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

Story Sense: Creating Narrative Non-Fiction

New Non-fiction



Gretchen’s March 28 Tollbooth post on the way we respond to words, metaphor and experience struck me as particularly appropriate to what’s on my mind this week, creating voice in narrative non-fiction. Voice depends on reader empathy in non-fiction as much as it does in fiction. It’s one of the first things editors look for, and just as with fiction, it’s crafted through story and sensory detail.


Consider the following, is it fiction, or non-fiction?

“Your name is Solomon Perel. You’re a short, skinny, sixteen-year-old Jew, and you’ve just been captured by the Nazis. It’s all you can do not to piss on yourself.

They’ve nabbed you and a bunch of other refugees, just a few days into Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Now they’ve lined you all up in a field as they decide what do with each of you.

Most of you are Jewish—that’s why you were on the run in the first place—so the Nazis don’t have to think too hard about it. They take groups of refugees ahead of you off into the woods. From the forest come the sounds of shovels and machine guns, shovels and machine guns.”   


How about this?

“Polio came down on a lot of kids that summer. It shriveled the leg of one girl in our congregation and deformed the arm of a little boy. The doctor knew what it was a soon as he saw Delphine. He sent her to St. Jude Hospital and put her in an iron lung to help her breathe. She couldn’t move. All she could do was whisper through her breath, that’s what my momma said. I used to go in the car with them to visit, but Mom and Q.P. made me wait outside the hospital. They didn’t want me to get sick, too, and they didn’t want me to see Delphine like that. Once I tried to slip inside to see my sister, but a nurse caught me and led me back out screaming. I never saw Delphine alive again after the day she left our house to go see the doctor. The next time I saw her she was dead.”


Or this?

“On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, there was something important she had to do.

‘I want to go to jail,’ Audrey told her mother.

Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready. Her father had even bought her a new game she’d been eyeing. Audrey imagined that it would entertain her if she got bored during her week on a cell block.”


Each of the above passages are from non-fiction narratives.

The first quote is from a vignette in Chris Barton’s new nonfiction book for young people, Can I See Your ID? about people who made their mark, for whatever reason, by misleading folks.

The second, from Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, is a story about a little known civil rights figure who stood up for herself by refusing to give up her seat on a bus before Rosa Parks made her mark, and thus affected the course of American history. 

And finally, the last quote from We’ve Got a Job To Do, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson, is the story of how Birmingham’s black youth answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to “fill the jails: of their city,” as the book notes. “And in doing so, how they drew national attention to the cause and helped bring about the repeal of segregation laws.”

What these narratives have in common is a particular voice crafted by story and sensory detail. That’s easy to spot as a reader because you know it when you see it. But how do you get it in your writing? For Barton and Levinson, it was finding the right approach to their research.


 Can I See Your ID?

Chris Barton wrote Can I See Your ID? entirely in second person. After researching risk taking characters through history who posed as someone they weren’t, he “had stacks of research… but not a single word written down. I hadn’t yet come up with a voice.” At first, he merely played around with second person to experience what his characters were experiencing. He liked the effects. “But ‘you’?” he thought. “A whole book addressed to ‘you’?” Yet once he caught that voice, he couldn’t let it go.

Writing in second person though, made it especially challenging to create distinct voices that let readers experience events through an individual character’s eyes. Much of getting it right had to do with sensory detail and scene setting.

“I collected a lot of information about these people’s lives,” he notes, “And about the times and places where these scenes occur. Sometimes, I just got extremely lucky, such as finding a book that provided the daily temperatures during the Civil War for the particular place I needed… to make the scene seem real.”

It worked. Reading Barton’s blend of action, character conflict, and historical detail you can’t imagine this book any other way, because the technique puts you masterfully, smack dab in each character’s shoes.


We’ve Got a Job To Do

In contrast, the voice in Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job To Do, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March is, as agent Erin Murphy puts it, “Notable for its invisibility. For the most part, what Cynthia Levinson achieves is putting the viewpoints of her four profiled participants at the forefront, letting them and their experiences speak for themselves.” And it’s these experiences that give young readers a unique window into the Civil Rights Movement.

To achieve this, Levinson relied on her own brand of sensory details such as “listening to music and sermons. I wrote Chapter Five,” she says, “which is on the role of mass meetings and religion in the civil rights movement, while listening to gospel, movement songs, and early-60s black rock music.”

She also unearthed recordings of sermons given at mass meetings by Reverend Ralph Abernathy and by Dr. King (including one in which he rehearsed what became the “I have a dream,” speech he delivered four months later at the March on Washington).

