Do You Have Ink in Your Blood?

HPIM0065Ten years ago when our son moved out of the house for the last time I quickly took over his bedroom.  I peeled off ancient wallpaper, patched and painted, bought new office furniture, and custom-made a few pieces in my workshop.  I threw pictures on the wall, erected shelves, rolled out a rug and moved in.  Having a space of my own where I could write unencumbered was a dream come true. I congratulated myself on reaching professional status.  I was a real writer at last. It’s only now I realize I was somewhat confused.

I wrote my first two books in the basement on a 64K computer with a floppy disk drive that for its day was the latest in technology.  It was a family computer, the only one we had and so I had to negotiate time. Mostly I used it at night after the kids had finished pecking out the alphabet or playing memory games on it. It took 5 years to write two books this way.

images9CWOLCQXIn the middle of my third book, I faced a looming deadline.  I packed up everything – files, crates of research material, printer, newly purchased laptop – and moved into my tiny basement workshop.  I set up a folding card table between the table saw and drill press, strung sheets of plastic from ceiling joists to zone off the area, and hunkered down to work. I let it be known that unless blood-letting was involved under no circumstances was I to be bothered.  For the most part, everyone cooperated. My wife – bless her – kept the kids at bay and brought down sweets to stave off starvation. Even the dog stayed away.

Other books followed, all written in different locations around the house or in coffee shops I frequented.  When my 25 year old son, who had already left and returned home a few times, made what I considered to be his final move, I was more than ready to claim his room as my own.

Oddly enough creativity and productivity didn’t increase significantly.  Life intervened with a few curve balls – a new granddaughter, a kitchen renovation, aging parents – and the surplus time I imagined having when I retired from teaching largely went to other things.  All this forced me to re-evaluate my self-worth.  Was I any less a writer now?

I’ve come to the conclusion that being a professional might have less to do with actual writing than it does other things. Think deadlines, royalties, tax forms, accountants, media hype, a fan base, websites, speaking engagements, a Facebook presence. For many writers, these are indicators of writing success, but notice the absence of the word ‘writing’. Being a professional writer sometimes has more to do with the business of writing than writing itself.

images608ON831There is another breed of writer who is often forgotten in our quest for professional status. There are writers who have ink in their blood, and while they might also write professionally, they are motivated by different things. Writing is their way of making sense of the world. They write for the joy it brings, not necessarily for glory or money although these are nice side benefits if they come. Writers with ink in their blood write because they must, it’s an integral part of who they are, it’s their chosen form of expression.  They write even if a paycheck isn’t in the offering, and they write often, from anywhere whether it’s from a basement workshop, a jail cell, park bench or even from a newly appointed office.

Larry Verstraete ( is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters. Science, history and true adventure are his favourite subjects.  His version of nirvana is writing about topics that weave together all three.

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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.

It Doesn’t Add Up

I wasn’t expecting to get rich when I decided to try writing for children. I’d already worked for several decades as a free-lance  journalist so I knew that only a lucky few writers actually make a living wage from their craft. But what I didn’t expect when I decided to try my hand at writing for children was that it would prove to be such a costly venture. Below are my expenses after two years of working in a dedicated fashion to get a piece of my children’s writing into print. 

Books I’ve bought about children’s writing- $100

Institute of Children’s Literature correspondence course- $700

Postage for mailing manuscripts to magazines and book publishers- $200

Online course in writing a middle grade novel and the supplies necessary for the course- $75

Membership in Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators- $90

Membership in Manitoba Writers Guild ( 2 years) – $120

Subscription to The Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Magazine- $25

Buying middle grade novels and teen books  to read and study as models for my own writing – $350 ( a very conservative estimate)

Trip detour to do research for a middle grade novel- $250

So I’ve invested well over $1500 so far and I’ve earned nary a penny. Even if I do sell an article to a magazine I’ll probably get around a hundred and fifty dollars, although depending on the magazine I may not receive any cash at all but rather free copies of the issue in which my work appears as my payment. If I manage to sell a book manuscript there is a good chance I’ll only receive payment once the book’s expenses have  been covered in sales. 

When I read blogs and newsletters and magazines about children’s writing their advice to writers who aren’t getting attention from publishers is to attend a conference or a workshop where you can meet editors in person and network with them.  Cost of these conferences and workshops?  Usually around the $1000 mark and that doesn’t include travel and other expenses.   I’m still considering whether this would be a worthwhile investment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely loving my exploration of the craft of writing for  children. I’m meeting interesting and talented people in my writers’ groups and courses. I’m learning many new skills. I’m reading wonderful books for teens and middle school children I’d never considered reading before.  I’m challenging myself by trying to write in a new genre and it’s improving my writing in other areas. 

