Paying Attention to Advice About Writing

Over 30 years, I have written six novels and a memoir. My earliest attempts began when I was attending university. When I look back at these initiations into the world of writing, I see the immature and awkward fumblings of a rookie; the lack of character development; the inaccuracies in plots; the stilted dialogue.

Like other writers before me, I have come to write better, richer stories by writing more. And by reading more. How many times have we heard a professional writer advise developing writers to read as much as they can; especially literature related to the genre they are currently writing?

Randy Over Typewriter

I have tried to attend lectures and readings by professionals. I have tried to network with other readers and writers. The advice received has been endless.

And still I have not been able to publish traditionally. I have self-published but if I had not been financially able to do this, it would never have happened. I think of all those excellent, unpublished writers out there who do not have the money to establish themselves.

Some of the advice I have received has been contradicted. One writer scanned the first page of a novel I had written and suggested I do not put dialogue into the opening sentence. Another writer said this was fine.

I take all critiques of my work seriously and I use them to hone my next novel. When I was much younger, I was so desperate to be recognized that I sent my work out to publishing companies quickly, with no regard to professional advice. Now, I consider it with much thought.

So with my most recent novel, Stay Above the Storm, a YA book, I tried to follow advice from others.

I introduced the central characters, the problem, and terse dialogue in the first three chapters. I attempted to grab the reader in the first page, making him/her wish to read more. I concluded the book with a solution that also raised some questions. But I tried to avoid contrived occurrences in doing so. I tried to leave a sense of hope because not all YA books (e.g., Cormier’s The Chocolate War) have to end depressingly or as if the world always falls apart.

I am trying to get SATS published and have sent it to some publishing companies, all of which have turned it down.

These rejections will not discourage me. I have been told that the rejections are not necessarily a reflection of my writing but that the content is not what they are looking for at the moment. They have been very polite but not exactly what I want to hear.

I suppose these are the reasons that writers get agents.

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The Mysterious Teacher

There is a teacher in your classroom who has caught everyone’s interest. He doesn’t say a lot about himself; seems grumpy all the time; has no ring to suggest he’s married.

Whenever he is on a prep, you can pass by the classroom to see him leaning over the desk, writing furiously. Is he marking papers? Every so often, he’ll pause and look hauntingly across the room as if he sees something no one else sees.

So one day, one of your friends ruffles through the teacher’s papers and finds that this guy has been writing poetry to a guy called Donnie. Even better, it is laced with references to love. You and your friends automatically wonder if this man is gay. But you have some doubt; your friend is a little more blatant in his beliefs. He has no doubts whatsoever.

You think that nothing will ever come of these thoughts. You are going to graduate into high school soon and you will probably never ever see this teacher again.

That is, until the summer, when you run into each other.

On an island off the east coast of Mexico.

Isla Contoy

And you learn that the teacher does, in fact, have a secret.

But it isn’t what you thought it would be.

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Blue Jays Euphoria

People are caught up in the euphoria of the Toronto Blue Jays. I don’t begrudge people their interest in sports teams, nor their excitement about their city’s baseball team being in the play-offs. I am guilty, myself, of being obsessed sometimes with hockey.

What I cannot understand is that some people have to be watching every second of every game constantly. Last night, I was just happy to be in a quiet restaurant where T.V. screens weren’t broadcasting the game. There was classical music playing in the background and people at the scattered tables, both young and old, chose not to talk about the game.

Blue Jays logo

I overheard one person somewhere in the city saying that the success of the Blue Jays is uniting not only people in Toronto but people of Canada, even those who have made their hatred of Toronto public. I am all for people celebrating and being excited. Too bad it’s over a sports event. Kind of seems artificial to me.

As I said, I can be a little too obsessed with hockey games. But I only watch them on television when I am at home alone and there are no other pressing matters I have to attend to. When the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the play-offs a few years ago, I remember being at a meeting for writers during one of their final games. At this meeting of astute, Canadian writers, one person stood up to announce the score of the hockey game which he had just viewed on his phone. My thought was: if the game is really that important to you over the views of fellow writers, then maybe you shouldn’t be here.

I know I sound a little bitter. I don’t get angry at people’s celebratory nature. Even though their beautiful baseball team consists of over-paid, sometimes spoiled players. Even though baseball players, like other sports figures, can get pouty and show unsportsmanlike conduct. Those fans who sometimes bitch about teachers, like myself, making too much money.

I just wish people in Toronto got excited by other things Canadian. Will the euphoria be evident if Sarah Polley wins an Oscar? How about if George Elliott Clarke wins the Pulitzer prize? Or if Charles Bierk, the artist, is asked to contribute one of his pieces of art to the U.N. building?

Or would they just shrug and turn to TSN? Where are our priorities?

