Vast Imaginations

A Community of Children's Writers. Learning. Growing. Creating.

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.

What An Improvement!

writers-groupI 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. 

WritersGroupWould 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. 

critiqueWeren’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. 

better-writing-skillsThe 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. 

If you enjoyed this post you might also like……

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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?

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.

VastI footer…writes for under 18’s & is currently torturing her first complete manuscript with revision. She encourages all writers thus:

To know is nothing at all. To imagine is everything” -Anatole France

Four Things I Wish I Knew About Twitter Before I Started

untitled (3)I came late to Twitter. Just over a year ago I set up my account and have been trying to learn its ins and outs ever since. At first I hated it, but it’s become my favourite social media outlet. Unlike Facebook, there’s no algorithm choosing my content for me so a get the raw material. Over the past month, though, I’ve considered dumping my Twitter account and starting over. Why? I’ve learned a few things and if I could start over I’d do things differently.

  1. Some people just want to sell you stuff. And that’s all they have on their Twitter feed–ad after ad. It’s called social media, key word SOCIAL, not commercials. If I wanted a commercial I’d turn on the TV. I’m on Twitter to interact and many of these Tweeters use apps that time their tweets (their commercials) and rarely interact with others, which also means they probably aren’t even seeing your tweets. Now, before I follow anyone or give them follow back I check their past ten tweets. If more than a quarter is self-promotion, then I don’t follow them.
  2. Bigger isn’t better. When I first started I thought my goal was to accumulate as many followers as possible. I saw accounts Screenshot (2)with 500,000 followers and coveted those giant numbers. However, I’ve learned that its not the number of followers you have, but the number of interactive followers you have. I have over 1200 followers, but in reality, I have a couple dozen quality followers–people who respond, retweet and favourite and in turn, I do the same for them.
  3. Keep a close eye on your followers list. When people follow me, I usually follow them back unless they fall into the shameless self-promoters category or unless I find them offensive. But, when I noticed my “following” and “followers” numbers getting out of whack I investigated. I discovered that some Tweeters follow me and then, when I follow them back, they unfollow me. I call this the Tweet Slap because it’s a slap in the face. I think it’s a total jerk move. I went through my list of over 1000 people and removed a couple hundred Tweet Slappers. Again, I want to interact and if they don’t want to do the same, then I don’t want to follow them either.
  4. Lists. A Twitter miracle! Want to keep track of certain people, so they don’t get lost in your feed. Use the Lists option. You can have as many lists as you want. I have one for friends, one for writers I know, and one for stuff I just find interesting.  Once the list is formed you just have to click on it to see what those people are up to.

Hopefully, now you can be a wiser Twitter user than I was. Do you have any Twitter tips?

Want to follow some of the VI bloggers?

Me: @melindafriesen Mention VI and I’ll give you a follow back.

Christina: @marionalbig

Suzanne: @suzannecostigan

And for good measure, you can follow my publisher @rebelightbooks. They love to interact on Twitter!


Melinda Friesen writes shorts stories and novels for teens. Her first book, Enslavement, is set for a November 2014 release from Rebelight Publishing Inc.


Making a Difference for Writers on a Shoestring Budget

 untitled“I didn’t notice it going,” Canadian novelist, Deborah Ellis, says in a 2012 MacLean’s Magazine article.  “It’s all whisked away before I see it, like an automatic savings plan.”
Ellis was referring to her donation of over $1 million in royalties from her popular Afghanistan tween trilogy, The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City, money that has gone to causes dear to Ellis such as the literacy-focused Canadian Women For Afghanistan.
Ellis is not the only writer devoted to large-scale philanthropy. Topping a long list of generous donors is J.K. Rowling. In addition to the $160 million she already contributed to various charity organizations from her Harry Potter series, Rowling recently announced that all royalties from her adult crime novel, Cuckoo’s Calling (under the pseudonym Robert Gailbraith) will go to The Soldiers’ Charity, an organization that provides support for British soldiers and their families   Also on the list of generous benefactors, romance novelist Nora Roberts who donated $3 million to The Nora Roberts Foundation, which supports literacy.
Admirable as these donations are, most writers are hardly in a position to give back in such magnitudes.  According to a 2010 Writers’ Union of Canada article, incomes for authors of books in Canada average less than $12,000. Another source pegged the annual average in royalties for fiction writers at $500.
How can cash-strapped writers bent on philanthropy give back?  While there are dozens of volunteering opportunities in every community, here are a few for writers who want to make a difference without shelling out money or leaving their keyboards.


