The Gift of Literacy: Reflections from the life of World War Two Survivor Eva Olsson

Yesterday I visited the school where my husband is a vice principal. I wanted to see him, true, but the main reason I popped in was to hear Eva Olsson speak. She was visiting Edmonton to present to students in the Sturgeon School Division, traveling from her home city of Toronto, Canada.

Eva is a World War Two survivor and her stories were arresting. She used her experience with the “Nazi bullies” to implore the children in the audience to stop using the word hate and instead treat each other with compassion and respect.

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She told the story of how her family was lined up with thousands of other Jews and separated. One group went to the gas chambers. The other group was put into work camps. Eva was just a teenager. Her mom was separated from her, sent to be murdered, and that was the last time they saw each other.

Eva’s father went to a work camp and died of starvation. The photo Eva showed was of a long line of bodies so thin that their stomachs caved in and the people were literally just skin and bone. It was like a collection of arching ribcages. The image made me shudder.

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Eva and other girls her age were sent to another work camp. They slept outside on the grass – even when it was raining – and spent winter nights in a mud hole like pigs. They were all given wooden clogs, not in their size, and had no socks. Their feet were covered in blisters.


“May a new love for humanity be born out of the horrors we have known.” From the Scroll of Remembrance at Bergen-Belsen

Eva spoke of the power of hate to do such horrible things to other people. She also critiqued the bystanders of Europe who let this horrible tragedy of genocide take place. Her message was that bystanders – even those of today – that watch evil happen and do nothing are just as guilty.

I felt incredibly proud to hear such morality praised and advocated for – and also a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels our culture is very grey. We don’t want to upset others with our values so we water them down. Tolerance is at the forefront. Eva’s message actually felt wonderfully refreshing! There is right! There is wrong! We must be resolute in our convictions.

At one point she asked all the junior high kids: “Who does NOT like going to school?”

A large number of hands went up.

(Being a bookworm and an education-addict, I cringed when I saw the hands.)

What was Eva’s response?

SHAME ON YOU!” she said sternly.

Eva did not go to school as a child or youth. She could not read or write. This embarrassed her greatly. She so badly wished to get an education! (She now holds a PhD so I believe her wish did come true.)

This is one of Eva’s messages that will linger on with me forever.

I don’t want my children to take their education for granted. It is a gift.


“I cannot live in the past, but I must life with it. Perhaps writing my story will weaken the hold the past has had on me.” – Dr. Eva Olsson LLD (Hon.), FRCPSC


When I was younger and in grade school, I was bullied relentlessly. It wounded my spirit deeply and I too would have put up my hand saying I would rather be anywhere else than in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t appreciate school. Who does as a youth in North America where we don’t have to fight for it?

I hope to cultivate a love of education in my kids. The ability to read and write opens many doors, cultivates the imagination, allows for understanding and compassion for others, and creates a means for self-expression.

As both an avid reader and an author, I cannot imagine my life without the gifts of education and literacy. These are things I fight for in my life – not in grand ways, but they are priorities that I protect none the less. It can be as simple as turning off the TV to read a book. Choosing to use proper English even when texting. Reading to my children before I tuck them into bed even when I myself am oh so very tired.

I celebrate the stories my daughter writes on every piece of paper in the house. Her spelling is a mystery most days, but she is learning. She is hungry for it. What a gift! What a precious ability that we have which I hope we never, ever lose sight of. What a blessing!

I am so very thankful that Eva Olsson reminded me of this lesson – of the critical importance of literacy.

Eva’s life is inspiring. To read more about her, please click here.

The Social Media Seesaw for Writers

Social media is a gift for writers who are now able to directly engage with their readers and promote their work. Yet, it can also become a consuming time-suck and addictive distraction from doing the actual work: writing. It is a hard balance, like the pursuit of all “balance” in life, as to where the line is on how much social networking is really too much.

I myself go back and forth on the social media seesaw, feeling some days like it’s a blessing and others like it’s a curse.


