March 31, 2016
Writing the middle of a novel is hard. I start out a first draft starry-eyed and eager to write, enthralled by my sparkly premise and seduced by my enticing characters. This book will be different. I know so much more about writing a novel now. I won’t get lost in the messy middle this time.
Words come easily. One chapter flows into the next. Then, at some point, maybe around chapter eight, I slooowww dooowwwnnn. Word production reduces to a trickle. My characters don’t seem so sparkly anymore. My plot tangles.
Can you tell where I am in my current work-in-progress? Yep. You guessed it. The messy middle.
Here are my tips and tricks for facing down the messy middle:
Re-visit Your Plot
I typically create a full synopsis before writing. Throughout the writing of my first draft, I stop to revise my synopsis periodically. It’s easy to find places to tweak wording, but more importantly, I find places to expand. Sometimes, I get stuck in the messy middle because I haven’t fully envisioned what’s going to happen in a section of the novel. I have the larger scenes in mind, but the nuances and details fill in as I write a first draft.
Take a Walk With Your Protagonist
I may be lost in the messy middle, but my protagonist can guide me through. Sometimes, I pause during the writing of my first draft to expand my character notes. Now that I’ve written a portion of the novel, I may have a better idea of who my protagonist is, and how my other characters relate to him or her.
Research Your Next Scene
I may become stuck because I don’t have enough detail to imagine the next sequence of scenes. Researching setting and other particulars can help me get back on track.
Write About Your Novel
I sometimes need to write journal entries about my novel. Typically, I ask myself questions about what’s blocking me or how I feel about the novel and its characters. My entries are rambling and sometimes grouchy or whiny, but they eventually help me figure out why I’m blocked.
Make a Project Playlist
I love collecting songs that inspire my work-in-progress and even specific scenes. Listening to my playlist before a writing session can help me get writing.
Find Images to Inspire You
I also love collecting images that inspire my work-in-progress. I’ve collected photos of people who look like my characters, setting possibilities and artwork that captures the emotional tenor of my work-in-progress.
Make a Daily Word Count
I have an over-active inner editor who likes to judge whether I’m writing well. I like to keep him busy by counting words. If I set a daily word count for myself, he’s distracted from judging the quality of my writing, which frees me up to simply get words on paper. I can’t revise if I don’t write a first draft.
Write To-do Lists
I like to break my big-picture goals into smaller daily ones. My yearly goals are vague (for example, write a first draft of novel A and revise novel B). But I break those down into realistic weekly and daily goals, depending on the non-writing tasks I also need to do.
Find a Goal Buddy
I love solitude. On my high-school aptitude test, my top job was a long-distance truck driver. I figure that’s because I answered every question as the introvert that I am. Sometimes, I need to fight that urge for solitude and talk to writing friends about my goals. When I state my goals aloud to someone I trust, it helps me feel more accountable.
I’m about to dust off a few of these techniques to re-kindle my enthusiasm for my work-in-progress. Hopefully, some of these techniques will work for you too.
February 29, 2016
Hey, Toronto teen artists and writers! Check out the great events at the Toronto Public Library on March Break, including an open mic and workshops on photography, anime, cartooning, writing, and more. For a full listing, go here.
After you perfect your artwork, photography and writing, you can submit it to the TPL’s Young Voices Magazine. The submission deadline is Tuesday April 5, 2016. Work submitted after the 2016 deadline will be considered for the 2017 issue of Young Voices Magazine.
All submissions are reviewed by an editorial board consisting of teen artists and writers working with professional artists and writers, including me. If your work is selected for publication, you’ll be notified by the TPL. Good luck, and I look forward to reading your entries!
Do you want to see what the editorial board selected in 2015? To read last year’s magazine, go here.
January 25, 2016
I’ve been thinking about how best to concentrate this month, really focus during my writing sessions, since I’ve been noticing that I can be easily distracted at times.
Why am I more distracted than usual? Maybe it’s because of the intermittent nature of connecting with people through social media throughout the day. (I love connecting with my online network, really, but I also need writing time.) Or maybe it’s the bite-sized way we now consume online information, through 500-word blog posts and three-minute videos. (How often do I favour that three-minute video over the 20-minute one? Has my brain been reprogrammed to consume in small batches?)
So I began my personal mission for better concentration.
Step 1: Control my Use of Social Media
I’m a writer with discipline, so I don’t need an app that banishes me from Facebook or Twitter. But I maybe I don’t need to check in every 30 minutes? Or watch that cat video. Or that one. Or … you get the idea. (Maybe I still need some help with step 1.)
Step 2: Get More Comfortable
I know many writers like treadmill desks. (Right Arthur Slade and Mahtab Narsimhan?) Call me lazy, but I prefer to sit while writing. The problem is that the cold gets to me, so my latest writing tool is writing gloves. I love, love, love my cozy new gloves. Warmth matters. Who can write well without warmth?