The bottom line is though, that contrary to what I had planned, writing for children is turning out to be an expensive hobby rather than a modest way to supplement my income.  

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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.

Books I Wish I’d Written

Reading an article on writing, I discovered this exercise:

“Write a list of books you wish you had written.” I will further that by adding, then list why you have chosen each book.
This is a great way to find what you are passionate about and what elements you truly appreciate in a story. It has been said we often write best when we write for ourselves, for then we really pour our heart into our work.

Here is a list of a few of my wish-I-had-written-this books, followed by the why’s thereof. In no particular order:

Charlie Bone series
Jenny Nimmo
Fantastically foibled protagonist who keeps going against all odds. Series is great fantasy without all the predictable fantasy plot points, but new and fresh.
Theodosia series
–R.L. LaFevers
Precocious and inventive, Theodosia maneuvers well in a mostly adult world in the unique setting of a museum filled with cursed artifacts. Enough of a sidekick in her eerie cat and pickpocket friend to flesh out her character.
Florence & Giles
–John Harding
Another girl in an adult world, very internal. Absolute WICKED plot twist at the end, that makes you say “Wow- I did not see that coming.” And yet totally believable.
Kate Morton books HIstorical fiction. Very intricate, well crafted stories with vivid settings and wonderful characters. You want to be there with them.
James Herriot books No one tells it better. He takes you out on the Yorkshire Dales calving with him, your hand up inside the cows, the sweat pouring down your bare back. You don’t read it, you experience it, and he’s honest and perceptive.
Harry Potter
–J.K. Rowling
Amazing characterizations of all cast and brilliant dynamics between them. Very inventive, every element in the stories counts for something.
Flavia de Luce series
–Alan Bradley
Protagonist is an innovative, inventive girl with a penchant for chemistry, poisons and death. She’s resourceful. The author’s language is full of brilliant ploys on old clichés and magnificent similes and metaphors in keeping with Flavia’s character. My all time favourites.
Susanna Kearsley books This author romances History in a captivating manner, with almost magical hints. Great characters that come alive. A little romance but not overwhelming.
Lemony Snicket books Language, language, language. No author plays with it more creatively. A unique tongue-in-cheek style. No conforming.
Enchanted Forest Chronicles –Patricia C Wrede Also very tongue-in-cheek. Incredibly unique characters that do not fit any molds. Bits of fairy-tales are woven in in a sly and humourous way.
–Guy Gavriel Kay
Beautifully intricate and intense use of Celtic folklore in and out of a contemporary setting. Well crafted story.
Gordon Korman’s early works Pure fun. So outrageous and yet believable. Fabulous character creation for all cast, loaded with idiosyncrasies that flavour everything that goes on.
Kay Thompson
Language. Another author who plays lyrically with language making it up as she goes. Eloise is incorrigible and impulsive but fun and thoughtful too.
Robert Munsch books Language again. The characters and words sing through your head. Unforgettable.
Paddington Bear
–Michael Bond
Whimsical and lovable for his good intentions, his antics have chain reactions that get out of hand and have you chuckling.

So what do I get from this?

I like plot that is very out of the ordinary. I like fantasy, mythical and historical elements, not too much romance. (Romance in most books is waaay too predictable for me.)

I like inventive use of language, good description and setting I can easily picture myself in.

I appreciate humour, sarcasm and wit. And laugh hysterically at absurd shenanigans. 🙂

I root for girl protagonists who are quick witted, with enough grit to not fear getting involved or getting dirty. Who are stubborn enough to not take no for an answer when she feels something is attainable however hard. (Shock–I just described myself. 😮 )

I love, love, love great characterization. I will read a book with great characters even if the plot is weak, but will put down one where the plot is good but the characters not quite real.

And now? Now I know how I ought to write. Happy scribbling—happy typing!

P.S. You can do the opposite too. List books you’ve read that you absolutely would never want your name stuck to, and list why. Then, never write that stuff!


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)

Writing with Kids in Tow

I originally published this post on my personal blog, so to some it may be familiar. For everyone else: Enjoy!

My kids are my priority and my writing needs to fit around them. The writing has to be Photo_080410_006flexible, not the kids. But there’s more than a few times where there’s tension between the two.

