Friday, December 31, 2010


It's just another day, really, the last day of the year, and yet, because there is the ritual of changing calendars, it's an opportunity to reflect on the past year, come up with plans for the new year, and generally jerk out of the often automatic frenzied mode in which we seem to live much of the rest of the year.

So, when I think back to my writing this past year, I see all the books I was dying to write at the beginning of the year, but that I didn't get to. Yet.

Oh, if only I could be more efficient, the lament goes. If I were more efficient, my mind would pop from one idea to the next, with freshness and vigor and I'd have written more. It's inevitable, the self-flagellation. The regret.

And yet, there is the other side. That writing isn't a nine to five job. Stories take the time they take. Sometimes years of putting away before they fall into place. Several of my books have lain fallow as it were, for years, before coming to ripeness and publication.

And people write differently. The challenge is to find the way you write best, the way that works for you, and to make peace with it.

For instance, I know writers who are prolific, and they write in a way that is seemingly chaotic to me, with forays into multiple stories simultaneously.

But I can't do that. If I try and force a style of writing that isn't right for me, it's mind-splitting and ultimately, a waste of time.

For me it's important to take time to replenish the burp pot. Yup, burp pot. As in burp pot of ideas.

I sort of have this image of ideas simmering below the conscious mind, in a huge pot. And as you stir -- and often even when you don't -- ideas burp up.

That pot is filled with a stew of life experiences, the people you know, the books you've read, the things you've dreamed and done, your travels...

And sometimes, you just need to take time out to live. It all feeds that pot. Sooner or later, that mish-mash of life will burp up new ideas, fabulous ideas -- that is, fabulous to you ideas that you must write about.

So, my end of year reflection, while still tinged with regret for the books that didn't get written yet, also includes an acceptance that some stories take time, and that all the time I spent not writing was still feeding that pot.

Excuse me while I burp.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Second Draft Blues

Ah, that painful process, where the euphoria of completing that first draft is swiftly replaced with loathing, fear and disgust as you re-read your peerless manuscript and discover it ain't so peerless after all. That it's more full of holes than swiss cheese.

Stinkier than limburger cheese or rotting gorgonzola, and twice as ugly.

A word of advice: relax. Accept that this is the process. It's a long, slow spiral of many drafts before you get to the heart of the last draft.

To use another image, writing fiction is a labyrinthine process, full of dead ends, sudden turns, obstacles and wrong turnings.

You can, as I often do, waste energy berating yourself with gems like, "If I were a better writer I'd get it righter first time around!"

I don't know any writer who does get it right first time around.

It takes the maze-like twists and turns to discover and uncover the story you want to write. It is all part of the process, so relax and enjoy it. It's absolutely necessary to take those wrong turns in order to find the right ones.

Often, that first draft is just scaffolding. Necessary to tear down, but absolutely crucial to build the stunning structure you will end up with.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Recommendation on Writing Fiction

From my posts below about debunking writing myths, it probably won't come as a surprise to hear that I haven't, by any means, read all the books ever written about the process of writing.

The best way to learn about writing, I think, is to just get on with it and write.

Oh, you need to read, of course; you learn from reading wonderful writers. That's a given.

But if you spend too much time studying writing, it can stymie your natural voice and natural skills and make you an imitator. Or trip you with too many theories and not enough practise. Or ensnare you in the convoluted business of studying writing instead of getting on with it. (I'm up on every procrastinatory technique, believe me!)

That said, here is an excellent book about the process of writing fiction. It discusses setting, character, plot, point of view, the shapes of a story, the process of editing, and much more.

I have a copy and when I get stuck over some writerly matter, this is my go-to book:


It is clear, insightful and comprehensive.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Debunking Some Writing Myths 3

Here's another piece of advice writing teachers tend to hand out: always do a story outline before you write.

To which I say -- maybe.

Maybe you're the kind of writer for whom this is necessary; maybe this is the kind of story with so many convoluted and intersecting plotlines that you need an outline to keep things clear in your own head.

But maybe you'll find that making a story outline destroys any interest you have in writing the story. That an outline corsets your characters and prevents them from taking on life and leading the story in a direction that you'd never, ever planned, and yet is SO right.

If you do decide to make a plan or story outline, it is crucial to understand that it is just a guide and that it must never be followed slavishly.

I've written novels for which I've never done a story outline (not on paper, anyway -- although I always have a sense in my head of the arc of the story and how the tension must build) and ones where I've done fairly detailed outlines.

When writing fantasy or mystery, I've found a general outline useful because it's a way for me to keep interweaving plots, and the motives behind all my various characters' actions straight. (Yes, if the story is to make sense, every character must have a believable motive for his/her actions.)

I've also found an outline useful as a way to try and capture the feel or atmosphere of the story once I think I have it right. Usually, I will go for a walk (many walks, actually!) to pound out ideas, and to try and move the trajectory of the story forward in my head. Then I jot down notes -- snippets of ideas and snatches of dialogue as they come to me. Once I feel that I have all the pieces, and that they fit, and I have a sense of the atmosphere and the voice of the story, I may write an outline, just for the relief of knowing I have that as a reference in case I forget a small piece of motivation, or plot detail, or some such thing.

But inevitably, I have found that once I start to write the story will go off on a trajectory that I hadn't planned -- but that is right. Well, right enough for that draft, anyway.

Some writing teachers suggest making a chapter by chapter outline. Some writers I know do this.

You have to find what works best for you. I couldn't bear to do a chapter by chapter outline because it would bore me to death to write the story. I like to discover and explore as I write and if I have every event and detail pinned down in the outline, I think I'd find it a slog to actually write the story. I'd just lose interest in it. But that's me.

