Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cover for "Growing Up Ivy"

The cover illustration for Growing Up Ivy has arrived. The book, due to be released in June, 2010 is my latest novel for readers 10 years and over. I love the illustration Dundurn has chosen for its cover.

As soon as I received it, I shared it with all the usual suspects: my family and the members of my writers' group.
Here are some of their opinions.

Pat called it wonderful, said there was a mysterious turbulence about it. Linda thought it was excellent, dramatic and striking, and said it spoke to her of loneliness. Myself, I found it elegant in its simplicity. Carolyn called it intriguing, mentioning again the sense of mystery and loss. Its simplicity set up a whole set of questions for her: Where is/who is/what happened to the bike rider? "I want to read the story for the answers," she said.

And that's the whole idea. I hope you will look for Growing Up Ivy late next spring.

Happy New Year to all. And happy writing!
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Monday, December 14, 2009

Visiting Schools & Libraries

"Dear Mrs. Peggy Dymond Leavey,
My name is . . . I go to . . . Middle School. I read Trouble at Turtle Narrows at school. It is the best book I have ever read. Joel Osler is so cool. He has the same life as me. You are my favourite author. Would you please come to my school?
Your biggest fan."

We all love to get fan mail like this, and I make it a point to answer each one I receive. Because I hate to disappoint a child, I explain that, although I'd love to come to his school, his teacher would need to invite me.

I always welcome the opportunity to talk to the kids who are reading my books. I have a general presentation on file, but I re-work it to meet the occasion or the expectations of the teacher.

Most writers depend on giving talks and readings to supplement their incomes, and therefore, we set fees to cover our time and transportation expenses. I try to make it as inexpensive as possible for the schools and have actually lowered my fees in the past year.

Fortunately, there is money available to help with the cost of having an author visit your school. Through the Ontario Writers-in-the-Schools program, the Writers' Union of Canada provides funds to subsidize the cost of an author visit, providing the author is a union member.

Public libraries can also apply for funds from the Writers' Union through the Canada Council for the Arts. These readings must be open to the public, and the author must be a member of the Writers' Union of Canada.

Teachers can find out more about my presentations (talks & readings, or writing workshops) and my fees by visiting my website, or by contacting the Authors' Booking Service: abs@authorsbooking.com.

I'd love to visit your school!
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

What Works For Me

I create my first drafts in longhand. They are, afterall, extensions of the "free writing" method I use for generating ideas. When I reach the end of the story, I transcribe it, chapter by chapter, onto the computer.

I don't hurry this step. I am revising as I go. This is the stage I'm at now with my new novel. I hope to finish this step by the end of the year, but there's something to be said for moving slowly. I like to hold each chapter in my head overnight, to listen to the voices of the characters. It's surprising how little inconsistencies will reveal themselves, or new plot twists spring, unexpected, to mind.

Eventually, I will make a hard copy of this second draft and make further revisions to it in pencil, which is erasable. This may sound cumbersome to you. But although the word processor is wonderful for giving a writer the ability to move whole paragraphs around or delete them altogether, I still like the heft of manuscript pages.

When my hard copy becomes so cluttered with edits that I can hardly find my way through it, I'll transcribe this third draft onto the computer and, from that point, all the editing will be done there.

It works for me.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Advertising for "Growing Up Ivy"

I discovered an advertising blurb for my upcoming novel on the website of a major on-line bookseller. I thought the blurb captured the essence of the story so well that I wanted to share it on my blog (with only a few minor tweaks).

Living in grim Depression-era Toronto with her actress mother, Frannie, Ivy Chalmers has never met her father. In 1931, Frannie sends 12-year-old Ivy to stay with her paternal grandmother in Larkin, Ontario, while she seeks stardom in New York City.

When Ivy's father, Alva, arrives unexpectedly in Larkin, he turns out not to be the Prince Charming she imagined, but an illiterate peddler. Rescuing Ivy from her uncompromising grandmother, Alva takes her with him for the summer, wandering the countryside by horse-drawn caravan, selling shoes.

Back at her grandmother's, at summer's end, Ivy meets teenager Charlie Bayliss, orphaned as an infant and raised by his aunt on a farm outside Larkin.

Ivy has a flair for writing and boundless imagination; Charlie loves baseball and loathes farming. Unknown to both of them, though, is a secret connection they share. When the final pieces of the puzzle of their lives fall into place, nothing will ever be the same.

Intrigued? I couldn't have written it better myself. I hope you'll look for Growing Up Ivy late next spring.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Daily Writing Routine

When I was working (read: employed) I used to write on my days off. The people around me knew that Tuesday was writing day. After I retired I gradually became less disciplined. There was more time -- too much, perhaps. I became easily distracted. If I was writing and I thought of something that needed attention, I'd go look after it. It could be as trivial as adding an item to the weekly shopping list, or checking to see if I should water my houseplants.

