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!

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

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


Tips from the Slush Pile

Editors, like other superheroes, can sometimes seem inscrutable. What are they thinking each morning as they open their inboxes and pore through the most recent submissions from hopeful authors? What are they looking for? What do they want? Will they adore us? Will they cast us aside? What mysterious notions will strike their fancy? How will the editorial trade winds blow, and when will they shift?

I’m a writer first and foremost, but through my work at the Vermont College literary journal Hunger Mountain, first as a submissions reader and then as an editor, I’ve gotten a good look at life on the editorial side of the desk, too. What I’ve learned as an editor has been both useful and comforting to me as a writer. Now that we’re selecting final pieces to publish in our 2016 print issue, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned from my time reading submissions. Here’s what makes me sit up and take notice, what makes me groan, and why I’ve promised myself never to take rejection personally.

If you are an experienced writer who cares about craft, you will stand out from the crowd. It’s true that editors and agents receive a ton of submissions, but what you might not know is that many of these submissions are from writers at the very beginning of their literary lives. At Hunger Mountain, we often see work with a lot of promise from authors who still need more time to practice and hone their craft. We also sometimes see work that’s simply not right for us and our audience, work that seems to have been cast out into the world without much thought or care. If you have taken the time to write, revise, and research appropriate homes for your work, you do not need to do anything special to get noticed by editors: they will appreciate your competence, professionalism, and attention to detail, and they will take your writing as seriously as you do.

If you’re writing about a well-explored topic, you’ve got to do it fabulously. Some guy once famously said that there are only two stories in the world. I’d like to suggest that in the world of YA short fiction, those stories are “a teenager goes to a party” and “a teenager struggles with an eating disorder.” Not that there is anything wrong with these stories! These are, in fact, real things that lots of teens experience; there’s a good reason we see so many stories about these topics in our submissions inbox. Many of these stories are excellent. We’ve published several of them during my time at Hunger Mountain, and some of those stories about common subjects are among my favorites. I’ll admit, though, that when I open up a submission that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times before, the writer must work extremely hard to win me over, grab my attention, and convince me that this story is something new and special. If your topic is familiar, the other characteristics of your writing cannot be. More than ever, you’ll need a strong narrative voice, a fresh perspective, a brilliantly unique character, a quick wit—anything that will make your work stand out from the pack of tales with similar themes. Ask yourself what makes this a story that only you can tell.

Sometimes it’s truly a matter of taste. I don’t know exactly why—maybe I had a bad run-in with Steinbeck in a previous life—but I really can’t stand stories about plucky kids growing up during the Dust Bowl. I know there are a lot of good stories about plucky kids during the Dust Bowl. I know other readers love stories about plucky kids during the Dust Bowl. I’m aware that this is a totally irrational irritation, but the fact remains: I hate Dust Bowl stories. I have been known to shout, upon opening a submission, “NOT THE DUST BOWL AGAIN!”

What I’m getting at here is that you shouldn’t let a rejection letter discourage you. It honestly might not mean anything at all about the quality of your work. It just means your story wasn’t the right fit for that particular editor. I know people say this all the time, but it’s not just an excuse to make you feel better. The next time you hear it, please believe it.

Editors can’t publish every piece they truly love. This is the truth that breaks my heart. Hunger Mountain receives a number of absolutely excellent submissions each reading period—more than we have the space to publish in our slender little mag—and, this year in particular, we’ve been forced to make impossible choices. I gave my heart to a more than a dozen great stories this fall, but we’ll only have room to print three or four. This is true outside the literary magazine world as well: even if an editor falls in love with your story, she might not be able to publish it. Maybe she doesn’t have the budget or the time for it. Maybe she’s already working on a similar title, and she’s trying to build a more well-rounded list. Maybe her colleagues just don’t feel the same way about the story. I know it’s not much consolation if you’re the author whose work has been rejected, but you should know that the editor who turned down your piece is probably kicking her desk in frustration right now. She loves you! She knows you will go on to do great things!

You all are writing a lot of amazing stuff. What I’ve been most impressed by during my editorial adventures is the amount of truly great writing that’s being produced in the children’s literature community right now. I’ve loved having a chance to get a small sense of all the new, interesting, creative, thoughtful, and risky projects writers are attempting these days, and I’ve been inspired to push myself farther in my own writing. Thank you for being talented enough to tell these stories well and brave enough to send them out into the world.

