How to Win (or Lose) Writing Contests: Tips from a Judge

img_0538Over the last ten years, I’ve judged a dozen or more writing contests. The writers have ranged from elementary school kids to published and not-yet-published adults, and the prizes have been as varied as a certificate with a gold star, a live reading by a professional actor, advice from a hot agent or mentoring by a published writer, but the winning submissions did the same things right.

I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll snag the top prize, but you’ll probably make it through more rounds than if you don’t.

When judges get a pile of contest submissions, they do a first cut. They don’t want to spend a lot of time considering stories or poems that don’t have a chance of winning. Their goal is to eliminate the “losers” fast.

So how do you survive the first cut?

  1. Follow instructions. If there’s a writing prompt or a theme, submit a piece that fits it. Don’t send in your WIP thinking your brilliance will overcome the fact that it doesn’t conform to the rules. It won’t.
  2.  Proofread and spellcheck. Don’t give me an excuse to throw out your story because your grammar or spelling are atrocious, which I will— unless you’re a first grader whose inventive spelling makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose.
  3. Match your synopsis to your submission. If your synopsis was amazing, but your story doesn’t fulfill the promise, I will be really disappointed.

Let’s assume you made it past the first cut. Between half and three quarters of the submissions have been placed in a “go no farther” pile. Sometimes, judges are given a rubric which tells us specific things to look for, like inventiveness, adherence to a theme, or compelling characters, and we use the rubric to winnow down the submissions to a handful that get serious consideration.

Sadly, only once have I been asked to write comments that would be returned to the writer explaining how they could improve their chances.

So here are some of the things I would say to writers whose pieces did not win.

4. Assume the bar is high and aim for it. Study published stories so you know what it takes to succeed.

5. Polish your story until it’s the best you can write it. Listen to your critique group’s concerns. It will only take a judge a page or so to determine if your story deserves another look.

6. Dump the cliches. The last girl in the universe who writes in a scavenged paper journal? Puh-lease.

7. It’s not you, it’s me. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, any team can win. They are all that good. When judges gets to the final handful of contest submissions, any one of them could take the prize, so the final decision is entirely personal. The judges will choose what moves or intrigues them.

8. Don’t give up. (See 7.) If you’re honest with yourself, maybe your story needs more work. However, if you submitted a piece that your peers or advisors feel is compelling and perfectly written, then this wasn’t your turn, but you’ll hit it on the next try.

Author photo and book jacketCatherine Linka is the author of the series A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more advice from Catherine at her website:

Writers Dreaming

Hu Jundi

Hu Jundi







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

Rock Me

A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.

Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.

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

rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled

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

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

A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,

and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made

to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.

Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,

paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,

questions such as these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging Down the Dream

If I am the cradle I have held up as such

through years of dust and disinterest.

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

but my walls are plain and stark.

If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,

barely slept in. If I am the dreamer

I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming

myself. If I am the creature

inside the cradle I am trapped

of my own accord.

                                        –zu vincent



Story: Humble (Even When Digital)

Those of you who have read my posts know that I depend on digital tools, such as Photoshop, to create my picture book illustrations. After the publication of my first book last May, I also spent a lot of time and energy learning about using social media, such as Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest to promote it. I’m not sure any of those efforts actually helped me help my publisher (Holt) market my book, but they only cemented my feeling that I am a digital person.

So at the end of 2013, when I’d accepted that it was time to move on from “One Bright Ring,” but with no contract in sight, I asked myself, “Now what?”

Since September, I’d been playing with the idea of applying for a tenure-track position teaching digital art at Skidmore College. The application deadline was January 15, 2014. On the one hand, being a professor at a really good liberal arts college has been a dream of mine for decades. The only thing I wanted more was to be a published author-illustrator. Also, it was time to get a real job.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to apply to Skidmore. Not that I would have gotten the job anyway, but I realized the idea paralyzed me because I didn’t relish a life devoted to teaching Photoshop, that my favorite activity is reading fiction, and that although I haven’t written very successfully I have invested a lot of time in learning about it, and so I have the right to choose that path rather than the teaching-digital-art one.

So I made a bargain with myself: I don’t have to apply for this great job as long as I write. But I can do it this way: First, concentrate on story rather than writing. Writing, to me, is scarily aesthetic, whereas story connotes a humble and achievable everyday activity – something we can all do. Then see if I can use digital media to tell stories, because, like it or not, that is the way of the future.

