Saturday, December 26, 2009

Introducing my grandson

Cooper Earle Johnston
born Dec. 18, 2009
to Holly and Brad Johnston, Nanaimo, BC.

And a few days, later, dozing on Dad's chest.

In 'my day', we stayed in hospital for five days, waited for the hospital photographer to come around on about the third day, then waited a couple of weeks for the mail to arrive with said - very expensive - pics.
Then mailed them to all and sundry.
("Just look at her!" said my uncle of Holly, with her hair brushed up into a punky point. "She looks just like a toilet brush".)
These days, Cooper's pic appeared on Facebook within an hour for all the world to see - other than his great-grand parents Jo and Bill Peterson in the UK, who will have to wait a few weeks until someone gets aound to printing out a pic or two and putting it in the mail.
The more things change, the more they remain the same... everyone loves baby pics.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Remember, remember

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I know of no reason why gunpowder, treason, should ever be forgot.

Today's is Guy Fawkes Day. Bonfire Night as they call it in England.

It conjures up the smell of bonfires in damp back gardens, crisp leaves underfoot, warm gloves and hat, the smell of cocoa - slightly scorched, the cold seeping through my coat as I sat on the back step and waited for my father to light the one firework he'd bought for the occasion.
A Catherine wheel.

I don't write much poetry these days, but this one was written a few years ago to celebrate that memory, and to comfort a friend who'd just lost her father.

Something Fathers Do

The night her father stumbled through the dark
to set the sky alight
she sat bundled on the cold stone stoop
sucking her bonnet strings until they tasted of soap
and warm spit.

It was Bonfire Night 1956
dark November
the cold air sodden as laundry
scarves of smoke drifted from nearby gardens
where voices rose and fell like flames.

Her father came through the dark
draped in shadows
he hammered just one
firework to the fence
she heard his blows and muffled thuds
he swore and mumbled just to make her laugh.

A match rasped
against his shoe


a spark bloomed
sulphur hissed

she held her breath
as shards of
light spun and whirled and spun
again round and round
crazed with energy and fire.

For just one moment her father's face
lit by the false light
glowed in the thick dark.

She knew then
knows now
barely four and already she knew
knows still
that in presence and absence
that smile would always stand out for her
against the night
she knew then knows still
that even in the dark
her father would always make magic
for her.

With my Dad, 1956, Sussex, England

Monday, October 26, 2009


It was a challenge this weekend to spend so long in the company of so many writers knowing that my book MEETING MISS 405 had been nominated for OLA's 2010 Forest of Reading Silver Birch Express Award - and not be able to say a word.

Until today.
But now it's official.
I'm right chuffed, thrilled, and excited at the prospect of participating in the Forest of Reading festivities at Harbourside in Toronto next May.

And even more thrilled to know that this nomination means this book will find its way into the hands of hundreds of Ontario school children - in the same way that the book's nomination for the BC Young Reader's Chocolate Lily Book Award means children in BC schools are reading it, too.

The Silver Birch Express category is just one of several within the Forest of Reading Award, and I'm privileged to see my book in the company of those of so many other fine writers, a number of whom I've 'met' through the online Kidlit critique group (one of a number of the groups in Compuserve's Books and Writers Community Forum) - moderated by Ontario author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch whose book Call Me Aram is nominated in two categories!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

SiWConference round-up

Surrey International Writers' Conference
Oct. 23 - 25, 2009

  1. Brilliant organization, scads of energetic volunteers, a wonderful array of presenters and collegial participants.
  2. Bumping into participants and presenters who I may only see once a year, but am always glad to spend time with, learning what's new in the business, who's doing what, and what they've been up to in the intervening months.
  3. Attending another workshop by Hallie Ephron - stellar content and workshop delivery every time, even if on the surface the topic is not a direct fit with what I'm doing, I always gain new insights that will help me in my work, and perhaps students in my classes. This year - suspense. Great timing as I will need to use it in my WIP children's novel Escape From the Marshes - a Tale of Iraq.
  4. The fine organization that takes care of all the big (and little details) that contribute to seamless delivery of a great time for everyone. Kudos to The Committee.
  5. TV in bed in my hotel room (I don't have one at home) - esp. the bellydancing class first thing this morning. Too bad I left my tassels and veils at home or I'd have leapt from the covers and and joined in.

  6. All the learning that goes on between workshops and classes.
  7. Being privileged to help writers refine their first pages, queries, develop their concepts, etc. in the Blue Pencil Cafe sessions.
  8. MC Carol Monaghan's offbeat humour and personable style behind the mic.
  9. Awesome contest winners' work.
  10. Gary Geddes' moving poem about the Kent State massacre.
  11. The 'Writing in the Kidzone Panel' with Meg Tilly, Kathy Shoemaker and Richard Scrimgar - I enjoyed playing in the sandbox with you.
  12. Surrey author Carol Mason's ebullient laugh.
  13. Desert at two meals a day.
  14. Seeing a trade show exhibitor display a copy of The Bonner Party Cookbook' - sick humour, maybe, but the title gave me the biggest laugh of the weekend.
  15. Enjoying talking about short stories with Annabel Lyon over breakfast on Saturday, morning, and in the evening learning her book The Golden Mean has earned her
    nomination for The Governor General's Award, on top of her nominations for Writers' Trust Award and the Giller. GO Annabel!


