Category Archives: Writing

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I chose to read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine because my niece gave it a positive rating on Good Reads and I trust her instincts about books. I was quite taken with the story and finished it quickly.  

gail honeyman

Gail Honeyman

As an author hoping to get a book published for the first time I will admit that the ‘dreams do come true’ story of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine author Gail Honeyman probably influenced my appreciation of the book.  This is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and she wrote it as an assignment for a writing course she took while working full-time as a university administrator. She would write her novel on her lunch breaks. She entered the manuscript in a writing contest and one of the judges, who happened to be a literary agent, liked it and decided to take her on as a client.  Gail’s book was just named Book of the Year in Britain and Reese Witherspoon is turning it into a movie. 

I liked Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine because the heroine perseveres despite the fact that she leads a very lonely existence and has been dealt a horrible hand in the game of life.  I liked the story because it shows how a little kindness and personal interest can go a long way towards making a difference in someone’s life.  I liked the book because Eleanor is so straight forward and honest that many of her observations had me laughing out loud like……….

“I have often noticed that people who routinely wear sportswear are the least likely sort to participate in athletic activity.”

eleanor oliphant is completely fineSome critics say the transformation that takes place in Eleanor Oliphant’s life in this book is unrealistic.  That may be, but I was charmed by Eleanor and intrigued by the way she manages to finally open herself to other people.  This is a sad story that turns out better than one could have imagined. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is ultimately a hopeful book and I think right now many people are looking for just that kind of story. 

Other posts………


All Things Consoled

Coop The Great

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Movie or Book?

After I finished reading the book The Hate U Give I watched the movie of the same title.  I  liked the book better.  One of the themes of the story is  black lives matter.  Starr the African American heroine witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her friend Khalil after a routine traffic pull over. Her friend is unarmed. Starr must decide if she will appear as a witness before a Grand Jury. The jury will determine whether the officer will be charged with a crime in the shooting.

Starr’s uncle is an African American police officer and in the book his character is explored in much more depth than in the movie.  This gives the book more balance so that we get a well rounded picture of a positive member of the police force and can see things from the police officers’ point of view too.

Starr’s Dad who has been heavily influenced by the teachings of Malcom X has taught his daughter to be proud of her racial identity and her black community

Starr’s father is a devoted follower of Macolm X.  The principles of the Black Panthers guide Starr’s upbringing and are more completely explained and discussed in the book.  This helps us better understand Starr and the choices she eventually makes.

The character of Starr’s white boyfriend is more fully explored in the book as well and I liked him more in the book than I did in the movie. 

One character in the book, DeVante is left out of the movie completely. That’s too bad. DeVante is a young black man Starr’s family tries to help escape from the clutches of a drug lord and gang leader. Although Khalil, the young man whose death Starr witnessed is dead, and Starr’s family can’t help him any more, they can help DeVante find a new life.  I think this provides an important piece in the family’s healing and makes the story in the book more balanced. 

I thought Amandla Stenberg did a great job of playing Starr in the movie

The movie ends differently than the book in a way that I thought was contrived and unrealistic. 

I read The Hate U Give  because I am doing a presentation on it for my writer’s group when I get back to Winnipeg.  I have to analyze the book using a fourteen point plot outline for how to write a good novel.  Ironically the text about novel writing we are using is a sequel to one about screen writing that was hugely popular. I think maybe the screenwriters and producers for The Hate U Give needed to read that text so the movie they made would have been as good as the book it was based on. 

Other posts…………

Now I Really Want To Go To Botswana

Winnipeg and Mennonites in Gone Girl

Don’t Trust the Trailer


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Conversations About Writing

I had four conversations about writing during my last week in Winnipeg before leaving for our winter home in Mexico. 

to obama with love joy anger and hopeThe first was with a friend who had just finished reading To Obama With Love, Joy, Anger and Hope by Jeanne Marie Laskas.  President Obama received 10,000 letters a day when he was in office and every night his staff picked ten for him to read before he went to bed. It was his way of keeping in touch with the people who had elected him.  My friend said the book made her realize just how important those letters had been to the President. It made her decide to write a letter herself to our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau telling him she recognized the personal sacrifice it required for him to serve our country and even if she didn’t always agree with him she appreciated the efforts he was making to govern Canada in the best way he knew how. 

image of my father by waldemar janzen

My former professor’s book about his father.