Here is how I manage the double edged sward of social media and get stuff done:

  1. Make lists. I write out everything that is a priority to complete, which often includes a few social responsibilities of my business, such as blogging and twitter. Then I organize myself and my schedule, taking into consideration the most important tasks that need to be done and how much time everything will take. I keep the lists handy to keep myself on track.
  2. I switch off from social networks and focus on the priorities. When I am writing for a magazine or my current book projects or crunching a deadline on whatever I have on the go, I give it my full attention. My phone is my distraction, so I will lock its screen so I can’t log onto social networks, or leave it in another room. It is so important to give whatever you are doing your undivided attention.
  3. Schedule the social. This has been a wonderful timesaver. I write my blogs, schedule when they will be released and on what social networks I wish to share the posts. This keeps me active on all my social platforms every day, even when I am actually being very unsocial and working on my books. Helpful programs like Tweet Deck and Hootsuite are also great at scheduling ahead of time.

Seesaws can be a lot of fun. The same is true with social networks. You may go back and forth on how much you choose to engage those networks, but your presence there is essential. Figure out how to manage the seesaw and you will set yourself up for success.

Tips for writing your book proposal – from someone who has done it

Writing a book proposal is a marathon, not a sprint. While many writers dream of penning the next Harry Potter, creating a great book is only one part of the process. The writer must then transfer all their skills to crafting an outstanding proposal that will wow many audiences, from editors to the finance department to marketing.

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Here are three lessons I learned about writing an awesome book proposal:

  1. Do your research and really know your audience. This is twofold. Know the audience for your book, who is going to read it, but also know the audience who will be reading your proposal. Tailor each section to simultaneously present the facts AND sell your book. Of course don’t sell in a pushy, cheesy, or desperate sort of way, but make your case why your book needs to be published – and back up that opinion.
  2. Get help from others. This was such a wonderful boost for me when I got sick of my proposal, having worked on it for weeks straight, to gain a new set of eyes. Ask friends or family to help research statistics or surf Amazon to compile a book list of comparable titles. These are people who have watched you write your masterpiece and now they are invested as well in seeing you succeed. All in all, I had four other people outside myself help with my proposal – and I am incredibly grateful. My mom, an avid memoir reader, read my book proposal multiple times, her first go around noticing a giant gap. I likely would have missed that hole entirely without her.
  3. Spend a good chunk of time on your marketing plan. I read countless guides, studied how other books were marketed and daydreamed about the right marketing trajectory for my story. Now, I feel tremendously excited about that stage of the process – which is a good thing if publishers are passing the bulk of marketing responsibilities on to authors. With a very specific and clear plan, writers are able to jump right into marketing activities that will ensure their book is a success.

What stage of the proposal writing process are you at?

What have you learned from writing your book proposal?

Later this summer I will be sharing a book proposal outline, including all the elements you need for success.

Happy writing!


The Editing Stage: A Necessary Torture

Do you love free writing? Do the ideas just flow out of you and you find you can write for hours? Are you a master at hammering out the first draft? Congratulations, your right brain is serving you well!

What about the very left-brain process of editing? Does that flow as freely for you?

If you’re like me, the draft stage is easier than what follows. At one time, I said I hated editing, that it was like torture – pulling teeth, a slap on a sunburn, slowly dripping water… Although, after very thoroughly editing my first memoir, I have come to appreciate editing in a new way.

I still see editing as a form of torture but also a process that makes my work stronger and more potent as a result – and it’s always worth the effort. Watching my manuscript evolve with each complete edit was like witnessing a child grow-up before my eyes. It turned out that editing was actually a very beautiful and sensitive stage of the writing.

During editing erroneous details are eliminated. Key themes are refined. Characters’ voices are made more authentic. Wordiness is exchanged for clarity… These are all positive qualities we want from our work – but they must be earned.