“I continued listening to them while revising that chapter,” Levinson adds. “My interviews and other primary sources, such as reports by white policemen who spied on the meetings were also essential. But, it was by being infused with the hallelujah fervor of the songs and sermons that I could write scenes such as the following:

A mass meeting rolled worship services, social visits, teen hangouts, choir concerts, sing-alongs, fish fries, strategy sessions, political debates, news reports, educational assemblies, fundraisers, crowd-rousers, and calls for volunteers all into one spiritual and spirited extravaganza.”


Next: the 1906 earthquake, Catherine the Great, and a storyteller’s guide to writing your own narrative non-fiction story.     –zv

Storyboarding, Novel Writing, and the Flow State

This week I’m talking about storyboarding a novel.

Why would a novelist want (okay, in my case NEED) to draw out a story? And what about computer programs that storyboard for you? Isn’t that neater… easier… all around better? Why pencil? Why paper? Isn’t that a little well OLD FASHIONED?

No. Or yes, maybe. But who cares if it’s old fashioned and messy. Writing a novel is a messy job. Storyboarding by hand will help you organize that mess. More important it can transform your mess into something more exciting and creative than what you had before.

What? How? Why?


A human brain is a mysterious thing and as a writer I’m always looking for ways to push inside my unconscious, to lift the veil between what I know on the outside and what my heart and mind know about my story on the inside. I’m trying to enter “the flow”. Even though I’m no great shakes as an artist drawing a scene is a powerful tool to lead me through the curtain into “the understory”.

Huh? This sounds a little like hocus pocus. Its not. Its science. Clinical psychologist Carol Kaufman posted a great article about brain function and creativity titledBEING CREATIVE: THE RIGHT-BRAIN/LEFT-BRAIN MYTH AND FLOW In the article she explains how brain function and creativity converge and argues that free writing and other “mind freeing” exercises are the way to achieve flow.

Great. We know taking a walk or hopping into the shower can somehow put you into a more contemplative frame of mind. But I wanted to travel deeper and direct my unconscious to particular story problems- specific spots in my novel that needed work. Could I direct my brain to those places with a pencil and paper? Why did I notice things in storyboard images I hadn’t considered when writing scenes? Could it be that drawing a few quick sloppy lines open a door deeper into my story? If so why?

First I want to start with the caveat that I’m not a neurologist or even a particularly “sciency” person. And I haven’t spoken to a neurologist about this. Or an occupational therapist… or anyone else who might study thought and brain function as their life work. But I’ve experimented- on myself. And I’ve done tons of reading on brains and creativity and talent and growing as a writer. Here’s  a bit of what I found-

At the school where I worked children with small motor skills issues were often given laptops to type their work rather than write it by hand. Keyboarding seemed to unlock a door for some of these children, not just freeing them from an unwieldy writing instrument. It was almost as if they had a new brain when they typed rather than scrawled.

At about the same time I purchased Scrivener, a powerful computer program for writers. It has pretty interfaces, including a snazzy “bulletin board” where you can tack notes about your novel. It’s easy to paste images so theoretically you could generate a gorgeous storyboard or extended outline on Scrivener. So I tried it. My outline/storyboard was over 20 pages long. It was BEAUTIFUL. And an utter failure. I couldn’t remember scene sequences. The narrative arc was off and I couldn’t tell why. Looking at images from that pretty outline made me feel like I’d sunk into a vat of brain clogging tar.

Why did working on a laptop free certain children at my school but shut my creativity down? I’m a very very fast typist. And I’m generally happiest writing drafts on a keyboard. Why didn’t planning on a keyboard work for me? Could it be something about my brain? I had lots of questions, a few suspicions, but not many answers until I read a story in the Toronto Star.

In Writing Is A Whole Brain Enterprise, reporter Andrea Gordon writes

“In handwriting, the motor cortex in the frontal lobe directs movement. But it also acts in concert with other regions that provide sensory information, such as whether fingers are holding the pencil tightly enough, and visual and fine motor feedback to guide the arm and hand, adjust the tiny finger movements and achieve precision.

The parietal lobes are the source of spatial sense, directing where on the page to begin the task and how to form the curved and straight lines for letters. The parietal lobes also provide for directionality, which makes sure the letters go the right direction and keeps the hand moving left to right.

In contrast, printing and typing are more a product of the left hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with linear, logical, sequential functions and learned behaviour that has become routine. While typing requires similar tactile and motor functions to cursive, researchers now know it also requires separate skills: bilateral coordination for using both hands, acute finger sense as each digit moves separately, and fine motor skills and motor memory to produce a different type of movement to strike the keys.”

So… is it possible, no likely, that writing an outline by hand is triggering different regions of my brain than typing that same outline? Brain regions that, in my case at least, are “more creative”?  Based on my personal experience I think the answer is yes.

