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




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

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

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

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

We’ll welcome visiting faculty member Martha Brockenbrough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





I can’t wait to listen to them all!

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

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

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

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

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

~ Tami Lewis Brown~

Do You Mind?

Today I’m writing the post I need to read, and more importantly, believe.

As we reach the end of year, and look back over the last twelve months, it’s natural to evaluate one’s progress. Or, perhaps, lack of progress.

I’ve worked on two novels this year. Despite my efforts, they both continue to be messy, untamed, flawed, frustrating, etc. etc. etc. It’s done a number on my confidence. It’s quite possible I don’t know how to fix them…


That word is fundamental to the psychology of growth. Carol Dweck, PhD, psychologist and professor at Standford explains the differences between a “Fixed Mindset” and a “Growth Mindset” in her book, MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS.

A FIXED MINDSET assumes I am who I am. There’s a defeatist attitude inherent to this kind of thinking. The surprising thing is the limits set once a certain level of success has been achieved. This kind of thinking leads to a desire to want to look smart. After all, if we did it (wrote and published a novel, for example) once, certainly we can do it again – more easily! 

In comparison, a GROWTH MINDSET assumes I can do better – this kind of thinking leads to a desire to learn.

A growth mindset embraces challenges, while a fixed one avoids them. When obstacles appear, a person with a fixed mindset is likely to give up while someone with a growth mindset will persist. This growth mindset sees effort and hard work as the path to mastery, while a fixed mindset may perceive it as pointless. Criticism prompts learning for a growth mindset while a fixed mindset is more likely to ignore feedback. People with a fixed mindset will see the success of peers as a threat, while a growth mindset sees these instances as inspiring and motivating.

Do you need a mindset-reset as much as I do? Let’s try these ideas… And please, share any tips you may have as well!


  1. Defeat doubt with YET.
    1. I can’t finish my novel…YET
    2. My novel isn’t working…YET
    3. I’m not smart enough to be a writer…YET
  2. Avoid trap of thinking never-always-every
    1. We can grow and change
    2. Each new work is an opportunity for surprise
    3. Writing is an organic process, never static
  3. Own the fear of failure
    1. Working is progress, regardless of output
    2. Struggle is a sign of growth
    3. Failure is proof of facing a challenge
  4. Visualize each step of growth
    1. Visualize big picture achievement – allow yourself to feel the success
    2. Break the process down into small, doable steps – visualize those, too
    3. (Remember to celebrate those steps)
  5. Journal for reflection 
    1. Keep track of process
    2. Expect ups and downs
    3. Revise goals and expectations
  6. Remember to play
    1. Find joy in the process, complete with struggle
    2. Explore along the way
    3. Even wrong paths can offer moments of beauty and inspiration

Here’s to a growth minded 2017 and onward!


Sarah Tomp

Writing–and Living–in the World

I’ll start with a confession: I’m writing this blog post at midnight the morning before it’s due, and not because I’m intentionally reverting back to my high school work ethic. It’s been a tumultuous and overwhelming few weeks in recent world news, and staying engaged and informed and emotionally stable as we process all that news has often felt like a full-time job for me and several of the other writers I know. All of us seem to have the same questions: How do we write in an environment like this one, when all the other stuff of life demands so much from us? How do we maintain our creative energy? How do we sit down and focus? (How, in a world as busy as ours, can we possibly remember that we have a blog post that’s supposed to go online tomorrow?)

I don’t yet have many good answers to these questions. I’ve found so far that writing early in the morning is helpful; I sit down to work before I read the news, before my train of thought drifts too far away from my draft in progress. If I’m tempted to skim the headlines instead of writing, I turn on the software that disables my internet connection–a useful tool for all those times when sheer willpower isn’t enough. Sometimes I think of my writing as an escape from an exhausting world; at other times I try to weave my concerns and hopes into the thematic fabric of storytelling. And I aim to get words on the page each day because no matter what’s happening in the world, there are kids out there who need our stories, and I don’t want to let them down.

I’d particularly like to hear from Tollbooth readers today: Have you been distracted or overwhelmed lately, and if so, how have you been coping? How do you write (or carry on with your work in general) when large and small life events threaten to pull you away from the page? How do you balance living in the world and writing about it?

Message to the Void: You Don’t Own Me


We are lonesome animals. We spend all our live trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” John Steinbeck

I wrote my first novel in a small room next to the kitchen during teacher vacations. I sat alone, day after day, week after week. Though I had written a couple of short stories and many poems before, I had never written a novel.

