A Treat of a Retreat: How to Plan Your Own

I’m feeling that December frenzy. Holiday prep stuff. Work is hectic. Company is coming. All the to-dos and who-tos and yoo-hoos are piling up. There’s lots of jolly good and fa-la-la joy… BUT:

All I really want to do is finish my problem child novel. The one that’s been tormenting me for a good part of this year. 

Which has me dreaming of going on a writing retreat. I’ve been lucky enough to go on three this year. I’m greedy that way. These were all personal retreats, planned by us, not an organization. Each one had at least one other VCFA grad there. I guess we know what we want. And each one included friends from all over the country–and even the wider world. 

The wonderful thing about planning your own retreat is, you get to plan it. The harder thing is, you get to plan it. 

Some things to think about:


  • Convenient travel location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be close to everyone or even anyone; but it should be easily accessible. Pick a place within an easy distance to drive or near a major travel hub. Getting there shouldn’t feel close to impossible.
  • Out in the wild SoCalPlaces to walk (or sit) outside. For me, it’s important to have some kind of access to fresh air and outside explorations. A nice walk is an important balance to sitting and writing whether it’s for a solitary stroll or a group walk-n-talk.
  • Not too interesting. It’s good to stay somewhere interesting–but not so interesting it serves as a distraction from writing.


  • Beds. Depending on the closeness of your group, as well personal idiosyncrasies, be sure to have enough beds and space to work around different sleep schedules. 
  • Work space. Personally, I think having separate work spots is more important than separate sleeping arrangements. I think it’s hard to work with someone else’s creative energy too close to mine. 


  • I’ve found four to five days, depending on the impact of travel, to be the perfect amount of time. A weekend is too short to settle in and feel comfortable, but fatigue and the disruption of ordinary routines can start wear you down. I usually get homesick on day three, then reinvigorated on day four and then end up in a good spot of feeling both accomplished and ready to go home.


  • AhhhhIt can be a hassle to plan, but it is worth the pain to think ahead. Everyone needs to eat, but the food preparation can’t take precedence over the reason everyone is there.
  • Generally it seems to work if breakfast and lunch are DIY and dinners are shared. One group decided to go out to eat for dinners–although we ended up with enough leftovers that we stayed in, also. 
  • It’s possible to assign different meals to different people, but I’ve found it to be that some people like to cook and others don’t. The non-cookers can prep and clean-up. Talk about realistic expectations before you are all starving and suffering from creative brain overload.
  • Eating together builds community and camaraderie.
  • Have a balance of healthy and naughty snacks!


  • I think it’s nice to be somewhat familiar with each other’s work.
  • If at all possible, share pages and/or a summary ahead of time. Not to critique, or even formally discuss, simply knowing what the others are working on adds a deeper dimension to the experience–and allows for more focused conversations.
  • Picture Books!Book club! It can also be nice to read a book or two in common in preparation, simply to have a starting place for discussion. Or, for my picture book focused retreat, we brought an enormous stack of books to read and study.
  • Goal setting. It’s good to start the retreat with setting goals. Think measurable and realistic.


  • Early morning Palm SpringsSome groups only want time to write.
  • Having a set schedule–with room for flexibility and adjusting–allows for greater productivity. If you only have a certain number of alone hours, you’ll be more likely to use them for writing, as opposed to if you feel as though you have an endless amount of hours to fill. Brains need breaks and variety.
  • Take advantage of having access to other people’s brains. The shared collective think tank is a powerful thing!
  • It can be really interesting and helpful if each person leads a conversation or activity–again, planning ahead is key. It doesn’t have to be formal or complex, it’s just so enlightening to learn how someone else thinks and works.
  • Readings. Make time to listen to each other’s work. No critiques, just reading. 
  • Downtime is crucial too. 


