliinka use her musical gift to bring peace to Pelto and Viru while protecting the people she loves?

You can purchase CROSSINGS herehere or wherever books are sold. Congratulations, Sarah!

Brigadoon Is Back– VCFA Writing for Children & Young Adults Winter Residency




ON MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY, MONDAY, JANUARY 16 AT 10 A. M. Kekla Magoon and Cynthia Leitich Smith will discuss Kekla’s book X: A Novel.  Written for young adult readers, the book follows the formative years of Malcolm X, one of the most influential African American figures of the 20th Century. Kekla co-wrote the book with Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcom X’s daughter. Released in 2015, the book won the 2016 Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award and the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens, among other honors.

It’s that time of year. Eager authors flock to the Burlington airport, then share cabs and shuttles on to Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Montpelier campus.

Brigadoon is reborn. The children’s writers are back!

This year’s winter residency runs from January 11 through 20.

We’ll welcome visiting faculty member Martha Brockenbrough.

Martha is the award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers and adults. Her novel The Game of Love and Death(Scholastic) was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and a winner of the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association and Washington State Book awards, as well as a YALSA Top 100 Readers Choice Award. Best- or scariest- of all Martha is a grammar guru and the founder of National Grammar Day.

We also welcome A. S. King and Uma Krishnaswami back to active faculty status! HIP HIP HOORAY! And congratulations in advance to their lucky new advisees.

Every winter residency features a visiting Author/Illustrator and a Writer-In-Residence. This year’s guests are stellar.

Don Tate has illustrated or authored numerous books for children.He is the illustrator of the critically acclaimed Hope’s Gift (Putnam Juvenile); Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge); She Loved Baseball(HarperCollins); and Ron’s Big Mission (Penguin), among others. Don is the author of the award-winning It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books). His other titles include The Cart That Carried Martin (Charlesbridge, 2013, Illustrator) and Slave Poet(Peachtree, 2015, Author/lllustrator). Don’s illustrations also appear regularly in newspapers, magazines, and on products for children such as wallpaper, textiles, calendars, apparel, and paper products.

Kathy Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and most recently, The Badger Knight, a Junior Library Guild Selection. Mama Africa, her first picture book, a biography of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, will be published in fall 2017. Also coming next fall is a middle-grade novel, The Incredibile Magic of Being, about a boy with anxiety who believes in the power of the universe to save us.

Erskine draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books.

Of course the schedule is packed with workshops, meetings, orientations and readings. But what about the lectures? The winter residency will feature some great ones! Look out for these superb faculty lectures:





I can’t wait to listen to them all!

Everyone who knows and loves VCFA gets a bit wistful when a new residency rolls around.  We hate missing out. But if you’ve graduated don’t despair. Lectures will be available for streaming soon and Zu Vincent (who’s back at the residency again, with her inspiring writing-based yoga sessions) will be here in the Tollbooth on January 29 making recommendations for DON’T MISS LECTURES.

Until then join us virtually at the VCFA commons. Don’t know how to log on there? Contact us here at the Tollbooth at ThroughTheTollbooth@yahoo.com and we’ll guide you through the process.

(gorgeous campus photo of VCFA in the Snow by Ingrid Sundberg)

As always there are several Tollboothers embedded at the residency ready to fill you in on all the comings and goings fit to print and share. What do you want to know? What do you wish you could hear more about? Let us know and we’ll bridge the gap from where ever you are all the way back to Brigadoon.

Doesn’t it feel almost as if you never left?

~ Tami Lewis Brown~

When Your System Needs An Update- Reboot HERE

Lots of us have developed writing habits and techniques, even shortcuts.   (there’s a big contest at the end of this post but don’t take the short cut and scroll right to it– read the post first!)


(Personally I work best with a beehive and plenty of hairspray, staring at my rotary telephone. Call me analog.)

But one of the beauties of the practice of writing is there’s always something new to learn. There’s always a different way to approach your craft and hone your art. There’s always a way to reboot your system.