So since round about mid-January, I’ve been researching both story and digital storytelling, and I want to pass along a couple of things I’ve discovered. The first is a book called “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” by Jonathan Gottschall. I recommend it to anyone reading this post. The title says it all, but it’s worth reading every detail of Gottschall’s argument. He contends, in an engaging style, that stories permeate human lives, that we are made for story, that we in fact evolved for it.

He also talks about how stories are always and only driven by problems. That’s what story is. Well, I was taught that in my MFA program, but it’s useful to have this information separated from the art of writing. For me, anyway.

Another book on my current landscape is Jason Ohler’s “Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity.” Not that this title will necessarily be of interest to the Tollbooth audience, but I mention it because Ohler makes a point of not privileging sophisticated technology but rather story. He discusses various methods for teaching kids how to execute stories using technology, but story always comes first for him. I find that exciting.

And I find it sensible. e-this and e-that freaks people out as harbingers of upcoming cultural losses. But as long as you can tell a compelling story, you’re fine, and real stories will always have the same ingredients, starting with a character and his or her problem.

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Day 2 With Dana Walrath

Graphic Art by Walwrath


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



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

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

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

Cover Art Aliceheimer's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic Art DWalrath

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

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

                                                                                                               –Zu Vincent


Sparking Creativity Through LEGO & Other Tangible Objects

This week’s post comes from YA author Lyn Miller-Lachmann whose exciting and daring book, ROGUE, is out now!


I was That Girl who played with dolls well into my teens. I gave them up when I found myself regularly hanging out with eight-year-olds, to their and my mothers’ dismay. I was already writing fiction at that age, and the dolls were the tangible objects with which I acted out my stories.

When my son was in elementary school, he became interested in LEGO Pirates, and we turned the top bunk of his bed into a kid’s (and aspiring writer’s) paradise of ships, islands, forts, and hideaways. He outgrew these toys too soon and ended up selling them to pay for his college fraternity membership. On the other hand, I wrote a short story called “The Pirate Tree” that I’m now turning into a picture book.


Around the time he left for college, LEGO came out with the Modular towns, and the cafes, apartment buildings, shops, and public buildings became the backdrop of my writing life. At first I thought I could become one of the writers for the LEGO series books for kids, but other authors had already taken this gig. Nonetheless, I’m a writer who likes to do things my way, so I began to create stories with my minifigures in the form of a graphic novel, photographing scenes and writing captions, which I’ve posted on Instagram.

HotSpringsDoing things my way has taught me a lot about writing and expanded my repertory in ways I could never have imagined. The economy of language required (because no one on Instagram reads captions more than a line or two long) has prepared me to take on the challenge of writing picture book texts in which the words are supposed to complement rather than describe the illustrations. I am also using LEGO to teach the concepts of writing – not only showing vs. telling but also characterization, layered narrative, point of view, and finding the center of your story.


People learn in different ways, and for some learners, the manipulation of tangible objects works as well as or better than lectures, discussions, and PowerPoint presentations. I consider myself a visual person, and objects help me to generate ideas and visualize scenes, whether those objects are minifigures in a LEGO town or items on display in a historical museum.





Think about the objects in your life. Did you play with dolls or action figures long after your peers gave them up? Do you have collections that are important to you today? How do you incorporate these collections into your writing? Whenever you travel, what are the places toward which you gravitate? How do these special places find their way into your stories?



Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection, which portrays an eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome and an X-Men obsession, whose effort to befriend another outcast after being expelled from school leads her to some difficult and dangerous choices. Her previous young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009), about a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and received an Américas Award Honorable Mention from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Lyn is a summer 2012 graduate of the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree. Lyn blogs about LEGO, writing, travel, and culture at

The Orson Scott Card Problem

Through the Tollbooth welcomes new crew member, Jim Hill. Enjoy this post, and return for more thoughts on writing from Jim following his graduation from VCFA in January!

The Orson Scott Card Problem is a thing that breaks my heart. I’m sure you know what I mean. A Google search for OSC turns up headline after headline hammering him for his political and social views. For example:

Orson Scott Card’s unconscionable defense of genocide
Junot Díaz: “Orson Scott Card is a cretinous fool”

Yikes. His views on homosexuality, gay marriage, and other polarizing issues are well documented. Like many of his long time fans, I have a difficult time connecting the author of Seventh Son and Ender’s Game to these beliefs. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Old school editions, circa 1986

Old school editions, circa 1986

I read Ender’s Game during a road trip from Massachusetts to California in 1986. I read it twice. The first time I’d ever finished a book and started it again immediately. I was captivated. Brilliant concept, engaging characters, action, world building. And above all, humanity.