  1. Styrofoam cups in the hotel rooms - which necessitated secreting a cup from the banquet hall in my purse so I could make tea first thing in my room - then hiding it in my suitcase so the room attendant didn't take it away necessitating me to borrow another one.
    (Can't their guests be trusted with real crockery?)
  2. All the people I met for the first time and would loved to have spent more time with - but couldn't.
  3. The fact that I could not share my BIG NEWS with anyone during the entire weekend.
  4. The Surrey councillor who in front of a crowd of 200? people stated that no one has written about Surrey. I'm now compiling a collection/booklist that I will deliver to Surrey Council to help educate them about their own literate community, and how their city is represented in print. Email me your suggestions for the list -
  5. That conference favourite - and one of the best presenters for both delivery and content, Elizabeth Lyon - could not be there - she's recovering from spine surgery, and doing well, according to recent reports.
  6. That I was unable to buy a copy of more participants' books.

  7. That each evening by the time the entertainment part of the day's program came around, I was just too tired to partake.

  8. 365 days until the next conference seems a very long time to wait.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where do ideas come from?

Ideas can be hard to keep up with.

I collect 'germs' (things I see, hear, wonder, read about, etc.) that I throw onto a 'compost heap' (put in a notebook or a new file in my computer), then later 'work over' using Natalie Goldberg's Writing Practise process when I get the time or am in the mood, to see what shoots emerge.

Yesterday and today

Our local paper featured a couple celebrating their 65 wedding anniversary. The one line that jumped out at me was the fact that the man had once been a cook in a prison camp. I made a note of all the questions that immediately came to mind (9 of them), tracked down the man's contact info through Canada 411 and made a note of it in a new file, and filed the clipping and the link to the article on the newspaper's website.

Who knows what will come of that, but something is likely to, one day.

Today's CBC photo gallery features Egypt's Zabbaleen, who I'd never heard of. But I love writing about other cultures, and the ways different children live and survive. Another 'germ' to be fed and watered until something grows.

Newer writers often worry about sharing their ideas. What if someone steals them?

I figure that if these ideas trigger something in you that makes you want to explore and write about them, by the time you're done, you'll come up with something so different than what I might do, that there's probably room for both our interpretations somewhere out in the world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Knuckles McGraw cover well taken care of

Doing the final edits on the Ballad of Knuckles McGraw (Orca spring 2010), I read in the front matter that Peter Ferguson is illustrating the cover, as he did for Meeting Miss 405.
Last time, after opening the box with the proofs, and being surprised to find a copy of the cover enclosed, my first thought was, 'But that's not what I had in mind."
And almost immediately, my second thought was, "But I love it." And I still do - and get many comments on MM405.
I had asked my publisher if they'd consider using PF again for my second book, and I'm thrilled they said 'Yes'.

So I can't wait to see what Peter comes up with this time.

Meanwhile, you can check out more his work here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ready to Write Prompt #2

1. Select one person you know well - a friend, colleague, child, mother...Don't take too long deciding who and what.

2. Now, for three minutes, without taking you hand from the page, write whatever comes to mind when you think of that feature.

3. When you've done that, imagine the hands of an imaginary man - someone you've never seen, met, or planned in your writing.

4. And now, going wherever the writing takes you, write for three minutes about his hands.

You can now either choose to set these writing practise pieces aside and head off to do your shopping, clean the toilet, pay your bills... resume your 'other life', or

5. Write for seven minutes about what might/could happen when these two people shake hands. Follow the idea wherever it takes you, and you might end up with the basis of a story or character sketch......

Ready to Write Prompt #1

As a follow-up to yesterday's Writing From Life workshop, several students decided that getting regular writing prompts might keep them going.

I doubt I'd be able to provide them daily, but I'm offering them 3 or 4 times a week (with the offer of occasionally 'critiquing' one of the pieces that result).

Guidelines for using these the prompts:
1. Don't read the prompt until you're ready to write.
2. Don't take time thinking about the prompt, just pick up a pen (or open a new file on the computer) and start writing.
3. Follow Natalie Goldberg's (Writing Down the Bones) 'rules':
Keep the hand moving / Don't correct or edit as you go / Forget about punctuation, grammar, spelling, etc. / Go where the writing leads / Keep the hand moving...
4. Write for the set time, then stop.
5. Re-read the piece that results, and highlight the strongest line, most compelling idea, interesting phrase or word... This allows you to see just how well you write, and prevents you from dwelling on whatever weakness you might identify. This helps you become a more analytical critic rather than a harsh judge.

So, for writers who wants something to keep them going: Ready to Write Prompt #1

1. Wherever you're sitting now (don't pick a 'better spot'), look around and list seven things that you see.

2. Quickly, again without thinking, pick one of the items and begin writing about it, any occasions, its description... just go where the writing leads... for seven minutes.
3. When you're done, re-read the piece and highlight specific phrases/ideas/words/images that you feel are particularly strong.
4. If another of the individual items have a strong pull on you, write about that for seven minutes, then repeat #3.
5. File these pieces until you feel driven to either build them up into something bigger, incorporate them into a work in progress, or revisit them and have a fresh look at the wonderful ideas/images and phrases that you came up with.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Workshop: WRITIING FROM LIFE Oct. 10 in White Rock, BC

Writing from Life involves exploring your family stories, past experiences, knowledge, skills and interests for germs for fiction, non fiction, poetry and memoir.

Writing from Life involves rooting out the resonant themes in your life to use in all kinds of writing projects for adults or children.

Writing from Life involves digging deep for details than can be incorporated into stories, poems, and non fiction work.

Writing from Life allows you to create bigger stories from small incidents and believable characters from elements of the people you know.

Writing From Life involves understanding the demands of fiction, memoir, biography, poetry and non fiction, and learning how to adapt the germs you've identified for one - or more - of the genres.

Writing From Life allows you to benefit from your writing peers' insights, experiences and interests.

Writing From Life is a dynamic full-day workshop that involves listmaking, brainstorming, in-class writing and discussion for new and experienced writers.

Writing From Life
Saturday, October 10, 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.White Rock Library, 15342 Buena Vista, White Rock $79.00 includes lunch.

