Sunday, July 21, 2013


“That’s a cliché!”

We’ve all heard that and we cringe when someone says it about our writing. We know clichés are bad. We know they’re a sign of an amateur. But sometimes we’re too lazy to get rid of them.

Do clichés have a place? Yes. In dialogue, if you have decided that is how you want your character to talk. And in first drafts, when you want to write fast and furious. It can slow you down to think of something new and fresh and slowing down is something we don’t want to do in our first drafts. We want to get the story out. Then we can go on a cliché hunt.

Why are clichés appealing? They’re easy (usually the first thing that pops into our head). And they’re effective. That’s why they exist. The first person who spoke or wrote a cliché was probably brilliant. The comparison or descriptive phrase was so perfect that it was worth repeating. Again and again and again. Then one day it became stale and boring.

Clichés can be a few words (as wise as an owl),  a description of a character (a fast talking lawyer) or even a description of a setting (Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.) James Scott Bell talks about “flipping the obvious.” Change that burly male baseball cap wearing truck driver to a woman and see what happens.

In recent news, I was startled to hear that one of the bombing suspects of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria was a 29 year old woman. In a book, she would be a more interesting character than her male partner. 

In my Language Arts classes, my grade sixes and sevens had fun with clichés. At breakneck speed I would shout out the beginning of a phrase and they would shout out the ending:

Pretty predictable responses.

As speedy as . . .  a bullet
As skinny as . . .  a stick
As black as . . .  night
As white as  . . . a ghost.

They learned that the first thing you think of is almost always a cliche.
Then we would go back and see how creative we could be.

I remember one student beaming with pride when he came up with “as white as mayonnaise!”  

Nigel Watts in Write A Novel and Get It Published warns us that . .  .

A writer serving up clichés is in effect feeding his readers warmed-up leftovers!

Does that make your stomach sink? Whoops! Heard that before.  Does it make your stomach turn a somersault? I’ve probably read that a thousand times. Does it make your stomach plummet six stories?

Hey, it’s late.

But one day I’m planning on using “as white as mayonnaise” in a story!


The Old Brown Suitcase by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz

Slava is a compelling narrator in this award winning Holocaust story that alternates chapters between Poland and Canada.

Good Reads says:
The story juxtaposes heart-wrenching scenes from a child's life in war-torn Poland with the life of a teenager trying to adjust to a new country in time of peace. In Canada, it is not easy for Slava to build a bridge between two cultures; nor is it easy to live with the turmoil of her immediate past. At the same time she must face the new challenges involved in being an immigrant, a Jew and a teenage girl.


Monday, July 15, 2013



I love making New Years Resolutions. They suit the side of me that loves to make lists (I make lists for everything!) Occasionally I stick to one or two resolutions, at least for a few months. In my writing journal, I make a list of resolutions specific to my writing career, mostly to do with word quotas, deadlines, finishing first drafts and so on. Not too daunting.

This past January, I added a resolution that I’ve been avoiding like the plague. Get into social media.

That’s where the world is (the young world, anyway, that makes up most of my readers.) So I need to be there too. I know that but I avoid it.

I pride myself on having an up to date website. I also answer emails from kids all over the country. I bought a book called 55 Ways to Promote and Sell Your Book on the Internet by Bob Baker. I even participated in a chat room with girls across the U.S. Surely that’s enough? Not any more.

So I made two New Years Resolutions. Start a blog. Get into Facebook.

The problem is, I didn't think I liked blogs all that much. I’m not interested in reading (or writing) about day to day trivia.   Then I read an article about blogging that suggested you pick an area of expertise and blog about that. Aha! That sounded better. So I came up with this blog of writing tips and strategies.

I made a commitment in February to blog for a year. I aimed for once a week, but now am happy with every ten days or so if I’m busy. I keep a bank of blog entries, ready to post, so if I travel or have a lot of other things going on, I can pull one out of there.

Is anyone reading my blog? I don’t know. I read that you should ignore statistics on how many readers you have for the first year. Makes sense to me. I don’t want to worry about this blog. I want to have fun

And I am. I’m digging into all my how-to-write books for ideas and inspiration. I’m thinking about what works and what doesn’t work for me. I’m remembering old tips and strategies that I’ve forgotten and I’m incorporating them into my writing. Best of all, I get to practice a different form of writing than juvenile fiction.

And I get a thrill when someone (rarely) posts a comment!

As for my second New Years Resolution . . . er . . . something to do with Facebook. I do have a Facebook Fan Page and I try to post things on it but it’s not really working for me yet. The problem is, I don’t really get Facebook.

Anyway, I’ve got an idea for another blog so Facebook can wait . . . for now.

Friday, July 5, 2013



Conflict, conflict, conflict. That's what makes a memorable story. A great way to bring conflict into your story is to give your character something to worry about.

Kids don't worry about the same things as adults. A six year old girl doesn't worry about the same things as a seventeen year old boy. But everyone worries, and as a reader we identify with and root for the character who is worried

When I taught a class for the Summer School of Arts in Wells, B.C., we made a chart. . . . .
                             WHAT KIDS WORRY ABOUT
PRESCHOOL                  ELEMENTARY                     HIGH SCHOOL

Robin worries that her cousin April
won't like living with her.
We thought about our own children, our friends' children, kids we had worked with and memories of when we were children
A sample of what we came up with:


-separation from parents

-doctor and dentist

-mean dogs

-learning to tie shoes

-monsters in closet



Melissa worries that her mother will
 start drinking again.
-summer camp

- getting invited to a birthday party

-being picked for a team

-liking your teacher


- having a boyfriend/girlfriend

-sexual orientation

-grades and scholarships

-peer pressure


Of course, there's lot of overlap. Kids of all ages might worry about their parents getting divorced or losing a best friend. 

Tip: Make your own chart. Talk to as many kids as you can.  Listen for the unusual. . .   A young figure skater who worries that her skate laces will break in a competition (it's happened!)  Jot down ideas as they come to you. You never know which one will spark a great story!

Some advice from Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel . . .

In a novel, struggle is far more compelling than satisfaction. Conflict is the first principle of plot construction and it is also the underlying secret of great characters.

Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird by Jean Little

Jeremy and Sarah learn to cope with their grief as their father battles cancer. It's sad but beautifully written and my favourite of all of Jean Little's books.


What if . . . you found an old fashioned key in a junk store? Who did it belong to? What does it open?