City of Burlington makes a big deal of me. My career began when I moved her in the 80s.
When I tell people I’m heading in to Toronto to meet my agent and publicist, I feel like Lady Gaga. But writers are only celebrities in a quiet, have-you-read my-book, kind of way. What I mean by that is if you haven’t read anything I’ve written, of course I am not famous to you. (Also PS I’m not wealthy.)
A lovely part of my work though is having a team behind me. Sorry I didn’t take a selfie with the best agent I could imagine having, Amy Tompkins. (David Bennett retired–he was the best I could imagine before.)
We talked about my picture book effort and she made great edit suggestions among which is find a sexier title. Hero Dogs has now become Boomer and Diesel, Life Saver Dogs. Tell me if you think of anything sexier. We also talked about a future bidding war for a new project What the Dog Knows. Just kidding. Well maybe not really.
Then I dropped by on the beautiful Dundurn Press office. Oh my gosh, there are bookshelves everywhere and that kind of hushed atmosphere that makes you want to stop, drop, and read.
Elham Ali, my savy young publicist, and I discussed subway ads, Forest of Reading hopes (every writer in Canada hopes), great books and…she let me pick a couple of ARCs (advance reading copies.) Elham also gave me a Best Mistake Mystery poster which I immediately regifted to Burlington Public Library. My series is set in Burlington so I’m always trying to alert young readers here about it.
Also squeezed in around these meetings, I chatted with Claire Gillis to get an update on copyright struggles. Where possible I try to advocate for Access Copyright because I want the future writers, editors, publicists and other cultural arts workers of Canada to have jobs. Strong copyright is strong culture.
Toronto is a long commute, so I bring my laptop and write. Totally immersed myself in my new middle grade project, despite announcements at every station about the floor I was on being a “Quiet Zone.” On the way home I finished reading a captivating book recommended to me by fellow Burlington writer Jennifer Maruno. The book is I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters
A perfect day in the life of a writer.!
At the end of the meetings I make time for a little sight seeing before the commute home. My favourite fountain on Front Street.
Spending quality time with Spiderman at McDonalds.
It’s the possibility for far reaching connection that I love about the McDonald’s giveaway.
What is the height of success for a writer? Jennifer Mook-Sang’s been nominated for the Silver Birch and many other prestigious awards for her first novel Speechless (Scholastic)
but when her second book Captain Monty Takes the Plunge (Kids Can Press) was chosen as a McDonald’s giveaway–that’s when I really felt joy and envy for her.
This term as part of my Writing for Young Audiences class at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, I asked her some questions to share as part of teaching picture book writing. I loved her responses so much that I felt compelled to share them here to a wider audience.
Where did the idea for Captain Monty Takes the Plunge come from?
I was taking a PB writing class where the (not very good) teacher told us to write a character with a problem. I sat in the parking lot, waiting for my sons to get out of school, grabbed my sketch book (I was also taking a painting class) and started to write. the whole thing came out in five minutes — except I didn’t have an ending. when the teacher marked it, she suggested adding more setting/description. I did. And, of course, all that came out later because it was superfluous.
2 How did that original kernel grow into the story it is now?
I tried over many years to find an ending and wrote some really awful ones till I decided to send something to the CANSCAIP writing for children contest. That forced me to think hard about the story. A DIFFERENT teacher had recently told us that stories can be very satisfying if the end comes around to the beginning, so I sat and imagined Monty standing on the cannon at the beginning of the story, and in a flash (I know this stuff seems like magic sometimes), the ending came in my head. who knew? Took ten years.
3 Did you experience rejection?
I’ve had some rejection but not as much as I expected. when I started out on this journey, everyone said to expect lots. all the books, teachers, conference presenters said, ‘rejection letters are a badge of honour – a sign that you’re a real writer. So I hung on to that idea to get me past the parts where my writing sucked — all the rewrites suggested by critique groups, all the ignoring from publishers and agents.
4 What advice do you have for beginner writers?
Think about what you’re reading. Ask yourself why you like what you like, and why some things don’t work for you. How does the writer manipulate the words to make you feel something?
Read the books on awards finalists lists. At the very least you’ll know what’s being published that’s considered good.
Reading develops taste. When you write bad stuff, you’ll be able to recognize it and want to fix it.
I think that’s one of the best reasons for reading widely and deeply.
plus it gives you great ideas to steal and use in your own work.
Thanks Jennifer Mook-Sang!
One of the things I really took away from these answers which I wanted my students to understand, is that picture books especially may take years for you to finally get to the place where you hear the audible click! Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly how I wanted my story to go, exactly what I wanted it to say. Good writing makes it look easy. but as Malcom Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to achieve success in any field.
It’s amazing to look back on 2018, so many signings, library and school visits. The greatest privilege was to be able to visit with readers in Colombia for Norma Publishing, sponsored also by Canada Council Arts Abroad. Venganza Contra las Moscas was featured in the 20th anniversary essay writing contest and as a result, most grade seven students had read it.
Even if I have to sign a million books, I always take an extra moment to try and get a smile and a few words in with my readers.
When I walk into a bookstore with this vinyl cobra wrapped around my neck, you would be surprised at how many people freak.
“Does this snake look real to you? It doesn’t look real to me. His name is King by the way and he’s the star of The Snake Mistake Mystery.”
The young girl stares at me, gape mouthed. She steals an anxious glance back at her dad. Am I a danger stranger, can she talk to me?
She shakes her head slightly.
“Would you like an autographed bookmark?”
“We’re looking for a book,” the girl finally says.
“What kind of book?” I ask. “Maybe I can help.”
“Your book,” she answers. Apparently I spoke at her school. She’s not sure which in the Great Mistake Series she heard me talk about but I know it’s the one with King in it. When Mom joins us, she suggests they buy all three. Smart woman.
One of my favourite precocious readers, three year old Finley, my granddaughter, visits me at an Indigo Chapters signing.
We call them signings but most authors agree that beyond the dreamlike trance you go into when your writing is going well, the best part of our careers are the one-to-one experiences we enjoy with our readers. it always feels a little surreal to realize someone else will actually read our work; we’re sharing a very intimate creative experience with you after all. The bookstore signing is perhaps the easiest way to achieve this interaction.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be painful to sit at a table with piles of our book surrounding us and no one stopping by. Or worse people avoiding our glance. Some writers are introverts.
And while I am an extrovert and love meeting and chatting with new people, I do find the selling of my own stories awkward. So here’s what I tell myself. I am giving each child an encounter with a real live Canadian author.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for them, a cultural experience totally free to them. The book, or just an autographed bookmark, is their souvenir of the experience.