Sure the scenes at Battle School are thrilling and dangerous, but the scene that sticks with me the most takes place on Earth. Ender and Valentine floating on a raft and talking around the real issue. It’s a scene dripping with symbolism and theme and cracking good writing.

In anticipation of the movie (the one I’ve been longing after for twenty plus years), I decided to read it again. Only now I’m viewing it with my VCFA eyes. You know the ones that get implanted somewhere around packet four of your first semester and forever change how you read? They’re x-rays specs that can see the levers and gears of craft while reading between the lines. I know you have them too. Admit it.

Not surprising, the book holds up. In fact, my precious VCFA eyes are revealing why the things I loved twenty-five years ago worked. But–and this is a big but–I’ve discovered a new, unwelcome character in the book. The author. Or should I say the author’s public persona.

Get out my book, despicable man!

I have to fight the urge to hear the characters without underlining anything that could be even remotely interpreted as sexist, homophobic or outside of my own social positions.

It’s exhausting.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. There have always been authors with personalities that poison their work, but the internet’s ferocious appetite for outrage has amplified the effect.

I shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for enjoying any book. By any author. Heck, we just wrapped up Banned Book Week. Am I allowing social expectations to apply an unspoken ban, just because the author has made himself the tool-of-the-week?

OSC Autograph

And I’ve stayed out of the water ever since.

I guess this is me coming out as a proud Orson Scott Card reader. Now there’s a twist I bet he didn’t expect. OSC is one of the reasons I write. His stories take place on an epic scale in inventive settings told through the eyes of fully fleshed out characters. He writes across genres–science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the infinite gray areas in between–with equal skill. His books have made me cringe in fear, gasp in awe, laugh out loud and sob uncontrollably. The man can write.

But can I ever buy another one of his books in good conscience? I don’t think so. Because, as a long time fan, I actually feel a bit betrayed by Card. Maybe I’m naïve, or maybe the author-reader relationship is complex. What do authors owe readers? What loyalty do readers owe authors?

For me, OSC is the guy who literally wrote the book on writing. Two actually. I’ve owned Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy for as long as they’ve been in print. Not counting the Elements of Style, they were my first craft books. Orson Scott Card definitely shaped my writing (now you know who to blame), and that’s a gift that I can never repay, except by writing to the best of my ability.

So what am I left with? Hate the sin, but the love the sinner? Awkward.

I’m going to do what I can to build a wall between every author and their work. Let them rise and fall on their own. Let the books speak for the books. And do my best to not get burned again.

Books don’t lie.

“The enemy’s gate is down.”

Jim Hill

Flaming Snot Rockets! Mild mannered designer by day. Children’s book creator by night. Jim writes middle-grade and YA stories with humor and heart. He graduates from VCFA in January 2014. You can find him online at his oft neglected website and on Twitter as @heyjimhill.




tollbooth waterfall

I’m writing a sequel, and I’m terrified. Yes, I know, there’s not a lot of pity for someone who has to write a sequel. Boo hoo, you sold two books.

But, I never intended to write a series, and I am a YA book buyer for an indie bookstore who leads a monthly group of teen readers, so every four weeks, teens complain to me that the second or third book in a series is a HUGE disappointment.

Why? The character changes in book 2. The dynamic girl they fell in love with becomes weak and needy. The romantic triangle turns boring. A character they didn’t really like in book one takes over book two.

Not surprising then, that writing a sequel that will equal book one feels impossible to me at times. In fact, I had a dark night of the soul after I signed the contract and committed to delivering a 100,000 word manuscript in one year.

tollbooth nightIt was ironic and, perhaps, predestined when I snagged a last-minute spot at a weekend retreat with Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer. It was after midnight in my dark night, and I’d begun to read and work through her approach, and to feel my way towards book two.

I knew my sequel had to resolve the unfinished business of book one. My character had transformed from tentative to strong, but she was still in danger. Her romance had blossomed, but was still at risk.

Luckily, I was finishing rewrites on book one so I could leave more plot points unresolved. And my genius editor had forced me to add a hunky character in the last part of the book–insisting that I didn’t need to write a love triangle–but that I should insert the potential for one in the future.

Martha Alderson emphasizes character transformation–but how was my character going to continue to transform when she’d already gone from helpless to powerful?

How could her story be more than a run for safety?

And what part of my protagonist’s character had to die so she could be reborn?

For two days I listened to Martha, did her plot exercises, and finally talked through the plot of book one with her. The Aha moments started to happen.

How could my protagonist continue to transform? She could stop thinking primarily of herself while others sacrificed themselves. She could finally commit to the cause.

And what could prompt her to devote herself of the plight of others? Witnessing suffering even greater than her own. The world I’d built had to be even more perverse than she or I’d had ever imagined.

