Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Key Conversational Questions for Writers to Answer

As part of my preparation for the SCBWI - New York conference, I'm thinking about questions that might come up in conversation with other attendees. But it occurred to me that these questions aren't so different from the questions that non-writers ask me about my writing.

For more, visit my post today over at the MiG Writers blogQuestions A Writer Should Know How to Answer. I'd love to hear some of the tricky questions people ask you.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Dragon Seer’s Gift

Today’s pick:  Dragon Seer’s Gift by Janet McNaughton

HarperCollins Canada, 2011

From the publisher:
Bored by homework and bullied at school, twelve-year-old Gwyn Rae reluctantly takes on a Heritage Fair project to boost his history mark. He begins to investigate the papers of his ancestor, Daniel Rae, with help from his older sister, Maddie. Together they discover a notebook filled with writing only they can see and an iron key that seems to react to their touch. When the key unlocks a secret door in an old church, Gwyn and Maddie are launched into the adventure of their lives.

My Take: 
It’s interesting the way the author tied magic and dragons to history. This is not a fast-paced story, but I was intrigued by Daniel and Maddie’s special abilities and wanted to keep reading to find out more. I liked the way Daniel and Maddie were depicted as part of a family, with their parents having a presence in the story. The bullying and environmental issues in this story make it a good book for discussion in a classroom.  

As a writer, I liked the idea of bringing history into fiction. I thought the dialogue was realistic and studied the way the author was able to tell so much of the story through dialogue.

Favourite quote:
“Real magic is a force of its own, like the force of nature. It works as it wants to, not as humans would have it work.”

Other Info:
Janet McNaughton lives in Newfoundland. Dragon Seer’s Gift is set in her own neighbourhood in St. John’s. You can take a visual tour of some of the places in her book on her website.

This book is nominated for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading in the Silver Birch category for 2013. [I have previously featured some of the other nominees: Cat Found by Ingrid Lee, A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland and The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis.]
Dragon Seer's Gift also won the IODE Violet Downey Book Award and was named as one of three honour books for the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children in 2012.

On her website, the author says: “I'm very happy to be able to spend my time writing. I usually can't wait to get to work in the mornings.”

Other books by this author include:

Dragon Seer
An Earthly Knight
The Secret Under My Skin
The Raintree Rebellion
Catch Me Once, Catch Me Twice
Make or Break Spring
The Saltbox Sweater
To Dance at the Palais Royale
For more about Janet McNaughton, check out her website.
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!



Sunday, January 27, 2013

Take Fifteen for Some Reading Fun!

Today is Family Literacy Day!!

"Family Literacy Day is a national awareness initiative created by ABC Life Literacy Canada in 1999 and held annually on January 27 to raise awareness of the importance of reading and engaging in other literacy-related activities as a family." (from the  Family Literacy Day website).

The idea is that taking even just 15 minutes a day to spend time together reading or another literacy activity can help improve a child's literacy skills.

There are events planned all over Canada to celebrate.

I love the idea of celebrating reading, so I'm going to break out a new book and dive in! (But I'm sure I'll be reading for longer than 15 minutes). It would be cool to get everyone in my family reading at the same time.

I'm also likely going to be playing some board games with my teenagers (another fun literacy activity).


Friday, January 25, 2013

Sometimes A Writer Has a Flash of Brilliance

This week was intense for my "day job" and on top of that, I totally lost my voice, so there wasn't much writing happening over here. But in the midst of not-writing, I did have a couple of flashes of brilliance.

Flash of Brilliance #1

This one was thanks to Project Mayhem and their "I Have A Dream" contest. In the process of rewriting my query once again to enter (because I hadn't revisited the query for a over three months and I'm a little obsessive about these things), I suddenly got a flash of brilliance.

Okay, it remains to be seen whether it is brilliant or not, but now I know how tweak the novel to bring out something that was missing from my main character's motivation. So, participating in the contest was definitely worthwhile. Thank you, Project Mayhem!

Writing Tip: If you get stuck when revising, going back to the query can help keep you focused on where the story is going. See also a great blog post on this from writer Janice Hardy in a guest post over at QueryTracker: How Much Can You Really Tell From a Query?

Flash of Brilliance #2

Sometimes keeping something in your novel because "it's cool" can lead to problems. The character ends up doing something to fit the cool scenario instead of the story coming from the character.

In my second flash of brilliance this week (and again, it remains to be seen whether it really is brilliant or not), I realized that one of the "cool" scenes in my novel didn't fit. I ended up cutting and rewriting to create a couple of scenes that fit better with what my character wants, making her reasons for acting much more personal and meaningful to her, and not just convenient for the plot.