Registration info here.
Or call 604.535.1601 or email

Presented by the Surrey Writers' School. Co-sponsored by the White Rock Library.
Just Imagine....

NOTE: All students attending this course receive a free copy of 101-and more-Writing Exercises to Get You Started & Keep You Going by workshop instructor Lois Peterson. (Value $19.95)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

BC Unchained - Day Three

Williams Lake - Barkerville - Wells - Quesnel

Coffee on the road at the only place we saw between WL & Quesnel, with only one other customer eating breakfast, leaving his idea of his 'hybrid' outside.

Loved the miles of farmland before the Quesnel turn off to Barkerville, then the long hour driving between trees, past Wells - after a quick stop at the Quesnel Farmer's market for carrots, crabapple jelly and antipasto, and to hear a song or two from the young fiddler performing between stalls of baking, wood carving, jewelry, and produce.

Didn't expect to love Barkerville (too touristy) but it's been so carefully preserved, and the place was not overrun. And you can get a real sense of history on these dusty streets, with long grass and weeds between some buildings. We found lots to photograph, and a place to eat a reasonable lunch on a table set with doilies and dry flowers.

Barkerville, BC

Wandered through colourful Wells in the blazing heat, then headed back to Quesnel, signed in at the Talisman Motel, and walked along the riverside path into town, past the restored bilding that once housed the Hudson Bay Company trading post.
Then back to our room for a picnic supper, and the novelty of surfing the 83 channel TV - finding nothing at all to watch.
(Doug said I was not to admit it, but I will. No decaf on offer at the Fort Alexandra cafe, so he grabbed one at Timmy's on the highway at Quesnel - our only lapse today.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

BC Unchained - Day Two

Coffee Shops, bear cubs and capris

I guess farmer’s markets are the epitome of buying local. Although all I could find at the Lillooet one today was a very comfy pair of capris ($5!), the perfect traveling pants. I was in search of fresh carrots, but there was only one produce stall with bunches of basil and flowers - and no carrots.

Look interesting? But best avoided.

Not a Starbucks or Timmy’s in town (can that be possible? – what a relief…) the first coffee shop we visited is not to be recommended, despite its quaint appearance and promise of being an Internet café. The café was grubby and unkempt (had the floor been swept all summer?). But after a visit to the Ma Murray exhibit in the museum, we found The Garden Patch coffee shop, hiding right behind the Lillooet Museum. Nice coffee, fresh decaf, and the best sausage rolls I’ve eaten in years - and the place was humming, always a good sign.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch and an hour’s doze in the balmy breezes at Green Lake, in yet another change of topography after the vertical scenery around Lillooet and the barren cliffs – an environment that seem to feel most like home to me – overlooking the Fraser.

And how different is the Cariboo range land around Williams Lake, compared to that near 100-Mile house! I’m constantly awed by the variations in geographic landscapes you can travel through in just two days!

We found a room at the recently-renovated Lakeshore Motel at Williams Lake – flowers everywhere, a grassy place outside our room with a view of the lake. And this is definitely an independent. (We can’t be sure we can say the same of last night’s Mile Zero Motel… but it was the best we could come up with.)

Downtown William's Lake very quiet on a Friday evening, and not far from the local malls, few restaurants in sight. But someone on the street recommended Karen's on 2nd. Avenue where we had a gpod supper for two for under $30... and the side vegetable was stuffed zuccini - not a favourite of some diners, according to the staff conversation going on in the kitchen - but they get points for trying something different.

Today’s wildlife count – a young black bear clambering out of a stream somewhere on highway 97 near Pavilion and one deer in the Cariboo.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

BC Unchained - Day One

DAY ONE: Mountains, mushrooms and malls...

Mountains are everywhere in BC, and on every side as we traveled 650 km from White Rock to Lillooet.

We had a picnic lunch at Murrin Lake Park where we found a fungi straight out of a children's storybook, and watched a man flyfishing alone in the middle of the lake.

We then carried on along the much-improved Sea to Sky Highway - other than an unexpected 1km stretch between just north of Porteau Cove which is still a bumpy single lane that reminded me of a long-ago hair raising-drive along the old highway on a dark, rainy night with a screaming baby in the back of the car.

Highway 99 at Squamish longs to be the Langley Bypass it seems - now lined with Canadian Tire, Subway, Walmart - all the usual suspects... a far cry from the small town that I first saw in the 70s - where a square dance group were performing in an empty parking lot on what was then the main drag.

Bald-headed eagle or turkey vulture? You decide. This taken from the Tantalus Viewpoint.

In Pemberton, I took a pic of the art centre - to celebrate the fact that in Surrey today my dear friend Barb Gould is being recognized as the 2009 Cultural Treasure for all her work for the arts community. Wish I could have been there at the celebratory shin-dig, but she promises pics. So this one's for her,to show how the arts thrive in all parts of the province.

No sign in town of my '70s friend Dave, who in those days lived in a teepee in the middle of meadow just outside town, but we loved the ride along the newly-paved Old Duffy Lake Road, where, until it begins its rise to the sky, travles between meadows where horses graze between old barns.
So to bed in Lillooet at the end of Day One. In the Mile Zero motel - to which we returned after a Greek supper at Dina's restaurant and a walk through town, watching the glowing golden twilight set on the ragged hills across the river.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

BC Unchained... liftoff minus one day

Just as soon as the clothes are packed and the fridge cleaned out and the bikes brought up from the underground parking and the balcony plants watered and moved out of the sun and I remember how to remotely leave a message on my work phone that I won't be back for two weeks and I've saved the files I need to take to my laptop and my to-do list has been checked once, then again and we've had good night's sleep... we're off.

On a long-overdue break.

