Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When art makes us cry

Death of little Nell I had a professor at university, a dapper academic who taught a Restoration Literature class.  We studied Goldsmith and Sterne and Richardson.  Plays, novels. Tristram Shandy,  She Stoops to Conquer, Robinson Crusoe.  Dr. Pullen was a decent lecturer, but he didn’t say anything that really caught my attention…

Until the day he confessed that he hated reading one of those famous Victorians, Charles Dickens. 

“I hate Dickens because he’s the only author who can make me cry,” he announced.

I tried to picture this poised little man weeping over the death of Little Nell, and the famous quip of Oscar Wilde’s came to mind:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter. Dickens had never plucked at my heartstrings either, but Dr. Pullen? What was going on here?

Dr. Pullen didn’t hate Dickens, I finally realized. Quite the contrary: he loved this writer who could move him to tears.

I too love writers – and painters, and playwrights, and composers – who can make me cry.  Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending comes to mind.  Alex Colville’s Moon and Cow.  Certain passages of Shakespeare and, an all-time favourite,  J.D. Salinger’s The Laughing Man.

But the art that moves me may very easily be dismissed by someone else’s inner Oscar Wilde.

I believe it’s an equation: one part art plus one part personal experience equals an individual, visceral, emotional response. Some readers might complain about sentimentality (think Little Women and Dickens and even Anne of Green Gables), but I think every equation is as different as every reader.

So forget Oscar Wilde, you writers out there.  If you can make your readers cry, you’ve forged the ultimate connection, and that’s something to celebrate.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Waiting patiently for inspiration to strike?

Writer's nook by omoo

  My favourite quotation is this one from Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  Nothing could be more true!

I’m currently surrounded by inspired writers – and for some reason, none of their enthusiasm is wearing off on me.  What’s up with that?

A month ago I met a group of young writers with whom I’m going to be working this year, and they amazed me with their energy and creativity.  I’m eagerly waiting to read some samples of the projects they’re working on in preparation for our first coaching session next month.

My writing group (six women who meet at a downtown coffee shop once a month to hash out the trials and triumphs of the writing life) is following a “Done” campaign.  As soon as we finish our writing quota for the day, we fire off a group email with “Done” in the subject line.  It’s like a mini-deadline that helps to keep us on track and, we hope, inspired. I haven’t sent one “Done” yet.

One of these writing friends has also signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and is dutifully churning out her daily quota along with blogs and tweets galore.

And to top it off, my own 13-year-old son has signed on for the NaNoWriMo for Young Writers and is right on track for his ultimate word count and a finished novel.

So what’s my problem?  I have a job that sucks the energy out of me and fills most of the hours of my day.  I’m tired, and I’m burdened with a To Do list that seems to go on forever.  Writing?  Inspiration?  Forget it.  When I have a few spare minutes, I’m hitting the couch for a few minutes of mindless TV until inspiration strikes.

Not so fast! Here’s another of my favourite quotations:  “Ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration.” 

In other words, don’t hide behind that “waiting for the right time” or “waiting for a good idea” excuse.  Write!  Right now!  Inspiration is just a tiny part of the equation.  Tickle that vague creative idea till it squeaks. Make the effort.  Just apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and get writing.

So in among the “Done’s” and the reports on NaNoWriMo and the writing samples from my young writers, there’s no excuse for me to wait any longer.  Inspired or not, I’m a writer, and I’m writing!

(Photo: omoo on a Creative Commons licence)

Friday, October 9, 2009

NaNoWriMo for Young Writers: How cool is that?

NaNoWriMo comic You’ve heard of NaNoWriMo, haven’t you? That’s where you commit to writing a complete novel in one month.

Yes, thirty days of pouring your words into a story that has no time to stagger, stutter or stop. Cranking it out, day after day. It’s a challenge, but thousands of would-be writers sign up every year. (See Inkygirl’s comic, above).

This year, young writers can give their writing muscles a stretch too: check NaNoWriMo for Young Writers. The details are here for anyone who wants to tap into their inner Stephen King (author of the terrific book, On Writing, in which he advises writers to get that story out, in some form, as quickly as possible. Revision and rewriting comes later.) Instead of the 50,000-word expectations of the adult competition, young writers can set their own word count, a feature that makes this daunting challenge more appealing.

