Private Matters

From a Writing Prompt: Write about someone who tells other private things as if they were close friends:


The bus slogged on and on in the soupy traffic. Stop, start, stop, start. Bore, bore, bore.

Until she got on. I’d seen her before. Can’t forget that face; crooked mouth, leaning teeth, and eyes that looked in different directions. I quickly turned my own eyes downward to my book.

“May I sit down?” said a reedy voice and I looked up to see Ms. Cross-eyes. She didn’t wait for an answer but plunked a billion bags down around her, toppling onto my lap, and sighed. I’d heard of rabbit breath before. Or was it rabid breath. Either way, her’s wafted across my nose and was worse than either of those.

“Ooh, my bunions! Been walking so much I’ve got to give them some air. Oh it’s alright, they’ll not smell, deary,” she said to me. “I use Jonson’s foot powder. Helps with the athletes foot you know.” The shoes came off, then the socks, which she laid in her lap and I discovered she lied. The foot powder didn’t work. I delivered a stare out the window.

She did not take the hint, and carried on, poking my arm for my attention. My mother taught me to be polite always, so I turned back to Ms. Cross-eyes when she sighed again. I stopped breathing for a moment.bilde

“Walking too long is tough, what with 3 ingrown toenails and all. But the problem with sitting is my tailbone’s too long, see. Broke it once. Healed wrong. Now if I don’t sit crooked it digs into my–well–you know.” She leaned my way and grinned, hiding her mouth with one hand, whispering. The bus rattled on through a huge puddle and mud water sloshed on my window.

“Then I get constipation. Terrible you know, you don’t go for days and then your stomach explodes with pain when those logs finally start moving down their track. Doc says ‘remember eat lots of fiber and to use your donut cushion or one day you’ll rupture something.’” She leaned yet more my way.

Her foul breath she didn’t have to tell me about, I could smell that myself.

“So how are you this fine day? Isn’t it a treat out there today after that storm yesterday?”

I muttered a “I’m fine.” Well I was until she started her health tirade.

“Me too, me too. I do despise those cloudy days, makes me cough. And all that humidity, makes for a lot, I mean a lot, of phlegm. My throat just clogs up and I gotta clear it all the time, and that makes me vomit. You know, the pressure combined with all the new food allergies I develop constantly. I’ve such a big house, but since I got my late brother’s dog, I don’t worry about making it to a bathroom in time. Did you know dog’s love vomit? Thank goodness they do. It’s not easy at my age to get down on your hands and knees to clean. Well,” Ms. Cross-eyes giggled here, “Actually it’s easy getting down, but not getting up again. Oh the times I pulled my ligaments or tensions or what-you call them, the doctor was threatening to remove my kneecaps! I ask you, does that make sense?”

I shook my head, but said nothing. I’m only 19 what am I supposed to know? Ms. Cross-eyes sighed and sunk her head into the headrest. I did the same, in relief. then her packages tumbled as the bus flew over a bump.

Ms. Cross-eyes straightened them, looked at me, and when she was sure I was only faking sleep, began again, whispering this time. “Have you ever had an oozing green infection in—”

I stood, pulled the bus string, excused myself and got off, tripping over half a million of those bags of hers. I had no idea where I was, but hey, there’s only so much phlegm and ear wax one can take, after all. I’ll walk home.

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 YA? Respect your Audience

Over a year ago fellow VI blogger, Suzanne Costigan and I attended local writing conference and, both of being YA writers, we chose to attend a session on writing for this age group. Not much from the conference lingered with me, but one thing did. One of the presenters commented that teenagers are “stupid.” Both of us took strong offense to the comment.

I thought the sentiment was isolated, certainly YA writers don’t think of their audience as stupid, until I came across a blog post by another YA author reflecting the same opinion. To be honest, I’m appalled. Why are you writing for an audience you clearly don’t respect?

Because of my husband’s profession, I’ve had the honor of teaching, mentoring, and hosting teens in my home for close to two decades. Twenty Jr. High students in my basement–bring it. And now I also have three teenage children. This is a wonderful time of life, full of growth, discovery and so, so much potential. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every moment with these smart, energetic, and fun-loving young people.

Maybe you’re saying, “but you haven’t encountered the bad ones.” Nope, I guess I haven’t. I’ve encountered more than a few hurting teens. I’ve encountered some that lash out, some that live as though they’re invincible, some that don’t take consequences into consideration when they act.

