Monday, February 25, 2013



How can we make our characters seem like real people and not cardboard stereotypes?

Here's a fun activity that I've used in writing classes.

Pick a character and give him or her a label. For example, cheerleader.

Brainstorm the characteristics that you would expect a cheerleader to have: popular, good figure, pretty, athletic. Then add one surprising thing to your list - shy. We don't usually think of a cheerleader as shy. We now have the beginnings of an individual.

A mountain climber is strong, athletic, disciplined, loves the outdoors. Could he also be afraid of heights?

What about the soccer team captain who likes to knit? The bouncer at the bar who owns a poodle? The teacher who steals from kids' lunches? The detective who is a hoarder?

You don't have to stop there. Often the "one surprising thing" raises questions that can liven up your plot. What motivates a person who is afraid of heights to climb mountains? Is he living up to a dare? Trying to overcome a bad experience from his past? Proving a point? Or is there something on that mountain that he needs?

A word of caution - if you give your character too many "surprising things", he will seem just plain weird. One or two works great.

Some advice from Nigel Watts in Write a Novel and Get It Published. . .
Human beings are never as predictable as we think they are.


Almost Eden by Anita Horricks

This is the story of a twelve year old Mennonite girl, Elsie, who is struggling with her mother's mental illness. The back cover describes the book as a "beautiful portrait of a town, a family and a young woman with wicked wit and clarity who is willing to challenge what doesn't make sense and to fix what doesn't seem right." This book stayed with me long after I read it.


What if . . .  you got a part time job at a dog  shelter? What dog would you fall in love with? How did he end up in a shelter? How will you persuade your parents to let you take him home?

 Next week:    Be Specific



Monday, February 18, 2013


What was my writing life like before recipe cards?


I had notes everywhere - on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on serviettes, on the backs of cheques . . .

Then I bought my first pack of recipe cards  and I never looked back!

I use the small size, blank or lined. Sometimes I treat myself to different colours. When I'm planning a book or I'm in the middle of a draft, every time I get an idea for a scene (or part of a scene), I write it on a recipe card.

The rule is: only one scene or event per card. The stack builds up which is very satisfying. And there are so many ways you can use them.

- Spread out all your cards on the floor and have fun rearranging them in different orders - play with the sequence of events in your novel.

- Arrange your cards on a bulletin board (Tip: I use a large piece of styrofoam - one meter by one meter - that is light and portable. I can carry it around the house!)

- Sort the cards into beginning, middle and ending - very helpful especially with a long novel.

- Colour code the cards to show whether the scene is backstory, flashback or present action. That way you'll spot right away when you have too much backstory at the beginning of your novel or concentrated in one place.

 -Colour code to show which character's point of view the scene is in.

- Write on each card the purpose of the scene: move the plot forward, develop character, develop theme

- Write snippets of great dialogue

For the environmentally conscious - write on the fronts of the cards for one book, on the backs for your next book and recycle used cards! 

 Some advice from Elizabeth George in Write Away . . .

Every writer has to develop her own process: what works for her time and time again. Having no process is like having no craft. It leaves you dangling out there over the obyss, a potential victim of writer's block. Having no process puts you at enormous risk because writing becomes a threat instead of a joy.


Holes by Louis Sacher

Stanley is sentenced to the bizarre Camp Green Lake where the boys are digging holes because an evil warden is hunting for something. This book was an absolute favourite when I read aloud to my intermediate classes at school. They always begged for another chapter.


What if . . . you could be a magician for one day? What crazy stunts would you pull?

Next week: One Surprising Thing

Monday, February 11, 2013


The Nike slogan works just as well for writing as for putting on your running shoes! Every how-to-write book I have read says the same thing - at the end it all comes down to this -  if you ever want to get that darn book written, you have to sit down in your chair and write, write, write!  All that dreaming, wishing, planning and imagining will not write your book.

 The strategy that really works for me is the weekly word quota. When I'm ready to start my first draft (after I've allowed myself to dream, wish,  plan and imagine), I set a weekly word quota. It's not that big - 3000 words. That means if I write 600 words on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I can achieve my quota and take the weekend off. Guilt free. Or if I can't write on Tuesday, no big deal. I can make it up on another day. Or I can take the whole week off and write like crazy on the weekend!

