Thursday, February 27, 2014




I’ve been writing long enough to remember typing my first manuscripts on a manual typewriter. Progressing to an electric typewriter with a limited capacity for memory was an exciting day! Now I look back at that and shudder. Like most writers today I treasure my word processing program. Revising on a typewriter was difficult. Even a small change meant retyping the whole page. And cut and paste was quite literally done with scissors and glue.

In Page Fright,  Harry Bruce says that writers who turned to the word processor in its early days were like religious converts, their eyes gleaming with wonder. He quotes novelist Frank Conroy who said, “God looked down at the writers and said, ‘I haven’t done anything for these people for a long time, hundreds of years, so I’m going to make up for it.’ 

There were skeptics too. The American writer William Zinsser wondered why he should change from equipment that had served him well for decades. He said, “Why risk writing into a humming winking box that, owing to one slip of one finger, might destroy his entire masterpiece-in-progress?”  He changed his mind quickly though when he tried one. “Real sentences began to appear on the screen, one after another. Then I had a real paragraph. Then I started another paragraph. Soon I had a second paragraph! I was writing!”

He went on to say, “There’s no kind of tinkering that you can’t do – and undo – instantly. When you finish your revisions, the machine will paginate your entire article and the printer will type it while you go and have a beer.”

Leon Edel, American biographer, said, “I didn’t like the machine’s insolence. It tried to make me its slave.”

Tom Sharpe agreed. “That bloody cursor blinking at me on the word processor screen is awful. I mean it’s blink, blink, blink. Well, screw this bastard.”

Novelist Josephine Hart said, “The machines seem to have a mind of their own.”

Martin Amis said, “The little cursor, or whatever it’s called, that wobbles around the middle of the screen falsely gives you the impression that you’re thinking. Even when you’re not.”

Humorist P.J. O’Rourke said he refused “to have some pubescent twerp with his mom’s earring in his tongue, who combs his hair with Redi-Whip and has an Ani DiFranco tattoo on his shin, come show me how a computer works.”

I think any writer that uses a computer has at least one story of losing a day’s or even a work’s week. There is no more hideous feeling. We all know the cardinal rule – back up, back up, back up but somehow mistakes happen.  (I save my manuscript in two places and at the end of each day email it to myself as well. I figure my lap top and memory sticks could break down but I can always access my email.)

Journalist Robert Fulford has told a story of an “American novelist who switched on his computer one morning and discovered to his horror that the fifty thousand words he’d spent months writing had simply vanished. When he tried to recover them, happy faces invaded his screen. Enraged, he punched a wall and broke his knuckles.”

Would I go back to a manual typewriter? Never. But I try to stay on the good side of my computer!

Favourite Kid’s Book of the Week:

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm

The opening drew me in: “Everyone thinks children are as sweet as Necco Wafers but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth. Kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it.”

Who could resist reading more?

Amazon: In Jennifer L. Holm's New York Times bestselling, Newbery Honor winning middle grade historical fiction novel, life isn't like the movies. But then again, 11-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple. She's smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it's 1935 and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle's mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn't like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida to live with relatives she's never met. Florida's like nothing Turtle's ever seen before though. It's hot and strange, full of rag tag boy cousins, family secrets, scams, and even buried pirate treasure! Before she knows what's happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she's spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways. Filled with adventure, humor and heart, Turtle in Paradise is an instant classic both boys and girls with love.

Monday, February 17, 2014



I’m trying something new with the current book I’m working on – I’m writing it long hand!  I’ve always typed my first drafts on the computer so this is a big mental change for me. So far, it’s going better than I thought!

I’ve always struggled with that whole concept of writing “crappy” first drafts – just letting the ideas flow, not being judgmental, allowing the characters to take over and not to polish etc etc etc.  I tend to labour over my first drafts, trying to perfect as I go along. I wanted to see if I could free myself up.

So – longhand. I’m using a very fat exercise book, writing on the right hand side, single spaced (to reduce my desire to edit and change things), leaving the left hand side blank (so if I really have to I can edit and change things!) It’s working for me. I reach my daily word quota without too much difficulty. I’m writing in the first person so sometimes I pretend I’m writing a letter. 

