Category Archives: Writing

Top Ten Pieces of Writing Advice From David Robertson

David Robertson writes everything! I recently read an opinion piece he’d written for the CBC. Several weeks ago I attended a workshop where he explained how he writes his graphic novels.  David is the author of a biography of Helen Betty Osborne and in 2017 his children’s picture book When We Were Alone won a Governor General’s Literary Award.  The latest novel in his young adult trilogy The Reckoners just hit bookstands and in 2014 he released an adult novel called The Evolution of AliceListening to writer David Robertson talk about the projects he’s completed and the current projects he has in the works at the recent CANSCAIP Saskatchewan Horizons conference was a little overwhelming. How does he do it all?  And don’t forget he has five children. Then there are all the speaking engagements and school visits and ……… he still has a full-time job besides all of that.  And did I mention I recently started following Dave on social media where he has a prolific presence? 

Dave was part of the Vision and Voice panel at the CANSCAIP conference along with Arthur Slade and Miriam Korner

At the conference, we heard Dave speak three times.  He was part of a Vision and Voice panel, he was interviewed by children’s writer Alice Kuipers and he presented the keynote address.  

Dave gives his keynote address.

We learned a lot about Dave and his family, during those sessions but he also gave us some great advice to help us with our writing. I’ve pulled out things he said in his various presentations at the conference and compiled them into my own top ten list.  

1.  Serious writers work on their writing regularly.  It’s a  habit. They schedule a time to write into every day. They put it on their calendar like it’s an important meeting they must attend. 

2. Writing new stuff should take up about 20% of your time. Editing, revising, going through your works in progress line by line will take about 80% of your time. Your first draft is just a big blob of clay that you will constantly shape and reshape. You will never think you have edited and revised enough, but eventually, the book will have to go to publication.  

3. It can be helpful to establish a quota for yourself.  You might set a goal to write 1250 words a day on a new project and edit two chapters a day of a work in progress. 

4. Read widely. The more kinds of books you read the easier it will be for you to find your own voice. You can integrate the style of the writers you read into your own work. 

5.  When you are determining what you want to write ask yourself  …..What’s been done?  What hasn’t been done? What gaps are there in writing for children that I might fill? 

6. Write across the genres. Writing different kinds of children’s literature- picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade novels, early reader books, autobiographies, poetry- helps you develop all kinds of new skills as a writer.  It gets you out of your comfort zone.

7. Give thought to what you want to accomplish with your work. Always write from a place of passion. What is it you want to do to change the world? 

8.  Don’t forget to be good to yourself. Writing can be mentally and physically exhausting.

9. Although you may have to write in all kinds of places to get your work done, have a familiar home base for your writing. You might want to pick certain music to play, set the mood with a certain kind of lighting, or even wear certain clothes to write. 

10. Stories never die. They come to life as soon as they leave our mouths. The stories you write should encourage kids to tell their own stories. Stories are our life!

Dave is interviewed by Alice Kuipers

This is just my list- but hearing Dave tell the stories that illustrated each of the points he made was so engaging and interesting.  You can order a video that shows him doing that here. 

Other posts………

Writing that Heals

Timing and Luck

Vision and Voice

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Timing and Luck

Timing and Luck!  Those are two key elements in getting a children’s book published today according to editor Shelley Tanaka.  

Shelley knows what she’s talking about because timing and luck are how she got into the book editing business. After completing her Masters in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto she applied to fifty publishers for a job and was given only one offer- to work as a secretary at Clarke Irwin an educational publisher. She had to fill in when the editor in chief position was left empty and so she learned the business and became a children’s book editor in her own right.

In her thirty-six years as an editor at Groundwood Books, she has worked with some of Canada’s finest children’s writers. Shelley is also an award-winning author of more than twenty books and teaches in the masters writing program for children and young adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I heard Shelley interviewed by children’s writer Alice Kuipers at the CANSCAIP Saskatchewan Horizons Conference in Saskatoon.  