I had never been alone with myself that much.

I grew up with four siblings. My childhood friends had large families. As a teacher, I spent my days with thirty or more young people, and as many staff members.

Novel writing means sitting in a void of silence and solitude. It is painful. For me it can feel nonhuman. Making up pretend people who do pretend things seems, at times, beside the point. Why not be with living people who do real things?

Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god. –Aristotle

But still, the need to write tugs.

At first I found all sorts of reasons not to sit in that small room alone. The dog needed to go out. I should call my mother. The bills, the dishes, the laundry were unfinished. Voices called me, helped me make excuses, helped pull me away from the hardest thing about writing: The struggle of isolation.

I forced myself, my eye on the prize of getting a novel written. Gradually I got attached to my characters, and interested in my story for its own sake. By some miracle, I finished the book. It was in no way polished, but when I finished the draft a few people read it. I revised it and sent it to an agent or two but it eventually took up a space on my shelf, gathering dust.

The second book was about the same. I wrote while wrestling with solitude. When the draft was done, I think three people read it, including me.

The third book was a NaNoWriMo novel that I drafted in a month. No one, thankfully, ever read that book, or most of the subsequent revisions.

I submitted revised opening of the third book with my application to Vermont College of Fine Arts Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Attending VCFA was like waking up to find myself in an enormous, multi-generational family the likes of which I’d never seen.

I met people. Writerly people. Fun, kind, interesting, brilliant, stimulating people. Suddenly, I was part of a far-reaching human collective that didn’t go away, even when I was alone.

Now when I wrote at home, I no longer felt like I was in a little room, writing into a grey fog. I had an advisor expecting my work. I had to submit to the critique group. Fellow students shared work with me. At each residency, I made new friends who loved writing for children.

Facebook widened my circle of writer buddies: I had friends to cheer for and who cheered me on. Attending conferences and retreats added more folks to my network that includes writers and readers from around the world. I joined a regular critique group.

Most of my friends are writers, teachers, artists or a combination of these.

Most of my friends care about my success, as I care about theirs.

My daily news is filled with new books, author visits and possibilities for writers. It’s also got reality checks, like how many zillion times you need to send work out before it gets bought. Or sad news of publishers leaving, or fine editors and agents quitting, or books going out of print.

Every single day I learn something new from a friend that I didn’t have when I began my first book alone so many years ago.

I still struggle with the poverty of solitude. I avoid my writing. I act like an orphan, alone and afraid. But I am not.

As I stare at my screen or my journal, loneliness does not take me over.

In this very bleak time in American history, when the void flicks an evil finger at me, I can say resolutely: You do not own me. I have my people. And they have me.

We are here holding our places in the creative world.

This saves me every moment of every day.

Linden McNeilly


Writing Retreat Review: Loon Song


img_6197This past September, I had the honor to attend the inaugural Loon Song Retreat in rural Minnesota. It was amazing. Inspiring. Life changing. Want to know more? I thought so. Without further ado, here are Ten Things I Loved About The Loon Song Writing Retreat (In No Particular Order)*

1. Katherine Paterson. I’m not sure I need to say more. Her talk. Her humor. Her candor. Her wonderful sense of writing, stories, and the social responsibilities of being a good author and good human. I soaked in everything she said, and the page of notes I wrote while she was talking has already been revisited many, many times.

2. The setting. Okay, at first it was a little spooky. Delta decided to delay my flight for, oh, seven hours, leaving me alone in a terminal who’s repertoire of food options included: bagels (that’s it). So, I arrived at dark o’clock, driving a rental car about fifteen miles outside of the teeny tiny town that’s nearby. A very long, windy dirt road indeed. Luckily, friends were waiting to help me find my cabin when I arrived, otherwise I might have slept in my car and made friends with the wildlife. And there is such wildlife! After my turbulent travel day, I awoke for a sunrise pontoon ride on the most idyllic, peaceful gorgeous lake. Between the cabins and the quiet and the lake and the loons, Loon Song is where you want to go write, trust me. img_6138

3. Kekla Magoon. I’ve had the great fortune to know Kekla over the years, and her lectures always open up my mind in a new direction. For this weekend she discussed outlining as breathing in and drafting as breathing out. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that just feels so natural. And actually explains a lot…

4. Marion Dane Bauer. Marion gave a talk about staying relevant in the swiftly evolving world of children’s publishing, and what’s more, she talked about sustaining happiness through a long writing career. This is something I needed to hear. I’m only a few years into my writing career and for too long I’ve been sprinting. Marion talked about how a writing career is a journey and imparted the message that I should enjoy the scenery and not keep my head buried in my work.

5. VCFA and non-VCFA. I was pretty delighted to not only see old friends from VCFA at Loon Song, but to meet other writers from other circles. There is an instant connection that can be made when you and another person love children’s literature, and it was so wonderful to meet new kindred spirits.

img_61246. Readings, lectures, talks, workshops, time for writing/inspiration. I think this note explains itself, but I was particularly jazzed that on top of the talks and panels, we had free time to relax and converse. I even did a bit of writing which has never happened at a writing conference/retreat before.

7. Structure panel. There was a panel on structure! Which is awesome. You know why? Because it’s just too easy to believe that there’s one way to plot, to outline, to craft a book. This panel illuminated how several different incredibly talented and decorated writers all use different methods.

8. Will Alexander. Will talked about science fiction and fantasy with the kind of passion that inspires. He explained, illuminated, and ruminated. All of which has left my new science fiction story idea bubbling inside of me.

img_61799. Winding Oak’s marketing expertise and positivity. On top of having authors from all walks of life, an agent and an editor, Loon Song also brought in Winding Oak—a marketing duo that are rife with positivity and informed straight talk about how authors can take their careers, readerships, and websites to the next level and beyond.

10. Expanded horizons. Picture book discussions by Kathi Appelt! So I have been sticking my toe into the pool of picture books for awhile, and I’ve finally decided to try my hand in earnest. This is entirely because Kathi shared her process and journey for several of her books.

Sometimes you just need to see the road that someone else traveled to have the courage to set out on your own…


*Yes, this is a shout out to Kekla Magoon’s fabulous book 37 Things I love (In No Particular Order).

Cori McCarthy is the author of four YA books and a freelance editor at Yellow Bird Editors. Find out more at

When Your System Needs An Update- Reboot HERE

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I love this question!

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

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


What has surprised you most?

Honestly, nothing surprises me anymore.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK now for the contest.

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

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

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

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

xo  tami lewis brown



When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.


Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.


Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid



Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.



Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.


Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix


If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.


Rancho Canada Elementary



Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

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



In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. 

-Eleanor Roosevelt

You write your life story by the choices you make. You never know if they have been a mistake. Those moments of decision are so difficult. 

-Helen Mirren

Dear Writers,

It’s time for me to say goodbye to posting on Through the Tollbooth. I’ve learned so much preparing posts for this amazing blog, but now that I write my own newsletter, it is time to make room on this site for other voices.

Like everybody else, I’m also really busy. I am always trying to create balance in my writing life and my real life! I need to give myself time to play—to experiment and explore writing—to write without expectations so that  later, I can revise with intention. I’ve also been teaching a lot. And this month I’ve been reading submissions for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. This has been an extraordinary honor. My first job is the hardest: to choose a writer to work with.

This week, I’ve been thinking almost about nothing else. This month, I read and thought about 36 submissions. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

This process has taught me about reading. Or maybe I should say: reading like an editor. Or maybe: what an editor must do on a regular basis. Or maybe the problem is I am wishy washy!! Every day, when I look at the manuscripts, I think of Laura and I wish I knew her. I feel her enthusiasm and heart every time I sit down to read. I feel the weight of the responsibility.

I did not totally expect this.

I am used to reading manuscripts and stories of writers who I’m already working with. I open the document and I read–the first time like a reader. Then like a writer. That hasn’t changed. After reading all 36 submissions, I see so much potential. So many interesting characters. So many stories I would LOVE to work on.

I thought the perfect story would jump out at me.

The problem is: it has. All 36 times.

So what have I learned? What can I say about this process that might give you some insight as you start to submit?

  1. The first line is so important. I cannot say that enough. The first line tells me so much about the writer and the story. It tells me if the writer is fearless or if she is still dipping her toe. If she knows her character or if she is still unsure. The first line prepares me for the POV. The genre. The tone of the story. Time. Space.

This is true for every chapter’s first line. And every chapter’s last line, too.

Great first and last lines tell me that the writer has thought about pacing. It tells me that the writer knows where her story is going. It makes me want to read the whole thing.

**One of the BEST TIPS I ever received was from writer, Barbara O’Connor. She makes a list of all the first and last lines in her draft. It’s a GREAT way to analyze your pacing and see if you are managing your storytelling in parts that make sense. 