My original idea was to write the whole draft before I went to the computer but the thought of doing all that typing at the end is depressing! So every morning I type up yesterday’s work, not allowing myself to do any major editing. That way I can check the word count and get a better feel for pacing.

I love the fact that it is so portable – I can take my exercise book and pen anywhere. This is probably the worst first draft I’ve ever written but it’s also the most fun – and I’m finding that ideas and new characters and plot turns are popping up everywhere.

Some thoughts on writing in long hand (taken from Page Fright by Harry Bruce):

“You have to communicate sensation, the belief in what life is, what it’s about, and you do it through learning how to handle a pen. That’s why I have always felt uncomfortable having some piece of machinery between me and the paper – even a typewriter, let alone a computer, which just gives me the horrors!”   (Joseph Conrad)

“I’ve got to feel the pencil and see the words at the end of the pencil.” (Faulkner)

“I do not go near a word processor, or even a typewriter. I cannot imagine how thinking can take place on these awkward machines. . . Why not use one’s mind in the old way with pens, paper, notebooks etc. instead of dazzling one’s eyes staring at a glass square which separates one from one’s thoughts  and gives them a premature air of completeness?”” (Iris Murdoch)

“It’s fatal to get ahead of yourself. Typing, you can take a wrong turn. But if you do it slowly, writing a foolscap page or two a day, in a year you are all done – you can’t rush it.” (Paul Theroux)

“I like the slowness of writing by hand.” (Susan Sontag)

“I used to work entirely on the typewriter. But this last book I did sitting in a lawn chair and writing by hand. Then I typed it out. Much slower of course. But I think it’s a pretty good method. It does pretty well.” (P.G. Wodehouse)

As soon as all this snow melts and spring comes, I’m going to give that lawn chair a try!


Thursday, February 6, 2014




You need to know your character inside out. You need to know what he thinks, dreams, fears and loves. You need to know if he has red hair or brown hair. You need to know what he eats for breakfast.
One way is to fill out a character profile or checklist. There are lots of forms available on the internet or in books. Some writers like to fill them out before they begin writing. I’ve tried it but, to be honest, get bogged down and bored pretty quickly. But I do find a profile very useful to fill out as I go along and even more so after I have finished the first draft.

I’ve borrowed from several different profiles and created my own, in the form of questions. It’s what I use when I create a character who is a child (an adult profile looks a little different.) I’ve written it with “he” but of course this can be used with girls too.

What is his name?

Where was he born? How old is he? When is his birthday?

What does he look like (height, weight, hair and eye colour etc.)?

What is his ethnic background?

Who is in his immediate family (the family he lives with)? Who is in his extended family?

What is his relationship with members of his family?

What other significant adults are in his life?

Who are his friends? What does he like to do with his friends? What do he and his friends fight about?

Where does he live? Does he like where he lives? Who are his neighbours? Does he know his neighbours?

What grade is he in at school? Does he like school? What are his favourite subjects? What subjects does he disike? What kind of marks does he get? Who is his favourite teacher? Why?

Is he ever in trouble at school? What for?

Does he like to read? If so, what kind of books?

Does he like music? If so, what kind of music?

Does he like sports? Which sports? Does he belong to any teams?

Does he take lessons outside of school?

What are his favourite TV shows? Movies?

Does he have any pets?

What are his chores? Does he get an allowance?

Has he ever travelled to another country? Where?

Is he outgoing or shy? Friendly or aloof? Bold or fearful? A risk taker or cautious? Social or a loner? Selfish or thoughtful? Kind or mean? A leader or a follower?

What does he dream about?

What embarrasses him?

What frightens him?

What impresses him?


The last question is key to developing motivation in your character. You’ll probably think of lots more questions to add.

Gillian Roberts says in You Can Write A Mystery that “a character can do anything you like if he has a reason and the reason comes out of his history.”

A character profile is one way to develop that history.