Then there are the pictures. There’s a whole science of art therapy and lots of research on how drawing can retrieve memories or spark ideas. I’m no expert on this field either. But I believe when those drawings are focused on specific areas of a novel- sections I’ve identified with an emotion above the box and an action below the box half formed ideas and unconscious images bubble to the surface. My pictures aren’t pretty, certainly not as intricate or visually pleasing as the cut and paste photos in my Scrivener outlines, but they are unlocking bits of my story. That’s all I want or need as a novelist.

I don’t consider myself an expert in any of this, by any means. I’m just looking for what works for me. But this stuff makes me incredibly curious. I’ve done other reading you might find interesting. Some books I’m reading right now include-Dreaming By The Book by Elaine Scarry, Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, and The Talent Code by Dan Coyle.

So… now you’ve scribbled and noted and drawn and you have a huge sheet of paper full of – stuff.  What then? It’s time to step back. This is when I see- graphically- that my protagonist is sitting and talking three scenes in a row. BORING. This is when I see the antagonist is absent for a good third of the novel. This is where I see I need some character motivation because there isn’t much connection between one block and the one next to it. This isn’t a mechanical exercise. You have to bring all your story intuition into the analysis. But I’m consistently surprised about what I see when I study a storyboard, even if I thought I knew the story backwards and forwards.

Now it’s time to share again. Have you found techniques that you think help you be more creative or that generate surprising ideas? Or maybe you are a neurologist or psychologist or one of the many other experts that I’m NOT. Does my theory of accessing the creative side ring true? What works for you?

~ Tami

A Novelist’s Storyboard

What exactly is a storyboard?

A storyboard is a sequence of images that tell your story. In the 1930s, Disney Studios’ artists began taking on more complicated projects- intricate stories with many scenes- and before long one cartoon generated so many sketches that it was impossible to keep the flow and sequence of the story straight.

Sound familiar? This is exactly how it feels to me when I have an early draft of a novel. So much great material– backstory, dialog, action sequences, contemplative moments– but it’s a jumble. Some parts drag. Others race. Worse of all, with hundreds of pages of material and almost no perspective from my position close inside a project, I can’t pinpoint  the problem spots.

Disney animator Webb Smith had a solution- storyboarding. Basically a sequence of images arranged in the order of the final product.

Follow this link to see Walt Disney leading a bunch of Washington big wigs through a storyboard.

Neat isn’t it?  Is this what my storyboards look like? No way. For one thing I’m no artist. But believe me, that’s not a handicap for storyboarding a novel. In fact in some ways it may be an asset because my drawings are free and spontaneous. We’ll talk about why this is important tomorrow— and how storyboarding can pull you into the “flow state”. But let’s stick with practical matters today.

What does a novelist’s storyboard look like?

I’ve had a more or less hellacious time downloading images today… if I can get my camera to work with my computer I’ll post a photograph of the actual storyboard I’m working on right now. Until then take a look at this template-

This is generic but it will work for our purposes. There’s a block for an image, and underneath, lines for text. So how do you fill it in— what goes in those blocks? I have some recommendations but ultimately it’s up to you.


1) Consider including three elements for each storyboard “segment”. Below the block make a brief note about the major ACTION in the scene or part of a scene you are storyboarding. In the block draw what’s happening. Above the block write a one word description of the overriding EMOTION in the scene. This will gauge both the arc of the story itself (what is “happening”) and the emotional arc of your protagonist or of the story. If every block is “Sad” “Sad” “Sad” that’s a good clue your story is emotionally stagnant.

2) Play with the pictures. At least until you’ve decided one method works best from you draw whatever you feel in each block. It may be one strong visual image (perhaps I’d draw a handprint in one of my blocks). In the next block you may chose to draw the major action (how about two characters embracing?)  When you stay loose and free you’re going to surprise yourself. Something entirely unexpected might pop up anywhere. Don’t “overthink” it. Just do it.

3) Don’t get hung up on how it’s coming together while you’re working on it. You’re not storyboarding for Disney. It’s going to be a mess in the middle of the project. Give yourself license to be messy.

4) Step back- literally and figuratively. Tack your storyboard onto a wall or prop it against a table. Stand back and take the long view. (At least in my case this means my storyboards are at least poster sized) Take your time. This isn’t a fifteen minute project. It will probably take hours. Maybe even days. Then let it cool off and come back to it. What do you see now? What do you want to add?

5) Don’t erase. While you’re working leave in the blunders. Yes, sometimes they were mistakes. Often they’re your unconscious mind rearing it’s head. At this stage be receptive, not judgmental.

6) You can storyboard an entire novel, scene by scene or chapter by chapter. You can do three blocks, beginning middle and end. You can make a block for the inciting incident, the three major hurdles, the climax, the realization, the denoument, and the wrap up. You can break it down any way, with as many or as few blocks are you want. Too much freedom? Start with four rows of four. Make the first block your inciting incident and the last one your conclusion and just work from there. Experiment.