  • It can be an emotional experience to do good hard work with others. I think it’s good to have some kind of cumulative send-off in which everyone shares what they’ve accomplished and what they plan to do next.
  • After every retreat, I always end up thinking about my friends’ stories along with my own. I love to hear updates and progress reports.
  • Schedule check-ins, with one person serving as organizer.

What did I forget? What do you think is key to a successful retreat?

Dreamingly yours,

Sarah Tomp


Anonymous Author Confessions

Being an author is weird. Here are a few anonymous quotes that I gathered from a variety of YA, MG, and PB writers on publishing, life, writing, etc.


I don’t write every day. I’d be a better writer if I did, and it’s what I aspire to, but I don’t actually manage to write every day. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Being a writer is not always a straight line process.

I’m 100% certain I’d be much less moodier and a lot nicer to people in general if I gave up the stress-filled writing life, but I can’t possibly stop. Does that make me an addict? I’m pretty sure it does.

Most times, I’m afraid my writing is bad. Other times, I’m afraid my writing is great. The second fear is the one that blocks me.


Why is it that polishing silver looks so exciting when I reach act 2 in revision?

There are certain bits of writing advice that I’ve heard bandied about by so many people so often that they make me want to scream. “Show don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Butt in chair” come to mind. I think at this point one should have to pay $5 into the Overused Adage Retirement Trust Fund prior to invoking any of these.


90% of the time I’m convinced my editor hates me, even when she’s writing totally innocuous or even positive emails. The compliments are just an elaborate cover for her searing rage at everything I’m doing wrong!

I stalk my editor’s Twitter feed. That’s horrible, isn’t it? I mean, I think I could say I just “check” her Twitter feed a lot, but for whatever reason it feels like stalking.


Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Fast, Cheap, or Well-Made: Pick Two.” Well, I have a writer’s equivalent. “Writing, Family, or Self-Care: Pick Two.” On any given day, I can only attend to two out of these three things.

The week before my deadline, no one gets a bath in my house. No one gets dinner either.

I was folding laundry and remembered that I just sold a book, so now I can buy new underwear! Triumph!”


I thought royalty checks would trickle in, but no. Even though my debut novel is selling fine (according to my publisher), it might be years before I earn back the advance — an amount that was less than a public school teacher makes in a year. (No matter that it took me two years to write the book.) Now I fully understand the advice, ‘Don’t quit the day job.’

Did you know you can sell a book to a publisher and actually lose money? Unless you’re with a big publisher and with support from their marketing team, you may have to hire your own publicist and attend conferences at your expense–or else nobody hears about your book. At this point, I have to wait for my finances to recover from my last book before I let my agent submit a new one.


I cringe at the way people seem to automatically put the words “famous” and “author” together; there are a lot of us authors who aren’t the least bit famous. It embarrasses me for some reason when I get introduced by friends and acquaintances as a “famous author.”

You know darn well my name is not John Green or Veronica Roth, so please don’t ask if you’d have heard of my book before.

At least once a month, someone says, “So you’re an author. Where can I find your books?” And I inwardly chant, “Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’ Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’” It then tends to come out as: “A bookstore…?”

I learned the hard way…so much of our publishing fates are pre-destined the second our deals inked. Every season, publishers pick their horses, the favored titles that are slated to finish first. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one of them, and get incredible marketing, a huge print run and lots of support. If you’re not, you won’t. It’s not fair, but give it everything you’ve got, regardless. Just run like hell, race after race, against all odds. One day, you may win.


Nothing like not remembering the name of a friend of some twenty years when she comes up for a signing. And she is one of three people buying your book.

A customer admiring one of my picture books said with enthusiasm, “The illustrations are really great!” Pause. “Too!” she added, suddenly remembering that I was the author, not the illustrator.

If you’re ever wondering if authors are still fans at heart–I once found myself on a panel with one of my favorite authors, speaking about one of my favorite subjects. On the panel, I easily made the room laugh. Afterwards, I wanted to tell the author how much her books meant to me, and was completely tongue-tied. After a few highly uncomfortable seconds, I mumbled something unintelligible and beelined… straight for the bar.