To outline or not is something each writer must decide for her/himself. It may even vary from story to story.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Debunking Some Writing Myths 2

Here's a rule that writers taking courses are often told: Write about what you know.

To which I say, rubbish. Write about what you want to write about, what you're passionately curious about. Then do the necessary research. I have little interest in writing about what I know, because, well, why bother? Writing is very much a process of exploration for me and I don't have much interest in writing solely about what I know because there is no heat of the chase, nothing to discover and uncover.

Take my most recent novel THE TROUBLE WITH DILLY, for example.

It's about a girl, Dilly -- wildly imaginative, exuberant and impulsive -- who lives with her family in a large Canadian city above their family grocery and Indian food take out, and who plays hockey. I've always wanted to write about a girl who played hockey, but I don't know (or rather, didn't know) much about it. Nor did I know anyone who runs a grocery store.

So I did my research. I visited corner grocery stores in a variety of places to try and get the feel of them, to get Dilly's family store right, a sense of the layout and items they'd stock. The atmosphere and pulse.

I also spoke to family, friends and neighbours who knew about hockey, followed hockey games on TV and even went to local Pee Wee hockey game, and met up with the coach and a few girls who played in the team, to hear their stories and viewpoints. It was a huge amount of fun, and a wonderful glimpse into the hockey culture.

I also had to research Christmas customs in Hungary, immigration challenges for new immigrants, some aspects of Chinese culture, and much more.

It was all part of the fun, part of widening my view of life and expanding my horizons of interest.

I like to think this story is a quintessentially Canadian Christmas story, celebrating as it does cultural diversity and hockey.

But it would never have been written if I stuck only to what I know. For that matter, nor would most of the other books I've written.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Debunking Some Writing Myths 1

A writer starting out is often looking for a set of rules to follow -- ones that will teach him/her everything she/he has ever wanted or needed to know about writing, and that will guarantee success, fame and fortune.

And of course, there are courses and books a-plenty with lists of rules about writing.

Here's the rule with which I start all my creative writing workshops:

There are no Golden Rules.

Each writer must find and discover her/his own unique approach to writing, find out what works for her/him.

You can learn the craft of writing -- well, aspects of it, anyway -- but no one can teach you the art of writing. You learn that by writing, by trial and error and finding out what works for you.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Finding the Right Voice -- Don't Show Off

Part of good story-telling is finding the right voice to fit the story. Here's something to bear in mind: please let the language and words serve the story, not the other way around. Don't slaughter story at the altar of your writerly ego. (Oh, I know, it's tempting!)

For me, the best books are where the writer is invisible. Where I'm caught in the story, where wonderful phrases, if there are any, are absolutely integral and true to the story. Where the author isn't pirouetting around with flash phrases that stick out like a sore thumb, shrieking, "Look at me, look at me!" Or leaping about with grandiose phrases, no matter how lovely, with a cheesy, "Look, aren't I clever?"

Beautiful language can only take you so far. After a while, the reader's admiration can ebb into frustration and even downright hostility because instead of engaging with the story, the language sticks out its knobbly feet and demands attention and homage to the author. Perhaps in an attempt to divert attention from the lack of story?

So, don't show off. Let the tale flow, let the tale do its part.

This is not to say that beautiful language is not appropriate at times. But it needs to serve the story, it always needs to serve the story, not the other way around.


Desert the delectable phrases

Eschew the urge to pontificate, with or without marbles in your mouth, no matter how stunning the marbles.

Say it plain.

Say it clear.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Writing In The First Person -- Some Common Pitfalls

I've always loved writing in the first person because it forces me to get inside my character's heart, head and soul and to explore and delve into her/him and then become her/him.

But to write convincingly in the first person, you need to uncover and discover that character's voice -- come up with a voice that is fresh, distinctive and completely convincing.

Here are some common pitfalls I've noticed in books written in the first person:

-- having a generic voice. This might work in a third person narrative (well, only maybe, because let's face it, generic is blah, no matter what point of view you chose to write in) but it is particularly grating in a first person narrative. If it doesn't work and the voice is unconvincing, the book will fail to engage the reader even if the story is exciting.

-- tied to the generic voice is the lack of anything distinctive to make the character's voice singular. If you can't tell who is speaking without saying so, perhaps the voice isn't distinctive enough. And perhaps that points to a deeper problem -- maybe your character isn't distinctive enough. Maybe you don't know enough about your character to write convincingly from his/her point of view.

-- in writing for children, having a voice that is too old. Adults can often have trouble connecting with the child's inner vocabulary and intensity, and the rhythms of speech and thought.

-- using vocabulary that is too old for a child narrator.

-- using expressions that are too old for a child narrator. (Warning here: yes, kids today say "like" almost incessantly, but if you use it in a story the way a kid might in real life, it'll trip the reader and mask the story. The trick is to use it sufficiently to make the voice sound like a kid's voice, but not enough to annoy the reader.)

-- getting the rhythm and pacing wrong when writing from a child's point of view

-- getting the rhythm and pacing wrong for a first person narrative. A first person narrative has to sound like a person telling the story (aside: you can use a first person point of view to have the narrator tell someone else's story, not their own) and as such has to reflect the rhythms of that particular person's voice.

Sometimes it takes many rounds of edits to get that voice right. In the early drafts of my first children's novel, A FRIEND LIKE ZILLA I found myself writing in a voice that was distant -- it sounded like an adult looking back and remembering. I had a superb editor, Charis Wahl, who pointed this out. It took many re-writes to get that voice right, to make the voice of the main character, Nobby, ring true, and seem convincing and particular to her.