It is all about the characters!

The stories I can’t forget–that I’m grappling with–have interesting plots. But that’s because they already have distinct characters. Some are funny. Some are miserable. All are interesting. ALL YEARN FOR SOMETHING. There is some action early. Even if it comes too early, it is there.

  1. It’s about me, too. This is the hardest part for me to admit. The story has to appeal to me. The writing has to appeal to me. The writer’s topics must be interesting to me. I’m reading and wondering: who can I help the most? Will this story be fun to read five or six or ten times? (Sometimes a no really means no, not for me, but yes for someone else!)
  1. There can only be one. Oh, man. I hate saying no. I wake up thinking of ways I could say yes to at least six or seven or maybe all 36. I could start a class. Or a new workshop. I think about the story that will ultimately come in second and already, I feel awful!!! And I remember what that feels like–to come in second. And I think: how can I make this writer understand that her story has great, strong, amazing legs? And then I wonder if I’m making the wrong choice. I read the above quotes. Argh! I walk around the room second-guessing myself. I debate calling the organizers and asking if I can take two. Or three. Or four.

I remember when I was a young mother, I would take my kids into NYC for the day and tell them they could “beg” for one thing. (I really couldn’t say no to them either!!!) Most of the time, this worked. They waited until they saw something (a thing or an activity) they really wanted to do, and then the begging and giggling would commence. But a lot of the time, it meant, they never begged for anything. They held it in, waiting for something else to come along. Just in case. It gave me the opportunity to say no without saying no. It also gave me opportunities to surprise them with gifts and treats and celebration.

I also remember needing a “magic hat” to help me choose the advisors I wanted to work with during a semester at VCFA. My friends and I would write down all the names of the teachers we were considering. And then we would pull out names, one at a time. This was a sort of gut check. For me, if I felt great, I added the teacher to my list. It also relieved a lot of stress.

vermeer hat(Nice hat!)

Choices are hard. Making them is also essential–especially in the context of story. 

All our characters face choices. Really, those choices and actions are what keep the plot moving. They make our characters interesting. These moments are “show” moments. They change the vector of the protagonist’s journey. These are the moments that catch readers’ eyes and hook them. These are the moments that make our readers say YES.

Remember: Often, the plot starts turning when our characters do the wrong thing, even if they think it is right at the time.

Today, go to that first big choice in your WIP. Look at what your character does. Ask: could you make more conflict if your character did something else? Not sure? Ask yourself: who is this character? What does he/she want? What has happened in the past to get her/him to this moment? What are her controlling beliefs?

Does that first decision represent who your character is, including her/his flaws? Or are you being easy on your character. Or protecting her/him? OR are you expecting other characters to make the conflict happen? These moments make the difference between good and great stories and characters!

This post is also about the power of working together. About our writing community. About supporting each other. (An easy choice.)

This week, as I thought about how I wanted to say goodbye to The Tollbooth, I remembered a series of posts I did right at the beginning of this blog. They featured interviews with aspiring writers. Back then, we called the prepublished writers.

I have always hated that term.

Why? Because it means that becoming a “real writer” can only happen with a contract. It means our identities are tied to events we cannot control.

So this is what I say:

We are writers if we sit down and put words on paper. We are writers because we are committed to the craft. We should not wait for contracts to validate who we are and what we do and the power of story!

We are writers. Because we write. 

So back to those interviews. One of those writers was Elly Swartz.  She offered this advice:

Generally, my advice is to believe in yourself, stay dedicated to the story, and write, write, write! 


Don’t write for the market, write for yourself, the market will come. Eventually.

In the interview, she talked about a new manuscript. She talked about the need to have hope. And determination. She didn’t know when or if she would sell her book, but she believed in her story. When we had that chat, so long ago, we had just met. I hadn’t yet read her story about Molly. But now I have. And so will you. Finding Perfect is coming out October 18, 2016. It is a beautiful book. It is full of heart. It will make you laugh. And cry. It will change how you see kids who face internal obstacles that, at first, we do not see.

So… as I finish making my decision for the mentorship, I’m feeling a bit frustrated–I still want to work with them all–but I’m also feeling a bit sappy and grateful. I’m thinking a lot about all the writers I’ve worked with–in critique groups…at VCFA…at the VCFA Writing for Young People Retreat, in my classes and at Highlights. It’s such great work. Such great people. So many stories waiting to be shared.

