Monday, March 25, 2013



Many years ago, before I was a published author, I decided to write a novel.

I sat at my typewriter (that dates me!) and wrote the first two pages - over and over and over again. I lingered over every word, polished every phrase, read it out loud to my cat. Some days I loved what I had written, other days I changed it. Made it better. So I thought.

This went on for days and, quite honestly, weeks. I could probably sit down and write out those two pages now, I remember them so well.

Does it surprise you to know that the novel was never finished? Never even got out of the starting gate?

Why? It was just plain easier to tinker with those two pages than to plunge into the unknown and keep writing.

I still struggle with the urge to make that first draft perfect. But I have disciplined myself to write it quickly and to keep going every day.  My weekly word quote helps a lot (see previous blog Just Do It!). A word quota makes you move on.

To keep that first draft flowing, I try to end each writing session with a clear idea of what comes next. I want to be excited to go back to my computer the next day. And I tell that judgemental voice in the back of my head to leave me alone and come back when I am ready to revise and polish - when I am finished my first draft.

I admit that's hard for me. Sometimes  I compromise and allow myself ten minutes to reread yesterday's writing and play with it. Then I move on!

Some advice from James Scott Bell in The Art  of War for Writers. . .

When you write that first draft, my advice is: WRITE HARD, WRITE FAST.


Tumbleweed Skies by Valerie Sherrard

I loved the first line: "I could tell right away that this wasn't a house that wanted me." Ellie is left at her Grandma Acklebee's farm in Saskatchewan while her father takes a temporary job as a travelling salesman. The characters are engaging and the story is moving.


What if . . .  you had to spend your summer with a relative you had never met? What surprising things might happen?

 Next week:  One Thing Leads to Another


Sunday, March 17, 2013


Titles are an important tool for marketing and selling books. Make yours work for you.

Titles should give you a clue about the book. But they should not give anything away.

A short snappy title is easy to remember and will attract readers.  

A great source for titles are quotations or sayings (you'll find lots on the internet). When I read the English counting rhyme that starts "One crow for sorrow . . . ",  I knew that the last line ". . . never to be told" was the perfect title for my juvenile novel, a book about family secrets.

Titles can come from a word, a phrase or a snippet of dialogue in your story. In the second book of my pioneer series about Ellie and Max, I wrote the line "Papa said the Indians called November the Freezing Moon." The Freezing Moon was the perfect title for my story about Ellie's family trying to survive in the harsh Canadian winter.

Titles can come from a strong image in the story. My novel Whiteout begins and ends with severe winter blizzards.

Sometimes I know the title right from the beginning; other times I choose a "working title" that I change later. I love the quotation by Plato "Courage is a kind of salvation" and A Kind of Salvation was the working title for my teen novel (coming out October 2013!). But my editor and I both agreed it is a bit obscure for a kids book and we came up with If Only instead.  

I write for ages six to fourteen. For my younger readers, I choose titles that are simple and easy to understand, for example Sam's Ride and Jeremy and the Enchanted Theater. For my older readers, I like a title that is more suggestive eg After The Fire and Missing.

An editor or publisher might want you to change your title. It often pays to listen. I called my second book David and the City Slicker. My editor at Scholastic urged me to change it to School Campout, maintaining that the word "school" in a title will help sell books. We changed it and School Campout has been one of my best selling books!

There is no copyright on titles, however it is a good idea to google your proposed title and make sure it hasn't been used too often.

Some advice from James Smith in The Writer's Little Helper . . .

No matter how you cut it,  a great title is of no value without a great story behind it.


Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo
This is the first book in a delightful fantasy series. It has a colourful cast of characters: spunky Charlie who can hear voices in photographs,  his faithful friend Benjamin, a dog called Runner Bean, Uncle Paton who can smash light bulbs by looking at them,  nasty Grandma Bone and three wicked great aunts.  There are eight books in the series.


What if . . .  you are endowed with a special gift (like Charlie Bone). What would it be? What would you do with your gift?

 Next week:  The First Draft

Monday, March 11, 2013


Have you ever met a Mildred, Gertrude, Bertha, Elmer, Oscar or Herbert?

You might have if you lived in the 1800's! Today, not so likely.

I have two trusty tools for finding names for my characters:

1. a book called 2001 Names for Baby for characters in contemporary novels 

2. Google search for characters in historical novels (just enter "popular names" and the year.)

Names make an impression on the reader so it pays off to give them some thought. A boy called Hugh is going to make a different impression than a boy called Butch! Can you picture Esmeralda? Mimi? Jane?

How about Zero in Louis Sacher's book Holes!

Names can be useful to show ethnic background. Can you guess where Arshad, Chandrakin, Meiling, Huong and Aleksei come from?

The meanings of names can also be a lot of fun to explore. How about naming your character Dustin which means "brave warrior" or Davina which means "loved one.

I had a lot of fun choosing names for hippies in two of my books, The Way Home and If Only, and came up with Meadow, Harmony, Summer, Coyote and River!

Nicknames can tell you a lot about how one character feels about another. A mother who calls her daughter Pickle . . .  a father who calls his son Champ. 

Be careful with names that sound alike - Jane, Janet and Janice in one story will having your reader tearing his hair out!

What's in a name? Lots!

Some advice from Elizabeth George in Write Away . . .

The name I choose cannot be arbitrary. It's the first of the tools I can use in revealing who and what my creation is.


The Underneath by Kathi Appel (Newbery Honor Book)  

This is the story of a wonderful heart warming friendship between a hound and a family of cats. It is an absolute page turner!


What if . . . the fireplace in your house was a portal to another world. Would you dare to crawl inside? What would happen to you?

Next week:  Tantalizing Titles


Tuesday, March 5, 2013



Watch out for general words that weaken your writing.

What makes a stronger picture for you?

a flower or a peony?
a painting or a Renoir?
a lamp or a chandelier?
I read through an early draft of the novel I am working on and made these replacements:

cereal -  cornflakes
car - Volkswagon beetle
fence - chainlink fence
house - duplex
forest - evergreen forest
book -  The Hobbit

It made my writing stronger!

Specific words help build a character. Think of the difference between. . .

a man walking a pitbull or a shih tzu
a woman eating Cocoa Puffs or All Bran.
 a teenaged girl reading People or Outdoor Photography.
a senior driving a Volvo or a Porsche.

Specific words can set time and place:

a Model T Ford
a waistcoat
a pocket watch
a cell phone

Some advice from Theodore Rees Cheney in Getting the Words Right . . .

Concrete is real, SPECIFIC, actual. Use concrete words to put us in touch with life.


Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

A Newbery Medal winner! Thirteen year old Salamanca Hiddle is a powerful narrator as she tells the story of how she unravelled the mystery of her mother's disappearance.


What if . . . your great great uncle moved into your house? What stories would he have to tell?

Next week:  A Rose By Any Other Name