monique polak

Monique Polak's Books

Adventures in Writing a Board Book

Ever heard of a board book?

They're made of hard cardboard (hence the name board book) and they're aimed at children aged 0-3. Basically, they're for parents to read to their infants and toddlers -- and for babies to CHEW ON!!

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I write mostly for pre-teens and teens. So, imagine my surprise when, in May, an editor at my publisher Orca Books contacted me to ask if I was willing to write a board book. One hundred words on a topic that I can't disclose because it's still top-secret. Of course, I said YES.

You probably think one hundred words on some undisclosed topic is a snap, right?

But I knew it would be tough. That's because I have friends who write board books.

I started in May. As I often do, I worked on the floor in my little home office. I spread out notes all around me, and I started writing. I have to admit that when an unfortunate tele-marketer happened to phone, I SHOUTED AT HIM.

But I kept writing for two days straight. I thought my first draft was pretty excellent. Then I sent it to my friend and fellow author Rina Singh.

Rina, whose first book was a collection of poetry, made some great comments. When you only have one hundred words every word counts.

I worked some more and sent the manuscript off to Orca.

How hard can it be to write one hundred words?

Crazy hard. As in the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than writing a 30,000 word manuscript!

I wrote -- are you ready? -- NINE drafts of the project.

Still, my friends at Orca didn't think I had it quite right. I suggested that maybe they should FIRE ME!! But they said, "No, we believe you are the person for this project. We believe that you will get it right."

And so, on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, sitting next to my daughter Alicia, I re-wrote the story for the TENTH time. Special thanks to Alicia, for her input and suggestions -- and for putting up with me while I read the story over and over and over again. Even our seat mate, a man with mutton chop sideburns (he's another story altogether!!) was forced to hear my WIP (that stands for work-in-progress).

And guess what? That tenth draft of my first board book?

It worked. You'll be able to read it to a baby in spring 2018.

The moral of today's blog entry: you can do it even if it's hard. Even if it feels IMPOSSIBLE. All you need to do is fly to Europe -- and never ever EVER give up.

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Book Launch at St. Monica School!!

It's been an exciting morning here in NDG. I am just home from a book launch at St. Monica School, which happens to be conveniently located around the corner from my house!

We were celebrating the launch of this year's edition of Quebec Roots -- it's a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project in which students from across the province work with a team of authors and photographers to contribute a chapter to the book.

Photographer Thomas Kneubuhler and I were lucky that we got to work with Mr. Trister's Grade Five class at St. Monica's. (That's Mr. Trister in the back corner of the first pic.) Thomas is away in Switzerland on a work assignment, so I had to talk enough for two people (not a problem for me!!).

As you can imagine, the kids were pretty psyched to see their words and images published in a real book! A student named Joanne told me, "I got inside a published book and I want to do more!" And a student named Mel made me happy when he said he might keep a journal this summer: "I might write about my vacation. We might go to Auberge Lac Taureau and there's a beautiful beach there."

And because I'm me, I took a few minutes to pick the students' brains about a book project I'm working on. I need one of my characters to be hooked on video games -- and the kids told me the latest, best video games: 2K17 and Battlefield 1. Thanks, guys!

This winter, I also travelled to Salluit in Nunavik, to work with students at Ikusik School. The Ikusik kids contributed two wonderful chapters to this year's Quebec Roots. In all, there are seven chapters. I can't wait to read them all. I hope you will too!!

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Special Morning at LCCHS

So what if I took a bridge I didn't have to and got totally lost -- and had to put in an emergency SOS phonecall -- on my way to Lasalle Community Comprehensive High School this morning? It was ALL WORTH IT because the two groups of students I worked with ... well... they made me happy! (Hopefully I taught them some stuff too!)

I started the morning with Miss Di Criscio's Grade Seven class. When I asked if any of them tend to ask themselves what I call the "magic question": "What if?" Abigail answered, "I ask 'What if?' all day every day!" Way to go, Abigail! You sound like a writer! You know how I'm always on the hunt for cool names to use for future characters in my books? Well, one of the Grade Seven students was named Blade. When I asked him how his parents came up with that name, he told me, "They were into medieval stuff." Très cool, Blade. (I also met a student named Karma -- but she was in my second group. Love her name too.)

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know how I love observing small, interesting things. I noticed that a student named Fardin is detail-oriented. When I asked the students to write something down, Fardin asked, "Is there a comma?" I think it would be fun to use a character like Fardin in a story, don't you? I also noticed that a student named Alyssa was kind -- this is because, when I mentioned that my mom died four months ago, Alyssa looked at me and said, "Sorry for your loss."

During my break, a talented Grade Ten student named Alice dropped by the library to show me some poetry she's been working on as part of a project called Leave Out Violence. I gave Alice a few tips for tightening up her poems -- such as to reduce the number of words whenever possible, and to avoid rhyme when it sounds forced. I also asked Alice for permission to share one of her lines that I liked most. It comes from a poem called "Funerals": "Funerals aren't for the living/ They're for the dead." What I like about these lines is that they are clear, concise and powerful. Keep writing, Alice!

