Tag Archives: Parenting

Nosy Writer with a Camera

Saturday night my daughter was at Brownie camp. Well, she was, until about 10:30. Then we got the phone call to come pick her up. (Which, I might add, we were happy to do — I want her to know that she can always call home. It’s good training for when she hits those teen years.) Anyhow, she wanted to go back and join the other girls for breakfast and cleanup, which was how I happened to be in the Port Perry area with some time on my hands, in the quiet of a Sunday morning.

Downtown Port PerryI love downtown Port Perry. Their history is still quite visible, and they work hard to keep it that way. So, while there’s no ignoring phone poles, street lights and parked cars, if you wander around at just the right time, you can get a glimpse of what the town used to be like.

It turns out that a wintery Sunday morning, while stores are still closed and cars are scarce, is one of those times.

I have a couple of historical novels in the works, so I set out to collect some pictures. The ones from the camera don’t match the ones in my head; they never do — I’m just a point-and-shoot photographer. I don’t know how to make the picture capture the scene. But they help me remember, at least. I can take it from there.

Some things I liked: the downtown. Little shops all in a row, with brick-faced living quarters above and false fronts. I could tell, because I looked from the side and saw the wooden beam propping one of them up. Very cool. I remember one of my English professors talking about the “false fronts” in a CanLit novel, and how symbollic they were. Fair enough. For me, they bring back memories of childhood ballet classes in a second-floor studio in Whitby’s downtown. Looking across the road from Miss Inta’s class, I could see how the brick was built up in front of the roofs. I liked the way it looked, like a secret hiding place.

I spent a lot of time looking out those windows. It may explain why I was never any good at ballet.

Port Perry homeI like the old houses. I’ve been looking at old houses a lot online, recently, trying to find ones with lots of pictures and with sketched-out floor plans, to help figure out the details for a book I’m drafting. “Big house” isn’t specific enough when you’re writing about the people who live in it — you have to know where all the doors and stairways are. But looking at a picture on a computer screen isn’t the same as walking through an old part of town, feeling how many steps it takes from one old house to another, figuring out what the spaces would have been.

I took pictures of several of them. If I took a picture of your house, please don’t be worried. I’m not stalking you, and I’m not casing the joint. I just think you have a pretty house.

I like the town hall. It’s a funny, skinny building, beside an equally skinny church. They’re like a pair of bookends, across a street from one another. And the town hall has some schmancy brickwork near the top.

I like the spot where I had breakfast (a hot-crossed bun and some orange juice from a grocery store that miraculously happened to be open). Four benches, at corners around the frozen bit in the middle. It would be nice if it were a pond, but I suspect it’s just some low ground, puddled over. I’ll go back in the spring to check.

War Museum Library - Grenadier storeThis war museum library (currently a shop for war-related books and so on, I think) made me sad. It’s dated 1932. The people who built it thought the Great War was behind them, and had no idea what was around the corner. But I do like the idea of a library as a memorial.

There’s a miniatures store in downtown Port Perry. Tiny little models of victorian houses, and everything you could want to put in them, from furniture to dogs to teeny napkins and cans of baked beans. It’s a bit like what I’m trying to do — build an imaginary town and get all the pieces right.

It was early enough that the streets were nearly deserted when I got there. As time passed, people started flocking to church and the bells rang. I lost that feeling of having the place nearly to myself, but people-watching is fun, too. And then it was time to head back and pick my daughter up from camp.

On the way home, we stopped so I could take some pictures of a crumbling farm. Not so much because it was crumbling, as because I wanted to see where all the buildings were in relation to one another. Then there was a lovely stone farmhouse that I couldn’t resist. I pulled over again.

Sarah asked if this time, I could stay in the car to take the picture.

Only the Good Parts, Please

Pink Cupcake photo by Richard Dudley on Stock ExchangeMy daughter likes to lick the icing off cupcakes. A few swipes of the tongue, food colouring on her cheeks. Then she’s finished with it. “I can’t eat any more,” she’ll say, handing it to me.

It’s slick and shiny on top. Dampish. Not terribly appetizing.

We need a new cupcake strategy. But yummy treats aside, I want to look at her reading habits. She licks the icing off books, too. That is, she looks for the good parts. And if there are too many pages between those good parts, she loses interest.

Even Rick Riordan, who is something of a legend in this household at present (she zoomed through the Percy Jackson books and then delved into Greek mythology; now we’re in the beginning of an Egyptian phase), is susceptible to this harsh editorial doctrine. She devoured The Lost Hero, but her bookmark has been on page 152 of The Son of Neptune for a few weeks now.