Traveling around the province unchained - no chain hotels/motels/restaurants/grocery stores if we can help it - just shopping and sleeping and dining local as much as we can.

Can it be done?

Check back from time to time and you'll find out. I'll be blogging every day that we can get a wifi connection, and maybe posting a pic or two.

Right now I have to go and put out the garbage and find a tube of toothpaste... and a map.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Road Trip - BC Unchained

Just 26 sleeps until we set out on our road trip of BC.

We've dubbed it BC Unchained, as the goal - wherever possible - is to eschew all chain hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores, and shop local wherever and whenever possible.

We have no set itinerary, other than to leave home on Sept. 10, setting out in the direction of Pemberton. After that, we will take whichever fork in the road most appeals to us at the time.

Lots of friends and acquaintances throughout the province have invited us to drop by - and we will certainly give them a call if/when we fetch up in their neck of the woods. And if they're home, we'll drop by. But no promises.

The one thing I am collecting is a list of recommended motels, restaurants, etc. We'll carry the list with us, and if we're in the neighbourhood, check them out.

So comment here if you can recommend a funky motel, a world class deli, a great coffee shop (esp. if it's got Wireless Internet) and any other business that meets our criteria.

I'll be blogging as we go.

Friday, August 14, 2009

25 trees celebrate an anniversary and help the environment

Surrey Public Library's
Library Grove

Planting day, Oct. 2, 2008 (Photo: Michael Ho)

In 2008, planning its 25th anniversary year, and as one of the initiatives of its Green Committee, Surrey Public Library came up with the idea of creating Library Grove – a planting of 25 trees in a local park to recognize the value of trees in the library’s collections and of their value to the environment.

It was amazing how quickly the word spread; calls and emails came in from individuals and businesses wanting to sponsor one of the trees. Participants at the 2007 Surrey Writer’s Conference contributed to a tree, children using the library contributed their quarters to buy a leaf on the Children’s Tree...

Photo: Michael Ho

After some negotiation with the City of Surrey, the new Holland Park in North Surrey was selected for the site, and on October 2, 2008 the Library Grove was dedicated, with many of the tree sponsors taking up a shovel to plant their tree.

I left the library in early that year, but of all the projects I’d been involved with over my 30 years there, this is perhaps one I’m most proud to have been involved with.

On August 23 (noon – 3 p.m.) I’ll be thrilled to be reading in the Library Grove as part of the Arts Picnics in the Parks, a project developed by South Surrey writer Virginia Gillespie, who will also be reading along with local editor and writer Sylvia Taylor and poet Heidi Greco.

For the first time since I planted it, I will also have the chance to go back and see how 'my tree' is doing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

SCWBI LA Conference round-up, part 2

Good to know my previous post proved useful. Here are a few more tips gleaned from my scribbles.
(Edited to add that Debbie Ohi, aka Inkygirl is also posting gleanings from her time at the SCWBI. Check it out )

One. Openings.
This may be your only/best chance to grab the editor's/agent's/reader's attention. These five elements of a strong opening came from a workshop by Daniel Lazar, agent with Writers' House and Courtney Bongiolatti, editor with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
*examples are mine, not theirs.
1. Protagonist's age. This needs to be determined early. Not by blatant references such as 'Millie Milani, aged nine years old...'*, but by oblique reference and inferences from which the reader will intuit the age.
2. Voice - here it is again. That elusive element that gives a piece of writing its unique 'ring'.
3. Situation - establish the set-up early. ..The hot air balloon that has become untethered and is carrying its passengers away, the dog crate that has come unlatched giving its occupant one chance of escape, the swing that has passed its point of no return and is carrying the main character above the inner city park... *
4. Tone - in some ways voice might contribute to this, but this element conveys whether the piece will be high action, dark suspense, humour...
5. 'A certain unclassifiable magic' - which can't be described, no formula conveyed, but this is the element that often gives the first reader an 'aha moment' in which they know the work will be something special.

Two. Most editors and agents need to love your work to champion it. They can no longer take chances on submissions that might make it in the market place, that are very close but not quite, that have something undefinable that they hope to tease from the work.

Three. 'Emotional truths drive the best story, but write from the character's conviction, not your own.' Karen Cushman, author

Four. 'When you're writing, separate the writer from the editor from the critic. Then dump the critic.' Karen Cushman, author

Five. Publishers want books that have a purpose on their list, that are not there just because they're 'good'.

Six. When pitching to an editor or agent, define how your book is both similar and different to others on the market. Two-minute 'Elevator pitches' are too long for anything other than lengthy written queries. Find a short hook line that in some way conveys the spirit and content of your book.

Seven. Richard Peck said: (amongst many other things)
'An epiphany is the sharp point of no return.'
'Make rough music out of real speech.' (Quoting Mark Twain on dialogue)
'A story is always a question. Never an answer.'
'We can't always help kids out of the holes they find themselves in. But our books can keep them company'.

Eight. Death is fiction is often better conveyed third hand. Through the actions and reactions of those affected by it. (Paraphrased from a point made by Steve Watkins, author of Down Sand Mountain.)

Nine. If a writer appears to be difficult to work with (overdemanding, overeactive, not respecting boundaries, etc.) an agent or editor is likely to pass on their work, regardless of how good it is.

Ten. Every main characters need to cast a vivid shadow.

That's it for me. Now I better get to work following up on the goals I came away with from the conference. The blog here can provide more words of wisdom gleaned from presentations and speeches by a very diligent bunch of bloggers during the weekend event.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

SCWBI LA conference round-up

While I could not possibly reproduce the depth and breath of the information I picked up at this week's LA conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - and doubt I'll get around to decoding the full notebook of scribbled notes I came home with any time soon - these are the top ten points I thought I'd share with anyone who might be interested in children's books - as a writer, reader, teacher, librarian...