I ended my morning with students in the school's Phoenix program, an alternative program that lets them complete their Sec. IV and V classes. (You can see a few of them in today's pic.) These kids have stories! When they first sat down in the library, I noticed that a student named Sabrina was sitting alone. When I mentioned this, another student -- Austin -- got up from his table and went to sit with her. I loved that. Also, it would make a great scene in a book. Thanks for the inspiration, Sabrina and Austin.

I gave both groups of students a short writing exercise. A student named Kyle said I could go ahead and quote my favourite line from what he wrote. Here goes: "I am addicted to the feeling of helping others." That line really touched my heart. Thanks, Kyle, for letting me share it here.

Also, I often say the same things when I do school visits, so it was exciting that today I came up with a new line -- especially for the Phoenix kids. I told them, "Cash in on your misery and write about it!" What do you think of that wisdom? (I like it a lot!)

Special thanks to my friend, librarian Miss Lumi, for inviting me to LCCHS today -- and for helping me find my way from the Mercier Bridge. (That's Miss Lumi next to me in today's pic.) Thanks to the students for being wonderful. Let's just say -- I needed you today!

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Writing Workshop for Seniors (and Two Imposters!) at the Blue Met Festival

Yesterday afternoon, I did a workshop called "Finding the Story You Need to Tell" at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. The workshop was meant to be for seniors -- but two young women turned up to join us. All I can say is we had a magical afternoon together. The workshop was 2-1/2 hours long, but I never once checked my watch!

I tried to bit of everything. That means some of my usual writing tips (the same ones I pass on to high school students), as well as writing exercises. I made sure to do exercises that were quick and fun, as well as a couple that were more difficult and required a little more "giving."

When the workshop started, I asked everyone to introduce themselves. Carol made us laugh when she told us her reason for coming to the workshop: "I'm avoiding my income taxes!" Sylvia explained that she's been writing since she was a little girl: "I had to write books for my parents for birthdays and at Christmas." It sounds to me like you had great parents, Sylvia! Several of the participants were retired teachers. One of them, Nigel, who also works as a translator, said he needs to follow the same advice he used to give to his students at Champlain College when they were avoiding their writing assignments: "Trip yourself up! Walk backwards -- go blind!" Cheryl, another retired teacher, said that at this stage in her life, she finally has time to write. "When I was working," Cheryl said, "I was too exhausted to do all the things I wanted to do."

I must say I never felt for a moment like I was working. At the end of the workshop, Cheryl (the income tax-avoider!) told me: "I've got two short stories blooming as a result of your exercises. They've been rattling around."

Here's to blooming, here's to rattling -- here's to writers of all ages and stages in their careers!

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Day 4 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Westmount Library

It's me again! Reporting in from Day 4 of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Don't you love today's pic? Mett Melea (on the left) and Kashuf (on the right). I was at the Westmount Library, doing a writing workshop for their Grade 8 class at Westmount High, when I spotted these two students in perfect "concentrating" position. So of course, I whipped out my cellphone and took a pic that I could post here for all the world to see.

I also explained to the class that I love love love the old writing rule, "Show; don't tell." I could TELL you that the girls were concentrating. But it's way better to SHOW you that they were resting their chins on their hands, taking notes and looking right at me.

More exciting news: the students' teacher, Miss Tevel, was one of MY students at Marianopolis College. Makes me think I must do a good job!!!

I love learning stuff about kids, and of course, I write everything down for possible future use in a story. I loved that a student named Mohammed was keeping track of which number point I was on. "Maybe I want to be an engineer," Mohammed told me. Sorry, by the way, for hopping around between points, Mohammed. As you can guess, I would have made a terrible engineer!

I was also kind of fascinated by a student named Josh. (I told the class that if I'd had a son instead of a daughter, his name would have been Josh.) Anyway, Josh looked a little sluggish (leaning way back in his chair, not taking notes), but also quite smart (could have been on account of his glasses). When I asked him to write a list of ten things he hated, I discovered that Josh is a creative thinker. Now go use that talent, Josh!

The other students wrote about a memory connected to bullying. I absolutely loved Nikitas's first line: "It was 3:06 dot on." The "dot on" part really catches my attention. Cyrus wrote about how his older brother "hit me with a belt as a joke" -- that's powerful material, Cyrus. And Hang wrote something really really beautiful that I think she should develop into a book. She described her memory of being in Grade 4 in China: "It was HELL. There was a rumour going around about the fact that I'm Japanese." When I asked Hang more about the rumour, I learned something super interesting -- that it was only afterwards that Hang learned that she is actually part Japanese. Whoo! How interesting! I wish I could write a book about Hang's experience -- only problem is that Hang would do a way better job since she lived it. Hang, start writing!

I had another great morning at the festival. Thanks to my friend, Westmount Library's children's librarian Wendy Wayling, for hosting me; thanks to Miss Tevel; to the other adults who were present; and special thanks to the kids. I had a blast with you guys this morning. Now, go write and read!!


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