The second conversation was with a former professor of mine who is 86 years old.  I shared a table with him at a luncheon after a funeral. I knew my professor had written many books, countless articles and other scholarly papers.  I asked him if he was still writing.  He said he had recently finished a book about his father and he was working on other projects.  “As long as my mind and body allow it MaryLou, I will be writing,” he told me.  

The third conversation was with my friend Suzanne who is a fellow writer and used to be a member of my writing group.  We went out for coffee one afternoon. Her wonderful first novel Empty Cup is set right here in Winnipeg.  Now she is working on a new novel set in Alberta. She talked about the hundred day goal she has set for herself to finish an edit of her novel and a trip she hopes to take to do further research.  I am looking forward to reading her manuscript in the future. 

The fourth conversation was with my writers group.  We were talking about a book by Jessica Brody we are studying together called Save The Cat Writes a Novel. The book contends that every good work of fiction contains 15 plot points.  If you want to write a successful novel it needs to contain those points too.  The book also lays out ten different genres of novel and has ten chapters exploring how the fifteen plots points apply to each genre.  Members of our writing group each picked one of the genres and will lead a discussion about it at future meetings.  

I had four conversations this week about writing and they were all connected in some way to a book. 

Other posts………

Writing is the Way I Think and Remember

Learning How To Write Historical Fiction



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What Are People Saying?

I just checked and it has been a whole year since I shared comments people have made about my blog posts.  I LOVE comments. So here are some I’ve received in the last year. 

women firefightersMy post called Include Me Please talked about the need to use inclusive language when we are referring to people and also to animals.  A blog reader named Katie wrote that when she worked as a naturalist intern at a National Park, her supervisor called all animals “she” unless they were known to be male. Then Katie adds……”In our church the pastors never refer to God as “he,” which I appreciate, though it does lead to contrived-sounding language sometimes. Also on Mother’s Day a church choral ensemble sang “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and throughout the entire song referred to the Lord as “she.” It was very moving.”

door to jacob hamblin home

In the doorway of the Jacob Hamblin House in St. George Utah

My post It’s the Women Who Impress Me was about the wives of Mormon pioneer Jacob Hamblin. It received a comment from  a great great-grandson of Jacob Hamlin’s who shares his famous ancestor’s name.  He said that the more he learns about his great great-grandmother Rachel the more impressed he has become. She was a true inspiration.  

A blog reader named Robert commented on the post I did about seeing Galileo’s shopping list in Florence Italy.  Robert provided a link to a website that talks about other famous shopping lists.  

After seeing my post about Sacagawea the Shoshone women who was a guide for Lewis and Clark I received a message from the relatives of George Drouillard.  They say he was the official guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition and they aren’t happy Sacagawea gets all the publicity. 

Photo by Joe Bryska/Winnipeg Free Press

My friend Hans responded when I wrote about the death of Roland Penner.  Hans said Mr. Penner had been instrumental in his own decision to become a lawyer after he heard Mr. Penner speak in 1967. Later it had been Hans’ privilege to be a fellow law instructor of Mr. Penner’s at the University of Manitoba. Hans recalled a time when Mr. Penner won a case by quoting a Bible verse, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

When I posted about fond memories of visiting my grandparents’ farm readers responded differently.  Some had similar positive and endearing experiences with their grandparents but others sadly had grandparents who were distant figures they actually feared. 

Lot treats us to a night out at the gala movie premiere of Bruce Lee My Brother

When I did a post about a friend Lot Sze from Hong Kong who had died, Peter another blog reader who knew Lot wrote about the wonderful host Lot had been to him and his wife when they visited Hong Kong. 