1. While the publishing market is struggling with house merges, downsizing, editor losses, etc, there still is a market for kids' books, and lots of editors, agents and publishers who continue to be passionate about children's books - PBs, middle grade and YA. Especially those that are well written with a strong voice and an original story, or new take on an old idea.

2. YA is thriving, but that means that with a strong market focus on that category, there will still need to be good MGs and PBs for when the focus shifts back in that direction. YA is partly thriving because of the crossover of adults now picking up YA titles.

3. If you've never heard Richard Peck speak, you must not miss the next chance you get. You may not agree with his perspective on everything, but no one could question his passion or commitment, or the compelling presence of this icon of contemporary children's literature. And if you haven't read his work - do so soon.

4. Even the 'quieter' picture books (which right now can be a tough sell) need a narrative arc. Beautiful text won't cut it. You need a beginning, middle, and end, as you do in any story. And they are getting shorter. 750 words is good. 1,000 words is perhaps the max. you'll get away with in most cases.

5. Lots of talk about 'quiet' books, how they are harder to sell. But everyone seemed to have a hard time defining what 'quiet' means. Perhaps it's a book driven more by theme and language than a strong and original story.

6. Voice is often the ingredient that first catches an editor or agent's attention. You develop that by writing a lot, getting so deep into the character that the world and story you convey is expressed in their terms, not yours. Think of music. How you can tell the difference between Bach and Vivaldi, Sting or the Partridge Family. Even if you don't recognize the song or the words they're signing. Tempo and pace contribute to voice. The individual words you use and how you put them together...

7. Children's writers, illustrators, agents and editors are very generous. They share their skill and knowledge, support each other, celebrate each others' successes. I've rarely been in a more collegial environment.

8. Write from the heart not the head - don't over-worry about the market/trends/what your writing peers are writing and selling. When you've written it, that's the time to find out where your story fits and do what it takes to find the best home for it.

9. Conform to what editors and agents want when you submit manuscripts and queries. Check their websites when you start planning to market your work, then again just as you're ready to send it off in case they've changed their criteria. Don't put roadblocks in the way of other writers' work being read (adding to already large submission piles) by sending in work your too early, to the wrong people, in the wrong way.

10. Consume children's books. Not just those of your writing peers. Buy them for yourself, your friends, neighbours, kids' school, to donate to local libraries (God knows, most of them are experiencing some kind of hard times). It one thing to worry about the health of children's publishing, but we need to be supporting it by buying good books.

Speaking of which. I came home with about 85 titles that were mentioned during the conference, which writers I met there had recently published, or had been recognized in one way or another. Here are ten that I plan to track down first - picked at random, purely by titles that most appealed to me... right now. *Indicates those that I have already read

1. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
2. Dust of a Hundred Dogs by A. S. King
3. Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin
4. A Visitor for Bear by Bonnie Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton
5. Wintergirls by Laurie Anderson
6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins *
7. Ash by Melinda Lo
8. The Other Side of Blue by Valerie Patterson
9. Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia Maclachlan *
10. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer memories 6 - Perranporth Cornwall

Perranporth beach, Cornwall
1. Wet sand between my toes
2. The roar of surf in the distance
3. A blur of colour - buckets and spades and windmills and flip flops garlanded around a shop door.
4. My first watch on my 9th birthday from the small jeweler by the park.
5. Creeping around Dad who was watching cricket in the darkened living room - our first TV.
6. My sister and I standing in front of the mirror in our parents' room, peeling strips of sunburned skin from each other's backs - the dry rip of skin, falling to the carpet to lie in curled flakes at our feet.
7. Breaking two dinner plates as I helped my grandmother wash up after lunch of rabbit pie.
8. '99' cones - Cadbury Flakes stuck in bright yellow Cornish Cream ice cream
9. Dry sand drifting along the tiled hallway
10. Sitting on the ground outside before we came indoors, scraping tar from the soles of our feet with shells, kept in a bucket by the door for just that purpose
11. Breaking the crust off a Cornish pasty hot out of the oven behind my grandmother's back.
12. Hunting for yet another pair of my brother's lost glasses on the beach.
13.Creeping barefoot down the lane between the house and the beach before the adults were awake to stop us swimming before breakfast.
14. Postcards on a twirly rack outside the sweet shop.
15. Beach donkeys trotting across the sand
16. Fish and chips in newspaper with too much vinegar
17. Drinking a swig of Uncle Vic's Merrydown Cider
18. Seagulls being thrown about in the wind above our heads on a stormy day.
19. Sea spray stinging my legs as we walked along the water's edge at low tide
20. Water filling the dog's footprints

Monday, July 20, 2009

Balancing Act - a poem

Kirkuk 1959

She did learn to spit

But only after she had learned
to walk along the craggy garden path
carrying stones on her head.

She was soon able to walk
barefoot back straight head held high
without rattling the stones
in the pan from her mother's scales.

When they grew up
her friends wanted to be nurses
or teachers
or just like their mothers.

She wanted to carry water
in a brass ewer on her head
without spilling a drop.

She wanted to spit
like the men in the suq
leaning against doorways
or drinking small glasses of tea
at wobbly tables
listening to tinny radios
as they took slow drags on their hookahs.

They never carried anything
on their heads
like the women
with their water
and wood
and heaps of fruit
dirty laundry on the way to the river
clean laundry on the way back again.

The men spat
as they talked and drank
and the women walked by
so tall so graceful
their steady gaze leading the way
never dropping a thing.

She did learn to spit
behind the pomegranate bush
at the bottom of the garden
while her mother slept
under a lazy fan
in a darkened room.

She was discovered by her father
who forbade spitting.

