Posts Tagged ‘vcfa’

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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I am guest blogging over at author Annemarie O’Brien’s blog today! Come say hi and read some of my thoughts on dogs in literature.

Lara's Gift by Annemarie O'BrienAnnemarie is the author of LARA’S GIFT. She’s put together quite the resource for books with dogs featured in the story within her dog-specific blog, “Dog Reads.”

As I say in my guest post, I think middle grade fiction is the sweet spot for books featuring dogs in literature. But, there are also some awesome dogs in YA literature as well.

There is just something about loving a pet that immediately makes a character more sympathetic to me. And, truth be told, it makes me nervous. Because whenever a character loves something that deeply, there’s a risk they’re going to lose it. But that’s life, too. And love is worth the risk.

We’ll just see how much I love my little Luna after a rainy weekend in a hotel together.

Sarah Tomp


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Last week I attended the UCSD Extension Creative Writing Showcase.

Students from various creative writing classes offered through UCSD Extension read from their works-in-progress. Such a fun experience to hear from so many talented writers!

Reading aloud – and listening to other writers read their work – is part of the Vermont College experience. Reading an excerpt of your work is a graduation requirement. Students read from a podium, using a microphone, and to a receptive audience. Smaller, practice type reading opportunities are offered earlier throughout each residency to help prepare for this exhilarating, and potentially terrifying, experience.

Faculty members also read – occasionally from published work, but raw drafts are shared too. Some favorite memories of pre-published readings include Rita Williams-Garcia changing stance and body language, as well as voice and cadence as she read the different voices in Jumped; Tim Wynne-Jones had us all roaring with laughter as he read an early version of Rex Zero and the End of the World; but some people sobbed through Kathi Appelt’s lyrical reading of The Underneath.


I think reading aloud is such a powerful tool for writers. I also think writers need to read their  writing out loud to themselves as part of the revision process, but this kind of reading – to an audience – is a separate animal completely.

If you are planning a working retreat, or simply want to build community and support for writers, I encourage you to consider readings as part of the experience. Five minutes allows for a good sense of a story – and can include a scene and/or entire picture book. Maybe allow up to ten minutes if it’s a small group or special event. It’s like having a recital to celebrate hard work!

Things to consider when selecting what to read:

  • It doesn’t have to be the opening scene.
  • Choose an entire scene to read.
  • Select a scene with emotion and intensity.
  • Humor is always appreciated by audiences.
  • Action, too.
  • It’s better to read less than the allotted time than more.
  • Practice!

Thank you to all the brave and gifted writers I heard last week!

Sarah Wones Tomp


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I recently went on a retreat with some writer friends.


Tam and Sharry describe it oh so well. (Happy Blog-0-versary to Kissing the Earth!) And I stole this picture from them. This was one of the views as we took our daily walks – where we talked about books and writing and writing and books.

Prior to the retreat, we each submitted pages (and the terrifying synopsis) from our new WIPs so that we could talk about things like character development and desire, forces of antagonism and obstacles, secondary characters, structure and plot development with our particular stories in mind.

For me, this feels like it has been such a booster engine jet-pack for my story. Wanting to get the most out of the retreat as possible, I prepared by diving into my story with a stronger sense of urgency and focus, trying to get as far along my messy first draft as time permitted. Simply writing the synopsis was a tremendous feat – and made me feel both queasy and elated.

I have a hard time talking about my stories when they are loose and forming, so this retreat examination was a new experience for me. This forced me out of my comfort zone. During our discussions, I honestly felt this sort of simultaneous losing and yet discovering my story at the same time.

I’ve hit some moments of doubt and frustration over the discoveries this retreat made clear – but the thing is, these are the same moments I had writing my last story – but it took me so much longer to reach a point where I could recognize the fatal flaws. There will be more moments, of course! But I feel like I have a good base on which to work – and a notebook to consult.

The key to this type of retreat is the company. I was surrounded by brilliant minds and hearts that I trust implicitly.

The walks, chocolate, and wine helped too, of course…

Sarah Wones Tomp


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I just got home from taking the oldest boy back to school. My brain and heart are both full and empty, so I am going to turn this over to a new blog, WRITE AT YOUR OWN RISK, hosted by the Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty. Check it out!

I love the name and I love them.

And I swear I was going to post this week about grown-ups in picture books, but looks like Leda Schubert did that for me!

Enjoy the brilliance.

Sarah Wones Tomp


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Read this on the Through the Tollbooth blog this morning:

History was made today on the VCFA campus when faculty member, Martine
Leavitt, dubbed a new literary technique, abstract concretion, during
her lecture. In defining the term, a sibling of the objective
correlative, Leavitt offered the following: “It’s when you take the
abstract emotional desire line and somehow find a concrete way to
express that emotional story through the plot.”

Chew on that for awhile. Is it simple or complex? Yes!

It’s that time of year… when my homing/migration instinct kicks in.

I’m supposed to be in New England in the summer.

Even at my age, after all the many summers NOT spent in New England, I still feel that pull – like a wild goose or a monarch butterfly.

Maine is where I spent my childhood summers – that would be lovely. But I’m also missing Vermont and VCFA. Through the Tollbooth is posting from campus as the residency is in progress – reading these posts makes me even more wistful.

And this weekend is the VCFA Alumni weekend.


