Archive for the ‘Writing information and tips’ Category

(Cross-posted at Through the Tollbooth)

As someone whose life has always been governed by school schedules – first as a student and then an employee – summer is a big deal. It has its own sense of time and space. Life is a different in the summer months. When I was a child, my father spent each summer doing research. So, on the first day of our vacation from school, we packed up our car and headed to a remote lake in Maine. He’d work, and we’d spend three months swimming, exploring the woods, making things, alternating between getting bored and being thrilled and amazed.

This past school year has been particularly hectic and busy – I’ve been looking forward to summer vacation since about October. And wrapped up in that eager expectation, is my desire to have more time to write.

Now that I am in the final countdown for summer break (5 more days!); I’m starting to worry about the exact thing I’ve been anticipating: More time to write.

amazinghappyMy two projects are A) finish a novel and/or B) revise a novel

More and more, I’ve been feeling like I don’t know how to do either one.

But then, last weekend, at my daughter’s college graduation ceremony (yay!), the commencement speaker gave some brilliant bits of advice to the celebratory crowd.

I’m hanging tight to one particular pearl of wisdom: STAY IGNORANT: Expertise and creativity make poor roommates. 

When you have your MFA, and have a book published, and spend a lot of time teaching writing; it’s easy to feel like you know how to write. Or, that you should know how to write.

Fact is, I don’t know how to write and/or revise these novels. Not yet. But… apparently, we’re more creative when we’re lost and confused. Reassuring, right?

junkmanSo, instead of the big grandiose plans of strict daily word counts and milestone achievements to get me through the summer, I’m planning my summer playtime and explorations. I’m going back to my days of running wild outside combined with lazing about on the floor, reading and doodling. Going exploring. Trying to find more creativity and less expertise.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”


  • Walk somewhere new and/or at a different time. Evenings walks on the beach are completely different from those at noon.
  • eyeballSit. Force yourself to stay in one spot for longer than you want, longer than you are comfortable. Somewhere picturesque and quiet: in the woods, by a water, on a bench in an art museum. Or not: by a dumpster, on a busy street corner, in a barren lot. Be aware of all your senses. But stay still. You might even squirm.
  • Visit a museum.
  • Wander through a fabric store. Soak up the different colors, patterns, textures.
  • Collect. Rocks, seashells, pine cones, toys, anything.
  • Make something. Try using craft supplies from your childhood: paste and tape and scissors and paint.
  • youareniceKeep a doodle journal. I’m looking forward to exploring some of the exercises outlined in SYLLABUS by Lynda Barry.
  • Eat alone at a restaurant. You can even talk to yourself if you like.
  • Challenge yourself physically. Climb a mountain, swim laps, dig a hole. Get tired.
  • Listen. To music, is one possibility. Or try something new: listen to a favorite movie without seeing the pictures. Blindfold yourself and listen to your neighborhood. It’s okay if you fall asleep. Sleep is part of creativity as well!

What your favorite ways to boost creativity?

~Sarah Tomp


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I tried a new exercise with my writing class recently. They each wrote a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, showing character change – using only 3 lists. The lists could be seemingly mundane – shopping lists before, during and after a vacation – or more profound – lists of things I wish I could say or do. Any kind of list has the potential to connect with a reader, and make a story more interactive as it requires the reader to fill in the blanks.

I was delighted with the results! It loosened them up, and gave them the freedom to dig a little deeper, to reveal the underlying emotions. And, they were almost completely across the board, both poignant and funny. 

It makes me want to try it, too!

Lists within a story can be extremely powerful and effective. Because they are short, and non-narrative, they demand the reader’s attention in a different way. The white space around the list leaves room for the reader to add his/her own conclusions. When incorporated throughout a story, the evolution of these lists shows character shifts and change. 


  1. Focus
  2. Intensity
  3. Emotional impact
  4. Humor
  5. Voice


survival strategies of the almost brave1. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE by (Fellow-Tollboother) Jen White

Billie, the main character of this middle grade novel – an emotionally powerful adventure story – keeps a notebook close by, at all times. She logs her observations about various living creatures, and the world in general. These lists and notes give us a peek into her inner turmoil – and even teach readers about the world. They’re a lovely mix of fact and heart. 

mayday by karen harrington2. MAYDAY by Karen Harrington

This middle grade novel, to be released in May, is the story of Wayne Kovoc, a survivor of a plane crash. He has always loved facts, and shares them with others as a kind of emotional shield. Having lost his voice in the accident, he is unable to share these facts – which leaves him on emotionally unsteady ground. Throughout the novel, he is determined to find his uncle’s memorial flag that disappeared in the crash. He creates Data Reports to track the plane crash investigation and recovery progress – which also, for the reader, tracks Wayne’s own recovery in a subtle and effective way. 