The trick is finding a program that won’t crash your manuscript and your writing practice. My favorite source is Sarah Aronson and my favorite site for growing and experimenting as a writer and creative person in general is the Writing Novels For Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Next year’s retreat will be March 17-19, 2017, with early arrival March 16.

It’s incredibly popular, an instant sell out, and registration will open soon, at 9 am on November 1. Unless you win the contest at the end of this post. Then you’re golden.


Curious? Sarah Aronson, who, along with Cindy Faughnan, has guided this retreat since the start dropped in to tell us more. Hi Sarah! Tell us more about the retreat.

At the retreat, you can sign up for the kind of weekend that will help you take the next step with your novel. If you need feedback (and learn most from offering feedback), the critique track is for you. In the critique track, you participate in a small workshop of 4 writers. (We send you the submissions and critique guidelines ahead of time.) We also make sure that there is at least one VCFA grad or published writer in every group. This year, we are also offering a guided workshop with Jill Santopolo (and me)! It will be a great opportunity. Part of the critique track is also receiving a one on one critique from one of our master writers–our faculty. These meetings are always really informative. It’s your chance to talk to an expert specifically about your manuscript and the process.

But as great as that sounds, some people need time. And if you want to come and take the inspiration from lectures and WRITE, you can do that. That is what the writing track is all about. 

The bottom line: VCFA is a magical place. No matter which experience I sign up for, I learn something new. I come home with new ideas. I get pages written. The participants are all generous and knowledgable. There is so much to gain from this supportive community.


What can a new writer expect to get out of the experience? How about an experienced writer?

In my mind, if you have written a novel and revised it, you are experienced. Whether we have been lucky enough to be published, or not, we are all writers. We are all on a creative journey. Every writer that attends will go home with new tools, new insights, and a stronger spirit for the work. I always leave energized and excited. You leave with friends who understand that the craft of writing means sitting down and putting words on paper. It means taking risks. It means re-imagining and re-thinking and playing. 

What tips or lessons have you learned (as a writer) from being at all the retreats over the years?

I love this question!

Over the years, I’ve learned to play more! To enjoy my writing and experiment. I’ve learned that writing well takes a whole bunch of C’s: character, conflict, connectivity, and most of all, creativity. I’ve learned about world building! And the structure of story. I’ve learned that if I work very very hard, the answers are in my manuscript and my subconscious. 

I’ve also learned that writers are great people! And that I learn best when I am engaged in the conversation of craft. (That’s two more C’s.)


What has surprised you most?

Honestly, nothing surprises me anymore.


No! Writers are amazing. VCFA is a magical place. This is our 14th year. It gets better all the time.

What are your top tips for attendees– for registration, preparation, at the retreat and afterwards?

Be ready to fill in your online application at 9 am on 11/1 (but remember the contest at the end of this post. Comment to win.)   You can find out more on my Facebook page or the VCFA website. Email me if you have questions. 

Be ready to call yourself a writer! This is a place where we tell FEAR to take a hike!

Don’t feel you have to bring your most polished work. Bring the manuscript that energizes you–the one that you are open to explore. 

If you think you are ready for the MFA, make an appointment with program director Melissa Fisher. 

Come ready to learn, to listen, to talk about the craft. This is the place to do all those things. This is a weekend where writers grow and discover new things about their stories. 

Sort Merge and Restart your writing. This retreat changed my life! No joke. It can change yours, too.

OK now for the contest.

This retreat fills lightening speed FAST and every year dozens of hopeful writers miss the cut off.

So here’s the deal– The winner skips to the front of the line! Guaranteed retreat registration!

To enter leave a comment below about what writing skill you’d reboot at the novel writing retreat. Enter again by linking to this post on Facebook or Twitter.

The winner will be selected randomly from comments and links posted before 9 am EST next Thursday, October 6. You won’t be obligated to attend (you will still pay tuition and fees) but this retreat is too good to pass up. We know we’ll see you there!

xo  tami lewis brown


Past and Future– A Little Tollbooth History

I’m back!

After a year break (although I’ve been here all along, working behind the scenes on website issues) I’m back on board, out front, writing Tollbooth posts. Back in the ‘booth!