The message I’d like to leave you with is this:

Work hard. Be true. Care deeply. Do not give up. Keep writing. Face your fears. Play, play, play, play, play. DO NOT GIVE UP!!! 

All of us have a story. Be a writer. Sit down and write it.

xo sarah

To sign up for Sarah Aronson’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, Look under tips. It’s there. All the way at the bottom!



Measuring Success: Renewed Adolescent Insecurities Brought on by an Impending High School Reunion and a Writing Career

My fortieth high school reunion is looming. I’ve been debating whether or not to go. On the one hand, it’s been forty years (which seems impossible to me) and I am curious. On the other hand, I hated high school. I could not wait to leave. I think the movie PeggySue Got Married is a horror film on par with The Shining. I cannot imagine anything worse than waking up and finding myself back in high school. I cannot blame my classmates for this loathing. I was not bullied, I had friends–good friends. I even had a boyfriend. I was an athlete. I wrote for the literary magazine. I was the school mascot  (but that was because I didn’t make the cheerleading squad and as a senior that was the consolation prize). My sense was that I never felt as if I fit. I was always on the outside, despite my friends and activities, trying to fit in. Trying to measure up. Trying to be better. I can’t firmly put my finger on why I hated high school, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my father went to his first AA meeting on my seventeenth birthday. (In case you wondered why I write YA.)


In the forty years since graduation, I have, thankfully, learned not to care if I fit in. Fitting in does not matter. Being myself, doing my best, and appreciating every single day and everyone in my life is what matters.

Over the years, I have lost touch with most of my high school friends, though I am Facebook friends with a few. They are not a real part of my life. I keep in touch, personal, regular touch with two people. Two. That’s fine. I like that.

So as my reunion approaches, I debate why am I even considering going? I see the list of classmates who are attending, and, honestly, I don’t remember who they are. And I am not even interested enough to pull out the yearbook and look them up. Chances are, the majority of my classmates don’t remember me, either. It’s been forty years! If we’d wanted to keep in touch, we would have. So, again, why am I even considering going?

Let’s face it, the purpose of reunions is to show off. Success. Rubbing it in the face of all those former classmates, Hey, look at me! I am successful!

But then I wonder, am I? And then, it’s like I am PeggySue and I am once again in high school, wondering if I’ll fit in.

On a personal level, I have a great life. I’ve had my share of ups and downs, but I have been happily married for nearly thirty four years. Both my husband and I are happy and healthy. I have two post graduate degrees from highly regarded institutions. I have two grown children who have successfully launched and are happy and healthy and are starting families of their own. I do not need affirmation from near strangers to acknowledge these successes.

Then there is my career. And this is where I falter. I’ve had a few careers, from the field of highway safety, to a long-term medical research study, to stay-at-home-mom. Now, writing is my career.

How do I measure success in my writing career? Am I successful because I have two published books? Yes. But no, because I have only two published books. Why don’t I have more? Am I successful because my books have received critical acclaim? Yes. But no, because the second one didn’t get any stars, and it really deserved at least one, from someone.  4stars1

Am I successful because both books have received awards? Yes. But no, because they’re not ALA awards.


Do you see where I’m going? I am still struggling to measure up, to do better. Will I ever consider myself successful in my writing career? I have to remind myself, daily, that there are no guarantees in life. The one book was the cupcake and the second is icing. A third will put me over the moon. This is a tough career I’ve chosen. It is not for the faint of heart or thin skin. Isn’t it enough that I write? That I make it my job? I do the work. I learn the craft. I study. I read. I write. I am working at something I LOVE not only because I get to do it in my pajamas, but because it feeds my soul.

All of this reminds me of a lecture given by Amanda Jenkins at VCFA in January 2013 entitled “Publication Pressure: The Elephant in Brigadoon.” One of the things Amanda reminds us all to do is keep our eyes on our own paper. It doesn’t matter how many books we have in comparison to our friends. It doesn’t matter that we have fewer stars than someone we know, or that our awards are “lesser” than someone else’s. What matters is that we are writing. WRITING.

I refuse to return to my seventeen year old self. I refuse to believe that I’m not fitting in or am not good enough. I will keep my eyes on my own paper. I will stop belittling the success I have had. I will stop worrying about success all together and focus on writing, writing, writing.

And I think I’ll go to my high school reunion when I know there’ll be a portal, so I can go back and tell my seventeen year old self in that moldering, oversized panther costume, that our life turns out to be pretty friggin’ amazing.