February 26, 2013
I’m pleased to announce that my contemporary middle-grade fantasy novel, titled Bog, will be published in Spring 2014 with Fitzhenry & Whiteside! I’m thrilled to be working with the talented Christie Harkin – a publisher with enormous passion for her titles.
Writing Bog has been a lesson in tenacity. It’s a book that’s immensely meaningful to me, yet writing it was grueling. I first conceived it in 2004, so it will be ten years, and a multitude of drafts, until it will be published. As Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith famously said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Want to know more about Bog? Here’s a sneak peak.
What is Bog about?
Deep in the forests of Northern Ontario, a cave troll named Bog has spent his young life hunting with his father, Jeddal, learning what it means to be a troll, and avoiding humans whenever possible. Until someone called the Troll Hunter begins turning trolls to stone, and teaching other humans to do it, too. When the Troll Hunter’s followers turn Jeddal to stone, Bog learns a dark secret about his origins that his father had tried to keep hidden: Bog is half-human.
Struggling with this news, Bog sets out after the Troll Hunter to avenge his father. On his quest, he’s joined by a large forest troll named Small and a human girl named Hannie, who would rather pretend to be a troll than return to her abusive father. As they venture deeper in human territory, Bog learns of the legendary Nose Stone, a rock rumoured to bring a stone troll back to life. When the Troll Hunter seeks to destroy both the Nose Stone and Bog, his quest becomes a race of cunning, trickery, and wits.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I first conceived Bog after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the ensuing war on terror. I wanted to write about cultural bias fostered by learned hatred from previous generations. But the novel is also a reaction to ethnic conflicts the world over – anywhere where there is hatred against another culture instead of acceptance and understanding of differences.
Why write about trolls?
I chose trolls because, in literature, they’re traditionally considered vile to humans. The point of view of a troll character sets up humans as “monsters,” asking what morals and values makes us human versus monster. For me, the novel explores what it means to be human as well as the journey from hatred to tolerance.
January 13, 2013
One of the hardest things about being an emerging writer is receiving the dreaded rejection letter. But why do we call them “rejection letters”? And is that really what they are?
As writers, we obviously have a good grasp of language – in particular, how to choose a certain word or words to serve a specific function in our writing. So I’d like to challenge the term “rejection letter” and even re-name it to be more accurate. I came up with three replacements:
The Not-the-Right-Fit Letter
Too many beginning writers send out a manuscript to publishers or agents without fully researching their current needs, preferences, and even submission guidelines. One of the most common reasons for a refusal to publish or represent is that the manuscript is not a match to their needs. So do yourself a favour, and read the books championed by each publisher or agent you submit to. You will have greater success if you correctly target your manuscript.
The Perfect-Your-Craft Letter
Sometimes, a close reading of a manuscript shows that the writer has more to learn before his or her work is ready for publication. This doesn’t mean that you’re a failure; simply that you’re still learning the craft. Read the writing of authors you admire to discover new techniques, take a course with an experienced and supportive author, and/or start a writing group to exchange feedback on your works-in-progress. Learning more about the craft will get you closer to your goals.
The Manuscript-Sent-Out-Too-Soon Letter
A manuscript that is almost ready is not ready enough. How will a publisher or agent know what you’re capable of writing if you’re not presenting your very best work? Get feedback on your work-in-progress before you send it out, and rewrite until the prose is beyond polished. It will take many drafts to produce a polished manuscript, but it will give you a much better chance of getting the result you want.
Okay, so my new terms may not be as catchy as “rejection letter,” but they are more accurate and they’re not as discouraging. They imply that writers who receive one of these letters don’t need to give up, wallow in despair, or throw out a manuscript. But they may need to further research their market, perfect their craft, and/or revise, revise, revise.
The only way forward to publication is to take the next step, continuing to write and re-write with increasing knowledge of the craft and a clear vision of the marketplace.
