Josephine's Dream Reading

Josephine's Dream Reading
Trying to look like Josephine Baker - and failing miserably!

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls
Conquering the Beast

Friday, December 18, 2009

Screaming Latkes!

I've had a change of heart. No, not a transplant. I've decided that under the right circumstances, eating the protagonist might not be so bad after all, especially if it's the latke hero in Lemony Snicket's book The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. Why is the latke screaming? Well, first of all he's been cooked in oil, but second, and more importantly, he's been terribly misunderstood. Hanukkah and Christmas are both wonderful festivals, but they are DIFFERENT festivals, completely unrelated. The latke tries to explain this to any number of inanimate objects (animated for the story, of course) who have trouble understanding the difference between the two holidays. But by the end of the book we have learned that there's room in this world for every celebration, that being different from the majority is not a bad thing. Some people take an ax to a tree (ouch!), others use their teeth on a latke ..... 'Aaaaaaah!'
Laugh and learn - read something fun this holiday season. And enjoy yourselves.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

When the Main Character Becomes Dinner!!!

Is it just me, or is anyone else out there disturbed by stories like The Gingerbread Man and The Runaway Latke - seasonal tales in which the protagonist gets eaten?
Why not transform those stories into Pinocchio type tales, in which a little fairy comes along, whacks the cookie and the latke with her magic wand, and transforms them into children - even if those children smell suspiciously delicious!
Happy Holidays to Young Writers Everywhere.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dialogue Again

I'm adapting one of my picture books into a short musical play. So I've been thinking about dialogue again. It's something we have to think about when we write any fiction, but this new venture reminded me that conversation in a story or play can be used for all kinds of things. It reveals more about the character than s/he might want revealed. Or it gives information to the audience. One character's silent reaction to another character's monologue might reveal something about both of them. Listen to the way people talk to one another. Listen to the way you talk to people. Try to remember conversations you have at the dinner table. Pay attention. Do people really listen to one another, or do they talk over each other? On stage that would be stepping on someone else's lines.
Listen to people on the bus. On the subway. Listen to those loud cell phone conversations that people have. Do they want you to think they are very important people? Or have they forgotten they are on a crowded bus?
Most people have distinctive styles of speech, and many will use a word or expression over and over again.
Write a short scene and see how you can make the conversation tell the story. Read it out loud to check whether or not it sounds natural.
The last time I wrote about dialogue I mentioned that I was in a show, and that the dialogues and monologues kept changing during rehearsal. That's because some things just sounded better to each of us, and we were more likely to remember certain words and expressions (it was a group effort, so no playwright's feelings were likely to be hurt). Also, what sounds natural to one person could sound false to another. I'm sure that if this play of mine gets to the rehearsal stage the same thing will happen. An actor might say, "This just doesn't work for me. Can I change it a little?" For the good of the show I will have to say, "Yes."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Remembrance Day

Yesterday I watched Ottawa's Remembrance Day ceremony on t.v. Young and old stood together to think of, and honour, all the soldiers, nurses and others who risked their lives in order to make the world a better place. Many in the crowd had seen war first hand, and you could tell, from the sorrow that lined their faces, that the memories were not joyful ones. Many of those who served were young and never had the chance to grow old.
There are some who served on the front lines who never talked about it. Some of those stories are lost, but it's up to us to make sure that as many stories as possible continue to live. If one of your relatives wore a uniform and served in one of the wars, ask that person to tell you his/her stories. Record them or write them down. Maybe you'll try to publish them and maybe you won't, but you should keep them safe for the next generation to learn from. Everyone's story is different and important. Let's not forget the courage of ordinary people.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Alice In Wonderland Stuchner