But he did allow her to borrow
the pan from her mother's kitchen scales
so she could walk around the garden
balancing stones on her head.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer memories 5

  1. Locusts - always the locusts...
  2. Walking around the garden balancing a pan filled with stones on my head
  3. Watching women walk along the street with clothes, food, wood.. balanced on their head.
  4. Men with tweed jackets over the dishdashas feeding their worry beads through their fingers as they sat over chai in the street cafes
  5. Women in purdah, showing only their bejewelled fingers, sailing down the streets like ships in full sail.
  6. All the Iraqi men's sandals looked as if they'd borrowed them from others with larger feet.
  7. A nest of Pi dogs in an abandoned buidling.
  8. The wail of desert jackals at night .
  9. My first taste of halvah.
  10. Date boats drifting down the river.

Summer memories 4

  1. Mothers on the verandah holding sweating glasses of iced coffee to their necks.

  2. Martin Sims and I hiding in the rhodos while the mothers chatted on the verandah - appalled and delighted when we heard one of them say the word 'bosom'

  3. James Menhinnick (he of the handlebar moustache) yelling 'Hold onto your hats' as he drove like a madman across the desert inhis open Jeep.

  4. Popping bubbles in the blacktop with a stick as it melted in the sun

  5. Picnic on the livingroom carpet - hard boiled eggs and gepatti, ginger biscuits and tabouleh salad

  6. A favourite swimsuit with pictures of coloured cigarettes all over it.

  7. The monkey in Karim (the school bus driver)'s mother's house.

  8. Clumps of dried milk powder stuck to the glass
  9. The dark bloom of the Bedu's tents in the far distance
  10. The sound of Fairuz singing from the suq cafe radios

The famed Lebanese singer Fairuz

Summer Memories 3

  1. Toes gripping the rough edge of the diving board
  2. Coke floats
  3. Shopping for weekly candy allowance at the little shop known only as 'The Assyrian's'
  4. Zayah high in the mish mish (apricot) tree, shaking the fruit loose
  5. Watching the movie Pollyanna from an open air rooftop cinema in the middle of town, horns blaring all around
  6. The smell of plastic 'poppa' beads extracted from a box of Tide laundry soap
    'Free necklace included'.
  7. Breaking into the licorice factory through a hole in the wall
  8. Fairy lights strung through the trees for a British Club dance
  9. Running home from a friend's house in a sanstorm with a tea towel wrapped around my face.
  10. Water buffalo being herded past the house from the nearby Shatt al Arab River

    Shatt al Arab River.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summertime memories 2


More summertime memories of growing up in Kirkuk and Basra, Iraq

  1. Looking up from supper on the verandah to see a hoopoe in the bushes.
  2. The flurry of coloured rosettes on the wheels of passing bicycles.
  3. The glow of the brazier where the man poured roasted melon seeds and chick peas into paper cones.
  4. Oil flares belching out smoke and fire as we drove across the desert in the dark.
  5. The bitter lemon taste of sumac spice on lamp kebobs that Zayah cooked over a charcoal fire in the courtyard of our house.
  6. The day the locusts came.
  7. Going fishing with Dad in the mountains.
  8. Doing handstands against the classroom wall at school.
  9. A new bangle.
  10. 'Inheriting' my favourite teacher Miss Flintham's teddy bear Edward.
  11. Waiting on the hot tarmac with my fingers threaded through the mesh fence as we waited for my sister Judith to arrive from England.
  12. Steven being told off for talking Pidgin English, rather than Arabic, to the gardener.

Summertime memories

Working on my kids' novel Return of the Summer Fish, very loosely based on spending a number of years in Iraq as a child... combined with a reading I attended last week by Natalie Goldberg, promoting her new book Old Friend From Far Away, and I came up with the idea of brainstorming a list of memories, 10-12 a day all summer (every day felt like summer then - the unending heat, shorts and rubber flip flops, hours spent at the pool, reading in the cool living room after lunch with the fan creaking overhead, a large insect scuttling across the tiled bathroom floor, ice cubes clinking in glasses of iced coffee that the mothers held to their necks as they discussed dressmaking on the verandah...) to write about later, and consider as elements in the story.

Today my list:
  1. A mud-encrusted 45 record of Cathy's Clown found in a dry wadi
  2. The crunch of pomegranate seeds
  3. Warm goat's milk yoghurt in an enamel bowl
  4. The bray of a donkey on an abandoned building site (or maybe that was Cairo, years later)
  5. The muezzin's call at dawn
  6. Standing still while my mother pinned the straps of a new sundress across my sunburned shoulders
  7. Throwing up on that - or a similar - sundress as my mother pinned the straps across my sunburned shoulders
  8. My friends Bethani and Luli's barebottomed baby brother Ahmed getting tangled up in the rope used to tie him to a post of their mud hut
  9. Squatting beside the wheelchair-confined guard at the Coca Cola factory while my brother and he jabbered away at each other in Arabic
  10. The vendor in the suq throwing out a banner of fabric to display a bolt of Swiss cotton to my mother
  11. Black-blistered bread hot from the gasping maw of the clay oven in the suq
  12. Bare feet sweeping the cool floor under the breakfast table.

A typical suq scene

'Iraq Loved & Lost' - my essay in Maclean's magazine 2002 here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Summer Reading in Surrey

Planning early for some kind of literary activity over the summer. And I'm quite proud of the poster design, too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


One of the few things I've ever won was a bottle of sherry from a jumble sale bottle stall. I was about nine. "You won't be needing that," said my uncle, who promptly relieved me of it.

He said he'd pay me ten shillings for it (this was in about 1960), but I don't think he ever did.

But I do believe he put a hex on me, ensuring I never won anything else again.