With my own kids, sometimes I’ve been frustrated. Like when I find the milk in the pantry. Or I worry because they’re coming home late.

But, I have yet to meet a bad or stupid teenager.

I love this age group and that’s why I write for them. Because of their potential. Because of their zest for life. Because they will be the ones that change the world.

Don’t write for them because you want to teach them a lesson. Try listening. Try allowing them to teach you something. I’ve learned so much from them.

In a nutshell: Respect your audience or find a different one.

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.

The Franklin Quandary

pictureWhen news broke last week that Canadian search teams had discovered one of the ships from the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition, it was BIG NEWS indeed. How two ships –Terror and Erebus – and 129 men under the leadership of Sir John Franklin virtually disappeared in the Canadian Arctic has long puzzled historians, scientists, and many an armchair adventurer – this writer among them.  Despite a century and a half of intense investigation, few clues surfaced to tell the tragic tale: three graves on Beechey Island, remnants of a winter camp on King William Island, an abandoned lifeboat, tin cans, the occasional tool, the odd weapon, a few books, a couple of scrawled notes, a number of human bones.  And now, a ship.
View of the newly discovered ship
View of the newly discovered ship
I’ve been following the Franklin story for decades. I’d written about it twice, first in Mysteries of Time (1992) just after anthropologist Owen Beattie opened the graves of three sailors from the expedition, and added lead poisoning and cannibalism to the tale. I wrote about the Franklin expedition again in Case Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science (2012). By then, scientists and historians had uncovered other clues and were just beginning to troll Arctic waters for the lost ships.  My story incorporated the latest facts and speculation – debates about the source of lead, hints about the ships’ locations from Inuit lore, conjecture about the route the sailors might have taken across the ice as they fled their crippled vessels.
Graves on Beechey Island
Graves on Beechey Island
When news surfaced about the Franklin ship, my first reaction was a mixture of amazement and awe. Amazement that searching for a needle-in-a-haystack prize like this ended so successfully. Awe at the astounding combination of technology, expertise and determination that led to this point.
Right on the heels of amazement and awe, though, I had a second rush of reactions. Disappointment led the group.  Here was something new, a huge discovery.  Anyone reading my accounts of the Franklin expedition would find this information missing.  Wouldn’t that date these pieces?  Make them less accurate and reliable, and perhaps less worthy of a reading? Screen-Shot-2013-04-03-at-3_04_44-PMAs writers we face the problem of dating our material all the time. Fiction writers who include references to the latest pop tunes, electronic gizmos, fashion crazes, food fads and the like, run the risk of losing future readers when these latest and greatest trends trade places with new ones. Anyone who watches old TV shows like MacMillan & Wife or Rockford Files and sees someone using a shoebox-sized cellular phone (or perhaps no cell phone at all), knows how quickly dated material detracts from the story.
Non-fiction writers run similar risks. Sometimes facts that seem solid and indisputable become less so with the passage of time, not through any fault of the writer, but simply because new and more current facts supplant old ones. Case in point: Pluto. Once a mighty planet like eight others, it is now considered to be something less – a dwarf planet.
imagesT552DDA4But non-fiction material also becomes dated when current information is omitted – Franklin’s ship, for example. While my accounts are still factually accurate for the time they were written, by not mentioning the discovery, they assume a yellow-with-age quality.  Hence, my disappointment at hearing the Franklin news.
Along with disappointment, I also felt helplessness. There was no way to add new information to my books. Even if they were to be reprinted someday by the publisher, tampering with the original files would be a costly, unwieldy affair, hardly warranted by the addition of a line or two of updated information.
Disappointment and helplessness aside, I experienced a flood of questions, too. Which ship was it – Terror or Erebus?  What combination of factors brought it down at this spot?  What new things will we learn about Franklin, his men and the ill-fated decisions they made?
Irrational decisions by the crew add to the mystery
Irrational decisions by the crew add to the mystery
Isn’t this the allure of the Franklin story? Uncertainty.  Speculation.  More questions.  The best a writer can do is to tell the story with the facts at hand, and leave the door open for new information.  In Case Files, I ended with such a line: For now, the Franklin mystery remains very much an open case, a puzzle with many more questions than answers.
It’s entirely possible that we will never learn exactly what transpired, and every written account about the Franklin expedition will be judged incomplete at some point. For writers like me, discoveries like the Franklin ship just mean having yet another opportunity to tell the story again.
Franklin search crew
Franklin search crew
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Larry Verstraete ( is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters. His middle grade novel, Missing in Paradise, is scheduled for release by Rebelight Publishing Inc. in November.
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.

What An Improvement!

I read a non-fiction manuscript at my writers’ group meeting last week. I’d been working on the piece for a long time and had already submitted it to some publishers. I had debated whether I should read it, since a number of the group members had already critiqued an earlier draft. I’m so glad I did. There were new people in the group, and everyone, including the people who’d heard my earlier draft, had valuable advice to offer.  They made excellent suggestions. 

Would it be good to add more sensory detail to some of the descriptions? Of course it would. 

Could I organize the examples in my text in chronological order? Why hadn’t I thought of that? 

Might I include more varied examples age wise and gender wise? Absolutely! Why hadn’t I noticed that the examples I’d used were often similar? 

Was the first paragraph really necessary?  Reading the manuscript over again I knew it wasn’t. It prevented the reader from jumping right into the text and wasn’t that exciting or realistic. 

Weren’t there some places where I should use stronger verbs? What an improvement that made.  

Did I want to reconsider the title? I was offered suggestions for titles that were more direct and catchy than the one I’d picked. 

Would it be good to be even a little bolder and more direct in addressing the controversial issue at the heart of my book?  It would. 

The feedback of my fellow writers was so helpful that I plan to read the manuscript to them again once I’ve reworked it. I also want to let a number of  other people read it. Getting feedback from other writers does IMPROVE your manuscript. 

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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.

Opening Doors

b72c42d050f4d83eb6a7d7f6d2308472Writing is not just just churning out words into sequence. It’s about opening doors and exploring the mysteries beyond.

The thrill may lie in the deeper exploration of a character in your story, one whom you don’t know well yet. Or it may be a trek into how some of your characters react to each other.

And there’s the possibility of discovering uncharted settings that throw wide a whole new world of scenarios, options or difficulties for your protagonist.

My major work in progress takes place in one location. So I have this boarding school, a 1500’s converted estate home located in England. I saw it in my mind’s eye as an austere stone affair with expansive grounds and formal gardens surrounded by 12′ granite walls. I had no trouble originally placing certain things on the yard: a bog, a summer kitchen, a carriage house, a herb garden, etc. And inside too, I sat and dreamed up the usual school type things, set in a building still full of armoire’s and persian rugs and portraits and panelling. Antiques, alcoves with suits of armour, ballustrades, corbels, and I could go on and on, but I’ll not spill all my ideas, my inner doors.d5700cce922769270e1df24601c619c0

But sometimes, when it comes to the minute details, my minds eye wants a magnifying glass, a bit of help. Because it’s true what they say about the details, and in writing, so long as you don’t get carried away, the details are what helps put readers right in the action and feel like they are in the pages of your book.

That’s when I open doors from without. Anyone who’s read enough of this blog knows how I love images—drawings, sketches, photos. It’s the artsy fart in me. And when it comes to detailed ideas that prick the imagination on to greater heights, images do it for me.

So for the above story, I began to look around for details provided by a picture of all the small things on an old vanity, what all hangs in a toolshed, or what falls out of a suitcase found in a 200 year old attic. A perfume bottle collection with one tiny bottle of something that smells vile–poison? A sickle, rusted, hedge shears, exceedingly sharp, small animal traps. Papers so old that they crumble to dust in your hands, but you catch your grandfather’s name with a large red cross through it. All these things can spawn ideas or snippets for a fuller story.

77ba78c8c51a46c913f51bb74048c613Recently I had a tremendous brainwave for a book. I had been looking at several unrelated pictures that I found pleasing to the eye, and badda-bing–they amalgamated unprovoked in my head as a rather unique novel worthy idea. I proceeded to make copies and began furious scribbling. The doors don’t always stay open long so catch those snippets. Tie them down and nourish them.

There are other sorts of doors. Listening at the coffee shop, in the mechanic’s garage, at the hair salon. Taking note of smells, of rain, cigars, the bakery, a florist shop, cheap perfume, a fresh heap of doggy doo as you go for a walk. Don’t ignore them. Don’t worry about the new idiot at the office. Think about these things–that’s opening a door.

“Good writing is in the specifics,” some writer said. What would you rather read:

  • “The boy was blond.” or
  • “As he leaned against the window frame, his hair blended with the morning rays shining into the room.”

This tells us so much more and sets a mood. It opens a door for the reader too, and welcomes him in. He’ll feel at home.

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)
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