Some books are like that. Part of finding Nobby's voice and making it convincing, was getting to know Nobby and making her convincing.

And then there are books where the voice just comes to you. When that happens it's a gift. It happened with my picture book A Screaming Kind of Day. Scully was real to me from the get go. I had her voice clear in my head from the get go.

But regardless of whether the voice of your character is clear from the start or not, it's imperative, if writing in the first person, to make it convincing and unique and true to the character.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Creative Cross-Fertilization Part 2

Following on my previous post on creative cross fertilization and specifically, the inspiration of music, here are some thoughts for writers: Try writing to music. See what it does for you. Try listening to a variety of music and see what best suits your story. Will your story change, or does your writing style change with different types of music? Is it different if you listen to classical as opposed to rock, or heavy metal, or folk, or blues, or blue grass? Here’s another thought: What is your character’s favourite music? Figuring it out offers a sideways glimpse into your character to flesh him/her out in a way that perhaps mere biographical details can’t. This might never show up in your writing, but you’ll know that detail about your character, and it’ll inform your writing. And what kind of music does your character hate? This too tells you something about her/him. Oh, and try this – if your character were a piece of music, which one would it be? When I started to ponder that, I decided that Dilly, in The Trouble With Dilly, would be Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or perhaps Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. Oh, both are my favourites! Red – a character with whom I’ve spent a great deal of time lately, as I’ve re-worked THAT BOY RED – might, I think, be Beethoven’s Pastoral. Or perhaps some East coast fiddle music. What music best represents your character?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Creative Cross-Fertilization

Recently, I attended a concert at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans, performed by the chamber orchestra I Musici de Montreal, founded and conducted by Yuli Turovsky. They played some Mozart to start, and then the work of a composer I’d never heard of before – Modest Moussorgsky, called Pictures at an Exhibition, but with a twist. The screen above the musicians, showed an animated version of the art of Viktor Hartmann, a friend of the composer. It was Hartmann’s art that inspired Moussorgsky to write the music he did.

In the performance I attended, the art and the music came together, with the art cleverly reinterpreted with surrealistic flow and movement (animated, if you like) by the composer’s daughter.

I love the idea of art inspiring music which in turn inspired the flowing animation of the art we saw, all of which inspired me to write this entry in this blog.

It reminded me that any form of art inspires and stirs creativity. That exposure to other artistic mediums can enrich, inform, and enhance our own.

For example, when I was writing my picture book story, Roses for Gita, (a sequel to my picture book Lights for Gita) a crucial, and I think magical, scene in the story fell into place during a Suzuki violin concert in which my daughter was playing. The inward expressions of the kids as they made beautiful music together made me suddenly realize that music is a language of its own, and that a difficult character in the story Roses for Gita, Mr. Flinch, might just be reached through music. I had an image of him, this grumpy, cantankerous old man, playing the violin, his face inward and absorbed with the music, caught in its delight.

That image sent a chill through me and I knew it was right for the book.

In my next post on Oct 22th, I'll suggest some ways in which you can use music to enhance your writing as well as find out more about your characters.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The New Grown Up -- Catching Time

Here it is, the cover of the newly arrived as a grown-up book, CATCHING TIME. Illustrated by the wonderful Kirsti Anne Wakelin. I've just figured out how to put pictures on this blog, and I had to show off Kirsti's fine work. I love the whimsy of Kirsti's art, the energy and movement.
It perfectly echoes the hurry and bustle of trying to catch time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Book Is Born -- Or Rather, Grown Up

I'm delighted to announce the birth of a new book. My picture book, CATCHING TIME illustrated by the wonderful Kirsti Anne Wakelin published by Red Deer Press/Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

The process of creation is an interesting and circuitous one -- there's the initial euphoria of creation, the doubt and loathing of the various and multitudinous stages of editing, the inevitable putting away...

This book was started in the nineties, fiddled with endlessly, forgotten, then rediscovered.

When I rediscovered it, I found that I loved the concept but that the story didn't work because the VOICE wasn't right. (I've posted before about the importance of voice.) It wasn't the voice of a child, and as such it didn't echo and resonate with the emotional core of a child.

Once I re-wrote the story in a real child's voice, it quickly found a home.

Perhaps it's curious -- or not -- that this story, about catching time, should have taken so much time to come to fruition. Time, that wily old trickster, at play again.

After the story was accepted by Red Deer Press, it still went through endless fiddling and editing, (I was fortunate to work with Peter Carver, a wonderful editor) repeated reading aloud to taste the ebb and flow of the words, before it was ready for print.

By that point, the book felt like a surly teenager I couldn't wait to see the last of.

And then...and then, the book comes back, all bound and printed, and suddenly it's like the surly teenager has grown up.

So a new book is born -- now as a grown up.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Brave Words To The New Writer

Steven Heighton's post, A FEW MEMOS TO MYSELF is filled with sage, insightful, and tough advice to a writer starting out. It's something to read through periodically if you're new to writing, or if you're established -- maybe even particularly so if you're established -- to avoid the pitfalls of becoming, as he puts it, a careerist writer. I particularly relate to his advice on embracing oblivion. It ties into my previous post on how to keep the joy of writing alive.

It's a hard-headed common sense list to help you keep it real. Be tough on yourself. Be willing to take chances. Insist on taking chances. It's the only way to grow with your writing, for your writing to grow, and to safeguard and nurture your internal creative fires.

Monday, September 20, 2010

More on Writing With Joy

When I first started writing, it was pure -- an acceptance of my lowly early apprenticeship status, an acceptance of how little I knew about writing, and a fluttering hope of being published but not expecting anything.