December 14, 2012
CBC Canada Writes and CANSCAIP – The Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers – have joined forces to celebrate two weeks of “Seusstivus” with Canadian children’s authors. Go to the CBC Canada Writes website for:
- writing tips from children’s authors Robert Heidbreder, Helaine Becker, Lena Coakley, Marty Chan, Kyo Maclear, Jack Wang, Jonathan Goldstein, Carol-Ann Hoyte, Lisa Dalrymple, Richard Thake, Sara O’Leary and Frieda Wishinsky.
- new Seussian words coined by children’s authors.
- a Seusstivus Twitter Challenge on Tuesday, December 18. You can check out the winning entry here.
There’s also a Q&A with me in my role as CANSCAIP President included here. Happy Seusstivus!
December 1, 2012
I’ve always been a little jealous of writers who participate in NaNoWritMo – National Novel Writing Month. Writing a novel in a month! A collective word count of 3,288,976,325 for 2012 alone! But my writing process follows a different path, and NaNoWri Mo hasn’t “fit” with it yet.
Then I heard about the inaugural PiBoIdMo – Picture Book Idea Month. Created by author Tara Lazar, PiBoIdMo is a 30-day challenge for picture book writers. Tara’s idea is “to create 30 picture book ideas in 30 days. You don’t have to write a manuscript (but you can if the mood strikes). You don’t need potential best-seller ideas.”
I’m not a picture book writer, but I liked the idea of creating story concepts, and decided to write a novel concept a day for the month of November. The experience has been enlightening.
Here’s what I learned:
- I became more aware of the world around me, and I searched for story concepts wherever I went, whatever I did. I’m always collecting snippets, for example, an outfit of someone I see on the subway might appear on one of my characters in my work-in-progress. But this awareness of the world became heightened as I felt the pressure to write a concept a day, resulting in a fresh inflow of ideas.
- I became more practised in the art of defining a story concept in one-sentence – with a setup, confrontation and resolution. My novel concepts each day were not always complete. Sometimes, I would have only a setup or only a character with no discernible action for her to take. But over the days, some of those concepts became more complete and polished.
- I found myself revisiting themes over the month, exploring a similar story concept from different angles and approaches, even using different genres (contemporary realistic and fantastical) for the same concept. As a result, I felt I explored more thoroughly what would be the best story concept for a particular theme that I wanted to write about. I think this will make my future novels stronger, since I’ll have a more considered story concept from the start.
- I remembered how to “play” with my story concepts, having fun with absurd story concepts as well as sensible ones.
My conclusion? I will do it again next November. Because envisioning a story concept is an important skill to practise. Because playing with story concepts is fun and enlightening. Because I emerged with two solid story concepts that I plan to write one day.
I look forward to NoCoWriMo – Novel Concept Writing Month – next year! Maybe you’ll join me?
September 27, 2012
On a sunny summer’s day, I enjoyed coffee and conversation with author Lena Coakley as she interviewed me for a profile in the quarterly publication of CANSCAIP – the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers. A full version of the article is available to CANSCAIP members, including a discussion of my works, writing process, where I get my ideas and more. Thanks to Lena and CANSCAIP for the article!
Favourite quote from the article:
“Sarah Harvey at Orca Book Publishers calls [Karen] ‘professional, responsive, flexible, insightful, humble and funny. In short, an editor’s favourite kind of writer!’”
Thanks, Sarah! I’m thrilled to be working with author and editor Sarah Harvey again, writing one of the first two books in Orca’s new Limelights series, featuring novels for teens about the performing arts. In my novel, Cut the Lights, the director of a student-written play is at odds with her cast, until the attempted suicide of the lead actor forces them to work together. Cut the Lights will be published in Fall 2013.
July 12, 2012
Have you been wishing you could attend a conference or workshop to improve your craft? Network with others in the writing and publishing community? Learn a new technique? Keep up-to-date on trends and issues?
Professional development is important for all these reasons. But – let’s face it – conferences and workshops are not always affordable, particularly in far-off locations.