Alice asked Shelley what she is looking for when she reads a new manuscript. “Something that isn’t like anything else,” Shelley said.  She is drawn to books that are wonderfully written, and are about something that matters, books that ask important questions. Shelley has a soft spot for manuscripts that are quirky and humorous with hints of irony.

She gave examples of two books she has recently edited whose authors were in attendance at the Saskatoon conference. Rolli is the author of Kabungo.  Shelley described his book about the relationship between a modern city girl and her cave dwelling best friend as hilarious and weird. Another book Shelley talked about was  Swan Dive by Brenda Hasiuk, the story of a young refugee from Bosnia who is living in Winnipeg.  He tells a reckless lie and has to face the consequences. 

Shelley encouraged those of us who are trying to get our work published to read the kind of works we aspire to write ourselves. She talked about the value of critique groups where writers support one another. Shelley also recommended two lectures by Louise Hawes to us. One was on overwriting and the other on how desire drives the plot of our stories.  

Other suggestions from Shelley for writers included………..

  • becoming your own editor and learning the mechanics of writing. 
  • becoming an enthusiastic advocate for your own work. 
  • putting your soul into your writing.  
  • considering who your audience is. Who is on the receiving end of your book?  Who is your reader? 
  • writing across the genres – picture books, middle-grade fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, teen fiction, young adult fiction, early reader stories.  

Alice engaged Shelley in a fascinating discussion about psychic distance and the current generation of writers who are capturing the stories of previous generations.  You can learn more about that by subscribing to the videos of the conference here. 

Although Shelley did say timing and luck were two of the key ingredients in getting your work accepted in the current competitive mainstream children’s book market, she also provided lots of other great ideas to help pursue the goal of becoming a published author. 

Other posts……….

Write Don’t Wine

Vision and Voice

Writing that Heal


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Writing As A Healing Art

Did you know that writing in a journal can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, increase your pain tolerance, help you sleep better, give you self-confidence and make you more empathetic? My second day at the CANSCAIP, Saskatchewan Horizons conference for children’s writers started with a journaling session led by Kristine Scarrow.

Photo of Kristine from her author website

Kristine is not only the author of four novels for teens published by Dundurn Press she is also a writer in residence at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon where she is part of a team that provides services in the healing arts to patients. She works alongside visual artists and music therapists. You can find out more about that program here. 

I learned a new term from Kristine’s presentation ‘narrative medicine’. It is an approach that uses people’s narratives or stories in clinical practice, research and education as a way to promote healing. Kristine told us a narrative medical approach can help doctors to understand their patient’s whole story and not just their symptoms. 

Kristine led us through several healing writing exercises.  One was called Captured Moment where we wrote a short journal entry about a happy, sad or challenging moment in our lives. Kristine encouraged us to use lots of sensory details.  

Another writing prompt was the Character Sketch, where we described ourselves or someone else. It could be someone we admired or liked but it could also be someone that was a difficult presence in our life.

Finally, we did a journal entry called Perspective.  We thought about something that we hoped would happen, or we knew would happen, in the future and wrote about it as if we were already in that future moment. Kristine told us she used this technique to give her perspective when a heart condition had her bedridden for months.  She imagined a future when her life would return to more normalcy and that helped put her situation into perspective. 

Although I have used writing as a tool to help me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, it was great to get Kristine’s ideas for some new healing ways to journal and to learn how the arts are becoming recognized tools for healing by the medical community. Kristine’s workshop provided a nice contemplative beginning to what was going to be a jam-packed day full of learning and networking at the conference. 

Other posts……….

Writing is the Way I Think and Remember

A Pool of Possibilities in Our Own Back Yard

Keeping a Record

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Vision and Voice

Arthur Slade, David Robertson, and Miriam Körner are some of the most successful children’s writers in Canada right now.  Between them, they have published a raft of books and have won all kinds of awards.  I listened to them last night as they shared their vision and voice in a discussion at a Saskatoon conference for children’s writers. Their exchange of ideas was led by Alice Kuipers a children’s writer who helped to organize the conference. 