Finally, I realized that if I wanted to be more productive, I needed a regular routine. Besides, the muse has to have a way to reach me, and with my mind running all over the place, she wasn't having much luck.

I made the decision that I must be ready to go to work every morning at 9. I must have had breakfast and be dressed for the day. No more writing in my PJs. I keep a pad beside me as I write, and if something off-topic comes to mind, I write it down. It can be looked after when my work day is done.

Now, I have to confess that I had let email become 'way too important to my day. I had to make a new rule for myself: NO CHECKING EMAIL UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO BE DISTRACTED. Reading email early in the day, which is when I happen to be at my creative best, has been totally distruptive for me. If I didn't reply to it immediately, I'd be thinking about my responses. Or I might read an email that unsettled me, got my mind going in another direction entirely. That's the kiss of death for me!

It's not a hard schedule to follow. I take a short break at 10:30, the same as one does at a regular job. Then I go back to work till 12 noon. I have lunch, check my email and go for my walk. The afternoon is when I look after any household chores and prepare the evening meal. But I find that after an uninterrupted morning of writing, my mind is still so absorbed with the story that I return to the manuscript frequently during the rest of the day. And this is good. Because much of the preparation for writing takes place in my head.

A writer needs self-discipline, and this is the routine that works for me. I'd love to hear how you schedule your writing day.

Write on!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thinking Time

The hardest part of writing a story, for me, is the second draft. I write the first draft with abandon, recklessly. Having fun, in other words. But then comes the excruciating part as I try to get the story to make sense, get those elegant, unruly characters into line.

I look for excuses at this stage to avoid it. I pick up the phone, check my email (again), sort my bills. I even have to trick myself, by leaving the manuscript on the kitchen table where I usually write, and where I'm confronted by its unresolved bulk at least three times a day.

Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write: a Book About Art, Independence & Spirit (first published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1938), suggests that if you're having trouble at this stage it could be because your story is not yet well-enough "imagined." It needs more time, more thinking time.

She says, "Try to see the people better . . . See them-- just what they did and how they looked and felt. Then write it. If you can at last see it clearly the writing is easy."

I think I knew this already; sometimes I just need a little reminder. So, today I'll spend time with my characters. Perhaps they'd like to help me clean up the flowerbeds?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"A Passion for Narrative"

One of the favourite books on my resource shelf is A Passion for Narrative, by Jack Hodgins. Subtitled, A Guide for Writing Fiction, it was published by McClelland & Stewart in 1993.
Although I read it years ago, today I still dive into it for help with certain aspects of my story. Lately, I've been re-reading the chapter on plots.

The chapter details a wide variety of plot categories--something I find rather daunting--from one Professor Norman Friedman. I love Hodgins' conclusion to all this.

He writes, "Rather than think of plot as a prescribed formula (or choice of formulae) to which you must make your material "fit," I suggest you think of it as a general pattern floating somewhere in the back of your consciousness as you write . . . Let the combination of your material and your hopes for it, rather than anyone's list of characteristics, guide your story's progress."

I find that comforting.

Most helpful to me, at the end of the chapter Hodgins provides some questions to ask myself about the plot, now that I've reached the first-draft stage. These thoughtful questions give me an idea of why it might not be working.

Write on!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Life is good. My confidence has been renewed.

I knew--and I told the people closest to me that this would happen--somewhere, someday, someone would take a chance with this story.

The writing life is a series of ups and downs, and right now mine is on a high. Ivy lives! It's all happening very quickly. Within three days of his request for the complete manuscript, the editorial director telephoned to say he'd like to do my book. In the spring of 2010!

And as soon as the contract discussion was out of the way, he needed material about my book for the publisher's spring catalogue, which was almost ready to go to the printer. Could I come up with a 150-word blurb for the back cover, a 50-word biography and some ideas about what I envisioned for the cover of the book? The following morning would be perfect. Of course, I could do it!

I loved writing this novel like no other. In the early days it seemed to write itself. Ivy Chalmers, my main character, has lived in my head since 2007 when I first began to scribble my way towards a new story. I just let Ivy (and Charlie) go where they wanted, until I finally had to rein them in. When I began to see the direction the story was taking, I ditched some scenes, rearranged and rewrote others, tightened the story and tried to reinforce the theme. Then it was time to test the waters.

