Monday, April 24, 2017

Poetry Month

It's poetry month, and so for our most recent session my local writing group brought in a poet, who gave us some instruction and prompts for writing a Haiku. Though we weren't actually required to come up with one right then, I did have mine come together pretty quickly. It was based on a picture of a dragonfly sparkling in sunlight:

points of light on wings
sliding over thin membrane
dropping into air

And in fact, I was so into the whole poetry mood while I was there that I came up with an entirely different poem as well. I'd had a murky idea for it in the week leading up to the group, and I was happy that talking about poetry spurred me into getting it all down. Here it is:

I have collected light
in jewels on a string
in glints off tall metal towers
and champagne in sparkling glasses

But you have gathered light
in beads of dew on a flower
and in children's laughter
and from the eyes of those you've saved

And while my collection gathers dust
Yours propagates and never rusts

Happy Poetry Month!

Friday, April 22, 2016

The First Goodbye

The writing group at my local library celebrated poetry month by talking about sonnets at this month's meeting. I couldn't be there (for reasons I'll talk about in a moment), but the coordinator did ask me to send one in to share. I had a sonnet in mind, something I'd already written as part of one of my books, but at the last minute I sent her this instead:

The first goodbye did hasten toward its close
Upon swift wings and mercurial feet,
But as the mem’ry lingered I supposed
That though goodbye was bitter, it was sweet.

A thousand more goodbyes it did portend
And promised of hellos much sweeter still;
Stretching out before us to the end,
A lifetime built together with good will.

Through brief, goodbye was seal’d with silent vow,
Revealed in tender touch and ardent sighs,
That we would be together here and now
As one more transient moment passes by.

As I reflect, so many years now past:
That first goodbye was sweeter than this last.

So the reason that I was not at the writing group this month was because I was at my grandfather's memorial service. My Poppop was a man of integrity and strong character, and he served his family, his country and his community selflessly all his life. He was quiet and humble, good-natured, unwavering in love, faith and compassion. I'm proud to be his granddaughter, and I hope I live my life with as much dignity as he did.

The sonnet itself isn't specifically a tribute to him but about final goodbyes in a broader sense. As a far more fitting tribute, my uncle performed this song (he's the singer), the recording of which was played during the memorial along with a slideshow of beautiful pictures my cousin put together. And, particularly special to me, my dad spoke about my grandfather's life with eloquence and even some very fitting humor. He told us my Poppop used to say, "Better to light a candle than curse the darkness." I want to remember that.

I'll also remember one particular long car ride with him when I was a kid. He had come to pick up my brother and me to take back to his house for a week, and we started talking about World War 2. He told me story after story about people and places and dates. I marveled out loud that he could remember so much. "Well, I lived through it," he said simply. I think that was the first time it dawned on me that my grandparents had whole lives outside of being grandparents.

He didn't talk about himself much, at least not that I witnessed, but there was one afternoon when I had lunch with him and my grandmother and I asked him about his police work. He told me all about both his hardest and his most rewarding moments, and I felt so much pride and respect for him and the things he had done. People like him are the rocks that communities are built on.

I got to say goodbye to him the night before he passed away. He was able to speak to me and to express how fiercely he loved his family. I'm so glad I was able to be there.

We love you too, Poppop. You're our hero.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Voice: What It Is and How to Write It

Recently I did a critique for a new acquaintance, and after a bit of back and forth with her about the voice in her book, I wrote up the following. Here it is, for anyone else who struggles with voice, even after reading through all the standard advice.

On Voice

I went looking for some links to give you an idea of what voice is all about, but the ones I've found weren't as helpful as I hoped. They all say some version of "voice is what you sound like when you're talking," but if you're anything like me that's really hard to pinpoint. For one thing, it's harder than it seems to figure out what your own natural speaking voice sounds like, and for another, a lot of people change their speech patterns depending on the crowd they're with.

