Writers Dreaming

Hu Jundi

Hu Jundi







This is the writer’s journey, the deeper we dig into our characters, the more we are able to unmask monsters of our own. 

Rock Me

A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.

Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.

A cradle that’s dwelt in its dream house for years,

rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled

by air it reeks like only old cardboard can, a scritch-scratch-scritch

from inside as if tiny claws or limbs scrabble to climb out.

A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,

and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made

to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.

Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,

paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,

questions such as these.

Not the best poetry, but dreams are useful things for writers. You might have noticed this is my character’s dream. And I’m using it to uncover something about her.

We’ve all heard the stories, inspiration for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web came to E. B. White through his dreams. A gift that has also come to singers, scientists and artists of all kinds. But this exercise is a bit different, this is about deepening your characters by letting them dream.

A friend of mine who studies Jungian psychology tells me the best way to understand a dream is to ask yourself what each element represents of you. In other words, you are not just the dreamer, but the cradle, the bed, the walls, the floor, and yes, the creepy creature trying to get out. What about your character? What does she dream? What images belong to her at night? How do they manifest and illuminate her deepest fears and desires? If each element represents her, what does this dream say about her?

Like the poem suggests, our dreams are nightly hallucinations, necessary to our psyche’s balance during the day. Which means your character’s dreams are full of telling details. Especially when her dreams turn, as ours do, from pleasure to torture, and express daytime tension and conflict as nightmares.

A word about disturbing dreams. My dream expert says that when you’re being chased in a dream, or otherwise overwhelmed by some dream villain, Jungian theory holds you should stop running, turn and confront the monster. This is how we discover what’s behind the monster curtain, because standing up to it reveals it for what it really is. And when it’s revealed, it loses power.

How like the hero’s journey this is. When your character uses her new tools to return to the fray, suck it up and confront the villain, she’s really confronting her own deepest fears. In other words, the real monster is not the physical thing, the villain, but the fear in the hero that she must overcome to face the villain. And how a character grapples with this fear throughout the story creates her emotional arc. You can use your character’s dreams to help you uncover and strengthen this arc.

I like doing this in free form poetry, present tense, but to relax your critical mind you might also try writing or drawing a character’s dream with your non-dominate hand.

Your character’s dreams may not always show up in your final manuscript, but they can help your character show up. A casual observer might not see it, but for me, the dream analysis below revealed what I’d been missing about my character’s inability to connect with others, that she’s a foster child.

Digging Down the Dream

If I am the cradle I have held up as such

through years of dust and disinterest.

If I am the room I have good, solid floors,

but my walls are plain and stark.

If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,

barely slept in. If I am the dreamer

I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming

myself. If I am the creature

inside the cradle I am trapped

of my own accord.

                                        –zu vincent



Notes From VCFA


Someone is playing piano in the lounge next to my dorm room at VCFA. It’s raining and a great rush of water pours off the roof and sends cooling air in on the breeze, and the sounds weave through the open window until you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. The mingling is very like the alchemy which happens every Vermont College writing residency, since faculty lectures, no matter how disparate their titles and content, invariably evoke similar themes, and touch on the questions you have already been asking yourself.

Questions such as, how does our personal and cultural “truth”—that ever shifting truth—really inform our fiction? Where is the intersection of the personal story and art, where does one stop and the other begin? And how do you get to this crossroads and best tap in, to uncover the patterns you want to paint in fiction?

In last week’s post, Helen Pyne touched on the idea of writing with “mindfulness, honesty and play” as laid out by amazing authors Amanda Jenkins and Marcelo Sandoval. In the way of things, these themes have suggested themselves in the current VCFA residency lectures as well, so let’s visit them from a couple of new perspectives.


Liz Garton Scanlon, author of the Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, and middle grade The Great Good Summer, says that as writers we face a dearth of daunting, complex choices. So much so that sometimes it’s easier not to choose. Where do we show, where do we tell, where create poetry, where create prose, where inform, where entertain? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how hard to choose, it’s in answering such questions, Scanlon says, that writers find their power. Her advice for the next time you’re faced with this dilemma, is to play around with the intersection where two such opposites meet, because here you’ll find the sweet spot which holds a new way forward.

For example, bestselling author of the Raven Cycle and other novels, Maggie Stiefvater found her sweet spot while creating the Scorpio Races, in the meeting of myth and personal story. For her, a story comes alive when she uncovers its mood and emotional weight. _StiefvaterSo even though she was writing about a fantastical world where dangerous, mythological sea creatures rose up to be ridden, she needed to connect it to her own childhood memories of what it felt like to face danger and challenge. And then her novel was born.

Not that the deeper reasons you’re writing a novel are always easy to determine. Tim Wynne-Jones, who knows how to get things accomplished given his long list of award winning novels, just spent four years creating his new release The Emperor of Any Place.  Emperor-of-Anyplace

The work began as a series of vignettes he wrote in college—enter the element of play—and grew as he put it, from a “greedy curiosity” to write about so many characters, settings and situations that one book couldn’t hold them. To actually make this “morass” into a novel, he had to return to why he was writing it. To let go of “the stories that might have been” and find the pattern in his writing that revealed the one true story thread.