The complicating factors are school, extra-curriculars, chores and the daily pull of other recreational activities (“But it’s Leafs and Pens tonight!” or “I can’t miss Ashley’s sleepover!”). But if you’re a writer (or know a young writer) who simply has to write, and you’re looking for a challenge, this one’s for you.

A novel. In one month. Start plotting…

Friday, October 2, 2009

Writer-in-Residence Adventure: Chapter 1

Handwritten Thoughts by Lemanz R

Handwriting imageWhat a fantastic afternoon today! Fourteen enthusiastic young writers and me, their (so far) fearless leader, in the school library, writing, talking, writing, laughing, and writing some more.

Today was the first chapter in my Writer-In-Residence adventure with Mrs. N’s talented grade seven and grade eight students. We talked about choosing the right words and thinking before writing. We shared stories and laughed (probably louder and longer than we should have) at some of the creative and chaotic ideas that came bubbling out. The room was humming with energy!

When it was time for free-writing, these young artists turned their focus to the task at hand and silence fell over the room – the sign of real writers at work. I was impressed with their commitment and concentration, not to mention the joy they obviously took in the deceptively simple act of writing a good story.

I can’t wait to read some of the projects “my” writers are working on, and I’ll have a chance to do just that several times before our Big Event next May: a Storytelling Cafe in which these young authors will read and share their work with an audience of parents, peers and perhaps other members of their school community: a kind of mini-Festival of Writers.

At the end of this afternoon, I shared my favourite writing quotation with the group: The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Something tells me these young writers have that “art” well in hand.

(Photo: Lemanz R, Creative Commons)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Shane Peacock: “Objects in motion….”

The latest issue of Quill and Quire is a keeper for anyone interested in writing for children. Among the usual industry coverage are a great article on Kathy Lowinger, the soon-to-be-retired publisher of Tundra Books, and the “coming soon” listing of upcoming releases in children’s books from publishers across the country.

But the cover story, on Shane Peacock, is the real gem here. I had the opportunity to hear Shane speak at a CANSCAIP conference a few years ago, and he wowed us with his grasp of the essence of writing for boys.

“Objects in motion” he told us, and proceeded to read the opening passages from two books: one prosey and slow, the other fraught with excitement (I think it was the Hardy boys racing a motorcycle up a narrow mountain road). If anything could capture, quickly and effectively, the message he was trying to share, that demonstration did. I thought he was brilliant – as a teacher and as a writer for kids.

So it’s great to see Shane’s recent success with his Young Sherlock Holmes series. He’s proved himself to be an author who knows his audience and how to reach them.

Interestingly, this issue also includes a “last word” essay by Eric Walters, who examines the perils of writing novels about serious issues and the risk of sounding “preachy.” Since I blogged about this in July, I was particularly interested to read his take on the subject. He says he sits down to write a story, not to preach an issue, and I’m glad to hear it, although I confess – after watching my son struggle through Shattered – I have some doubts about that. The same dilemma faces historical writers who sometimes seem so intent on getting their research into the story, they forget that the young readers just want to know what happens next, not details about the food on the table or the protagonist’s mode of transportation.

It all makes for interesting reading, though, and a prompt for more discussion – never a bad thing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wake Me Up When September Comes

DSC_1260 September always feels like the start of a new year to me – far more than January does. And the start of a new year means announcing those well-intentioned resolutions. I will <insert your resolution here>.

Yes, we mean well, but how many of us actually keep our promises to exercise more, eat more vegetables, check in with friends more often or, in the case of writers, write every day?

Here are three tips to keep your September resolutions on track:

1. Introduce a buddy system.

When my writing group felt its daily “joywriting” quotient slipping down, down down, we agreed to report to each other every day with a quick email that simply said “Done.” That meant that my email inbox received five messages with “Done” in the subject line. There wasn’t a message, necessarily, just that indication that my colleagues had reached their goal for the day – and a reminder that it was my turn to reach my “Done” goal.

