Waiting In Between Revisions

I’ve recently finished what I hope is the “final” revision of my WIP and sent it out to a trusted reader. Now I wait…


Waiting is extremely difficult, but something writers must deal with regularly. We wait between drafts, to give ourselves space from our own words. We wait to hear from our beta readers, who help us to birth our “babies”; and from our agents, whom we trust with our newborn creations. If you noticed a birthing theme it is because I recently spent three weeks helping my daughter and her husband after the birth of their second child.

img_1491Helping to care for this newest member of our family and his 2.5 year old brother was a joy (though and exhausting one). Not only did it feed my soul as a parent, but it also fed my writing soul. The timing of this child’s birth coincided perfectly with my work on my WIP. (Yet another reason I count myself as lucky). I was at that point where I needed to put it down and walk away. Putting a story out of my mind, after it’s been priority #1 for months, is not something that comes easily for me. But this time it was oh, so easy. I forgot all about plot structure, objective correlatives, character growth, and historical accuracy and thought only of changing diapers, playing “choo-choos”, doing laundry and dishes, going to the playground, playing cars and reading books, and doing more laundry.


In the week that I’ve been home, I re-read my story, tweaked it, and sent my “baby” out to be read. Now I am left with nothing to do. I know some writers move on immediately to their next project. They start researching and plotting and pre-writing. I can’t do that. I can work on smaller projects: picture books that will never see the light of day, or that pb biography of the sculptor whose story really should be told but I can’t quite figure out how to start. But even that sucks too much of my attention and I’ll have a hard time shifting gears to go back to make the revisions in my WIP I know are coming. I have cleaned my desk, though. It might not look like it to some of you, but trust me, THIS is clean.

So instead of moving onto my next project, I’ve returned to my life. It’s been nice to catch up with friends I didn’t see for the three weeks I was away and whom I ignored for the months prior to that when I was writing (thankfully, I have good friends who understand my obsessive work schedule). I’ve also been binge watching “Orange is the New Black” (which I started while rocking an infant while his mother napped). And I’ve been knitting, which I can do while binge watching “Orange is the New Black” so at least I feel as if I’m being semi-productive.

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Waiting is part of the process. And as exasperating as the waiting is, I wouldn’t trade it, or any other irksome part of the process (and there are a lot of them)  for anything.




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

On Acceptance


I am not a fast drafter. I’d like to be one, but I’m not, just like I’m not the sort of person who can get out of bed before 7:30 am on a regular basis, or the sort of person who can run a mile and enjoy it. My drafts take a while. They’re generally in pretty decent shape when they’re done. That’s just the kind of writer I am.

I’d like to be the sort of writer who has a knack for delving deep into characters’ emotions. I am really, really not that sort of writer, especially in my early drafts. I always have to focus on my main characters’ emotions in revision, no matter how much I try to get them on the page the first time around. Even after I’ve done my best, I know there are other writers who could have done it better. That’s just the kind of writer I am.

I’d like to write a Very Serious Book one day, the sort of book that will make Serious People have Serious Conversations about Serious Topics. This is never going to happen.

I’d like to write an entire book without worrying for a minute about what other people will think of it. That’s never going to happen, either.

Here’s what might happen, though: I can accept my writing self–my strengths and my weaknesses. I can accept the books I write, and I can feel proud of them. And I can encourage my writer friends to embrace their own stories and their own processes without measuring them against their own ideas of what the writing life should be like.

So, dear readers, I’d like to know: what kind of writer are you? What parts of your writing life have you decided to accept?

What The #$&@ Does My Character Want Anyway?

questioning girl

When I showed up for my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was surprised at how many discussions centered around “what does the main character want?”

Why is that so important, I wondered. What if the character doesn’t know what she wants at the beginning? She’s a teenager. How is she supposed to know? And even if she does know, that doesn’t mean that what she wants now won’t change.