7) Make it yours. This is JUST for you. Don’t show it to anyone else. Maybe you’re an “awful artist”. Who cares? This isn’t a drawing project. It’s a creativity and organization project.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with the “so what”. There are sound neurological reasons storyboarding works for some of us. It literally probes the deepest recesses of the creative mind. How? Come back tomorrow and I’ll try to explain.

In the meantime I’d love to hear your organization ideas. Do you outline? What do your outlines look like? Do you use computer programs like Scrivener? Do you make collages? Lets share!

~Tami Lewis Brown

Storyboarding- At the corner of creative and organized

(Photo courtesy of Liz Gallagher)

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Can I see a show of hands for each category?

I’ve always hated that question a little because I just don’t get it, at least for my own writing. Plotters plan ahead, arranging the sequence of events in their novels with the precision of a German train schedule. Plungers take a blind leap off a cliff and write whatever their heart tells them to put on the page.

I do neither.

Or maybe I should stand up and proclaim (with pride rather than shame) “I do both.”  Now with a creativity technique I learned from my wonderful advisor Carolyn Coman I can do both at the same time. Her planning/reviewing method drops me off at the corner of creative and organized, right where I need to be to get an accurate view of my novel, its strengths, and its gaps.

The summer residency at Vermont College started up yesterday with a grand welcome — Coe Booth, Frannie Billingsley, and An Na joined the stellar faculty, and a whopping 31 new first semester students began their journey (More about what’s going on in Montpelier later this week!) On Friday alumni will converge on campus for an Alumni Mini-residency, along with a slew of agents, editors, and special speakers including Jacqueline Woodson, Gregory Maguire, and Holly Black… and um… me. I’ll be teaching a workshop for alumni on Friday. Here’s a description-

Storyboarding Your Way Out Of The Forest

Tami Lewis Brown
Deep into a novel’s revision it can be hard to see the forest for the trees and navigate your way to a satisfying, well structured novel. In the 1930’s Disney Studio’s animators invented the storyboard technique to help visualize the shape of their stories. Carolyn Coman has developed a novelist’s version of storyboarding which tracks both plot and emotion… and may reveal surprises your unconscious has buried inside your novel. Bring a pencil. Tami Lewis Brown will describe Carolyn’s storyboarding technique with examples from Tami’s own work and the work of other VC’ers, then we’ll all try our hands at storyboarding.
But wait! This post is no mere tease for my workshop! This week in the Tollbooth I’ll explore storyboarding with all of you, giving you a new tool for your toolbox, a map to lead you to the corner of Creative and Organized. Following our summer schedule we have an interview planned for Tuesday in the Tollbooth, but on Wednesday I’ll be back with specific hows and whys and whats and wrap it all up on Thursday. Sarah Aronson will be in the ‘booth, live from the mini-residency with a writing prompt on Friday.

So what are you? A plotter? A plunger? Or someone who meets your story somewhere in the middle?

Bon voyage!
~ Tami Lewis Brown

Suspending Disbelief- The Fear Factor plus 3

This week I’ve been talking about how to suspend disbelief in your fiction.

Every story has it- some plot element that just wouldn’t happen like that in the real world. It’s because life is not a plot. Story is by its very nature at least a little bit contrived. So you don’t write about vampires or robots? No matter. You still have to suspend your reader’s disbelief.

We talked about caring about the protagonist and facing the unbelievable square on. Today I’m proposing a few other tools to bolster credibility. I bet you can come up with even more.

1 Kick Up The Bad Plot driven fiction has an antagonist- that is a person or force that challenges the protagonist. We know the antagonist has to be powerful enough to make it a fair fight. Yeah Yeah Yeah But there’s another excellent reason to make that antagonist really threatening. Fear is probably the most powerful emotion. If your protagonist is genuinely afraid and your reader cares your reader will be afraid too. A scared reader is a reader who believes.

2 Don’t forget the details. I read lots and lots of raw manuscripts. Just about every writer, from third graders on up, have been told to include colorful details in their prose. So I read a lot about flashing violet eyes and red Porsche 911s pulling up to curbs. Usually, as far as I’m concerned, those details are a big so what. Unless optometry is really important to your story who cares about the color your protagonist’s eyes? But telling details are an entirely different matter. Telling details- details that matter to your story- are the strongest building blocks for credibility. They give a reader an important anchor to hold onto. The other stuff quickly piles into clutter.

3 Mix fact with fiction. Historic fiction isn’t the only writing that requires research. Cold hard facts will establish your authority as a storyteller to be trusted. Just don’t fall into an information dump.

4 Don’t forget cause and effect/action and reaction. Everything has to happen for a purpose, as a result of something else. Whether a character suddenly feels the urge to fly, or a calm, cool, and collected mom spontaneously flies off the handle unprovoked events makes any reader skeptical. If the action is explained later okay fine. It’s not wrong to raise questions in a readers mind. But even if your story is impossible it has to have its own internal logic. There has to be a reason for everything that happens, even if that reason is physically impossible.