At a group book signing, there is nothing more humbling than having so few people line up for your autograph that your “signing assistant” gets bored and wanders away to buy the other authors’ books. (She doesn’t want to buy your book, but could she have a copy for free?)


I don’t read my reviews, but sometimes my family tells me about them anyway. My cousin once called to read me my one-star review on Amazon. He thought it would be hilarious. Still not laughing, cuz.

I refer to Kirkus as Jerkus.

I claim not to read my Amazon reviews, but I can’t help myself: I read all my bad reviews.



6 Ideas for Creative Inspiration


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

What is your creativity metaphor?

A whispering muse?

A well of water? A waterfall?

Forest trails?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Your Work-In-Progress Ready to See Other People?

Recently I attended an interdisciplinary artists retreat where I got to spend twenty-four hours with creative people representing all avenues of art: musicians, fine artists, film makers, actors, and writers. I was encircled by amazing people and I got to stare at these trees. It was a total win-win.


Aspen Grove

While there, I learned from James Christensen that some fine artists, when almost finished with a piece, hold it up to a mirror to check for errors or inconsistencies. As the creator, your eye compensates for what is missing or uneven.  Sometimes you can’t really see what you’ve done until you look at it through a mirror.  It’s the reflection of that creation that shows you what it truly is.  This is such a profound concept.

Finding Your Fish by James Christensen

Finding Your Fish by James Christensen


I, myself, have gone “eye blind” while working on a manuscript.  Sometimes after working for months and months, it feels impossible to really see my work for what it is. I miss blaring typos and fail to notice that I’ve used the word probably about thirty-nine times in one chapter.  I have trouble seeing the problems in the plot.  It’s so strange how our brains compensate for our mistakes. After hearing about the mirror trick from Christensen, I wished writers had some sort of magic mirror we could hold up to our manuscripts and immediately see the flaws. Wouldn’t that be dreamy? Although, I’m afraid my mirror might turn into the Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter, and I’d stand there for months…years even.

Mirror of Erised

Mirror of Erised

What can writers do after we’ve stared at a piece for so long that we’ve gone eye blind? How do we test our manuscript for flaws?  How can we know what our writing truly reflects?  We need a Writers Mirror. Here’s what I think it consists of:

First, you need to write your piece until you are completely sick of it. Only after you’ve spent a significant amount of time revising your novel, and are so sick of reading it that the thought of having to read it again makes bile rise to the back of your throat, are you ready to take a break from it.  Put it away and let your manuscript breathe.  Give your mind a rest.  I did this with SURIVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE. I put it away for a long, long time and wrote something else.  Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.”  While writing a different book, I could slowly see the problems in SSOTAB and was able to go back and attack the pages with fresh eyes and a new brain.

rose colored glasses

Fresh Eyes

Second, give it to a trusted writers group (or reader) who understands your genre. If you don’t have someone, get someone. In my opinion, every writer needs a nice, healthy, critique from smart people who like you, but aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings.  Every writer needs a truth teller.  Actually, I need these kind of people in every part of my life. Right now, my fifteen-year-old thinks she’s my truth teller (but I fear her motivation is highly suspect). When writing a book, you need a truth teller. Preferably it’s nice to have more than one, so that when they both mention a common concern, you will be more likely to believe them.  It wasn’t until I heard from two different editors that SSOTAB should be a journey novel that I took it seriously. In the end, I re-wrote my entire manuscript.Jen Book Cover

Third, be brave and get smart.  Attend a writers conference or retreat where you can get feedback from professionals (SCBWI has a great list of resources). I know for many introverted writers, this sounds excruciatingly painful. You have to make small talk with people you don’t know and then are expected to talk about your work. No, thanks. But these kinds of events are really the place to be if you want to find success in traditional publishing. Not only will you get honest, industry-sound, feedback, you’ll also learn a lot and make great connections with other writers and professionals. I met my current editor at a writing retreat where she gave a lecture about the publishing industry and then agreed to read ten pages of whatever the attendees wanted to submit. It was there, during her ten page critique, that she asked to see my full manuscript. I would have never made that contact unless I had been a little brave. So, do it. Even if you don’t want to go, go. I promise you won’t be sorry.