Beyond that, there's the fact that my own natural speaking voice is *not* the right voice for most of the characters I write. If I wrote the way I speak, most of my characters wouldn't fit their stories. This is particularly clear when writing historical novels--the slang and idioms that pepper our language are very out of place in books set centuries ago. I'd have to have some idea of how people spoke in the time period I was writing if I wanted to do them justice.

Voice is, in essence, what your words sound like on the page. That might seem nonsensical, because *of course* words on a page don't actually make any noise. And yet, as we read we can hear the words in our minds. The cool thing about writing is that, depending on the cues you give, the reader can hear different voices through the text.

Voice encompasses such things as accent, vocabulary, tone and rhythm. Consider these two opening lines:

1. I ain't a smart man, but I reckon I know a thing or two 'bout horses.

2. The thing about horses is that they're much taller than people generally seem to recall, and, if you must know, I'm rather afraid of heights.

Each of these is just one sentence, and yet it's easy to see that the speakers are two very different people. They have different accents, use different word choices (the first would use words like "reckon" and "recollect," whereas the second would say "suppose" and "recall"), approach their stories with different outlooks (which affect tone) and speak in very different rhythms (one straightforward, the other rambling). Their voices make them sound human instead of robotic.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to get comfortable writing with voice if you're used to academic or technical writing. Professional writing of that sort so often strips away everything that is unique about a voice. There is a very proper voice to use in academia, and it's challenging to break away from that.

But if you don't, your book will sound stilted and lifeless.

So how do you come up with a voice? Well, if your setting is very specific (as yours is), the best thing to do is to listen carefully to speakers native to that setting. If you can talk to those people, that's great! If not, can you watch videos? Can you read books written with those voices and imitate the style? Can you find other resources to give you clues? (I came across a Dictionary of Americanisms from 1848 that was vital to writing one of my books.)

Once you've done the research, try to get the voice into your head. Imagine the character talking to you. Imagine the accent and the words or phrases they overuse. Imagine their attitude toward life and toward their story, and let that inform the way they speak. Do they put everything out there? Do they hold back? Do they take forever to get to the point or pounce on it abruptly? When you start feeling comfortable with the voice, pull up a blank page and start typing in that voice--about anything at all. Break it in like you'd break in a new pair of shoes. Then, once you like the feel of it, start writing your book in that voice.

And let your characters' lives inform your story. This is something I've struggled with, but that I make an effort to improve. When a thunderstorm rolls in, don't just say that it's raining. Tell us whether the character likes the rain and why. Were they frightened of thunder as a child? Do they get a thrill watching the wildness of nature at work? Is the rain a nuisance or a blessing? If you give a unique perspective in a unique voice, your characters will truly come to life.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Body Positivity Part 2: Interview with Kari-Lynn Winters

My last post was an interview with Nicole Winters regarding body positivity in her book THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK. Nicole put me in touch with Kari-Lynn Winters (no relation), who has studied body image among youth extensively. Kari-Lynn is here today to do a follow-up interview, answering many of the same questions given to Nicole.

First, a note from Kari-Lynn:

I implemented and took part in a SSHRC-funded research project about the arts and body image. It involved producing a play and drama-based workshops for children (grades 4-7) that toured to 8 schools in the Niagara region (780 students). Data were collected with videos, photos, interviews, focus groups, etc. This is what I will base my answers on.

How do we teach kids that fat shaming is just as terrible as other types of shaming?

Shaming in any form can have devastating effects—lowering self confidence, destroying friendships, as well as contributing to isolation, depression, anxiety, and (in some cases) suicides.

I would like to broaden this topic from fat shaming to body shaming. 

