Category Archives: Writing

To Market To Market

Melissa Manlove Chronicle Books editor – photo from Melissa Manlove’s Twitter page

Non-fiction is BOOMING! Last week I attended an online presentation by Melissa Manlove a senior editor for Chronicle Books. She gave a very insightful seminar on writing non-fiction picture books for children. The market for them is apparently BOOMING! Authors have a much better chance of having a non-fiction picture book published than a fictional one.

A book about Hurricane Katrina by Don Brown was one Melissa recommended as a sample of what is catching publishers’ attention these days. 

Melissa told us teachers are looking for exciting, engaging non-fiction books that will teach kids about scientific ideas, mathematical concepts and social studies topics. She suggested children’s writers should begin by closely examining the Common Core standards most American schools use. These standards tell you exactly what specific things kids are required to learn in each subject area and it’s those things picture books should address. In Canada, there are education standards in each province for schools as well. But to really have a successful book you need to capture the America market AND the Canadian market.

Over and Under the Snow is a recent book Melissa edited about animals in winter

I have done quite a bit of work on a biographical picture book about famous Canadian female artists but Melissa made me think I should probably shelve that project. First of all, she told us there is a glut of biographies about famous people written for kids right now so to get a biography picture book published is extra tough. She also said they don’t publish that many art books because teachers tend to use visuals rather than text in art classes and…….. she added as a final blow to my idea for a picture book about female Canadian artists……. biographies of artists just don’t sell very well.

When it comes to picture book biographies your best bet is writing about a scientist. On a Beam of Light by Jennifer Berne is about Albert Einstein. It is published by Chronicle Books. 

What does sell?

Melissa suggested we check out the picture books recommended each year by the National Science Teachers Association to get an idea of what kinds of books are popular with elementary school science teachers. The 2020 list includes intriguing-looking books about animals and oceanography, computer code and electricity, the senses, astronomy and evolution.

Melissa introduced us to the kind of non-fiction books publishers are looking for by reading quite a number of books to us. She read books about sharks, Hurricane Katrina, Albert Einstein, microbes, hibernation and locomotives.

Melissa’s seminar was courtesy of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators a professional group providing some wonderful on-line programming during the pandemic. I belong to the organization so I can keep abreast of what’s going on in the publishing world of children’s books.

It is nice to just follow your own creative ideas when you write picture books. I’ve finished manuscripts for quite a few but………..they haven’t sold and Melissa’s seminar helped explain why. She reminded me that we have to consider the MARKET when we write!

So it’s back to the drawing board! Melissa says at the top of the list for picture books that sell are those that really make kids ask questions and wonder. She encouraged us to write books that address scientific inquiry and engineering design. Mmmmmm I need to start brainstorming. Do you have any ideas for me?

Other posts………

Beer Baseball and Literature

Top Ten Pieces of Writing Advice From David Robertson

What an Inspiration

 

 

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What’s Autofiction?

Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella for an article in The Guardian about autofiction called Drawn From Life

The other night at my writers’ group meeting one of our members announced she thought she’d finally found her niche genre. “It’s autofiction,” she said.

I think most of us had puzzled looks on our faces at that point. Although we are all published authors with decades of writing experience, the term autofiction was new to us. Someone looked up the definition and read it. 

Autofiction is a term used in literary criticism to refer to a form of fictionalized autobiography.”

I think most fiction writers will tell you their novels contain all kinds of references and descriptions and characters that are drawn from, or inspired by, their own personal experience.  I suspect almost every work of fiction has certain autobiographical elements.  Does that make it autofiction?

I am reminded for example of a reading author Miriam Toews gave at the public library in her hometown of Steinbach more than two decades ago. She was reading from her first book The Summer of My Amazing Luck. She had just told us the novel wasn’t autobiographical but as she was reading a passage from it about the father in her story, her voice broke and I wondered if she would be able to finish.  It was clear Ms Toews had a very personal and emotional connection with her character. Those of us who knew her father, as I did, and had read The Summer of My Amazing Luck could find many similarities between the fictional father in the story and Miriam’s own Dad.  

Many years later a CBC reporter about to interview Miriam about her award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness said in their introduction that the novel was a “thinly veiled autobiography.”  So would you call Miriam’s Toews work autofiction? 

