The Life and Death of a Writers' Group

Stress3I joined Vast Imaginations (VI) in May of 2012. After finding their ad on a bulletin board at a local bookstore, it took me five months to work up the courage to contact them. It’s a move, I’ve never regretted.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the VI writers about writing, publishing, and surviving the writer’s life. They’ve been an ongoing source of encouragement and wisdom. They’ve become people I deeply respect; they’ve become friends.

But, writing isn’t easy. It consumes your time, energy, money, and emotions. Sometimes the stress, the demands, the heartbreakStress1 takes its toll. When one of our members announced her need for a break from writing it threw the future of our group into question. We had five members, two of which were retirees who spent a considerable amount of time travelling, especially during winter months. Who can blame them? If I had the means, I’d blow this popsicle stand in the winter too.

But, with one person stepping back, that left two regular members and we both felt we could not provide the insight and stressfeedback the other needed. You see, the advantage of a writers’ group over a critique partner is the variety of feedback. We decided to close the book on the Vast Imaginations writers’ group. We all left on good terms, committed to staying in touch and committed to being available to one another in the future. For me, it was a sad goodbye. The VI folks helped me through a pivotal time in my writing journey and they will always have a special place in my heart.

The good news: the VI blog will go on with most of our writers continuing on as contributors and, as I take this blog with me to my new writers’ group, we may even gain some new contributors to give our readers new perspectives, insights, and challenges.

The writer’s life is an onward and upward journey. Adaptability is a necessary attribute. While I miss the VI peeps, I’m excited about what I’ll learn from my new group and the new relationships that can form there.

Some other articles you might enjoy:

Perseverance and Defying the Grim Publishing Statistics

This is Your Writer’s Brain on Music

Mark Twain and the Real Injun Joe


Melinda Friesen writes short stories for all ages and novels for teens. She is a native Oregonian who moved to Winnipeg for the only reason one would move to Winnipeg–for love. You can find her author’s blog at
Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Hot Topics Made Palatable for Kids

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the ethical considerations that writers of children and teen material sometimes face.  I mentioned that certain hot topics might be suitable for an older group but not for the younger crowd.  Since then I’ve had time to stew, and – not that I’m taking back all of my words – but really, that last statement is a teeny bit misleading.  It’s not always the topic itself that matters.  It’s the treatment the sizzling number is given that makes a huge difference.  For a sensitive writer attuned to the wants and needs of young children, and with a gift for dealing truth in a palatable way, even grown-up subjects can be given their fair and honest due.

Here are a few examples that I unearthed on a recent trip to my neighbourhood bookstore. Each is a masterful treatment worthy of further study, so for a more concentrated look-see please hunt down these books.


I found a dead birdNon-Fiction: I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids’ Guide to the Cycle of Life and Death by Jan Thornhill, Owlkid Books (2006), age range: 9 -13 years

I found a dead bird. It made me sad but I had a lot of questions, like: Why did it have to die? How did it die? What would happen to it next now that it was dead?

Starting with the discovery of a dead bird, Jan Thornhill covers not only the cycle of life, but also a broad swath of related subjects – loss, coping, and the physical and metaphysical questions that arise when a loved one dies. Thornhill uses clear, no frill language, but never talks down to the young reader.  Information is superbly organized, each piece locking into the next in a logical progression.  Honest, pragmatic, and as one reviewer called it, “life-affirming” too.


the tenth good thingFiction: The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvad,  Alladin Paperbacks (1971), age range: 6-9 years

My cat Barney died last Friday.  I was very sad. I cried, and I didn’t watch television. I cried, and I didn’t eat my chicken or even the chocolate pudding. I went to bed, and I cried.

A classic.  Starting with the death of a beloved family cat, Viorst takes readers on a journey through the tangled threads of grief.  Understated, but powerful in its message, the simple story addresses the questions asked by youngsters who are encountering death for the first time.  A sensitive treatment with a lingering, positive message.


untitledFiction:  My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Abigal Marbel, Tricycle Press (2005),  age range: 6-9 years

Kate is my secret bully. A lot of people would be surprised to know this because they think she’s my friend. And she does act like my friend – sometimes. But lately, I’m not so sure.

Through the story of Monica, a kindergarten student, Ludwig covers the finer points of aggressive behavior – name-calling, teasing, manipulation and exclusion.  In the words of one reviewer, the book “expands our understanding of a ‘bully’ from the boy in the school yard who steals your lunch money – to the person who might want to be your best friend.”