Body shaming (e.g., fat shaming, lanky shaming) has been a part of life for a long time. However, from my literacy and arts research and from other research studies, it has become clear to me that body shaming is very prevalent in today’s youth cultures. Even young children (grade 4), were hyper aware of their bodies and how they fit in with their peers. 93% of the children we worked with/interviewed (N=780) had some issue/s with their bodies. Some of the more common concerns children raised included: arm hair, sweating, weight, height, skin colour, scars, wearing glasses or braces, and complexions. Indeed much of their concerns stemmed from peer pressures and their feelings of “otherness”. Additionally, some of their fears came directly from the media. For example, it was surprising to hear 8-year-olds talking about thigh gaps. Regardless of the type of shaming, the children found themselves humiliated, ugly, and unappreciated. Often they spoke about wanting to hide or to get away. Indeed, like any kind of shaming, body shaming has profound negative affects on a person’s physical and psychological health. 

How do we teach kids to love the bodies that they’re in, even if they are fat, in spite of being fat, while striving to be healthy?

Instead of focusing on the negative affects of an unhealthy weight, it might be helpful to think about possibilities and perseverance. This youtube video constantly reminds me of the strength of humans:

In some cases people can transform themselves through proper nutrition and exercise. But more importantly, humans have incredible opportunities to re-story their identities. This means that rather than changing their bodies, why not encourage children to change their mindsets and begin to refute media messages. With the children I have worked with, I try to focus on difference and ability rather than “sameness” and shaming. For example, Howard Schatz’s photo of Olympic athletes 

demonstrates a diversity of bodies. I show this picture to children, and highlight different contexts. I might ask, “If you wanted to be a gymnast, what challenges would you face if you had a basketball player's body?” “Or oppositely, what opportunities might you be granted because of that body shape?” When you re-story an attitude about the body, you not only see another perspective, but you also re-shape your own identity. 

How can we change the mindset of passively fat shaming (ie doing things like commenting ‘oh you’d be beautiful if you’d lost a few pounds,” “you have such a pretty face,” and those “helpful” people that try to suggest that everything could be easily fixed through proper diet and exercise)?

Encourage youth to stand up for themselves and for others by refuting comments with different perspectives.
For example, if someone says, “You can’t fit into those boots because your calves are too big.” Encourage the victim to respond with a new point of view. “I like my strong legs. I earned these muscles from sprinting up stairs.” Youth can practice acting out scenarios like these with their friends.

People will always position others, just as they always have. The secret is to be prepared to re-position yourself within a context, changing the point of view and by the challenging stereotypical attitudes. 

Have you ever changed your opinion (from hate to love) on a physical feature of yours? (An example: When I realized my daughter had the same hair as me, it became an object of sentiment, rather than an object of annoyance.)

Yes. I used to hate my big teeth. I felt like they were too big for my mouth when I was a kid. Now though, I love my wide, grinny smile…it is one of my signature expressions. People comment on it often. 

How do you feel personal mindset affects the average North American teenager? Is this something that should be included in the public school system curriculum and/or taught at home?

Yes. Personal mindsets can and need to be observed and discussed in schooled settings (because that is where many mindsets are shaped).
One project that I did was to encourage students to pretend to be expert mannequin designers and to design the perfect body.

Then these perfect bodies could be critically discussed, including students’ values about bodies, why mannequins are often designed in certain ways and how these designs sell products for corporations, and eventually, how to change mindsets about body image.

Additional discussions can be encouraged at home.

If a child displays their guardian's ideas and judgments on body positivism, how, then, do we educate the adults of America to create a safe place for their kids to be themselves in the midst of social pressure to fit into specific body sizes/shapes?

This is why we need children’s literature (such as Nicole Winters’ book) on sensitive topics—places where youth can retreat, reform ideas, and build knowledge about different mindsets. I am grateful to these brave authors, creators, and publishers who take on these projects. 