I think most autobiographical writers will tell you they use poetic licence and imagination when writing their books.  Their memories may have faded and there is always a tendency to embellish past experiences, to construct them in ways that will allow us to live meaningfully in the present.  Many autobiographical writers include sights and sounds and details in their work that may not be verifiable. One of the best books I read about Hong Kong during the six years I made my home there was Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth. It was beautifully written and provided a remarkable and engaging insight into what Hong Kong was like in the 1950s.  Booth lived in Hong Kong with his family from ages 7-10. His autobiographical memoir published in 2004  is a fabulous read.  But……….. I found it almost impossible to believe that fifty years after the fact someone could recall the taste of every item on a dinner menu, or the word for word conversations of their parents, or all the fashion details of a woman’s dress they saw in passing on the street.  

As a New York Times reviewer said of Martin Booth’s memoir “his observations are marvellously detailed, if sometimes suspectly so.”   So would you call Martin Booth’s memoir autofiction? 

Although I am not an academic in the field of literature or a literary critic I have this feeling that almost everything one writes is a kind of autofiction. What do you think? 

Other posts……….

A Walk In My Hong Kong Neighborhood

Hong Kong Inspiration

Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Hometown

 

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Authors Who Bake

Harriet Zaidman was our knowledgeable bread baking guide

Yesterday I was part of a group of children’s authors who met on Zoom to learn how to bake bread from Harriet Zaidman. Harriet is the author of several picture books as well as the middle-grade novel City on Strike recently nominated for the 2020 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Harriet shares her recipes and her culinary expertise on her blog North End Nosh.

Pretty excited about how my loaf of artisan bread turned out

I had never baked bread before and neither had several of the other authors in our group. But under Harriet’s expert guidance we all managed to produce three kinds of delicious bread before our baking session was over.

My challah bread. Harriet taught us how to braid it step by step.

We baked artisan bread first, then plain white bread and finally, we learned how to make challah a bread whose name comes from the Hebrew language. We needed a little help from Harriet to learn how to pronounce “challah” just right.

Our baking group showing off our loaves of artisan bread.

Our group included Anita Daher whose fourteenth novel You Don’t Have to Die in the End was recently nominated for the 2021 White Pine award, Gabriele Goldstone author of Red Stone and Broken Stone who has a new novel coming out with Ronsdale Press in 2021, Pat Trottier whose book Relationships Make the Difference was published by Pembroke and award-winning author Colleen Nelson who has a long list of books to her credit including this year’s Teaching Mrs Muddle and Harvey Holds His Own both from Pajama Press.

My white bread had a bit of an unusual shape but my husband Dave said it was delicious!

As we baked we chatted about our current works in progress, the state of the publishing world during a pandemic and events in our personal lives. Colleen interrupted our conversation at one point to announce the final results of the American election and that of course generated lots of discussion.

It was a great day and in the end, a group of children’s authors had become a group of accomplished bakers. Thanks so much, Harriet!

Other posts…………

Sadia- A Muslim Girl From Winnipeg

Red Stone

You Don’t Have to Die in the End

 

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A Lament For Letters

During one summer of our courtship, my husband Dave and I were separated for several months because we had jobs in different countries. We exchanged letters about two or three times a week. I have saved them all and frequently re-read them.

The emotions, ideas and dreams expressed in those letters have been a real source of encouragement and strength during our nearly five decades of marriage. We were poor college students in 1972 so we couldn’t afford to call each other during our summer apart and it was long before everyone had personal computers.  The only way we could communicate regularly was through cards and letters.

My grandparents on their anniversary

At my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary, two of my aunts, who both had lived most of their lives in places far from their mother’s Manitoba home, presented a readers theatre that gave a humorous and entertaining look at our extended family’s history. Every line of the dramatic script was an excerpt from one of the hundreds of letters my grandmother had written to her daughters.

Heinrich Enns and his wife Gertrude my husband Dave’s grandparents

My husband’s grandfather Heinrich Enns was doing alternative service in a forestry camp in Ukraine in the late 1800s. He went to church with a buddy and met a girl named Gertrude Unruh. He had to go back to the camp but he wrote Gertrude such passionate and beautiful letters, she agreed to marry him.

Gertrude and Heinrich during wartime. You can see Heinrich’s medical hat with the red cross on the table.

Later during World War I when he was serving as a medic in Moscow his letters were the ones all the villagers back home wanted to hear read aloud because they provided such a descriptive and informative picture of the battlefront. In those letters, he was also able to offer advice and encouragement to his young wife who was trying to run their large estate alone during his absence.