Illustration from blog post called Youth Perspectives on Racism by Tom Yoder

When I wrote about an American businessman I visited with in Portugal who is disgusted with Christians that voted for a racist like Donald Trump an American blog reader named Bill talked about the students in the college course he teaches who expressed similar sentiments in a class discussion. I was excited in February when  the Musée de la civilisation, in Quebec City asked to use a photograph of a grandfather rock from one of my posts in an online virtual exhibition. After I wrote the post Can Your Marriage Survive Lollygagging Perry one of my blog readers suggested it provided the perfect material for a children’s book and Gabe another reader introduced me to a new word coddiwomple which means…… to travel purposefully to a vague destination.

That’s just a very small sample of the many comments I received on my blog posts in this last year. Did I mention already that  I LOVE to get comments!

Other posts……….

What Are People Saying 2017

What Are People Saying 2016

What Are People Saying 2015

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Dabbling In A Dangerous Book

women-who-write-are-dangerousMy friend Esther gave me a book called Women Who Write Are Dangerous for Christmas.  At first I thought I would go through it systematically, reading one essay a day about different women writers.  Instead I’ve been dabbling.  I flip through the pages and find an author that intrigues me and read her story. 

johanna sypriIn the section called The Discovery of Childhood I read about Johanna Spyri the author of  Heidi.  It was a story I loved as a child. I reread Heidi in the fall of 2017 when we were cycling in Switzerland. In Women Who Write Are Dangerous I was interested to learn that after she married and had a son Johanna suffered from depression as indeed do several characters in her famous novel. It was in writing that Johanna found personal satisfaction and a measure of healing from her depression just as the characters in her novel find healing in nature and in new and restored relationships. In 1871 it was dangerous for a woman to openly say that she found creative pursuits more fullfilling than marriage and parenthood but Johanna did just that. 

toni morrison wikipediaIn the section called Women’s Voices in World Literature I read about Toni Morrison the African American author of so many great novels.  Just thinking about her book Beloved evokes the heartsick feeling it gave me.  In Women Who Write Are Dangerous I was interested to learn that Toni says she has never addressed herself specifically to an African American audience. Imagination she says is a force without gender, nationality or race preferences. When you think about how imagination can be an agent for change Morrison’s idea might seem dangerous to some people, especially those who prefer the status quo in our world.

I am going to keep dabbling in Women Who Write Are Dangerous. Thanks Esther for a great Christmas gift. 

Other posts……….

Reading My Way Through Germany, Switzerland and Austria

A Scary Story

Talk About Defying Convention


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Coop the Great- A Book That’s Not Just For Dog Lovers

I was once bit on the nose by a dachshund and needed several stitches. My nose ballooned up to about triple its size.  I was a teenager at the time and was soooooooo embarrassed because my Mom made me go to school despite the fact that thanks to a dachshund I looked like a clown. That’s important for you to know before I offer my review of Larry Verstraete’s new middle grade novel Coop the Great.  The main character is……… you guessed it……… a dachshund.  You have to understand that I am not really a dog person and in particular not a dachshund lover.  

So the fact I enjoyed Larry‘s book despite my lack of affinity for canines should be an indication of just how good a story it is.  The novel taught me some very interesting things about dogs and I was amazed at how Larry was able to consistently let us see the world from a dog’s perspective. 

Coop is an aging pet who struggles with health issues and some past problems with the families who have offered him a home. In that regard he is not unlike his owner Mike who is getting on in years and is dealing with cancer and heart issues. Mike has lost his wife, and is worried about his daughter Jess and his grandchildren Zach and Emma who are being threatened by an abusive husband and father. 

Larry’s publishing team from Great Plains Publications meet Darnold.

Coop enters Mike’s life from a dog shelter and when author Larry Verstraete launched his book at McNally Robinson this month he had a special guest, a dog named Darnold from D’arcy’s ARC,a Winnipeg shelter much like the one in the book.