I didn't exactly fall down the rabbit hole - I fell down the back deck steps - but I think I know how Alice felt. Except Alice did a free fall, whilst I bounced on my back down about three or four steps. Hearing cries of distress my husband and my new neighbour came running to assist me. The neighbour (a nurse, thank goodness) said my screams were very youthful! She thought I was a young girl being attacked. This happened a week ago, and my back gets more colourful every day.
So along with my usual writing advice, here's a safety tip: Don't walk down slick wooden steps in the dark of night, unless you are wearing very good shoes and there's a proper handrail for you to clutch in case of slippage. My hand rail is very wide and even the biggest, meatiest hand would be unable to grab it. So for a week I've been walking just fine, but sitting, standing, lifting. lying down (then getting up - ouch) and twisting around to see what's behind me, are all painful. I can only work at my computer in short bursts.
So, now that you are all feeling sorry for me, here are my writing tips and also some new experiences that could very well be part of a story. I mean, obviously the Alice in Wonderland incident could be part of a story. A murder mystery, perhaps.
A few weeks ago we moved into a smaller, older house (the one with the modern back deck stairs that attacked me). It was built in 1915 and has all kinds of lovely old details - including the strange problem of floors that dip a little here and there. There are built in bookcases on either side of the French doors, and there's a window seat. The window seat is especially 'Jane Austenish.' The kitchen is small, which is fine with me, but I'm an awfully short person, and the counters are a bit too high, so I have to stand on a step stool to do anything. The only other kitchen problem was the sensitive smoke alarm. My husband had to take it out because even when I didn't burn the food it shrieked as if I had. The only alternative would be to keep the fan on all the time, but that's so loud it sounds as if we are in the cockpit of a big airplane.
The main floor bathroom is right out of the history books! White painted wood floor and ceiling and a claw foot bathtub. We are getting a shower put in, but for now I have to take baths and then crouch in the yoga child pose to rinse my hair under the tap. That's actually a good thing right now, because my physiotherapist wants me to do child pose as part of my stretching routine.
But here's the magical part - for me, anyway. On the main floor there are three rooms, including the bathroom, that have the original key hole plates. Now, I don't know about you, but when I have to use the bathroom I rather prefer to lock myself in, especially when people are milling about. But there were no keys! What to do? My amazing husband figured out - with the help of a key expert - what kind of key probably fit the locks, and he found one somewhere and purchased it, at great expense. It's not an antique - that would be just too lucky - but it fits all the main floor doors. However, I keep it in the bathroom, hanging on a black shoelace, though I'm thinking of getting a suitable ribbon.
Now, don't you just love stories where an old key opens a door into the past? Or maybe a very strange, futuristic key opens a portal into the future? A good writing exercise.
And I just keep on finding old stories of mine that strike me as being worth a second look. I still haven't heard anything from the editor who has my dinosaur story, but I live in hopes.
Definitely worth saving was a story that features, amongst other things, an elephant. I fiddled around with that story, made some changes and decided to leave it for a day or two (I think I began writing it five years ago, so a few more days won't hurt). And then a child I know said something to me the other day that gave me an idea for a perfect afterward to my story. You see, inspiration is all around us. But that's not all. When it suits me I take notice of 'signs.' Only when it suits me, mind you.
Yesterday I had a few minutes to spare before seeing the doctor (who looked at my colourful back and sent me for an x ray). I popped into a cook ware shop and found an elephant cookie cutter. The last one in the store. I took it as a sign. Not as profound as a Burning Bush, but a sign is a sign. So, if my elephant story ever gets published I'll have a launch and serve elephant cookies. And that's a promise.
By the way, I hope you've all been reading the sequel to The Daring Adventures of Penhaligon Brush, by S. Jones Rogan. It's called The Curse of the Romany Wolves. The book was recently launched in Los Angeles where the author is a teacher librarian. And today, at Vancouver Kidsbooks on Broadway, a group of authors, including Cynthia Nugent, are launching their new children's books. It should be fun.
Happy reading. Happy writing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Re-discovering Your Stories

I think I forgot to mention my re-discovered 'novel.' This experience illustrates the importance of putting something away and then looking at it much later in order to see it with fresh eyes. About ten years ago I wrote a short novel for children that I thought was pretty good. I sent it to a publisher but they didn't receive it! I sent it again, but whether they received it or not I never knew, because each time I asked them, "did it arrive yet?" my request was met with silence. Naturally I began to have a bad feeling about this novel. Perhaps it wasn't worthy after all. Well, a decade flew by and ... I read it again a few weeks ago and, not only was I dazzled by my own wit and brilliance, I merely needed to make a couple of small changes to the text. Then, with soaring hopes, I sent away two chapters to a publisher. Even though I have heard nothing yet, and even though it might be rejected, or (much better) accepted but requiring some 'work,' or (better yet) accepted with the proviso, "Don't change a thing. It's perfect," I feel very good about the quality of writing.
My advice? Dig up your old stories and look at them as if someone else had written them. I know, I've said this before. I'm saying it again.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A New Book on the Horizon - AND a royalty cheque!!!

The life of a writer is always exciting and full of suspense. Last week I received a Royalty Cheque in the mail. With eager little fingers I ripped open the envelope, unfolded the cheque within and looked in the right hand box. One hundred and twenty five smackeroos. I guess it hasn't been a big year for those two particular books. No, I will not be giving up my day job to spend the rest of my life writing or travelling around the world promoting my works, but I was able to buy a few more groceries.
Another piece of good news is that I am on the verge of signing a book contract. The story in question was actually published a few years ago in a wonderful children's magazine (I think that looks a bit ambiguous, doesn't it? Is it the children or the magazine who are wonderful? You decide.) A publisher wants to transform the story into a picture book, after I've lengthened the narrative and made a few changes. Sounds good to me. But don't think I've abandoned my smuggler story or my highwayman tale. They are still there lurking about on my desk and in my computer.
I am also still in the process of moving house. This is a mammoth task. I throw out 'stuff' but more 'stuff' falls out of drawers and cupboards. I've been watching a tv reality show about people who hoard and collect everything they can find. I do this in order to frighten myself into not becoming one of those people.
On the other hand, like everything else, it could very well be material for a story, couldn't it?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Blog Books?