kissingtedcallahan_RGB3. KISSING TED CALLAHAN (and Other Guys) by Amy Spalding

This hilarious YA novel is told in alternating viewpoints by Riley, and her best friend, Reid, as they document their victories and mishaps, in pursuit of romance and all that involves. The dual views – female and male – of the same topics are especially humorous and shows their differences, as well as their similarities. We also see their priorities and understandings shift and change as they gain experience – and real feelings – with their various kissing partners. 

weight of a human heart coverTHE WEIGHT OF A HUMAN HEART by Ryan O’Neill

Written for adults, this collection of short stories includes incredibly inventive storytelling. One story uses only lists, charts, and diagrams to reveal the progression of a relationship and marriage. Highly recommended to explore unusual writing conventions. And, with an powerful emotional punch. 

Even if your lists don’t make it into a final draft, I think the process of honing in what exactly you want to say, or what your character is feeling and doing at different parts of your story could add refreshing insights. Humor and voice, too! 

What other books use lists? Are you tempted to give it a try?

~Sarah Tomp

[Cross-posted at Through the Tollbooth]


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*Warning! Shameless plugs and gushing ahead!*JumpFroggiesfinal

Here is a riddle:

By the pond you spot a sign: Writing for Children. In the pond, three frogs sit on a log. One decides to jump.

How many are left on the log?

Three–because there is a difference between deciding and doing.

Author Edith Hope Fine has written a wonderful book for beginning authors and veteran authors as well.

Here is the description:

Do you dream of writing for children but don’t know where to start? Jump, Froggies!: Writing Children’s Books is the perfect book to start you on your path to publication. Award-winning children’s book writer Edith Hope Fine takes you on a step-by-step journey through the world of children’s book publishing. From writing techniques to jump-start your creativity to how to submit your work, from getting your work published to marketing yourself and your projects, this book includes more than eighty-nine practical tips, plus journaling ideas for aspiring writers. Jump, Froggies! is a must-have for anyone beginning a career in children’s books.

*Shameless plug #1* My blog buddy Sarah Tomp and I each contributed to the eighty-nine practical tips.

*Shameless plug #2* I designed the cover and interior art for this book.

Here comes the gushing part: Jump, Froggies! is a must-read for all budding authors. Edith Hope Fine is a genius, she delivers a wealth of information in a clear and concise manner. The tips are sometimes humorous, sometimes thought provoking, but they are all very helpful. This book will be on my recommended reading list.

So go out there and start writing,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk

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My VCFA class name is “The Unreliable Narrators.” 

That’s because we’re a bunch of lying cheating no-good dirty scoundrels. 

Inexcusable by Chris LynchBut also, that was a term we learned our first semester when everyone was talking about Chris Lynch’s INEXCUSABLE. It was one of those things that made it clear we were in a MFA Program. We could name those tricky things we admired in the books we read. 

Usually a reader suspends this world we live in while entering a story world. Our guide is the narrator. We sink in and believe what we’re told. An unreliable narrator is one that can’t be trusted. He or she is either lying or withholding information. The reader is not getting the whole truth – for a very particular reason. NOT because the author is lazy. It’s actually quite challenging to pull off. 

Maybe it’s just because I love my class of lying cheating no-good dirty scoundrels, but I do find a well crafted unreliable narrator story intriguing. I think it comes down to my delight in being surprised and also my interest in issues of mental health. Like Holden Caulfield, one shining example, the unreliable narrator is often incapable of telling the “truth” because he/she is a bit unbalanced. 

Oddly enough, I have just read three different books with unreliable narrators. They are far from being the same story, but they all use this technique to build tension and suspense. I don’t want to tell too much about the plots–that’s the whole point of this kind of story–but I recommend each of these.

we-were-liars by E LockhartWE WERE LIARS by E Lockhart
  The narrator is Cadence Sinclair, a wealthy seventeen year old girl–her family owns an entire island and that’s just for summers–with crippling headaches and a penchant for giving away all her belongings. (YA)



complicit_cover by Stephanie KuehnCOMPLICIT by Stephanie Kuehn is told by Jamie Henry, a seventeen year old boy. His family is also wealthy and he lives a life of privilege, but it wasn’t always that way. He and his sister Cate had a rough early childhood and they’re both still haunted. (YA)



Be_Safe_I_Love_You- by Cara HoffmanThe third book is a little different. Written for adults and with a focus on a soldier just back from a tour of Iraq, BE SAFE I LOVE YOU by Cara Hoffman is unusual in that Lauren Clay is an unreliable narration told from a close third person point of view. It’s far more typical for a story with an unreliable narrator to be told in first person so we only get information from that one dysfunctional perspective. But Lauren is so deeply troubled and altered by her experience, we can’t trust everything she sees and thinks. (Adult)

The excellent use of an unreliable narrator prompts me to return to the beginning and see what hints I missed. It’s fascinating to see how I was fooled. 