GoodearchThe principle behind GOODSEARCH is simple.  For each search conducted on Goodsearch’s search engine about a penny from advertisers goes to a designated charity or cause.   Considering the number of searches most writers conduct, the pennies add up, especially when thousands of other users are contributing the same way. A few things to keep in mind: You must use the GOODSEARCH search engine which is patent-protected and Yahoo!-powered.  A number of the charities on the extensive list are rooted in the U.S., but there are international ones too, such as Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Make A Wish, Salvation Army and World Vision.
For further details, check the GOODSEARCH website:

Care 2

care2If you have a cause you are passionate about or an issue you feel needs attention whether it involves local politics, animal welfare, literacy, human rights, or the flow of traffic down your street, CARE 2 may be for you. Start an online petition on the CARE 2 site, interest others in adding their signatures, and CARE 2 becomes a way to affect change.  Petitions are tracked on so it’s easy to tally signatures and just as easy to sign up for causes you might want to support.
For more, check the CARE 2 website:

Infinite Family

infinite familyThe site INFINITE FAMILY uses weekly one-on-one 30 minute video conversations to link adults around the world with youth of the sub-Sahara affected by HIV/AIDS and poverty. Mentors undergo a short online training program to help them understand culture, technology and the needs of their mentees. Following the training, mentors are ready to chat to their Net Buddies and link with them through email exchanges or blog posts. The goal is to provide long-term, personalized interaction for disadvantaged youth to strengthen confidence, develop literacy skills, and enhance opportunities for global success.
The INFINITE FAMILY website is a rich resource of information about the mentoring approach.  While cash donations are gladly received, the focus here is on strengthening bonds and language proficiency, something writers of all income levels might find fits their mandates nicely.
For more detail, check out INFINITE FAMILY:
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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.

My First Writers’ Retreat

cottageThis lovely cottage  provided the perfect setting for my first ever writers’ retreat. A writers’ group I recently joined was gracious enough to include me in an event they host annually. writingAlthough we did go for a couple of walks through the woods to a nearby lake the weekend was all about writing. writer at workThe eight women on the retreat each found their own little writing niche somewhere in the spacious cabin and hunkered down to work. writers groupThe first night at supper we shared our writing goals for the weekend and periodically when someone was encountering a problem in their manuscript they’d seek help and we’d brainstorm for ideas and solutionswriters at workbut for the most part we were in front of our computer screens ‘getting things done.’ The weather was cold and rainy which actually made it perfect for a writing retreat. how many writers fit into a kitchenHow many writers in a kitchen is too many? We did take a break from writing to enjoy some wonderful meals.  Everyone had brought food items to contribute. talkingThe weekend provided an opportunity to get to know some of the people in my writing group on a more personal level and I was able to complete a manuscript for a picture book I’d had in the works for several months. It got sent off to a writing editor and mentor just a few days later for feedback. computerIf you are looking for a way to make real headway on a writing project – a writers’ retreat where you get away from your regular routine to focus on your writing might be the answer. I’m already looking forward to next year’s retreat. 

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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?

His Sister’s Soul

Another of my free-write exercises:


The corridor, all checkered tiles and lichen-eaten, crumbling brick walls, was overhung by mist and fog and darkness.

Worthers scanned both directions with eyes wide and wary. He never assumed anything. It was midnight. It was Saturday. It was summer. But that didn’t mean the abandoned, derelict school was empty. Still he looked again and, everything quiet, began to drag the fellow lying at his feet across the corridor. Worthers was a small man and the fellow on the floor much taller, though still a boy.