Step 3: Seek Sounds for Better Productivity
With noisy teenagers in my home and construction workers often outside it, I’ve been trying productivity sounds to help me focus. The free websites Rainy Mood as well as Noisli have helped me block unwanted sound. But I hit the motherload of sound productivity when this blog post introduced me to Brain FM. Wow! I’m a huge fan!
What is Brain FM? It’s a website-delivered audio brainwave program designed to help us focus, relax, or sleep, depending on what we’re trying to do. I was a skeptic, until I tried it once. Four hours later, I was still writing and that tug to check Facebook and Twitter was a distant memory.
Step 4: Seek Goal Buddies
I love writing in solitude. But I’ve also been seeking out like-minded writing friends to help with productivity. Sometimes, I flee my lonely writer’s garret to meet friends at a library or coffee shop to write. I love the looks of quiet concentration on their faces and the conversations about our goals for our works-in-progress.
Step 5: Just Say No
As Steve Jobs famously said in this video, “Focusing is saying, ‘No.'” Life is busy, and it can be hard to chisel out writing time. Recently, I’ve been learning the power of saying “no.” I want to be tugged in fewer directions. I want to spend less time multi-tasking. I want to to focus on one writing task at a time, and do it well. Really well. So well, that when a child or teenager picks up one of my books and starts to read, my writing will be compelling enough that he or she won’t be tempted to check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Tumblr or anything else. At least until the book is done.
November 10, 2015
Friday, December 4, 2015
14432 Rd 38, Sharbot Lake, ON K0H 2P0
Grades 7 to 10
Two readings of Punch Like a Girl to help raise awareness about violence against women and remember the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre on December 6, 1989.
WordPlay Writing Workshops
Monday, December 14 and Wednesday, December 16, 2015
4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Toronto Public Library, Cedarbrae Branch
Ages 13 to 19
Who says writing isn’t fun? With fresh and inspiring story-starters, you’ll explore new characters and create captivating scenes. Spark your imagination and enjoyment of words while learning creative writing techniques in this hands-on workshop.
How to Create a Believable OtherWorld
Monday, December 21, 2015
4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Toronto Public Library, Agincourt Branch
Ages 13 to 19
Whether you write about unicorns or alien planets, an imaginary world needs rules and structure in order to be believable. In this workshop, you’ll learn how to create a fully imagined fantasy or science-fiction world and the characters who live there.
Writing from Real Life: Writing Workshops for Teens
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Milton Public Library, Main Branch
Ages 12 to 17
Learn to create stories from real-life details. Explore how childhood memories, overheard conversations or even family history can be turned into great writing. Explore creative writing techniques and get constructive feedback on your writing!
April 19, 20, 21, 2016
The Canada Aviation and Space Museum
11 Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, ON K1K 2X5
The MASC Young Authors and Illustrators Conference turns 25 this year! If you are a student in grades four to eight with a passion for writing and illustration, you won’t want to miss this exciting day of hands-on creative workshops with some of Canada’s finest children’s authors and book illustrators.
April 29 – May 1, 2016
Albert at Bay Suite Hotel
435 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON K1R 7X4
October 22, 2015
I got a lovely note from a high-school teacher this week about my novel Take the Stairs. She wanted to let me know that my book is enjoyed daily at her school, and she thanked me for writing about taboo topics in a way that allows teachers to easily open dialogue on them in the classroom.
Like me, this teacher believes we need to acknowledge the rough realities in life. Today, I’m grateful she took the time to let me know that my book mattered to her and her students.
September 28, 2015
I believe that an author’s first priority is integrity to the story. We must listen to our characters and take them where they demand to go. Yet we cannot deny the immense influence authors wield over their audiences. For children’s authors, this influence is particularly potent. The youth of today become the caretakers of tomorrow.
My latest novel, Punch Like a Girl, addresses a topical issue head on. In it, 17-year-old Tori develops a hero complex, trying to rescue others whether they want it or not, in order to avoid facing her own fears of sexual assault. At publication, numerous high-profile incidents involving sexual assault were in the headlines, bringing the issue to the forefront of traditional and social media, and pushing for a public conversation that is long overdue. For readers, I hoped my book would spark open discussion on what a healthy relationship looks like. I didn’t anticipate the very personal conversations I’d have with readers – in writing and face to face.
I’ve had teen girls ask me what to do about a friend who is in an unhealthy relationship. I’ve had inspiring conversations with survivors of domestic or dating abuse. I’ve had a teacher approach me to meet personally with a gifted young writer who wrote about her story of survival. These conversations show what a huge impact a book can have on readers. Enough to open their minds to a new worldview. Enough to make much-needed cultural shifts in our society, now and in the future.
— Saydo (@Canadian_BBPR) September 24, 2015
For me, writing Punch Like a Girl was a way to understand the trauma and recovery process from the inside. It was about the building of a hero from the ashes of a victim, which is Tori’s journey. But it’s also becoming a talking point, sparking conversations about violence against girls and women. Tori and I have both learned about the power of community and how to punch back.
After interaction with readers, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Not only do we need to be good stewards of our earth in order to pass it on to future generations, we need to be good stewards of our youth. For authors, this means we need to recognize that, in creating content for children and youth, we have a social responsibility. I’m not advocating didactic, preachy, or moralistic lessons, since this doesn’t maintain the integrity of the story. However, social responsibility can affect our choice of story idea, the diversity of our characters, the actions our characters take, the changes they go through, and how we interact with readers during readings and workshops as well as online. As cultural critic Henry Giroux says, although creators want to make great art, we also have a responsibility to create a world in which great art can thrive.
August 25, 2015
Thanks to YA author and blogger Melanie Fishbane for this interview on her blog. I’m very excited about Melanie’s debut novel about the teen years of L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, to be published by Razorbill Press in 2016. This is a novel not to be missed!
To read Melanie’s interview of me and my latest novel, Punch Like a Girl, click on the image below. Thanks, Melanie, for the great questions.
August 11, 2015
Here’s my latest version of places for young writers to submit. I update this list every so often, and a PDF version is always available on my Links page. Please feel free to share widely, and add any suggestions or correction in the comments.
The Canadian Aboriginal Writing Challenge showcases writing by Aboriginal Canadians between the ages of 14 and 29. www.our-story.ca
Canadian Writing Resources and Contests for Students are listed through Wordwrights Canada. www3.sympatico.ca/susanio/WWCcomp.html
The CNIB Braille Creative Writing Contest accepts original poems and stories by Canadian students up to grade 12. www.cniblibrary.ca/iguana/www.main.cls?surl=braillecontest
The Eden Mills Student Poetry Contest is an annual youth poetry contest run by Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, which is held annually in early September. edenmillswritersfestival.ca
The Hamilton Public Library has the annual Power of the Pen Creative Writing Contest for ages 12 to 18 who are residents of Southern Ontario. Check the Teen Page at www.hpl.ca.
The River of Words Annual Poetry Contest is designed to help youth explore the natural and cultural history of the place they live. The contest is open to any writers aged 5 to 19. Older students must have not yet completed high school. www.stmarys-ca.edu/center-for-environmental-literacy/rules-and-guidelines
The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards recognize student achievement in the visual arts and creative writing. Sign up to receive email updates about annual deadlines. www.artandwriting.org
The TD Canadian Children’s Book Week Writing Contest invites young writers from across Canada, in grades 4 to 12, to submit stories and/or poems. Judging is done by noted writers from across Canada and one winner and two honourable mentions from each grade receive a gift certificate for the bookstore of his or her choice. www.bookweek.ca
World Literacy Canada organizes Write For a Better World – a national writing contest open to students in grades 5 to 8 that aims to inspire a sense of global citizenship in Canada’s youth. www.worldlit.ca
The Adroit Journal is a print literary publication offering young writers from around the world the chance to submit work for publication alongside established adult writers. Young writers in high school or college can also participate in the editing process as part of the journal’s staff of readers and editors. www.theadroitjournal.org
The Blue Pencil Online is an online magazine edited and produced by the students in the Creative Writing Program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, located in Natick, Massachusetts. The magazine seeks to publish the best literary work in English by young writers (12 to 18) around the world. thebluepencil.net
chixLIT is a literary zine written, illustrated and produced by and for girls. They accept submissions of stories, poems, artwork, and photography from girls age 13 to 17. www.chixlit.com
Teens from around the world can submit their poems and art to Navigating the Maze, an annual youth anthology. www.adonisdesignspress.com
Cicada Magazine is an international print and online magazine that publishes writing by teens. www.cicadamag.com
The Claremont Review is an international print magazine of young adult writers. It accepts manuscripts by writers aged 13 to 19. www.theclaremontreview.ca
Cricket Magazine is an international print magazine that holds monthly writing and artwork contests for young subscribers aged 9 to 14. www.cricketmagkids.com
Cuckoo Quarterly is a British literary journal that publishes work by young writers in high school. www.cuckooquarterly.com
The Cyberkids website at www.cyberkids.com accepts work for online publication.