Lastly, don’t give up. I cannot say this enough. Do you realize the amount of self-soothing and loathing that goes on inside my head as I work on a manuscript? Let me tell you, it’s a little pathetic. And I don’t think I’m alone. Writing is a hard, and sometimes lonely, business. Don’t give up. I have this quote at my desk:  A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. It’s true. Don’t ever give up.  One of the common complaints from literary agents and editors is that a writer sends their manuscript too soon.  This shouldn’t be you. You’ll know you’re ready after you hold your WIP up to your Writers Mirror.  Give your manuscript a break, listen to great advice from trusted truth tellers, and attend a conference or two.  It can only make your work shine brighter and you’ll feel more confident sending it out into the world of publishing.

Jen White grew up in Southern California and had a mostly uneventful childhood except for the one time when her parents accidentally forgot her on a family vacation. Her debut middle grade novel SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE was inspired by that experience.  She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in California with her family.  jenwhitebooks.com

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 www.writers.com. 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).

Happy New (School) Year!

My Best Everything-HorizonMy internal calendar thinks in terms of school years. As a student, as a classroom teacher, and as a mom, each separate school year adds structure and reference in a more specific and concrete way than traditional months or years. So, this time, right now, is the new year.

This is the time for resolutions and new beginnings. Even though it’s hard to come off summer when I have much more time to write and to explore, it’s a good time to set goals and be aware of the world beyond my words.

I still work in schools, although now I’m tending school health offices. This job allows me to make a positive difference, in the moment, but when I walk out, my head is mine. There’s room for my stories in a way that teaching doesn’t allow. But best of all, my job keeps me connected to young readers. It helps me remember the truths – the aches and joys – of growing up.

I travel between schools which means I get to see kids of all ages, from preschool to high school. And, I get to see a little bit of everything. I take care of ongoing medications and treatments for asthma, allergies, diabetes, and more. There are the expected skinned knees and bumped heads. Nosebleeds. The fevers and the tummy aches. One school has bright red, enthusiastically proclaimed, “vomit pails.” Yes, sometimes they are put to use.

There are also the emotional stresses and anxieties. Conflicts of every intensity often pass through. Physical fights and emotional bullying both leave scars in need of care. Some kids are hungry. Others need new shoes. Or a new home. From temporary trouble to serious mental health issues, the health office is a safe place to claim a time out.

But it’s also a place to see kindness and caring. Kids help their injured friends make it to the health office. They check on each other and advocate for someone that they think needs care and attention. They offer sympathy and empathy. Yesterday a group of over-achievers came in to make ice packs and it was delightful to watch them independently develop a cooperative assembly line.

I love being able to make a difference in someone’s day. I try to make a tough experience a little bit better – or, at the very least, not worse. But, selfishly, I also get to do current and ongoing research for my writing. I see new trends and hear opinions on everything. Most importantly, I get to imagine myself in unfamiliar shoes. I am reminded, over and over again, what it truly feels like to be in the midst of growing and changing.

Happy New Year!

It’s time to set goals, look ahead, and anticipate. What will you do this year?