And the climax? The worst thing that could happen to my character who was on the run? She gets caught! No longer evading capture, abandoning all hope of rescue, she would have to face her biggest antagonist.

When I go to write every morning, I don’t always know where I’m going, and I’m not sure how all the plot points will weave together, but I know that I must be harsher, and braver than I was in book one. Maybe book two won’t please my readers, but unless I risk it all, it will be a faint echo of the first.




Pick Up The Pace


 I’ve always struggled with pacing. Pacing isn’t a topic widely covered in craft books and yet, it’s critical to keeping young readers engaged.

I’ve been revising my YA manuscript, so I turned to my writer universe for advice. This question inspired many to respond, and I want to share their thoughts and strategies.

First, what slows a manuscript down?

Carol Tanzman, author of CIRCLE OF SILENCE, noted that too many side plots and side characters can slow the forward movement of the main character’s story. Side plots/characters can distract, taking focus away from the protagonist.

But on the flip side, isolating a character can turn the story too internal, discouraging dialogue and interaction with other characters to move the story forward.

Many writers said thinking rather than acting is a problem. Kristen Hansen Brakeman noted, “I’m guilty of having characters do too much talking/thinking/deciding.” Patti Brown agreed, saying, “Thinking usually slows everything down.”

 Lengthy narrative can also be a killer. We love to “show” scenes, but as Dawn Baertlein said, “You don’t need to show every rock and tree your character passed getting to the skate park where the big confrontation is going to take place.”

My editor Mollie Traver commented, “One thing I’ve always pinpointed as a main culprit in slow pacing is the number of scene changes. No matter how long or short a scene is, each of those transitions is like a stop sign in a section where you want to be rolling full steam ahead towards a climax or big turn in the story.”

A major drag on pacing is a static story or character. As Kekla Magoon, author of THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, says, “Even a life threatening situation can get dull if nothing ever changes.” If the stakes don’t go up or the character doesn’t change and grow then the story slowly turns to cement.

Tied to that is a lack of tension. Without a goal or yearning to fulfill, and real, seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the character to overcome, the reader has little reason to keep going.

So–how do we pick up the pace and keep readers engaged?

We can tackle pacing at all levels of the writing.

At the sentence level, Angela Russell pointed out that “short sentences add to urgency.” Fred Borchers reminded me that “First person narrators might have long interior thoughts, but be less verbose when he or she speaks,” so dialogue can speed things up.

Nina Kidd suggested the use of active voice except when something is being done to the main character, adding that it helps to “Keep the subject right next to the verb or verb phrase.”

Moving to the paragraph level, Nina praised Melissa Stewart’s advice of “No paragraphs over five lines,” adding that short paragraphs make for quicker reading. Naturally, “Each one needs to materially advance the action.”

At the scene level, Alexis O’Neill, author of THE RECESS QUEEN, advised cutting and condensing scenes, perhaps making short chapters that end in cliffhangers. And making sure that “all dialogue is essential to moving the story forward. If not, cut it.”

Editor Mollie Traver suggested cutting a scene entirely if it isn’t contributing to forward momentum or finding where two scenes or two chapters could become one.  “Reducing scene/chapter changes and bulking more together can work like a ticking clock, imposing a faster-moving structure over the same story so readers feel like they’re being moved through the story quicker even if the actual material hasn’t been trimmed significantly.”

But how do you know what to cut?

Each scene must advance the story and as Janet Burroway, author of WRITING FICTION reminds students, there are four kinds of story action: Deed, Decision, Accident and Discovery. If the main characters aren’t doing something related to their goals and obstacles, deciding something, discovering something or being thwarted, the scene isn’t moving the story forward.

Shannon Messenger, author of THE KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES, doesn’t stop here. She said her  screenwriting background taught her to have five reasons for every scene. It’s not enough to get a character from A to B.

Martha Alderson THE PLOT WHISPERER, reinforced that, suggesting that each scene include dramatic action that furthers the story, and  as well as showing the emotional development of the character, and supporting the story’s themes.  Martha’s Scene Tracker helps writers evaluate each scene for how it achieved these goals.

While it’s nice to think, oh I can cut here and there, condense and edit, at the highest level, pacing is linked to the overall plot structure and character development.

We all know that rising action helps move the reader and story along, but Martha Alderson taught me that rising action is enhanced when a plot contains four “energetic markers.”  These are four points equally spaced through the book where the protagonist makes a decision or takes an action that dramatically changes the direction of the story.