My first epiphany came during a lecture about how a writer can get to the essence of their story by summarizing it this way:

My character (insert name)

wants (person/place/thing)

but when (event) happens

he/she must choose between (option one) and (option two).

My protagonist will struggle to get what he/she wants, because of his/her (character flaw or weakness.)

Suddenly, I saw that want was the driver that sent the character on their journey. Every choice, every decision the character made had to tie back to getting what the character wanted.

Identifying what my character wanted was easy when it involved goals like winning the race or getting the guy, but I struggled when faced with a character who didn’t have a conscious desire or goal.

day dreaming girl

I floundered about until I discovered FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. In his chapter called “Yearning,” I experienced my second epiphany.

“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.”

Yearning or hungering for something–even if the character wasn’t capable of verbalizing  their feelings–now that made sense. All those unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged dreams–the feelings we are only half-conscious of, the flutters we try to ignore–they can change the course of our lives even if we don’t fully understand them.

And Butler crystalized the power of yearning when he said “plot represents the dynamics of desire.” Plot is how the character satisfies their desires.

Now I could identify what was underneath my character’s skin and what my protagonist knew they wanted, as well as what they might not admit they wanted, but which drove them nonetheless.

But I still felt uneasy when my character’s desire changed.

My most recent epiphany came when I was struggling to write the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, because my character was no longer the girl she was when the story began. Avie wasn’t innocent or naive anymore. On the run from a planned marriage, and hoping for freedom in Canada, Avie’s future was now complicated with an important, but unwanted mission that might kill her.

At a retreat with Martha Alderson, the “Plot Whisperer”, Martha emphasized the parallel between the character’s emotional development and the plot’s story action, and I realized that even though my protagonist still longed for love and freedom, she would struggle in the sequel with a growing sense that she needed to serve a greater purpose.

It was now clear to me that our characters evolve through their stories, and so what they want must also evolve. As writers we have to allow our characters to abandon what they first thought they wanted and let them hunger for something even greater.


Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can connect with her on twitter @cblinka or www.catherinelinka.com.


When Writing Doesn’t Look Like It

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

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

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

collage.treePOSTER COLLAGE:

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

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

My Best Everything Theme boxBOX COLLAGE:

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

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

Scrapbook Collage


Same basic idea, different layout.

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



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



Happy Mess-Making!

Sarah Tomp


Baby Got Backstory

One of the things I love most about beginning a new writing project is figuring out the backstory: the history and culture of the world I’m building and of the characters who populate it. I’ll spend days thinking about my protagonist’s minor medical conditions, or the names and occupations of his relatives, or how the government of his city is structured. By the time I’m ready to start writing a first draft, I’ve collected a wealth of information about my characters and their world, and all I want to do is share this information with my readers. After all, it’s fascinating! Why shouldn’t I begin my book with a fifty-page description of every street in the city and each one of its residents?

At this point in the process, I remember that an infant story is sort of like an infant human: although they might be perfectly charming, your infant story’s burps and squeals are not nearly as interesting to normal people as they are to you. As I’ve drafted the first few chapters of my new project, I’ve had to figure out which pieces of backstory to include in the book, where to include them, and which pieces to discard—not because they’re bad in any way, but because they’re not helpful to the story. Here are a few of the guiding principles I’ve been attempting to follow recently:

Save that backstory for chapter two.

Okay, it doesn’t actually have to be chapter two. This is just shorthand for the idea that it can be helpful to start a story with a scene rather than with a big chunk of backstory-filled narration. The dramatic tension of the scene will draw readers into the book, and they’ll get to know about the protagonist and her goals. Then, when they reach the second scene or the second chapter and you hit ‘em with all that backstory, they’ll have some context for it and, more importantly, a reason to care about it. Get your readers hooked and invested first, and they’ll be craving those juicy backstory details as much as you are.

Sprinkles are just as effective as lumps.