Copy Cats

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

-Herman Melville


Dear Writers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I began to develop my own voice.

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

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

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

So are you ready…to be a


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

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

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

Or talk to a master herself.


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

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


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


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 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!

It’s Happening at the VCFA Auction

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

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

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

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

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

What auction item would you love to win?

westhampton 3

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


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

Anything else?

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

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

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

The art of feeling successful

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

Hi Writers,

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

Here’s what people said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, 100 is a symbol of success.

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

Like a new idea.

Or a new chapter.

Or a day off from writing with a good friend.

Tackling a challenge I was afraid to try before. 

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

Feeling successful allows us the confidence to find our voices.

Ask Diane von Furstenberg.

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

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

(I love her.)

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


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

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

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

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


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

Yes, You CAN Do That At A School Visit!

Before my first children’s book was published, I hadn’t set foot in a fourth-grade classroom since I was a fourth-grader. I’d been to plenty of author visits in my time, but I’d always been the kid sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed on the floor, not the wise, adult author who (presumably) knew exactly what she was doing. I’d never been much of a public speaker, and the prospect of walking into an elementary school and talking to students about my writing was terrifying: What if I forgot what I was saying? What if I bored the kids? What if I offended the teachers? What if no one called my name in Red Rover, which is what happened the last time I was in fourth grade?

Two books and a bunch of school visits later, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m slightly less terrified and a little more knowledgeable about the ingredients that go into a successful school visit. There’s a wealth of excellent advice on the topic out there already, so I won’t attempt to cover the basics here. Instead, I thought I’d share a few of the more surprising and unorthodox tips I’ve picked up so far:

Embarrass yourself! There is no more suitable place to be publicly shamed than an elementary school. Kids love to laugh—with you, at you, they don’t much care which. Show photos of yourself as a youngster, but be sure to choose a picture that’s as cringeworthy as possible. Wear a penguin hat. Read aloud from your very worst draft of that picture book you wrote when you were six. If the topic of your talk presents an opportunity for you to sing or dance (terribly), so much the better.

Scare the children! Just like the rest of us, kids face adversity and disappointment on a daily basis. It can be encouraging for them to see that even you—a famous author!—were rejected and humiliated and forced to type draft after draft until your fingers wore down to nubbins, which is why you should proudly present to them the terrifying visual evidence of your hard work. I like to show kids the lengthy editorial letters I receive, the pages of writing covered with crossouts and changes, and the piles of revisions I print out en route from rough draft to final book. Shannon Hale has a long, laminated scroll of rejection letters from publishers that she unfurls to kids’ horror and delight.

A terrifying tower of drafts

A terrifying tower of drafts

Create a ruckus! For kids, an author visit is a really special part of the school day: it doesn’t happen very often, it’s much more exciting than their regular classes, and since you’re not their teacher, the normal rules of school behavior don’t quite apply. You’ll have to take the temperature of each group before you attempt to create a ruckus, but if you think the students (and teachers) can handle it and you’re confident in your crowd control techniques, let the kids take a quick break from sitting quietly and listening. Have volunteers join you for an interactive storytelling game or a readers’ theater. Write a Mad Libs-style summary of your book and have kids fill in the blanks; then read the hilarious results. Write serious or silly questions on index cards, put them in a bag, and have kids draw cards and ask you the questions. Ask them to vote for their favorite character. If there’s a chance for kids to clap, cheer, or scream their lungs out, take it! (And then challenge them to get super quiet.)

Be honest. This might be my most radical tip, though it’s not nearly as much fun as the others. Kids are great at asking questions, and some of those questions can be tough. Is writing hard? Do you ever get scared when you’re writing? What’s your least favorite part of being a writer? Why don’t you have kids? Are you rich? Were you cool when you were my age? Who’s your favorite member of One Direction? These sorts of questions might make you want to reach for your SCBWI-branded whiskey flask before answering. Be tactful, of course, and be vague if you’d like (“Um, the one with the hair? Is his name, um, Larry?”), but please don’t lie. You’re a role model for the students you speak to, and they can handle the truth, delivered in a kid-friendly and down-to-earth way.

What am I missing? What unconventional school visit techniques have worked best for you? Let me know in the comments!