I asked her why. She shrugged. “Not enough monsters.”

It’s something I try to be aware of in my own editing. Are there enough monsters, mythological or otherwise? Is the dialogue moving fast enough? Is it moving at all? Is there a point to the gosh-darned scene?

Each scene. Yup, every one.

And there’s no cheating allowed — you can’t start the scene too far ahead of where things move to that point, or let it linger on after the point has been made. And by point, I mean event or decision or goal-and-failure that moves the story forward.

If you were only allowed one sentence to describe what happens in your scene, what would it be? Give the scene a title like a Friends episode: the one where my character accidentally poisons his girlfriend.

I’ve heard the same good advice from two excellent teachers now: start the scene at the last possible moment, end it as soon as you can. Draft the scene and then start cutting from both ends. Cut until the scene no longer makes sense, then undo that last cut. That’s it. That’s all you get to include: only the necessary stuff. The good stuff.

I’m rewriting a juvenile novel now, and trying to be aware of the “only the good parts” rule. As I revisit each scene, I ask myself what it contributes to the story. I figure out what the point is, and tighten the scene around that. It’s something I struggle with. My characters talk too much. I like to know what they had for breakfast, and where every person is coming from and going to… but that doesn’t all need to be in the book.

I know a scene is getting close when I can read it aloud and not want to skip over any bits. And then, after some work, when I can read it aloud to my critique group, and not have their eyes glaze over. And then, maybe then, it will be ready for the toughest critic of all — the cupcake licker.

Who will, of course, tell me it needs more monsters.


I love the fact that my daughter is an avid reader. She devours books. I think she’s reading above grade level; I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. What matters to me is that she picks up books on her own and enjoy them for hours on end. She has a cosy little reading corner, complete with beanbag chair, and it’s her favourite spot in the house. She knows the joy of getting lost in a good story. It’s one of the things I wished most for her.

But the other morning, before school, she finished the book she was reading. And she was in tears. Inconsolable. The writer had left things off at a very bad place.

She got cliffhangered.

Now, I know this is a common occurrence in series books. I was a big fantasy reader in early high school… Terry Goodkind, David Eddings and the like. I know that sometimes you have to wait a year or so to find out what happens next. But there are cliffhangers, and then there are cliffhangers.

Take the Harry Potter books. Each of them leaves questions unresolved. In each, we see an increase or a change in Voldemort’s power, and we’re left wondering what that change will mean for Harry and for the wizarding world. It’s a seven-book story arc, and it’s beautifully constructed. And since I was reading them as they were being written, I’ll always remember the agony of waiting for the next book. But never once did I feel that Rowling had cheated. Each story wrapped up, each delivered on its promise.

The series my daughter was reading is called The Familiars. It’s about animals, and magic, and all the things she loves. It’s funny and full of adventure. We read the first book together; by the time the second one came out, she was able and excited to tackle it on her own. At the end of the first book, there were threads left hanging, but the adventure that we had started on with the characters — the promise of the story — had been fulfilled. It was a good book.

Now, I haven’t read the second one in its entirety, but I snuck a peek at the ending to see what upset my daughter.

* Spoiler Alert *

Just as she said, the book ends with the main characters witnessing the uprising of the enemy (undead, I believe) army, about to be attacked.

* / Spoiler Alert *

To me, that’s a cheat. That’s not the end of a book; that’s getting to the climax and typing “the end.” And I suppose the original cliffhangers were cheats, weren’t they? I think that’s where the term comes from. Back in the days of those old Perils Of Pauline movies, or whatever they were called, the weekly serial would end with Pauline hanging off a cliff, about to fall. Or tied across a railroad track with the train bearing down on her, or whatever the peril of the week was.

It’s different when you can tune in next week, or even (as in the case of serialized television between seasons) after a couple of months, to find out what happens next. Books take longer. It’s usually  a year, or close to it, between releases. Books also require a greater commitment from the reader, and that commitment should be paid off.

* Spoiler Alert *

Take this with a grain of salt; as I said, I haven’t read the book in its entirety. But as a writer, I’d think that ending with the certainty of an uprising would do the trick. Or ending with word of the army on its way. Is it necessary to bring the enemy face-to-face with the characters, and then end the book before the first strike?

In fact, the second-to-last chapter ends with a rather nice moment, where the bad guy escapes in full cackle. That could have made a nice ending. Wrap up the action, get the good guys where they need to be, give them (and the reader) a chance to regroup with the inevitable threat hanging over their heads. Closure, but a reason to read on.

