Acting in character

Acting in character

After reading 70 mystery books in three months in order to judge them for the Arthur Ellis (novel) Crime Writing, I felt inspired to write one. Just one. Endlessly I walk my dog in Brant Hills so I instantly found a natural setting. An inciting moment was when I took a bag of dog poop from a tree (who puts them there, honestly?) and deposited in in the new blue domed recycling box. OMG! Once you put something in you can’t reach back in to get it out. The irredeemable,  Mistake one.

How awful it feels to realize you’ve made an error you can’t correct. I thought about how anxious kids seem to be these days and thought of structuring stories around mistakes; celebrating the errors that help us observe something more clearly or make us more understanding of others’ errors. Mistakes that cause us to change and grow.

Remember no story happens unless something goes wrong.

The Best Mistake grew into a series of four book: The Best Mistake Mystery, The Artsy Mistake Mystery, The Snake Mistake Mystery and The Diamond Mistake Mystery.

Mysteries can require tight plotting; for me I certainly approach with an ending in mind. But my characters take over and I seem to chase after this quirky bunch as I write my stories.

Check the video out to see what I mean and to enjoy a giggle.


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Extraordinary Opportunities

Extraordinary Opportunities

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.

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CANSCAIP Writing on the Fly Talk

 As promised these are my notes for the talk I gave at CANSCAIP Wednesday  April 9, 2014.   The first entry is a poem I wrote in honour of poetry month.CANSCAIP pin

On Earning a Living Writing

by Sylvia McNicoll

Most people work seven and a half hours a day.
So if you only write for two hours, 
Don't expect a full day's pay. 
You must teach, apply for grants,
register for Payback and PLR.
You must edit, keep good books, 
publicize your works near and far. 
And when you finally settle down to write
You may be too exhausted cause it’s late at night. 
It will be a cherished, well-earned delight


Ten Top facts about Earning a Living as a Children’s Writer in Canada

1) You can’t define writing income solely as advances and royalties:

It’s a cobbling together of Public Lending Rights (PLR), Access Copyright, School/library & conference speaking, teaching, editing, judging contests, receiving grants and everything else people pay you to do because you’re a writer.

2) You must do more than write one book a year.  See above for other possible income streams.  Ask yourself if you want to write other things: websites, scripts, advertising, corporate newsletters or whether that will distract too much from the writing you love. 

 3) Promotion:  You owe it to your book to use some of your creativity to promote it. Don’t grind your teeth about that infringement on your writing time.  Consider it part of the writer’s job. Do the parts you enjoy, ignore the rest.  Let your university, your local library, your community newspaper, your local bookstore know when you have a new book. 

 4) Join the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) to support the solidarity of all writers.  Nothing says you’re a pro like belonging to TWUC. Sign up and enjoy The Writers’ In the School Program, Northern Writers in Schools and National Reading Grant programs. Join the Canadian Children’s Book Center and apply to tour. Join CANSCAIP for community of like-minded creators. SCBWYI is their American counterpoint.  IBBY and PEN International are worthwhile altruistic organizations.

 5) Make sure you are registered for PLR, Access Copyright and for TWUC’s school list.  Keep your bios up to date.

 6)  You must get out there.  Opportunities show up because you’re out and about. Even if you’re not the one who gets hired for all the author visits and festivals. In Toronto you have so many launches and events—don’t you dare be an unsocial couch potato writer. Beginners, if you show up for other authors’ launches, you may make contact with the publisher and/or publicist. It’s easier to step away from the unsolicited slush pile this way.

 7) You need other jobs to keep your writing alive as well as pay your mortgage.  You want to meet new people/characters, encounter new situations/possible plots.

 8) You need a website. Blog, tweet, facebook, tumblir, instagram, whatever, as minimally as you want, short pithy posts are better than long ones.

 9)  Keep the doors open to new opportunity.

 10)  Be nice:  Don’t be a prima donna, a grouch or a whiner. Don’t gripe about the lack of money. This is a dream job, everybody wants to be you.

 For an additional post on the grant portion of the talk, please see  Grant Me Creative Writing Money Canada Council .


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Engaging Characters take over the story


I never meant to write about them. The bombsquad using a robot to disengage a backpack “bomb”. A friendly crossing guard who twirls his stop sign like a baton and shares his driving judgements even though he can’t drive himself. And these two dogs, they literally grabbed the story like a stick floating in the water.


Two best friends, sort of, relate in a complicated way. Do they like each other? Mortie will stand up for Worf to the max of his little lung capacity. Worf does not kill Mortie when their respective fangs lock onto the same bone or stick–a huge compliment from a food defensive pound puppy.


The two of them hijacked my story about a dogwalking 12 year old who spots something he shouldn’t have and doesn’t even know it. An emailed threat warns him not to talk to the police. When the police interview him, the criminal kidnaps Worf aka Pong (transformed mysteriously into a greyhound by the way).

“Give me five hundred dollars or the dog dies”. Mortie aka Ping leads his walker in the rescue mission.


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Indoor Skydiving–Part of the writing process

Because my main character Jade in Death on Youtube makes a list of ten things she has to do or achieve before she dies (a second time, she’s on a two week replay) I felt I had to try something she would do in order to write the scene authentically.

In the late part of 2009 I visited classrooms for three weeks at both Canadian Martyrs School and Brant Hills School

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and as part of writing workshops asked them to tell me what they’d most want to do if they only had two weeks to live and couldn’t really tell anyone, exactly as my character’s circumstances dictated. Of course some of their suggestions will appear in the story. However, one thing that repeatedly came up which kids under 18 are not allowed to do is skydiving. Not even with parental consent.

Happenchance, while catching up one clips of one of my favourite shows: Rick Mercer, I noticed he went indoor skydiving at Niagara Falls. I quickly googled and found that even 7 year olds can skydive, provided they have a parent on site who signs insurance waivers and consent forms.
So I debated: this is expensive, I’ve already broken my wrist once rollerblading, the orthepedic surgeon will really freak if I come back after indoor skydiving. I posted my query on facebook and found the response leaned towards yes. So today off I went.

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