Worthers reached his knuckly fingers under the boy’s armpits, the fake leather jacket slipping beneath his grip, but by bumps and lurches he pulled the limp form over the rough tiles, white then black, white, then black. Stopping halfway to catch his breath, he looked again each direction, then continued. His goal, the dumpster behind the gym.

On the dusty surface, the boy’s dragging hair and body swept the hall clear but at last Worthers had him in through the intended gym doorway and all else that was left to show their journey was a thinning streak of blood. And a fallen shoe by the door. Worthers picked it up. He gave the corridor a last sweeping glance and saw, through the fog a gliding figure, eyes closed, black hair, white dress. Worthers’ heart leapt and he fled.

The boy’s ghost was—a girl.rec 35 51068


VastI footer…writes for under 18’s & is currently torturing her first complete manuscript with revision. She encourages all writers thus:

To know is nothing at all. To imagine is everything” -Anatole France

Top Six Reasons Why Giving Birth is More Fun Than Querying my Novel

I spent months researching how to write a query letter, visiting the plethora of blogs dealing with the matter. I picked through Nathan Bransford’s upbeat and encouraging query instructionals. I read through 130 of Query Shark’s query critiques, which were helpful, but terrifying (what did I expect? The site isn’t called Query Cuddly Bunny or Query Momma with Cookies and Milk). I studied Kristin Nelson’s blog. I went on Agent Query and learned from their advice. But, as I studied I came across a lot of conflicting information—some agents wanted me to make a personal connection, some wanted me to stick to the business at hand, Kristin Nelson only wanted to hear about the first fifty pages of the book, while the Query Shark didn’t want to be left in the dark about the ending.

Then, I spent a year writing a query letter for my fifth novel. Yes, a year! Is that because I’m slow or anal? I’m not sure. Maybe both. The terrible part is, after over a year of effort, I’ve not succeeded in gathering an agent’s affection.

I imagine a lair buried deep inside a dormant volcano, a glass floor with magma flowing beneath it. Literary agents and editors gather untitled (2)around the table. One puffs on an over-sized cigar. A woman with a German accent purses her lips. And their leader, a bald man in a grey suit, strokes his hairless cat. Together they devise ways to thwart people like me. “After they write their book. We shall make them condense it to five sentences. These five sentences must be active, interesting, and make me hear angels singing the hallelujah chorus. Mwahaha mwahaha MWAHAHAHAHA!”

Paranoia aside. I get the why’s. I know these people receive a lot of emails. I know I’m an unknown. I know I’m asking them to take a huge risk on me. I know they’re doing their best to find some gems in the slush pile. I get that, but it doesn’t make this process any easier. I’m querying this thing and have already received plenty of rejections. This process is painful and honestly, giving birth was more enjoyable.

So without further ado: Top Six Reasons Why Giving Birth is More Fun Than Querying my Novel

6. When I give birth I have a 95 per cent chance of a positive outcome.

5. Everyone around me in labour is full of encouragement. No one tells me I can’t do it or I’ll never make it in the baby making business.

4. People ask to hold your baby. Even if it’s your first baby! Unlike publishing where no one will touch your baby with a nine foot pole.

3. A day or two of excruciating pain and it’s over. I get to enjoy the efforts of my labour.

2. No one looks at my newborn and says, “Not interested. I see 50 babies like yours everyday.”

1. No one pushes the baby back inside because it needs more work.


Melinda Friesen writes short stories and novels for  teens. In her spare time researches how to write query letters and beats her head against walls. Her first novel, Enslavement, is due for release from Rebelight Publishing Inc. in October 2014, so clearly not all her queries have ended in failure.



Using ‘The Emotion Thesaurus’

For me, distinguishing between showing and telling has not been easy. Telling sometimes looks like showing, but the two are worlds apart in the way they affect readers.

Here’s an example to contrast the two:

Telling:  Mr. Paxton’s eyes were sad as he gave her the news. “I’m sorry, JoAnne, but your position with the company is no longer necessary.” Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.