_KarlinsThat’s ultimately why we write, says Mark Karlins, author of the acclaimed picture book Music Over Manhattan, to discover a description of ourselves in the world, a pattern for our lives and an identity, a sense of who we are in relation to others. Story allows us to ask, as the muddy creature from Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek does, Who am I? And story, Karlins says, is a place to explore, deeply and honestly, the answers to this question.

In addition, Karlins believes we write best when we write for our own amazement, right down to the smallest details. For example, instead of calling a day sunny, call it bright as the back of a spoon. The very strangeness of the metaphor can lead your reader in, and make your fictional world come alive.

Daniel José Older, author of the YA Shadowshaper and other bestsellers, says there’s yet another way to make your fictional world live on the page. Proximity. As a former paramedic on the streets of New York, Older experienced firsthand that participating in events is very different than simply watching them. To paraphrase the author, you can’t really walk in another person’s shoes (or another character’s), unless you’re proximate. And when you are no longer a passive witness to events, but an active participant, you become the protagonist in your own story, too.  _Older

Enter crisis, growth and change, which Older believes is the heart of any novel. But he cautions not to stop here, because none of us live in a vacuum. “Context (setting) is time, place and power,” Older says. (You only have to consider the events of 9-11 to see how crisis reshaped a nation’s mythology.) So if you want to create authentic worlds for your characters, their lives need to reflect the social, cultural and historical factors that make us who we are.

–Zu Vincent


Thriller Writing

Author photo and book jacket



“Thrillers… lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival…”                                                Catherine Linka



What really makes a thriller an I can’t put it down read? That’s the question author Tami Lewis Brown and I wanted to explore. And what better place to start than with our own amazing master thriller writer, Catherine Linka, author of A Girl Called Fearless and the upcoming A Girl Undone.

Below is the first part of our two part series on Linka’s successful approach to YA thriller writing (or any genre for that matter). In the coming months we’ll be dissecting a few more thriller reads to see what makes them tick.

Catherine Linka calls her tense, tightly plotted dystopian novel, A Girl Called Fearless, both a love story and a thriller. Set in present day Los Angeles, Fearless is the compelling story of American teen, Avie, whose sequestered and controlled life is suddenly upended when she’s contracted to marry an older man. In Avie’s world, girls are now a precious and expensive commodity, after a synthetic hormone introduced in beef has killed fifty million women. The only way out for Avie is escape to Canada. Avie’s activist friend Yates wants to help her to freedom, but things heat up when Avie and Yates fall in love, and Avie gains knowledge she shouldn’t about leaders in the US government, who are hunting her down to silence her.

Because A Girl Called Fearless is not only a love story and a thriller, but a political and social commentary on our times, we began by asking Linka about the opportunities and issues writers face when including major themes and statements in a thriller, and what reading she’d suggest for writers wanting to delve into the world of thrillers, and the possibilities they hold for writers.


Linka book jacket



Catherine Linka:

I think it’s exciting that writers are free to explore a huge range of themes in thrillers. Naturally, thrillers are perfectly suited to write about crime, murder, greed, and corruption, but they also lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival. Plus, they offer the chance to delve into both normal and pathological ways in which humans behave.

Look at Gone Girl. It poses interesting questions about how we perceive innocence and guilt. Or the new novel, The Girl on the Train that asks how can you know the truth of what you did when you can’t remember?

These darker, more intense themes fit well with YA. These thrillers are often survival stories in which the main character is seeking justice for a crime that has been committed or attempting to head off a crime that may be repeated.

And the backgrounds and personalities of the main characters can add layers to the themes. Tess Sharpe’s protagonist in Far From You is a recovering addict who’s broken her family’s trust. Can she regain it? Wick in Romily Bernard’s Find Me hacks in secret to make extra money in case she needs run from her comfortable foster home.  And the narrators of Stephanie Kuehn’s psychological thrillers Charm & Strange and Complicit make the reader question what is real and true in the narrator’s version of the story.

Not surprisingly, we don’t see a lot of thrillers in middle grade, but one book that does come to mind is Blue Baillet’s Hold Fast in which a girl who is trying to figure out why her librarian father disappeared, realizes she’s being followed. It’s a much grittier story than others Baillet has written, but it explores themes of family and loyalty that put it squarely in middle grade fiction.


Linka book jacket for Undone



Of course I’d suggest writers read a lot of thrillers, both adult and YA. First, to get an instinctive feel for the genre and then to determine which type of thriller resonates with them: action, crime, literary, political, or psychological.

I consider Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys as thrillers, because even though they are historical fiction, the tension and threats ramp up and the character’s survival is clearly at stake.

But I also encourage writers to read about subjects, places, time periods or cultures that they’re passionately interested in. Really successful thriller writers often bring a unique twist to a story.

A great example of this is the best-selling The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro which is set in the Boston and New York art world.  Shapiro’s fascination with Isabella Gardner led her to write this story about a talented painter lured into painting a forgery who becomes tangled in a dangerous web of deceit.

In YA, Stephanie Kuehn won the Morris Award with her psychological thriller Charm & Strange. Her story is built on her deep knowledge of the human psyche which she undoubtedly gained while pursuing a Phd in clinical psychology.

For me, the choice was to write a political thriller, because I’m a total news junkie. People always ask me how much research I had to do to create my world, but it was actually very little, because I read about politics every day.