Larry signs a book for one of our writing group members

Larry is a member of my writers’ group.  I respect Larry and am inspired by his success.  Coop the Great is his seventeenth published book for children. I am lucky I get to benefit from his expertise and experience with regards to my own work on a regular basis. I was honored to have my name mentioned in the book’s afterword as Larry acknowledged the input he receives from our writing group. 

In some ways Coop reminded me of The Littlest Hobo a television series about a dog that was popular when I was about ten years old- the age of Larry’s target audience for his book.  Coop proves to be every bit as daring and brave as The Littlest Hobo  but I liked him more than my childhood television hero. Coop is such a colorful, quirky and interesting character.  

On the cover of Larry’s book Coop has some ear buds wrapped around his neck.  It’s a clue to the exciting climax of the story that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Although Coop is definitely the novel’s main protagonist the story is also about Mike’s grandson Zack and the way he deals with his difficult family situation.  That was a helpful thing for me to read about in reference to the work I do with children, and I am sure other adults in similar professions will feel the same way. 

Larry’s book Coop the Great is an interesting, exciting and inspiring read even if you aren’t a dog lover. 

Other posts…………..

Writer or Palaeontologist?

A Glamorous Night For Manitoba Writing

Launching Not One Book But Three

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What’s the Answer?

Before I went to a writing conference in Toronto earlier this month the members of my writers’ group here in Winnipeg helped me to come up with questions for a panel of book editors from various publishing house who were going to field questions about getting your book in print.  I submitted the questions and the moderator of the panel used almost every one as she led the discussion.  I promised my writers’ group the Anitas, that I’d provide them with the answers – so here they are. 

The panel of editors that talked about getting published.

What is hot in books for children, teens and young adults rights now? 

For teens and young adults it is gothic, horror, ghost stories, fantasy and science fiction. Nothing is too edgy to write about for the young adult audience.

What’s popular comes in waves. Editors are looking for books about diverse experiences and unique characters. Historical fiction is a little flat right now.  A book in that genre works if it hits a modern-day nerve.

For picture books editors want stories that aren’t too long, that are humorous and based in reality or personal experience. They don’t have to be about some big important issue to be meaningful.

Middle grade books need to tell diverse stories and publishers are seeking unique and diverse authors as well.  In non-fiction for kids social justice issues are big right now and its important to make sure that although your book addresses an important topic it is written in a way kids can relate to and understand. 

What chance is there of a new author getting published?  

It’s tough because publishing houses need to honor the commitments they have to authors they have already signed and promoted.

You can go the self-publishing route and then hope a big publishing house will love your book and pick it up for wider distribution. Some publishers however receive a dozen self-published books a day and may pick one a year to publish.

Some publishers only look at things they get from an agent, others tend to use their contacts in the industry to find new authors but there are some publishing houses who actually do go through every single manuscript that is submitted to them. 

Does an author need to have a social media presence in order to get published? 

Publishers will look for people who are active on sites that appeal to school markets because it means they can reach out to schools.

They do want to know about your social media contacts and your activity.  It is very important that your online presence is something children can see and read without their parents worrying about your online content.

Sometimes they do publish books by people because they already have lots of great online content that appeals to kids and they have established a group of specific, dedicated followers.

You should follow authors and illustrators, publishing houses and professional writing groups online if you are looking to get published so you can see what is trending and what is going on in the publishing  world. How do you know if a book is going to be successful, if a book is one you want to publish?

If it makes me laugh out loud!  

If after I read the book an elevator pitch for it  just pops into my head.  

It’s a gut feeling but it’s always a gamble.  You never know. Sometimes you publish books you think will be big successes and they’re not and other times you publish books you are worried won’t sell and they are a huge success. 

Does an author need to have an agent? 

You can survive in Canada without an agent.

About a quarter of the authors we publish don’t have an agent.  

An agent can make your relationship with a publisher easier in some ways and more difficult in others. 

Other posts………

Relentless Persistence

Writers All Around

A Top Ten List from a Top Ten Speakers


Filed under Writing