Elan Literary Magazine is a student run magazine that accepts fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and plays from writers aged 14 to 18. elanlitmag.org
GirlSpeak showcases original works by young women ages 12 to 22 for an international readership. www.youngchicagoauthors.org/girlspeak/2008/index.html
Greystone Young Lit Mag publishes poetry, stories, artwork, and photography from students K to 12 for their quarterly online publication. mygreystone.wordpress.com
Hanging Loose Press is dedicated to supporting new and young writers. They have special guidelines for high school student submissions. www.hangingloosepress.com
KIdsWWwrite is an e-zine for young authors and readers. www.kalwriters.com/kidswwwrite
Launch Pad is a print magazine devoted to publishing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews, and artwork by children ages 6 to 12. www.launchpadmag.com
New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams is a print magazine edited by 8 to 14 year-old girls. www.newmoon.com
Re:verse is a zine for young poets organized by the League of Canadian Poets. www.poets.ca
Shameless is a progressive Canadian magazine rooted in feminism and DIY culture for teenage girls, who are underrepresented in the mainstream media. Accepts submissions from young writers. www.shamelessmag.com
The youth (age 16 to 25) section of Diaspora Dialogues’ online zine, Young Writers from the Edge, accepts youth submissions of creative writing. Focus on Toronto, must live in Canada to submit. www.diasporadialogues.com/youthsite/zine
Skipping Stones is a multicultural children’s magazine that encourages children to submit both art and writing. www.skippingstones.org
Stone Soup is a print magazine of writing by young people up to age 13. www.stonesoup.com
Teen Ink is a US monthly print magazine, e-zine, and book series that publishes teen (13 to 19) writing. It offers lots of publishing opportunities, contests, and a chance to read work by other youth. teenink.com
Windscript is the Saskatchewan Writers Guild’s annual magazine of high school writing. www.skwriter.com/publications
Young Adult Review Network (YARN) is an literary journal that publishes outstanding original short fiction, poetry, and essays for young-adult readers. They seek to discover new teen writers and publish them alongside established writers of the YA genre. yareview.net
The Toronto Public Library’s Young Voices Magazine is a venue for writing and art by Toronto teens. ramp.torontopubliclibrary.ca
Links of Interest
Broken Pencil: The Magazine of Zine Culture and the Independent Arts reviews the best zines, books, websites, videos, and artwork from the underground and reprints the best articles from the alternative press. Also includes groundbreaking interviews, original fiction, and commentary on all aspects of the independent arts. www.brokenpencil.com
National Novel Writing Month, a yearly program that occurs over the month of November. Writers are encouraged to produce a 50,000 word novel to be submitted by the last day of month. Includes areas to post excerpts and share your word count in-progress, as well as community forums and pep talks. Free to register. Includes a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program with special resources for writers 17 and under. www.nanowrimo.org
Newpages: Young Authors Guide is a select list of literary magazines to read, places to publish writing, and legitimate contests. Many of the magazines have open submissions with guidelines, an editorial selection process, and a regular print cycle. Some publish only young writers, some publish all ages for young readers. Most of the resources listed are American. www.newpages.com/npguides/young_authors_guide.htm
Online Writing Communities
Figment is an online writing community created to be used by educators, but also open for individual children and teens to create independent accounts. Figment members share their writing, connect with their readers, discover new stories and authors, and participate in contests. www.figment.com
Wattpad is an online writing community that calls itself the world’s largest community for discovering and sharing stories, and connecting readers and writers through storytelling. (Not aimed specifically at youth, but many young people are active members.) www.wattpad.com
WeBook is a community of writers posting work and sharing feedback as well as an active blog with contests, advice, and publishing tips. www.webook.com
Young Writers Online is a community of young writers, both new and experienced, dedicated to improving their writing. Members have access to a Community Forum for general, literary, and off-topic discussion; the Writing Forum, for submitting writing and critiquing work posted by other members; plus a chat room, contests, exercises, and more. Membership is free. www.youngwritersonline.net
Toronto Literary Events for Teens
The BAM! Toronto Youth Poetry Slam is for poets aged 12 to 19, all ages for open mic, and runs on the second Wednesday monthly at The Central (603 Markham Street) in the Annex. www.torontopoetryslam.com/bam-youth-slam
Teens aged 13 to 19 submit their work to be selected to take part in an hour of scheduled readings and onstage interviews at the Word on the Street Youth Open Mic Hour. www.thewordonthestreet.ca/wots/toronto/contests/openmic
Toronto Public Library Creative Writing Programs for Teens
Young Voices Magazine of Teen Writing and Art is an annual publication of poetry, stories, nonfiction, artwork, and photography. Teens 12 to 19 living in Toronto are eligible to submit. Work is selected by editorial teams made of youth volunteers and professional writers and artists. A launch event including youth readings is held each fall to recognize the contributors.
Young Voices Writing and Art Workshops are annual workshops led by the professional writers and artists who act as guest editors of Young Voices Magazine. These workshops are held at library branches and at outreach locations such as youth shelters and youth arts program centres.
Young Voices Annual Writers Conference is an annual full-day literary event featuring professional writers and performers. The programming includes a keynote speech, multiple workshops and an open mic. Throughout the day, youth can submit writing and art and youth volunteers produce an instant anthology that participants take home.
North York Central Library Teen Writers’ Group is an ongoing group for ages 13 to 19 that meets twice a month. Teen writers share their work, receive feedback and support from peers, and learn about creative writing in various styles and genres.
North York Central Library Teen Coffee House is held twice a year. This open mic evening for ages 13 to 19 gives teens an opportunity to share their writing talent in front of a supportive audience of their peers. Prizes awarded by
June 12, 2015
I’m preparing notes for a workshop this afternoon, so I thought I’d share them as a blog post. If you’ve written a first draft of a novel, here are some ideas on how to revise.
After writing a first draft, the challenge is how to polish your good idea until it sparkles irresistibly, attracting the attention of an editor at a publishing company.