Go ahead and see what you think. You can trust me. Even if I am a lying cheating no-good dirty scoundrel.

Sarah Tomp


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funny-pictures-cat-is-stuck-in-your-christmas-treeStuck-itis, it’s that terrible condition that all authors face when they get stuck halfway through their story. We’ve all experienced it, and sometimes the effects can be crippling for a writer. Friend of the blog, author Bruce Hale, shared these four tips for helping an author get rid of stuck-iris in his recent newsletter. Bruce graciously gave me permission to share those tips with our readers today.

Dear Writer Guy,

I usually get story ideas all the time and start writing them.
However, I usually get stuck in the middle of the story and
don’t know where to go from there. Do you have any tips for
writer’s block or story stuck-itis?

Yours truly,
Julie in Texas

Dear Julie,

Usually, I find my story bogs down when I’ve lost track of what
the character wants or I haven’t given her a meaningful enough
goal to carry her through the whole tale.  If the character is
actively trying to solve a problem, your story will keep moving

Of course, it’s one thing to say this and another thing to
accomplish it.  Here are a few techniques you might try to get

o Character journaling: Write journal entries as if you were that
main character.  Sometimes in the free flow of writing, a new idea
will shake loose.

o Interview your character: Write this in Q&A format, with you
posing questions and your character answering.  Ask what she’s
feeling, what she wants – anything that will help you get past the
stuck place.  The answers might surprise you.

o Brainstorming: It’s vital to do plenty of this before you
begin writing.  Sometimes I’ve gotten stuck because I
didn’t allow the story idea enough time to gestate before I
tried to push it out into the world.  Play with the idea before
writing.  Let it grow organically.

o Dream seeding: Writing is a head game. (And some of us are head
cases because of this!)  Let your unconscious mind lend a hand.
Before you go to sleep, hold the key story question in your mind,
whether it’s, “What happens next?” “What does
she want?” or, “How does he get out of this

And if all that fails, try putting your story aside and working on
something else for a week.  The brain break may do you good.

If you’d like more writing tips, find out more about Bruce or subscribe to his newsletter check out the following links:

Thanks, Bruce, for letting us share your wisdom today.
Happy Writing,
Suzanne Santillan
Writing on the Sidewalk

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As a writer you never know where you may find yourself. In the past I have visited bookstores and schools, leadership luncheons, camps and even a prison. I now have a new location to add to my list-The San Diego County Fair.



Last week I was invited by fellow author Cindy Jenson-Elliot to serve as a writing judge in the creative youth tent for this year’s fair. It proved to be a fun and rewarding experience. Because of my background in art and writing, I was paired up with Alonso Nuñez of Little Fish Comic Book Studio to judge the comic book entries.

I must say I was a little humbled by the caliber of talent that was presented by these kids. They will go far.

Alonso and I proved to be such a good team, that we moved on to judge some of the other art categories as well. By the end of the day our dynamic duo had judged five categories.


As we went through the process of selecting First or Second Place, Best in Show, and the Coordinators Award, I remembered my own boys and the joy they received from earning a ribbon at the fair. It was exciting to know that I was going to be an anonymous part of someone’s memorable moment as well. I wish them well and know they will do great things in the future.

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk



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When my buddy Sarah and I embarked on this whole crazy blog venture we struggled to find our niche. We knew that we wanted to talk about writing and books, but we didn’t want to limit ourselves to those two items exclusively. Over the years we have added recipes and craft items to our posts as well. Okay I admit it, I’ve been the one to add the recipes and craft items more than Sarah has, but nevertheless they have been included on the blog.

The one theme or philosophy that remains consistent has been the appreciation of creativity. Whether it is books, writing or yes even recipes and crafts, we both find delight in creative endeavors.

Recently a friend posted some pictures on her Facebook page that I thought shared the philosophy of our blog.

Some were simple inspirational words written in chalk on the sidewalk:

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler


Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler

Others were beautiful masterpieces:

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler


Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutchler

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutcher

Photo courtesy of Conni Allen Mutcher

Conni’s photos were a reminder that whether it’s a few simple words written in chalk on a sidewalk or large masterpiece, inspiration is all around us. A writer must always strive to improve their craft and we need to look beyond the edge of our desks or we simply won’t grow.

Go outside and find the beauty around you.

Happy searching,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk

P.S.  Special thanks to Conni Allen Mutchler, for letting me share your photos.

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