Showing:  JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face….The vinyl of her purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it.

In the telling example, we know Mr. Paxton is sad.  We know JoAnne is angry. We know because the writer tells us, but we don’t really feel or experience the emotion.  We are like outsiders looking upon a diorama – detached, uninvolved, and not really part of the story.

In the showing example, we see JoAnne’s tension and anger (perched at the edge, spine straight), we  hear it (purse crackled), and we feel it (tightened her grip).  Through sensory details like these, we become invested in the characters and at one with the story.

untitledThese two examples are from The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Expression (Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglist, 2012).  This easy-to-navigate book is a rich resource for writers searching for unique and compelling ways to provide readers with a full emotional experience by showing rather than telling.

According to the authors, most exchanges of emotional information in everyday situations are non-verbal.  In 93% of all communication, we reveal our emotional state to others not through words, but through body language. Since readers are skilled body language interpreters, the most effective and genuine way of indicating the emotional state of characters is to embed nonverbal cues into our writing.

The book tackles 75 different emotions ranging from adoration to worry, listed alphabetically for easy reference. Each emotion is defined then broken into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions); internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).

Back to the example above, rather than telling readers that JoAnne is angry for instance, the book offers 36 physical manifestations that show anger – everything from flaring nostrils to sweeping arm gestures.  In addition, the authors list 6 internal, instinctive sensations – grinding one’s teeth, sweating – and 8 mental or thought responses – irritability, jumping to conclusions.  By carefully balancing physical indicators with internal and mental ones, the writer creates real-life situations that connect with readers on an emotional level.

In addition to lists of emotions, the book offers opening chapters covering writing basics on topics such as avoiding clichés and melodrama, utilizing dialogue, and the importance of back story.

imagesXU5Y6LZTI’m into revisions of my middle-grade novel, Missing in Paradise, and have used The Emotion Thesaurus several times when I realize I am telling rather than showing.  From that perspective, it’s been a great jumping-off point, giving me options that I might not have considered otherwise.

However you use it, The Emotion Thesaurus is a wonderful addition to any writer’s collection of resources and one I highly recommend.


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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.



Let’s Talk About Writing- Questions to Ask Your Writing Peers and Yourself

questionsI joined a new children’s writing group recently, and last week I had my first turn to lead a meeting. I decided I’d print up a bunch of prompts that would help me discover more about my fellow authors’ personal writing experiences. And I did! I also found myself thinking about how I would answer all of the questions and that was a helpful process in my own journey as a writer. Here are the questions!

1950's young girl reading on the couchWhat was your favorite book as a child? Why do think you liked it so much?

What kinds of writing courses have you taken and how did they help or not help you?

What was your first piece of writing to be published? How did that make you feel at the time? How do feel about that piece of writing now?

What other kinds of writing do you do besides writing for children?

Is your family supportive of your writing? How do they demonstrate or not demonstrate their support?

Why do you write?

writers-notebook-orangeDo you keep a journal? What form does it take? Have you kept your journals?

Tell about a writing experience from your school days.

Are there other writers in your extended or immediate family? What kind of writing do they do?

Having your writing dreams come true would mean……..

The best thing you’ve ever written is………….. Why?

Who is your favourite author and why?

Where is your favorite place to write and why?

imagesGYI25E9YWhere do you get your best writing ideas?

What other creative pursuits do you have besides writing? How do they compare to your writing?

Who was/is your greatest writing influence?

Tell about a writing conference you have attended. What did you learn? What did you appreciate about it?

What is your writing routine? How do you discipline yourself to stick to your routines?

Do you write everyday? When and how?

What are some of the things you’ve learned from being a writer?

goals_in_writing_are_dreams_with_deadlines_mug-p168112467270150322qzje_400Where would you like to be in your career as a writer five years from now?

What are some of the things you do to promote yourself as a writer?

What are your biggest writing distractions? What do you do to try and get a handle on them?

What kinds of things have you had published?

Have you ever met a well known author? Describe the experience.

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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?

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