It’s not enough to have a good idea. It’s not even enough to write well. A piece of writing that you want to submit for publication needs to be the very best you could ever possibly write – then you need to find a way to make it even better.
How do you do that?
- Take a break from a story. It easier to “re-envision” a story when you can read it the way a first-time reader would.
- Get feedback. Writing workshops and writing groups offer a way to get constructive and positive feedback on how to develop your craft.
- Edit yourself. Analyze problems in your story then rewrite in the same intuitive, instinctive way that you wrote your first draft.
Expect to revise a story multiple times. The revision process is a series of rewrites that brings the work closer and closer to a polished piece.
Here are some ways to revise a work-in-progress:
- Show, don’t tell. Dramatize key moments through action, dialogue, inner monologue, and body language, rather than telling through exposition and summary.
- Reveal character with every word. The reader is looking for clues about each character; so cut any text that isn’t revealing character.
- Trim the fat. If you can convey meaning in ten words instead of twenty, do it.
- Avoid bulky description. Don’t pause a scene to interject lengthy description, explanation, or back-story. Instead, weave short descriptive phrases or sentences into the action and dialogue.
- Avoid “yo-yo” emotions. A character’s emotions need to build in a steady and realistic way. Watch for places where a character’s emotions are inconsistent.
- Determine your character’s “dramatic need.” Dramatic need is defined as what your main character wants to achieve by the end of the story. This need drives the forward thrust of the action. It can change throughout the story, but it should be clear to readers at all times.
- Understand your characters. When you find a place in your story where a character’s actions are not believable, analyze your character’s motivations by asking “why,” then rewrite to clarify.
- Ask yourself: what is the story? Answer this question in one sentence or one paragraph to bring focus and clarity to your story.
February 2, 2015
Today, I welcome Robin Stevenson to my blog for an interview about her compelling new YA novel The World Without Us – available from Orca Book Publishers in February 2015.
What do you do when someone you care about wants you to follow him to a really dark place? Do you pull away? Do you help plan the trip? Or do you put your own life on the line in the hope that love will coax your friend away from the precipice? When Mel meets Jeremy, she thinks she has finally found someone who understands her, someone who will listen to her, someone who cares. But Jeremy has secrets that torment him, and Mel isn’t sure she can save him from his demons. All she knows is that she has to save herself.
Set in Florida, against a backdrop of anti-death-penalty activism, The World Without Us examines one girl’s choices in a world where the stakes are very high and one misstep can hurt – or even kill – you.
I was lucky enough to read a preview copy of Robin’s novel, and I found myself devouring it in a few days but pondering it for weeks afterward. I’m glad to have this chance to probe a little deeper in the novel and its intriguing premise and characters.
Karen: At the dramatic start of The World Without Us, Jeremy and Mel have made a suicide pact. In fact, they’re on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, ready to jump. Where did the idea for this come from?
Robin: I wrote that opening scene without having any plan beyond that point – I didn’t even know who Mel and Jeremy were, how they came to be on the bridge together, or why Jeremy jumped and Mel didn’t. Writing the first draft was all about answering those questions and making sense of that opening scene.
As I wrote it, I remembered conversations I was part of in high school where people would kid around about suicide, and I started wondering: What if one of my friends hadn’t been joking? What if an undercurrent of truth lay beneath the humour?
Also, I used to be a counsellor, and I worked with many people who were suicidal. So it’s a subject I’ve thought a lot about over the years. I thought it might be good to write about it in a way that hopefully would lead to discussions and increased awareness.
Karen: I think the book will achieve that goal. I certainly hope so.
The failed suicide attempt is set against a backdrop of protests against the death penalty in Florida. What sparked you to link suicide with the death penalty?
Robin: I tend to get somewhat obsessed with certain topics. When I was writing this book, I was reading a lot about the death penalty, life on death row, black holes, and lucid dreaming. Sometimes my current topics glue themselves to other ideas and become part of the story I’m writing, which is what happened here. It wasn’t a very conscious process, but I enjoyed writing about these themes together in this novel because it allowed me to explore Mel’s and Jeremy’s ideas about death in more depth. Suicide and the death penalty both raise questions about whether someone should live or not – and who should make that choice. And, of course, sometimes people who seem to have every reason to live choose to kill themselves, while others who have had appallingly hard lives desperately want to avoid death.
Karen: Both Jeremy and Mel are unique, richly developed and intelligent teens. Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating them?
Robin: Mel, who narrates the story, is bright, capable, and very much loved. She’s an only child who is close to her parents. She seemingly has everything in the world to look forward to, and yet she ends up on the bridge with Jeremy. In contrast, Jeremy has experienced a terrible loss, but he’s not suffering in ways that are obvious to the people who care about him. Suicide and depression are so complex – Mel and Jeremy themselves have to struggle to make sense of how they ended up where they did. I wanted to challenge preconceived ideas about who is at risk for suicide. I didn’t want there to be any easy answers in this story.