Many thanks to Kari-Lynn for participating and adding so much useful information to the discussion! I really appreciate her perspective, and I'm glad to hear about the great work she's doing with kids.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Body Positivity: Interview with Nicole Winters

Today I am very excited to bring you all an interview with Nicole Winters. Nicole's book THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK came out October 13th. She's here today to talk about body positivity, both in her book and in her own experiences. I've invited several readers to ask her questions on the topic, and you'll find those questions and Nicole's answers below. She has also asked Kari-Lynn Winters, an expert on body positivity, to join us for a part 2 of this series. I'll be posting Kari-Lynn's responses sometime next week.

First, here's a bit about the book:

No one ever said high school was easy. In this hilarious and heartwarming debut, one high school senior has to ask himself how much he's willing to give up in order to fit in.

Kevin seems to have it all: he's popular, good looking, and on his way to scoring a college hockey scholarship. However, he's keeping two big secrets. The first is that he failed an assignment and is now forced to take the most embarrassing course ever--domestic tech. The second is that he is falling for his domestic tech classmate, Claire.

As far as Kevin is concerned, Claire does have it all: she's funny, smart, beautiful, and confident. But she's off-limits. Because Kevin knows what happens when someone in his group dares to date a girl who isn't a cheerleader, and there's no way he is going to put himself—or Claire—through that.

But steering clear of the girl of his dreams is a lot harder than Kevin thought…especially when a cooking project they are paired together for provides the perfect opportunity for things to heat up between them outside the classroom….

And now on to the interview!

1. Have you ever changed your opinion (from hate to love) on a physical feature of yours? (An example: When I realized my daughter had the same hair as me, it became an object of sentiment, rather than an object of annoyance.)

I noticed my first grey hair when I was sixteen and was teased. In my twenties, I’d be centered out at parties where people would stare, looking at my greys as if I represented doomsday (turning 30) which was soon coming for them. Then I decided to wear my hair in a pixie style and dyed it a lot (raven black, burgundy, ice blond, etc.) but didn’t like the grey regrowth or all those chemicals, so I grew it out. During those two long years, women would stop me on the street or when I was riding the subway, to pay me a compliment on its colour, surprising me, making me think they must be crazy. Now I’m pretty much 95% grey, no, silver is how I've come to see it and because it’s the latest fad to have silver hair, young people on the street now ask me where I get mine done. Now, I love it, it's what makes me me, and wouldn’t dye it for all the world.

2. Is Claire actually fat (overweight or obese), and if not, why not? If she is actually fat, how did you decide to go that direction? 

Here’s how the story originated: a friend of mine said growing up, whenever his mom cooked, dinners consisted of two steps, a can opener and a microwave. That hit me pretty viscerally. Days later, I thought, what if I had a character who was an athlete and his mom cooked meals like that? What if he thought that he could do better, but in reality he did much worse? I know, I’ll have him eat nothing but energy bars, shakes and gels. So now I had a character who means well, but is misdirected. I knew I wanted to write about him, tell the journey from the male perspective. At the same time, I’d been reading books with plus size teen girls in them and they all seemed to be similar: depressed, bullied, or abused. It left me feeling down and got me thinking, how can I put my food challenged hero (Kevin), and a non-depressed/bullied/abused/ plus sized character (Claire), together? The story just unfolded from there.

When I was researching Claire’s character, watching cooking shows — she's a budding chef — and also imagining her physical appearance, I looked at a lot of photographs online, including many “real women” campaigns and plus size fashion sites. I would love to say, or show you who inspired me, but I won’t. I don’t know her personally; I want to respect her privacy.

3. Did you do a lot of research on body positivity, eating disorders, fat acceptance, etc. for the book, and if so, where did you look? What did you learn that surprised you?

I visited tons of websites, so many that I kept a spreadsheet over the years with links so I could reread them. For articles, I drew from YA diversity sites, romance readers/writers sites as well as individual bloggers, book reviewers, chatting with friends, and watching people on YouTube. This is just a drop in the bucket:

No One In Romance Novels Is Ever Fat by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
I’m also a fan of Virgie Tovar:

I learned my instinct was right; just like Hollywood, there appears to be repetition when creating plus sized characters: depressed/bullied/abused/the clown/the comedian/the best friend, etc.  What surprised me the most was the vile cesspool of hate on YouTube.