I’m not very good at following my first guiding principle. Sometimes information just can’t wait until chapter two. How are readers supposed to understand the stakes of Melinda’s dramatic argument with her grandfather if they don’t know that her grandfather was the evil sorcerer who turned her into a fruit bat in the first place? When this is the case, I try to sprinkle backstory lightly over the scene, inserting it in between lines of dialogue, never in more than one or two sentences at a time, and certainly not in entire paragraphs. Something like this:

“I hate you!” Melinda said to her grandfather. He was, after all, responsible for her furry wings and her newfound powers of echolocation. “How am I supposed to go to the prom now?”

Don’t force it.

Putting essential bits of background information into dialogue can seem like a clever way to weave backstory into a scene, but you really have to make sure that this information is something the characters would realistically say to each other. Don’t put awkward words into their mouths just to satisfy your insatiable lust for backstory.

“Do you remember, my dear Melinda,” said her grandfather, “when I, the evil sorcerer, turned you into a fruit bat?”

“Of course I do, you moron,” said Melinda. “It happened thirty seconds ago.”

If it’s not essential right now, save it for later. Or for never.

I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities to introduce the little morsels of backstory I’ve been saving up. If I want to tell readers that Melinda is allergic to peanut butter, I might slip this information into a scene at the grocery store or the cafeteria—a place where it’d naturally come up. Still, even if a piece of backstory fits perfectly into a scene, I won’t include it unless it’s (1) really funny, (2) important to the story right now, or (3) important to the story much later, but I want to plant a sneaky little foreshadowing clue about it early on. There are a lot of details I’ve worked on and loved that will never fall into any of these categories, so I write them into the story anyway, and then I delete them with a sigh. The sigh is important. It helps give you closure.

Now that I’ve told you how I’ve been wrangling my backstory, I’d like to hear from you. What tricks do you use to weave brilliant backstories into your books?

Soon to Be Seen: Lindsey Lane’s Debut Novel

I am delighted to bring my classmate from Vermont College of Fine Arts, the talented Lindsey Lane, MFA to the Tollbooth in anticipation of her gorgeous debut novel, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to be released on September 16th. The story tells of what happens in a small Texas town when 16-year-old Tommy Smythe goes missing.

DW: In the fabulous interview on your website, you say that this story woke you up from a dream in which you saw a boy standing in a roadway pull-out. This image got you out of bed and you started to write. Have dreams often been a part of your writing? Or were the dreamtime origins of this story a unique experience?

LL: Actually dreams are not usually a part of my writing process. What’s important about this dream event for me was taking the leap and trusting the process of writing into an image or idea. The dream became the first section I wrote in the novel. I saw this small Mexican child in the pull-out, his chubby legs dusty with caliche dirt. He looked lonely and forlorn. I wondered what he was doing there. Gradually, I saw Maricela trudging up the side of a road to meet the other migrant workers who were waiting for the van to take them to the next field. A comic book she’d found in the migrant housing the night before was stuffed in her back pack. All she wants to do is get on the van and read her comic book and then something else happens. That sectionComic Bookled to others, each of them occurring in the pull-out, that strange disconnected place by the side of the road. It wasn’t until later that I found Tommy Smythe and discovered that he had gone missing from the pull-out, and that his disappearance weaves in and out of every story. So to answer your question, dreams are not a part of my writing process but I will say that drafting a story is a very dreamy otherworldly process. I will often get up from a first draft writing session and be very disoriented. Does that happen to you?

DW: Yes! As though we’re inhabiting other worlds. You have said you took risks with the form of Evidence of Things Not Seen, using multiple points of view, chapters as unique episodes that come together to build a whole, bringing in journals, and shifting between first and third person. These risks let storytelling magic happen. What was the hardest risk for you? From our time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I know that you have written wonderful short stories. Have you ever thought of this book as a secret short story cycle? Does that make it feel more or less risky?