In terms of process, I think the characters started to take shape as I wrote about their interactions and conversations with each other, and with Mel’s parents and Suzy (the girl Mel babysits). I wrote a lot of conversations that didn’t make it into the final book because that’s one of the ways I get to know my characters. Mel was easier for me to understand than Jeremy. Her family is, in many ways, quite a lot like my own family, and Mel’s difficulties in accepting Jeremy’s ways of coping mirror my own struggle to comprehend and appreciate the different journey he is on.
Karen: On your blog, you’ve said that your books are about “figuring out who you are and what you believe and where you fit in the world.” What do you think your protagonist Mel figures out about herself and her world in this book?
Robin: Both Mel and Jeremy are reading Camus, who wrote that suicide was the only truly serious philosophical problem, and both of them are, in different ways, struggling with the absurdity of life. Mel is a kid who has been raised on both skepticism and activism. She believes that the meaning in life is the meaning you give it, that your life is the sum of your actions, and that what matters are the choices you make. Jeremy is searching for a higher power of some kind and looking for a meaning that Mel doesn’t believe exists. She feels Jeremy is running away from reality, ignoring both his freedom and his responsibility. But Jeremy is terrified by that freedom because it means nothing is holding him back, nothing is preventing him from letting go, and nothing is anchoring him in this world.
Mel doesn’t have a lot of friends, and her deep, intense connection with Jeremy is terribly important to her. She feels abandoned when Jeremy chooses a different path, and her anger comes from this sense of loss. I don’t think Mel ever fully understands Jeremy’s fear and despair, but she does accept that she and Jeremy are two different people, and that he has to find his own ways of coping and creating meaning in his life. She realizes that she needs to stop trying to control what he believes and instead make her own conscious choice to continue to be a friend to him.
Karen: What’s next for you? Can you share a little about your works-in-progress?
Robin: I’m currently working on the edits for my latest middle-grade novel. It’s called The Summer We Saved the Bees, and it’ll be published by Orca in the Fall of 2015. I’m also working on my first non-fiction project – a book about Pride Day that’s aimed at readers aged 11 to 14. It’s been an interesting process – a lot of research, reading, talking with people, sourcing photographs, etc. As a queer mom to a ten-year-old, I feel strongly that LGBTQ families need to be represented in the books our kids read – and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to the growing body of diverse books.
Karen: You’re busy, Robin, which makes readers like me happy. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights. It’s been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading your upcoming books.
December 4, 2014
Writing for Publication
In my workshops for kids and teens, they always have questions about where they can publish and how they should go about it. So I tell them what I can, and I offer my ongoing list of Where Young Authors Can Submit.
I understand how exciting and validating it can be when a story or poem is accepted for publication, and I’m particularly thrilled when marginalized voices get a chance to be heard. But publication isn’t THE goal of my writing workshops.
Writing to Understand Your World
Personally, I write to understand the world around me in all its complex, painful, fascinating glory. It maims us and then celebrates us. It gives us riches and takes them away. I find endless subject matter to write about by lifting my head and really observing what’s happening around me.
So I hope that, in my workshops, kids and teens can get a taste of that goal and its pleasures.
Writing to Move People
I also hope to share my awe of words – how they have the power to make me laugh, cry, or feel inspired. I’m continually delighted by the power of words to move me, particularly the brilliant writing that’s composed in only a few minutes during a workshop.
Writing to Make Your Soul Grow
In a letter to high school students in 2006, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Wonderful advice! Is there are loftier purpose for writing? In his letter, Vonnegut goes on to suggest the students write a poem and then tear it up. Then he writes:
You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
Thanks, Vonnegut, for the reminder.
November 10, 2014
This month, the media is rich with new reports of women coming forward to report alleged assaults:
- In Toronto, nine women reported non-consensual violence at the hands of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
- In Ottawa, two New Democrat MPs reported harassment by ethics critic Scott Andrews and Quebec MP Massimo Pacetti.
- In New York City, aspiring actress Shoshana Roberts released a video of her 10-hour walk through the Big Apple during which she experienced 108 catcalls — all this in an effort to end street harassment.
Although it saddens me to hear about this alleged violence and harassment, I’m inspired by the women who chose to speak out against it. I also feel the need to publicly thank them for their acts of courage. They have renewed a global cultural conversation that is topical, relevant and much needed.
We now have mainstream news articles about rape myths, and calls to examine our relationship with violence against women. I find myself nodding as I read, and I feel emboldened by the supportive statements I hear from other women as well as the many caring men I know and love. The topic of violence against women is an important one to me, one I chose to tackle in my upcoming novel for teens — Punch Like a Girl (Orca Book Publishers, Spring 2015).
In the novel, I wanted to write about a girl with a hero complex who tries to save those around her rather than admitting she feels vulnerable. It’s an exploration of what it means to be a hero and a victim in today’s society.
Most of us know someone who has been bullied or abused. I wrote this novel in reaction to witnessing girls and women I care about who have had to face violence in both dating and domestic relationships.