So how can you get there? One way that published Canadian creators can get funding to attend conferences and workshops is through a professional development grant from the Access Copyright Foundation.
The Access Copyright Foundation was created to promote and support Canadian culture by providing grants to encourage the development of publishable works. They also offer research grants and events grants. The professional development grants are available in literary or visual arts for individuals or organizations, and they will fund up to $3000 of expenses related to a workshop, seminar, conference, mentorship, studio program, etc. The deadline for this grant is May 1 of each year. For more information about the Access Copyright Foundation (which is administered by the Saskatchewan Arts Board), click here.
This week, I was thrilled to learn that I received a grant from the Access Copyright Foundation professional development program. Next February, I’m going to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 2013 Winter Conference in New York City! I can’t wait to network and develop my craft further.
This grant program is an awesome opportunity. Mark May 1 on your calendar and don’t forget to apply.
June 10, 2012
A good editor knows how to ask the questions that nudge a writer deeper into the story. When an editor can do this, I know my story is in excellent hands.
But before the story ever reaches the editor, I need to act as my own editor – ask those questions of myself to produce the best quality story that I can.
Yesterday, I attended New York City agent Donald Maass’s Fire in Fiction workshop, based on his book of the same name. If you’re looking for the right series of questions to ask about your work-in-progress, Maass will steer you straight.
I left the workshop with an arsenal of writer’s tools in the form of questions designed to deepen character and build the world of the protagonist to have a greater impact on the readers and get them more emotionally involved.
Want an example? When Maass observed that some fantasy and historical stories have under-developed political structures, he spontaneously developed this set of questions:
- What are the distinct social classes in your story?
- Which characters in your story come from each of these classes?
- How will the reader know these characters are from a certain class?
- How does the protagonist see the social classes?
- Who is going to change the social class structure in the story?
- Who is going to move from one class to another? How is this character going to change because of the move?
- What is one thing that is ironic about one of these social classes?
- Pick two social classes and find out what is in conflict between them. Is there one class that has a grudge against another? Is one group being repressed? If so, how?
- What is unfair in the social class system of your story?
- What one law or situation is unjust in the community?
Writers can use the questions that Maass has developed to deepen their stories and inform about their characters. For more insights, check out The Fire in Fiction.
To take this idea further, why not try Maass’s method for yourself? When you’re troubled by some aspect of your work-in-progress or looking for ways to revise a manuscript, consider developing your own series of questions around the issue. Answering those questions could bring unexpected insights and better prepare your novel for that editor or agent.
May 16, 2012
I recently wrote an article for the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers. It seemed important enough to spread to the wider world, so here it is on my blog!
When people learn what I do for a living, they often tell me about half-finished novels and wonderful picture-book ideas they plan to complete. So how can they put their plans into action? Check out my six tips for aspiring creators:
Get to Work
“Put your bottom in the chair and pick up your pencil.” That’s what my mother, who taught grade 1 for twenty-five years, would say to her students. She has a theory that adults are just six-year-olds in big bodies, so perhaps her simple directive can apply to us, too. How many people do you know who plan to write or illustrate a book – one day? My mother’s idea is if you “pick up your pencil” you’re more apt to do something productive with it.
Everyone needs to find his or her own creative groove, but I try to write every day, and I know illustrators who try to sketch daily – like Debbie Ohi who aims for a daily drawing, which she posts online at DebbieOhi.com. Even during a busy day, I usually have time to jot down 200 words – the minimum daily output I aim for when writing a first draft. The words don’t need to be well-written – a first-draft always needs revision. But it’s a start. And daily writing or illustrating helps to keep the creativity flowing.
Make Connections in Person
Since I most often write in the quiet of my home office, I have to make a conscious effort to commit to events that will connect me with others in the industry. But whenever I do hoist myself out of my chair and get out there, I’m inevitably glad that I did.