LL: Originally the book was a linked short story cycle. I was interested in seeing how a place like the pull-out could be the setting for a series of epiphanies for characters who came there. Unfortunately, short story cycles are a tough sell and I needed to find a way to weave these stories together more tightly and make the book as a whole more compelling for the reader. I think the biggest risk I took was after I had sent the manuscript out to several agents and I realized I’d written an ending with a big fat bow. I pulled the manuscript from the agents, wrote myself a three page editorial letter and did a floor to ceiling kind of revision. That was the revision when I sharpened the first person sections and wove Tommy’s disappearance into all the stories. I worried a little bit about all these multiple perspectives but I feel that young adult readers are really sophisticated. They can hold multiple story lines in their head and are willing to accept ‘outside the norm’ storytelling.

DW: The gorgeous cover of Evidence of Things Not Seen picks up both the mysticism and physics that weave through your story. Can you tell us first about the journey for the cover creation—always exciting for a first novel—and also how you discovered that physics was such an integral part of Tommy’s character? Were there specific characters who brought in mysticism and faith, or do you see physics as naturally containing both those elements?

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LL: The cover was created by Elizabeth Clark, associate art director at MacMillan. She is remarkable. I happened to see a few of the covers that the design team ‘rejected’ when I went to New York last year and I have to say the folks at MacMillan completely understood the content of EVIDENCE. I love the boy standing on this big landscape, slightly ghosted to suggest his disappearance. I love the symbols around him which hint at the connections within the book as well as Tommy’s fascination with physics. And then, of course, the wide open space of the Texas landscape which holds the story is perfect. As for your question about mysticism, faith and physics, I think that physics is kind of a mind blow. Let’s just start with the big bang versus creationism. Physics calls into question our very existence. I think these ideas light kids’ brains on fire. It did for Tommy. And because Tommy was obsessed with these ideas, it touched everyone’s lives. I mean, if a brilliant kid, who thought time travel was possible, goes missing, would you consider the possibility? Or would you think he was dead in a ditch? Would you have faith that the unknown universe works in mysterious ways? All the characters touch upon faith in some way: from Tommy’s disappearance to the unknowability of what will happen tomorrow.

DW: I love that Alexander Calder’s mobiles are part of your inspiration and indeed can see how his fractured spare shapes that move and float in space and yet create a unified whole, mirror the form of your book. What’s the story of how and when you discovered his work, and when you realized that these sculptures were connected to your writing?

LL: I have loved Alexander Calder’s work for forever. I love the way the elements (wind and light) interact with his sculptures. The moment he intersected my work as a writer was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor was the poet Julie Larios. I was attempting my first long work and I described my novel to her as lumps of clay, very unformed. She disagreed with me. She said that the way I wrote was like Alexander Calder’s mobiles. “I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile – light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. That’s what your writing is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.” I hope that readers of EVIDENCE will be able to see the whole as well as the pieces and how they interact with each other. I hope they will be struck by the notion of how light and shadow live next to each other.

DW: Over on Emu’s Debuts, I loved reading about your childhood closet filled with books and a pillowy place to read them, and was touched to learn that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty especially spoke to you because it “told the truth about love and cruelty—two impossible roommates in the human heart.” This is a book that I missed as a kid and only just read it about five or six years ago. When I read it, I was also struck by Black Beauty’s struggles to be good. The stereotypical bookish kid tends to be well behaved and not to be a rabble rouser. Because your work takes on tough topics and emotions with such insight I have the sense that for you, like Black, childhood was a time of struggling with complexity and struggling to be good. You have explained beautifully why you write edgy YA (link), but could you also speak more about the role of books in your life as a younger kid: Did books save you? Does your relationship with books when you were young play a role in how you write for young people today?

LL: Books held me. My world was pretty safe and middle class. Still, I think every kid in the world goes through moments, short or extended, where they feel at odds with their surroundings and pretty much at the effect of the adults in their lives. It’s part of growing up. During those times I folded myself into the pages of a book. I lost my awkwardness in those pages. I grew through the awkwardness.

You know, one of my characters in EVIDENCE says that treating other people like you like to be treated is ingrained in our collective cells (aka the golden rule). She believes Tommy will be found and nothing bad has happened. In other words, I think we all strive to goodness. Really. I think that’s the miracle and wonder of books. We can open the pages of a book and see characters struggle to hold on to their goodness. That’s why I opened books. I wanted to see the characters fall in love, get lost, get hurt, survive, overcome the odds. I wanted to experience how they wrestled with their problems. As a teen, I read way ahead of my age level, trying to grow up as fast as I could. I think it satisfied a curiosity but kept me safely on the sidelines. We may want our sixteen year olds to have sugarplums dancing in their heads forever but chances are pretty good they won’t. As I said in my blog, I think edgy YA addresses a need for kids who want to look over the edge but not jump.

I do want to be clear about something, though. I don’t write edgy just to write edgy. It has to come from the heart of the characters. It has to make sense in the context of the story. It can’t be gratuitous. It can’t distract from the plot. For example, in the section of EVIDENCE called The Proposal, Marshall takes Leann out to the pull-out to tell her he likes her and wants to be with her but Leann freezes up and asks to go home. The reader knows the disconnection comes from Leann’s history of incest. Her intimacy meter was broken years before but Marshall has no idea. I didn’t want to write about incest. I wanted to write about the unseen cost of incest in this one moment in time. Will readers get a flashback glimpse of incest? Yes. Will it be gratuitous? I sure hope not.

DW: In your terrific post “Debut Author To Do List”  writing the next book is one of your key items. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on next?

LL: I don’t want to say too much because it dilutes my energy of working on it. The working title is Inside the Notes. Here is the inciting incident: A young girl arrives in Boston. First time away from home. She is staying with a couple near the music conservatory where she is studying for four weeks. As she is unpacking, the clock radio in her room clicks on and she hears men’s voices reading poetry and letters. It is a prison radio show. The girl knows her father is in prison for killing her mother when she was two years old. It is the first time she has considered he might be real and have a voice.

DW: This sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and process with us. I can’t wait to hold my copy of Evidence of Things Not Seen in my hands on September 16th!

Desperately Seeking Discipline

My desk. With me not sitting at it.

My desk. With me NOT sitting at it.

It’s just after 8:00 am. The kids have left for school, and you finally have the house for yourself. You pour yourself a second cup of coffee and open your laptop. Just as you’re about to click on your work-in-progress, the phone rings. Or a text pings. Or an email alert flickers from the corner of your screen. Maybe a neighbor stops by to chat, or the dog looks up at you with big puppy eyes begging, “Walk now?” And suddenly you’re sliding down that slippery slope into full-blown procrastination mode. You’ll write later, you promise yourself…

 And then you don’t.

If you’re like me, this scenario is unfortunately all too common. I’m desperately in need of discipline. So when my friend, Ellen Sussman, an award-winning adult author (http://www.ellensussman.com/author.html), told me about a method she uses called the unit system, I was intrigued. While her technique (detailed below) didn’t turn out to be the panacea I’d hoped for, experimenting with the novelty of a new routine did motivate me to research the work habits of other authors I admire. Why reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to write, if I can benefit from the innovative ways others have solved the discipline dilemma? So I turned to some of the best minds I know in the business—my VCFA critique group—to interview them about their writerly habits. How do you trick your brain into concentrating, I asked? What kind of routines and rituals work for you? While I found no single winning formula, there was consensus in the collective wisdom on a few common themes—like the importance of routine.

The Unit System: Based on research done by Dorothy Duff Brown, who studied how to help graduate students structure their time while writing theses, this system helps writers break down long blocks of time into manageable segments.

time-297498_640“[You] divide your work time into units,” explains Sussman. “Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. Then no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk and do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to do the work.” This might include tasks like watering the plants, throwing a ball for the dog, putting in a load of laundry, or chopping up vegetables for dinner—but no emails, texts or “thinking work.”