Sometimes everybody needs to slow down and refresh… This break made me stop and reflect– we have been doing The Tollbooth for awhile. A LONG WHILE. How long?


Things were different then. Blogs were fairly new. And writers read lots of them. Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s Cynsations started a few months earlier. The Longstockings were a big deal (although it seems it’s been erased now.)  The Blue Rose Girls were popular, too. And they’re still going strong! Blogs gave us a window into the secret life of editors  (who was Editorial Anonymous, anyway????? we all had theories) and agents– even the terrifying Miss Snark. Suddenly you could learn about the writing life, publishing… just about everything on the internet.

In the summer of 2007 a group of us decided Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults needed a web presence… there was no VCFA back then. No website for the program. Nothing.

Emails flew and soon the team was assembled.

We were all published or soon to be published. We were all Vermont College grads. We were all excited to do something really new.  I posted my first Through The Tollbooth post–the very first Tollbooth post– on October 8, 2007.


We had rules. Every post had to be informative and original. Each member was assigned a week- and we had to post five times– EVERY DAY– during week. Writing five original, informative posts was HARD. There would be interviews but no book reviews. And no snark.

We wanted to keep up the love we’d experienced at Vermont College. And we wanted to keep learning, by writing posts like the critical essays we wrote our first two semesters in the program. Frankly, it was exhausting. But it’s always been fun.

We’ve come a long way through the Tollbooth, past Live Journal (where you can still access all our posts 2007- 2012 (sorry the images seem to be broken LiveJournal is a rickety old thing), beyond a harrowing hack attack that destroyed our first  timestaking-ly crafted WordPress blog, on to our streamlined current look and team. Loads of VCFA alums have joined the Tollbooth crew, dozens more have visited for guess posts.  Many of us have gone on to new web and publishing ventures. Of the original group on Zu and I remain. For the last two year’s I’ve been blogging for VCFA at The LaunchPad but I’d never give the Tollbooth up

So without further ado here are some favorite Tollbooth posts I’ve written.


Showing Vs Telling

Time   and   Flashbacks

Finding An Agent (with more here and here and here)

How to Storyboard your novel

and probably my all time most popular–Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

It’s been a great run… and I’m on my mark… set… and ready to go again!

Nine years of posts! There’s a lot of rich, wonderful, thoughtful and provocative stuff here, written by a host of fabulous writers and thinkers.

Let’s create a “classics” list with links displayed on the sidebar. What are your favorite old (or new) Tollbooth posts?

~tami lewis brown

Vicki Wittenstein Writes Non-fiction That Counts

This week we’re lucky to welcome my good friend and VCFA classmate Vicki Wittenstein to the Tollbooth.

profileVicki is an author whose passion has lead her to write brave and amazing books. I’m proud to call Vicki a dear friend and Vermont College classmate. But more than that, I’m grateful to consider Vicki a mentor, an example on how to approach topics that matter and to create great books that will make young people think… and maybe even change lives. Vicki’s newest book, Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? will be in bookstores everywhere on March 1, next week.

Like her earlier non-fiction, For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation and her first book Planet Hunter, this new book is destined for great things- I foresee many accolades and awards. Well, it’s not a stretch. The book is already wracking up fabulous reviews, including a starred review from Booklist who said “Though slim, this volume packs a wallop.”  And School Library Journal who said “Well written and impeccably researched, this volume will appeal to budding activists and feminists and to those concerned about human rights.” They’re the experts, but take it from me– this is an important and exceptionally well researched and written book that really makes a difference.

Without further ado let’s talk to Vicki! Tell me a little about your progression as an author?

