Pump up the info

From my Serendipity talk, and in continuation of last week’s excerpt, here are my top five ways for making non-fiction interesting. They work if you’re a writer (and a few more writers for adults could stand to adopt them). They work if you’re presenting information in the classroom. And they’re techniques to look for if you’re buying books for kids.

1. Use the Unexpected
By the time they’re seven or eight years old, kids have learned to expect certain things from their books:

  • They expect science experiments to be safe and adult-approved.
  • They expect history to be dull.
  • They expect important people to be respected.

So, give them some baking soda and a film canister and let them blow stuff up. Tell them gruesome stories, like the one about the ancient Chinese emperor who buried all the scholars… alive. Give your Mayan queen a Valley Girl accent, and treat historical icons like real people.

Who doesn’t like a surprise?

2. Question Everything
Questions are the language of children. I have two kids at home – they’re seven and five. They must ask me six billion questions a day. By three in the afternoon, I have no idea what I’m answering anymore. Then I find them eating chocolate cake a half hour before dinner and they say, “We asked… and you said yes!” This happens because they’ve asked me so many questions that my brain is no longer functioning.

Kids and questions… they’re like chocolate cake and ice cream.

There are three kinds of questions to incorporate in non-fiction:

  • Rhetorical questions, a matter of style
  • Questions that reflect exactly what the reader is wondering – the type of questions Jian Gomeshi uses in a great celebrity interview
  • Questions that can never be answered

You know all that CSI stuff about blood spatter? The spatter is on the left side, and the teardrop shapes are long and thin, so the guy was hit on the head quickly, on the right side.… You’ve seen it on TV, right? Well, ever ask yourself how scientists learned all that? The first guy to research it — he’s regarded as a rock star in CSI circles. And he learned by bopping rabbits on the head, and tracking the blood.

Justifiable? Well, that question is well outside the scope of Seeing Red. But I couldn’t resist at least raising the issue.

Questions are central to writing for kids. Ask the questions that interest them, then inspire them to ask more questions. You don’t need all the answers. Kids can decide for themselves. The important part is to keep them wondering.

3. Embrace the Ridiculous
Anyone can be silly. Write a list, and add something goofy to the middle of your list. Or simply point out the crazy parts of reality.

Want to hear how King Mithridates made his universal poison antidote, 2000 years ago? Here’s a possible recipe:

  • Squeeze poison from 50 plants
  • Boil a legless lizard
  • Extract musk from a beaver’s scent glands
  • Mix all of the above
  • Add honey ’til tasty

Mithridates was so worried about assassination that he spent years building up his immunity to all sorts of poisons. Then, when his Roman enemies finally attacked him, he swallowed poison to kill himself. And, of course, it didn’t work.

Point out how strange some people’s decisions are. When Alfred Nobel was researching dynamite, he blew up his brother, gave his dad a stroke, got kicked out of Stockholm, and kept working. Who does that?

In World War II, the Americans sent soldier to fight in the Pacific and issued them white jockey underwear. Well, flapping on a clothesline with a nice dark jungle in the background, their underwear was the perfect target for enemy fire. Jockey quickly switched to olive green undies, so clotheslines could go camouflage.

There is plenty of ridiculousness in history, and plenty in our everyday lives, and it’s not our jobs as adults to defend it. We don’t have to be serious. Why can point, and laugh, and say, “I know! It’s crazy!”

4. Use the Techniques of Fiction

  • Give your historical figures some character
  • Set the scene
  • Write dialogue

Now, I know that some books get slammed for fictionalizing historical figures with dialogue. You can check out the Mayan queen in Seeing Red and you’ll understand that I like to make it completely obvious when dialogue isn’t real. In 50 Poisonous Questions, there’s a prison doctor who tested poisons and antidotes on his prisoners. He did write poetry, but the “roses are red, violets are blue” verse which appears in his illustration is not one of his works.