~Sarah Tomp

Survival Strategies of the Best First Chapters

When you open a brand new book, the binding gives a satisfying crack. The pages smell of new ink and freshly dried glue. If you’re like most readers, you have hope that this book will be awesome. And you don’t necessarily want to put it down. But with limited time, most people are looking for an excuse to stop reading and do something more pressing. Studies show, that in books written for adults, the author has maybe an entire chapter to hook their reader. In writing for young adults and children, the author has an even smaller page allotment. If you’re a writer trying to get published, you have one page to hook an agent or an editor. The first chapter (especially your first page) is your golden ticket. golden-ticket-large

A first chapter is a contract between you and your reader. I thought I knew what that meant when I crafted my first novel, but I didn’t. When I wrote the draft of my newly released middle grade novel, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” the first scene began with two sisters sitting alone on a deserted road at the gas station waiting for their dad. I loved this first chapter. It had everything I thought a first chapter needed: an opening scene that began with a bang, drama, a great voice, a page turn…. But what I didn’t realize was that my first chapter was promising something I wasn’t aware of. After a few editors read my manuscript, it became clear to me that I wasn’t living up to what I had unknowingly promised in the first chapter. I will explain more about this later, but as I continued to write and revise my book, I learned a few things about writing a great first chapter.

First, you need a great hook. Everyone likes a hook. Everyone wants a hook, maybe they just don’t know it yet. As a reader you have great expectations. You hope that you are in skilled hands. Perhaps you want to like the main character. Maybe you want a distinct voice. You might like a mystery. Most of all, you want a book that you can’t put down. You want to be hooked.13161017971575791316fish-hook-md (2)

A first chapter is like telling a joke. It has certain expectations. A joke is like a little story. It has a hook, a dilemma, and a punch line. As a listener, we recognize this structure and are willing to wait for the punch line. A first chapter can be written in the same way. Here are four things I think a writer needs to create a great first chapter hook.


  1. Voice
  2. Empathy.
  3. A mystery.
  4. A promise.

Voice is difficult to describe, but when you read a book with a compelling voice, you know it. There are no doubts about who the character is. From their distinct voice you feel like you know them already. A great voice has a unique style and way of phrasing language. Just think of your mom, best friend, spouse or child, all telling you the same story. They each have a distinct way of speaking. Make sure all of your characters have a different sound. Listen. Eavesdrop and then read. Read everything you can. And lastly, Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I say, good call, Elmore.

A few great books that have a distinct voice are: “Feed” by M.T. Anderson, “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11” by N. Griffin, and “Chime” by Frannie Billingsly.Feed

Empathy. A reader must care about the character. There must be some sort of emotion evoked while reading a first chapter. It doesn’t always have to be a happy emotion. Negative emotions can be a great catalyst for a page turn. No matter what you do, your first chapter must make your reader feel something. Write with enough emotion to make the reader want more. Create an emotionally charged scene where something is new, perhaps a turning point for the character or story. Create pathos. Khen Lampert said, “[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”

Great books that show first page emotion are: “Jelicoe Road” by Melina Marchetta, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, “The Chosen One” by Carol Lynch Williams, and “I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson.

Next, a first chapter needs a mystery. Your book doesn’t need to tote the mystery genre to have it create a mystery. You want the reader to ask questions. What will happen next? What is going on? Is this believable? Is it plausible? Do I care? A mystery incites a page turn. I read this great advice from the writers of the TV drama, Scandal. I keep this list at my writing desk. “1. Everyone has their own story. 2. Everyone has their secrets. 3. Everyone lies. 4. You don’t know what you think you know. 5. Answers lead to more lies.” I think this is great advice for creating mystery in fiction. You don’t need to have all of these elements, but by using one or two of these, a writer can create a great first chapter.


Books which exemplify a great first page mystery are: “Ink and Ashes” by Valynne Maetani, “Bones and All” by Camille DeAngelis, “Holes” by Louis Sachar, “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart, and “Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester” by Barbara O’Conner.

A promise. As an author you promise to stay in character and to stay in genre. You promise to keep story threads alive and fruitful. The first chapter says: This book is about…(and then stay true to that statement). You want the reader to know you trust them because they are smart. If you keep your promises, the reader will trust you, and will be willing to go along for the ride.  Andrew Stanton, the creator of the movie Toy Story, said, “Your audience is a born problem solver. They want to figure out your story. Give the reader 2+2. Not 2+2=4.”