Dating violence among teens is a big problem, affecting youth in every community across North America. According to the Toronto Star, “forty-six per cent of female high school students in Ontario say they have been subjected to unwanted touching, verbal abuse, pressure to have sex, bullying, or coercion.” In the United States:
- One in three adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
- Girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence — almost triple the national average.
- Violent behaviour typically begins between the ages of 12 and 18.
Punch Like a Girl is partly based on observation of girls and women I know and partly based on research. Several times in my life, I have helped people I cared about decide whether they want to report an assault, and I have respected their choices. Like my character does in the book, I’ve taken Wen-Do self-defence classes and volunteered at Toronto’s Red Door Family Shelter, which offers help for women and children who are escaping domestic violence.
In Punch Like a Girl, I chose to explore the stages of trauma and recovery. The novel asks questions such as: How do today’s girls deal with violence directed against them? How can we as a society overcome such violence? Punch Like a Girl is a taut, emotional look at one teen girl’s attempt to overcome bullying and violence wherever she finds it.
In 2013, when I was first connecting with my agent, Harry Endrulat of The Rights Factory, I asked him why he wanted to represent this book. Harry’s response? He talked about his daughter and the kind of world he wants her to be able to live in.
I admire Harry’s reaction, and it mirrors why I wrote this book. I need to do what I can to help make this world a better and safer place for the girls and teens who will become tomorrow’s women. I admit that my goal may be lofty and even impossible, but I truly hope they’ll never have to report the violence and harassment we’ve witnessed through the media this month.
October 8, 2014
In a recent CM Magazine review of my fantasy novel Bog, the reviewer suggested that “including a visual map of the journey might not have been amiss.” Since I’m a map-lover, I can understand the desire to map Bog’s world as well as his journey. In fact, I use maps to help form both the fantasy and realistic worlds I create. I also teach writing workshops about “How to Create a Believable OtherWorld,” which involve mapping a world in order to fully imagine it. I’ve witnessed how mapping can help writers enter their worlds, walk around within them, and bring back wonderful stories to write about. So after reading this review from CM Magazine, I decided to share my map of Bog’s world on my blog.
When I visit schools and libraries, I usually show the map I first sketched when planning Bog’s story. I tell them it’s a good example of why I’m a writer, not an illustrator! Still, it’s enough for me to begin imagining my character’s journey, which is what matters. (You can click on the map for a larger view.)
My map is rough and unpolished, so I asked my artist daughter – Paige Krossing – if she would draw a better map of Bog’s journey. To my delight, she created this wonderfully illustrated map. (Again, click on it for a larger view.)
October 2, 2014
Thanks to Jocelyn Shipley for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. It’s a fun way to connect with other writers and learn about how they write.
I first got to know Jocelyn when she was co-editor of the collection Cleavage: Breakaway Fiction for Real Girls (Sumach Press, 2008). My short story “Profanity” appeared in the collection, and it’s been a delight to get to know Jocelyn better since then.
Jocelyn writes compelling contemporary YA and adult fiction. A particular favourite of mine is her recent YA novel How to Tend a Grave (Great Plains, 2012), which was Winner of the 2012 Gold Medal Moonbeam Award for YA Fiction in the Mature Issues category. Her other acclaimed YA books include Getting a Life, Cross My Heart and Seraphina’s Circle. Please check out Jocelyn’s Writing Process Blog Tour post for a peek into how she writes. I promise it’s an interesting read! And don’t forget to watch the trailer for How to Tend a Grave below.
Now, to answer the questions about my writing process:
1. What are you working on?
I have several YA novels on the go. I’ve just finished final edits of Punch Like a Girl, which will be published by Orca Book Publishers in Spring 2015. This contemporary novel is a taut, emotional look at one teen girl’s attempt to overcome bullying and violence wherever she finds it. I wanted to write about a girl with a hero complex who tries to save those around her rather than admit she feels vulnerable. The tagline for this book is: “It’s not the girl in the fight, it’s the fight in the girl.”
In between edits, I’ve been writing a draft of a contemporary YA fantasy that also features a female protagonist. Since this novel is still in flux, I’d rather not talk about the premise. I’m afraid that fledgling ideas can get pulled off track when exposed to the full light of day.
Finally, I’m beginning to research a new YA novel idea when I have a lull in writing or revising. This novel will be partly set in 1967, so it’s involving research in order to discover the premise and plot. I’m nervous about this idea, since I’m not yet sure if I can find my way into the story. I also want it to be funny, which will be a challenge for me because I take life way too seriously.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
During school visits, I tell kids and teens that I write to understand the world around me. So I think each of my works explores some knotty questions that get untangled through the story arc. In my most recent novel, Bog, the questions are: Why do different cultural groups end up hating one another? How does it feel to be “other”? How can we overcome prejudices based on differences? I try to encase such questions in an entertaining story, so the premise of this story involves a cave troll on a revenge-filled quest into human territory after his father is turned into stone by some pesky humans. When I’m writing, I want to entertain myself as well as gain insight. I hope my books provide both for my readers, as well.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write middle-grade and young-adult stories because I’m fairly certain that my mental age is about sixteen. I like kids and teens. I respect them. The years from age nine to nineteen are fascinating, thorny and full of promise and possibility. There’s so much opportunity for a writer.