2. Set realistic expectations

Take a look at your daily life and decide just how your resolution is going to fit. If you have a full-time job, a family, and volunteer or recreational activities, don’t promise yourself that you’re going to write a novel between September and December. Why? Because you’re setting yourself up for failure. But promising to spend ten minutes a day with your manuscript – writing, revising, editing, planning – is a more-than-reasonable goal. Set realistic expectations and you may very well find yourself exceeding them.

3. Be kind to yourself

So you don’t meet your daily or even your weekly goal: should you just give up? No, your energies are obviously being directed elsewhere. Life happens, and that means people get sick, deadlines get shortened, unexpected tasks show up on your To Do list. Don’t beat yourself up. Move on and try to meet your goal today, or tomorrow or the day after.

September is here. Let those resolutions fly and remember to find a buddy, keep it real, and let your resolution be a guide, not a dictator!

(Photo by Tristan J.R.M.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Vacation: See you in September

It's summer, time to escape the Southern Ontario heat (well, maybe not this year!), stock up on trashy novels, do some joywriting, and recharge the batteries, all on a very special beach in Nova Scotia. See that lighthouse? I'll be seeing it every day for a couple of weeks, just as I do every summer. I'm off to our little cottage at the Point, overlooking the Northumberland Strait.

Summer vacation: see you in September!

Monday, July 6, 2009

How To Turn Kids Off Reading: Start With School

When my son’s school sent out the required summer reading list, I took a look and (privately) groaned. So did my 13-year-old son (loudly). Not a good sign.

This summer my reluctant-reader son will be sitting down with a Canadian YA novel that is completely issue-driven. Shattered by Eric Walters is contemporary, meaningful, and relevant. It’s a school book, assigned as required summer reading by a teacher who probably wants to get the jump on the Holocaust unit the students will be studying in Grade Eight.

I read it, because I wanted to, and my son will also read the book, of course. He might even find things in it that resonate. But he won’t enjoy the reading experience, and that’s a shame. (How do I know this? His Grade Seven novel study was The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, another contemporary, meaningful and relevant novel about real issues. “Mom,” reported my beleaguered son, “it was dreadful.”)

There are so many entertaining and significant books out there (the novels of Arthur Slade and Kenneth Oppel come to mind), but a shadow continues to loom over classrooms. Ouch! That’s the sound of kids being hit over the head with a curriculum full of “meaningful” issue-driven books.

And if you listen closely, you can also hear the sound of reluctant readers running hard in the other direction—away from the pleasures of reading.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Joywriting 101

Writers are, by the nature of the job, solitary creatures much of the time. No matter what kind of writing we do – fiction, journalism, corporate – the very act of transforming our mental images into words on a page (or screen) is one that we do alone, alone, all all alone (to quote Coleridge).

We like it – that’s why writing is our vocation. But sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to have some company.

That’s why so many writers join professional associations (such as PWAC, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, or CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society for Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers). Some writers form groups or collectives, either meeting in person or through technology using regular email check-ins or chat forums to stay in touch and share their work, challenges and feedback.

For the month of July, my writers’ group (we call ourselves the Storytellers and meet once a month in a cafĂ© downtown) is trying something new: we’re going to write something every day and ping the rest of the group with a one-word email: “Done.” It’s a challenge, a way of setting a goal and attempting to meet it. Call it a deadline, even - something writers have a love/hate relationship with!

The purpose of the exercise is to encourage each one of us to carve out time for fun writing every day. We call it ‘joywriting’, a term coined by my 13-year-old son. It’s when you turn your attention to the project that is calling your name, the fun project, the one that allows you to escape this world and enter the imaginary one that only you inhabit. Joywriting.

We may all be joywriting alone, but that “Done!” email will connect us to each other - and challenge us too.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Writing When You Don’t Really Feel Like It

A recent blog post on the website of my local chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada referred to a handy site that forces you to sit down and write for a selected period of time (10 minutes, 2 hours). If you stop writing, dire consequences result, such as loud, annoying sounds, or, even worse, the word-by-word disappearance of whatever you’ve already written. The point of the site is to get you writing and keep you at it, even when you don’t feel like it.