Personal letters are a special and unique form of communication. Somehow e-mail missives just aren’t the same as handwritten letters. 

Silver ink well I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Jantz Schmidt. Grandma received it as a Christmas gift from her brother Henry in 1911

I lament the loss of personal letters every time I look at this lovely heirloom letter writing set I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Schmidt.  She had beautiful handwriting and wrote many letters to family members. 

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Mailboxes in Arizona

 

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Advice From Nick Hornby

Last week I listened to the CBC’s Tom Power interviewing best-selling author Nick Hornby. You may know him as the author of books like About A Boy or High Fidelity, both of which were made into popular movies.

Although the interview was about Nick’s latest book Just Like You the part of the conversation I found most interesting was when Nick talked about how being alone and isolated while you work is one of the hard things about being an author.

Writer Nick Hornby- photo from Wikipedia

Nick goes to his studio each day and stays there for about eight hours usually writing about a thousand words a day. The actual physical act of typing those words takes about 30 minutes the rest of the time is spent thinking and doing research. Nick finds it easy to get distracted during this time by watching all kinds of things online. One thing that helps, he says, is to always have a jigsaw puzzle on the go in his studio. He can puzzle and take a break from writing, but while he is puzzling he can still be thinking.

I have been struggling of late to focus on my latest work in progress and while I did plenty of puzzles during the near-total isolation at the beginning of the pandemic I hadn’t done a puzzle now for months so I took out one I’d actually planned to give to a friend as a gift and got started.

I’m loving it. As Hornby said, puzzling is a great way to take a break from writing and still keep thinking. I’m about a third done with my puzzle and I’ve written two new chapters for my book.

I’ve heard of writers who take a break for inspiration by listening to music, going for a walk or having a shower. I’ve tried all of those and they can be very effective. Puzzling was a new suggestion for fuelling creative thought but I’m liking it. Thanks, Nick Hornby.

Other posts………..

Autumn is the Perfect Time For Writing

Beginnings

Conversations About Writing

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The Social Dilemma

If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix you are probably considering deleting all your social media accounts. The documentary claims that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are making addicts of everyone and they are changing individuals, families and society primarily in negative ways. The developers of social media did not have evil intentions, in fact, their original motives were good, but now they, and most people who work for them, don’t allow their own children near social media because they are so aware of the damage it can cause.

Did the documentary The Social Dilemma make me rethink my engagement with social media? Absolutely. Will it change my engagement with social media? Probably not a great deal.

My first novel will be published in spring and with the advent of COVID, the marketing of books has gone almost completely digital. It is virtually the only way now to get the message out about your book. My publisher has sent me a list of ways to increase my social media presence in order to garner advance interest in my novel.

My discussions with other writers usually reach the same conclusion. Although we have concerns about social media and the way it can dominate our lives, we have no choice but to engage with it, if we want to sell books. Before you sign a book contract most publishers ask you to agree to participate actively in marketing your work and especially during the pandemic that means being online and on social media.

I’ve noticed a few writers who have sworn off social media only to come back, to garner support for some cause or event dear to their heart. A few writers who are well-known and well-established don’t engage personally on social media but their publisher does it professionally for them.   Newer writers don’t have those kinds of options. 

An awareness of the harm of social media can create a dilemma for not only writers but for anyone in the creative arts especially during a time when traditional ways of reaching an audience are no longer available.  And the arts are just one area of business that relies heavily on social media.  Many others do too. How should we deal with social media if we don’t delete it? It’s a dilemma. 

Other posts…………

Observations of Technology Use While On Vacation

Back Porch News- Before the Age of Facebook

Will You Miss the Comments?

 

 

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What An Inspiration!

What an inspiration!  She signed her first publishing contract when she was 66 years old.  Just like me! Now at age 85, Beryl Young’s seventh book will soon be out in bookstores. It’s a poetry picture book for children about whales.  In June when I began talking with Heritage House about the contract for my novel Lost on the Prairie, a writing friend suggested I call Beryl Young whose book Miles to Go had been published by Heritage House in 2018.  It was actually reading Beryl’s book Miles to Go that gave me the idea my novel might be a good fit for Heritage House. Miles to Go is a middle-grade novel about two girls growing up in 1948 in a small Saskatchewan town. They are good friends, but their life circumstances couldn’t be more different.  

Beryl who lives in the Vancouver area could not have been kinder or more helpful as she told me about her own career as an author and offered words of wisdom regarding contracts. She filled me in on her experiences working with various publishers.   I obviously wasn’t the first budding children’s author to ask her for advice. She seemed to take delight in sharing her expertise with others.  