Arthur and David listen as Miriam talks about her writing motivation

It was interesting to note what motivates each writer. Miriam is passionate about Canada’s north and loves sled dogs and sled dog racing.  In her books, she is trying to share that passion with others.  

Arthur told us his latest book Crimson was written especially for his daughter who he and his wife adopted from China in 2010. He wanted to create an authentic story for her.

David talked about trying to be an example for young indigenous writers. He wants them to feel that they too have powerful stories they can share. 

As you can see the discussion wasn’t all serious. Alice and her panelists were having a good time.

When Alice asked each writer to talk about how they present themselves to the world Miriam laughed and said she would rather not have to think about presenting herself to the public.  She wishes her books would speak for themselves and she could just spend all her time in her cabin in the bush in La Ronge Saskatchewan with her husband and sixteen sled dogs.  

Arthur talked about the persona he needs to maintain on social media and how it is hard to balance the work that involves, with his need to find space and time for writing.

David shared his thoughts about wanting to present himself as an indigenous writer. He hasn’t always embraced that role but realizes there are many things Canadians need to know about his culture.

Why does each author choose to write for young people rather than adults?

Miriam writes books for young teens because she thinks that is such a crucial time in their lives when everything begins to change for them and the world they had taken for granted suddenly looks so different. Many young people believe they can change the world and Miriam wants to capture those youthful voices in her writing.

Arthur told us he fell into writing for kids accidentally.  He was writing adult novels and someone evaluating one of his manuscripts told him it would be a great teen or young adult novel.

David says he writes for kids because he wants to have some input into shaping the children who will be our leaders of tomorrow.  He thinks about what he wants young people to carry with them so they can create a different reality for our country and the world. What will his books teach them?

The Vision and Voice panel was a great way to kick off the conference and really got attendees thinking about their own motivations, public persona and why they have chosen to write for young people.  

Other posts……….

Reading Pictures

A Top Ten List From a Top Notch Speaker

Writers All Around

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Inspiration- Where is It?

Where do you get your ideas for writing?  That’s a question I’m often asked. The bathtub is actually one of my favorite inspirational spots.  I also get inspired on walks, while completing routine tasks and well……. doing practically anything but sitting at my computer waiting to be inspired. I follow a talented illustrator for Orca Books on social media.  Jane Heinrichs lives in London, England but she and I are from the same Manitoba hometown.   In her latest communique to her followers and fans, Jane talks about inspiration.  When she needs it she steps away from her studio to tackle mundane things like house cleaning and tidying up.  Often in the midst of one of the tasks totally unrelated to her work on children’s books Jane will get a flash of inspiration and head back to her drawing table.  

It’s good to have a notebook on hand so you are ready when inspiration strikes

I find the same thing is often true for me.  I can sit staring at my computer screen trying to figure out how to get a character in a novel out of a dilemma, or racking my brain for a topic for my newspaper column, or wondering how to write the perfect ending to a blog post and I draw a complete blank, sometimes even after hours of frustrated contemplation.  But……… if I step away from my writing to have coffee with a friend, or go for a bike ride, or clean out a cupboard ….. voilà, inspiration strikes!

Cycling is great for inspirational thinking

Just being out into a public place like the library or a park or going for a bus ride and observing people often sparks an idea.  Reading a book, scanning the obituaries in the newspaper and looking at artwork are other inspirational activities. 

Looking at artwork and thinking can inspire you

Sometimes when we face a roadblock in finishing a creative task our best bet is to walk away from the project entirely, do something completely different and hope that inspiration will hit from a source where we might have least expected it – perhaps even our own energized and relaxed brains. 