It's so great that what I'm learning about from blog posts and my reading -- I'm currently reading agent Mary Kole's Writing Irresistible KidLit -- is finally starting to sink in.

Writing Tip: It really does all come back to what the main character wants, because that's what drives her decisions and actions.

So, when was the last time you had a flash of brilliance?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Cat Found

Today’s pick:  Cat Found by Ingrid Lee

The Chicken House, 2011

From the publisher:
In Billy’s small town, stray cats are running wild, and some people want to get rid of them. The school bullies even throw rocks at the poor creatures! So when Billy finds a hurt starving kitten and sneaks her home, he has to be extra careful to keep her hidden while he nurses her back to health. However precious little Conga is to him, he knows his dad would take her away if he discovered her, cozy and warm, in Billy’s bedroom!

Can Billy and his friends face the cat bullies, show the town the importance of caring for abandoned animals, and find a safe haven for strays?

My Take: 
Although I’m more of a dog person, I could sympathize with the hard life experienced by the stray cats and I was rooting for Billy to help find a solution. Billy’s character was believable, and so were his friends Luke and Salome. For me, Billy’s father was less convincing. I found it hard to accept when he abruptly changed his perspective after one story event, but other readers might not mind this if they are caught up in the story. Cat Found has a clear message about spaying and neutering, and highlights issues related to cruelty to animals. Some parts of this story may not be appropriate for younger children - there are two scenes of cats giving birth, one including a stillborn kitten, and the other where the cat dies.

As a writer, I liked the way the author tackled real issues and didn’t sugar coat the hard life of the cats. She used details carefully to present a picture of the events that wasn’t overly gruesome.  

Favourite quote:
About Salome’s drawings: “In their charcoal skins, the paper cats walked and slept and groomed, and did a thousand different things.”

Other Info:

Ingrid Lee lives in Toronto.
Her first book for older readers, Dog Lost, is based on a true story.

This book is nominated for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading in the Silver Birch (Fiction) category for 2013. If you aren't familiar with the Forest of Reading program, here's how it works: Professionals from schools and public libraries nominate a selection of books in a specific category. Students from all over the province read them and then in April they vote for their favourite. I have previously profiled A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland.

Other books by this author include:
Dog Lost

For more about Ingrid Lee, check out her GoodReads profile.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Three Key Points for Bringing a Setting to Life

Much of the novel I’m working on takes place outdoors, so lately I’m thinking a lot about setting. I’ve heard some writers talk about treating setting as another character. But what exactly does that mean?

To me, it means settings need to come to life for the reader. They should evoke feelings and moods. It’s not enough to include a few descriptive details about the location or weather. Every setting needs to be integrated into the story and given careful thought and attention, just the way a character would.

Some questions to think about: Why did you choose that setting? What is special about it? What does your character think about it? How does the setting make them feel?

The time you spend on the setting in your story depends on its importance. Like characters, different settings in the story are going to have different levels of importance for the reader. The hideout where the runaway kids hangout for several chapters has a different level of significance for the story than the coffee shop a teen ducks into for a single scene. (Why doesn’t she go back there again? How did she feel in that setting?)

Three key points to remember about the setting:

Settings are multi-sensory. This is a point that comes up over and over again in talking about descriptions, but it’s worth thinking about specifically in relation to setting. What does your character notice about the setting? Does it have specific smells? Tastes? Since I write middle grade fiction, I try to include one or two evocative descriptions, rather than whole paragraphs.

Settings are dynamic. Some elements of the setting can change over time. Sometimes I find that once I’ve described the setting, I kind of forget about it. But the characters are still there, interacting in it like a real place. Some things are going to change. Does the character feel as comfortable in the setting when it’s dark? How does the weather affect the setting? Are there mosquitoes out there?

Whether the character notices these changes or not, and what they think about the changes can help to create a stronger setting (and character). If setting is like a character, than the complete picture of a major setting will continue to develop as the story progresses.

Characters interact with the setting. This is related to the dynamic nature of the setting. I try not to think of the setting as just a backdrop for the action. Instead, I consider how it can shape the way characters act and think. Characters react to the setting. Setting can also create conflict, when a character comes up against an obstacle (e.g. gets caught in a storm, has be in a place they don’t want to be). Think about places where you feel comfortable or uneasy. What is it about the place and atmosphere that makes you feel that way? How does that change your behaviour?
Do you have any tips to help with creating a believable and authentic setting?

My critique partner, Christina Farley, has a great post about Creating Unique Details in Your Setting, with tips on getting inspiration from your own experiences.
Over at Project Mayhem, Dawn Lairamore draws attention to the weather with  How is the Weather in Your Middle Grade?