What else? These are just four more tools off the top of my head. What other building blocks of believability can you come up with?

And now for a drum roll…….

Next week we have a new team member stepping into the Tollbooth! Teresa Harris is a former children’s book editor and the author of Summer Jackson: All Grown Up and Love, Cherish, both forthcoming. We can’t wait to see her in the Tollbooth, bright and early Monday.

~ Tami Lewis Brown

Suspending Disbelief- Face Those Fears, Dispel Your Doubts

This week in the Tollbooth I’m talking about suspending disbelief and how to manage incredible situations in your fiction.

On Monday I said considering the problem of how to make the unbelievable seem real reminded me of trying court cases. One of the first rules of trying a case is face the problems with your side of the story head on. Deal with them. Don’t expect a juror … um make that a reader won’t notice.

Some examples-

In Marcelo In The Real World, Francisco X. Stork does a masterful job of making Marcelo, a teen with an Aspergers-like condition into a sleuth and social crusader. Marcelo is literal minded and follows the rules- always. He sees most things at face value and looks no deeper. But when he notices troubling inconsistencies in one of the legal files at his father’s law firm he investigates. Marcelo can barely figure out which bus to take but he tracks down evidence and proves … well I’ll save his startling discovery for you to find when you read this book. My point is in the “real” real world it’s highly unlikely a boy with Aspergers would uncover a plot to harm thousands of people and bring a corporation and its lawyers to justice. Stork knew that so he gave Marcelo, his mom, and his dad the same doubts as the reader about Marcelo’s abilities. Marcelo himself doesn’t know if he can pull this off. He doesn’t know if it’s right to do something that will help others but could harm his father. That makes it believable when Marcelo struggles then accomplishes his goals. The doubt also creates tension on every page. If Marcelo was a hot shot investigator, a young Woodward or Bernstein, we might not doubt his abilities but we also wouldn’t worry about him right up to the end.

Incredible situations pop up all the time in fantasy, even off beat fantasy. But when that fantasy happens in what seems to be our world an author must vault over big believablility hurdles. One of the best?

Thirsty by M. T. Anderson. Ordinary middle class Chris is turning into a vampire. Not just that. He’s being visited by the man with one piece hair- Satan or God or someone otherworldly. Soon Chris is wallowing in blood and gore. How did Anderson make the reader “swallow it”? By addressing the unbelievable stuff head on. In this book it’s a two step process. First Anderson tells us 1. There are bad vampires in this town and then 2. Weird changes are happening to Chris’ mind and body. These things are stated with authority. Anderson shoves both facts in the reader’s face. Believe this or put the book down. These are your only choices.

Anderson is a master of the opening paragraph (okay he’s a master of most everything writerly, but this especially.) Here’s how Thirsty starts-

“In the Spring, there are vampires in the wind. People see them scuffling along by the side of country roads. At night, they move through the empty forests. They do not wear black, of course, but things they have taken off bodies or bought on sale. The news says that they are mostly in the western part of the state, where it is lonely and rural. My father claims we have them this year because it was a mild winter, but he may be thinking of tent caterpillars.”

If you read this book from the first sentence you know you must accept that there are vampires. If you can’t do that this isn’t the book for you.

Anderson spends the first chapter making us care about Chris so we’re ready to worry and believe when he notices changes coming on.  “For a few months now, I have been feeling hungrier and hungrier. Food does not seem to fill me up… That night, after the lynching, after I am recognized by one of the damned, the hunger is very bad. I lie with my head on the pillow. Everyone else is asleep.”

Now do we want to believe Chris is changing into one of the damned? Even though we know in our rational minds that vampires don’t romp through Western Mass and small towns don’t hold public lynchings? You bet we do.

Have you written something unbelievable? Come on, admit it. Everybody has. What was it? How did you suspend disbelief?

~tami lewis brown

Levitation- Or how to suspend a reader’s disbelief

We’ve all seen the act. The magician waves his wand over the prone body of his lovely assistant and suddenly she rises, suspended in mid-air. He sweeps a hoop across her. “See? No wires!”

And we believe. The woman is floating. The magician is MAGIC.

Rationally we know this cannot be true. There’s no such thing as magic. Women don’t float. But still…

That’s the power of fiction. The power to suspend disbelief.

Last week I was discussing story with a group of writers. The problem with mysteries written for teens, one writer lamented, is NO ONE would ever believe an ordinary teen would solve one mystery—much less a series. Teen readers are “too smart for that.”

Really? REALLY?

In the days after this conversation I became a little obsessed. How does a writer suspend disbelief?  How can words on a page convince a reader that a random sixteen year old is the next Sherlock Holmes?