I’ve found that other creative people can offer invaluable support, encouragement and even mentorship. It’s also helpful to share knowledge, techniques and experiences. Even better, I set up mutual critique exchanges with other creators to determine how to revise a work-in-progress.
Publishing professionals can provide valuable insights into how the industry operates as well as trends and current issues. Ideally, these connections can lead to that first publishing contract – and many more.
Obviously, formal events like CANSCAIP meetings and conferences are a great place to make connections, as well as informal one-on-ones over coffee or at critique groups.
Make Connections Online
Social networking is your friend. YouTube is a forum to showcase your work. A website or blog is a valuable promotional tool, whether you’re published or not.
Online connections are as important as in-person ones, and they can provide numerous opportunities to connect with other creators and even publishing professionals. It’s also an opportunity to connect with your audience – the kids or teens you’re targeting as well as librarians, booksellers and others who make decisions about books for kids. In addition, publishers like authors and illustrators to have a strong online presence, even before you’re published.
My advice for making online connections is to find a balance between sharing personal experiences and professional ones. We need to market ourselves and our work, yet show a personal side, too. Avoid over-sharing, and respond to others’ posts to help make connections.
Perfect Your Craft
Mastering the craft of writing or illustrating can take a lifetime. Part of the challenge of a creative life is that every project brings new obstacles to overcome.
I periodically ask myself: What can I do to improve my craft? Maybe a course would help refine a particular technique. Maybe a conference would give insights into a particular genre. Maybe a critique group would help polish a work-in-progress.
Another option for getting feedback is CANSCAIP’s Blue Pencil Mentorship Program. It puts you in touch with a professional children’s author or illustrator (for a fee) to receive a personal critique of your work.
First thoughts are only a starting point. Every creative idea can be taken further, explored in more depth, mined for gems.
A common mistake of aspiring creators is to submit work to publishers before it’s ready. Considering that you typically get one shot with a publisher, make sure it’s your best work.
With that in mind, I suggest you revise, revise, revise. Here’s how you can do that:
- Put the work away for a few days or weeks. Then try to view it with fresh eyes. What works and what doesn’t? How can it be improved?
- Get constructive feedback from people whose opinions you trust. Evaluate their feedback to determine how you want to revise your work.
- Repeat this process until you can’t possible make any further improvements. Then repeat it one more time.
Keep at It
Once, when I was an unpublished writer, I sent an impulsive email to an author I admire – Karleen Bradford (KarleenBradford.com). Since I was feeling discouraged at the time, I was looking at her website because she had useful information for emerging writers. In my email, I asked her for advice on how to get motivated to continue writing after a rejection letter from a publisher. I never really expected an answer, but I got one quickly. Karleen wrote something like, “A writer’s greatest talent is sheer pig-headed stubbornness.” Her words helped me pick up my pencil and return to my story once again. I’ve found Karleen’s words to be true over and over again.
April 23, 2012
My community of writing friends has always been important to me, particularly the members of my writing group. For over five years, we’ve been meeting once a month to critique one another’s works-in-progress. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from every member of my group – from their comments on my writing as well as from how they approach their own writing – and I’m fiercely proud of their talents. Over the last year, two of those writers have published their first novels, and I can’t resist showcasing their fine work.
Sarah Raymond‘s YA novel, Signs of Martha, is a fast-paced read with a quirky cast of unique characters. In it, 16-year-old Martha Becker is a daydreaming pickle-grower with an artistic bent. When a zealous sign painter lands in Martha’s agriculturally-inclined world, she finds a dream, a mentor, and a whole lot of trouble.
I guarantee that this book will have you laughing out loud as well as worrying for Martha as she gets herself in trouble by painting opinionated signs about her neighbours and friends in her rural community. Sarah has created a stellar cast of characters with dialogue that suits them perfectly.
What I learned from Sarah is how to revise. Sarah can wonderfully re-envision a scene over and over until she finds the ideal mix of ingredients to create a masterful story. I think of Sarah when I need to ditch a troublesome scene and find the insight to completely re-imagine it in a new and exciting way.