Beryl has published all kinds of different books for children. 

Would Someone Please Answer the Parrot? is the catchy title of Beryl’s first picture book published by Peanut Butter Press. It is about a family pet who is at the heart of all kinds of rollicking adventures. 

Beryl has written two biographies. Charlie: A Home Child’s Life in Canada chronicles the life of her father Charlie who came to Canada as an orphan in the early 1900s.The other is A Boy From Acadie and tells the life story of Romeo LeBlanc, Canada’s 25th Governor-General. In Beryl’s novel Follow the Elephant a thirteen old boy from Canada gets lost in Delhi India and in Wishing Star Summer an eleven- year old girl named Tanya visits Vancouver after her family has been impacted by the Chernobyl radiation disaster in Ukraine.  

What a diverse canon of books Beryl has to her name!

I gleaned so much expertise and insight about writing and publishing during my phone conversation with Beryl and from looking at her website. Here are some key things I learned that I want to keep in mind as I work towards the launch of my own book. 

  • Beryl belongs to six different writers’ groups and associations. She takes her commitment to the profession seriously. 
  • She has become something of an expert at finding niche publishers just perfect for her books. 
  • She is an advocate for herself. She makes sure her opinions and ideas are heard and respected during the publishing process. She isn’t afraid to nudge her publishers when she thinks it’s time to move forward on things. 
  • She very actively promotes her books and speaks to all kinds of different groups about them. 
  • She has an attractive, up to date author website.
  • She networks with other authors. 

In fact, Beryl connected me to Harriet Zaidman, a writing friend of hers in Winnipeg. Harriet and I had a delightful lunch together and I had a chance to pick her brain for ideas about writing and book publication. 

Before our phone conversation ended Beryl had invited me to drop in at her British Columbia home.  I just may take her up on that invitation once it is possible to travel again. 

Beryl Young is such an inspiration.  Could I publish a half dozen more books in the next twenty years?  Who knows? 

Other posts about my upcoming novel Lost on the Prairie………..

Thank You Mystery Editor

A Published Novel! Can You Believe It? 

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A Million

Writing my blog in a beautiful house we rented in Iceland

I write the posts on this blog each day as a way to keep my writing skills in good form, to reflect on what is going on in my life, to force myself to evaluate ideas, and to figure out where I stand on certain issues. Knowing I need to write something each day keeps me reading and learning and exploring.

About once a week I check my blog statistics and was surprised yesterday to find that my blog had been viewed for the millionth time.  I knew I was getting close to a million views but a post I wrote on Monday about the house I used to live in on Home Street in Winnipeg was read over a 1000 times in a twenty-four hour period and that pushed me over the million mark. 

Thanks to my blog a photo I took was on display in the Supreme Court Building in London

One of the most rewarding things about blogging is the way it connects me to all kinds of interesting people.  On an average day, posts from my blog will be read around 350 times but I can be surprised by the sudden popularity of a certain post. Once a post I wrote about guns in Israel was read nearly two thousand times in one day. 

My post What Does Your Mother Do is my most popular.

Some of my posts have had ongoing appeal and continue to be read even years after I publish them.  My most popular post remains What Does Your Mother Do?  It has been read almost 30,000 times since I first published it.  Another popular post has been  A Prayer For A Golf Tournament which has been read more than 10,000 times.

I wrote forty-five blog posts about our travels in Costa Rica. 

This blog has been a great way to keep a record of our travel experiences.  Writing my posts during the COVID lockdown kept me sane and I know writing this blog has motivated me to do things I might not have tried otherwise.  I keep track of the books I read and the movies I see by writing about them on this blog.

I have often prepared for my art gallery tours by writing blog posts about the art pieces I want to introduce to visitors. 

I often prepared for the tours I gave at the Winnipeg Art Gallery by writing a blog post about the art I was going to introduce to gallery visitors. My blog has been a way for me to share my newspaper columns and excerpts from many of my other freelance writing assignments. 

It has taken a little over eight years to get to the one million view milestone.  Will I still be writing eight years from now?  We’ll have to wait and see.  

When I was naming this blog What Next?  I had just retired from teaching and I wondered what the future held for me. During the last eight years, I have built a rich post-retirement life.  The pandemic has taken away quite a number of the things that made that life meaningful so now I need to craft another one.  I guess that means the blog name What Next? is just as relevant as ever. 