The story is set in Toronto and rural Ontario, and it takes place during the Great Depression. Ivy lives with her mother, Frannie, who dreams of becoming a famous actress. The two read fairy tales and engage in games of "make believe" to get them through the hard times. When Ivy is 12, Frannie decides to take off for New York City to make a name for herself on the stage. She sends Ivy to live with her grandmother, someone she has never even met. In spite of the grandmother's conviction the Frannie has abandoned her, Ivy is confident that her mother will return. Frannie's games of "let's pretend" have not prepared Ivy for life with her no-nonsense grandmother.

The book is called Growing Up Ivy. I hope you will watch for it. It is to be available in the spring of 2010.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wilma's Wish

Exactly one year ago, our writers' group lost one of our members. It hasn't been the same since. Wilma was the one who kept us on track, encouraged us to "soldier on" whenever one of us felt the sting of rejection.

The successful author of seven children's novels, as well as numerous short stories and a radio play, Wilma had had her share of rejections, but she never let anyone be discouraged for long. It was "pass the Kleenex" and get right on with the writing.

"History with a mystery" was how Wilma E. Alexander described her fiction. As was our custom at meetings, Wilma read novel number eight, Finding Silver, to us, chapter by chapter over the months, looking for suggestions and hearing how it sounded read aloud. We listened and made our comments. We all loved it.

Wilma had a wonderful sense of story. She and I used to toss around, half-jokingly, the idea of collaborating on something one day. My books are character-driven; I spend a great deal of time developing characters and letting them decide where we're going. On the other hand, Wilma had this wonderful ability to weave the most intriguing plots.

She had completed this eighth novel for young readers and was shopping it around to various publishers when she became ill. Before we knew it, she was gone. Her final wish, according to her husband, Jim, was that he publish Finding Silver himself.

This week, Wilma's wish came true, and Jim accepted delivery of Wilma's last novel from the printer. He had taken great care in selecting a publisher and in arranging for editing and proof- reading of the manuscript. Only another writer can appreciate what a labour of love this was.

The finished book looks most professional. Wilma would be proud. Besides the fascinating story inside, the book is attractively designed with an eye-catching cover. It is well-bound and has a reader-friendly typeface that will appeal to children.

Thanks to Jim Alexander's generosity, every school and library in a wide area will receive copies of Finding Silver at no charge. Any proceeds from further sales of the book will go directly to the Canadian Cancer Society, in Wilma's memory.

Soldier on, fellow writers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Essential Notebook

I cannot be without my notebook. It's as important to me as my wallet and the pen that I carry in my purse. Over the years I have filled many of these small, black books with my jottings. Take this morning, for instance.

I had to take my car in to the garage for its scheduled oil change, and while I waited, I perused my current notebook. In between story ideas, I found bits and pieces that I'd written while sitting in other waiting rooms. There were also notes I'd scribbled while travelling on the train or while "killing time" in parking lots.

I always strive to be on time for things and consequently, I sometimes arrive too early for a presentation. When that happens, I'll find the farthest corner of the parking lot and open my notebook. I'll write down my expectations for the day, the things I see around me, where I am with the story I'm working on at home, anything, until a more reasonable arrival time has come.

Maybe this habit of mine of being too early is how my brain schedules some writing time into an otherwise too-busy-to-write day.

Write on.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

True Confessions

I'm working on a talk I have to deliver next week. Until that is behind me, I'm not ready to get back into the novel-in-progress. I need to keep writing, though, and so I'm taking Anne Lamott's advice.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Lamott says that you should write short assignments. It's important to get something down, she says, and to finish it. Write about your childhood; write about birthdays, school, family members, (even) school lunches. There may be only one usable sentence in the piece, she says, or there may be nothing. But it could reveal something interesting about you, your family and the times in which you live.

This is what I wrote yesterday:

My mother didn't like to make school lunches. She never said as much, but all these years later, I know it to be true. I cannot remember her ever suggesting we make our own.

Mom refused to buy sliced bread but preferred hearty loaves which she sliced herself, calling anything like "Wonder Bread" soggy and devoid of any nutrition. "You might as well eat the wrapper it comes in."

No crust was ever removed from Mom's sandwiches, and the margarine would be applied so sparingly that the sandwiches were often dry. How I envied my friend Marja's pretty lunches: sandwiches made of thin slices of roasted chicken breast on crustless, soft white bread. No great leaves of lettuce hanging out anywhere. And real butter!

I especially hated to open my waxed paper wrapped sandwich to discover today's surprise was egg salad. Mom never let the eggs boil long enough to become hard, and there was always some runny yolk inside.

Anne Lamott was right. That piece did reveal something about myself: I too hate making lunches. While I sit scribbling at the kitchen table, the pages of my novel stacked in front of me, my husband quietly makes his own sandwich.