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Word on the Street

Last Sunday, I attended Word on the Street which moved its location from Queen’s Park to the Harbourfront. The day was gloriously sunny and the lake provided an exotic backdrop so there was excitement bubbling in the air.

For the past two Words, I have been locked in my own booth, attempting to sell my children’s book, so I didn’t get the chance to check out other booths or events. This year, not only did I have the opportunity to roam around, I also volunteered an hour to man the Canscaip booth.

Book graphic, textbook

I was joined at the booth by Bill Swan, a former president of Canscaip and a published author. We informed people about the role of Canscaip: to support established and new authors, illustrators, and performers. One gentleman who approached our booth brought along his newly published book that was written to help children learn about a particular subject. He had circulated it among teachers and had received positive reviews and wanted to drop it into our hands.

We suggested he become a friend of our organization and that way, he could stand up and reveal to everyone what his book was about and what he was interested in doing with it. Better for the author to sell his own work than a third party.

At Word, I attended a book reading by Karen Krossing, another former president of Canscaip. She talked about her newest novel, Punch Like a Girl, and the unpleasant habit in our society to name-call and stereotype. I had already read the book so I was happy to hear her philosophy behind writing the story.

Since I have been trying to publish my most recent children’s book, it has been recommended to me to try to familiarize myself with the types of writing that publishing companies accept. This way, I am not sending my work blindly to a company that would turn down the subject material.

Therefore, I’ve been buying books published by the companies where I’ve been submitting my work.

This time around, I bought Deborah Ellis’s Breadwinner trilogy, published by House of Anansi Press.

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Like Pollution, Part 2

I sit at restaurants alone a lot. I enjoy the time to eat a good meal that I didn’t have to prepare, to ruminate about what’s going on in my life, and to be entertained by the antics and conversation of people around me. This last bit of information is a bonus because I don’t have to pay for the entertainment. It comes free with my meal.

I am a writer and so I tend to listen more closely to the words being exchanged around me. I don’t come to restaurants just to be in the midst of interactions but I certainly like watching people and hearing their sometimes profound, sometimes inane opinions.

I was eating by myself at a restaurant the other night and, as always, was saddened to hear the ungrammatical sentences flowing through the air. Also, not surprisingly, the constant use of fillers to bridge those sentences. Ums and uhs. What shocks me most is a horrible speaking pattern by the most educated people. I wonder how they ever made it, post-university, to an elite, high-paying job.

A conversation was going on at a corner table not too far away from me. The woman doing most of the talking made it very clear that she had graduated from university. She peppered her conversation with words such as daunting, ones you don’t always confront when you communicate with others.

And yet the number of likes, you knows, and ums she used was devastating. In fact, while I waited for my meal, in a span of 20 minutes, she used like as a filler 40 times. And those are the ones I could hear, as her voice was very quiet at times.

I know what some people might be thinking: that I don’t have a life.

But for those of us who are writers, who care about the language, and who have no other person at the table to focus on, this is a big deal.

Plus, as I’ve stressed, I wasn’t charged admission.

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Time: An Enemy to Writers

I quietly anticipate word from a publishing company to see if it has accepted my new YA novel.

I wrote it in a year which, by my usual standards, is quick. It helped that I had written the thing in my head and I knew exactly where it was going and so the writing came easily. This, I know, is every writer’s wish.

But writing doesn’t always evolve so fluently. And, even when the writer knows where the story is taking him, he might be bogged down with a lot of research. After all, we do want our facts to be accurate so our books are realistic. Plus, we don’t want anyone claiming that we are providing false information. That could be embarrassing.

All of our writing takes time and, even in a year, the world changes drastically. Also, there are thousands of writers out there and the possibility that they have the same inspirations for subject material as us is pretty high.

This is what worries me the most: a writer publishing his book before mine, and having a very similar plot to mine. Even if the writing techniques are different, my book, coming out after his book, reeks of plagiarism.

Thus, time is surely an enemy to the writer. We can only work so fast and when we cannot keep pace with the more industrious writers who have similar ideas, this can be frustrating.


Take my YA novel, for example. My original title was Adrift, a clever one I thought because not only does it describe a physical element of the book, it also reflects the troubled thoughts of the main characters.

Then along comes Paul Griffin with a YA novel, bearing the same title and one slightly similar plot line.

I didn’t get too discouraged. I have another title in mind and my story veers in a different direction than his.

But time and timing, as you can see, had an effect on my writing.

It’s as if we writers are in a foot race and the person with the fastest time wins.

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Under the Sea

My newest children’s novel, Adrift, contains a section in which a teacher and his student embark on a snorkelling adventure in the Caribbean Sea. Miles from the closest island, they get caught up in a sudden, savage storm and must do some frantic swimming in order to save themselves.