But today I heard that my first published children's book MEETING MISS 405 has been nominated in the chapter books/novels category of the 2009-2010 Chocolate Lily Awards. I'm thrilled to bits by the nomination alone.

My book's in great company - the complete list of nominees will be posted on the website any day.

Winning is not the issue here (although if they happened to be giving our chocolate lilies I'd want to be first in line!). I'm just thrilled to be included with a line up of fine BC writers and illustrators whose work will be carefully considered by BC elementary school children as they cast their votes for their favourites.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Meet a real kids' author - in fact, 32 of them!

CWILL BC (Children's Writers and Illustrators of BC)
32 authors ~ Door prizes ~ Book signing ~ Book sales ~ Presentations
~ Win an author visit to your school ~

Saturday, May 2, 1-3 p.m.
Vancouver Public LIbrary, Central Branch, 350 W. Georgia

(I'll be there - do drop by my table...)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Writers mentoring program launched - finally

After a couple of years of thinking about it, research, and tentative explorations, I'm finally ready to promote: Take Five - a writing mentorship program that starts Sept 2009 in the Surrey/Delta/Langley area of BC.

This pilot project will match five new/emerging (unpublished) writers with five experienced (published) ones who for five months will help them refine their craft, develop marketing skills, and connect with the writing community.

The writer/mentor pairs will meet collectively once a month for workshop sessions presented by the mentors. Between meetings, the individual mentor/writer pairs will work together in person/via email to help the writer develop a specific piece of writing, move it closer to publication and explore potential markets.

Individual writers will pay $100 for the five-month program - which will be used to pay for meeting space and other costs associated with the group meetings. Mentors will be asked to volunteer their time for this pilot project. Remuneration for mentors will be explored for subsequent sessions of Take Five.

At the first group session in September, the writers and mentors will draft a workplan, which will be used by each mentor/writer pair during the five months of the program.
Applications are now open to:
1. Published writers who would like to support a local writer in this way, and

2. Local writers who would like to be paired with a mentor to help develop and refine your writing and marketing skills.
Deadline June 15.

Mentor/writer pairings will be confirmed by August 15, in consultation with mentors to ensure pairings reflect the writers' interests and skill level. I am hoping that at least one writer in this first session will be a Grade 11 or 12 student.

If there is enough demand - and enough experienced writers willing to serve as mentors - this program will be offered again in March 2010.

I've posted all the info. and the application forms at my website at Now let's see what happens.

I'm pretty sure we won't have any problems coming up with five eager writers. Attracting four (count me in!) willing volunteer mentors might be the challenge. But I feel sure local authrors will come through.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

When a picture is worth more than a thousand words

Non writers often want to know, "Where do ideas for stories come from?"

Here's one example in my files:

This is said to be a picture of a house built into the cliffs of Portcurno Beach on the south coast of Cornwall.
Despite my best efforts, since I ran across this photo a couple of years ago, I've been unable to confirm that it was in fact taken there, or indeed find anything more about it other than the location noted on the photo.

But as many good pics do, this one has become embedded in my mind (and is now on the desktop of my new mini laptop), and has gradually prompted the idea of a story that links a (fictional) young evacuee child from London (Vera Prentice) with the (real) eccentric Rowena Cade who built the Minack Theatre, which sits on the cliffs high above Porthcurno Beach where Vera is billeted in this house with (fictional) brother and sister Billy and Morva Carne.

I do know that a (fictional) mute seagull also features in this story somehow. But other than that, it's just the ghost of a story distracting me from other projects currently on the go.

Speaking of ghosts... now there's a possibility...

Which might mean that this picture is worth many more than one thousand words.

(This image came from browsing the Francis Frith collection which says it contains "120,000 old photos, maps and books from every village and town in the UK - a GREAT resource for ideas and research. And nostalgia. )

Monday, March 09, 2009

While I'm away...

An interview with me appears on the 'Darby Speaks' blog here:

This blog celebrates KC Dyer's new book A Walk Through a Window published recently by Doubleday Canada. A thrill for time travelers who love a good yarn and a little Canadian history enroute!

Check out the blog for a chance to win a copy of my book, and a bag of wine gums!

I am also the featured author on Orca's website here.

Which is more publicity than I deserve, seeing as I'm out of the country poking around England - this week in the ancient city of Winchester, and next weekend further north in York.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's official!

My second children's book, working title The Ballad of Knuckles McGraw, will be published by Orca Book Publishers in Spring, 2010.

I'm looking forward to working with editor Sarah Harvey again (herself a fine writer, author of The Lit Report, The West Is Calling, Bull's Eye and Puppies on Board.)

And I love being published by Orca - whether I'm talking to teachers, librarians or bookseller about my writing, when I tell them the name of my publisher they nod and smile and enthuse about Orca titles that they have on their shelves, and recommend to readers, students and parents.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writer's Block - or not

It never fails that when I can set aside a day - a whole day from morn until night to write - something happens. Today I am bedeviled by a great reluctance to write.

I don't like to call it writer's block - since when you name something you own it - and I don't believe in it. (Being one of those people who glibly say that writers' block can only happen to those who aren't writing- so write, dammit!)

But what happens to me is that I think I'm on it, charging away sticking words on the page, when a kind of haze comes over me - BOREDOM. Whatever's on the page is not taking flight, coming to life, even sitting up and demanding to take notice.

Which is why I'm sitting here in the middle of a day when I should be able to produce at least 5,000 words (they don't have to be good), and all I've done is come up with two very lame chapters, that even before I print them out I know will be chucked.

So, here are my choices:

1. Keep writing. Keep going. Don't even bother rereading it. Just keep the hands moving. Don't judge, fret or sweat.
The trick with this one, is not to go back during the day to review what I ended up with. But if I pick it up another day I'm sure - I hope - to find something, just one small thing - that is worth keeping, that might not have been there if I hadn't kept going.