Catherine Linka is an author, and a childrens and young adult book buyer for an independent bookstore in Southern California. She studied international politics at Georgetown University before getting a masters in business at the University of North Carolina. After years in sales, marketing and advertising, she reimagined her life and pursued a masters in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of SCBWI, and a recurring speaker at SCBWI-Central Cal Writers Day. She blogs about writing here at ThroughtheTollbooth.com. Catherine is married and lives with her husband in the San Gabriel foothills. A Girl Called Fearless is her debut novel. The sequel A Girl Undone, will be released this spring.

                                                                                    —Zu Vincent


Beckoning Your Reader

_Beckoning hand


How do you invite a reader in and tell a story without telling too much? If you’re too cryptic, you risk angering your reader, who will toss your book across the room because he can’t make sense of the story without that key information you’re too cleverly holding back. But your reader will be equally annoyed if you give her too much help, feeding her information through dialogue, stage directions or narrative.

There’s no formula for how to do this, since every story is different. You might withhold information in one type of novel when you would reveal it another. For instance, Carolyn Wheat, author of How to Write Killer Fiction, discusses the differences between the timing of information revealed in mystery and suspense fiction.

“The tension in a mystery,” Wheat notes, “depends on information withheld from the reader,” including clues that must be interpreted and woven expertly together by the novel’s hero detective. In contrast, the suspense novel, “relies on information given to the reader; we know that when our hero’s back is turned, the old friend she’s asked for help will telephone the Nazis and give away her location.” Thus a detective in a mystery novel is always two steps ahead of the reader, while in suspense, the reader is two steps ahead of the character.

But notice that in both instances, the reader is participating in the story. And that’s the key. Letting readers question and struggle and analyze and figure things out for themselves. To do this we need to ask what experience we want readers to have, and deliver this experience through our characters’ eyes.

It’s tricky. Often we reveal too much at a certain stage in our work, because we’re still in effect, telling the story to ourselves. If you find you’re feeding the reader information too fast, or writing backstory (what happens before action begins), you may be at this stage. That’s okay, just remind yourself that in revision, you’re going to cut this information, or move it into scene.

One way to move from feeding the reader information to letting the story tell itself is to truly get under a character’s skin. This is not always easy to do because we love our characters and like parents, try to protect them from the realities of life (or maybe we as writers try to protect that part of ourselves we’re uncovering, since it’s always our story in some way). But you can’t protect your characters by explaining their feelings; you have to let them take the punches from these painful experiences so they earn getting back up and into the ring. We need to feel how our characters feel, blow by blow. Otherwise their battles are too easily won.

One exercise that may help create this immediacy is to write a few scenes with your character in the present tense. This offers little time for character reflection or backstory and gives you an opportunity to focus on your scene moment by moment, and express those moments through the senses. It’s surprising how much you can reveal this way without telling the reader anything. I used this technique in my novel The Lucky Place when I wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes. The story begins with the line “There are always secrets,” but I found it wasn’t readers I was keeping secrets from, but the character. Cassie is three when The Lucky Place opens, too young to understand the adult world around her, yet through her eyes and ears she reveals more than she knows. She might not be able to interpret it yet, but I wanted the reader to.

Readers only participate when we let them in to figure things out for themselves. When they experience the same tensions the characters experience, unravel their dilemmas and contemplate their choices as if they too were stuck smack dab in the thick of things.

–zu vincent

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Day 2 With Dana Walrath

Graphic Art by Walwrath


“Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.”   Dana Walrath



Dana, let’s talk a bit more about the graphic novel versus the novel, and the verse novel versus the prose novel. It seems you just listened for a way in and found it, rather than imposing form from without. Any advice for artists wanting to blend their work in this way?

I believe that each story has its own form and its own voice and that I found these unusual forms because these were the ones to use for these particular stories. I came to both comics and poetry very late in life. I was poetry phobic as a teenage and bristled with embarrassment with my inability to interpret it to the satisfaction of my teachers. Karen Hesse’s verse novels opened the world of poetry for me.

In terms of comics, I liked Mad Magazine but Archie, Marvel and the like, left me cold, even made me mad. But when I discovered the form in 2009, I was hooked. Masterpieces like Maus, The Fun Home, Persepolis and American Born Chinese showed me that this form was perfect for complex, multilayered storytelling. I was a visual artist long before I discovered writing, and graphic narratives gave me a way to use pictures to tell stories and to tap into my subconscious. It is funny that my first two creative works to be published are not in standard prose. Prose is where my writing began. I have a number of prose pieces in various states of revision that I hope will be out in the world before too long.

Cover Art Aliceheimer's

I was really interested in how collage entered your work, and how your work seems to be a collage of your life (and you “collage” various art forms in a sense as well). Do you find this has any connection for us, considering our lives today? We’re often scattered and fragmented it seems, yet you were able, with your paint, pen, needle and awl, to make these bits into something whole. How can we as artists and writers best learn to embrace this sense of connection with the past, with our families, in our work? 

What an interesting observation! True that collage provides a medium for simultaneous reference and a way to integrate disparate elements. I first got into it big time, back in the dark ages, in college, when I studied intaglio printmaking and loved chine-collée, a method for bringing torn paper into the print, fusing the pieces of paper together as they run through the press. After that, I was away from printmaking/artwork for 20 years but went right back to using collage elements the second I returned. Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.