Now, twenty or more books later, in as many years -- oh, and a few awards and accolades too -- that pure state is harder to find.

My fault. It's when I get bogged down with outcomes, that the joy stalls. Bogged with thoughts of the publishing process (where to submit, etc), hopes for the success (big success -- hey, who dreams of failure, or even mediocre success?) of the novel or picture book, thoughts about the business side of writing and how to best get that book out there.

It's what I've heard the poet and author, Steven Heighton, refer to the secretarial side of writing, versus the sacramental side of writing.

There is a purity to the beginner mind -- it's more open to possibilities. It's less invested in measuring output against time, more open to exploration. That's where the joy is for me.

I need to periodically remind myself of that, even while I accept that the inevitable consequence of being an established author (ha! me established? I so don't feel it, even though that's how I'm regarded) is that the business side of things will keep intruding.

It's finding that balance. Not checking e-mail incessantly (who me?), not getting ensnared and entangled and lost in the countless distractions of the internet, or promotion.

Writing for the joy of it. Pure and simple. Sigh.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Round and Round It Goes

Aaaaak! Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows. That's the process of writing. It's a long, slow spiral to the heart of the final draft and boy, it is painful at times. Right now I'm going through another draft -- umpteenth -- of THAT BOY RED my upcoming children's novel for ages 8 and up, due to be released by HarperCollins Canada in April 2011.

It's been a joy, mostly, discovering/uncovering Red's world and the people in it. I've enjoyed reading it as I re-worked it, enjoyed being in his world, which is rural PEI during the Depression. I've enjoyed researching, fine tuning, expanding on characters, inserting the kinds of details that make the story seem to grow and continue beyond the pages of the book.

All requiring focus but for the most part thoroughly satisfying.



Oh, now, I'm doing what is absolutely essential -- I'm reading it out loud.

And aaaaak!!!!!

I can't believe how the flow stumbles and fumbles in places. This is the stage where I feel frustrated, embarrassed and convinced I'm a crappy, crappy writer. Surely if I could write better I wouldn't find so many places where the language stalls, where the music of the sentences jar and clash instead of flow. Where the cadence flops and drags instead of swooping with ease.


It is completely necessary, this stage, to fine tune any piece of writing, because the ear picks up what the eye doesn't.

It is time consuming.

Thoroughly humbling.

And completely necessary.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Writing With Joy

Contradictions are the spice of life, so here it is, something contradictory to the last post about opening a vein to write.

Sometimes it is like that, but I don't usually or even often wallow in writerly angst. If I did I wouldn't bother to write. Who needs the anguish?

I'd rather write for the joy of it. The sheer delight of discovering/uncovering story, the thrill of the chase, the joy of spending time with characters you love.

So what about the previous post? There are times you need to open a vein to write. It depends on what you're writing. Opening a vein to write is more about digging deep and not being afraid to explore the painful side of life, even when it's buried deep in you. And I do believe that if your stories are to ring true, you need tears when warranted. I weep when I write parts of my stories; they need to touch me if they are to touch the reader.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Opening a Vein To Write

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

So true.

In a similar same vein (ha! ha!) Robert Frost said: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A New Idea Is Delicate

A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow -- Charlie Brower

I rarely share a new idea for a novel or even a picture book, until I've written the first draft. The delight of nurturing a new story, the excitement of discovery, the burning lust for what comes next, is for me somehow quenched if I talk about it. For me, writing is a process of discovery. If I talk about it too much, I don't want to write about it. I lose interest.

Not everyone works this way. You need to know what works best for you. I jot down ideas as they come, walk and walk and walk to pound them out (oh, and walk and walk and walk as I write, too, during and in-between drafts) but I don't want the enthusiasm for my fledgling ideas, that to me seem so exciting, so desirous of pursuit, to be flattened by indifference, or crushed or overwhelmed by input from others, however well intended. It's only when I have a fair idea of what I want that idea to be, of how it will grow (of course, that's not to say it doesn't veer off in strange directions once I start to write) that I can even begin to tentatively share those ideas with others.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Character Development Tip – Giving Your Character Warts

Compelling plots pull readers into a book, but what most pulls me into a book and makes me want to stay, is a compelling character, one I come to care about – a character I can really believe in. I love the kinds of stories where the character’s actions and reactions ring completely true, so that you don’t feel the intrusion of an authorial hand thrusting the character in a plot direction that doesn’t ring right, that doesn’t silence the questions at the back of your mind – the questions like, Huh? Why’d she/he do that when he/she could’ve done...etc.

Part of fleshing out your character, making her/him compelling and whole is giving your character warts. Yeah, hair and all. Metaphorically speaking, not literally. Outside of fairy tales and formulaic books, you don’t really encounter characters without flaws.

Do you know anyone without a flaw?

Why should your character then, even if she/he is sympathetic, be without flaws? Without contradictions?

The flaws, of course, have to be convincing. Here’s a tip: the things we don’t like about people are often at the opposite end of the spectrum of what we do like about them. Weaknesses appear at one end of a continuum, at the opposite end of which are strengths. For example, someone who’s generous, may well want appreciation for that generosity, or resent lack of generosity in others, which, in a curious way, are ungenerous attributes.

Another example: a character who is committed and dedicated to a cause can also be stubborn and mule-headed in that very pursuit. My heroine Calantha, is one such case in my fantasy novel, THE SOWER OF TALES. Her passion for the story pods makes her ruthless in her disregard for those who don’t value them, makes her at times insensitive to all that’s peripheral to her cause. She is sensitive and empathetic about the story pods, but not always to the people around her who aren’t as invested in the story pods as she is.

So give your characters warts – more than one. Give them several. But make those warts believable. Make them such that they grow out of their strengths, that they sprout hairs naturally.

Giving your character warts makes them human, and it is that humanity that makes us, as readers, care about them. Because then they aren’t so different from us – they’re flawed, just like we are.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book Recommendation – And Finding Your Character’s VOICE

I recently finished reading Jessica Grant's wonderful novel, COME, THOU TORTOISE. I can’t remember the last time a book delighted me as much as this one, and made me laugh so much, even while it touched my heart and explored layers of thoughts/ideas on the wider scope of life. I won’t go into a detailed review of this book, but one of the things that I admired and appreciated so much about this book is the voice.

Voice. Some writers refer to voice as the voice of the writer – they speak of the need for each writer to find his or her own voice. I prefer to look at voice as the need to find your character’s voice.

I have written many books in the first person, precisely because it presents challenges, and offers opportunities, to explore and fine tune voice, the voice of your character. When you write in the first person, if you do it well, you have to crawl inside the head and heart and soul of your character, and if you are to be successful – as Jessica Grant is, in COME, THOU TORTOISE – you will create a voice that is unique and completely convincing.

Grant has created a wonderful, quirky (okay, so that is becoming a cliched term, but I mean it here in the best way possible) and completely genuine and compelling heroine in her main character, Audrey (a.k.a. Oddly) Flowers. From the start of the book, you are pulled into the viewpoint and world of Oddly, and you rejoice with her, laugh with her, grieve with her and see the world through her eyes. Oh, and you wonder with her.

I highly recommend this book – for the sheer joy of reading an accomplished and delightful book, but also for those wanting to explore concepts of voice. Read it to see how you create the voice of a character and do it superbly.

COME, THOU TORTOISE won well-deserved accolades as well as the Amazon First Novel Award. I look forward to reading Grant’s next book.

Monday, August 9, 2010

On the Shore of the Wide World -- Book Recommendations

I love the kind of book that pulls me in, that creates such a compelling atmosphere that I buy into it completely. So completely that I have to blink, dazed and disoriented when I lift my eyes from the pages and return to my world. Enchantment. Books like these inspire and nourish, the ideas burble away in your subconscious and inform and fertilize your own simmering ideas. Good writing does that.

I've always loved beaches -- especially the beaches of PEI. There is a clarity, an openness that allows you to dream. And dreaming is essential to simmering and shaping stories. One of my favourite poems is Keats' WHEN I HAVE FEARS, especially the last three lines:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
.... -- then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

The shore, that place linking land and sea, on the brink of openness, of oblivion -- where the clarity of the sky meets the dancing of the seas and the solid comfort of the earth -- is for me inspiring, cleansing and uplifting.

So it's perhaps no surprise that Helen Dunmore's wonderful book INGO, and its sequels, enchanted and delighted me. I won't go into a detailed review --I don't believe in spoilers, and besides, anyone inspired to read these books will want to form their own personal relationship with the stories. Briefly, a fantasy novel set in the Cornish coast of England, INGO speaks to and of the aching pull of the sea and creates a compelling world, the world of Ingo, the world beneath the seas. Characters, including Mer folk, are full blown and fascinating, but it is place -- the ocean -- that swells and sings. I loved the book and promptly went out to buy the rest of the books in the series -- all as fascinating as the first. THE TIDE KNOT continues the story, followed by THE DEEP and THE CROSSING OF INGO.

During the hot lazy days of summer, these books are perfect to read on the shore of the wide world, with the hush and roar of the sea in your ears. Books to set your imagination a-stir.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Useful Link To Some Writing Basics

Check it out: award winning author Tim Wynne-Jone's Eleven Things You Need To Know about writing. While no list of writing tips can cover everything you need to know -- the best way to learn how to write is simply to write and write and write -- this is a well-crafted list that includes some subtleties that are often overlooked in such lists.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Between Drafts of Novels -- Writing in See-Saw

One of the essential things to do when writing a novel or picture book or poem, or any kind of writing, is to give it time to rest between drafts. The great pause. You need to let your manuscript rest after a draft to refresh your ears and eyes and heart and head, so that when you come back to it, you see it anew and can spot what doesn't work.

So what do you do while it rests, apart from fume, fret, fuss and twiddle your thumbs?

I've found it useful to work novels in see-saw. To embark on another novel while a draft of the first one rests. Many writers work on picture books between the drafts of a novel, or other smaller pieces of writing, but I find it works just as well to be plarking on another novel.

Here's the thing though -- for me it doesn't work to have three novels on the go. The see-saw metaphor is more apt than I realized when I tried it. Somehow it was awkward and imbalanced for me to have three novels on the go, even if I approached each one when the others were at rest. Two balance, three don't, not for me. It's okay for me to have two novels and some picture books fermenting and brewing inbetween, but I can't quite seem to have three novels taking up head space, not in stages of actual writing. It feels too full, as though there isn't room enough in my subconscious mind to burble and process away and then come up with new insights which seems to happen when I let my novels rest. Because, in a way, you're writing all the time -- at some level, your mind is processing the work even while at rest.

After I finished my first Dilly book, The Trouble With Dilly I started to plark on a novel That Boy Red, which is inspired by stories my father-in-law told about growing up in rural PEI during the Depression. It was a wonderful counter-balance to Dilly as it was set in a different time period, with a different voice. Then back to The Trouble With Dilly for editing, and once that book was finally off to the printers, I returned to That Boy Red, which will be published by HarperCollins Canada in April 2011.

And now that I'm on the edits for That Boy Red, I'm see-sawing it with the new Dilly novel -- at a different, earlier stage than Red, of course. Once Red is off to the printers, I'll start a new novel (even now brewing and sizzling in the back of my head) to see-saw with the new Dilly.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Character Development Tip – Reading Your Character (And some book recommendations.)

Here’s another sideways, oblique way to get to know your character. Try reading your character – that’s right, reading. As in read the books your character would love. (Or for that matter books your character loathes.) Make a list of books your character would read and then read them, through your character’s eyes. You may never actually use this in your novel, except maybe in passing, but it will flesh out your character to you in a way that will come through in your writing. The more you know about your character, the more convincingly you can portray those subtle details that make your character seem real.

When I first started to plark with my latest Dilly novel (tentatively titled DILLY THE GREAT), I realized that I had to read books that Dilly might read, books that would have inspired her to be a detective. Yes, there’s a mystery in the new Dilly book.

So to start off, I re-read Sherlock Holmes – through Dilly’s eyes, of course – and I knew she’d get the gist but also find some of the language "weird and fussy and old fashioned" to quote her.

Next, I read some of Shane Peacock’s wonderful books about Sherlock as a young boy: Eye of the Crow and Death in the Air. I’d heard of them but hadn’t yet read them.

Well, I loved these books and I highly recommend them. What I found especially captivating about them is that London, where I lived years ago (no, not in Victorian times!) almost becomes a character. The details of gritty Victorian London are palpable. What is also wonderful about these books is the skillful way in which Peacock has extrapolated backwards from the adult Sherlock to create the young boy who will be that man. The boy is completely convincing, the character nuanced, and the events that shape him into the man he will be are poignant and fitting. I found the characterization more delicate and convincing than that of the adult Holmes, which is no small feat. Dilly, of course, loved the books too, and devoured them eagerly.

Next, I discovered other books related to Sherlock Holmes, ones I hadn’t heard of until I contacted some local librarians. Praise be to librarians! I so appreciate having a source to contact for information. I e-mailed several local Ottawa librarians to ask them if an eleven year old girl, a precocious reader, might read the original Sherlock Holmes books. They all said yes it was likely, depending on the skill of the reader.

Well, Dilly isn’t always particularly modest (sorry Dilly!) but she is a keen reader.

All the librarians mentioned Shane Peacock’s books, but one also mentioned books by Nancy Springer about Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister Enola. I’d never heard of these books but promptly got them from the library. (By the way, Nancy Springer's website is a bit rudimentary, but check it out anyway.)

What a find. What delightful books. Again, I unequivocally recommend them. There are several, the first two being The Case of the Missing Marquess An Enola Holmes Mystery and The Case of the Left-Handed LadyAn Enola Holmes Mystery. What is wonderful about these books is that, as in Peacock’s books, London comes alive both physically and socially. In Springer’s books, as well, there are striking details of what it was like to be a girl/woman in that era. Telling details about the clothes women wore, their social conditions, and attitudes towards them -- women were considered to be irrational and hysterical and unlikely to be intelligent -- are woven seamlessly into the stories.

Enola is a thoroughly credible character, keen and clever and resourceful – but also vulnerable. Yes, Enola is Alone spelled backwards. I completely related to her intelligent struggle against the constraints and stereotypes of women in that era. Springer does an extraordinary job of weaving together mystery with character development, and showcases the lives of women seamlessly by using information that only women might know, such as knowledge of flowers, of fans, to have Enola unravel mysteries that her older brother Sherlock cannot. These books, as well as the others I found in the series, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets; The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan; The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline are great as mysteries – clever without being too obvious, and filled with the kind of details of Victorian life that are integral to the plot.

Dilly, I might add, absolutely LOVED these books. She got the first book from Mrs. Springer’s second hand bookstore called Old Friends. Mrs. Springer firmly believes in letting Dilly read the books first because how else will she know if the book is a keeper? Dilly definitely considered the book a keeper.

So thanks, Dilly, for being the conduit for me to discover wonderful books I hadn’t yet read.

Oh, and I also found out more about Dilly as I read them but the bonus was reading books that delighted me as well as Dilly.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Character Development Tip -- Shopping with your character

Sometimes your characters arrive full blown, and other times it's a circuitous journey of discovery to flesh out your character, so she/he feels fully nuanced and human. There's the obvious biographical stuff you write down or think about when trying to create characters, but that's a head on/from the head way of going about it. Sometimes you have to find your character sideways, through odd little activities, slip into strange crevices. One such way is to go shopping with your character. Yup, go shopping with your character.

I wish I'd come up with this idea, but I didn't. I first stumbled across this years ago when browsing the websites of other writers and I found this on Diana Wieler's website. She's the author of several YA novels including the wonderful BAD BOY, winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature in 1989. I'd provide a link to the site, but it doesn't seem to exist any more and try as I might I can't locate it. Anyway, Diana Wieler's tip was to go shopping with your character, to buy something that your character would buy, then keep it beside your computer as you write.

I've done this several times and it's been a great way to really think about my character and to discover subtle aspects of him/her I wouldn't have thought of before, but most of all, to inspire me and keep me focused. For instance, for The Trouble With Dilly, I went shopping for Christmas decorations as Dilly does. I went to the dollar store -- great research to see what was available, and specific Christmas decorations I saw there worked into the story -- and I went hunting for the biggest box of shining Christmas glass decorations. When I located one, I bought it and kept it beside my computer as I wrote the novel.

Dilly was an engaging if distracting character to shop with, easily diverted by bargains and quick to lose focus. For the current Dilly novel I'm working on, tentatively titled DILLY THE GREAT, the dollar store came in handy again. Dilly fancies herself a detective so I went there and hunted down a plain black notebook, (not pink, oh no, or rainbow coloured -- that is something her best friend Olivia would go for, but Dilly is serious about this) and a magnifying glass, and I kept these beside my computer as I wrote the novel. The magnifying glass is a great distraction to play with, and oh, it's in the novel too, and plays a pivotal role.

Thanks Dilly, for the shopping trip, even if you stiffed me for the bill.

You don't always need a traditional shopping trip to find that inspiring item to keep beside you as you write. I have a novel coming out next spring, THAT BOY RED, with HarperCollins Canada. It's inspired by my father in law's stories about growing up in rural PEI during the Depression. It's fiction -- and oh, the first time I write from the point of view of a boy. So I went to the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, which is a fascinating place to wander around, with many buildings, activities and houses showcasing rural life in the 1920s and 1930s. During one of my visits, there was a fair on, and I brought home a shingle with my initials burned on it, as well as a strip of braided rags for making a rug. Both kept me company while I wrote that story.

For the Sower of Tales I didn't go shopping because it's a fantasy novel set in a fantasy world. But during one of my local walks (I always walk to dream and pound out stories) -- which is a gorgeous one partway through woods, then out into an open field which, during the late summer and Fall, has masses of milkweed -- I picked a few stalks of opening milkweed because they remind me of the story pods in the novel. They're not exactly alike, because the story pods have five petals that open, whereas milkweed two, but the silky seeds are very like the seeds of my imagined story pods. So, during the writing of that novel, through the umpteen drafts, I kept the milkweed in a mug beside my computer, the milky seeds a tangible link to the world I was writing about. When the novel was done and published, I took that milkweed with me back to the field and released the seeds. Yeah, I know, a metaphor for letting go and releasing that tale to the world.

So if you're struggling with your character and want to know her/him better, go on -- go shopping with your character. Or find something your character would love and cherish. And thank you Diana Wieler, for that fabulous tip.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Useful Link With Info on Finding Agents and More

Check out this blog, that of a literary agent based in San Francisco: Nathan Bransford
On the panel on the right are many questions and answers on finding an agent, submitting a query letter to agents, and Nathan's Ten Commandments For the Happy Writer, which is refreshingly down to earth. Bear in mind though, that much of his advice is applicable to the U.S. market. And bear in mind, too/two, my golden rule about all things writerly: There Are No Golden Rules. So take it all with a pinch of salt and enjoy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finding Your Character's Voice -- Writing Exercise

When I was trying to get myself psyched up to get started on that first draft of my new novel, a sequel to THE TROUBLE WITH DILLY I could feel my character, Dilly, nudging and pushing wanting to be given voice. A great way to find the voice of your character is to write a journal account from her/his point of view. Dilly insisted on a blog. And so, here is what she said -- dated when she wrote it and with her original punctuation:

Feb 22.2010

Kierat said I should start a blog because that was better than complaining about her -- the her being Rachna Gilmore, who is supposed to be writing another book about me and she says she is but she hasn’t shown me anything yet even though I’ve given her about a million ideas and what does she expect me to do, write the book for her? Kierat says I should punctuate better, but he can just shut up because it’s my blog not his. But he says I should start by saying who I am, so here it is. I’m Dilly Ahuja and I’m eleven years old and I live with my mom, dad, brother Kierat and grandmother, Dadiji, whom I call the Great White Hen. I came up with that name because she’s big and bossy and always wears white which is what you do in India if you’re a widow and even though we’re not in India now – we’re in Canada – the Great White Hen still wears white because she’s a widow. Kierat says I should watch what I say in a blog because what if the Great White Hen reads it and I say, that’s not likely because my grandmother is really old fashioned and probably doesn’t even know how to turn on the computer let alone get into e-mail or blogs, and she’s always complaining about how I spend too much time on the computer playing games (I don’t) and stuff like that.

So I live with who I said, and we’re in *****. I’ve decided not to say where I live because Kierat says if I give it away we could be indund, no that’s inundated with lots of people coming up to take pictures of us and ask for autographs and I don’t think I’ll mind that and I’ve been practicing my signature, just a big D and then a scrawl like I’m famous and don’t have time to write it all out, but Kierat says it’ll be annoying for Mom and Dad although I think maybe if we had more people coming by the store would be busier, only Kierat says the store is busy enough and Mom has her hands full with the take out as it is and she would be really fed up if she had to talk to people who just wanted to know about the book.

So we live in a busy corner, and I’ll just use the fictional name that Rachna Gilmore, my writer, gave my neighbourhood, which is Tarrin Street, and my parents have a corner grocery store and mom also cooks for the take-out. She cooks Indian food, north Indian food, because my parents came from Punjab to Canada, and she’s a fantastic, amazing cook, which everyone says, even Mr. Perry, who loves her cooking and who used to live in England and eat in the best restaurants there, so he should know.

So the reason I’m famous is twofold. This is me being clear and organized because Kierat says I’m rambling only what does he know, because no one wrote a book about him because he’s nerdy and doesn’t do anything interesting only get great grades in school. Kierat is 15. But the reason I’m famous is twofold. First, I did something fantastic in the community (I’m not going to go into it here because Kierat says I should encourage everyone to read the book and if I give it all away what’s the point of anyone buying the book and reading about me?) and Mr. Paros, a local reporter wrote up about what I did with my best friends April and Olivia. And we all did this fantastic amazing benevolent thing for the community but it was my idea first, only I’m not just trying to get all the credit because I couldn’t have done it without April and Olivia and everyone who helped, but I’m just saying it was my idea first, only because it was. The other reason I’m famous is I’ve had a book written about me. It’s THE TROUBLE WITH DILLY and it was written by Rachna Gilmore. She’s a real writer. She’s really, really old. She says she isn’t but she’s over fifty, so she is really old. But she came to my school and back then I thought it would be cool to be a writer when I grew up and be famous and make a truck load of money and be stinking rich, only she said you didn’t usually make a ton of money writing so I decided I wouldn’t bother, but then she said I wrote really well, and then the school invited her back to do a writing workshop because all the teachers liked her and also the kids liked her, except for Brad who is lazy and didn’t want to write. So when she came back for the workshop she said I had tons of ideas, and I should write a journal but I couldn’t be bothered and I said I could give her my ideas and she could write about me and she got all snotty and said no thanks she’s got lots of ideas of her own, only when she read in the paper about me and April and Olivia and the fantastic benevolent thing we did in the community she soon changed her tune and said she’d write a book about me after all, so I told her all about it and she wrote it up, and okay she did a pretty good job, I’m not saying she didn’t, only I bet I could have done it better only I don’t have the time to do all the re-writing and editing she says you have to do if you want to get published so I guess it’s better all around that she wrote it because I’m busy enough with homework and helping at the store and playing hockey. That’s what I love. Playing hockey. I play with a house league so I don’t have time like she has to write it. The book, I mean. I’m not sure about the title, though because it sort of gives the impression that I’m trouble and she’s implied a few things in the book about me which are sort of not complimentary which is a bit of a cheek because I gave her the ideas in the first place.

Kierat’s reading this over my shoulder and he says I should be careful what I say about her, the writer, because if she sees this and gets pissed off she may not write the second book about me she’s promised to write. But I don’t think she’ll read it because I asked if she had a blog and she laughed and said no she can’t be bothered and what would she write about anyway, other than she parked her backside in a chair and wrote or went for a walk to hammer out her ideas. Only why she needs to hammer out ideas I don’t know, I can’t fathom (which means figure out) because I’ve given her all my ideas only she says she can’t just plunk them all down any old way higgeldy-piggeldy, there has to be a story arc. Whatever. I just don’t know why, if all she does is plunk her backside down on a chair and write that she hasn’t done my new book yet. It’s not like she has anything else to do, but she says she has, because she’s plarking with millions of other ideas and other stories. Whatever. Plarking is what she calls it – playing, working and larking. I think she’s just lazy, frankly, and no, I don’t think she’ll ever read this blog because I won’t tell her about it and anyway she says she can’t be bothered reading other people’s blogs because she has a life to which I say ha ha, if she has a life why doesn’t she blog about it and why doesn’t she get on with writing my other book?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Jumping Without a Net

March 10.10

A visualization I often do before starting a first draft, or any other time I feel I need to free myself to write, is to imagine that I am climbing up a tall tree, right to the very top. Then I look down and jump. Down, down, down. There is no net below, but I always land gently on my feet. Disclaimer -- to be visualized only, not tried in real life!

Shivering into that First Draft

March 4.10

Getting into your first draft, either starting or continuing it, is often like shivering into cold ocean water. You creep in, little by little, the tangy water brisk and chilling. But once you take a deep breath and at last plunge in -- for me, right up to my neck -- and thrash about to get warmed, it's absolute heaven. And you don't want to come out. One of my favourite places to swim -- the beaches of PEI, which are also wonderful to walk on for miles, and to dream stories.

The First Draft Procrastination -- Staining the Water Clear

March 1.2010

I'm procrastinating getting started on my next novel. It's a Junior Children's novel for Grades 3 and up, a sequel to THE TROUBLE WITH DILLY which was released in Fall 2009. I love my character and her world and I'm longing to be absorbed in the thick of it, of being caught up in the white heat of writing where everything else fades and I'm in the centre of time's spiral, that still spot where time is unmoving and eternal.

And yet I'm putting it off.

Okay, so in part I'm putting it off because of fear. It's the fear that all writers have -- the fear expressed so well by William Blake (Songs of Innocence) of staining the water clear.

We all have in our heads a version of the story, a feeling of it that seems pristine and perfect.

By starting to write, I'm afraid I won't be able to do justice to that vision in my head, that I'll stain the clear water of that perfect vision. When I teach creative writing to kids and adults, I warn them about this, how often writers feel this way and how the only way to overcome this self-doubt and fear is to just start.

And yet I can't seem to follow my own advice. It seems I must go through a dance of self-loathing, longing to start, fear and darting about, punctuated with deep periods of intense thought lost in the story, and being distracted by housework for godsakes, which I loathe, before the fear of not starting overcomes the fear of starting. It's a struggle between the hot scratchy desire for that first draft to be as close to perfect as possible, and the cool, peaceful acceptance that it hardly ever is. It's a fear that perhaps can only be overcome by remembering that there are few if any near perfect drafts; that the writing process is labyrinthine, full of surprises and dead ends, and that it's all part of the process, and part of the fun.

Except, when you've had about twenty or more books published and others on the way, you keep hoping that by now you really should be skilled enough to have a fabulous first draft and the fact that you don't means you're a terrible writer and perhaps you should go and get a real job, except that you love what you do -- apart from the self-loathing and vacillating -- and once you get into it you'll be able to draw in a deep breath and be ALL RIGHT.

I will start soon. I will. I'll relax and embrace the imperfection, enjoy the process. I'll settle into the joy of the writing and let the judging of the first draft await my judging mind when the euphoria of finishing that first draft subsides.