I’m still figuring out my editing style. I tend to have an epiphany of what needs improvement and then do a full run through of the manuscript focusing on that one element. It is a labour intensive process and sometimes I wonder if I have memorized my sentences. Usually at that point I need a pair of fresh eyes to look at my work, if not just a good night’s sleep to reset my brain.

How do you edit your work? Do you jump in like you do at the drafting stage or do you need a deadline to get focused?

I welcome you to share your reflections on the torturous and yet necessary stage of editing. I’d especially like to hear from those that love refining their work and what words of encouragement they may have for the rest of us.

Happy writing!

Refocus your Writing Life this Autumn

Summer lovin’, had me a blast. Summer lovin’, happened so fast…

It did happen so fast and now that summer is reduced to a scrapbook full of photos, it’s time to refocus on writing. During the blissfully warm vacation season, it’s easy to slack off and develop poor writing habits. Who wouldn’t want to swim in the lake instead of pounding out the morning pages or tee up on the golf course instead of cracking down on the challenging scene from the work in progress?

Alas, now that September has arrived there is no better time to get your writing practice back to where you want it to be. Just like any habit, it will take some time but do not fret. Developing good writerly habits is a matter of mental determination and will power.

Try these tips to help you refocus:

  • Write out a list of projects you wish to accomplish and how you are going to achieve them.
  • Free write to get the creative juices flowing.
  • Read a new book to get your mind alert and engaged.
  • Take in a theatrical performance or visit an art gallery for inspiration.
  • Go for a jog and think about your manuscript as you sweat.
  • Tell your family and friends that you can’t hang out on certain days because you are writing – and get them to hold you accountable.
  • Visit a writing group or attend a workshop.
  • Duck tape your butt to your chair and get started.

Sometimes the most challenging part of getting back into routine after the summer is just getting started. Once you pound out a hundred boring words, I’m confident you’ll find your rhythm. Even if those first hundred words take you an hour, remember breakthrough is just around the corner. Writing is not easy. It is a habit of perseverance, determination and hope.

Good luck with all your writing projects this autumn!



Writing about Difficult Subject Matter

Writers amongst other artists have the amazing ability to challenge, question, critique and explore our society.

They ask:

– What do we believe as a people?

– Why do we believe this?

– Is there another way?

Many individuals have mixed feelings about writing about controversial topics and taboo subjects. There is a part of me that relates to that and wants to keep the peace, not rock the boat, and ensure everyone is happy. That’s the boring side of me though and she often takes backseat to the other part that’s BOLD and COURAGEOUS.

I want my work to matter and because of this I need to write about what matters to me first and foremost. My topics often seen unpopular or reflect a concealed part of accepted human behavior. For example, for the last two and a half years I have been writing about the death of my son, managing grief and finding healing. It never fails to amaze me how these topics make people uncomfortable – unless they have lived through them. People who have lost a loved one speak my language and I to them. Those are the people who I write for with this focus on bereavement.

The Three Minus One anthology features an essay I wrote where I reveal my raw state of sorrow in the early days after my son died.

The Three Minus One anthology features an essay I wrote where I reveal my raw state of sorrow in the early days after my son died. Read more about Three Minus One.

The different topic I’m embarking on with my new writing at the moment is also somewhat taboo yet equally important I believe to bring into the open. That’s what I care about: opening up topics that should be talked about, breaking the silence. I ask myself all the time: Why are these things hidden?  Should they be? What will happen if I talk about them? Will I tarnish my reputation? Spontaneously combust? Will my work be accepted? How can I change the world?

Here are four principles that provide internal navigation for me in writing about difficult subject matter:


– When you are just beginning to write, do not think about who will read your words. Write from the heart.

– Tell the truth. The truth is scary but needed in our day and age. Your work will matter and stand the test of time if it reflects the time it which was penned.

– If it matters to you, it will likely matter to other people. They are who you write for.

– If it crashes and burns, who cares? You only live once and might as well give it all you’ve got. 


What helps you when you have a challenging topic on your mind? How do you get your thoughts down on paper and out into the world?