2. Reread what I've written, pick out one line, moment, or scene, and start all over with no reference to what's already on the page.
This really does work sometimes. But I just don't feel like doing it today. I'm having too much fun being disgruntled.

3. Move onto another project (It's not like this is the only book I'm working on, for heaven's sake.)
It could also be the reason I've got so many projects that are so close to being able to type - the end - but not quite there.

4. Quit writing, and read something good for 30 minutes.
Right now I'm reading - and loving - Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault and Pain and Wasting by Norah McClintock. But I know that's a slippery slopee. Once I move from writing to reading - esp. something as good as these - it's hard to get back to it.

5. Move from the creative stuff, to the analytical.
I often use a specific plotting process that I kind of overlay on a WIP, which might help me figure out just why I am so bored with what I'm writing - often I find out there's no story goal / plot problem or question inherent in the scene or chapter I'm bored with - I'm just blabbing on about something that no one will be interested in anyway, and that the book probably won't need.

6. Go and eat something.
Bad idea, unless it's because I'm really hungry. The big bowl of my sister's recipe for Christmas Cole Slaw (red cabbage, grated carrots and chopped Granny Smiths) I ate an hour ago should keep me until supper.)

7. Call a friend.
Problematic - if it's a writer (most of them are) they'll either commiserate, which gives me more justification than I need to slink off and do #6) . And if they're not, I daren't tell them I'm only calling because I'm bored with myself.

8. Arrange paper clips is order of size and colour. Do my online banking. Vacuum under the desk. Go out for coffee. Catch up on my ironing....
Perhaps all useful activities in their time and place, but not at all what I planned to do today.

9. Blog about it.
I can confess here, just between you and me, that I've never quite figured out what blogs are for. But in this case, it might be just the ticket. But then I promise, I'll get back to work. Honest.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

February already?

I know that I've not posted here for almost a month - I wonder if it's better to post something, anything, even if there's really little to report. Or save it for when there's real news?

Opinions seem to be divided.

But I can update my annual goal wordcount - the idea was to write 1,000 new words a day, and as of last night I'm at 35,000 words since January 1. A little under, but still pounding away.

My other goal was to read one kids' book a week, and I've not quite achieved that to date. My list - recommended by writing peers and a couple of librarians - leans heavily towards fantasy which is not my favourite - or most natural - genre.

So that's slowed me down a bit. But I must say that I did thoroughly enjoy Marie Rutkoskwi's Cabinet of Wonders and found Susanne Collins' Hunger Games a very compelling read. A couple of random picks of contemporary/realistic fiction titles that came from a recent visit to my local library were Ways to Live Forever by Brit Sally Nicholls (poignant and witty) and Abele - The Girl Who Saw Lions by Berlie Doherty.

And a highlight of my recent reading had to be my kidlit critique group buddy Helen Boudreau's The Acadian Star in which she adroitly combines Canadian history with time travel.

Purposely placing this further down the post than it might otherwise appear - on Tuesday I heard that my second children's novel has been accepted for publication Spring 2010. The contract should arrive any day at which time I'll post full news, complete with celebratory exclamation marks.

That has now got me over the Was-the-first book-just-a-fluke anxiety, which was promptly replaced by the Will-I ever-sell-another-one syndrome?

Meanwhile I'll be reading and writing, working on a voluntary project for CWILL BC (Children's Writers and Illustrators of BC) and counting sleeps until I head to the UK for a visit with family and old friends - and hoping the weather warms up there before I get there in early March.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Talking 'Bout a Resolution

I've got the Beatles songs on the brain after watching 'Across the Universe' for the umpteenth time.

(Don't you just love that word 'umpteenth'? According to Merriam Webster, it means 'very many' or 'indefinitely numerous', first documented use 1918 - a fact that alone gives me the shivers...)
If you've seen the movie, which scene do you prefer? The chilling induction scenes with the puppet-like recrutiing officers moving like some kind of macabre chorus line. Or Eddie Izzard's 'Mr Kite' rendition, which I have been imitating at all hours of the day, much to the annoyance of my husband. Who liked it too. But not as much as me.
(And he had never heard the original!)

In a way the word 'umpteenth' is the perfect theme for this post.

On Jan. 1, I forbore all resolutions that alluded to losing weight, or denying myself chocolate (it won't ever happen!), or doing more yoga, or using the word 'should' less often in word or thought - although I would like to achieve all these in 2009 to one degree or another.

Instead, I wondered if I might in 2009 write the equivalent of 1,000 words a day. But did not declare this interest to anyone, in case it seemed preposterous, or arrogant, or downright foolhardy.

I do urge all my student to write lots, write often. 'Because the more you write the easier it gets and the more you write the better it gets.' An equation that I believe to be true.

(And as I write very quickly - shitty first draft quality only, but quantity regardless - I wondered if a goal of 360,000 words in 2009 would be attainable.

I'm coming out today, not quite having written my 'umpteenth' word. But having achieved 20,026 new words since Jan 1 = 2,225 per day av.

Jan 1: 3,000 of the Shetland Boy
Jan. 2: 1,300 Shetland Boy
Jan. 3: 2,304 of Escape From the Marshes
Jan 4: 3,500 Shetland Boy
Jan. 6: 1,900 Marshes
Jan 8: 1,300 Marshes
Jan. 9: 1,722 Sefiyah's Paper House (a new story that I will set aside now I've pinned the opening scenes to the page, and introduced three of the main characters.)

So that's it. Only 340,000 more to go before Decemnber 31. AM I OUT OF MY MIND?

(I'll be updating the tally each time I add a post here at my blog.)

Meanwhile, a happy and productive year to all.