Aging & Alzheimer’s

what's happening to grandpaFiction:  What’s Happening to Grandpa? by Maria Shriver, illustrated by Sandra Spiedel,  Little, Brown & Company (2004), age range: 3-6 years

One Sunday, while visiting her grandparents, Kate noticed that her grandpa was repeating the same stories.

 Shriver broaches a difficult subject with the story of Kate and her grandfather.  Gentle in tone, yet unflinching in approach, the story deals with the issues created when a loved one is affected by Alzheimer’s and undergoes not only memory loss, but also a personality change – in essence becoming a stranger to the rest of the family.


the kissing handFiction: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth E. Harper & Nancy M. Leak, Tanglewood Press (2006), age range: 3-8 years

I know a wonderful secret that will make your nights at school seem as warm and cosy as your days at home. 

Another classic.  Frequently used by kindergarten teachers on the first day of school, Audrey Penn’s story is about a young racoon who, like the young reader, is just beginning school.  Reluctant to leave the security of home and anxious about what lies ahead, the young racoon is reassured by his mother in a way that will resonate with anyone who can recall those fresh-today-as-yesterday beginning school moments.

Facts of Life

where did i come fromNon-fiction:  Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins,  Citadel – Kensington (1977), age range: 6 and up

After leaving the man’s penis, the sperm make their way up the woman’s vagina like tiny tadpoles swimming up a stream.  What they’re hoping to find is one of the eggs that the woman produces inside her every month.  

Straightforward, no holds barred, and using language and illustrations kids will understand, Mayle & Robins unravel the mysteries of puberty, sex, conception, and birth.  On bookshelves for almost 40 years, the book has helped many a blushing adult answer delicate questions that bubble unencumbered from the lips of curious youngsters.

Life or DeathLarry Verstraete ( is a Winnipeg educator and the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters.  His next book, Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible (Scholastic Canada) is set for release in Spring 2014.

Other posts you might enjoy:

The Ethics of Writing for Children and Teens

Nothing But the Truth

Quotes to Get You Over a Brick Wall

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

A Writers’ Association- Get Connected

I joined a writers association for the first time when I lived in Hong Kong for six years. Hong Kong Women in Publishing was a great way for me to connect with other women in the city involved with writing, publishing and editing. We had monthly meetings with speakers–sometimes they were authors, book editors or bloggers. Every year the organization published an anthology of work contributed by members called Imprint and I was fortunate enough to have my memoirs, stories and photographs featured in it.  My involvement with the Hong Kong group inspired me to look for a similar organization in Manitoba when I moved here in 2011.

I joined The Manitoba Writers Guild and have benefited from the group in many ways. They send out a regular newsletter with information about workshops, book launches, calls for submissions and news about members’ successes. It was through the Writers’ Guild newsletter that I heard about Vast Imaginations the children’s writing group that sponsors this blog. The Writers’ Guild offers legal advice, readings and interviews with well-known authors. It provides mentorship opportunities for new writers.  Joining the Guild also garners you a free membership at McNally Robinson a local independent bookstore. That means you receive a discount on every purchase in the store and its restaurant. The guild in cooperation with the Winnipeg Millennium Library sponsors the writer –in-residence program.  A Manitoba author works at the library offering free advice to writers from the community. It was with the help and advice of Joan Thomas last year’s writer –in-residence that I was able to publish my first fiction piece in a literary magazine.

Although writing is essentially a solitary endeavor connecting with other writers is important. Joining your local writers’ association can be an important step on the road to publishing success.

You might also be interested in…….

Cultural Sensitivity

Wish I Had Them in Jamaica

Hustle On Over To the Movie Theatre

MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

What The ‼Ⱡ₰₯#ʔᾇYðϠ₰•₯‼♠᷂᷈ᵷ ҂Ϯʡ¡‼

Now that I’ve got you’re attention…(Bwa ha ha ha ha ha)…I wasn’t really swearing.WOW
You know what has to grab people’s attentionʡ Present them the WOW Factor?

First lines. First sentences. First paragraphs, pages and chapter.

They have got to catch the eye and the interest. They’ve got to get the reader saying,“Wow. What the bloop is going on here?”

Here are some first lines of published books:

  • A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
  • Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped. —Soman Chainani, The School for Good and Evil
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road
  • The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault. —Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
  • We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. —Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.— Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
  • Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening. I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra.Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty
  • The ghost was her father’s parting gift, presented by a black-clad secretary in a departure lounge at Narita.—William Gibson, Mona Lisa Overdrive
  • Lex wondered, for a fleeting moment, what her principal’s head might look like if it were stabbed atop a giant wooden spear.—Gina Damico, Croak1384_designImage_large

Each of these lines has a quality that sets a reader to asking questions— this is different: who? how? what? why? —and questions beggar answers thus they keep reading to find out more. Every starting line of a book, and also the following paragraph, then page and then chapter needs to feed, to inflame these questions.