I write both realistic and fantastic stories because that’s what I like to read. I’ve always had an active imagination, so I have no problem envisioning trolls who inhabit Canada’s wilderness. Fantasy co-exists with today’s world for me. When I’m exploring a writing idea, I’ll ponder whether it’s best told as realistic or fantastic, based on what the story idea requires.
4. How does your writing process work?
My writing process has evolved over time, so I’ll outline what I do now rather than what I used to do.
I begin by honing the premise. I believe that, if I’m going to spend years on an idea and ask publishers and readers to invest in it, it must be based on the best premise I can invent. So I go through a process of writing notes about the idea, and I brainstorm as many premises as I can until I find the one that best suits my purposes. This also gives me a one-liner to sell and promote the book.
Then I draft a two- to three-page synopsis. Both these stages will involve concrete research as well as plenty of daydreaming. I write notes about setting, characters, motivations, possible plot twists, and so on. My synopsis is written in acts, not chapters. I break it apart into chapters during the writing phase.
Next, I write a first draft. During this stage, I try to write at least six days a week with a daily word count. I keep the minimum word count low (maybe only 200 words) because I find that regular daily writing is more important that quantity. My goal is to keep my head in the story in order to keep the writing flowing steadily. For me, writing a quick first draft results in schleck that can get me bogged down during revisions.
Once a few chapters are done, I ponder and revise them in preparation to share with my trusted writing group. After I get their feedback, I may revise again, if a chapter is way off track. But I also make revision notes for later. When I complete a whole draft, I get more feedback from fellow writers on the entire manuscript. Then I begin the revision stage. It’s always hard to re-envision a story that I’ve spent years or months writing. I also find it hard to know when a story is “done.”
I first met Lena at an ongoing writing workshop at Mable’s Fables Children’s Bookstore in Toronto, where she proved to be an astute critiquer of manuscripts-in-progress. I also worked with Lena in her former role as Administrative Director of the Canadian Association of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), where she ably managed the organization and teams of volunteers.
Lena is the author of two successful picture books as well as the recent YA fantasy Witchlanders (Atheneum/S&S, 2011), which earned three Starred Reviews and nominations for the 2013 White Pine Award and Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award. (You can check out the trailer for Witchlanders below.) I’m particularly excited about Lena’s upcoming YA fantasy novel called Worlds of Ink and Shadow (Abrams/HarperCollins), which was inspired by her love of the Brontes and trips to Yorkshire. I hope we get a sneak peek into that novel in her upcoming post.
Thanks so much for reading, and feel free to leave a comment about your process.
August 14, 2014
At the request of a writing workshop participant, I’ve created this list of style and grammar tips for fiction writers.
When writing fiction, traditional style and grammar rules may not apply. For example, a character’s background or personality will influence the way he or she talks, even requiring grammar that is incorrect yet appropriate for that character. Still, there are some basic rules to improve your prose.
Use active voice rather than passive voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb on an object. In passive voice, the object appears as the subject of the sentence.
Passive: The wall was hit by my car.
Active: My car hit the wall.
The passive voice is unavoidable when you don’t know who did the action.
Passive: My bike was stolen.
Avoid overusing “there is…,” “it is…,” etc.
Example: There was a man sneaking through the bushes.
Revision: A man sneaked through the bushes.
Use words like “said” or “asked” for speaker tags. Speaker tags are the words used to describe speech. Remember that characters can’t “sigh” or “smile” their dialogue.
Example: “I can’t come with you,” she sighed.
Revision: “I can’t come with you,” she said. OR “I can’t come with you,” she said with a sigh. OR “I can’t come with you.” She sighed.
Use adverbs sparingly. Instead, rely on strong verbs to carry the action.
Example: “Stop that,” he said angrily.
Revision: “Stop that.” He glared at her.
Use specific language rather than vague language.
Example: The man was somewhat taller than any other she had seen.
Revision: At seven feet, Frankie towered over her.
Clarify consecutive and simultaneous actions. Consecutive actions occur one after another, while simultaneous events occur at the same time.
Example: Unlocking the car door, she started the engine. (She cannot unlock the car door at the same time as she starts the engine.)
Revision: She unlocked the car door and then started the engine.
Avoid dangling modifiers. When a clause introduces a sentence, it needs to have the same subject as the sentence itself.
Example: Walking down the street, the houses were all run down. (This implies that the houses were walking down the street.)
Revision: Walking down the street, I noticed that the houses were all run down.
Some Grammar Websites
- Grammar Girl: A friendly guide to grammar.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: A site to learn rules of grammar and usage.
- Grammarist: Tips to correct your grammar.