Pat Bourke‘s novel for children ages 9 to 14, Yesterday’s Dead, is a perfectly paced historical fiction with finely crafted, likable characters. It’s about 13-year-old Meredith Hollings, who travels from small-town Port Stuart to Toronto to work as kitchen help in a doctor’s home to help support her family. She hopes to train as a teacher one day, but when Spanish Influenza invades Toronto, Meredith may have to give up that dream forever.
This compelling novel brings history alive, with realistic dialogue, believable characters, and insightful historic details about the harsh realities of the Spanish Flu epidemic in1918 Toronto. A detailed teacher’s guide is also available for Yesterday’s Dead.
What I learned from Pat is how to meticulously craft every word. While I’m busy imagining the full breadth and scope of my work-in-progress, Pat is reminding me to pay attention to details. I think of Pat when I dive into the nitty-gritty of how each sentence is constructed.
When any member of my group achieves a success – from a well-written scene to a published book – we all celebrate. Yet I’m also grateful for the behind-the-scenes look I get into how they craft their words.
I can’t wait to see what my writing group will produce next.
March 15, 2012
Just home from a WordPlay Writing Workshop with sixteen enthusiastic teen writers who chose to spend part of March Break writing at the Cedarbrae Library with me. A room full of keen writers – what a treat!
Zombies and other horror stories were popular with this group, as we wrote stories and poems based on the eerie photography of Gregory Crewdson. We also wrote from objects – my collection of old keys – and using my word box, as well as writing from a given sentence.
There is nothing better than an afternoon of writing games, unless it’s reading what these fine writers can produce in the Toronto Public Library’s annual magazine of teen writing and art – the Young Voices magazine.
Teens between the ages of 12 and 19 who live in Toronto are invited to submit poems, stories, rants, reviews, illustrations, and photography to this quality magazine. The submission deadline is March 31, 2012. For guidelines and how to submit, click here. To read the Young Voices 2011 Magazine, click here.
January 29, 2012
It may sound like stating the obvious, but to develop as a writer, one needs to read, read, read. As writers, we need to know the marketplace, particularly the genres in which we write. We can also learn writing techniques and improve our own writing by analyzing what works – and what doesn’t – in the books we read.
To get the most out of your reading, here are a few tips:
- Form your own opinion.
Try to approach a book with an open mind. Although you may chose to read a particular book because of a review or word-of-mouth recommendation, try to set aside the opinions of others and determine your own opinion of how well the books works.
- Read for pleasure.
Don’t take notes or mark passages when you read a book for the first time. Simply enjoy the ride that the author has created. You can analyze later. With a well-written book, you’ll be compelled to experience the characters’ emotions, and all thoughts of analysis will be banished.
- Monitor your reactions.
After you read a book, consider how engaged you were when reading. Where was the greatest energy? Where did your interest fade? Monitoring your reactions will help you determine how well the book met it’s goal of satisfying the reader.
- Analyze your reactions.
Ask yourself why it works – or doesn’t. How could it be improved? You may even want to discuss the book with others, or consider the opinions expressed in reviews. How do others view the book differently?
- Read it again.
When a book evokes a strong reaction from you, read it more than once. On a second reading, you will likely discover aspects of the story that you didn’t notice the first time. You can also evaluate the details of the story – character, structure, plot, dialogue, and so on.
- Pitch the book.
If you had to sell this book to a reader, how would you do it? Try to write a one-sentence synopsis of the story that would compel someone else to read it. Your sentence should answer the question, “What is the story?”
December 8, 2011
I have a secret fondness for magnetic poetry – not so secret if you’ve been to my home. On a wall in my kitchen, I have a 3′ by 4′ board with as many sets of magnetic poetry as I can find.
The obsession began slowly, with only the original version of magnetic poetry – which is a collection of tiny magnetic words, in case you don’t know. I quickly needed more, leading to an injection of Shakespearean words, as well as Romance, Art and others.