Have any of you seen 'Julie and Julia?' I thought it was a wonderful film for two reasons. I loved seeing 'Julia Child' falling in love with French food and cooking it. I was interested in the notion of creating a book based on a block. If Samuel Pepys was around today I imagine he'd blog. If you don't know who Pepys is, Google him, or go to a library and check out his diary!!!!
Do any of you have a blog/diary that could be turned into a book? A movie? If so, go for it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Highwayman Hasn't Been Riding Lately

Writing my 18th century highwayman novel has been a bit of a strain lately - what with looking for affordable housing (no such thing, by the way) and thinking about the process of moving. It's not that I have writer's block, but it's a complicated project and it's been difficult to keep all the balls in the air at the same time (ie: plots and subplots interacting seamlessly), not to mention keeping my mind on my work. Also, the 30,000 plus words are going to have to be pruned a little. At least that's what my brilliant editor has tactfully hinted at. So I'm leaving that story alone for the present. I'll get back to it soon.
Meanwhile, I decided to re-think another story. Same century and same neighbourhood, but different topic. It was going to be the same length too, but ... well that's where the re-thinking comes in. Has this ever happened to you, dear writer? You write page after page of wonderful stuff, and create some great characters and lots of suspense, and yet ... How many 30,000 word books can a person finish whilst holding on to a full time job, a part time job, and dealing with a family that needs to be moved? And don't forget, I'm 62. Time is not on my side.
Yeah, sure, Charles Dickens could have done it, but don't forget Chuck had a Victorian wife who slaved away all day so he could confer with his muse. My husband is a great cook, and he's the only one in the house who understands the vacuum cleaner, but he too has a life outside of work and domestic drudgery. And if I told him I needed to spend a few days alone with my muse, he'd say 'Muse Shmooze.' Actually, he'd probably say, "Okay, go for it," but I'd never do that to him.
So, I don't want to drown in a sea of unfinished stories.
By the way, did you ever read 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' by Salman Rushdie? Wonderful book.
So ... I ignored all the notes and the gripping chapters etc. and decided to keep only a fragment of the outline, and try to turn the story into a 6,000 word masterpiece. Hmm. Easier said than done, especially the masterpiece part. I'd written about 4,000 words before I realized I wasn't even halfway to where I needed to be. Trimming shears were sharpened. Snip, cut, slash. That was last night. Today on my lunch break I went to the cafeteria, sat alone with my manuscript and a coffee, and - more snips, cuts and slashes. It was as if the three musketeers were editing my story. However, it just might be possible to keep the story interesting without adding 6,000 more words. And it's an exercise in 'less is more,' which we are always working on, right?
It takes enormous discipline to cut out chunks of a story - chunks to which I was so attached. But I am filled with determination.
Et tu?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cynthia Nugent also Won the Chocolate Lily!

Here's a postscript to my previous email. Cynthia Nugent, my 'Honey Cake' illustrator, also won the Chocolate Lily for her perfect enhancement of the book's text. She couldn't be at the awards night because she had a deadline to meet - creating illustrations for her next book, 'Fred and Pete at the Beach.' Fred and Pete are a couple of amusing, delightful and no doubt mischief making canines. They will be in bookstores near you very soon, and I'm really looking forward to reading about their adventures. (I know they are delightful because I've seen two of Cynthia's illustrations already) Cynthia has a wacky sense of humour that appeals to all ages. And don't forget, I'm 62! If I can laugh, anyone can.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I went to The Chocolate Lily awards ceremony yesterday, hosted by Vancouver Kidsbooks, expecting to see one of my colleagues win the children's novel award. I'd mingle with writers and book lovers, nibble on grapes, and generally have a good time. So when I heard my name called out as the winner my jaw actually dropped! My eyes just about popped out of my head. I didn't believe it. Surely a mistake had been made.
Fellow writer, Caroline Adderson, laughed when she saw the look on my face, and I'm glad that no one photographed me at quite that moment.
On my bookcase - where else - in a very prominent position, is the lovely glass trophy. When we move - if we ever find a house - I hope to have a room of my own where I shall hang the framed certificate over my desk.
The Chocolate Lily Award is a readers' choice award, and that's the best kind. Being recognized by the people for whom we write is a wonderful feeling for all writers.
Second prize went to one of my favourite authors, Norma Charles, for 'Boxcar Kid.' The picture book prize went to Chris Tougas for 'Mechanimals,' and Kari-Lynn Winters came in second with 'Jeffrey and Sloth.' Read all of these books (and more) and enjoy them.
Happy writing and happy reading to all of you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Watch This Space!