Other posts………

Hammock Inspiration

India Inspiration

Dragonfly Inspiration

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Reading Pictures

I was privileged to attend a three-hour graphic novel course last Tuesday night led by award-winning author David Robertson. I had read quite a number of his graphic novels before taking the course but after attending the workshop I wanted to read them all again because I learned so much about how to READ PICTURES.    Each illustration is important and David carefully considers how each will look.  Before a collaborative artist begins to create a page in a graphic novel of David’s, they read the lengthy and detailed notes David has written about each scene on the page. There may not be a single word of text on the page but David makes sure the pictures tell the whole story. When David is writing a book based on real historical events or people he does exhaustive research to make sure each scene in the graphic novel looks historically accurate. 

I was a high school English teacher for many years and taught my students to look for foreshadowing, symbolism, theme, point of view, metaphor and all kinds of other literary devices in novels.  I discovered David uses all these literary techniques too but they are primarily  in the illustrations.  David gave examples from his 7 Generations series of books to show those of us attending his workshop how he carefully structures his graphic novels.  

I learned that sometimes he places images beside one another to compare and contrast them. For example, on one page he has two full-length panels side by side. One is of a husband and one is of his wife. The two have separated and are pursuing completely different life paths.  Because of the way the illustrations are juxtapositioned it is easy to compare and contrast the divergent choices the two have made. 

There is an amulet/necklace that appears again and again in the 7 Generations series.  It serves as a symbol of strength. 

David carefully considers how you will view each scene in a graphic novel. Will you see it from above or below? From the front, from the back? From far away or close up? The point of view is important.

Images can also serve as metaphors.  In one scene a young man holds a  photo of his father in a frame with broken glass because his relationship with his Dad is broken.  

I could go on and on.  I learned SO MUCH about graphic novels from David.  

Enough to know that it would be tough to write a graphic novel.  It is every bit as complicated and detailed an endeavor as writing a more traditional novel.

Enough to know that David Robertson is a very talented writer indeed. 

Enough to know that we can’t just teach students how to read the written word critically, we need to teach them how to ‘read’ visual images critically as well.  

Enough to know that I would encourage you to read David Robertson’s graphic novels too. 

Other posts………

A Graphic Louis Riel

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Well At Least You Like Writing

report writingI missed writing on my blog yesterday because I was busy writing reports.  There is only one week left till the university student teachers I supervise finish their practicum blocks in classrooms in two inner city schools.  I have to write three informal reports for each of them and one longer formal report, so with eight students on my roster that’s thirty-two reports.   These aren’t checklists like some report cards, but are more like essays filled with specific anecdotes. Each final report has to be vetted by both the cooperating teachers in the classrooms where the students work, and by the students themselves. Appropriate edits and changes are made till we all agree it accurately reflects the student’s performance.

My task becomes easier if I take detailed and copious notes each time I observe a student in action.  My problem is I often get sidetracked by the interesting lesson topics or my interactions with the children in the room and then suddenly realize I haven’t made as many notes as I should.  

With a group of my student teachers and the staff members who supported them taken several years ago.

I was telling someone about the mountain of report writing I was doing this week and she said, “Well at least you like writing.”  And that is certainly true.  I do like writing and sometimes crafting the reports is enjoyable but I am always mindful that my words in these reports could be a factor in the ability of my students to find future employment so I have to try  to be positive but at the same time fair and honest.  I used to feel some of the same tension when I was a high school teacher in Hong Kong and was asked to write dozens of recommendation letters each year for my senior students seeking admittance to universities abroad. 

Working on a writing project in my office in Hong Kong. 

I do like writing and I do lots of it.  I write meditations, blog posts, newspaper columns, short stories, novels, picture books, book reviews, sermons, workshop presentations, letters, brochure contents, magazine articles, anthology contributions, histories, announcements, tweets and reports. Each kind of writing has its joys and challenges and although writing my student reports can be a good experience, I’m glad it is nearly over for another year and I get to concentrate on other kinds of writing again. 

Other posts……….

Conversations About Writing

A Top Ten List From A Top Notch Writer

Persuade Me


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