Even as a young girl, I loved to read and write. But in my family of lawyers and doctors, academics were stressed rather than creativity, so I never seriously considered becoming a writer. The political activism I experienced in college in the 1970s inspired me to take a hard look at a variety of issues, including civil liberties, individual rights, racism and sexism. I decided to attend law school in large part to learn how to advocate for these rights. Years later, when I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and a young mother, I began to think about writing for children, mostly as a way to connect with my own kids. I wrote short stories, enrolled in a writing seminar, and joined a writer’s group. Everything changed in 1998 with a newspaper headline about Shannon Lucid, the astronaut who broke records by spending six months in space on board the international space station Mir. I was telling my young son about Lucid’s accomplishment when I thought, Hey, shouldn’t all kids know about Lucid? Why not write about her? Lucid became the subject of my first published article for children, “Dr. Shannon Lucid: Space Pioneer,” in Highlights for Children. I continued to submit articles to magazines, went back to school to obtain my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published my first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010). I still write fiction, but for the moment I am challenged by the research and writing of nonfiction.

ReproductiveRightsSo you’ve published books about undiscovered planets, medical testing and now reproductive rights. What is it about cutting edge topics that attract you?

I want to impact teens as much as possible. And cutting edge topics—particularly the societal issues discussed in Reproductive Rights and For the Good of Mankind?—force teens to confront important subjects facing Americans today. The need to understand these issues through an historical lens grows even more critical against the backdrop of political campaign rhetoric, media hype, and frequently false information, generated in the news. For example, in the area of reproductive rights, history can provide a roadmap for students to compare the struggle to fight for birth control centuries ago with the legislative restrictions on reproductive rights today. With a view to the past, students can discuss the roles political leaders, social norms, and economic issues play in determining how women and their families think and act on birth control issues. Historical data can help teens analyze this information and formulate their own opinions about availability of, access to, and funding for contraception, sex education, and abortion, as well as the new frontier of genetic and reproductive technologies. These issues are even more critical in light of the campaign for president and the opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. And as the next generation of parents and leaders, teens are the group who will be most affected by the laws our governments adopt and the individuals we choose to lead. I hope my book helps empower them to stand up for what they believe in and to protect reproductive freedom.

Have you encountered resistance from gatekeepers? Do you think there are more or less barriers to “edgy” topics in YA nonfiction than fiction? Have you encountered any resistance and if so how have you addressed it?

So far I haven’t encountered strong resistance from gatekeepers. One blogger did write that she was reluctant to buy the book for her middle school library (but called it “essential” for high school) because sex education was not discussed at her school. I expect some educators, fearful of parent reactions (particularly in more religious and/or politically conservative communities) may shy away from recommending the book. But I hope not. The hot-button issues surrounding abortion overshadow some of the central reasons why reproductive rights are so important, such as contraception, pregnancy and childbirth care, family planning, cancer screenings, and the like. I do think that gatekeepers seem to more readily accept edgy YA fiction than nonfiction. Perhaps this reflects the very nature of fiction itself—that the fictitious events and people are portrayed through the eyes of an imagined main character—whereas nonfiction, in its exploration of real life events and people, reveals factual truths that people may be uncomfortable with.

How did your background prepare (or not prepare) you for writing about science topics?

My legal background is a tremendous help in writing about science topics and nonfiction in general. In law school and in legal practice, I learned to back up information with several references, analyze both sides of an issue, and write clearly and concisely. I also learned that original or primary sources are always the most accurate, and that a phone call or an interview with an expert nearly always points you in the right direction and clarifies what you are most confused about. I am not a scientist (I majored in American Civilization in college), so for both Planet Hunter and For the Good of Mankind? speaking to scientists was vital to my understanding of astronomy and human medical experimentation.

What tips do you have for aspiring YA non-fiction writers?

Stick to the facts and don’t introduce your opinion, particularly when you are writing about an edgy topic. If you inject a bias, you will turn off readers who may share a different opinion, which defeats the purpose of letting students analyze and critique the issues for themselves. For example, in writing the chapters on abortion, I always stated both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions on various legal restrictions, such as laws mandating pre-abortion counseling, ultrasounds and waiting periods from the time a woman first meets an abortion provider and has the procedure. I was careful to define what it meant to be either pro-choice or pro-life, and to describe the political tactics on each side. The bottom line: it takes a lot of work to be impartial and unbiased, but it’s also essential.

How inspiring, Vicki. You’ve given us a lot to think about– just like your books! Thanks so much for visiting the Tollbooth, Vicki.