Pity the writer's family!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keeping a Travel Diary

I've been away for three weeks, on a road trip to Jasper, Alberta. Although I didn't take my novel-in-progress with me, nor the one I'm currently revising, it was not a holiday from writing.

I kept my notebook handy in the car, jotting down the new sights and impressions all along the way. Each morning, while I sipped coffee in our hotel room, I wrote a longer entry in my journal. By then, the events of the previous day had had a chance to seep into my writer's soul. I could reflect on what I'd seen, and I took the time to choose the best descriptive words I could.

I wrote about the brave swimmers bobbing up and down in the choppy waters of Lake Nipissing, how the wind blew our umbrellas inside out in Thunder Bay, how the land approaching Winnipeg flattens out. I'd forgotten that. The trees along the streets in my old neighbourhood in Winnipeg have grown so big that it is like driving through a leafy, green tunnel.

I wrote about the wide skies in Saskatchewan, the fields of happy yellow sunflowers, how you see the cloud of dust coming down one of the many sideroads towards the highway, long before you see the vehicle that is causing it.

As we drive into the Badlands, there are no trees, only sagebrush and huge eroded formations called hoodoos as far as the eye can see. A lunar landscape.

The grandeur of Rocky Mountains takes my breath away. They appear like a mirage on the horizon before we leave Calgary. At Canmore, they come out to meet us, wrapping around our shoulders until we are completely surrounded by them. We drive all day, and still they are on all four sides. A day in Jasper and then, at Hinton, Alberta, we have to stop for one last look at the Rockies fading into the distance behind us.

Happy trails!

Monday, August 10, 2009


Ten months after I first submitted it to a publisher, the manuscript of my latest novel has come back. Four months ago, one of their editors asked to see the rest of the story. (I had submitted, as required by this publishing house, the first five chapters, along with a synopsis of the whole book.)

I think I knew it had been rejected long before the package was returned. I'm sure that, had it been accepted, I would have been contacted by phone or email.

I read with interest the editor's comments and the sad fact that there was no room for it in their publishing program at this time. Even if one editor likes a story it has to be approved by a long line of other people at the publishing house, including the sales and marketing team. Naturally, they're looking for a bestseller.

Rejection is always disappointing, but this time, it was less so. Because I know it is a good story, that the writing is strong, the characters fully developed and my two main characters especially engaging. It's the best thing I've ever written.

Now, after being away from it for a long time I'm able to re-read it with fresh eyes. What happened that the later part of the story failed to live up to the promise of the first five chapters?

It needs work but I'm feeling positive about it. One day I'll send it out again. Somewhere I believe there is room for this story. And someday some young reader will fall in love with Ivy Chalmers.

Write on, with courage!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Screenwriting techniques

I'm applying screenwriting techniques to my new novel-in-progress. It's an interesting process. The technique involves writing the story in Three Acts. I have developed the inciting incident early in Act I. This incident forces the main character to make a decision. The decision that comes at the end of Act I changes the direction of the story.

Act I in my new novel covers the first five chapters. I have reached this point in the writing. Next comes the middle section--Act II. For me, this is the hardest part to write. I know where I'm going, but I must not make it easy to get there. I will create barriers so that the main character doesn't get what she wants without a struggle.

To create interest, I will need a combination of scenes of tension and of relaxation. Just when things are looking good, bad things will happen, until finally the crisis comes that ends Act II. I don't know yet what this will be, only that reaching her goal has now become more dangerous for the main character.

The last three chapters of the novel will make up Act III. This is where the climax of the story comes. Afterwards, the story should end as quickly as possible. I know from experience that any subplots in the story must be concluded before the climax and, of course, the cardinal rule: Never take the climax out of the hands of the main character.

Write on!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Spirit of the Hills

I went to an open house this past week put on by Spirit of the Hills, a group which operates under the umbrella of the Northumberland Hills Arts Association. Spirit of the Hills is "dedicated to promoting ALL creative art forms and traditions in Northumberland County..."

The purpose of the meeting was to let local writers know the benefits that are available to them by becoming members of the Spirit of the Hills Writers' Group. At the end of the evening I was happy to sign up. It's encouraging to discover people who want to champion the cause of local writers.

I have selected from the list of benefits to members those that interest me, personally. Spirit of the Hills will:
  • find venues for book promotions in public places
  • organize launches, signings, workshops
  • create media alerts to announce launches, signings, promotions/events
  • display their writers' work at various arts conferences
  • work to increase the writer's public profile
This last benefit alone is worth the membership fee. We seem more and more now to have to do our own publicity. If people have never heard about our books how can we expect to sell any? Here is an organization that will help spread the word.