The point is that incorporating narrative, or storytelling, in non-fiction will help kids absorb facts in a way that a list or a graph will never do. A story draws us in.

5. Be Inspiring
In all my books, my favorite stories are always about the people who changed the world.

In 50 Poisonous Questions, there’s a lady who found out that her neighborhood school was built on top of a toxic waste dump and she started a campaign, organized the local parents… she got the whole town moved. And she was a mom! Kids have no idea that moms (or kids) can change the world.

You know, you can even create change with your underwear.

My husband likes to ask people this question: Imagine you’re offered a free round-the-world trip, for as long as you want, as many stops as you want. There’s only one catch: anytime you’re actually travelling, on a plane, or on a boat, or on a train, every time you go through customs or flag a cab, you have to wear your underwear outside your pants. Would you take the trip?

(You would? Representatives from Flight Centre will be contacting you soon.)

Alright… an unrelated question. Are you wearing – right this minute – a corset and a floor length skirt?

No one?

How interesting. That might be because of Amelia Bloomer, who shocked all of New York by wearing her underwear in public.

I’m inspired by people who change the world. And I hope the kids who read my books get equally inspired.

There are enough boring things in life. We all have to brush our teeth and wash our faces and tie our shoes. That’s plenty of routine for anyone.

Learning should never be boring.

Be my reading valentine

Since my recent post about early reading strategies proved popular, I thought I’d throw out a few more ideas today.

1. Buy a pack of Sweethearts candy. The little messages on each heart are the perfect level and length for sounding-out success. Better yet, suggest your child share the candy with his friends. My son spent half an hour reading each heart, just to make sure he didn’t accidentally ask anyone to kiss him.

2. Personally, I find grocery shopping with my children to be a little slice of hell. If the Americans were serious about torture, they’d send their Guantanamo inmates to Safeway with a gaggle of whiny kids. However, when you are forced into the grocery store with a child in tow, give him a written list of three grocery items to find. Then do your own shopping as you follow him/lose him.

3. Get your children their own e-mail addresses and set them loose on Grandma. I realize that this strategy is a little more labor intensive. We also have a rule that no one’s allowed to use the computer without an adult in the room, so it requires some supervision. But, every long e-mail from Grandma is a half-hour of quiet reading and typing time…

First words

I did the breakfast dishes this morning to the sounded-out words of I Broke My Trunk. I have to say, there is really nothing better than a kid who has just learned to read independently. My son is so darned proud of himself.

My kids have both been early readers, and I’ve had a few other parents ask for the secret. How do you get your kids to read?

Really, I think it’s a matter of aptitude. Some kids pick up ice skating quickly, or painting, or long division. Mine happen to be good with language. Thank God, because they’re never going to make the NHL.

Having said that, there are a few ways we make reading appealing around the Kyi house…

  • We read in the afternoon. Evenings are great for bedtime stories, but the kids are tired. They have no patience for sounding out words or identifying letters. They want to hear a story and go to sleep. And I want to read a story and go have a glass of wine. So afternoon reading is a must.
  • Reading doesn’t happen only in books. I write secret messages, scavenger hunts, and love notes. We play games in the car… Min calls out a letter, my son thinks of a word that starts with that letter, and my daughter spells it backwards. They think it’s fun. (I know. They’re weird.)
  • You’re allowed to stay up half an hour later if you’re looking at books. You’re not allowed out of bed, you’re not allowed to play with toys, but you’re allowed to leave the light on and read. That’s a pretty good deal when you’re five.

Those are my secrets. Now, if anyone can offer advice on how to teach my daughter (or my husband for that matter) that brown pants do not go with grey shirts, I’m all ears.

How to keep an idea

Ideas are slippery little suckers. One can be thrashing around in your head as if it will live forever. The next thing you know, your great aunt calls. By the time you’re off the phone, the idea has slipped the hook and you can’t remember a single wiggle of it.

[Whew… enough with the fishing analogy. I think that will be my first and final of those.]