Taking Time to Meditate: A Tool for Writers



We writers love our tools. From software programs like Scrivener, Evernote, and Google docs to apps that block online distractions, we all swear by our systems. Some of us even write using treadmill desks and stability balls to keep our backs in shape. But have you ever considered adding a meditation practice to your writer’s toolbox?

I’m always looking for a competitive edge. Will exercise, coffee, vitamins or a good night’s sleep help me to write better? So, when I read that science has proven meditation actually restructures the brain, I was intrigued. After all, in Silicon Valley where I live, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have been offering “Search Inside Yourself” training for years.  Classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy make for lunch hours that “maximize mindfulness” and spark creativity.

So when a friend told me about an 8-week mindfulness mediation course offered by Teri Dahlbeck, an executive coach with a background in neuroscience,, I agreed to give it a try. Dahlbeck introduced me to the work of several meditation teachers, including author Sharon Salzberg. “The adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. “Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences.”


Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with New Age crystals, Tarot cards, religion or runes. It’s simply a way of training our attention so that we become more aware of our inner feelings as well as what’s happening around us in the outside world. There is no one right way to do it too; you can focus on the breath, a mantra, an image, do a body scan, etc. The important thing is that meditation cultivates three key skills: concentration, mindfulness and compassion—also known as lovingkindness. For writers, these brain-changing skills can have game-changing results. Here’s why.


Concentration: Meditation helps improve our powers of concentration. Making it a daily practice reinforces habits of discipline and the ability to let go of distractions. If I’m stressed, the chatter in my mind often intensifies, robbing me of the ability to write. Niggling thoughts, worries and doubts flit like gnats in and out of my brain, blocking my creativity. So how do we find that heightened mental state known as “flow,” where the outside world falls away and we feel alert and able to focus with laser sharp intensity? Meditation can help get us there, in part because it eases anxiety.  images-1

In a post on the link between meditation and creativity in writer Jane Friedman’s blog, author Orna Ross says, “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, day after day, in words. It makes us a little crazy—vulnerable, edgy, raw sometimes. Meditation soothes those edges and creates a place of safety from where we can take risks.” Ross, too, cites the science behind the claims. “Brain scans show that meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. It allows us to become, as Flaubert suggested we should, steady and well-ordered in our life so we can be fierce and original in our work.”

Mindfulness: Remember the adage, “show don’t tell”? Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions and notice where strong feelings are felt in the body. I often ask my writing students, what did you notice today? My goal is to get them to slow down and focus on moment-to-moment awareness. To pay attention to what’s going on in and around them, including how things smell and taste and sound. If we’re nervous, for instance, how do we hold our hands or move our bodies? Do we bite our lips, grit our teeth, or jiggle our legs? Emotions are rarely a single, solid sentiment. Anger, for example, may also include feelings of frustration, helplessness, sadness and fear. Realizing this can help us all write better scenes.

“Try to have a direct physical and tactile experience as you’re performing everyday activities,” Salzberg instructs. “Feel a water glass against your hands as a cool hardness. When you sweep the floor, sense the exertion in your arms, the tug on the muscles of your back and neck.”

With practice, my awareness too has begun to improve. I’m noticing how emotions like anxiety can cause my chest to swell up like an overinflated balloon. Or how the scent of a cup of chamomile tea and the steam rising in my face can cause my shoulders to drop and my breath to slow. The things your characters notice speak volumes about them. So, if you want to slip into someone’s skin, practice focusing on “just this moment now.”

Compassion or LovingKindness: In order to understand how our protagonists feel, writers must have empathy and compassion.

imagesI believe that the best way to create authentic, complex characters, whose humanness readers can recognize no matter how badly they behave, is to walk a mile in their shoes. Meditation encourages us to extend this kind of lovingkindness to others as well as to ourselves.


Whatever our excuses are for not writing—or not succeeding at our writing—it’s always tempting to throw in the towel. With other kinds of work, I know I can finish the job if I just put in the hours. But writing is different, because we can’t force creativity. In meditation, I’m encouraged to be kind and gentle to myself even when I fail. Whether my distractions are positive or negative, I’m learning how to accept interruptions, gently forgive myself for wandering, and then keep on keeping on. “If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine,” says Salzberg. “That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath [one page] at a time.”images-4


Helen Pyne