Write on!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Stephen King's "On Writing"

I had to share my prize lily with you. I keep going into the garden and taking more pictures of it. I hope it brightens your day.

A friend of mine has just returned my copy of Stephen King's book, "On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft" (Pocket Books, 2000). Instead of putting it back on the shelf above my desk, I've been re-reading it. I've read it at least twice before, but it's one of those books on writing that I never tire of. I highly recommend it.

Although not all of King's stories are to my taste, I recognize that he is a master of his craft. His writing is tight, he eschews adverbs and reminds us to "omit unnecessary words."

I found most helpful his section on "the bells and whistles," i.e., pacing, theme and symbolism. There comes a point, usually after the first draft is done, where you ask yourself, "What is this story about, anyway?" Perhaps it seems to be going off in many different directions.

Now is the time to re-read your story, all at one sitting if you can. If you discover during this reading that there is evidence of a theme or something recurring that could be used as a symbol, you can bring this out and reinforce it in the second draft.

King reminds us, "None of the bells and whistles are about story, right? Only story is about story." He says, "Symbolism (and other adornments too) ... can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. ... When you read your manuscript over...you'll see if symbolism or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn't, leave well enough alone. If it does, however... go for it. Enhance it."

I've found this advice has helped to strengthen and unify my own stories.

Write on.
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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summertime Writing

I find it especially hard in the summertime to maintain a regular schedule of daily writing. There are so many distractions--invitations from family and friends for weekend gatherings, a strawberry social, a concert in the park, a reunion picnic.

At home, the outdoors calls me to come and enjoy it while the weather is good. I should weed the garden, finish painting the lawn furniture. But I'd rather sit in the shade with a good book, a cup of coffee or a cool drink, and a light breeze to keep the Southern Ontario humidity at bay.

As I stretch out on the chaise longue, I remind myself that writers are people who read. And just this morning I printed off the first chapter of the first draft of my new novel, so that I could take it outside with me.

At this time of year, it's all good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Author Visit

This is a view of part of the class I spoke to at the Picton Library on Thursday, June 18th. They were such a great group of kids to talk to. Today the librarian informs me that already one of the students has come back to the library to get a card and take out Sky Lake Summer. On the day of the visit, those who had library cards borrowed most of my books from the display. I'm glad there was one left for the newest library patron. My thanks to the Grade 5 class, their teachers and the library in Picton for hosting the event.

Read on!
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Monday, June 22, 2009

Reluctant Reader No More

"Catherine used to be a reluctant reader, until she read one of your books."

Now those are the words a children's writer loves to hear. When Catherine's mother saw how much her daughter enjoyed that first book of mine, she went out and got her the next one. "Catherine read it in four days!" her mother said. "All by herself!"

Last Thursday, at the Picton Library, I gave a presentation and a reading from Trouble at Turtle Narrows to a class of Grade 5 students. Catherine is in Grade 4 and is home-schooled, but she came with her mother to hear me and to have me sign her books. Now I have a new young friend, and Catherine has discovered the joy of reading.

It was a delightful group of children gathered there on the floor in front of me--good listeners, full of questions about the books. Their teacher is reading Treasure at Turtle Lake to them, and they were pleased to hear about the sequel. Such a pleasure to talk to kids who are familiar with the characters and the setting. Thank you to their dedicated teacher, who is himself enthusiastic about reading.

Happy summertime reading!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Children's Literacy Panel

Photo, left to right: authors Caley Fiddick, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Linda Hutsell-Manning, Peggy Dymond Leavey & illustrator Brenda Clark.

I was part of a panel recently, discussing children's literacy in front of a group of retired teachers. We were given a number of interesting discussion points (getting published for the first time, whether being published affected one's lifestyle, problems resulting from contracts).
As well, we answered questions from the floor. How do you explain the success of Harry Potter? --the right book at the right time.

Has the current recession affected your writing income? The number of returns has affected everyone's royalties negatively. Events such as BookExpo Canada have folded. Publishers may be accepting fewer manuscripts these days, needing to be sure a book will do well in the marketplace.

Does your writing income now support you? Those who said it did, stressed the importance of a healthy schedule of speaking engagements and school and library visits for which they are paid. (Amen, to that.)

How important are contracts? Everyone agreed they are very important and should be read with great care. Those with agents might be able to trust him/her to read all the fine print, but for the rest of us, read every word and consult a contract lawyer if necessary. I've discovered that a publisher actually expects an author to negotiate the terms of a contract with them.

For me, the best part about events like this one is the opportunity to talk to others in this crazy business.