A huge thank you to all my blog readers and especially to the nearly 500 of you who follow my blog.  Your interest and support and affirmation is so appreciated.  

 

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You Don’t Have to Die in the End

After reading the first five chapters of Anita Daher’s new book You Don’t Have to Die in the End I considered not finishing the novel because Eugenia Grimm, the teenage protagonist has such a troubled life! It was tough allowing myself to be drawn into her dark world. Her father has committed suicide and her mother has abandoned her. Eugenia’s brother and his wife, who live in a small Western Canadian town, have taken her in, but Eugenia is understandably angry and confused. She is making such bad decisions! Eugenia seems to be hurtling towards an early death but……… the title of the book You Don’t Have To Die in the End assured me she’d survive. So I kept reading.

You Don’t Have to Die in the End is from Great Plains Publishing

The novel becomes much more hopeful both for the reader and our heroine Eugenia when she is arrested and qualifies for a special youth program that sends her winging up on a plane to a remote ranch in northern British Columbia. There Eugenia’s relationship with the caring but tough staff, the other kids, and the ranch horses help her begin to pull her life together.  The wilderness setting is like a breath of fresh air and inspires optimism, but Eugenia still faces enough pitfalls and obstacles to keep readers intrigued with her story.

On Wednesday Anita Daher, the author of You Don’t Have To Die in the End was the featured guest for an online event sponsored by the Manitoba Writer’s Guild. Anita has fifteen published books to her credit and is the current chair of the Writers Union of Canada.    It was great to be able to take advantage of her expertise and ask questions about the writing and publishing process and how to access writing grants. Anita also talked about some of the unique challenges of having your book published during a pandemic.

Anita is an enthusiastic and interesting speaker and it was so valuable for a developing children’s writer like me, to have access to the insight of an author with Anita’s experience. I hadn’t met Anita in person before, even though I have belonged to a children’s writers’ group named in her honour for many years.  The Anita Factor was founded by a cohort of Winnipeg authors who had taken a writing course with Anita. 

My Manitoba writer friend, Mitch Toews who used to play basketball with my husband, colourfully noted in a recent rant on his Facebook page that the path to publishing your work affords no easy lay-ups.  He’s right! But……. organizations like the Writers Guild and experienced authors like Anita Daher who are generous with their advice and interest make the challenging journey a collegial meaningful learning experience that enriches the writer’s life. 

Other posts………..

Top Ten Pieces of Writing Advice from David Robertson

A Top Ten List From Ruth Ohi a Top-Notch Writer

A Glamorous Night For Manitoba Writing

 

 

 

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Not a Stellar Example, Doors and Letters During a Pandemic

Photo The Carillon

This photo of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new business in my hometown of Steinbach was in the current issue of The Carillon, the regional newspaper where my column appears regularly. It was noted in the photo’s caption that social distancing was not being practised by either the city mayor or the local member of Canada’s Parliament. The two gentlemen appear front and centre in the photo. It’s great to hear that a new business is getting off the ground even amidst the pandemic, but if the restaurant wants to stay open and not be the source of a COVID-19 outbreak, it might be prudent for the patrons of the eating establishment to behave in a safer manner than their local political leaders. 

In the latest issue of the Canadian Mennonite magazine, writer Doug Klassen suggests the pandemic can inspire people of faith to find safe and innovative ways to open the doors of their homes and churches to their neighbours and the local community.  Klassen’s article is illustrated with gorgeous photos of doors taken by Jane Grunau, a former college classmate of mine.  

Door photographed while biking in Yangshou China

I also love taking pictures of doors.  Here is one of several blog posts I have done about the doors I have photographed. 

I have been writing weekly letters to my grandsons during the pandemic.  I know with school cancelled they have more time to read letters from their Grandma. I include photographs and stories about their Dad when he was a little, stories about their great grandparents and even great-great-grandparents and I ask them questions about things which they answer when we have our regular Face Time chats. 

The Letter by Mary Cassatt

I read an article in The Lily about an aunt who is writing letters to her new niece because pandemic travel restrictions mean she can’t go and meet her in person.   The Lily, a newsletter that features stories about women, also had a delightful article about a granddaughter who is exchanging poems with her 94-year-old grandmother through the postal service during the pandemic. 

Other posts……..

A Lament for Letters

An Open Door For Everyone

A Writing Inheritance From Two Grandparents

 

 

 

 

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