That's not usually what happens. I usually write more. For some weird reason, knowing I can stop at 600 words frees me to keep going. But I don't have to. It takes away a lot of the stress of a new book. And you'd be amazed how quickly 3000 words a week adds up to a book (average length of my novels 36000-40000 words).

If I write 5000 words one week, that's inspiring but I can't bank it for the next week (darn!) Each week starts fresh - 3000 words!

I printed a quote from one of my favourite writing books, The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell, onto a recipe card and I keep it taped to my computer.


It works for me!


The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson

by Susin Nielson  (Winner of Governor General's Award!)

I'm a great Susin Nielson fan and this does not disappoint. Keeping a journal, the suggestion of his therapist, helps Henry deal with a tragedy in his life.   Henry is a really funny narrator and his story is sad and uplifting at the same time.

If you love it, be sure to try Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mother and Word Nerd, also by Susin Nielson.


 What if . . . you were invisible? Where would you go? What would you do?
Next week: The Magic of Recipe Cards!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ten Best Tips

I've been writing books for kids for over 15 years. Here are the TEN BEST TIPS that have helped me experience success and have lots of fun!

1. Make time to write.

Red Cedar Award 2012
 It really all comes down to that. If I don't make writing a  priority, it doesn't happen. And then I'm a person who likes to think about writing. I'm not a writer.

 2. Set goals.

 Small goals work better than big goals for me. I have a better chance of reaching them. Instead of setting a goal to write a novel, I set a goal to write the next scene.  Or to research Edwardian clothes. Or to construct a character profile. One of my goals for 2013 was to start a blog. And I've done it!

 3. Keep a journal.

 For me, this is not a diary. I only write about writing business. I record what I do each day: my word count, my successes, my failures, important emails, school and library visits, research, my goals. It makes me accountable. And it's fun to read my old journals and see how my writing life has progressed.

 4. Read read read!

 I'm a children's author so I read lots of books by other children's authors. I  read quality books (reviews and lists of award winning books are two sources.) I get ideas and inspiration. I learn what kinds of books are marketable and which books win readers choice awards (the best kind of award because kids pick the winners.) I find out how other authors handle  challenges and tricky parts.  And I have a lot of fun doing this because kids books are the best!

 5. Spend time with kids.

 For years I was an elementary school teacher so it was easy. I raised my daughter on our ranch and spent a lot of time with my young nephews. Now that I'm retired, I have to look for opportunities. I volunteer in our local school one day a week. It keeps me in touch. I also visit schools and libraries to talk about my books.

 6. Read how-to-write books and writing magazines.

 There are so many great ones to choose from. They cover every possible topic from developing characters, constructing plots, exploring point of view and dealing with writer's block. They've been a huge help to me. I'm just about to dive into How To Write A Damn Good Mystery by James Frey for advice on plotting an historical murder mystery. The danger is that it's easier to read about writing than to write.  It comes back to tip #1. Make time for writing! Your own writing, not someone else's.

 7. Dip into your childhood memories.

 What made you laugh, cry or worry when you were a kid? You can bet kids today are just the same. Ask your friends and family for some of their memories. I remember accidently leaving the door open of my friend's canary cage that had been set outside on the lawn. The canary soared to the top of a very tall tree. It was a tiny yellow dot against the blue sky. I can still feel my horror. I haven't written about that yet but I will one day.

 8. Open yourself to new experiences.

 Every time I get a chance to experience something new (renting a houseboat, digging for fossils, snowshoeing, training a puppy, going to a French language school in France, organizing a pet show at school, joining a yoga class) I increase my pool of ideas. You never know what will make a great story.

 9.  Support yourself with other writers.

 It doesn't have to be too serious. Just hang out with people who like to write. I have three fabulous writing friends, Ainslie, Kathy and Ann, and we get together as often as we can and read stories, laugh, drink wine and eat! I always come away from our weekend retreats inspired and ready to keep writing.

 10. Make time to write.

 I know I already said that. But I think it is the most important of all and worth repeating. And sometimes the hardest to do.

Next week:  Just Do It!