I think that the route to embracing a sense of connection with the past, our families and our work involves finding ways to tap your subconscious as you work. It’s all there in that compost heap in a non-verbal form. For me, turning to the visual, going back and forth between the visual and verbal lets this happen, but one doesn’t have to be an artist to use the visual.  Let yourself do some free, uncensored drawing, with your eyes closed even. Don’t underestimate doodling. Another lovely way to access the subconscious is to let naps be a part of your writing process. Often when I am stuck in a story a certain kind of exhaustion comes over me, and if I just give in to it, sleep brings things up from my subconscious that un-stick me.

How do you handle the violence in your stories (emotionally and craft-wise). I’m thinking of the emotional violence of your mother’s illness, and the violence of the genocide. Of course it’s important to speak about these realities, but any advice on what to leave in, what to leave out? How to give the reader relief? Why violence is important to include?

LikeWater_jacketI addressed some of this above but this is so important that I am glad to return to it. With my mother’s story, the violence/unhappiness in our relationship predated Alzheimer’s disease. The sickness gave us time to process our relationship and to heal. Finding common ground at last made it possible to feel at peace with losing her and for her to be free to die in peace. I wish this for every being. In terms of craft, the form of short individual pieces let some of them hold more pain and others more relief. The tough stuff came out in precise bursts that kept going deeper once the reader knew that they would be held after each bit of pain. Repeating visual and verbal motifs kept these pieces that varied somewhat in tone, unified and knitted together as one.

With Like Water on Stone I was determined to honor the truth of the events, which meant including harrowing details. These details were documented by hosts of neutral eyewitnesses at the time, through census records, through confessions, through the stories of survivors. Even heaps of bones in the desert have not been enough to stop policies of denial. I brought in specific details judiciously but with absolute clarity, protecting the reader through the character of Ardziv and by the fierce love Shahen, Sosi and Mariam had for each other. With each peak of violence one of them would take on the role of protecting the others, and in the process keep the reader safe. People survive extreme violence and pain often through magical thinking. Ardziv, a magical creature, was the embodiment of their strength. I was also determined to lay down paths toward forgiveness so that Shahen, Sosi, and Mariam could survive these horrors with their spirits intact instead of consumed with revenge, unable to ever move on.

You are a wonderfully gifted artist, poet and writer. Yet publishing today doesn’t always embrace the spare, lyrical author of serious works. Can you speak about your journey and how you stayed the course?

Thank you. True that it has been a slow journey toward publication. The thing that kept me going was always doing the work. I think if I hadn’t immersed myself in a series of projects while waiting for one of these tough topics to stick, I would have lost faith.  Along the way, I consciously began a piece that is more of a madcap romp to give myself some respite. Even with that story, The Very Long Days of Arden Hose Stoopnagle, the serious questions have been finding their way in as they do in all the books by others that I love, such as Holes.

Writing, reading, drawing, working, turning to humor and to short pieces where appropriate also helped me stay the course.  Staying in touch with other writers and artists and exchanging work with them kept me a part of a supportive community and ready to continue. I even taped bits of encouragement, things said by writing mentors, above the screen of my computer to keep me on track. Publication tales filled with countless rejections for fabulous books, such as Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running, also served as inspiration.

Graphic Art DWalrath

Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, Dana Walrath weaves many distinct threads through her work. After years of using stories to teach medical students at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, she spent last year as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds upon her award winning graphic memoir series Aliceheimer’s about life with her mother Alice, before and during dementia. She has shown her artwork in a variety of settings in North America and Europe.  In the fall of 2013, she returned to Armenia to give a talk at TEDx Yerevan that integrates Aliceheimer’s with her Fulbright work, and for the launch of Part I of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (Harvest 2013). Her verse novel, Like Water on Stone, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press the fall in 2014.

She earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania; an MFA in Writing Vermont College of Fine Arts; and a BA in Fine Arts and Biology from Barnard College, Columbia University, and is a co-author of one of the leading college textbook series in anthropology. Spanning a variety of disciplines, her work has been supported by diverse sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Centers for Disease Control, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Vermont Arts Council.

                                                                                                               –Zu Vincent


Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Dana Walrath’s Two New Novels


Cover Art Aliceheimer's

“This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her [my mother’s] humanity with every image.”  Dana Walrath


I remember seeing Dana Walrath’s early art about life with her ailing mother—now the poignant graphic novel Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass—when we were working together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency one summer. You entered her room and were immediately drawn to her work, tacked along the bookshelf like newly inked pages of fresh newsprint. Amazing images that drew the heart and inspired the mind. And like her work, Dana is brilliant, funny, inspiring and down to earth. This two-part interview is a look behind the scenes at how her alchemy of art, writing and anthropology emerged into print.

VCFA grad Dana Walrath is a writer, artist, and anthropologist. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013), her award winning graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014.

Dana, you’ve spoken elsewhere about how your art is informed by life and how, conversely, your life informs your art. Many writers struggle with the question of how to write about their own lives (especially because of what their families might say). Yet you’ve successfully used autobiography in works such as Aliceheimer’s, and what’s more, been able to speak eloquently about a difficult last journey with your mom. Can you speak to how and why you approached this painful journey?  

I came to writing late and had never kept any sort of personal journal. Anthropological field notes were as close as I could get. While my memory for the specific details of my life has always been imperfect, I am all too aware of the emotional and physical sensations of this life. I worried about my imperfect memory, my aches, and my un-writerly habits until I read Robert Olin Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. Butler says that writers must let go of specific experiences and instead, let them flow into an internal subconscious compost heap in which experiences ferment and recombine and become stories. Suddenly I could reframe what I had seen as a deficit into a fortuitous process.

Graphic Art WalrathAround the same time that I read Butler—my first or second residency at VCFA—Marion Dane Bauer said in a lecture that if you are a woman, everyone will assume that everything you write is autobiographical. This differential treatment of male and female authors clearly derives from constraints imposed by gender roles established in a patriarchy, and in a funny way this assumption liberated me. That people would assume that I was writing from my life no matter what, gave me permission to use my life as I wished, without a burning need to stay close to any specific “facts” or details that could constrain the storytelling.

But more than just general comfort with writing from life drives me. For my forthcoming verse novel, Like Water on Stone, a powerful need to tell the story of how my mother’s parents survived the Armenian genocide of 1915 stems directly from the official Turkish policy of denial, and the lack of recognition of the genocide by other governments such as our own. In a briefing paper prepared for the US State Department in 1996, Gregory Stanton describes denial as the final stage of genocide (see http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html). In other words, until denial ends, genocide is ongoing.


For my grandmother, I had only a single haunting sentence of family history to draw upon: That after her parents were killed she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night hundreds of miles from their home to an orphanage in Aleppo. So many survivors were too traumatized to share the details of their stories with their families, though witnesses and generations of scholars have amply documented these events. Knowing the scars the experience has left in the survivors and their descendants let me tell a story that was grounded in personal emotional truths and accurate historical research.

In a similar vein, a desire to support people with dementia, their caregivers, and to help re-write the dominant narrative about dementia and aging led me to share our family’s experience in my graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s. Stigma and silence and a discourse of pain and loss surround dementia and other permanent, incurable problems of the mind. The dominant story is a scary zombie story of bodies without minds, loved ones experiencing only loss and valiant researchers searching for an elusive cure.  As a society, we are so fearful of mind loss and death that we leave families in isolation, without a roadmap of how to handle a host of daily challenges. Of course there is loss, but if we accept the loss and share our stories this can be a time of magic and laughter and healing. A lifetime with my mother made me certain that I could share our story respectfully, that her story could contribute to restoring the humanity of those with dementia.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in approaching your two books—from verse to graphic novel? Are there different emotional and/or craft considerations you could point to?

Considering the scary subject matters for Like Water on Stone and Aliceheimer’s—genocide and dementia—I knew I had to find ways to make these topics safe.  They found entirely different forms due to the sources of the fear and the reasons for bringing the issue into the open. With Aliceheimer’s my mother, a life-long reader, was the driving force. When she lived with us, she still read each day without the benefit of a short term memory. Watching her eat up every graphic narrative that came into our home made me certain that I wanted to use a form that someone with dementia could access.

Graphic Art by Dana Walrath

As people lose language they revert to the preverbal stages of life when we were experts at reading visual and other cues. My mother also loves to laugh and she led the way to laughing at her loss. Subconsciously, we associate comics with laughter. The medium grants us permission to laugh. Laughter is respite. It opens up new ways to cope. Comics also let simultaneous realities co-exist on a single page, mirroring the conflicting realities of people with dementia and their caregivers. This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her humanity with every image. And the book began as a series of comics-style drawings, each of which went on to inspire another layer of story.

For Like Water on Stone, I wanted to show the truth of genocide in such a way that it was undeniable, but that readers would not be so overwhelmed that they would have to turn away from it. The language and story came to me in fragments as the painful truths grew on the page. Though I generally write in prose, line breaks and spare language were integral to this story. The character of Ardziv, an eagle, a guardian spirit who protects the three siblings as they travel, also appeared as part of making the book safe for me as I wrote and for the reader. My job was to make it safe enough for a reader to truly know the horror.

Next: Dana talks about graphic novels, comics, collage and staying the course to publication.                                                                       –Zu Vincent

For the Good of Mankind?

Jacket For the Good of Mankind?

“Doctors injected orphans with live polio and tuberculosis, they subjected African American slaves to numerous surgeries without anesthesia, and they gave pregnant women drinks laced with radiation. The mentally ill, prisoners, women and children—powerless people without a voice—”  

Terrifying and enlightening, Vicki Oransky Wittenstein’s new non-fiction release For the Good of Mankind? holds you on the edge of your seat. Her talent at using individual stories of suffering and loss to give us a picture of humanity, and man’s inhumanity to man, pose ethical dilemmas readers won’t soon forget. I couldn’t wait to get her author’s perspective on the experience of writing this crucial book.

Because the tone and subject matter is such a departure from her first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths, I was curious to know how her writer’s journey differed this time around. Below, Wittenstein talks about handling the horrific research, moving from writing a single story to one that encompasses all of mankind, and how this book changed her own perspective. She tackles these questions with humor and sincerity, reminding us it takes courage to write, and to face our demons, whether in writing, or in life.

Vicki Oransky Wittenstein: Zu, thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my new book. I was just re-reading the interview you posted when my first book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths was published, and I was struck by how dissimilar the writing experiences were for the two books. The biggest difference of all? This time I didn’t have a reason to travel to Hawaii!

jacket Planet HunterKidding aside, in many ways that trip to Hawaii marks a crucial difference in the two books. The story of planet hunting was very much about the life of Geoff Marcy, the astronomer who first figured out how to detect planets that orbit stars beyond our sun. Young readers were hooked on the science by “seeing” Marcy at work in the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. For the Good of Mankind? on the other hand, tells the story of not just one person, but the thousands of people throughout history who have been subjected to painful and unethical medical experimentation. Although the beginning of each chapter recounts a personal tragedy, the huge time period covered (from ancient times to the present) necessitated the use of a broader lens. In turn, the many examples helped emphasize the magnitude of the problem.

Indeed, the sheer number of instances throughout history where people have been injured from medical experiments shocked me. One of the most difficult challenges was limiting and choosing the examples to write about. Reading the details of the experiments upset me, too. Doctors injected orphans with live polio and tuberculosis, they subjected African American slaves to numerous surgeries without anesthesia, and they gave pregnant women drinks laced with radiation. The mentally ill, prisoners, women and children—powerless people without a voice—were subjected to experimentation without consent. People were humiliated, injured, and some even died.

In addition to all these disturbing tragedies, I had to figure out how to write about the most gruesome and inhumane experiments of all: those performed by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates during World War II. I was worried. How could I write about these experiments without them seeming like just one more awful example, when they were so clearly in a category of their own? In reading about Dr. Joseph Mengele’s experiments on twins at Auschwitz, I learned about a twin survivor, Eva Mozes Kor, who was willing to talk to me. Her story was so compelling that it became the basis for an entire chapter. Eva’s personal account and the authenticity of her voice help young people fathom the inhumanity of the experiments.

Most importantly, readers also needed to understand that many of these medical experiments occurred hand-in-hand with great medical achievements. Without a doubt, new treatments, medicines, and cures depend upon human medical experimentation. How can we conduct experiments without losing our moral footing? How do we balance the risks to individual subjects versus society’s need for new treatments and cures? Today there are laws and regulations that protect subjects, but they can be difficult to implement. These questions, which I raise throughout the book, continue to be debated, particularly now with increasing numbers of clinical trials by the pharmaceutical industry, genetic therapies, stem cell research and the sequencing of the genome.

Young people today will be the next generation of leaders in science, health care, government, and law. They will be continually bombarded with ethical and moral dilemmas that will challenge their core beliefs. I hope this book helps them question what is right and wrong, and inspires them to never forsake their principles in the name of science.

Author photo


Vicki Oransky Wittenstein is author of the award winning non-fiction book Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010) and the new release For the Good of Mankind? (Lerner 2014). A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she’s written numerous science articles for young readers, is an advocate for children and families, and a former criminal prosecutor.

 -Zu Vincent

Blowing Out To Brightness

hummingbird-matthew-b-pA hummingbird was sending its long, delicate beak into the garage window today, trapped inside and trying to escape, able to see the wide world before it but not able, despite its whirring drive, to reach it. My attempts to coax it toward the open garage door panicked the little thing, and drove it harder against the glass, the glass ramming up to meet it with astonishing bluntness.

A hummingbird can wear itself out in short order this way, grow dehydrated, and die. So I let it rest.

But in that pause it struck me how, so focused on the world beyond the glass, the bird hadn’t noticed that freedom was only a stone’s throw away.

Silly bird, right? Yet how often as writers do we remain tapping the glass when what we hope to reach lies just outside the door? How often do we write with our nose pressing the pane, begging entry into a place we sometimes fail to enter? What larger perspective might we take, how many steps back or up or sideways, before we really experience insight?

Perhaps the answer lies in training ourselves to see more deeply, and to think more deeply, too.

“If you love something, the work will be just fine,” graphic artist Inge Druckrey says. “Go beyond what it is and try to understand what it’s doing. How it reflects and represents the subject.”

It seems to me Druckrey is talking about stepping back to view the larger implications of what we create. For it’s in considering new angles that we learn to go beyond what is to understand what it’s doing. Maybe this is achieved by considering how our own needs, motives and desires are shaped—and shaped by—our vision. Asking more of the work than what we originally had planned, and more of ourselves in the bargain. Who are we? What do we bring to the page? Why do we carry it so?


There is another perspective too, of course. The one created by stepping forward, when we truly enter the world beyond the glass.

“When I wrote my first children’s book at the age of twenty-five,” says author Susan Cooper, “I hadn’t even met a child for years—perhaps not since I stopped being one myself.” It wasn’t that Cooper particularly liked children, it’s just that her creative vision had retained “that quality peculiar to children’s writers… a strange intuitive immediacy that the creative imagination shares with the alert, unjaded mind of a reading child.”

And that, I think, is the world beyond the glass. The one we share with the “unjaded mind of a reading child.” If we meet the reader here, as Cooper promises, “he will fall in love,” and give your book “surrender, acceptance, a warm generous responsiveness—and an unselfconscious sense of wonder.”

To cultivate this sense of wonder, you might adopt what data visualization expert Edward Tufte calls “deep seeing.” For example, Tufte advocates taking a walk and giving yourself over to the power of sight. Really experiencing sight in a new way. “After ten minutes of just seeing,” he says about his own such walk, “it was like the light became perfect. And in this perfect light, you could protect the eye against blowing out to brightness. The details in the shadows were perfect, too.”

But all this takes work, of course. It’s likely that just when you feel your work is done it’s only just beginning. Deep seeing, deep thinking, take effort. It’s not easy to judge when your eye has blown out to brightness or where the door to freedom stands.