I’ve had some experience with snorkelling and have never found it frightening. In fact, I prefer to be able to see what’s under me in the water, as opposed to brushing my foot against some unknown object beneath me.

But, unlike the characters in my novel, I have never been stranded in the middle of the sea, with no land and no water craft in sight. This situation would surely terrify me. Even the strongest swimmers drown when they panic.

Isla Contoy

In a month, I will be travelling to Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Cancún. I hope to get in some snorkelling out in the sea.

Acquaintances of mine ask me why I would travel to a hot country when Canada is already so warm at this time of year.

Part of the reason is simply that I haven’t been back to Isla Mujeres in 20 years, that I love the place, and that I needed to return. And since I am a teacher, I have more time to travel in the summer.

But the other reason is research.

Part of my book takes place on Isla Mujeres, part of it involves a snorkelling expedition, and part of it involves the extremely volatile weather in Mexico in August.

I am certainly not hoping for any hurricanes when I travel there but I do anticipate weather that changes quite quickly from sun to torrential rain.

One of my colleagues said, “Writers should be able to use their research as tax write-offs.”

I wish.

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Imagine being stranded on an island with only one other person: a person you don’t particularly want to be with; not necessarily one you hate, but certainly one who has brought you some hardship.

Isla Contoy
Such is the scenario with Javier, a grade 8 student about to make the rocky transition from elementary school to high school.

During a summer holiday with his mother, a journey partly recognized as an escape from his father’s abuse, Javier goes on a snorkelling adventure off the coast of Cancún. Coincidentally, one of his teachers in Canada, who has often expressed an interest in Mexico, ends up on the same excursion.

Javier and the teacher, Mr. Cameron, are caught up in a norte, one of the infamous storms that lands on parts of Mexico in August. Unfortunately for them, they are in the middle of the Caribbean at the time and are swept by a strong current towards an island.

Cameron recognizes the island, a popular tourist destination because of its bird sanctuary. Due to the rough weather, though, all visits to the island have been cancelled, and there are no other inhabitants besides Javier and Cameron.

Javier’s independence and distrust in authority will not let him be shackled to the ways and ideas of Cameron. But, given the time the two have together, they soon come to understand a little bit about each other.

In fact, Javier learns that Cameron is harbouring a dark secret, one which has changed his view of life drastically.

This story will soon be available in my new YA novel, Adrift (Note: there might be a title change).

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Last Night I Needed to Dream

Yesterday, I was going through some poetry of mine. I came across a poem I had written five years ago when I was experiencing some health concerns. Thought it was better than most poems I attempt to write. To me, writing poetry is harder than writing anything else. Anyway, have a look:

Last Night I Dreamt Because I Needed to Dream

Last night, I dreamt
Because I needed to dream;
Forced out night and its tireless crusade
To pin me to my bed, hostage.

Youth was a time to dream
And nightfall was a comfort;
A place to stow away
Beautiful things of tomorrow.

But now, alone, I keep the light nearby.
I clutch its bright persistence;
Its artificial company.
Once, alone was comfort.
Now, when edges grow dim with dusk,
I bemoan alone.

Last night, I dreamt
Because I needed to dream.
Morning once came too soon.
Now, it’s like the slow, tortuous descent
Of a drowning man.

To me, the worst thought is to die alone, and not have the body discovered for many days.

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Last Yard Sale


My parents will soon be moving to a seniors’ apartment and so they are in the process of downsizing. They have owned their house for my lifetime, 50 years, and it is now up for sale.

On the long weekend, they had a yard sale and members of our family helped out. I have been through this experience before, having moved from a house to a condo, so I know the emotional, exhausting effect it can have on someone. The initial planning of what gets sold and what goes with a person is draining in itself. And then one has to actually move the items physically, watch people paw over them, talk you down in price, and then cart them away.

Why wouldn’t one get emotional?

My parents have had yard sales before, all done in fun, but this one held a special kind of poignancy and my mom and dad showed an obvious weariness as the day progressed.

The next day, our family, complete with nephews and nieces, gathered for a meal. No tears were shed but the interactions, though happy, were edged with the all-knowingness that we wouldn’t be gathering in this house many more times.


My sister videotaped various combinations of people, the mingling of young and old, and captured rooms of the house in which we had grown up.

Mom emptied her cedar chest and passed on relics of our youth. Last night, when I got home, I went through my collection of school pictures, photos of me wearing glasses and hockey uniforms, and old school assignments.

It was while I was perusing my collection that I got slightly teary.

For my parents but also for me.

For who knows what the future holds and who knew that back then, wearing my hockey jersey and not overly concerned about too much, where my life would be today?

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