The Chocolate Lily Awards takes place at Vancouver Kidsbooks the first week of June. 'Honey Cake' has been nominated, and that's a great honour for me. The event will be a chance to get together with lots of writers that I know - good friends from CWILL BC - and also writers that I don't know. And the venue is terrific, because I love bookstores, and Kidsbooks is one of the best in Vancouver. (If you need advice on bringing a book and a child together, that's the store for you.)
Of course, I know what you're thinking. You can't coast along on the nominations of one book. Joan, get writing, already! And that's what I think too. But there's been a lot of upheavel on the home front. We just sold the house and have to find a newer, slightly more humble, abode. Looking at houses, remembering where you looked, then packing, cleaning, sorting out and moving boxes, is all very stressful work. However, I am slowly getting some writing work done.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, don't forget that even thinking out a scene, or scribbling a paragraph or a few lines of dialogue, counts as working on a/the book.
By the way - I mentioned Vancouver Kidsbooks, but don't forget to patronize not only your local libraries but also your small, local bookstores. You'll find that the sales people have read, or at least know about, most of the books in their store. You can ask them for, and then get, advice on gifts, for example. "What should I buy my aunt who loves to garden on her balcony, but has a short attention span?" "What have you got for a ten year old boy who loves anything to do with vampires or dolphins?"
If you happen to be in Kerrisdale, Vancouver, try Hager Books. The clerks remember their customers and will actually tell you about a book you might like, based on what you've bought from them in the past. They are very well read.
By the way, believe it or not I'm actually reading 'The Secret Garden' for the first time. I didn't read it before because I'd seen three movie versions - maybe even more. It's a classic, so you should read it, but be warned. There are lovely images, and the writer captures the feeling of the Yorkshire countryside quite perfectly, but ... it was written at a time of racial insensitivity. In fact there are also class stereotypes to watch out for. Even in the 1950s, when I was a child, no one thought twice about these attitudes. This sort of thing always made me cringe. But I think I was unusual. I'm only a third of the way through the book, and I'm going to assume, at this point, that the racial attitudes are actually from the point of view of the characters and not the writer. Read it and see what you think.
Happy reading/writing.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spring Book Hatching - 2009

First of all - I'm afraid I'm not hatching a book this spring. However, some of my colleagues are hatching great books. If you want to meet some wonderful Vancouver BC authors and illustrators, your big chance will come this Saturday. Thirty two children's authors and illustrators, along with their new books, will be at the Vancouver Public Library, Alice Mackay Room (350 West Georgia St.) on May 2nd from 1pm - 3pm.
There'll be door prizes, books to buy and be autographed, live presentations and - you could win an author school visit for your school! Admission to the event is free. I'll be there to support my literary pals and to meet you. If the sun is out I'll wear a yellow tee shirt, dark blue capris and I'll be carrying a big white bag with coloured spots all over it. If it's not sunny, I'm not sure what I'll wear.
Just ask anyone, "Where's Joan Betty?" They'll point me out.
See you Saturday!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dialogue? Keep it Real.

Has your teacher asked you to write a dialogue for an English assignment? Are you writing a play? Right now I'm in rehearsal for a show. It's mostly singing and dancing, but I'm in the acting part that connects the numbers. Someone wrote a script, but at the first rehearsal some of it didn't sound as good as it looked on the page. So the writer made a few changes. We used them. Then I made a few changes. Then a couple of the directors made some changes. As we performed the piece we all added bits and pieces that felt right and then wrote them into the script. I was asked to write the final script and send it to the cast. I did. Then another member of the cast made some suggestions. I thought a few of them would work well and I made yet more changes. You might be muttering to yourself, 'Why is she telling us this?'
Here's why.
If you are writing dialogue you have to say it out loud to the room, to the computer, as you walk home from the bus stop, or read your script on the bus (pen in hand). It's organic. It grows and changes. Some things work well on the page, and sometimes even when you read them out loud. But they don't always work if you are acting them on a stage. So if you are writing a play, or a page of dialogue, read and act it until if feels 'real.'
My show is June 3rd, so I'll get back to you. Watch this space.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Expanded Horizons

Remember the times when I said things like 'follow your dreams,' and a variety of other encouraging words? Well, I finally took my own advice. For years I've been saying, "I was born to do cartoon voices," and "one day I'll take a course." Well, yesterday I took the plunge. I spent ALL DAY, along with eight other students, at a workshop where we learned about the voice over business and how to read both animation and advertising scripts. It was wonderful. The best part was when all nine of us went into the recording studio and read an old animation script. It felt so good, and we sounded even better. I'm hooked. But the experience inspired me in another way too. I'd now like to write animation scripts!
In the meantime I plan to follow the instructor's advice and watch/listen to t.v. cartoons and t.v. commercials very closely, work on my own best voices and finally make a cd to shop around. If I can get work in the animation world there could be an extra advantage. My son doesn't listen to me when he's watching cartoons - but what if I got a job IN one of those cartoons? Better still, what if I also wrote the scripts? Are you ahead of me yet? I could nag him and he wouldn't even realize it!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Variety in Reading is the Spice of Writing