For the hummingbird, it just took that moment’s pause. Soon I was able to retrieve a small net and hold it out, the exhausted bird climbed aboard.

I slipped the net though the door. The bird left the net. I watched as it dipped and faltered, then caught the beat of its tiny wings and sailed up. Freed, the hummingbird had the envious perspective now. Its heart was in my hand, and it carried my heart aloft.

Novel Edit: Vision and Revision


There’s an old writer’s adage that talking about the plot of your novel is dangerous, since telling the story can dissipate your desire to put it on the page. But there does come a time when discussing your plot can really help. At least that’s what fellow Tollbooth author Tami Brown and I are discovering. 

Both of us are looking at a serious novel revision of our current middle grades. We’ve read one another’s manuscripts and are sending them through the sieve together.

This week and next, our posts will share some of our process. Our approach is pretty much organic. Brainstorm, exchange ideas, try out various techniques, and generally help each other dig more deeply into mood, character, plot, theme and structure.

We’ve loosely termed our brainstorming sessions “Vision and Revision,” because what is working for us is to first discuss the overall vision we have for the rewrite, and then create a blueprint for this vision to take back to our desk as we revise.

If you’d like to come along, pull out your novel that’s ready to revise, grab a trusted author to partner with, and jump in!


Each of us has written and (honestly) rewritten our manuscript more than once. But that’s okay. That’s how you let your subconscious out to play. Now it’s time to trust that these drafts hold the clues to revision, that although the soul of the story might still seem to be missing, it’s really already falling, like a shadow, across the page.

So vision is a matter of looking into those manuscript shadows and asking questions.  

Where to start?

For us it’s not at the beginning, but at the end.

Beginning at the End

As a long time short story writer, I’ve learned to trust my intuition and plunge headlong into a story, because somewhere in the process the ending will appear. Seeing the ending is a magic moment, one that sends out a beacon to follow as I write. When I have the ending, I know what I need to add to illuminate the reader’s path, and what I need to cut. That’s what vision is about in this sense, only in reverse. Because we want to create a new novel ending and move backward through the novel to make sure each element serves this end.

(To test this theory, imagine plunking your reader into a labyrinth and asking them to follow a series of dead ends. Imagine how quickly they’ll put the book down. You want the reader to be curious and surprised, but not duped. Moving backward from the ending can show you where you’ve gone off track. The road back to the beginning should be clear, and this goes for all story elements including mood, tone, story world etc.)

Below is a map to our process in moving from the ending backward. Don’t be fooled by its brevity, we found that some of these points can take hours (or even days), to resolve. And for us it’s proving fluid. See what works for you and your editing partner. You may want to outline your manuscript first, then discuss your new vision, or go back and forth between discussion and outline. We’ll be using this vision and outline in next week’s posts to create a dynamic storyboard for revision.


  • Your reader and your character will come to an epiphany at the end of your novel. What is it? Is this epiphany a moment of change (or rejection of change) for your character? Why? How does it occur?
  • Does your new vision of the story ending alter/redefine this epiphany? Can you state this clearly in a sentence or two?
  • To help you state specifically how your character has been changed (or has rejected change) by the end of your story, decide what you want your character and your reader to feel, understand, walk away with at the end of your novel. In other words, what is your theme, and how does it relate to your character’s story dilemma? What is it you really mean to say/convey?

Reversing Your Outline:

Looking at the existing manuscript, use index cards, an outline or margin notes to write down the main point/main movement of each chapter. Try to use as few words as possible.

  • These notes will help you pull back those shadows to reveal the soul of your story. And when working with your editing partner, can be a quick guide when you discuss and revise your story structure.
  • When revising, your notes will tell you if each chapter is clearly focused on your theme and the end result of your character’s struggle, and if each scene within the chapter is clearly focused on the chapter main point/main movement. They’ll also tell you where you need to add, cut or refocus attention.  
  • You’ll use these notes next week when we storyboard plot, character action and motivation.

In the right-hand margin, in your outline or on your index card, write down how the chapter advances the overall story. Again, be brief.

  • These notes allow you to follow the logic of your story, making it easier for you to analyze or discuss your story with your editing partner.
  • When revising your own work, these notes will tell you if each chapter fits into your overall story structure. You might find that some chapters should be shifted or cut after completing this step.
  • You should be able to summarize the main point/main movement of each chapter and how this chapter supports the overall story. If you can’t, that chapter will be one that needs to be revised until you can.

Next: Using vision to create that dynamic storyboard for revision. -zu vincent

Meaning and Metaphor



More thoughts on fully realizing your fictional world…  gull

No matter how fantastical or faraway your fictional world, it begins inside you, as the writer. We are all from some place, even if we are displaced. All a product of what we know and don’t know. Of who are, our culture, our parents, the landscape where we were raised.

If you doubt this, the next time you have an opinion about something, ask yourself where the opinion comes from. Your parents? Your culture? The books you read or movies you watch?

When I ask myself where I am from, I get many different answers, but they often begin with the natural world. I’m not only from water, but from mountains, canyons, trees and starry nights, the sprawl of a river town and its highways, as Ray Carver writes about in “Highway 99E from Chico”


The mallard ducks are down

For the night. They chuckle

In their sleep and dream of Mexico

And Honduras. Watercress

Nods in the irrigation ditch

And the tules slump forward, heaving

With blackbirds.