4. How do we teach kids that fat shaming is just as terrible as other types of shaming?
5. How do we teach kids to love the bodies that they’re in, even if they are fat, in spite of being fat, while striving to be healthy?
6. How can we change the mindset of passively fat shaming (ie doing things like commenting ‘oh you’d be beautiful if you’d lost a few pounds,” “you have such a pretty face,” and those “helpful” people that try to suggest that everything could be easily fixed through proper diet and exercise)?

Other than to say, show by example, I’m not a parent, teacher or an expert in the field. So while I did enough research to tell Kevin and Claire’s story, I lack hands-on experience to answer these questions with any authority. However, my friend and fellow author, Kari-Lynn Winters, (no relation) who has a PhD in Education, just presented a fascinating research paper on media and body image and its effects on students. She gathered stories from people about body image and turned them into a play that her university students presented for young kids. This was followed-up with hands-on workshops with kids in classrooms and the results were fascinating.

Kari-Lynn Winters will be joining us for Part 2 of this series. She will be answering these questions and sharing her expertise with us.

7. Do you feel a personal connection to this story: If so, what is your experience with that social teen dynamic?

Mentally, Kevin represents who I was in high school, not an athletic teenage boy, but an awkward introvert who hung out with a social crowd. I distinctly remember alpha-members making snide, cruel remarks about other students (plus size or not). Half the group would jump in with comebacks and the other half, myself included, would exchange silent looks, knowing what was said was mean, but also lacking the courage to stand up and say something for fear of backlash. What an awful insecure, shame-filled, terrible feeling. I’m certainly not like that person now. If I hear something cruel, I'll speak up.

Mentally, Claire represents who I am today. I was a lanky, gawky, awkward, insecure, braces-wearing, flat as a board teen, and now, the older I get and the more curves, scars, freckles, laugh lines, and grey hair I amass, the more I like it. It represents a life well lived. It’s like, here I am world, and if you don’t like it, f*** off. Too bad I wasn't more like that in high school.

8. How do you feel personal mindset affects the average American teenager? Is this something that should be included in the public school system curriculum and/or taught at home?

I think Hollywood, corporations, books, music, fashion, etc., play a massive part in shaping the mindsets of teenagers. It’s a constant barrage of messages that try to tell young people what to think, act and feel. Corporations send them the message that they won’t be cool unless they use a particular product or wear particular piece of clothing (sold in certain stores with limited sizes), or look a certain way. And Hollywood? Where do I start? I often wonder what would have happened in the romantic teen comedy SHE’S ALL THAT if the geeky “unattractive” artist Laney remained who she was and didn’t get the cliché makeover and it was Zach who had to change, and it ended with them as a couple, but Laney was exactly how she appeared in Act I.

There are also teachers (e.g., social studies) who touch upon this topic, using “truth in advertising” as a start, and I’m all for more education on loving and accepting ourselves and other people both at home and in school. There’s a great website that addresses this issue. More awareness, open dialogue is a great start. I also think there should be more books with diverse characters that include people with various backgrounds, cultures, body types, disabilities and more. Check out and

9. If a child displays their guardian's ideas and judgments on body positivism, how, then, do we educate the adults of America to create a safe place for their kids to be themselves in the midst of social pressure to fit into specific body sizes/shapes?

I’m a writer who grew tired of seeing a certain stereotype and had the opportunity to do something about it. I understand my characters, Kevin and Claire, and how they feel; I also know that any story is only a partial reflection of reality and we all need to work together to make the real world a better place for everyone.


Thank you so much, Nicole, for joining us today! I really appreciate your answers to these questions; it's clear that you've spent a lot of time thinking about the issues involved. I'm looking forward to reading THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK!