Journal Your Characters

Do you need a new method to tackle a new novel? Is your current one not gelling like it should? Here’s something that might work for you.

As my first manuscript is undergoing what I hope is the last revision before submission (cross your fingers for me, peeps) I am beginning another one separate from that series.

A whole new world to explore, a whole new set of characters and a a new protagonist who likes to make herself known, very different from Lexi in my first book. But the idea for this novel, again for middle grade readers, spawned from a series of photos as a setting, not a story line. So I took the setting, brainstormed a protagonist who might fit into it, and just a whispery spidersilk of an idea.

So, how to flesh this out? How do I get to know my cast of characters and see where this takes me? How do I find out what my spunky Octavia has to say about what’s going on around her and to her?

A favourite author of mine uses scrapbooks and a journal to collect images, research and notes about her stories. I decided to adapt that to my use. 20140616_173110

Since the story idea sprung from images, I created an album of pictures that could populate my story: buildings, scenes, people and actions. I knew I wanted Octavia to live with her family in a mansion of some sort with a village nearby. I searched for mansions on google maps. It’s amazing how close you can zoom in. I found a small castle that fit the image in my mind, but it was in Belgium, so I “moved” it to an area of England that suited my needs better. In Kent I found a little village with a river alongside and room for the castle on the other bank of this river, (that part’s important,) and voila! I printed maps of the area, tailored to suit my needs and printed them out large. Bits of fact and bits of fiction.20140616_173359

I love journals. So I bought 2. A dollar store one for rough, off the cuff notes and scribbles, bare bones ideas and questions. The second is a nicer one with a hardboard fabric cover that lies open beautifully for easy writing. This second one has become Octavia’s journal. In it I write, in her voice, totally random scenes that I am exploring for possible use in the story. I also wrote up a list of people’s names from which I can draw when I need a barber, or a shopkeeper, or an electrician or a school bully.

I have many quick reference lists in this journal,about Octavia’s quirks, her weaknesses and strengths, her likes and dislikes. (For this I used the mobile app Writers’ Lists–incredibly handy app.)

Like a scrapbook, I insert pictures–from the internet, magazines, catalogues–that inspire me and I use those like firestarters. And so I write all sorts of things that might go through Octavia’s head, things she might experience. I explore her relationship with her cousin, her friend, her parents. I discover how she reacts in situations. It’s like whenever you make a new friend or acquaintance–you don’t know them all at once, you have to go through hell and high water to understand them. And when I know my protagonist well, I will understand what she needs thrown at her to make her story worth reading.

Besides that, this way it’s a heck of a lot of fun and keeps the journey interesting!


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)

Dos and Don'ts of Book Cover Design

designI’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t have much design sense.  When it comes to choosing paint colours, arranging furniture to maximize feng shui, or figuring out what configuration of flowers and shrubs looks best in the garden, I’m at a loss.  Usually, I play to my strengths.  My wife has a design gene I appear to be missing, so I let her decide and nod my head in approval when it all comes together.  So when Rebelight Publishing Inc. arranged a meeting to discuss the cover for my novel, Missing in Paradise, a voice inside my head whispered Really? You want my input? You’ve got to be kidding.
With other publishing firms, I’d never been consulted about a book’s cover. Traditional publishers mostly treat authors and designers as separate commodities. Often authors don’t see the cover until the book comes out.  If they like it, that’s fine. If they don’t, well… too bad. But Rebelight does things differently.  As the company name implies, Rebelight’s founders liken themselves to rebels lighting the way, carving creative inroads through dark forests of tradition.REBELIGHT_LOGO_4C
Before the book cover meeting, I received a digital draft of the cover to consider. Admittedly, I was stunned.  The cover was a composite of vividly coloured, boxed images, each one representing an element from the story. It was unlike anything I’d seen elsewhere and very different from what I expected.  I showed it to my wife, she of inherent design instincts.  Her reaction was similar. ”Well, that’s interesting,” she said.
Interesting, it was. Effective?  Well, I wasn’t so sure.
When I arrived at the meeting, Rebelight’s creative director, Melanie Matheson, a recipient of several design awards, calmly eyed a stack of books I carried. These were from my collection, books with covers I admired and thought were effective. “Oh, good. You’ve brought samples,” Melanie said, clearing a space on the table.images3I7I7BTY
Together we sifted through the pile. I told her what I liked about each one. She patiently listened and interjected occasionally with comments.  After, we discussed her design for Missing in Paradise, and Melanie walked me through her rationale for each component.
All in all, the meeting reinforced something I already knew. That missing design gene – yep, still missing.  But I also came away with new understandings of all that goes into a book’s cover and a stronger trust in experts like Melanie who do it so well.
Here are a few things I learned in my meeting with Melanie.
  • To stress the ‘Missing’ part of the title, Melanie added a hand to hold the word, enlarged the letters, and fanned them outwards to create a ripple effect of motion. She positioned the ‘in Paradise’ portion below it and opted for smaller letters so the reader’s eyes would be drawn primarily to ‘Missing’ with its implied promise of adventure inside.title
  • Boys like the colour yellow. Melanie chose yellow for the title’s hand and sprinkled yellow elsewhere on the cover to entice boy readers to linger and look inside.plane
  • About 8 % of males & O.5% of females are colourblind. Melanie avoided colour combinations which are trouble for many of the afflicted. Instead she used other vibrant colours.bear
  • In the fashion world, hot colours of the moment are turquoises, browns and greens. Melanie used a background of stripes from this colour palette to give the book its jazzy and current appeal.waves
  • In this era of video games, kids – boys in particular – are attracted to quests, and they’re pretty astute at solving complex puzzles. Melanie’s design features an array of puzzle-like boxes, each a component of the treasure-hunting story inside.knife
  • Titles should be positioned at the top of the cover. That way, when books are displayed on a table and the top of one overlaps the bottom of another as is often the case, the title is still visible and easily read.cover - early pdf
Those who say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ have it all wrong. The cover’s tone, the colours it flaunts, the position and size of the title – everything on the outside of the book should reflect the content within and invite readers to delve deeper. To that end, I offer a toast to Melanie Matheson.  Here’s to you, Mel.  Job well done!
Other posts you might enjoy:
Make it Snappy – Writing the Just Right Book Blurb
Writer’s Friend – The Canadian Children’s Book Centre
Making a Difference for Writers on a Shoestring Budget
Larry Verstraete ( is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters, many of them offshoots of weird and unexpected occurrences.  His 14th book, a 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.

Is Blogging Important for Authors?

On Monday night Sean Michaels won Canada’s most lucrative literary prize- The Giller- for his book Us Conductors. Did you know Sean Michaels first earned public recognition for his blog called  Said the Gramophone? One reporter wrote of Michaels, “He has gone from popular blogger to Giller Prize winner.”

This is the third in a series of blog posts about whether authors need to have a blog.  I’ve done some research and here are six reasons I’ve found for why writers can benefit from a blog.

1.  A blog can be a content collector for your book. You have a central place to record information about places you visit as you research settings for your book, post descriptions of people you meet who may become characters in your book, and format essays about ideas that may be key to the theme of your book.

2.  Many publishers and agents want you to have an author platform and a reader community before they sign you.  Your blog can provide this.

3. Having a blog allows you to be part of the blogging community. Writing is a solitary endeavour  and your blog can you help you connect with other writers and people who may be able to provide information and ideas for your writing. A blog can help you build a network.

4. Blogs are a great place for non-fiction writers to showcase their expertise on a certain topic.

5. It is important for authors to dialogue with their readers. The comments section of a blog allows you to do just that.

6.  If you publish a book you will need a media hub for book reviewers, television and radio interviewers and feature story writers.  A blog can host your media kit and be a place for the media to find out about you and about your book.

In this three-part series I’ve examined different ideas about authors and blogging.  To blog or not to blog? You make the call.

Read my other two posts about blogging…..

 A Blog Does it Matter? 

Does An Author Need to Blog? 


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.

Ergodic Lit

Sounds a little too much like the other kind of literature whose genre begins with an E but trust me, it’s quite different.

We were introduced to this genre of writing at our last writer’s meeting. And yet not introduced. We’d seen it, not very often, but didn’t know it had a name.

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski is a prime example of ergodic literature. Here are a few screenshots of the book:House of Leaves 440-441trSome of the text is “normal.” It has footnotes. But even the footnotes have footnotes, as they carry on with other bits of the fiction novel. The set-up makes you sit-up and pay attention. The reader interacts with the story, because sometimes when the characters experience down times, the text goes straight down the page. If there is turmoil, the text follows suit by being a jumble or by being superimposed over top some smaller text.

It’s creative, it’s thought provoking–it’s art!.

Think of children’s books being like this. I mean, chapter books. We know picture books do this. They have lift the flap pages and pop-ups and doo-dads and hiccups. Full flaming colour. And then we move on to chapter books. Kids books have come a long way and are lively, with great illustrations. but there’s always a percentage of kids that go off books, when they have to read them themselves, at least for the most part.

What if they start reading, because a teacher or aunt or bus driver is standing over their back with a report card, and their phone or i-pad or x-box is burning a hole in their pocket. They’re reading, um, yeah, whatever, mostly looking at the pictures, and they turn the 3rd page and pow–the text is in mirror writing. Or in a checkerboard. Or in a big spiral and you have to read it from the inside outward turning and turning and turning the book? Hey, cool! (I wrote letters to a school chum like that. She was kerfuzzled. Still, she never forgot who I was.)

These days, attention spans are shortened and people are used to instant gratification. Fast food, one hour photo, speeding tickets–the list goes on. Books are full of intrigue and suspense. Who of all these characters we meet is the bad guy?? What is the priceless treasure they will find under the bed mattress in the dump? You’ve got to keep reading to find out. That takes—like—forever.

Pictures help keep kids interested. Heck, they keep me interested. But what if more kids books were ergodic?Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events uses this technique in a few places. Someone uses the word ever in a sentence and in order to stress this, the word ever is repeated for an entire page. Elsewhere, he has a full page spread in just black. Not black text–just blackness. He also repeats an entire page but in such a way you know it’s not a printers error. It’s part of the story.

Would the ergodic technique help reluctant readers develop a passion for reading? I concur. The variety in page lay-outs, text size, shape and direction, make the reading more interactive and give a certain gratification in bits at a time as you progress through the book. Splash a little colour here and there as a bonus, and a few images for the younger readers and bam—interactive experience that still amounts to just reading, no button pushing, and no intrusive beeping.

Besides, wouldn’t it make reading to your kids more interesting? I definitely concur. Now I just need to snoop through the bookstore and see if there are any kids books out there like House of Leaves.

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)

How to Start your First Novel: Four Simple Steps

When I was at ComicCon, promoting the Manitoba Writer’s Guild, I encountered a lot of new writers and pre-writers (those that want to write, but haven’t started yet). One question came at me over and over. “How do I start?”

Today, I’m here to tell you, in very simple terms, how to start.

1.  Write one paragraph describing what your story is about. Just one paragraph, so you know where you’re headed. Keep it simple and open.hiroshima

Three genius brothers stumble upon a means of time travel and accidentally transport themselves to Hiroshima, Japan on July 31, 1945. They have a week before the bomb is dropped to figure out how to get themselves back home.

This paragraph helps you to anchor yourself and keep your story on track. It gives us a loose structure. We know we need three brothers. We know our setting—initially the present and then World War II Japan.

 2.  Decide on a protagonist—your lead character. You will tell the story from their point of view (POV). Notice that the word “character” is not plural. You want to tell the story from five different perspectives? Too bad. This is your first book. My children are pianists—they started with Hot Cross Buns, not Bach’s Piano Concerto #7 and so you start with one protagonist.

But how do you choose? Which time travel brother should be my protagonist? My protagonist should be the character that undergoes the most change. The change could be physical, emotional, spiritual, ideological.

For my time travel boys I’m going to choose the youngest of the three. He’s arrogant, thinks he’s smarter than his brothers, and risks their lives and the time-space continuum when he ventures out on his own. The other brothers will be secondary characters.

3.  What is your inciting incident? The inciting incident is the event that sparks the rest of your story. It’s the kick that gets the ball rolling. It doesn’t have to be a big kick, just one change that will, in the end, change your protagonist’s life. In the hunger games it was “the reaping.” In Twilight it was Bella moving in with her dad. In The Fault in Our Stars it was Hazel going to the support group. In Pride and Prejudice it was Mr. Bingley moving into town.

hiroshima 2In my time travel story the brothers get into a big fight and one of them gets shoved and trips over wires, short circuiting their experiment. Sparks fly and the next thing they know they’re in Japan.

4. Decide if you’re going to tell the story in first person or third person. In first person POV the story is told as though it’s your story. I tripped over the wires. I got transported back in time. First person is limiting in that the story has to be limited to what that person can personally know. He can’t know that his older brothers are scheming against him in the next room. Though it can be limiting, first person draws the reader directly into the head of the main character and gives the reader intimacy and a tighter bond with the protagonist. 

In third person the story is told from an outside POV. He tripped over the wires. He got transported back in time. Though, as a narrator, you could make yourself all-knowing, I still recommend sticking close to your protagonist so your reader can bond with him.

Now start writing. You know where your story begins. You know who you’re writing about. You know your setting. You know your main character and some of your secondary characters. You know who is telling your story.

Griff Karaplis got suspended for cloning the frog he was supposed to be dissecting in biology class. No great loss. His older brothers, Cal and Nate, had been stuck at home since they hacked into the Homeland Security main frame from the school computer lab and implicated Principal Skinner’s cat in a terrorist plot…

This is your rough draft. Don’t worry about Grammar and chapters and if your characters change part-way through. Just write. My first book has been through at least twenty drafts. This is not to discourage you, only to give yourself permission not to nit-pick. Set aside some time every week to write. Keep going and don’t give up.

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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