The BookShelf Muse has a comprehensive 4-part series on Creating Unforgettable Settings.
Jody Hedlund gives 5 Tips for Writing Better Settings and talks about genre expectations for settings and how the right setting details can help build suspense.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Tiffin

Today’s pick:  The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan

Dancing Cat Books, 2011

From the publisher:
The dabbawallas of Mumbai deliver box lunches — called tiffins — to whitecollar workers all over the vast city. They are legendary for their near-perfect service: for every six million lunches sent, only one will fail to reach its intended destination. The Tiffin is about that one time in millions when a box goes astray, changing lives forever.

When a note placed in a tiffin is lost, a newborn—Kunal—is separated from his mother. Twelve years later, Kunal lives as a virtual slave under the thumb of his foster father, Seth. With danger and oppression making it impossible to stay where he is, Kunal asks his friend Vinayak, an aging dabbawalla, to help him find his birth mother. Vinayak introduces Kunal to the tiffin carriers, and a plan is hatched. Along the way, Kunal learns what it means to be part of a family.

My Take: 
I enjoy reading books where I get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in a different country, and this story did a great job of bringing to life the city of Mumbai, especially a side of it that a tourist wouldn’t experience. I liked the way the author included authentic Indian vocabulary (and a glossary at the back for difficult words). Kunal’s dream of finding his family was easy to relate to and I was intrigued by the idea of the tiffin and how it helped solve his problem. This book provides many opportunities to think about social issues such as child labour and child abuse.  

As a writer, I enjoyed the way the details about Mumbai and Kumal’s life transported me to another place. Although some elements of the plot seemed a bit of a stretch, the setting and characters kept me hooked on the story. This novel is a good illustration of how the elements of character, setting and plot work together to keep the reader interested.

Favourite quote:
“He would willingly have gone hungry just to belong to a family.”

Other Info:
Mahtab Marsimhan was born in Mumbai and immigrated to Canada at the age of 25. She now lives in Toronto.

Her first book, The Third Eye, won the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award in 2009.
The Tiffin is a finalist for the 2013 Red Maple Fiction Award, part of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading. It was also a finalist for the 2012 CLA Book of the Year for Children Award, shortlisted for the 2013 Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award, and named a Quill & Quire Book of the Year for 2011 (Books for Young People).

In an interview with Daytime Toronto on her website, Mahtab says she works by writing down the story first, and then polishing the draft to make it better.

Other books by this author include:
The Third Eye
The Silver Anklet
The Deadly Conch

For more, visit Mahtab Narsimhan’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!



Friday, January 11, 2013

Is What You Read Harmful to Your Mental Health?

I heard an interesting podcast this week from CBC radio on Questioning Teen Sick-Lit.

I hadn't realized there was so much debate about topics of suicide, cutting, abuse, cancer, etc. in YA novels. But some people think these kinds of books can be dangerous for vulnerable teens by amplifying what they are feeling.

This discussion included perspectives from Amanda Craig, a children's book reviewer for The Times of London who refuses to review books about teen death and believes they can be harmful; the general manager of Mabel's Fables book shop in in Toronto, Melissa Bordon-King; and a teen perspective from 17-year-old book critic and blogger, Robby Auld (

I liked this comment Melissa Bordon-King offers to customers and parents: "Literature is the safest place where we can explore the world's hardest issues."

See also this article by the Guardian, 'Sick-lit'? Evidently young adult fiction is too complex for the Daily Mail.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Getting Ready for SCBWI Winter 2013

In just 23 days, I'm going to a big SCBWI conference for the first time ever! I'm so excited because this is something I've always dreamed of doing. But I'm also nervous, because it's been a long time since I've travelled anywhere by myself, let alone to huge conference like this. Luckily, I used to live in NYC many years ago, so I'm trusting that I'll still be able to figure out where I'm going.

With the clock ticking down to my departure date, I've been starting to work on getting ready for the conference. Here are some of things I'm starting to do to get ready:

1. I ordered business cards. All the advice I've read about going to a conference suggests this is a good idea, so you can easily exchange contact info with people you meet.

2. I'm trying to finish revising a novel I soon want to start subbing, because I'd love to be able to talk about this one to other writers and people I meet at the conference. I'm also working on perfecting the short "elevator" pitch and summary, just in case, even though I'm expecting mostly to be there to soak up all I can about writing and publishing.

3. I've been practicing the answer to the question, What do you write? It might seem crazy to practice this, but I can imagine myself being all tongue-tied and mumbly in the presence of other writers who are much more successful than I am.