I finished reading 'The Daring Adventures of Penhaligon Brush,' by S. Jones Rogan. It was one of those stories where you want to know what happens in the end, yet you don't want it to end. A rollicking adventure with lots of humour thrown in for good measure. Whenever I opened the book I entered another world - a world I liked a lot, and want to visit again. I eagerly await the sequel so I can pack my bags and return to Ramble-on-the-Water and Porthleven.
So now I'm reading 'The Higher Power of Lucky,' by Susan Patron. Suitable for readers aged 9-11 (and obviously, 62) I bought this book because a) I read a good review of it somewhere b) it won the Newbery medal and, perhaps most important of all, c) some school librarians in the U.S. have tried to ban it, because it mentions - on the first page - a dog's scrotum. Some people believe that mention of scrotums in a children's book could have a negative influence on the young. They might have bad dreams, or worse! What if the child asked a parent or teacher or a member of the library staff, "What does this word mean?"
Actually I think it's great when children ask that question while reading a book. It's the perfect opportunity to say, "Why don't we check the dictionary, and see what it says?" That is one of the great things about reading. You ask questions. Sometimes you even ask them of yourself.
So for all these reasons I'm reading 'The Higher Power of Lucky,' and even though it might not be the type of book I would write (I can't say that for sure, however) I'm enjoying reading it very much. For one thing it's well written. I get the distinct feeling that every word in the book is just the right one, and no other word would do quite as well.
The heroine, Lucky, is a delightful character. In fact all the characters - including the dog - that I've met so far are people -and dog - I want to know more about. Susan Patron reveals her characters through the things they say and do, and shows us the landscape and climate by describing how it makes her characters feel or behave. And what I like even more about both Rogan's book and Patron's book, is that they are different from each other. You'll learn a lot about writing, about telling a story, by reading books that are different from each other.
Now that's spicy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How Much Do I Love Books?

It happened on the number 33 bus, which was heading away from the university in the direction of my doctor's office. I was passing the time in the best way possible - reading a Wonderful Novel - when suddenly, out of the blue, I had an idea for something I wanted to do with my own novel. I put down the Wonderful Novel, took out the ever present notebook and pen, and began to furiously scribble, in my impossible to read handwriting ('Joan must work harder with her handwriting.' 'Joan's handwriting looks as if a spider fell in the inkwell and tottered drunkenly across the pages of her notebook.')
I looked up and saw that my stop was fast approaching, or to be more exact, the bus was fast approaching the stop. I grabbed my two bags, made my exit, then sat down on a bench outside one of Vancouver's more elegant grocery stores in order to finish writing down my great, literary thoughts - before I forgot them. You see, I'd decided to give one of my minor characters a bit more pep and have her do something interesting. It would elevate her to a new status in the story. Pleased with my brilliance, which seemed to have been inspired by a couple of words in the Wonderful Novel I'd been reading, I popped the notebook into my 'capacious handbag' (wonderful description, first used by Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Ernest by Mister Oscar Wilde) and quel horror - the Wonderful Novel was not there! Like an eccentric bluestocking I rifled through both of my bags and then spoke words which no child under five should hear - fortunately no such children were in the vicinity - after which I sighed a great deal and clutched at my chest. Then I pulled myself together, but only just, and popped into the extremely expensive grocery store to buy a couple of things I really couldn't afford. After that I walked dejectedly down to my doctor's office.
"How are you?" she asked, brightly.
"I lost a book!" I cried in despair. Her eyes widened and she took out her blood pressure torture equipment and checked for signs of life. "Your blood pressure is normal for someone who's just lost a book," she said, puzzled yet somewhat relieved. This remark was followed by a lecture about how people who have had heart attacks should avoid stress (I reminded her that I am the mother of a teenager, so how could I possibly avoid stress?)
"It's only a book," she reminded me.
I reacted the way my husband does when I refer to hockey as, "Only a game." With shock and disbelief.
She explained that over the years she herself had lost many things and had learned to 'let go.' Then she demonstrated a 'letting go' breathing method which I tried and failed to find useful. She wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way.
Pills are all well and good, but I needed a book!
Next day I pestered the transit Lost and Found office - they were very sweet - and a miracle had happened. Someone found the book and handed it in, and my husband picked it up, on his way home from work, from the Lost and Found office and brought it back to me.
He is my hero, even if he does love hockey.
Who says chivalry is dead? Not I!
And that's how much I love books.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