But when citizens are screaming and the good guys are huddled, looking across city walls at a giant army… that’s not a scene to end a book on. That’s not closure. That’s tacky. That’s a buy-my-next-book-or-you-won’t-know-if-they-live-or-die desperate.

* / Spoiler Alert *

I’ll probably read the book. It seems only fair, having voiced my opinion about it. And if I change my mind, I’ll blog about that too. But right now, my daughter’s experience has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

The thing is, The Familiars is a children’s book series. And any series written for children faces a unique challenge in that its audience is growing up, even while the books are being written. (The Harry Potter books handled this in an unusual way, by having the characters grow up with the readers.)

When book one of The Familiars came out, my daughter needed to have it read to her. Book two, she was able to read on her own. By the time book three is published, who knows what she’ll be reading or where her interests will lie? A year is a long time for a seven-year-old reader to wait.

I admit to feeling a bit of mommy-rage. Making my daughter cry is a pretty quick way to get my dander up. But I do believe, as a writer, that there is such a thing as playing fair with readers. And typing “the end” right before a climax is not playing fair. End a chapter there. Don’t end the book.

Like I said, my daughter is a reader. One bad experience will not change that. But what about the kids who aren’t? What about the ones who struggle with reading, the ones who undertake a series book with trepidation? If they reach the end and feel cheated, how likely are they to make the effort with another novel?

I admit to not having given a lot of thought to writing books in a series before this. The DragonSpeaker books were something of an anomaly, with three of us working together on them, and besides, they were all released at the same time. But as it turns out, I do have opinions on series books. I think that each book needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. I don’t believe in cheating. And if I ever write a series, please hold me to that.

Woolly Ragwort in your Nose

One of the perks of being a children’s writer is that you get to go back and read all the books you didn’t get around to as a child. Patricia MacLachlan’s beautiful, sparse novel Sarah, Plain and Tall came out in 1985, just a little bit too late for me. I discovered it a few months ago, when I borrowed a copy from the local library for research.

I borrowed it for research, but I loved it so much that I bought my own copy. Now I’m reading it to my daughter at bedtime. And I can see that, much as I loved the book, I was reading it wrong. I read it with a grown-up’s eyes. My Sarah is hearing it as a child. For her, it’s a completely different book. And I’m learning from that.

She loves the characters, just as I did. But we have completely different takes on Caleb, the younger brother of narrator Anna.

Anna’s mother died when Caleb was born. She, Caleb and Papa live alone on their prairie farm until Papa puts an ad in the paper looking for a wife. Sarah, who lives in Maine and has grown up by the ocean, answers.

The great question of the book is whether Sarah will stay. The family loves her, and she seems to love them, but perceptive Anna can see that Sarah misses the ocean.

Caleb, in particular, seems always to be looking for hints that Sarah will stay with them. He reads promises into her words. “Sarah said winter,” he said to me. “That means Sarah will stay.” Three more pages: “Sarah said ‘later.’ Sarah will stay.”

I found that touching and a little sad. Sarah, my Sarah, thinks it’s little-kid funny. Granted, some of that might be because of her name being in the book. (We often pretend the dog is talking about her. I think there are echoes of that at play. Never mind.)

I guess when I read Caleb’s words, I’m seeing them through a lens of experience… there’s something bittersweet about looking for promises that aren’t stated, because as grown-ups, we know that doesn’t always work out well. I’m worried for Caleb. Sarah, at seven, has less experience of that sort of thing. She just thinks it’s funny that Caleb’s repeating himself and insisting on a meaning that doesn’t match the words. And in a way, I’m glad that she doesn’t get it yet.

Tonight, though, she really drove home the point that she’s hearing a different story than I’m reading. There’s a bit where Caleb makes up a song:

Woolly ragwort all around,
Woolly ragwort on the ground,
Woolly ragwort grows and grows,
Woolly ragwort in your nose.

I don’t really remember that bit from my first reading. I suppose I skimmed over it. “Oh, he made up a song. Cute. Let’s see what happens next.”

Not so my daughter. She burst into helpless, body-shaking giggles. Clutched her sides. Wiped tears from her eyes. Made me sing it three times — and anyone who has ever heard me sing knows that such a request is not made lightly.

Needless to say, my hope of a soothing bedtime story flew out the window.

I managed to get her calmed down and read another chapter. Then, of course, she wanted to hear the song again. She wanted to hold the book herself and look at the words and sing them. More giggles. Absolute joy. You’d think Patricia MacLachlan was the greatest comic writer in the history of jokes.