Anyone who is interested in VCFA will have no trouble finding testimonies and examples of all the wonderfulness and magicality of that campus and program.  (And being a part of it gives you permission to make up words like wonderfulness and magicality.) One of the things that makes the program work is the low-residency factor – you work from home for most of the semester. But, oh how I love Montpelier – it has to be the cutest capitol in the nation.

Not to mention fresh fruit milkshakes. It is a fact: Despite modern technology and high-speed transportation devices… ice cream tastes better in New England.  Sorry, California cows, it’s true.

Sarah Wones Tomp


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During my vacation from my other job – the one where people notice if I don’t show up – I worked on my YA novel which I will refer to as TOTMMCBICSWOIA. (The One That is Making Me Crazy But I Can’t Stop Working On It Anyway).

But as vacation was coming to a close I kind of crashed. I’ve been debating the value of continuing on with this beast. Again. Not the first time. I’ve been torn between 1) I’ve spent so much time on TOTMMCBICSWOIA, how can I stop now? VS. 2) I’ve so much time on TOTMMCBICSWOIA I have to stop and get out while I can.

As the Clash would ask, Should I stay or should I go?

This morning I received a link to a blog post on plot – I believe it’s been linked to and tweeted and all that kind of stuff already but I just read it a moment ago.

And… I think I might actually have a plot in TOTMMCBICSWOIA. Kind of exciting. The scales are tipping toward staying. At least a little longer.

But today I am off to San Francisco! For a Vermont College of Fine Arts west coast extravaganza – and lots and lots of talking about books and writing and being crazy. (TOTMMCBICSWOIA) Very very excited. Faculty presenting are Margaret Bechard, Julie Larios and David Gifaldi – Yay!

For all those high school seniors with one more week to agonize over where to attend school in the fall, I hope they find somewhere they love as much as I love VCFA. Even if it took me several decades to get there. I picked my first college by opening the big book of schools in my high school counselor’s office and blindly sticking my finger in to see where it landed. No wonder about the several decades to figure things out.  Now I just hope TOTMMCBICSWOIA doesn’t take that long.

Sarah Wones Tomp


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I got lost on Hunger Mountain yesterday. Wow, there’s a lot to think about there. Kathi Appelt’s Blurring the Lines is an absolute must read. She made me laugh and cry and want to write and create. My head and heart are full of her words and I love it.

And if you are in the mood for some healthy competition… The guidelines for the Hunger Mountain annual contest (known as the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing)  are here! You can even read the winner of last year’s contest – Crazy Cat, a short story by Liz Cook – it’s fun and surprising and sweet.

From the Hunger Mountain website:

Hunger Mountain is both a print and online journal of the arts. We publish fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, young adult and children’s writing, writing for stage and screen, interviews, reviews, and craft essays. Our print issue comes out annually in the fall, and our online content changes on a regular basis.

The Hunger Mountain editorial offices are located at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in historical Montpelier, Vermont. Vermont College of Fine Arts is the first college devoted entirely to low-residency, graduate fine arts programs, offering an MFA in Writing, MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and MFA in Visual Arts.

It’s a good place to get lost.

Sarah Wones Tomp


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 Margaret Bechard (amazing author and current Chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program) delivered a perfect commencement speech at my graduation from that life-changing program.

One of her brilliant bits of wisdom adressed treating writing as a job:

“You are, as of now, the boss of a one-person company. And you have to figure out how to be a good boss. No one can work for a boss who is always yelling, who is always pointing out faults, who is always talking about how much other companies are earning. Give yourself a break. Treat yourself as kindly and supportively as you would treat the person sitting next to you right now. Be as kind and supportive and helpful to yourself as you would be to one of your friends.

But keep your expectations high. Maintain your commitment. You can’t call in sick all the time. You can’t keep calling in and saying, “Oh, gee. I just don’t feel like working today. I’m not very good at it. And nobody likes me. Maybe I’ll come in next Tuesday.” That wouldn’t work with your real job. It doesn’t work with this job. The single most important thing you can do, is to show up. To show up, ready to work.”


  • GUILT AND SHAME: I do better when I feel like someone else expects something from me. I wish I wasn’t wired this way, but since I am, I try to make it work. My critique group helps. Also, my Wednesday check-in group.
  • AWARENESS OF TIME PASSING: Again, the weekly check-in group, but also keeping a journal. Simply knowing that time is passing can make me buckle down in order to avoid the self-loathing cycle.
  • DEADLINES/ASSIGNMENTS: This was one of the wonderful things about being in an MFA writing program.  Someone – for whom I held enormous respect and admiration – expected me to produce regularly. And each of my advisors acted like they actually wanted to read what I wrote. Simply having an audience is a tremendously effective motivator.
  • ROUTINE: Pre-VCFA I wrote whenever and wherever I could. I had very spotty dedication to my craft. But the demands of the VCFA program required a thoughtful and planned routine for writing.  After two years of continuous writing, my habit was ingrained. But there’s a downside to routines – if I miss my usual time/place, sometimes I have a hard time settling in at a different time.
  • MINIMIZED ESCAPE ROUTES: Thanks to my daughter’s dedicated and driven dive coach, she attends a lot of practices at their dry gym facility. It’s too far a distance from home and too short a time to drive back and forth. When I set up shop in the “office” there – I get a LOT done. Simply because I have nowhere else to go!
  • DRASTIC MEASURES: I hope I can avoid needing to explore these options  (Write or DIE? Yikes) described by Elizabeth Bluemle, but hey, whatever gets the job done!

Sarah Wones Tomp


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