Thanks for having me, Tami!

You can read much more about Vicki and her books on her website at http://vickiwittenstein.com/.  She has lots of downloadable materials, too- teachers guides, videos, articles on similar topics, you name it! And you can catch Vicki the rest of the week all over the net. Read more at tomorrow at Unleashing Readers,  Thursday at The Pirate Tree and on Friday at Teach Mentor Texts.

Do you have questions about non-fiction for young people, edgy issues or anything else? Ask them in the comments here and Vicki will give you answers!

~tami lewis brown


11221594_10205503830973373_4189816087672062783_nThis week in the Tollbooth we’re all about the VCFA Writing For Children and Young Adults AUCTION!

If you haven’t checked out Sarah Aronson’s item- Teach Teach Teach– do it! You’ll be a full participant in one of her online writing courses- Manuscript Workshop: Writing For Children or Jumpstart Your Novel: Writing For Children and YA class where you’ll post work and give and receive critiques. Ordinarily tuition for these classes is $295- $340. 

But that’s not all– if you win this auction item you’ll also be her teaching apprentice, learning all about the craft of nurturing writers right by her side. This is an unique opportunity to work one on one to absorb Sarah’s time tested techniques and to decide whether teaching is for you.

Sarah is as excited about mentoring upcoming teachers as she is about teaching writers. Please consider bidding on this item and joining her in her online classroom, in September, January or May– your choice.

For the first time this year, like Sarah’s writing classes, the whole auction is available online as well as live in Montpelier. Anyone can bid, anyone can win! Of course there are lots of great people behind the auction. Volunteers and VCFA pros. Today let’s meet the VCFA staff who are bringing the auction to your laptop– Sabrina Fadial and Alissa Auerbach!

Sabrina Fadail is the Director of Alumni Relations at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Welcome to the Tollbooth, Sabrina! Tell us about your work.

SabrinaThroughout my career I have been integral to bringing art into the communities in which I live. My teaching experiences ranges from elementary to graduate school. I hold a BFA in Textile Design from Rhode Island School of Design, an MFA in Visual Art from Vermont College of Norwich University, and a Graduate Certificate in Non Profit Management from Marlboro College.

As a sculptor my work is both a documentation and celebration of an Endangered Beauty. I extract the innate essence found within detritus from industry and nature. Evoking grace, fluidity, fragility, and vulnerability through seemingly contradictory materials I poeticizes the commonplace. Subject, material and maker are all that which are culturally marginalized, rusty metal, seed husks, and women. Like women these sculptures evoke Beauty as strength, resilience and potential.

It’s great to have a full time Alumni Director at VCFA– and great to have the auction fully online this year. Which auction item would you like to win?westhampton 3

Westhampton Beach get away is what I would most like to win at the auction.

YOU AND EVERYBODY ELSE! That auction item is HOT HOT HOT! What’s new in Alumni Affairs? We hear a portion of this year’s auction proceeds will help pay for a new Alumni website with an all new forum. Can you tell us more?

New to Alumni Affairs, the website, regional chapters, and the inaugural Hi-Res in September. The website is in the works. Those with more technologic know how are mired in the details now. The NW Alumni Chapter had their first get together in June. The San Francisco Bay Chapter has had two events since May! NYC Chapter is setting dates now for an incredible event to be unveiled shortly. Once the AMR is over I will be getting the inaugural Hi-Res off the ground. This is going to be a most exciting mind expanding weekend. Alumni from all programs meeting on campus together for the first time. I look forward to the cross program pollination. The theme is Art as Advocacy.

Anything else?

I love VCFA! My life was transformed like so many others who come through these hallowed halls. I am truly fortunate to be in a position to give back to the community that gave so much to me.

Thanks Sabrina.

AlissaOh! Here’s Alissa Auerbach in the Tollbooth!