My daughter loves this book now. I’m not sure that she’s seeing the same thing the Newberry Medal people saw in it, when they granted the award on the cover. I’m not sure she’s as taken with the lovely, spare prose as I was. But she wants to know if Sarah will stay. And she wants to hear about Seal the cat.

And most of all, I think, she wants to know if Caleb will make up any more funny songs.

Is there a lesson in here for writers? I’m afraid to go there, in case it leads to an epidemic of nose jokes. But there’s something to be said, I think, for keeping the reader in mind. For thinking like the reader. For creating characters who are so true to themselves and to their ages that they resonate with a reader… and, maybe, for remembering that nose jokes are funny, and that pure, open joy is a pretty wonderful response to a few typewritten words on paper.

Chicken Man

Ever wonder how a writer is made? Here’s how.

On Thursday, my seven-year-old daughter came out of school at lunch complaining about a “mean supply teacher.” Being a supply teacher myself, I asked what he had done that was so mean.

“He had a big voice,” she said.

I nodded. She doesn’t like loud voices. Most teaching days I wish I had a bigger voice, but I can see how it might be off-putting for a sensitive second grader.

“And he gave us really hard work to do,” she said. “A whole math sheet that was really hard!”

My Mommy-radar perked up, sensing academic issues that needed to be addressed. “What kind of math was so hard?”

She thought for a moment. “It was all multiplying and dividing with big numbers!”

I hadn’t realized they were doing multiplication. Doesn’t that start in the later grades? Never mind. I drove on, formulating a plan to tackle the times tables one by one. Nightly exercises at the kitchen table. Maybe some work with counters at first to make it fun.

My husband was waiting for us at home. “How was your morning?” he asked.

Sarah told about the mean supply teacher again. This time, he had a business suit as well as a booming voice. And a briefcase.

I pictured a new teacher, fresh out of college, hoping to impress the principals before hiring season. Only… it was still March. Huh. Maybe wearing a suit to teach primary grades was just this guy’s schtick. I wouldn’t want his dry-cleaning bill.

Over lunch she expanded on the portrait. It turned out that he had asked my daughter and her friend (“You in the pink. And you, little girl with the blue in your hair.”) to carry his briefcase over to a table in the classroom and open it up to get the work out. Inside they found a pile of paper airplanes held down by a rubber chicken.

“That was your work?” my husband asked. “Paper airplanes and a rubber chicken?”

Maybe this guy was a drama major. Maybe he had devised this elaborate supply teaching persona just to keep the kids entertained and a little off-balance. A 21st Century answer to Mary Poppins. Genius.

Could I pull it off? Nah.

“We unfolded the paper airplanes and that was the work,” she said. She went on to talk about him whapping them on the head with the rubber chicken when they were lining up for gym class. “Just lightly,” she said, when I expressed concern. “Not hard. Not like ‘whap!'”

She went back to school for the afternoon with misgivings, hoping that her beloved regular teacher would be back. “I don’t know,” said my husband. “I think this guy sounds kind of fun.”

After school, we found out that Chicken Man had been there for the full day. And in the afternoon, as well as his briefcase, he had brought a laptop case with a computer in it. Not a Mac, my daughter specified. Such things are matters of great import in our house.

The computer had some kind of secret spy program on it so he could sit at it and pretend to be working, and it would make typing noises, but in the meantime, it was really showing him a picture of the class so he could watch what they were doing when they thought he wasn’t looking. “He let us go back and see,” she explained.

A strange, high-tech, rubber-chicken-wielding Mary Poppins. He seemed more like a character than a person. I got that itchy feeling that writers get when they want to put something in a story, but aren’t quite sure they should.

We joked about Chicken Man for the rest of the week, and then on Saturday she had a friend from class over.

Trying to make small talk over grilled cheese, I opened with “So I hear you guys had a pretty crazy supply teacher last Thursday.”

The friend looked confused. My daughter looked sheepish. The truth came out.

Chicken Man never existed. Except for the part where she had a supply teacher she didn’t like. He had given them hard subtracting to work on (she was disappointed when I explained that the regular teacher usually assigns the work), but no multiplication or division. No suit. No briefcase. Perhaps saddest of all, no rubber chicken.

Part of my brain, the responsible parent part, said that I should be horrified that she had lied to us for two days. A much larger part of my brain was impressed that she had done it so well. Chicken Man was a fascinating character, and she had made him convincing.