This week in the Tollbooth I’ll be examining the fine art of levitation- suspending a reader’s belief and making the impossible plausible.

The first thing that occurred to me as I was trying to unravel this problem is the similarity between my work now- writing believable fiction- and my work before I became a writer- presenting a credible defense in a trial. I know what you’re thinking. Lawyers are liars and this proves it. No, that’s not my point. My point is lawyers use a number of techniques to present their client’s side of the story and make a jury believe it. Techniques I think we can use as fiction writers.

Next coincidence stepped in. (Or maybe it was no coincidence. Who knows how serendipity really works?) I’ve been reading a fantastic craft book Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction.

This is a craft book for craft book haters (and lovers, too.) A book that takes real world writing problems, faces them head on, and solves them. It talks about creating micro-tension on every page and world building. Best of all, at least for our purposes, Chapter Six is “Making The Impossible Real”. Maass explains, point by point, how to make that magician’s assistant float.

Maass says “Essentially, you must pulverize every particle of reader resistance. Every single rational objection must be obliterated, one at a time.”

Fine. How? Let’s take it one step at a time.

Tip one is something you’ve heard before… but it makes even more sense than ever in this context. Make the reader care about your protagonist and his struggle. If your reader is rooting for your hero to succeed they won’t get hung up on the fact that there really aren’t vampires in our world… or that sixteen year olds aren’t the world’s greatest sleuths.

How do you make the reader care? Build a foundation. Take the time at the beginning of the novel to create identification with the character. Start with situations that are utterly believable and sympathetic… and move on from there.

J. K. Rowling understood this when she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series. Rationally, we all know there is no such thing as witches or Hogwarts, or Voldemort. Humans don’t turn into cats. Owls don’t deliver the mail.

But some children are treated unfairly, especially unwelcome stepchildren. Some adults are boorish louts. We all know this is true. Rowling opens the novel with these entirely believable elements, in the Dursley’s house, as Harry wakes up in his cupboard under the stairs, ready to celebrate dull Dudley’s birthday. Something’s afoot, that’s for sure. Why else would a cat be watching the house? But we don’t know Harry’s magic- The Boy Who Lived. Harry doesn’t have any clue of it himself. Rowling builds up, from believable to unbelievable, and because we believe in and care about a boy with mean stepparents and a scar on his forehead our readerly skepticism is pulverized. The pre-Hogwarts scenes aren’t mere authorial throat clearing. These scenes set the stage for the “incredible” events to come. By the time Hagrid shows up we want to believe there is a whole magical world running parallel to the Muggle universe. We’re caught up in the dream (to use John Gardner-speak) and we don’t care whether it can happen in the ordinary world or not.

So are we done as writers? Make the reader like the guy and that’s it? Nope.

Once you’ve created a sympathetic protagonist with realistic problems (notice I didn’t say likable. A reader may or may not “like” this guy. That’s all up to you as the writer) now it’s time to introduce the stuff that isn’t possible. Now the real writing trouble begins.

And for tips on how to handle that you’ll have to meet me here on Wednesday.

In the meantime what are your favorite “unbelievable” stories? Are they fantasies? Mysteries? Adventures? When did you first read that favorite and did your age make a difference in your willingness to believe?

~ tami lewis brown

Author Branding- You’ve Got The Look

Somehow we made it to Friday and it’s my last day this round in the Tollbooth. We’ve covered an amazing amount of territory on author branding but in some ways we’ve barely skimmed the surface.

Today we’ll talk about taking your personal brand statement and translating into an active brand- getting the look. And I’ll recommend other resources on personal brands.

What does your brand look like?

If your personal brand is you… it looks like you. The way you dress and physically present yourself. But as authors, most of the time we aren’t meeting our audience face to face. The way you convey your image on the web, in business cards and brochures, in bios blurbs and conference materials must reflect you. It has to have THE LOOK of you.

But how do you get there?

This week both Mara and Shawn spoke about trying to come up with a website that reflects their own personalities. Today I’m talking to Julie Berry, author of the much buzzed about The Amaranth Enchantment. Julie has a gorgeous website. She’s also done a smashing job of conveying who she is in interviews and print media. How many other debut authors rate a prominent article in a major paper like The Boston Globe? She lives her brand and today she’ll take us through finding her look, step by step.

Hi Julie! I’ve told you many times how much I love your website. It’s packed with information and it conveys the “real Julie”. Was that hard to pull off? How did you do it?

Hi Tami. I spent a long time thinking about and planning my website, and my author “brand” in general, before I built or bought anything.   That’s probably lesson number one, the tailor’s proverb: measure twice, cut once.  I think many authors throw up a website, pull together a bookmark, a brochure, etc., and before you know it their non-deliberate brand is a hodgepodge of things that don’t fit.  But because you’ve invested time and money in those marketing collateral assets, you’re stuck with them.