Welcome to one of the writer’s biggest challenges: self-discipline. Writing when the words aren’t there. Writer’s block. Lack of inspiration. Waiting for the muse. Call it whatever you like.

Consider my sad situation. The sun shines on the dewy green grass outside my window. The birds chirp and sing and hop across the lawn. The gardens bloom. It’s summer, finally. And I’m writing about…


Yes, that winter sport played inside on long stretches of man-made ice. It’s a great sport, but it’s an environment about as far away from the one I’m currently living in as the North Pole. No matter. I have a deadline, a group of people waiting for me to show up with this book project, on time and on budget. Not only that, but they expect the book to express all the joy, excitement and pride they feel in their curling club and the sport they love.

Well, I love curling too, but not on a shiny summer morning that is calling me outside.

The bottom line is that I will stay at my desk and write about curling. I’ll use every trick I can to evoke the sound of rocks sliding down the ice and voices calling the sweep. I’ll turn a blind eye to sunshine and climbing temperatures – and I’ll get the job done. That’s what writers do.

(Photo by Kelly Atkinson)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Reader Feedback: Thick Skin vs Thin Skin

This weekend, my husband sat down and read The Toymaker’s Son for the first time. The book only recently went into print, and the marketing campaign is still in the works for Fall 2009, but I was eager to get some feedback from my biggest fan.

The verdict? Two thumbs up. (Insert huge sigh of relief here!)

Feedback from readers is something that fiction writers probably shouldn’t think about during the writing process. But if your story gets published, then eventually someone is going to read it. You come face-to-face with The Reader. And let me tell you, The Reader can be scary. The Reader might not like your work - and if not, then it feels as if The Reader doesn’t like you, either.

This is where the thick skin comes in. I don’t have it, unfortunately. Someone once wrote a negative review of Wild Dog Summer that left me paralyzed for weeks afterwards: I doubted myself so completely that I couldn’t write a word.

What helped me was receiving piles of letters from readers – kids in classrooms, mostly – who had read my book as part of their Language Arts program, and who loved it. Not all of them, of course. But no book is going to please everyone, that’s just a given (especially when it’s assigned reading with tests attached to it!) Knowing that readers out there, somewhere, were enjoying my story helped me put aside that one negative review and get writing again.

Thick skin, thin skin. I’ll never enjoy negative feedback, but it’s part of the writing game, and the secret is to keep all that feedback in balance. And even more importantly, write the story that you want to write. Chances are, there's a reader out there just waiting to give you two thumbs up.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Taking a Break - And Getting Back On Track

One of the reasons I thought blogging was not an option for me was the fact that I know myself: disciplined as I may be in food choices, exercise habits, work deadlines and family commitments, my writing sometimes takes a back seat to (what shall I call it? Oh, I know…) Life.

Life is (thank goodness!) everywhere. If you don't believe me, check out the photo of the baby robin whose nest was right outside my window this Spring. And everyone’s Life is different, of course. Maybe you’re a student with homework and a social life and family issues. Or you’re a parent with two jobs: the one that pays the bills and the one that involves such everyday necessities as feeding children, conversing with your spouse, organizing after-school activities, or even just buying groceries and cleaning the bathroom. No matter who you are, you're living your Life and doing the best you can.

But sometimes Life gets challenging. We’re just plain tired or something distracting happens. The workload becomes overwhelming. People disappoint us, or we disappoint ourselves. It's all just too much trouble! We have to confront and deal with everything that Life throws at us because, after all, that's the point of living, isn't it?

The way to meet Life's challenges is to forgive ourselves for slipping away for a while, pick up our tools, and start again. That's my goal: more writing! What's yours?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hello to Ms. Wadlegger’s Grade 7 Class!

I’m delighted to hear that you’re reading Wild Dog Summer, and thanks for getting in touch. As you’ll see from my blog, I had a chat with a class in Alberta earlier this year, and they posted lots of questions about the book and also about my life as a writer. It was a great way to connect!

Feel free to browse my Shout-Out to them (February 24, 2009) and my answers to their questions (February 25, 2009). You might find some of your questions already answered.