My point is: when you have an idea, you have to catch it. (Incidentally, you should watch this Elizabeth Gilbert TED Talk for the description of the poet who felt poems coming like freight trains across the fields.) You have to write your idea down. Over at Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh talks about keeping a pen in her shower, and taking a notebook on runs.

I have not resorted to either of those methods. I have, however, been known to run naked from the shower directly to the computer. My family’s quite used to it. Probably the neighbours are, too.

My point is this: ideas might be infinite. They may keep arriving like freight trains throughout your entire life and if you miss a few, well… you can always grab the next. OR, they might be finite. And if that’s the case, you don’t want to let the big one get away.

Anyone know poetry?

I received an e-mail from an old friend last week. He’s hoping to publish some of his poetry, and wondering how to begin. Well, let’s be honest here. I know approximately nothing about publishing poetry. Here’s what I told him. Does anyone have other ideas?

It’s certainly a hard market to break into, but it’s not impossible. Traditionally, the best method is to submit to journals. Then, once you have some publication credits, you gather up your work and start submitting it as a book.

Two of the best known journals in our area are the Malahat Review and Prism International. I’m sure there are many more, though. You should probably invest in a copy of the Canadian Writer’s Market. It includes listings and submission guidelines for each magazine and publisher.

As you say, my genre is quite different, but one of the things I find most helpful is a critique group of other writers. These can be tricky to find. One of the best ways is to sign up for a course or workshop, and hit on some of the other participants… find out if anyone’s in a writing group, or interested in starting one. It can be nerve-wracking for the first few meetings, having other people talk over your writing in front of you, but groups are usually highly supportive. It’s nice not to work in a vacuum!

An alternative to in-person writing groups is a good on-line one. I took a really helpful workshop one season through the Vancouver-based WritersWebWorkshop and I think I’ve seen poetry classes on their list sometimes.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. More advice welcome!

Could you pass me those words to eat?

Remember a few weeks ago, when I downplayed the dangers of lead in red lipstick?

Well, Environmental Defence recently released a report. They found heavy metals in 49/49 cosmetics tested. And… wait for it… significant lead in lip gloss. Along with a sprinkling of arsenic for added flavour.

If Environmental Defence sounds familiar, it may be because two employees there wrote Slow Death by Rubber Duck, one of my favourite nightmare-inducing reads. You can see my thoughts about that book here.

Working from home: the checklist

My friend Liisa just got a new job. She’ll be working from home a couple days a week, and she asked if I had any secrets. Why, yes I do! Here’s my survival checklist:

  1. Place your desk far from the kitchen. It’s true, you’ll forget that you made tea until you find it cold on the counter a few hours later. This is a small price to pay for not eating the entire bag of cookies, “just one more” at a time.
  2. Do not keep chocolate in the house. If you must have chocolate available — your children’s Easter candy, for example — have another family member hide it from you.
  3. Keep busy. If you have one thing to do, it will take you until dinnertime to get motivated. If you have ten things on the to-do list, the sense of urgency will drive you forward. If you have to, create your own deadlines. But don’t tell yourself they’re fake.
  4. Take your laundry out of the dryer and dump it in your office area. You’re bound to procrastinate, and you may as well get something useful done.
  5. Get call display, and do not answer the phone when Aunt Marge calls during your work hours.
  6. People will invariably call you about work issues when you are not officially working. If all children are like my children, they will immediately begin leaping off bookshelves and playing musical instruments (wait… that was Min), as soon as you answer such a call. You can put your other family members outside, but I find it most useful to leave them inside, and lock yourself on the deck.
  7. Working from home does not have to mean staying at home. If you start to feel as if the apocalypse could happen and you would be the last to know, then work from a coffee shop, the library, or the park down the street. Take your cell and your laptop. Technology is a wonderful thing.
  8. Get some exercise. If you don’t, your family members will arrive home from their days, ready to relax, and you will be jumping up and down at the door like a jack russell terrier.
  9. Do not book lunch dates in advance. If you’re busy, you’ll need that time. If you’re not… well, it’s amazing how many friends will jump at the chance to leave the office and meet you for sushi.
  10. Shower. Despite the rumours, working in your pyjamas is not productive. Plus, it scares the FedEx man.