The theory is, people have an easier time of focusing if they know they have to do it for only 45 minutes. “Anyone can withstand a short bout of suffering—and there’s the reward of a fifteen-minute break on the other end,” says Sussman. “The break is truly a time to go deeper in a very different way. [During that time] I’m not conscious of thinking about the novel. But the minute I get back to my desk for unit two, I’m suddenly brimming with new ideas. Something happens when you let your mind breathe for a moment.”

Routine: The consensus is that routine is essential. “Novelists especially need to write daily,” Sussman stresses. “It takes a lot to hold a novel in one’s head. Novels don’t get written when inspiration strikes; they get written on days when you’re feeling lousy, on days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.”

“If I let myself off the hook,” agrees Ann Jacobus (http://www.annjacobus.com)  “it gets harder and harder to get back.”

“Many of us are our own worst enemies,” admits Linden McNeilly (http://www.lindenmcneilly.com).  “So, systems that are not negotiable are the best ones for me.”

Set working hours: It doesn’t matter when you write as long as you stick to a timetable.  “My most productive hours are in the morning,” Jacobus says,  “so I get to my computer by 7:30 but by 8:30 at the latest.”

“There are so many GOOD reasons not to get down to writing,” Christine Dowd concedes. “So, if I don’t start in the morning, the day tends to get away from me.”

Afternoons are best for Sharry Wright (http://sharrywright.com)  who says, “I sit down at my desk, quickly check email and then turn off the Internet connection. I read over what I wrote the day before, allow myself half an hour to “tweak” and then move on to what comes next. After an hour, I get up, stretch, have a cup of miso, throw in a load of laundry and check for any urgent emails, then sit back down at my desk. I work until 3:00, then stop for lunch and reading for a half an hour. Then I’m back working until 4:30.”

In contrast, Annemarie O’Brien (http://annemarieobrienauthor.com) binge writes. “I essentially schedule chunks of time, leave my house, and have marathon writing sessions,” she explains. “I have often started at six in the morning and have worked through the day until midnight. I realize this is crazy and most normal people wouldn’t work this way, but I need to get into my character’s world and stay there. It is very hard for me to jump in and out of my story and do it justice if I can’t immerse myself fully.”

Give yourself a daily minimum word count. Many swear by this method. But be realistic when it comes to the word count and then stick to it—on good days, you can always write more.

“It starts with a deadline for the whole work,” Linden McNeilly explains. “That is usually dependent on some outside [event] I am committed to, like attending a conference. I back map from there into weekly word count requirements, and then daily ones. Writing specific scenes works well to help me get to my daily word count. I always end my writing sessions [by journaling] about what’s coming next, and outline scenes at least a little into the future.”


Prewriting rituals: Meditation, prayer, lighting candles, reading inspirational passages, and jogging were some of the most raved-about routines. Exercise happens to be my favorite prewriting routine with spin class winning out as the most effective epiphany-inducing technique. Somewhere between slightly breathless and heart-stopping hard, solutions to my plot problems and story questions start surfacing, glimmering like lightning bugs on a summer night. If I can’t get to the gym before I write, I’ll stand on my head instead. Bring on the blood flow!

Turn off the Internet: Everyone agrees this is essential. If you’ve got the willpower to ignore the siren song of cyberspace, great; otherwise, download and use an Internet blocking app like Freedom. “I manually turn off my access to the Internet,” says McNeilly. “I allow myself to turn it back on in specific intervals of 30 minutes, but only to check correspondence, then off it goes.”

Getting in the Mood: Notice those earbuds our kids never take off?  Mood music helps us rev up, relax, feel romantic, nostalgic, adventurous or afraid. It can also help us connect with our characters when searching for the emotional heart of a scene.   background-313389_640

“When I’m revising a manuscript, I like to listen to movie soundtracks while I work,” Frances Lee Hall (http://www.francesleehall.com) explains. “Soundtracks are meant to evoke a wide range of emotions and follow the movie’s plot. You could argue that the music alone can tell a story from beginning to end. While I was revising Fried Wonton, I listened to the soundtrack from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I love Yo Yo Ma’s cello combined with Tan Dun’s majestic score. When I was in an emotional part in my story, a song called Yearning of the Sword came on at that exact moment when I needed it most. It’s sad, longing cello sounds put me in the mood that I needed to be.”

Snacks: Be sure to feed your body and your brain.coffee-386878_640

Tea and coffee win out as favorite beverages with chocolate as the best-loved snack. I also liked Jacobus’s trick of keeping dried fruit and nuts at her desk to munch on if she’s on a roll and doesn’t want to stop.

“Don’t wait for the muse to whisper in your ear,” Sussman says. I agree. If we expect life to get in the way of our writing and have a strategy for dealing with hard times and temptations—instead of using them as an excuse—we’ll be more likely to find the discipline we need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of tea and turn off the Internet.

Helen Pyne (www.helenpyne.com)






Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Dana Walrath’s Two New Novels


Cover Art Aliceheimer's

“This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her [my mother’s] humanity with every image.”  Dana Walrath


I remember seeing Dana Walrath’s early art about life with her ailing mother—now the poignant graphic novel Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass—when we were working together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency one summer. You entered her room and were immediately drawn to her work, tacked along the bookshelf like newly inked pages of fresh newsprint. Amazing images that drew the heart and inspired the mind. And like her work, Dana is brilliant, funny, inspiring and down to earth. This two-part interview is a look behind the scenes at how her alchemy of art, writing and anthropology emerged into print.

VCFA grad Dana Walrath is a writer, artist, and anthropologist. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013), her award winning graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014.

Dana, you’ve spoken elsewhere about how your art is informed by life and how, conversely, your life informs your art. Many writers struggle with the question of how to write about their own lives (especially because of what their families might say). Yet you’ve successfully used autobiography in works such as Aliceheimer’s, and what’s more, been able to speak eloquently about a difficult last journey with your mom. Can you speak to how and why you approached this painful journey?  

I came to writing late and had never kept any sort of personal journal. Anthropological field notes were as close as I could get. While my memory for the specific details of my life has always been imperfect, I am all too aware of the emotional and physical sensations of this life. I worried about my imperfect memory, my aches, and my un-writerly habits until I read Robert Olin Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. Butler says that writers must let go of specific experiences and instead, let them flow into an internal subconscious compost heap in which experiences ferment and recombine and become stories. Suddenly I could reframe what I had seen as a deficit into a fortuitous process.

Graphic Art WalrathAround the same time that I read Butler—my first or second residency at VCFA—Marion Dane Bauer said in a lecture that if you are a woman, everyone will assume that everything you write is autobiographical. This differential treatment of male and female authors clearly derives from constraints imposed by gender roles established in a patriarchy, and in a funny way this assumption liberated me. That people would assume that I was writing from my life no matter what, gave me permission to use my life as I wished, without a burning need to stay close to any specific “facts” or details that could constrain the storytelling.

But more than just general comfort with writing from life drives me. For my forthcoming verse novel, Like Water on Stone, a powerful need to tell the story of how my mother’s parents survived the Armenian genocide of 1915 stems directly from the official Turkish policy of denial, and the lack of recognition of the genocide by other governments such as our own. In a briefing paper prepared for the US State Department in 1996, Gregory Stanton describes denial as the final stage of genocide (see http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html). In other words, until denial ends, genocide is ongoing.


For my grandmother, I had only a single haunting sentence of family history to draw upon: That after her parents were killed she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night hundreds of miles from their home to an orphanage in Aleppo. So many survivors were too traumatized to share the details of their stories with their families, though witnesses and generations of scholars have amply documented these events. Knowing the scars the experience has left in the survivors and their descendants let me tell a story that was grounded in personal emotional truths and accurate historical research.

In a similar vein, a desire to support people with dementia, their caregivers, and to help re-write the dominant narrative about dementia and aging led me to share our family’s experience in my graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s. Stigma and silence and a discourse of pain and loss surround dementia and other permanent, incurable problems of the mind. The dominant story is a scary zombie story of bodies without minds, loved ones experiencing only loss and valiant researchers searching for an elusive cure.  As a society, we are so fearful of mind loss and death that we leave families in isolation, without a roadmap of how to handle a host of daily challenges. Of course there is loss, but if we accept the loss and share our stories this can be a time of magic and laughter and healing. A lifetime with my mother made me certain that I could share our story respectfully, that her story could contribute to restoring the humanity of those with dementia.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in approaching your two books—from verse to graphic novel? Are there different emotional and/or craft considerations you could point to?

Considering the scary subject matters for Like Water on Stone and Aliceheimer’s—genocide and dementia—I knew I had to find ways to make these topics safe.  They found entirely different forms due to the sources of the fear and the reasons for bringing the issue into the open. With Aliceheimer’s my mother, a life-long reader, was the driving force. When she lived with us, she still read each day without the benefit of a short term memory. Watching her eat up every graphic narrative that came into our home made me certain that I wanted to use a form that someone with dementia could access.

Graphic Art by Dana Walrath

As people lose language they revert to the preverbal stages of life when we were experts at reading visual and other cues. My mother also loves to laugh and she led the way to laughing at her loss. Subconsciously, we associate comics with laughter. The medium grants us permission to laugh. Laughter is respite. It opens up new ways to cope. Comics also let simultaneous realities co-exist on a single page, mirroring the conflicting realities of people with dementia and their caregivers. This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her humanity with every image. And the book began as a series of comics-style drawings, each of which went on to inspire another layer of story.

For Like Water on Stone, I wanted to show the truth of genocide in such a way that it was undeniable, but that readers would not be so overwhelmed that they would have to turn away from it. The language and story came to me in fragments as the painful truths grew on the page. Though I generally write in prose, line breaks and spare language were integral to this story. The character of Ardziv, an eagle, a guardian spirit who protects the three siblings as they travel, also appeared as part of making the book safe for me as I wrote and for the reader. My job was to make it safe enough for a reader to truly know the horror.

Next: Dana talks about graphic novels, comics, collage and staying the course to publication.                                                                       –Zu Vincent

Creative Energy

When I have high creative energy, I can write anywhere and with all sorts of distractions.  There are days I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words flying onto the page.  The Muse is with me, and I walk with my characters in a fictional world, a world more real than reality.  But not every writing day is like that, and I have to work to access creative energy.

How does one always access the creative parts of her/his mind?

Goethe's Summer Writing Place

Goethe’s Summer Writing Place
Photo copyright Sarah Blake Johnson

Some writers make writing spaces in their homes, in a park, or in a special location as a way to encourage creative energy.

Creative energy abounds when writers gather together.  Residency at VCFA is a prime example of a place where the air is imbued with creative vibes. Writers also find creative energy at conferences and workshops.  Being with others who value creativity breeds more creativity.

Creative energy may be higher for some writers at certain times of day, such as early morning or late at night.

Here are a few ideas that help me access creative energy on the days when my words feel forced.

  • Sit down and write. Sometimes the process of writing allows creative work to flow.
  • Read a good book.
  • Switch to a different project and let the current WIP rest.
  • Meditate.
  • Walk or hike or other exercise.
  • Enter a dream state.
  • Set goals/work to meet deadlines.

What works best for you when you’re in the creative doldrums? Please share in the comments—I’d love to find more ways to connect with my muse.

Sarah Blake Johnson