I did the responsible thing and pointed out how the truth tends to surface and how lying is a bad idea. We talked about how it’s important to be clear on what’s “fiction” and what’s “non-fiction.”

But we also talked about how interesting Chicken Man had been, and how it would be fun to write stories about a crazy supply teacher. And how wonderful it is that she has such an imagination.

Deep in my heart, I applaud her diabolical genius. And I totally want to write that story about Chicken Man. But I suppose I should leave it for my daughter. After all, he is her character.

It’s About the Audience…

I’m just back from “Breakfast with Santa” with my six year old daughter. It’s a fundraiser event put on by the Ontario Ladies’ College, at Trafalgar Castle, which is right here in Whitby. This is Sarah’s fourth time attending, I think. She had a great time… except for the entertainment.

My two year old niece, who is generally very confident and open to new experiences, cried and left early. Honestly, I don’t blame her. The musician was just too darned loud. Loud guitar, loud voice, giant acoustic system, cover-your-ears kind of loud.

It’s been about fifteen years since I frequented the university bar scene, but I remember loud. I remember lean-in-and-shout-in-your-roommate’s-ear-on-the-dancefloor loud, and music that was felt more than it was heard. Fine for nineteen year olds. Not so great for the Santa Claus crowd.

This singer (who shall remain nameless) wasn’t reaching bar scene decibels, but he wasn’t playing to the Santa Claus crowd, either.

I think he forgot his audience. He put on a show for middle graders in a room full of primaries and preschoolers. Most of the younger kids, the ones who weren’t scared off like my niece, stayed at the tables with their parents, looking overwhelmed. Some, like my daughter, sat through part of the show (she covered her ears), then drifted away. And some, of course, loved it. It was a good show. Just really, really loud.

I just think he might have had more kids loving it had he looked around the room, taken stock of the age of the kids, and unplugged his guitar. Maybe mixed a little gentle in with the zany. And then maybe my niece might have stayed to see Santa. But I guess he didn’t see the little kids… because they were the ones too scared to come join in the show.

My take-home writing lesson for the day? Remember the audience. I’m overhauling a manuscript for middle graders right now. I’m going to try to put my nine-year-old boy brain on and get to work, and remember that it’s not about me–it’s about the audience.

Some Interesting Links

There are writing-related things that I’ve been thinking about, and want to write about. These are not them. 

Still, cool and interesting links for people who like words and stories and so on. 

Link #1:

This is just pretty: periodic table of typefaces. I like fonts. Interesting that Helvetic is in the Hydrogen position and most of the more commonly used fonts are near the top… if I had paid more attention in OAC Chemistry, I might be able to draw some conclusions.

As it is, I sat with my friend Carmen and learned to fold origami paper stars. Sigh. Missed opportunities. (Although the paper stars thing has come up more often than the need to read the periodic table, I must admit.)

Link #2:

I like Pixar. I think they tell good stories. This little cartoon takes a dig at Dreamworks, which may not be entirely fair, but I like it for another reason. 

In my Writing for Children class, we’ve talked about picture book manuscripts. I think they’re one of the most difficult forms of children’s writing; fun to read but hard to write. Apparently that’s not the general consensus, though. Because they’re short, people expect them to be easy. It’s very easy to write a bad picture book. The talking-animal-for-the-sake-of-talking-animals scenario is a classic bad setup for a bad picture book.

When I read the cartoon, I replace Pixar with “good picture books” and Dreamworks with “bad picture books”. If I come up with a catchier way to phrase that, I’ll let you know. Then again, if I could do that, I might be the sort of person who is qualified to write picture books. 

Link #3:

This is a New York Times article on the lost art of reading aloud. My husband read about it on Neil Gaiman’s twitter (tweet?) account. Not sure what the proper phrasing around that is. I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, though, so it almost makes me want to jump on the twitter-y bandwagon. Almost. Not quite.

Reading aloud… I like the idea of people getting together for that, but somehow the idea connects, for me, with the Jane Austen drawing room. I just don’t know anyone who does that and never have.

I read to my daughter, of course–every night, and often during the day. Today she was reading board books to her younger cousin. I felt very proud. And sometimes, when I’m being very conscientious, I read my own writing aloud in order to edit it. I always feel terribly self conscious doing that. 

I think the article makes a good point, though, about work being experienced differently when it’s read aloud. It’s a shame we don’t do that more. And yet, I just can’t see it happening. I’ll keep reading aloud to my daughter as long as she’ll let me, and listen to her read aloud whenever she will, and hope to pass the habit along to her.