There's Nothing Quite Like an Accolade

I'm Serious. But before I tell you about a Wonderful Review that landed in my mailbox this week, let me explain. An accolade is positive reinforcement. I know, that's basic child psychology, but it doesn't stop working when you get older. Kids need to be told when their work is good, or when even some of it is good. ("Yes, Joan, you did write a one hundred word run-on sentence, but your story was original and funny. Let's just work on punctuation, shall we?") It certainly works for me. In fact my editor quite often talks to me like that. Of course, for a writer a nice fat royalty cheque would come a close second to an accolade. An accolade won't help pay the rent, but it might show up just in time to give you a shot of much needed writing confidence. Those of you who write (or act, or paint, or do a teenager's laundry) will appreciate how much love we need in order to continue the work we do.
Let me drift from the topic slightly, before I get back to my Wonderful Review. About twenty five years ago, maybe more, something happened that still makes me cringe when I think of it. I was auditioning for a professional theatre company in Vancouver. Along with a number of other hopeful actors I had to present two monologues - one modern, one Shakespearean. For the Shakespeare I chose Puck's speech from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' that begins, "My mistress with a monster is in love."
Please feel free to picture me cavorting about the stage like a spritely imp, or is it an impish sprite? Anyway, the casting dirctor wore a stone face throughout (a bit like an angry Aztec god) as I mugged and pranced and did my Puckish best. After it was all over he made a few notes and dismissed me with a 'thank you." That's when I did the unforgiveable. I asked, "How did I do?" Yes, even after all this time I shudder at the memory of my needyness. I can't remember what he said, because it wasn't really an answer. I slunk away feeling very un-Puckish. Puck, of course, would have turned him into a goat!
I later discovered that this casting director had reduced others to tears. One young woman, hoping to be cast in a musical, was actually in the middle of singing something when she was dismissed mid-note.
I never heard back.
So you can see how important an accolade is to me, and my latest bit of encouragement appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of Canadian Book News. A lovely reviewer, teacher-librarian, named Ellen Donogh, heaped glowing praises on 'Josephine's Dream,' both for my story and for Chantelle Walther's illustrations. In fact she said it was sure to be featured in celebrations of Black History Month. From her lips to librarians' ears!
A miracle is something that happens when you need it most. I got that line from the old movie 'Moses' starring the late Burt Lancaster, and I believe it. Would Hollywood lie?
I was in the middle of yet another re-write of my latest manuscript, and feeling unworthy to put pen to paper - or fingers to keys. In other words, my mind was full of doubts, instead of plot twists. Should I turn my attention to another story? There's no shortage of them on my back burner. I even began to consider packing it all in to deal with the pile of my teenager's socks that waited patiently, yet stiffly, by the washing machine (what does he do - take off his shoes to wade through wet concrete?) - until this lovely review appeared. A miracle just when I needed it (thanks Burt Lancaster). Now I believe I could conquer the world.
Accolades rule!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Literary Adventures in California. Four Days of Palm Trees and Sunshine.

Last week I was in Los Angeles. The first day I was there for a conference. The other three days I managed to fit in eight readings, not only in three wonderful schools but also in a fabulous indy. book store. I'm only writing about it now because while I was away there was a death in the family. My mother in law, a dedicated reader and lover of books, died at the age of 86. She'd once worked as a school librarian and teacher, so she knew the value of books, and the importance of the school library - the heart of any school - as both a door into the future and a safe haven and refuge. You don't always need a psychiatrist. Sometimes you just need a library.
One of the school librarians that I met was S. Jones Rogan, who wrote 'The Daring Adventures of Penhaligon Brush.' By co-incidence, we share a publisher! Random House. I also visited Once Upon a Story Book store in Long Beach, where Cyndie Kalina welcomes book loving families with a space full of books and cuddly toys. There's nothing nicer than snuggling up with a teddy bear (or some other stuffed creature) and getting lost (or finding yourself) in a book.
At all the presentations, I gave my usual plug: "Please pass on family stories. Ask lots of questions and write down family histories. Everyone's family is interesting," I said, over and over again.
Some children told me about their grandparents and other relatives, or even their own experiences. "Write it all down," I said.
One little girl told me that she had a famous relative and that the family had stories about him. "What was his name?" I asked.
"Stonewall Jackson," she replied. The teachers, and I, all gaped in amazement.
If you've never heard of Stonewall Jackson, all I can say is - Google!
My last day in California was the one at Long Beach. Joanne Renaud, cover artist for the U.S. edition of 'Honey Cake,' drove me there and brought along a couple of her friends. We had a wonderful lunch, bought a lot of books from Once Upon a Story Book store, walked around Long Beach while I took photos of houses and palm trees, and then Joanne and I gave our presentations in the book store.
Many thanks to my friends Brenda and Abe for letting me stay at their house - and to Diogie and Red Dog for being so friendly. Thanks to Sally, Venus and Amy for being wonderful school librarians, and Cyndie for welcoming me into her book store. And to Joanne, Katherine and Berkeley (pronounced 'Barclay') for sharing a great day. Also many thanks to all the dedicated writers, teachers and book lovers at the Jewish Children's Literature Conference.
There were only sixteen passengers on the flight back to Vancouver, so the flight attendants told us to spread out. I'm not sure if that was so the plane wouldn't tip! I'm not sure I want to know.
So now I'm back in the land of evergreens and frost. A different kind of beauty.
But don't forget, everyone. It's all material.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Writing and Housework Both Need (Self) Discipline. 'Oh, No - Not That!'