In fact, feel free to read any of my blog posts – they’re all about writing and reading. For instance, my most recent post presents a conversation with the photographer who creates the covers of my books.

Above all, feel free to post your questions as comments. I’d love to hear from you, and I’m always happy to answer questions and talk about books and writing.

Let me start by asking you a few questions. First, what do you think of Wild Dog Summer? Are you enjoying it? What do you think is going to happen next? Do you know anyone like BJ? Or Craig?

I’m looking forward to reading your questions and comments – write soon!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

When I went looking for someone to create the cover art for my books, I approached a young artist who I hoped would be able to translate my words into a visual representation of the story’s essence. It’s not an easy job to take someone else’s verbal images and turn them into something unique, appealing and meaningful at the same time. I gave the job to Kelly Atkinson (, a graduate of the Sheridan College photography program. This is what Kelly says about the process of producing the covers for Wild Dog Summer, The Legacy and The Toymaker’s Son:

Was it hard to find a barn to photograph for the cover of Wild Dog Summer? How did you find it?

I took random trips around the country photographing several unique and beautiful barns. However, I was determined to find a red one, because I wanted a bold and classic shot for the cover. I remembered an old abandoned barn near a childhood friend's house. So I drove out past the Guelph auto mall where it's located and discovered that it was red and exactly what I had pictured for the cover of Wild Dog Summer. It was a bright and sunny day with blue skies and very few clouds. I got the images I needed right away.

As a photographer, do you picture something in your imagination first and then try to recreate it, or do you let the photographs speak for themselves?

When I am taking pictures I generally go with the flow and trust my instincts. I play around with different angles, compositions, and focuses. However, if I'm taking a photo for the purpose of a cover, I start by reading the book! Once I'm done I write down everything that comes to mind when I think of the story, the theme, the characters etc. From there I draw thumbnail sketches of different concepts that would work for the book's cover. Then I decide which one is the strongest idea, and go out and photograph it. Once I've done that I may or may not enhance it in Photoshop depending on my chosen concept. Sometimes a new idea might spring from another and get better, by building on the original, but for the most part I know exactly how I want the cover to look and should look.

What about typefaces? How hard is it to find just the right one? What do you look for?

I don't find it's very hard to find the right typeface, there are so many out there to choose from. Since I brainstorm after reading the book, many styles, feelings and images come to mind, so I know what look will go along with the cover I have chosen. If the book brings to mind humour, drama, mystery, romance, etc. I will look for a typeface that also reminds me of that. For Wild Dog Summer, for instance, I wanted a typeface that was simple, bold and narrow, because the book deals with very real and serious issues.

What were you trying to express in some of the other covers (The Legacy, The Toymaker's Son)?

For The Legacy I wanted the cover to be 'less is more' to illustrate the beauty of the fiddle and the music it creates. Therefore, I immediately thought of photographing a part of a fiddle, to add to the feeling of intrigue. With a title like The Legacy, I know I was very curious to find out what "the legacy" was. As for the typeface I thought a traditional look was appropriate. For The Toymaker's Son, I wanted again keep up the intrigue for the reader. I wanted it to look cold because the book is set in winter. A big maple tree plays a role in the novel (a very important one too, I felt) so I had this vision of a person's view of one from the ground, looking up.


Readers, what do you think about book covers – not just mine, but book covers in general? Teachers, your input is welcome too. I wonder what would happen if I asked a classroom full of readers to create their own book covers? Kelly and I would love to know what you come up with.

And by the way, that fiddle on the cover of The Legacy is mine, an inheritance from my father-in-law, and over 100 years old. A legacy, indeed! I think Kelly's image captures it perfectly.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Art of Writing

When it comes to writing – to really getting down to the job of putting my ideas on paper – I have been known to dither. I confess. I am a ditherer.

The act of transforming mental images into words is the writer’s favourite activity. We live for those moments when time disappears and we’re completely unaware of our surroundings: we exist in another dimension – our written dimension. It’s intoxicating and exciting and exhausting all at once.

We emerge from one of these sessions unaware that hours have passed and, often, facing a list of things that need doing. The writing is set aside till next time.