Alissa Auerbach started at VCFA in December 2014 and feels lucky to part of such a unique and dynamic institution. Originally from New York, Alissa has made a home here in Vermont and is working toward achieving the ever-elusive Vermonter status. While not working hard on raising money for VCFA as the Director of the VCFA Fund, Alissa can be found onstage performing in shows with Burlington’s Lyric Theatre Company. She also enjoys reading, singing, pretending to be a skilled gardener, and being the best Aunt to her two-year-old twin niece and nephew. Welcome, Alissa!

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

I’d love to win the house in Westhampton, too! What a gorgeous place. Not too hard for me to imagine myself relaxing there on a beautiful summer day…

Guess what- You’ll have to fight Sabrina for it! Or maybe vacation together.  What is your job at VCFA?

I am the Director of the VCFA Fund, but also oversee all fundraising, both restricted and unrestricted, for the college.

What’s the Fund for VCFA? What does the money raised pay for?

The Fund for VCFA is the only avenue for unrestricting giving at VCFA. Basically, gifts to the VCFA Fund support all that’s going on at the college from providing scholarship funds (the VCFA Fund supports half of all scholarships given out each year) to bringing in incredible faculty to creating new programs and initiatives for current students, alumni, and the community.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

As a new addition to VCFA (I came aboard in December), I have enjoyed learning all I can about the college and its history and am amazed by the dedication of VCFA’s alumni and community of friends. There is such an amazing network of support here- both for the college and for each other! I feel lucky to work at a place that is doing so much to support artists around the country and world.

Everybody–  You can visit the VCFA Auction website at www.VCFAauction.com Please do check out my learning and teaching apprenticeship. Bidding on everything is open online NOW. You can even buy tickets for the White Box Raffle- they’re only $2. Or drop into the auction in Montpelier. We’ll be partying and bidding June 20, starting at 8:30 pm. All are welcome!

The Thriller- Part Deux


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

Catherine Linka




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Critique groups are great. Writing can be lonely and kindred souls reading your work can boost your spirit while building a stronger manuscript. Yet for every writer in a critique group there seems to be a critique horror story. The group leader who dismissively comments he doesn’t “understand”  (or even “hates”) your genre. The broad thinker who advises you to rewrite the entire 300 page novel in free verse present tense– and while you’re at it set it in the stone age rather than contemporary. The picky wicky who can’t get past that typo on the 23rd page and the fact that the protagonist has a dachshund rather than a shelter dog (rescue is so much more relevant to today’s kids!)

WHY WHY WHY do they do that? And have you ever been guilty yourself? (I bet you have. I know I’m not always absolutely on the mark in my critiques.) So how can you avoid being the critique partner from hell?

I think most critique problems stem from one simple source.



You’ve heard his song. You can’t always get what you want…. but if you try sometime you might find… you get what you need.

Critiquers take this refrain as gospel. Writing isn’t for wimps. You’ve got to be tough in a critique. It’s a critquers job to be HONEST and point out the FLAWS of a manuscript, whether the writer agrees or not. Meanwhile the writer has to zip her lip and absorb the criticism. They may not get what they want from your critique but they sure as heck will get what they need!!!


I don’t think it’s a critiquers job to lay bare an author’s bones along with those of the manuscript. Beaming the writer with a dozen well intentioned hardballs won’t necessarily help the writer move forward on his personal creative journey or improve a manuscript.

Excellent critiquers tailor a critique to what a writer WANTS, and in that way they also give some of what they believe a writer NEEDS.

But how do you accomplish this sort of a WANT+NEED critique? What exactly is your critiquer job description?

Good editors know the secret. They ask questions. What do you want me to focus on in my comments? Why did you choose present tense? What is this secondary character trying to achieve in this scene? How do you see this ending tying into the story promise you made in chapter one? This sort of discourse can be tough when the author must remain silent through the critique, but by raising questions and elaborating on them you can open an authors eyes not just to your vision of a story’s problems but to their own solutions and a deeper understanding of how to get there.

Giving a writing what they want is empowering.

Let’s say someone has spent three months on a brand new baby manuscript and she wants general impressions. Don’t hash over language. Don’t grind through logistical details. Do ask what the protagonist wants and what he’s doing in this section of the story to achieve that goal.