Plan first! Great advice. Just the thing we’re doing with our branding worksheet and personal brand statement. What was your next step?

I looked at many author websites as I thought about what image of myself I wanted to project.  A part of me would have preferred not to need to create any type of image of myself — to just hide behind the books, so to speak.  There’s something a bit artificial and uncomfortable about promoting yourself, as opposed to your work.  But, I knew that as a new author, I would want to engage with my readers, and so I needed to come up with something that I felt was true to who I am (or as true as possible), and something that, at the end of the day, I could live with.

Great we’re still on track with you. So how did you seize on your own individual look? Your website is so personal, fun yet informative.

I decided to downplay the “me” part, keep my photo off the home page, and instead try to use illustration to create a tone, to subtly create an environment, a sense of place, on my site.  I asked an illustrator to design me a graphic that could be my mascot — not quite a logo, because I’m not a consumer product or a company — but a picture that represented something about me as a reader and writer. I did not want to suggest that I take myself too seriously, that I see myself as smart or wise or deep. After a lot of brainstorming, I said, “How about a gargoyle on a tower?”  And that became the gargoyle that appears on my website, sitting at the top of a tower, reading a book.  I liked the idea of a tower because it suggested castles and fairy tale settings, but I asked both illustrators I worked with not to be “girlie” or “high fantasy” in what they designed. I decided that storybook-like, youthful, cartoonish, and whimsical would suit me best.  The thought of myself as a monster made me smile. Even though my first book has tween and teen readers, I wanted to play up the child reader of storybooks theme.  And even though I plan to write non-fantasy works, I felt that a subtle use of these elements was consistent with “reading as a magical world,” so to speak. I chose to show myself reading, not writing, because reading is what all book lovers have in common.

I’m impressed! Not only that you came up with that gargoyle, envisioning even his tone and personality (a lot like your own!), but also that you carried it through. The reading rather than writing piece is fascinating. Once you had that image how did you translate it to a website?

So after one artist designed the gargoyle for me, I took that to a web developer who also has a children’s illustration background (Chris Becker of Becker Studios,and I highly reccommend him!) and asked him to design a website template for me.  I knew what I wanted: stones (to suggest the architecture of the castle) and the gargoyle image on the left, with some curling vines to suggest movement and life. It was a fun process, and barring a few tweaks of the vines, the colors, and the animation behaviors, we had the site done very quickly.  But, and this is important:  I did not hire the web designer until I had all the content for the site planned and written out.  Much money is wasted by not writing and organizing the content first!  I manage the corporate website at my day job, so I knew this from painful experience. Not having a full design plan that you’ve thought through, written, and laid out on paper, can double the time and cost of producing a site with a professional web illustrator/artist.
He delivered me the home page template, and the template for the secondary content.  I built the rest of the site from there using Dreamweaver (any web design product would do just as well).  So I administer the site and make changes to its content.
I’m delighted with how the site came out, and I hope that it sends a visual message about me that makes people feel comfortable approaching me, and perhaps feel that I love storybooks in the same way that they do.

Thanks Julie! This is all tremendously helpful. Julie was able to do lots of her development on her own but when she needed the help of a professional illustrator and web designer she sought help. What she ended up with is AMAZING. That gargoyle can follow her anywhere.

Now a few more links to branding and design resources.

I got ideas for my website by scouring design resources all over the internet. I particularly liked looking at sites that collect a wide spectrum of websites, not necessarily author sites. Here’s one. And another. And another. Talk about taking a peak at something and looking up to see the whole day is gone! But they’re great fun.

This site has some good articles about personal brands.

And hey… there are always books! I’ve ordered this one To be perfectly honest the cover was one the the things that sold me- I love the red spotted egg in the nest.

This article has GREAT information about how to project your brand on the internet and it’s specific to authors.

So that’s it for my week. There are lots of other issues to cover. What else do you want to know about when it comes to finding and projecting your personal brand? Comment here and I will always respond. Or you can email me after the week is done at tamilewisbrown at yahoo dot com.


Author Branding- It’s only you!

Your brand is made of your core beliefs, your passions, and your abilities. It’s what stands out and what you stand for. If you’ve probed deep enough and been honest enough it will be as unique as your fingerprint.

So how do you pull this unique brand together? First pull your completed worksheet- the questions I posted on Tuesday. Study your answers. Really ponder them.

Now lets get going with a Venn Diagram. You remember these from fourth grade math. Three intersecting circles.

Are you ready?

Fill circle A with what you do better than anyone else. What really sets you apart- whether it’s comforting a friend, writing dialog, meeting deadlines, growing flowers… list them here.

In circle B list what you’re passionate about. It might be teaching, scary movies, feeding the homeless… whatever.