These markers also reflect change within the character to become the person they must be to succeed in the end. The character’s emotional development, and their struggle to transform from who they once were to who they need to become–must mirror the pacing of the action for the book to succeed.

Many thanks to the writers, editors and experts who contributed these words of wisdom. I hope will serve you as well as they have helped me.



Creating Story in Non-fiction Narrative

cover for Tanaka's Earthquake!


So far this week, we’ve been talking about how to create empathy in narrative non-fiction through well chosen sensory details. But there’s more to the story. In non-fiction, just as in fiction, you have to find a through line. Through line comes from the frame you set for the character’s story, is augmented by the balance of summary and event, and builds on hope and disappointment toward the character’s goal.  


Framing Your Narrative

I was lucky enough this January to be in the audience at Vermont College of Fine Arts, when author Shelley Tanaka unveiled photos from her book A Day that Changed America, Earthquake! With each photo came a heart wrenching tale about the individuals whose lives were turned upside down that April day. And it reminded me that a well crafted non-fiction book can make true story as gripping as any piece of fiction.

Like the sinking of the Titanic, this historical event especially captures our imaginations. And while there might be many reasons, including what was happening historically, socially and culturally at the time, the bottom line is, it’s the humanness of the tragedy that lingers. We all yearn to be safe, to have our dreams fulfilled. And it’s the dashing of these dreams and the struggle to reclaim them, which creates great narrative.

As Robert Owen Butler writes in From Where You Dream, “We are the yearning creatures of this planet.” Find what your character yearns for, even in non-fiction, and you have your story. To bring the idea of empathy back in, yearning ties us empathically to others, as author Jeremy Rifkin finds in The Empathic Civilization, because our human capacity to empathize is not only emotional, but an ability that is hard wired into our neurological pathways. You might say we feel empathy (and thus yearning) in our very bones.

The writer’s task, then, is to tap into this yearning to frame his story. In books such as Tanaka’s, and those mentioned earlier by Levinson and Barton, the author’s stories, and thus the through line, were framed by events, the events offering a beginning, middle and end to the human journey set within its borders. But if you’re writing a book larger in scope, such as a biography, the challenge is to unearth a through line that creates its own frame. And that’s a matter of carefully sluicing through, and summarizing, your research, then balancing your findings with your character’s emotions.  


Research Rollercoaster

It’s tempting when you research non-fiction to want to use every bit. You may end up with fabulous first hand interviews, letters, diaries, other biographies, newspaper articles, and historical accounts of the times. But you have to then carve away at your findings to reveal those points that relate to the story happening to your character.


Picture of Rising Action

Emotional Though Line

When I was writing the Scholastic biography Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia I had my story when I found this through line. Catherine was born Sophie in a small German principality. She wanted to please her mother, who raised her to marry well. Marrying well, which meant marrying into a ruling class, became her own goal (her yearning) as she grew.

But Sophie’s hopes were dashed early in life when she was disfigured by a long illness. What future husband would want a disfigured woman? Worse, her panicked mother summoned the executioner, the only one who could fashion Sophie a body cast to help straighten her crooked spine. The active girl had to wear this disabling cast for months, if not years. But it was during this time that she studied and read, and built the intellect that would later help her rule Russia.

And so it went. When, at age 15, a now straight-backed Sophie was summoned to Russia as a possible bride for heir to the throne, her cousin Peter, she made sure she pleased Empress Elizabeth and the Russian people. Sophie’s plain looks were a downfall, but her intelligence a plus. Later, after she’d pleased the Empress, been christened Catherine, and married Peter, her two children—born from liaisons with other men—nearly did her in. (Catherine’s internal struggle also played a huge role in her story since, as she struggled to understand herself, she could be her own worst enemy.)

The list of ups and downs grew. Catherine was locked away after childbirth and feared imprisonment. She seized the throne from her husband and perhaps arranged for his murder. Later, as Empress, she gave up a desire to be an enlightened ruler when a peasant uprising threatened her power. So, while her short term goals changed, Sophie, now Catherine the Great, never lost sight of her yearning to rule. And each of these elements was important to the overall thread of her story goal. In writing her biography, what didn’t fit in moving her to this goal, had to be left out.


High Tide photo sand and tide

Find what your character yearns for in your non-fiction narrative. Frame you story through events or by using your character’s emotional through line. Imagine your through line as an incoming tide, each wave cresting and falling like your character’s inner waves of hope and disappointment, hope and disappointment. These waves—in ever increasing intensity—will create your story. Until finally, at high tide, your character faces her crisis moment. Crisis leading, as we know, to resolution, and the smooth sand as the tide pulls back.

                                          –zu vincent                                          


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