Till next time,
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Out of Print

I'm feeling a little sad today. Yesterday I learned that one of my earliest children's books, A Circle in Time (Napoleon, 1997) has gone out of print. It happens, I know. The stock runs out and there is no more demand for the book. But today I will celebrate it's life of 12 years.

A Circle in Time tells a strange adventure in time that happens to 12-year-old Wren Ferris. With the aid of an old mirror discovered in the dressing room of a former movie studio as it is about to be demolished, Wren travels back to the era when her hometown of Trenton, Ontario was Canada's "Hollywood North."

Wren befriends the young daughter of a British director, in town in 1928 to make a war movie. Catching the eye of the director, Wren is offered a small part in his movie--a movie where her own grandparents are also appearing as extras. I loosely based the story on research I had conducted for my non-fiction book, The Movie Years.

A Circle in Time was a good yarn, in my humble opinion. The book received an Our Choice designation by the Canadian Children's Book Centre and a glowing review from the Manitoba Library Association (visit my website at www.peggydymondleavey.com, click on the book cover and read that review). If you own a copy of A Circle in Time, hang onto it. It may be one of the last.

Till next time.
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Monday, May 18, 2009

Advice from William Zinsser

William Zinsser, in his classic book, On Writing Well, suggests that fiction writers need to take their subjects seriously. "(The subject) must be about something that matters to the writer. Only then will it matter to the reader."

"Write from a topic that burns," he advises. "Writers need to see the drama unfolding as they write." Can you see the scenes you write? You need to be in them to make them real for the reader.

More of Zinsser's gems: "An idea for a story grows in your mind as a tree grows, i.e., slowly gaining in strength." Allow yourself time "for rehearsal," for thinking and dreaming.

This is the stage I am in now, thinking and dreaming, discovering my characters, musing where I should enter their story, and which one should tell it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Tight Writing

All those clever phrases! All those beautiful, well-chosen words! Out they go--chop, chop.

I am cutting a short story down to fit the requirements of the market. The first draft was more like a novella. Now, I have to be ruthless. I delete unnecessary words, whole sentences, even. And then I click on the word count.

I am surprised at how much I can throw out and still keep the story. I find that I actually enjoy the process. It's a good exercise for "tight writing."

Till next time.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Book Review

"...a variety of threatening situations that are sure to enthrall mystery lovers. ... Peggy Dymond Leavey's Trouble at Turtle Narrows is a fast-paced novel that will captivate readers." (Resource Links. Vol 14:4, April, 2009.)

It often feels as if I write in a vacuum. Is anyone out there? A good review of my latest book naturally lifts my spirits. Hey, someone read my book! The reviewer gave it an "E". The highest grade, my editor tells me.

Write on!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

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Persuing Personal Interests

What do you care about? What interests you? What do you find so intriguing that you want to know more about it?
When I talk to students who are looking for ideas for their writing, I often suggest they ask themselves these questions.

Personally, I have long been fascinated by the story of the logging industry in Algonquin Park. I love to read about the living and working conditions of the early loggers, the method they used to get the logs out of the forest in the wintertime and the larger-than-life lumber barons of the Ottawa Valley. Whenever I visit the park I am more interested in its history than in what it is today--the largest and most accessible park in Ontario.

Some of what I've learned became background for my latest book, Trouble at Turtle Narrows (Napoleon Publishing, 2008). See above photo of the front cover.

The town of Turtle Narrows, the fictional setting for the novel, is located in the Ottawa Valley. I used the same setting for Treasure at Turtle Lake (Napoleon, 2007). Algonquin Park is a good bike ride away for the youngsters living in the town.

My mythical town of Turtle Narrows is rich in history. There was at one time a sawmill at the Narrows, and a wealthy lumber baron built a mansion on the hill overlooking the river. From a belevedere on top of the house, he could watch each spring for the ice to break up and for his logs to float down from the north to the sawmill. In the novel, the main character discovers that the little room up on the rooftop makes an ideal location to keep an eye on any suspicious activity.
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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Writer's Block

I think we all have our own ways of dealing with writer's block--those dry periods when we wonder if we'll ever again be able to write anything worthy of publication. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the tips for handling writer's block that Anne Lamott gives us in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life--one of the best books for writers that I have ever read.

Lamott suggests:
  • Write small pieces (even one paragraph, she says, but finish it. Don't be overwhelmed by it.)
  • Be good to yourself.
  • Read (of course. Relax and enjoy).
  • Live as if you were dying; live every moment.
  • Write down your memories about your family.
I like the idea of being good to oneself. The more I fret about how the writing is not working, the more frustrated I become. So, be good to yourself. Show up, write what you can and then go do something else. Know that there are better days ahead.