Or what about the “ready” to be submitted manuscript that’s been polished for years to a fine sheen. Does it really help anyone to insist that paranormal YA is dead and the whole novel should be recast as a realistic contemporary story?

Stop right there.

If the writer is concerned about tone focus on the sensations and emotion the manuscript generates. Not logic problems in the plot. Not chapter length. Not those annoying to you chapter by chapter changes of point of view.

If the writer is concerned about the title brainstorm on that. And leave it at that. Unless she asks for more.


A good critique is like an excellent gift, just what the recipient always wanted. Don’t give your writer friends the critique equivalent of a waste paper basket made from an elephant’s foot. Unless that’s what they asked for.

Listen to what the author wants. Listen with your ears (how often do we forget to simply ask what a writers goals are with the critique?) And listen with your heart. Writers are supposed to be empathetic. Turn on all your senses 1through 6 and put yourself inside the other author’s skin. Try to give them not just what you think they need. Give them a dose of what they want. The result will be pure harmony.


Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

This is Benedict Cumberbatch reading Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately you did not write Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately Benedict Cumberbatch is very unlikely to attend your next book event.

Unfortunately you’re going to have to do the reading yourself.


But fortunately, even though you aren’t Benedict Cumberbatch (if you are Benedict Cumberbatch please leave me a comment) you can give a great author reading.

But.. but… but… many author readings aren’t great. Some stink. Forget that. Your reading can be wonderful. It isn’t hard. It just takes thought, preparation, and practice. Without further ado here are my tips for a successful author reading:

1)   There’s really only one hard and fast rule.  HONOR YOUR WORDS.


Be proud of your accomplishment and share your pride with your audience.

How? Speak loud. Speak slow. Lift your chin and occasionally establish occasional eye contact with your audience. Enunciate. Read like you mean it.

While you’re at it, ham it up a little. Ordinary gestures look small when viewed from the audience. Ordinary enunciation sounds a little flat. Pump everything up, a little or a lot. Perform. You won’t seem ridiculous. You’ll be enchanting.

Don’t believe me? Video yourself reading with every day mannerisms, then repeat with a bit of exaggeration. The more flamboyant one is way better, isn’t it?

2)   But Also Chill

You aren’t giving the soliloquy in Hamlet. Just be you.

Watch J.K. Rowling read from her first Harry Potter book, H.P. and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a great reading but she’s not doing anything crazy. She’s just reading calmly, with color and enthusiasm, honoring her story (even when little kids run around, ignoring her.)

Some people calm down by imagining their audience in underwear (EEEWWWWW) Some people take a stiff drink (tempting but not recommended) Do whatever you need to do to settle down, whether it’s deep breathing or running in circles or shouting at the top of your lungs. Of course the best way to stay calm is to be very very very very well prepared.

3) Chose your text wisely.

Pick a lively section of your work- a section where interesting characters are doing interesting things. Make sure the scene you read is a grabber.

And here’s a secret. You can edit what you read. You can cut and paste. You can skip bits- words, sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters-  to create the ideal read-aloud portion. A story read on the page is different from one read out loud. When you read aloud your voice supplies the white space and transitions. If you need to make alterations to deliver the best reading possible go for it. Nobody’s going to sit in the audience with your book on their lap checking for deviations… and if they do you’re giving them a little “insider” thrill.

3) Two Words (okay three) Short And Sweet. Many excellent authors read WAY too many pages in the mistaken idea that they’ll impress an audience with a heaping load of steamy words. It does not work that way!

Keep them begging for more. Chances are you’re hoping to sell books, either at this event or somehow, some day, somewhere. If your audience feels stuffed and exhausted by your reading they won’t want to read the rest. Keep them hungry for more by serving a tempting morsel of your delicious work. They’ll clamor for the whole thing.


4)   Practice. Read aloud. Read aloud in front of a person. Or a dog. Or a person with a dog. Get your mouth around multisyllabic words. Test pauses and pace changes. Consider when to raise and lower your voice.