Talking with fellow writers recently, we spoke about where to start your story, where to find that beginning line and snag your reader by the gills. We as writers need to know a lot of back story on our characters, but to plop that into the beginning, well, none of that is interesting, or important until the reader has met the character, learned at least in part what his plight is and why he should root for him.what-is-intercha

So the beginning of a story needs to start at the point where something significant changes for the main character. Something that shakes up his world, and it has to relate to whatever ending you’ve planned for him, by end meaning the conclusion of the story arc and character arc.

This doesn’t mean every story must start with a murder or an explosion or a fight. With a story deeply internal, and dealing more with relationships or inner demons, rather than outward circumstances, a powerful beginning may be sprung by a loaded conversation between two characters, with things said that have undercurrents (did they really mean that?) that dig deep and cause the characters to do things they may not have otherwise and you begin that escalating domino tumble.

Just remember it’s a change we’re after, or a cause for change, a trigger to set in motion the plot points of your story and keep the readers following.

We don’t want readers, picking up the book and 10 minutes later they’re like:stocks-go-nowhere-heres-what-you-need-to-know


Christina’s motto is:
Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Perseverence and Defying the Grim Publishing Statistics

I had twenty minutes between when my physics class ended and my bus arrived. So, I meandered through the University of Winnipeg halls, reading posters. One caught my eye. In bold lettering it read, “Only 10% of students pass the MCAT,” and urged students to take a preparation course. (The MCAT is the Medical College Admission test)   

But, what went through this writer’s mind after dealing with my .01% chance of getting traditionally published was, “I like those odds.” For a moment, I considered a future in medicine. Statistically, it’s far easier to become a doctor than to become a children’s writer. mCAT

Of course I didn’t know that when I first imagined getting my work published. I had completed three manuscripts before I started thinking about the business of publishing. Three years ago I started querying my first novel. I sent out ten queries, got ten rejections, and quit querying. I realized my writing needed a lot of work. I immersed myself in learning not only the writing craft, but about the publishing world as well. I took classes. I joined a writer’s group. I read writing books and blogs. I learned to swallow my pride and take critique.

Last summer, after polishing my fifth manuscript and spending close to a year working on my query letter, I began the process of querying agents again. Six months, 25 rejections, and four query letter tweeks later, I was no closer to getting published than I was when I started writing.MCat5

My mentor helped me rewrite my query. I researched ten more agents—agents who are interested in my type of book, agents who I felt, through reading interviews and websites, would be a good match for me as an author. Two weeks ago I received my first partial requests for my YA manuscript, Solar. And then, I received another partial request. I could hardly believe it.

A few days ago I began querying my MG manuscript, Snodgaard and the Moustache of Power. So far, I’ve received one request for a full.mCAT2

How did this feel after three years of form rejection letters. Awesome! I was elated. I did my happy dance. I allowed myself to wallow in the joy of having someone interested enough in my work to read more and of having written query letters that did their jobs.

I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist, but I am a realist. If you don’t like hearing the stats on the chances of a new author landing an agent, then stop reading now. Recently on Twitter, one agent shared her numbers. Last year she received over 9,000 queries. She asked for partials or fulls from about 100 of them. She chose to represent seven of them. Yeah, reality bites, but lets deal with it so we can get past it.mCAT4

So I made it out of the 9,000 pool and have jumped into the 100 pool. I’ve made it over the first hurdle. My next hurdle is to make it into the seven pool and receive an offer of representation from an agent. Is that a guarantee of publication? No. The agent still has to pitch it to editors. They have to like it and be willing to take a chance on a new author. More hurdles.mCAT1

But, right now, I’ll rejoice in getting further than I’ve ever made it before. It will be a few months until I hear back from the three agents that have my material. In the meantime, I’m not going to sit around and wait. I’m halfway through my ninth manuscript and I’m polishing a third novel to send out. I have lots of work to do. When those rejections roll in, it will be hard. I’ll probably crawl into my kids’ quinzhee and cry tiny ice cubes. And then I’ll get back to work. If I’ve learned one thing through all of this, it’s that perseverance defies the statistics.


Melinda Friesen writes short stories and novels for teens. She’s proud to say she aced statistics, but hated every minute of it. She resides in Winnipeg with her husband, four children, and three gerbils.

Check out some of her other posts:

A Social Media Resource for Writers

The Physics of Story and Running in Flip-Flops

Surviving My First Book Pitch

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.
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