I’m not sure that magnetic poetry is really useful for writer’s block. I’ve never written a sentence using it that sparked a story or even a line in a story. But it does remind me to play with words, to treat them with irreverence, to stir them into new combinations. For me, that’s an important thing to remember.
I also love seeing what messages people who visit my home might leave behind. These days, the word board speaks of a “frantic concrete flower” and how to “balance above a metaphor” – a tricky task.
It also instructs me to “breathe rhythm,” “explore wild magic” and “embrace poetry.” As for the latter, I think I already have.
October 5, 2011
You can check out my Feature Author Interview with Orca Book Publishers on their site. Here’s a teaser:
Feature Author Interview by Orca Book Publishers
Why do you write, and why children’s books?
I write to understand the world. I love how a gorgeous string of words can alter my perceptions, widen my view of the world. Words have incredible power. They can inspire us to do great things. They can make us laugh or cry. I’m continually fascinated by the power of words to move me. Read More >>
For more of my online author interviews and a participant review of my writing workshops, click here.
September 8, 2011
On September 1st, I published my latest novel for teens, The Yo-Yo Prophet. Why did I write about yo-yoing?
Pull out a yo-yo, toss a few tricks and most people want to give it a try. There’s something compelling about manipulating a yo-yo up and down a string, never mind mastering more complicated tricks. Is it the satisfaction of achieving desired results? All I know is that when I successfully throw an around-the-world or trapeze trick, I’m thrilled – and eager to try more advanced tricks.
Modern yo-yo design and construction has changed what we can do with a yo-yo – like the new ball-bearing system that allows for unprecedented spin times. Yo-yos can sleep for minutes, rather than seconds, allowing for infinitely more complicated tricks, like Buddha’s revenge. The yo-yo has catapulted from cheap toy to high-tech wonder.
So it’s no surprise that an underground yo-yoing movement exists. Websites such as yoyoexpert.com or yoyonation.com offer advice on which yo-yos to use for which type of tricks as well as video instruction on specific tricks. And if you thought yo-yo contests were a thing of the past, check out the World Yo-Yo Contest in Florida and the National Yo-Yo Contest in California, which includes qualifying regional contests.
Personally, I think the appeal of yo-yoing lies in the ability to coax that carefully crafted construction of plastic, aluminum and string into doing what I want it to do.
To check out my video book trailer for The Yo-Yo Prophet, click here. To enter a draw for a signed copy of the book, simply comment on this post, or send me an email through my website before September 20th.
August 1, 2011
I received an email recently from a 12-year-old fiction writer. She was looking for advice on how to stay motivated throughout the writing of her whole story. Her question made me think about how I write a first draft.
The beginning of a story is usually fun to write — I feel inspired and enthusiastic. But after I write the first chapters, writing can slow down and it can be hard to keep going. A novel can take so long to write that it’s sometimes hard to imagine it will ever be done.
So when I’m writing a first draft, I like to set myself targets. When writing is tough, I aim for only 200 new words a day. On good days, I can get 500 to 1500 new words, although 200 words a day becomes 73,00 words in a year — enough for a novel! It may add up slowly but there’s usually time to write 200 words on most days. It’s also easier to keep my head in the story when I write a little bit every day, rather than a lot only once or twice a week.
I don’t have to write 200 “good” words. I let them be rough and polish them the next day because it helps me get into the next 200 words.
Here’s a good quote about getting through the first draft:
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.”
— Anne Lamott (from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)
I also have an extremely supportive writing group. There are five of us who share our writing to get constructive feedback on it, and we encourage one other when writing is tough. I know authors who have writing partners to help motivate them (they meet to write together once a week ). I tend to write alone, although I find that a writing retreat with other writers brings a fresh burst of material — as well as fabulous conversation.
Basically, I do whatever works to get that first draft down. The rewriting and polishing stages will take care of the warts.