Have you been to any writing conferences? What did you do to get ready?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: A Tinfoil Sky

Today’s pick:  A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland

Tundra, 2012

From the publisher:
Mel and her mother, Cecily, know what it’s like to live rough, whether it’s on the streets or in the apartment of an abusive man. When Cecily announces that they’ve had enough and that they are going to go home to her mother’s, Mel dreams of security, a comfortable bed, and a grandmother’s love seem to be about to come true. But some mistakes cannot be easily forgiven or erased. Her grandmother is not what Mel expects, and though the local library offers sanctuary, a real home seems beyond her grasp. Mel’s determination to rise above what fate has dealt is about to change that.

Cyndi Sand-Eveland’s work with homeless youth gives her characters an authenticity no reader will forget. Ultimately, a story of hope and acceptance, A Tinfoil Sky is a powerful, can’t-putit- down novel.

My Take: 
I felt as though this story gave me a window on an entirely different life. Mel’s difficult times living on the streets were realistic and heart-breaking. Because I love books so much, I really connected with the idea that the library was a safe and comforting place for Mel, and a place that helped her believe in herself. I loved the characters in this story, even Mel’s grumpy old grandmother who seemed to not like her at all, at the beginning. Mel stays positive, helping others and caring for them even though she needs help herself.

As a writer, I loved the way the ending wasn’t perfect, and left me thinking more about Mel and what might have happened to her. Endings that wrap up too nicely can make an entire story seem unrealistic.

Favourite quote:
About Mel’s library card: “It was a ticket into a world she had longed for, a ticket back to the best times she could remember.”

Other Info:
Cyndi Sand-Eveland lives in British Columbia at the base of a mountain.

Her first book, Dear Toni, won the Silver Birch Express Award in the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Awards in 2010.
On her website, she says, “…what I didn’t realize for a very long time was that if you want to write, you have to stop talking about writing and actually sit down and do the work.”

This book is nominated for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading in Silver Birch (Fiction) category for 2013. If you aren't familiar with the Forest of Reading program, here's how it works: Professionals from schools and public libraries nominate a selection of books in a specific category. Students from all over the province read them and then in April they vote for their favourite.

Other books by this author include:
Dear Toni

 Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!




Friday, January 4, 2013

Making Your Writing Better Than Good

I love it when blog articles make me stop and reflect on my goals and what I want from my writing (and my life). I recently read this:

“Good” gets rejected. Your work has to be the best.
Jane Friedman, How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?, December 29, 2012

I'm choosing this for my Cool Blog Quote for the month of January, because it reminds me that being a writer is about continually trying to improve and challenge myself to be more creative.

Even though the struggle to be a better writer sometimes seems so hard I just want to crawl under a blanket and read an amazing book that someone else wrote, most of the time I'm thinking about how I can make my story better, stronger or more compelling. And I know it's possible, if only I can write my way there.

One of the things I do to help keep my writing on track is to set writing goals. I find I'm more productive when I'm working towards something specific. My goals for 2013 are posted over at  MiG Writers - The MiG's 2013 Goals. I'm so lucky to have great group of writing friends to help support me as I work towards achieving my goals! I think I would have stopped my writing at "Good" or "Slightly Worse Than Good" a long time ago without them to cheer me.

So I'm passing along my wish for you in 2013 - that you have success in making your writing better and stronger than it has ever been before.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Looking Ahead in 2013

What I'm looking forward to in 2013:

1. Writing a new middle grade novel that I've been thinking about for a couple of months.

2. Reading all the books nominated in the Silver Birch Category for this year's Forest of Reading from the Ontario Library Association. The goal of this initiative is to encourage a love of reading. Over 250,000 readers participate annually and can vote on their favourite book in different categories. Silver Birch is the middle grade category. The winners are announced at a big celebration in the spring.

The nominees this year in the Silver Birch category are:

Cat Found by Ingrid Lee
The Dead Kid Detective Agency by Evan Munday
Dragon Seer's Gift by Janet McNaughton
The Grave Robber's Apprentice by Allan Stratton
Making Bombs for Hitler by Marcia Forchuk Skrypuch
The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (*I've already read this one!)
Missing by Becky Citra
Neil Flambe and the Crusader's Curse by Kevin Sylvester
Sinking Deeper or My Heroic Decision to Invent a Sea Monster by Steve Vernon
A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland

I can hardly wait to read these!

3. Going to the SCBWI conference in NY in February! Not only will I learn so much more about writing for children, I'm looking forward to meeting some of the amazing people I've connected with through my blog. Even better, my whole writing group is going!! For the first time, the MiG writers are going to meet up!!! [Sorry for all the exclamation points, but it's just so exciting!]

What are you looking forward to in 2013?