In my house there’s a never-ending demand for food, probably because I have boys. One day stands out in my mind. I had made everyone breakfast, cleaned up from breakfast, and put a load of clothes into wash. I promised myself once this work was complete and the children otherwise occupied, I would spend some time writing.

After five minutes of writing my youngest finds me. “Mom, I’m hungry.”

“We just had breakfast.” I check the clock. It’d been almost two hours. “Why don’t you go and have a banana.”

He disappears up the stairs. I sank into a scene in my book and I was just gaining speed when Mom & Jasonhe appeared at my side again.

“I’m still hungry.”

“How hungry?”

“Really hungry.”

Heavy sigh. Shoulders slump. “Okay.” I close up shop and go upstairs to make lunch. 

Here’s a few strategies that have kept kids and Mom happy.

Contract a time. If they’re home, especially over school breaks, I contract an amount of time with them. “Mom’s going to go write for one hour.” I set a timer. “I don’t want to be interrupted unless it’s an emergency.” They’re usually pretty respectful, but if they forget I point to the timer. It’s also been helpful to frame this in terms they understand. “How do you feel when you’re in the middle of building Lego and I tell you you have to go to bed?” Then they can understand how the interruptions feel to me.IMG-20130826-01206

Involve them. When I need a teenage word, I ask them. One day I was searching for a name for a villain. I asked them over dinner and we had a lively and hilarious discussion. They came up with some great villain names. Another time I told them a story and asked them how they would finish it. They’re amazingly creative and came up with endings I never would have thought of.

Keep them informed. I had been furiously editing one of my manuscripts when my son asked what my book was about. It struck me that I had never told them what this particular book was about. So I pitched it to my son. As I went on the edge of his lips started to curl and his eyes got wider. Was he holding back a smile? When I finished he let the smile go. “She’s a superhero,” he said. I cocked my head to the side. I hadn’t thought of her that way, but I could see his point. Not only did he help me to see my protagonist in a new light, but I now had him rooting for this book too.

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.

He says, she says… The Power of Dialogue


“Do you remember this one?”

My wife wiped beads of perspiration off her brow.  Shielding her eyes from the blazing sun with one hand, she pointed to a scraggly, thorn-laced bush with the other.


“You were in your nothing box again, weren’t you?” she said.

“No, not really.”

But she wasn’t fooled. “Yes you were. You were a million miles away, thinking about something else.” She planted her feet on either side of the thin trail and pointed again. “We’ve seen this plant before. Earlier on the hike.  Remember?”

“Buckhorn cactus?”  It was a wild guess.

“You’re hopeless.  Look, this is getting serious. Red berries. Small tight leaves. Prickly thorns. Who cares about the name. It’s a very unusual plant and we’ve seen it before.”

She marched on. “We’ve walked in a complete circle.  We only have an hour –  maybe less – of daylight left.”

I plodded behind, legs weary from long miles.

“Hopeless,” I heard her mutter again.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a stellar piece of literature, but before you trash it completely, let’s tally what you might have learned:.

  • I have no memory for the names of plants and no intention of learning them
  • I often drift into my ‘nothing box’ – that mysterious place of deep thought, a state of semi-consciousness that blocks out any sensory input, something my wife claims is universal for guys
  • My wife and I have been married a while (40 years and counting); enough to know each other’s habits and (shudder) each other’s thoughts
  • We like to hike; my wife takes the lead; I have trouble keeping up

Alright, enough about us. What else, dear reader, might you have learned from this passage?

  • Place: desert
  • Time: late afternoon
  • Temperature: Hot and getting hotter
  • Mood: frustration escalating into desperation
  • Problem-conflict: Not entirely clear. Lost? Time running out? Marital issues? (Nix the latter. We’re fine)

chatterSuch is the power of the scene.  In a few short lines, the reader learns much.  But in my example, notice what mechanism is doing most of the heavy lifting.  Dialogue.

The bantering exchange between us tells the reader a great deal.  The words we say, the way they are conveyed, the actions that accompany them – pointing, plodding, marching – all reveal subtle bits of setting, character, mood, and conflict.

Scenes show rather than tell. And there’s nothing more engaging that a healthy exchange to advance the plot and keep the reader glued to the page.

Larry Verstraete ( is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters. Science, history and true adventure are his favourite subjects, and he is happiest when writing about topics that weave together all three.

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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.
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