No doubt I've mentioned before that I'm not a tidy person. My apartment is a mess (my husband and son seem to take their cue from me), and my mind is also a bit of a shambles. Some people have tidiness in their genes. A place for everything and everything in its place. That was one of my late mother's favourite sayings. Of course, nine years ago, when I had to sort through her belongings and empty the house, before she moved to Donisthorpe Hall (it sounds like a girls' jolly boarding school, but it's actually just a very nice old people's home) I was reminded of my mother's other favourite saying: 'Never throw anything out. One day it might come in handy.'
But I digress.
Now and then I frown at my boxes of papers, photos and manuscripts, the piles of stuff, and - when the sun is shining too brightly - the coating of dust that shrouds every surface, and I despair. Sometimes, if I have lots of energy, I galvanize myself into a short-lived cleaning and throwing-out frenzy. If I'm not feeling too energetic, the sight of all this mess will paralyze me, and I throw myself onto the sofa and close my eyes. I imagine a team of pixies flying in through the window with dusters, brooms and garbage bags. They fling some fairy dust and floor wax around, and when my eyes finally open ... House Almost Beautiful! Perhaps one of them will have even finished writing my novel for me.
Ah yes, imagination is a wonderful thing. It won't scrub out the bathtub or vacuum under the bed, but it will help me write a story. Which brings me back to the shambles that is my mind. Some of you can identify with this problem. The notes are beside the computer. The half-completed re-write is in the document file. The plot ideas for my novel tumble around in my brain like clothes in the dryer. The characters jostle for attention. But other plots and characters also try to attact my attention. What a mess (a creative mess, but still a mess). If only I could re-boot myself.
It took me years to recognize that I have a disability. Just as I have difficulty sorting things out and throwing away what isn't needed in my apartment, I also have that problem with my writing. 'Put it aside,' I say to myself, or 'Throw it away' and 'Don't listen to that other plot that keeps nagging at you.'
Easier said than done. Sometimes the writing and housework problems overlap. Those bits of paper, those notebooks lying around, make most of the mess. Alright, so the dustballs don't help.
Those of you who can focus on the task in hand have my undying admiration. The rest of us get frustrated and overwhelmed. So let's use strategies. We untidies will never have tidy minds, so everything will always take an extra effort. The first thing we have to do is stand up and say, 'My name is -------(say your name) and I am an untidy person.' Acknowledging the problem is half the battle. Self awareness. Most problems can be solved in some way. If you are very young you could ask a parent or a teacher to help you get on track organizing your work, your thoughts, your locker.
A good strategy is to set a goal.
I'm flying off to Los Angeles tomorrow morning, and I'll be back on Wednesday, the day before my birthday. On the Jewish calendar it's also a couple of days before Tu Bishevat - the birthday of trees. A celebration of newness and growth. How appropriate! As soon as I get back I am going to start, one box and one pile of papers at a time. I'll begin with the living room - that's the room that most people see - and I'm going to do one hour of cleaning a day. I am also going to spend one hour every night finishing my work-in-progress. I will ignore all the other stories demanding my attention until the first project is finished. It will take nerves of steel and the strength of ten, but we untidies have to work just that bit harder. It is always worth the effort.
And let's face it, those pixies are never going to do it for us.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chocolate Lily Nomination!

My short novel 'Honey Cake' has been nominated for this year's Chocolate Lily award. It's up against some stiff competition, but I'm proud to be listed alongside such remarkable books and authors.
Check out the link below if you want to see the full list of books. Maybe you've read some of them.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


For those interested in hiring me for an author visit - check out the Cwill BC website (first link below) and the CCBC TD Book Week 2008 site (second link). That's where you'll find out more about me and what I do.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dark Humour Coming up. Don't Say I Didn't Warn You.

Every week the Cwill BC Blog has a Tuesday Tell-All. Questions are asked such as, Who inspired you to write, and What advice would you give a beginning writer. This week's question is, How would you finish this sentence, if you were writing the opening scene of a novel?
"I had just slammed the door, when ..."
Well, I just couldn't resist. It was an inspired moment, and I want to share it with you. I confess that I have made a couple of punctuation changes and subsituted and added a word or two. Otherwise it is pristine.

I had just slammed the door, when I noticed Norris's head rolling towards the television set. Further proof that our floors are uneven.
Too late I recalled Norris's frequent admonishment. "If you keep slamming that door without paying attention, one day something terrible will happen." He was right - or is it 'he was correct?' I'm always confused about that, and it irks me. Grammar is so important, don't you think? As is paying attention when slamming doors.
I must admit Norris's expression right now is not as pensive as it was when his head was attached to his body - which, I suppose, must be on the other side of the door. It reminds me of those open casket funerals where everyone says, "Ooh, doesn't he look peaceful?" I always want to say, "Well of course he does. He's dead. How much more peaceful can you get?" But you can't really do that at funerals, can you? Make a scene, I mean. It's hardly tactful.
Well, I suppose I'd better get a mop and bucket. Make a nice, hot cup of tea. And then call the police. They'll be very cross with me.

If you are still with me, get someone to give you a rather benign sentence, and see to what heights you can take it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Miss Rafferty and Other things ...