When I wrote my first draft of “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” I had unknowingly made a promise to my readers. I set my protagonists on a road, but I didn’t let them use it. The first chapter implied that the main characters would go on a journey. But in the first draft, I didn’t let them. They stayed in one town for the entire novel. Looking back now, this was obviously frustrating to those who read my manuscript. They wanted to go somewhere. I had put the girls on a road and then left them there to languish.Empty desert road

When my (now) editor asked me to have my characters travel, I realized that I had to fulfill the promise I made in my first chapter and that I had to rewrite my entire book. I had promised a journey novel, now I needed to produce one. I could have rewritten the first chapter to match the rest of my book, but I felt very strongly that I wanted to keep my original first chapter. In the end, I kept seventeen pages of my first draft, and then I rewrote the rest of the book. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with the story, but eventually I figured it out. And my book is the better for it. Currently, my first chapter in, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” is still my original chapter from my first draft.Jen Book Cover

I think every writer wants to create a rabid readership. Every writer would love to author a book that readers can’t put down. Pull out your work in progress and weigh it against these first chapter survival strategies. Does it: have a distinctive voice, evoke emotion, create a mystery, and make a correct and clear promise to your reader? If not, you may consider a first chapter revision…and let me know how it goes. I have found that I’m a little bit of a first chapter enthusiast, these days. I wish you that shiny, golden ticket–whatever that may translate into for you. An editor? An agent? A book contract? An amazingly crafted sixth novel? Poof. May it all be there for you.

When Writing Doesn’t Look Like It

There always comes a time in drafting a story when I need to see it better. I need it to be something more than just the words on the screen or page. I need it to become a little more 3-D.

And since I love making messes art, I get out my scissors and glue and whatever other miscellaneous doodads seem appropriate. Making something tangible and visual helps make my story feel more concrete and real. The added bonus is that by tapping into a different part of my brain, I always learn something new about my characters and their world.

It’s all about the writing, even if it doesn’t look like it!

collage.treePOSTER COLLAGE:

Simple or complex, paper collages are an excellent way to combine visual images and words to represent a story.

I suppose Pinterest is a sort of online version of the same idea, but I really like the kinesthetic experience of finding the right image, and then cutting it out, finding the right place for it, and finally gluing it down. It takes more time, and there’s the element of surprise. More often than not I find something perfect that I hadn’t even thought about. But when I see that just right object, face, word, or color, I know it.

My Best Everything Theme boxBOX COLLAGE:

For my YA novel, MY BEST EVERYTHING, I wanted to include some three-dimensional objects. I took a field trip with a friend to various thrift stores, on the hunt for… whatever happened to catch my eye. Mixed with pictures from magazines, I ended up with a memento box for Lulu’s summer of making moonshine.

I’ve got the bottles and the moon, obviously, but I also have references to the junkyard where Lulu works, a tiny gold cowgirl hat for her best friend Roni, and a boy riding his bike through the woods. There’s a rosary–Lulu is a “good” Catholic girl, after all–and scripture verses. There’s also key chain since she’s learning to drive, as well as a few other assorted items.  And of course I had to include the recipe for a science experiment involving yeast and a flying grape. That’s kind of like making moonshine, right?

Scrapbook Collage


Same basic idea, different layout.

This particular one is still a work in progress, but it’s for a story where the past heavily influences the present. It made sense for me to have separate pages for different time periods. Here’s a compilation photo of some of the pages.



Maps are not just for epic fantasy novels. They’re a wonderful way to world-build, regardless of your genre and/or setting. You can map an area as big (the world) or as small (a bedroom), as you like. I’m including a very simple one here, but you should definitely check out the amazing book, MAP ART LAB by Jill K Berry and fellow VCFA alum, Linden McNeilly. They’ve compiled a multitude of gorgeous projects to inspire you!



Happy Mess-Making!

Sarah Tomp