Rice fields float under the moon.

Even the wet maple leaves cling

To my windshield. I tell you Maryann,

I am happy.


I tell you Maryann, I am happy. Carver remembers this highway, this windshield, these birds, this trip, because of the emotion behind it.

If we seek to understand the emotions behind what we write, it can make our fictional world real.

Another California writer, Brenda Nakamoto, who writes about growing up as a third generation Japanese in Peach Farmer’s daughter, talks about creating her book out of a sense of needing to understand her roots, and a yearning for a grandfather she never met.

In missing the rural farm where she grew up, Nakamoto recreates it with sensory details. The peaches heavy on the trees, and her Dad’s old Ford truck bleached to the color of a faded sky.

And while she never knew her grandfather, who killed himself before she was born, she re-imagines him as an immigrant on a ship bound for Seattle. Although he was only 5 feet tall, she sees him as “a big so huge I cannot put my arms around it.”

A big so huge, I cannot get my arms around it. I love that line. And in creating place through specific details, Nakamoto’s world has become universal.

What makes a fictional world believable? How to you find the right words that will paint a place that feels every bit as real as Dad’s old Ford truck bleached to the color of a faded sky?

I believe these exquisite details emerge through the work of mining your own subconscious, to uncover your true reasons your writing. As Alice Hoffman says, don’t write what you know, write what you feel.

And when you are writing what you feel, symbol and metaphor naturally follow.

Listen to this moment in The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo when Rob cries at his mother’s funeral:

“They were both dressed up in suits that day; his father’s suit was too small. And when he slapped Rob to make him stop crying, he ripped a hole underneath the arm of his jacket.

’There ain’t no point in crying,” his father had said afterward. “Crying ain’t going to bring her back.’”

That hole in his jacket underarm is a symbol for the whole in Rob’s life.


In Cynthia Voights Homecoming, the story of four abandoned children walking to their grandmother’s house, the children are in constant search of food.

“Dicey and James pulled mussels from the rocks and washed them off in the water, while Maybeth and Sammy climbed back up the hill for twigs and larger pieces of wood. Soon they had a large mound of mussels waiting beside a crackling fire…”

Food in this way becomes not just a meal, but stands in for the missing mother, their loss and their yearning… a type of extended metaphor that TS Elliot called an Objective Correlative: or a “Set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for a particular emotion.”

In my own novel The Lucky Place, I returned to my water roots with my character Cassie. In this scene she is realizing that the stepdad she loves may die, as she walks into the ocean and is swept under:

“I’m underwater.

I’m rushing backward and down and hit something hard and sand stuffs my mouth. My cheek burns. When I hit I can’t hold my breath and I suck in water. I can’t find the air. I kick out for the surface, but it’s not there. My chest aches enough to burst. The blue is gone, replaced with black and bits of silver star. I’m sucked out to sea and I’m going to die.”

She doesn’t die, though, and is spit back out.

“My cheek feels scraped where it hit the sand, but nobody realizes. Nobody knows how scared I was. Or that I finally understand. Cancer isn’t a gypsy curse. It’s a huge smashing wave. It catches you and drags you out. And anybody can be spit back up, and anybody can drown.”

Earlier I said that just as in the real world, a fictional is not simply a place, but what is happening to a character in that place. And that what is happening to a character—the tension between her inner and outer landscape, at just that moment, is not static, or generic. It is specific, in motion, has cause and effect, like a crackling fire or a crashing wave, and if it rings true it’s because it’s part and parcel of the story itself.

Take the opening scene in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light which not only begins in motion, but sets the story world beautifully in time and place:

“When summer comes to the North Woods,” she writes “…time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. They sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you’re doing—pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps—to stare up at it. Locusts whir in the birches, coaxing you out of the sun and under the boughs, and the heat stills the air, heavy and sweet with the scent of balsam. As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today—Thursday, July 12, 1906—is such a day. Time has stopped…”

Time has also stopped for the reader. We want it to, at least the time outside the novel. While in the world of A Northern Light time is already on the move. Soon a girl’s body will be brought to the porch, and that idyl will be shattered.

Donnelly has created a perfect fulcrum between this sweet moment and what will happen next. And it’s worth noting that her character is crossing a threshold –literally and figuratively in this moment. And so are we, as readers.


A story world is created from within, they are your themes that manifest in your character’s point of view. This world is already moving as your reader crosses your story threshold. It is dynamic, changes as your character changes, is the world where your character is hot, or cold or moody or in peril. It is the place where a character first makes love or loses a loved one. It is set in time and has a spot on the map. It begins in the white hot center of experience, in all its sensory detail, and is the spark between your character’s inner motives and outer action. And building your world with emotionally powered, specific details allows your individual story to become universal.

Katherine Paterson notes in Spying Heart that the Japanese word for idea is “i, which is made up of two characters—the character for Sound and the character for Heart—so an idea is something that makes a sound in the heart (the heart in Japanese, as in Hebrew, being the seat of intelligence as well as the seat of feeling).

Paterson is talking about the “power of the imagination” that comes from the sound of a writer’s heart. It’s from this imagination that we create the symbols and metaphors that invite young readers in to figure things out for themselves. To be caught up in a story so fully that their own imagination then allows them to, as Paterson says, “listen to the sounds of their own hearts.”

                                                                                     –zu vincent