I wrote something on the Cwill website today, but thought it belonged here too. When I was very young I had one - only one - teacher who encouraged my writing. Her name was Miss Rafferty, and I hope she had a great life. She might still be around. That would be nice.
Miss Rafferty praised my eleven year old efforts to write poetry, and read out to the class a fairy tale I'd written for an assignment. Anyway, on the strength of this I told my mother that I was going to be a poet when I grew up. She turned very pale and broke the news that poets don't make much of a living. She wanted me to become a nurse.
I would have made a terrible nurse.
Thousands of people are alive today because I didn't become a nurse.
What my mother didn't tell me was that you can actually be a poet, or writer of fairy tales, or painter, or sculptor, and have a day job to pay the rent. I figured that out for myself, so I have a day job and I write stories. If your mother wants you to be a brain surgeon or a lawyer or a fisherman, make sure you want to be those things. Of course, there are stories in all those jobs.
Though here's a tip. If you happen to be in the middle of operating on someone's brain, and you get a sudden inspiration, don't break off what you are doing to write it down. Wait until the patient is all sewn up again.

Dov Turns 18!

This doesn't have anything directly to do with writing (everything is indirectly to do with writing). My son turned 18 today (don't let anyone tell you time doesn't fly - it does). Yesterday he pretended that he'd got an electric shock from the t.v. Yes, as usual I'd set myself up for it by telling him to be careful. I can't claim to be much of a traditional mother, but there are some things I do that are normal mother things, and one of them is saying, "Be careful, be careful be careful!" Anyway, I clutched my recently attacked heart and he realized that maybe he shouldn't have tried the amusing gag after all. As he hugged me - he's about a foot taller than I - we happened to be close to a mirror. I said, "I look like an old hag." And my son, who inherits a way with words from both his parents, said, "Oh Mom, you just look like a twelve year old who needs more sleep."
How sweet (I think).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Book Award for 'Honey Cake.'

Pass the champagne - well, no, maybe not champagne. It'll give me a headache. Better pass a cup of hot, strong sweet tea, because my book, "Honey Cake," (see reproductions of cover on the right hand side) is a Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Notable Books of Jewish Content catagory. It's a big thrill for me and I feel honoured and humbled.

So raise your cups of tea,
And drink a toast to me.

It's not like the Oscars. I don't get to wear a black, sequined gown and borrowed diamonds. Nor do I get to stand up in front of millions and make a speech - which is a shame, because I've been working on that speech since I was about seven. But if I did get to make a speech I'd thank my parents for sending me to ballet and tap class, for taking me to the library every week, for buying me books and for telling me stories. I'd also thank my publishers, Tradewind and Random House, and my editor Cindy and my illustrator Cynthia and my U.S. cover artist Joanne.
Okay everyone, enough celebrating. Let's all get back to those re-writes!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Maybe it Has Been Done Before (but not by you)

I just received an email from a friend in England. She's an amazingly witty and articulate writer, but seems to have a difficult time just getting down to it. Anyway, she told me that she'd had a wonderful idea for a story while she was doing the washing up, but thought the idea might have been used before. Then she thought she heard my voice telling her to get on with it anyway!
Yes, just about every idea has been used before. But you, dear writers, have your own way of telling a story that hasn't been done before. Do you know how many Cinderella stories there are? Hundreds I believe. They come from France, Germany, China, England, America, The African Continent, and many other places too numerous to list.
So yes, there are tons of stories about mischievous children (and please - it's pronounced MISS CHEE VUS'), even more stories about naughty dogs (I'm writing one now, even though a friend of mine wrote the BEST series of books about a naughty dog named Stanley. The writer is Linda Bailey. Be warned though, her books are so funny you'll laugh until you hurt). There are tons of books about a kid on a quest in an alternate universe. But guess what? Each one is told in a different voice, and each quest follows a different path.
So if you think of a story that might have been written before, remember that it hasn't been written by you. My friend in England - the one doing dishes instead of writing - is correct. She did hear my voice telling her to "Get on with it!"
p.s. Actually, it reminded me that maybe I should be doing some dishes!

Friday, January 2, 2009

It's 2009. Time to Join a Writing 'Family.'

I belong to Children's Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia (Cwill BC). In fact, I'm the treasurer. That's not the sort of job they should have given someone who does math by connecting dots, but I'm thrilled to say that so far we've remained 'in the black.' That means we don't have to file for bankruptcy, so I'm doing okay.
Cwill is a big family (well over a hundred members). We talk to each other at meetings and through e mails. We ask each other for advice that relates to writing, illustrating and publishing.
'How much did a pint of milk cost in 1884?'
'Were any of the roads in Paris paved by 1322?'
'Where can I find a medieval Spanish lullaby?'
'Does anyone know a good literary agent?'
Questions like that come up all the time.
It helps to have a writing family. There are at least two writers I know that I 'talk' to regularly by e mail. We give each other advice, tips, suggestions and encouragement. Now and then I cry on their shoulders ("Boo hoo. How can I make this plot believable? Why won't this character work?") Once in a while they cry on my shoulder. Every writer needs that kind of support.
Do you have friends who write? Maybe you could get together sometimes and discuss the problems you have as writers, or the things that work for you. Help each other out. Everyone knows something that other people don't know. Share. That's what families do.