Finally in circle C list what your brand audience cares about. Readers pretty much all want to be entertained… but go to your response to the “imagine three audience members” answer and focus on specifics that those people want. A publisher wants creative, marketable work delivered promptly, for example. A librarian wants engaging literature. A third grade reluctant reader may want to get through chapters fast.

So… now you’re going to write your personal brand statement. This takes a good long time, even for us accomplished writers. It’s not supposed to be a slogan. It’s a distillation of your promise

Where does the content in those circles intersect? Do you love to garden and write snappy dialog better than anyone? And your reluctant potential readers want a book they can finish along with the rest of the class? There’s good synergy there. You could say “Organic author delivers stories kids are proud to read”.

I’ll give you a couple examples from the non-writing world. Let’s visit the Food Network.

Rachel Ray’s might be something like “regular gal makes cooking fast and fun”.

Paula Deen could be “Southern momma nurtures with home cooked recipes”.  Is Paula Deen really who she appears to be? I’d say yes. Her personality is as warm as a buttermilk biscuit fresh from the oven. Having a defined personal brand hasn’t made her fake. It’s made her authentic qualities stand out and project.

It’s interesting that those Food Network personalities are easy to tag… why do you think that is? Because television- and the Food Network, particularly- puts a high value on their host’s personal brands. It works for them. It’s a very big part of what made these stars into household names. HONESTLY AND TRULY it can work for you, too.

Your personal brand statement will become your compass- the guide for everything you do. The books your write, your website, your appearance… all will reflect this personal brand statement because it is a word picture of who you are and what you’re about. Paula Deen doesn’t have to strain to keep up the “Southern mamma” image because she’s the real deal.

Let’s move on to a children’s writer. Today, I’m talking to Shawn Stout, a fellow Vermont College alum, and later this year, a debut author. Shawn’s new website is up and it’s a doozy. Once you visit I challenge you to get that whistling cow song out of your head.

Most writers come to branding through their website, so let’s start there. Shawn, what was your goal when you began to think about your new site?

I had a single goal for my Web site. It was simple, really. I wanted it to display my personality—my voice—so that both kids and adults would get a sense of me as a person, and then (hopefully) want to read my books.
When I first started thinking about my Web site, I checked out a lot of authors’ sites. The ones that spoke to me were simple but creative and revealed something about the writer—their distinctive voice. Sara Pennypacker’s Web site is a good example.
Of course, I had no concrete ideas of how to translate my personality into a visual design, but I figured that I would know it when I saw it. And I did. (which, readers, is what will happen for all of us as we work through the exercises and come to the point of framing our personal brand statement)
When my husband first saw my site in development, he said something like, “It’s random and makes absolutely no sense at all [the wandering cow, whistling music, barking dog]—it’s totally you.” I’m pretty sure he meant that as a compliment. I think it works because its whimsy and playfulness fit in well with the humor of my middle grade series and its protagonist, Fiona Finkelstein.
If I were a nonfiction writer, or a vampire novelist, I don’t think my Web site design would necessarily work…well, maybe if we put fangs on the rabbit. Which makes me think that if I ever plan to try my hand at an edgy YA novel, I most likely will have to redesign the site…but I suppose I will jump off that bridge when I come to it.

How did it feel revealing the “real you” to the rest of the world?

I have to say, it is such a weird thing for me to have a Web site. I never got into the whole personal blogging about yourself thing…what you ate for breakfast, what you did on the drive to work, etc. I just don’t think I’m that interesting. I’m also a very private person – I’m much more comfortable talking about anything or anybody other than me. So, the idea of having a Web site about me, promoting myself—hey, check me out!—goes against the grain. But I thought back to the olden days—before the Internet—when I was a kid reading Judy Blume and how I wanted to know more about her, not so much about her writing necessarily, but her as a person. Did she think peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without the peanut butter were much better than with it, just like me? To me, writers were like stars in the sky – mysterious and unreachable. Web sites, as I see them, serve to reveal a bit of the mystery, making you more relatable to your audience—an extended hand to readers, so to speak—to bring them in closer. So, my marketing strategy is to be myself, and present myself in an accessible and (hopefully) fun way to my readers.

That’s a great thing to remember, Shawn. Websites and our personal brands are ways we reach out to child readers, make them more excited about our books and reading in general. Whenever I do a school visit I’m reminded how special it is for a kid to actually get to know someone who writes books- and especially to see I’m just an ordinary person. They see they can follow their personal dreams- even write books. Reaching kids in this way changes lives.

I feel like I’ve barely started down the road to personal branding but our week is almost up. We’ll finish the branding exercises tomorrow and I’ll have suggestions for how you can project your personal brand to the world. I’ll also answer your questions. So what is it that still confuses or confounds you about finding your personal brand?

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