When you’re practicing time yourself. Make sure your reading fits comfortably into the time allotted. Then cut the amount you’re reading by about a quarter so you have no reason to feel rushed at the actual reading. The more you practice the better you’ll feel when all eyes and ears are on you and your book.

5)   For goodness sakes PLEASE don’t read with a dialect. Ever. Assuming you’re not Meryl Streep (who, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is not going to read your book) any accent you try is more likely to offend or, at least, distract your audience than enhance your reading.  No exceptions for dialog by hillbillies, people of color, elves, or anyone else. Do Not Do This. REALLY. DON’T READ IN DIALECT IT’S ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS WITHOUT EXCEPTION AWFUL I mean you, sort of famous author. Stop it!

6)   Don’t let other authors get to you. If you’re reading in a group some writers before you will tuck their chins to their chests and speak in nervous whispers, and for a minute you’ll be tempted to copy them. Because standing proud with your eyes on your audience and your voice raised high is….. showing off! Isn’t it? No. It’s honoring your work and your words. Even more it’s honoring your audience with the reading they deserve. Don’t cheat the people who’ve come to support you. Read it like you mean it.


7) Which brings me to my final point. Shy has nothing to do with a good reading. Good public readings are orchestrated. You don’t have to make spontaneous small talk. You don’t have to be cool. You read words off a page… and they are words you already know- you wrote them!

Practice until reading your passage feels like second nature, then pretend you’re happy to be reading in a room with a dozen or a hundred people. Or pretend you’re all alone in your bathrobe at home. After you leave the podium you can run out the back door.

Which authors do you think do a great job reading their work?

~tami lewis brown

One Weird Trick To Make Your Fiction Great!

This is like the one strange fruit ads that promise to flatten your stomach- but this writing tip really works.



You’ve heard about it before here in the Tollbooth– but after reading a beginner manuscript earlier this week I figure it’s time for a quick refresher.

Our out of shape writing problem for today is a narrative that jumps erratically from one position in a scene to another. To illustrate, follow me through a hypothetical opening paragraph-

Sentence one-


The mountain peaks were frosted with a blanket of deadly snow.

Sentence two-


Nervously, Cindy dug for the keys at the bottom of her handbag…

Sentence three


as Madonna’s Sorry pulsed through her ear buds.

Sentence four

Cindy was sorry, all right.

For the cold. 37864418.thb

For the keys. 26278644.thm

For the stupid music on her Ipod. imgres

But most of all for how late she’d be picking up the kids from daycare. 34674732.thm

What’s wrong with that? It’s an active opening paragraph. It introduces a problem. There’s at least a mild sense of suspense. But it doesn’t work.

The reason (one of them, anyway) is psychic distance, a concept explored by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and explained in beautifully clear detail by Robert Olen Butler in From Where You Dream.

The hypothetical paragraph reads like a stream of consciousness rather than a purposefully directed narrative, shifting from far away hills, to the curb outside a car, to the inside of a purse, to music pounding inside the character’s head, even off to an unseen daycare center. True, it could be worse. At least all these images are tethered to our main character. But this paragraph doesn’t assign the reader a “place to stand and observe,” bopping him all over the landscape, without any good reason. It’s the first paragraph of the novel and the reader is left more confused (and thus bored) than intrigued.

So here’s the one simple trick. With a little practice it will feel natural.

When you’re constructing a scene think of yourself as a cameraman, trollying a movie camera in and out. Sure there will be closeups. Of course the film can cut from next to the main character to a far away shot. But you must have a reason to move the camera’s angle.Veering off to focus on those snow-packed hills pulls the reader’s attention from the immediate point of the scene. Don’t do it unless the pay off is justified.

Stick with Cindy by her car. Let her fumble for keys and worry. Show her shivering. Make her hands tremble. Give the reader a place to stand and observe. Then move on.

Want to learn more? Read Tollboother Sarah Aronson’s article Think Like a Director in the VCFA literary magazine Hunger Mountain. She explains this and more way better than I can.


But first grab another piece of fruit, pick up your pen and try this one weird trick to watch your fiction bloom!

~tami lewis brown