Until then,

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Family as Resource

I am fortunate to have a large family. Not just for all the usual reasons, but because my family often provides me with the background information I need for my stories.

When they all come to dinner tomorrow (there will be 17 of us), I will be asking Hannah (the high school athlete) which sports teams a teen girl might join between the months of October and December.

Ben (the music student) should be able to provide me with the name of an instrument that a kid playing in a school band might choose.

From Sarah (the med student) I need to know why one of my characters has a brace on her leg and walks with a cane.

So, sometime between the Easter egg hunt and the baked ham, I'll be taking notes. I'll be listening too, especially to the younger ones--the ones who are the age of my protagonists. I will hear the cadence of their speech and learn the popular expressions they use when chatting amongst themselves. How sweet is that!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Meeting young friends at the library, March 17, 2009

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Writing Autobiography

I've learned over the years that much of what I write involves my own personal experiences. I was taking a writing course when I began to develop a file that I called "Autobiographical Pieces." It now includes several chapters about my life experiences.

The pieces were not written in chronological order, but I've sorted them so that the file reads that way. Sometimes, when I needed something to work on, I'd add another chapter to the growing file. One memory would often trigger another.

In the same way as I occasionally browse my notebooks for story ideas, I'll read a couple of chapters in my "Autobiographical Pieces" file. Currently, I'm working on a short story for children that sprang directly from an incident in my own life.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Tips #3: Submitting Your Manuscript

When submitting your manuscript to a publisher be sure to enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) large enough that your material can be returned to you. By tracking your package on the Canada Post website, you will be aware of when it was delivered.

But is it sitting, unopened, with the rest of the mail? To save having to wonder about that question, I also include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with my submission. It can be dropped in the mail when the package is first opened.

Always keep a record of your submissions. Note what you sent (3 sample chapters and synopsis, complete manuscript), to whom you sent it, the date it was mailed and the cost of the postage. I also make a note if I had to send out a further query and the date of that letter.

If the publisher's website indicates that they will get back to you in 4 to 6 months, it's perfectly ethical, after that period of time, to inquire about the status of your manuscript. Is it still being considered? Send this query by regular mail. Do not email or telephone, unless you have been instructed by the publisher to do so.

Your manuscript may be one of hundreds they receive each month. Be prepared to wait, and while you do, get on with your next writing project.

Congratulations! You've taken the first step towards publication. It will never happen while your manuscript sits in your desk drawer at home.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


This is a shot of what I'm doing lately, i.e. daily free writing. Trying to stir the muse. A writer friend calls it "moodling." All of us in our writing group have adopted that term. It describes so well this all-important, early process of mulling over ideas, doodling on the page. It cannot be rushed.
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Tips #2: The Cover Letter

The cover letter you send with your submission will be the first impression the publisher has of you.
  • Keep it to one page. Use an easy-to-read font, and edit and proofread it carefully.
  • Describe the genre of your book, the number of words, and whether it is intended for children, teens or adults.
  • State your publishing experience and any awards or nominations you've received. If you have no previous writing experience, there is no need to mention it.
  • If you are submitting your manuscript to more than one publisher (you've already checked that they will accept multiple submissions), indicate this in the cover letter. You will, of course, notify them immediately should another publisher offer you a contract to publish the book.
Reading a few of the books from the publisher's list has not only made you aware of the type of material they publish, but you may have discovered one or two of their authors with a style similar to yours. You could mention in your cover letter what a good fit your book would be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tips #1: Finding a Publisher

You've completed your novel and want to submit it to a publisher. By now, you'll be familiar with the names of a number of publishers that produce the genre you have written.

In Canada, you'll find a list of Canadian publishers on the Canadian Children's Book Centre's website (www.bookcentre.ca). Quill & Quire also publishes a new edition of the Canadian Publishers' Directory every summer and winter. The Writers' Union of Canada produces and sells The Writers' Guide to Canadian Publishers. This is available as an on-line subscription. Go to www.writersunion.ca

Even if you are not yet published, you can become a Friend of the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), which will entitle you their quarterly bulletin, CANSCAIP News. Joining CANSCAIP as a Friend was the best move I ever made. Not only did I begin to feel connected with other children's writers in Canada, it was through their regular marketing section that I found my first publisher.

The next step is to visit the websites of the publishers you've selected and click on "submissions." Follow the guidelines posted there exactly.

The guidelines will tell you whether or not the publisher will accept unsolicited manuscripts, whether they accept multiple submissions, whether you should query them first or send sample chapters, and how many they like to receive. They will tell you what to include in your cover letter (more on this all-important document in a later blog.) Some publishers also ask for a resume or c.v. If you're asked for sample chapters and a synopsis, be prepared to spend much time on the latter.