That’s my advice! I was working from home for years before these rugrats trapped me here, and I think it might kill me to go back to my old windowless office. And how would my laundry get done?

Good luck, Liisa!

How to file an HST payment: writer’s version

  1. Print finances for 3-month period, which look like a spreadsheet, but are really a table, because who the heck understands spreadsheets.
  2. Read blogs.
  3. Using thumb and forefinger, pick up financials from printer, and place on desk. Squint and tilt head from side to side, to see numbers swirl.
  4. Check Facebook, new Twitter account, real estate listings.
  5. Look for adding machine. Remember it broke during tax receipt round-up.
  6. Add up numbers on computer calculator.
  7. Add up numbers again.
  8. Realize that despite high school cashier experience, you can no longer input numbers without looking.
  9. Add up numbers again, while looking.
  10. Consider submitting resume to CRA, as perhaps they need someone who can write forms in English.
  11. Remember time at Forest Practices Board, and ensuing electroshock therapy. Rethink resume sending.
  12. Log onto on-line banking.
  13. Wonder what the heck is the difference between lines 106 and 107.
  14. Decide to go with 106, because even numbers are more friendly.
  15. Send.

The art of reading in the bath

Since books are apparently endangered, I figure I have to make the most of current opportunities to read in the bath. It’s an art form, though. You can’t just grab any old book and hop into hot water. In my world, there are certain requirements:

1. Bubble bath, phthalate-free.
2. A lever faucet that you can turn off with your toes, thus keeping your hands dry.
3. A book you should be reading, and a book you’d like to read.

You begin the bath with the book you should be reading, continue until your brain overheats, then switch to book two.

Now, book two. This is something you have to choose carefully. You can’t read anything too depressing in the bath. No one wants snot floating around in the water, and pieces of disintegrating tissue are just as bad. No horror, obviously. There could be anything lurking behind that shower curtain. Mysteries and romances? Well, they’re okay as long as you have time for a long bath, because who knows when you’ll be able to put them down. You might end up draining the water to motivate yourself, then getting hypothermia reading those last few chapters.

Then there’s the source…

You can read your own book, a library book, or any book on loan from a family member or a very good friend — one who won’t mind the occasional wrinkled page. But if your child’s Sunday School teacher heard you’re a writer and has passed along her absolutely favourite title EVER, save it for the beside table. You’re guaranteed to drop it in the bubbles, and changing churches is a real pain.

Hardcover is preferable to softcover, for the sake of your wrists. Glossy finish preferable to matte, for the sake of easy drip-wiping. Thick paper preferable to thin paper, for the sake of damp page-turning.

And, most importantly, don’t read anything that you could write better, anything containing actual ideas, or anything remotely inspiring. Because the last thing you want is to have to drag yourself out of the bubbles, drip down the hallway, and scribble down some soggy idea in your notebook when you could just be… having a bath.

Dear self…

Rachelle asks, what do wish someone had told you when you began considering a writing career?

How about this: Do not take a communications job at a government agency thinking you’ll write the next great Canadian novel on the side, because the government job will make your brains turn to goo and start glopping out your ears whenever you accidentally tip your head. And that’s not good for anyone.

Hmmm… too bitter? Maybe this instead:

Your poem that just won the school contest and is going to get printed in the yearbook? Don’t show ANYONE. In ten years, you will be horrified by this poem.


Do not pursue novel ideas that involve a mysterious and all powerful druid, talking trees, or weeping and pregnant teenage girls about to shift dimensions.

Well, okay, maybe that last one. But definitely not the first two.