But unfortunately, this is what often happens next: knowing that we need a chunk of time to reach that state of complete writing oblivion, we wait to start again. We wait till there is nothing on our desks needing attention (bills, membership renewals, emails to check or respond to), or no chores or family obligations calling our name. The kitchen is tidy, the kids are delivered to school, the dog has been walked, the laundry folded....

The problem is: how often do we find ourselves completely free to write? Almost never.

And so we dither. Or, at least, I dither.

It takes time to write. And the time is there: we just have to take it.

The art of writing, said author Mary Heaton Vorse, is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

Simple. True. I vow to put my days of dithering behind me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Looking Into The Future...

I asked some readers in Alberta to let me know what they think happens to the characters of Wild Dog Summer once the story ends (because, of course, stories don't end; they just keep going, even if we're not reading them any more). With great imagination - and after having paid close attention to the events of the story - they came up with some very creative ideas. (See comments under my March 10th post, What Next?)

What actually happens to BJ? She finds herself in another adventure, this time involving her friend Linden Flanders - the toymaker's son of the title - and some controversial plans to cut down the tree pictured here on the cover of The Toymaker's Son. Strangely, although BJ wouldn't go away, she just didn't take over my imagination and demand to be the central figure this time. Perhaps her story was done, and I knew it was time to let another character speak.

But the life around Rosehill was so real to me, I found myself wondering about other people in the town, other stories. Linden's story crept to the top and wouldn't be ignored.

Perhaps - looking into the future some more - there's yet another Rosehill character just waiting to tell his or her story. I don't know yet, but I'll keep listening... and I'll let you know.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Virtual School Visits: The Next Trend?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Resurrection Catholic Secondary School in Kitchener, Ontario, to share some insight into my life as a writer. The group was made up of Grade 12’s, many of them present or past Writers’ Craft students, and they asked some great questions about the writing process, my experiences getting published, finding literary agents and – of course – how much writers make.

It was a short drive to the school, and only took a few hours of my time. Driving home, it occurred to me that students all over the country would benefit from more face time with a writer. But distance and time constraints, not to mention the costs involved, sometimes prohibit teachers from putting those requests out there.

As I pursued my recent blog discussions with a class of Grade 7 students in Alberta, I thought how easy it would be to turn on Skype, dial up the teacher’s computer, which could then be projected on screen through a DVP in the classroom, and talk to these students. They could take turns sitting at the computer asking me questions, face to face. We could have a real-time, virtual visit. This is something that YA writer Art Slade recently tried, and you can read about it here: Virtual Visits I: Carman Collegiate Gets To See My Floating Head ( (And if you keep reading Art’s blog, you can learn about his cool treadmill desk, too!)

The down side – had I decided to go virtual – is that I wouldn’t have received my lovely Resurrection mug full of Werther’s Originals as a thank-you gift or met some very tuned-in, enthusiastic young writers. But the up side is the convenience of using technology to connect with readers and writers without spending money or resources on getting there and home again.

Face-to-face school visits are still a wonderful experience for both sides of the equation. But I wonder: are virtual school visits the next trend?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another Shout-Out to Mr. Toly’s Class: What Next?

When I come to the end of a book I’ve enjoyed, I find myself wondering “OK, but what happens next?” I want to know what the characters – who seem like real people to me after all we’ve been through together – are going to do now that the story is over.

So now you’ve come to the end of Wild Dog Summer. You’re leaving BJ and Craig and Mrs. Kelsey and everyone else behind as you turn the final page and close the book. Their story is done – or is it?

When I finished writing this story, I had a hard time letting the characters go. In fact, a number of years later, I called up BJ and wrote another story in which she features as an important (though not the central) character. I guess I just couldn’t say good-bye. (This story is called The Toymaker’s Son and it will be available soon).

Is it all “happily ever after” for these characters? I’d love to hear what you thought of Wild Dog Summer, and I’d especially love to know what you think happens next in BJ's world.
Thanks for reading,

Monday, March 2, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

In a few weeks, I’ll be performing at a concert for the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Music. Every day I sit down with my dulcimer and run through the set, practicing each piece and trying to program my fingers – and my musical mind – to play everything without effort. It takes a lot of effort to make it look as if I'm doing something effortlessly.

It occurs to me that this principle applies to writing as well. Inspiration strikes, and we dash off our exciting ideas in a story or poem, using all the writing tools and skills we’ve collected over time: skills we've practiced over and over, every time we write. We gaze at the finished product in pleasure – but is it really a finished product?

No. When I come to the end of piece of music, I very rarely think that I played it to perfection. And when I come to the end of a writing experience, I just know I’m not done. I need to revisit, rethink, revise, rewrite. I need to rehearse that written piece over and over before I get it right.

It takes time, energy and commitment to be a musician - or a writer. Practice may not make Perfect, but it certainly helps!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Readers in Alberta Want to Know!

Wow! Thanks for all those questions! Here’s my attempt to answer at least some of them.

Where did I get the idea for the story? Is Wild Dog Summer based on a real event, or an event from my life?

Simple answer: no. I never lost a close relative in a car accident like the one that took the life of Joe Kelsey. But the idea did come from real life, in a way. While I was living in the small town of St. Clements, just outside Waterloo, Ontario, there were too-frequent accidents on country roads involving young drivers (usually) and drinking (sometimes). I would read about these accidents in the local paper and wonder how devastating that must be for the families of these young people. BJ’s family just grew out of that process.

Also, there really were “coydogs” in our neighbourhood. I still have the newspaper clipping that gave me the idea for the wild dogs in the neighbourhood. See?

Why did I change some parts of the book?

Hmmmm. This is an interesting question. The answer is pretty simple. I wrote Wild Dog Summer a long time ago (my daughter wasn’t even born then, and she’s now in university, so that gives you an idea…!) Since then, the way people speak has changed, and popular culture has changed too. In order to bring the story into a more contemporary setting, I did a quick copy edit. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t think I made that many changes!

How long did it take to write Wild Dog Summer?

I wrote it in ten days…BUT….I thought about this story for about six months before I started to write it. That’s how I work. I think about it for ages, letting the ideas swirl around in my head, letting things percolate and settle, letting the characters come alive in my imagination. Then, when I can see what the ending of the story should be, I start writing. So the writing only took ten days, but the creation of the story took months and months.

What are my hobbies?

Curling (I love curling!), music, and photography.

Just for the record: I haven’t thought much about dirt bikes before now, but you know, I’d love to try one!

Is there a sequel to Wild Dog Summer? How many books have I written?

I’ve written ten books. Two of them were originally published by Nelson Canada (Wild Dog Summer and The Legacy). I also published a book called Abby and the Curling Chicks. Under my Pugwash Publishers imprint, I’m republishing the first two books, and will be publishing a number of others, including the sequel to Wild Dog Summer called The Toymaker’s Son. (You can read the first two chapters on my website, on the Novels page.)

Do I have any pets?

Yes, I have a dog. His name is Tetley and he’s a Shetland Sheepdog. He likes to chase cars (because he thinks he’s herding them). And I can confidently add that Tetley is the best dog in the world. That's Tetley in the picture at the top of this post.

Thanks for all your questions! How are you enjoying Wild Dog Summer?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wild Dog Summer: A Shout-Out to Mr. Toly's Class

It’s strange to think that somewhere out there, a grade seven class in Alberta is reading my story! But thanks to technology – and this blog – we can actually connect, you in Alberta and me in Ontario.

So where shall we begin?

Maybe you have some questions about how I came to write this book. For instance, when I do classroom visits, someone always asks “Where do you get the characters’ names from?” Some readers want to know if the story is based on real events, or where I got the idea to write this story in the first place. Readers are often quite interested in the wild dogs, as well.

What do you think? Do you have any questions?

If not, I have a question for you: where are you in the novel, and what do you think is going to happen next?

I hope to hear from you soon!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Freedom To Read Week

Do you ban books without even knowing it? An article written by a children’s librarian and published in the most recent issue of Children’s Book News (the newsletter of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre) urges us to be aware of our own tendencies towards “banning” books.