Be sure to look at the publishers' catalogues, where you'll find their new releases and back list. It's a good idea to read a couple of their books so that you'll know the type of writing that appeals to them.

Publishers' websites will also give you their phone numbers. Take a couple of minutes to call their office to find out to whose attention your submission should be addressed.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Let Your Story Sit Awhile

Don't be in too big a hurry to get your manuscript into the mail.

One of the arguments for letting a manuscript mellow, before sending it off the the publisher, is how often things come to mind that need to be rewritten.

Today, I'm going back over my novel to see if there are other incidents of authorial intrusion (as I call it), places where I tell how a character is feeling, rather than show it by his words or actions. Even though I know the rules, I am still guilty of this sometimes.

There is one scene in the story where Charlie's family has taken in a boarder, a pretty young schoolteacher. I wrote, "Charlie found it uncomfortable having an attractive young woman in the house." Yikes! I can do better than that.

How can I illustrate his discomfort though something he says or does? I decide to show him attacking his regular farm chores with great vigour whenever the teacher's around.

So, another read-through. Luckily, I enjoy the revision process. There is no hurry. Something else may surface as I play the scenes in my head. I have to wonder, though: does one ever get it right the first time?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More about School Visits

One of the secrets to a successful presentation is being well prepared. But forget the cue cards, and just be yourself. I've learned that by arranging the material on my display table in a certain order, I always know what comes next, and I've been able to get rid of my notes. All I need is a small card, tucked out of sight somewhere, with one-word prompts, in case I every find myself tongue-tied.

I'm also learning to talk more slowly. It not only gives me time to collect my thoughts (and smile!), it gives the kids time to absorb what they've just heard.

I usually begin by telling them a bit about myself, who I am and why I'm here. It never hurts to re-introduce yourself, either. I like to keep everything light and informal.

I have no schtick: I'm not a song-&-dance man, nor do I wear costumes or funny hats. I long ago decided that the best choice for me is just to be warm and friendly and to be able to laugh at myself.

I leave plenty of time for questions and answers. I get the usual "how old are you?"question (often disguised as "how old were you when your book was published in 1989?") out of the way early. And I've never been shy about about answering "how much money do you make?" The reaction is usually worth it.

The only thing I ask for when setting up the area where I'll be presenting is a display table with enough room that I can move around it. I don't like to stand in one place. This way too, the teacher will avoid having the children crowd right up against my feet.

Till next time.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

School Visits

There's nothing quite as exhilarating for me as the end of a successful school visit. To know, after my weeks of preparation and practice, that it was all worth it. This knowledge comes from the faces of the children I've "reached," discovering that some of them already love to write, and recognizing the hunger in them to learn how they might develop this gift.

I was very fortunate this past week to speak to two classes of Grade 5 students. They were a terrific audience--receptive and eager. I'm convinced the reason for this was their teachers.

The teachers had made their students aware of the writer they were going to meet. One class had been visiting my website to learn about me; in the other, the teacher was reading my last book to the class. It is indeed true that the more the students know about the author beforehand, the more they will learn from the visit. Thank you, ladies!
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Sunday, January 18, 2009

January scene from my front window

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Writers & Readers

Looking out the window this morning at the scene shown above, I knew it would be a great day to curl up with a book. Or two or three.

Writers are people who read. I've never met anyone serious about writing, who didn't also love to read. I belong to two public library systems in my area and I borrow books from family and friends. I'm trying to curb my habit of reading several books at once, although I've found it's manageable if they are books in different genres.

Currently, I am reading an anthology of short mystery stories, a YA novel by an author I recently met, a book recommended by my 9 year old granddaughter--The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate diCamillo, and I'm reading The Subtle Knife, Book 2 of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy for the second time. I found it so fascinating the first time I read it that I now have my own set of books and can savour it slowly.

I read as many children's books as books for adults. Because I write for young readers, I like to be aware of what today's kids are reading.

Read on,

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Teachers' Guidelines

It seems these days that everyone expects there will be teachers' guidelines available for books that are used in the classroom. It's a fairly new concept for me, but one I don't mind providing. I think someone who has been a teacher has a definite advantage here. I never have been.

Nonetheless, I enjoy preparing handouts to offer the teachers when I do school visits. I call them "Activity Sheets". They are one page sheets with suggestions for continuing the discussion, once the students return to their classrooms.

The handouts usually include a number of questions based on the story, some ideas for class discussion, some vocabulary, a creative writing exercise and the opportunity for further research for those who might enjoy it. I try to keep it interesting. If I were a kid reading the book for the first time, what more would I want to know?

Till next time,