Monday, May 27, 2013



One of my how-to writing books asks: Should I use a prologue in my novel? The author responds with an emphatic Don't!

Prologues often occur at a time before the main action. They explain some history important to the novel. They might take the form of a letter, a will, a newspaper article. Sometimes they are told as narrative, sometimes as a scene.  Prologues can also be a scene or bit of dramatic action that occurs later in the story. These prologues are like teasers. They make you want to read the book to get to that part. Occasionally a prologue is set after the conclusion of the novel, and then the entire novel is a flashback.

Why don't they always work? 

Most readers quickly forget what was in the prologue.

Or they skip it altogether. They want to get into the "real" story.

For a prologue to be successful, it must have at least a promise of conflict. It must be memorable. And short. And it cannot be critical that the reader remember everything that was in it. Because he probably won't.

A prologue packed with tension does not mean that chapter one can be slow and dull. When you write a prologue, you are really writing two opening scenes to your novel and each one must hook the reader with conflict.

My daughter devours long dense highly detailed fantasy novels. They almost always have prologues. Curious, I surveyed the shelves of children's books in my study. Among dozens of books, I found very few prologues. Four to be exact.

One of my favourite series for kids is the Charlie Bone fantasy series by Jenny Nimo. Each book starts with a prologue, explaining the backstory of the Red King. The prologues are written as narrative, some quite complicated,  and I skip them all. In my opinion, it would have been much better to weave that information into the stories, which are charming and fast paced.

A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk (Jan. L. Coates) and Greener Grass (Caroline Pignat) both contain prologues that take place later than the beginning of the novel. In A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk, the prologue is a scene when Jacob, a Sudanese boy, is in a refuge camp in Kenya in 1992; chapter one begins in 1987. In the prologue in Greener Grass, Kit Byrne remembers a happier time before the Great Famine in Ireland. Both these prologues are beautifully written and both fulfill that promise of conflict.

The prologue in Maggie de Vries' novel, Hunger Journeys, is a short scene, plucked out of the middle of the novel, when Lena and Sofie are hiding from the German soldiers. It's dramatic and makes you want to read the book.

So prologues do work but they must be done skilfully.

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

Perhaps the most common amateur problem in writing fiction is the tendency to rely too much on setup. Which is what a prologue most often is. Get on with the story.


No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis is best known for her Breadwinner Trilogy which takes place in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  No Ordinary Day is the moving story of Valli, an Indian orphan who discovers she has leprosy. A bonus - royalties from the sales of the book will be donated to The Leprosy Mission.


What if . . .  you witnessed a crime? What did you see? Are you in danger? What will you do?



Monday, May 20, 2013


 I know that librarians and teachers are buying my books. But sometimes, in this age of computer games and Facebook, I find myself asking . . .                

Do kids actually read my books? Do kids read any books?               

 Yes, they do!

Over the past month I have met hundreds and hundreds of amazing kids who love to read and who love to talk about what they are reading. I  visited schools and libraries in my local town of 100 Mile House, on Vancouver Island, in Saskatchewan and in Ontario. Everywhere the students welcomed me with overwhelming enthusiasm, eager to listen to my stories and to tell me theirs.

Some of the many highlights . . .

*A trip on a whale watching boat to Alert Bay where the welcome was warm and the kids fantastic.
*An exciting Gala in Saskatchewan, where I was so honoured to be presented with the Diamond Willow Award for my book Missing.
*Four grade six boys who stopped me in a school hallway to tell me that the ending of Missing was shocking!
*An avid reader who told me that she and her mother took turns reading Missing out loud, finishing the book in one day and only stopping for five minute bathroom breaks.
*A boy and a girl who acted out a scene from Missing, taking on the roles of Thea and Van.
*A wonderful discussion with a class in Thunder Bay where every student had read Missing!
*The energy of 900 kids at the Gala in Thunder Bay.
*A class of  60 grade eights. Yikes! My first presentation with high school kids! (They were wonderful!)
*The Gala at the Harbourfront Center in Toronto attended by over 10,000 noisy, excited and enthusiastic kids.
*My excitement when Missing won a Silver Birch Honour Award.
*Warm hugs from some of my best fans!

Did someone tell you that kids don't read anymore? Don't believe them!
They are out there. Thousands of them. Devouring books with passion, joy and a sense of wonder.
Thank you to all of them!

Sunday, May 5, 2013



"The song remembers when . . . " Trisha Yearwood sings on my Ipod.

We've all experienced the power of music to take us back to a place or time. A song can evoke vivid memories. It can take us somewhere we've been before. It appeals to one of our five senses - hearing.

I don't watch hockey, but when I flip through the TV channels and hear a few seconds of a hockey game, I am instantly ten years old again, in a house where Hockey Night at Canada was never missed by my brother and father.

The sense of hearing is a powerful way to connect your reader to your writing. It's not the only sense we should use. Smell, touch, taste and sight are effective tools as well. They create mood and atmosphere. They give your reader an emotional experience.

The smell of burning leaves takes me back to my childhood and our weekly yard clean ups in the fall. I smell the ocean and I remember lying on my stomach on a dock at Bowen Island, eight years old, fishing for shiners.  

What do you remember when you smell a Christmas tree? Baking scones? Perfume? When you touch a horse's mane? Damp leaves? When you taste a toasted marshmallow?
It's easy to fall back on the sense of sight when we write. It's the sense we use the most.  But it's worth making an effort to bring in the other senses as well.

When I wrote Ellie's New Home, I wanted my young readers to experience a time and place unfamiliar to them - Upper Canada in the 1800's.   After I'd written a few chapters, I made a chart, with columns for each of the five senses. I filled them in with my images. No surprise - the column for sight was full. Not much in the others. I went back through my draft and searched for places I could insert images using the other senses. A few of the images I came up with: cool rough tongue (kitten), barn door creaked, smelled like horses (neighbour), dusty ground, sweet and syrupy (molasses), thump of hands on dough (kneading bread).

My story came alive!

Some advice from Gary Provost in Make Your Words Work . . .

While you can't load every paragraph you write with sights, sounds and smells, you should return again and again to the senses to remind the reader that this written world is the same one he lives in. It sparkles, it roars, it rubs against him, and sometimes it stinks.


Poppy by Avi

This was always a favourite with my grade three and four classes. The kids were hooked on the first page - "At the very edge of this forest stood an old charred oak on which sat a great horned owl. The owl's name was Mr. Okax, and he looked like death himself." The story is full of wonderful characters - the mice with names like Poppy, Lungwort and Ragweed, and a hilarious porcupine called Ereth. There's plenty of action and an exciting climax.

Even better - Avi has written sequels!

Next week:  The Power of Books