Example: I am on the organizing committee of an annual writers' festival. In a recent discussion about which writers to invite, the name of a successful Canadian author was suggested. She writes contemporary fiction aimed at a female market. “Romance” writing? Perhaps, but not exclusively. “Chick-Lit”? No, not that genre, either. But as a few of us tried to describe this author’s work, one of the committee members rebuffed our efforts with the statement: “I don’t read that kind of thing.” The message was clear: “that kind of thing” is inferior. I disagree: I’ve spent some great reading hours with the work of this award-winning author and I would highly recommend her books. (And after our March 4th launch, I'll tell you who she is!)

We all have our tastes and preferences; we all have our favourite authors and genres. What works for me may not appeal to you at all – but suggesting that someone else’s tastes are inferior is the start of a slippery slope towards censorship, especially for those in a position of power: a teacher or parent, perhaps. Sampling the menu of reading experiences means developing a taste for the literature that nurtures us, and that goes for children as well as for adults. There’s nothing wrong with our likes and dislikes, and certainly nothing wrong with discussing and defending them. But let’s be open and tolerant too. Instead of judging, let’s celebrate the fact that everyone has the freedom to read.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Classroom Reading For The Fun Of It

I once read about a group of graduating students who, on the very last day of their high school careers, stormed the school office, commandeered the PA system, and proceeded to give away the ending of every book on their English reading lists. Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Stone Angel – on and on the list went. Death, violence, failure, and not a happy ending in sight.

When I read, I like to feel good about the experience. I like to appreciate the skilled use of language, the creation of characters, the intricacies of plot. If there has to be a bit of darkness in there to deepen the impact, I’m okay with that. But mostly I stay away from books that aim to disturb. I’m a wimp about this and I freely admit it, and it means I’ve missed out on reading some pretty amazing books, but it’s my choice.

The young reader sitting in the classroom does not have a choice. When the teacher says that the next novel study is going to be The Giver, or The Breadwinner, or Night, the young reader has no choice but to engage. There’s a good side to this, of course. The reader’s world is stretched and challenged by such excellent books. Questions are raised, answers are explored.

But the bad side is that those precarious readers, the ones who are already unlikely to pick up a book for the fun of it, resist even more. Reading becomes a task on the homework agenda, supervised and evaluated by the system. Reading is no longer a pleasure.

So when I write, I tend to create stories that I would want to read myself. There isn’t always a completely happy ending in my stories, and I often write about a world that has its share of darkness, but I hope readers find themselves wanting to turn the page and read on, and on. Most importantly, I hope that even those precarious readers will pick up my books - in the classroom or anywhere - and read just for the pleasure of reading.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Writing Chose Me

Grade Four. Little Jeanie in her school tunic (slightly askew, as always. I have the same style sense today) and scary hair cut. Look at those bangs!
But did I care? I did not. I was a happy, happy child because I was, even then...
A writer.
Some things do not change. The outside world of school and family and friends disappeared when I retreated behind closed doors to my little bedroom with its stack of books and paper. I read a lot, and when I wasn't reading, I wrote. Poems, stories, the first few chapters of novels. Pretend articles for newspapers. Letters to fictional characters. More stories.
So I grew up to be a writer, and I continue to write as much and as often as I can. It's not really something that I chose; rather, I think that writing chose me.
Any writers out there? If so, you know exactly what I mean.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Getting Started

It's not always easy, taking that wild leap into the cold water of a lake, or pushing off at the top of a challenging ski run - or writing the first words of a story (or a blog!). Where will we end up? Shivering, cold and dripping? Uncomfortably sprawled in a snowbank? Staring at a blank page? Maybe - but you'll never know until you try. And so often the result isn't bad at all. In fact, it's exciting!

Writing the first words of a story requires courage and a certain amount of faith. When I'm about to start writing a new story and feel daunted by the amount of work that lies ahead, this is what I tell myself: it will never be completed if I don't get started. And then I leap.

This blog is a place for us to share our writing and reading challenges and accomplishments. And questions. And feedback. It's for discussion and issues and answers. It's a place for us to meet - in print instead of in person.

I'm looking forward to meeting you. Just make the leap and write soon!