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Heather M. O'Connor - Writer & Author - (905) 430-0466
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Betting Game by Heather M. O’Connor

Please visit my new website to learn more about my new book Betting Game, coming out in October 2015.
Cover Betting Game (4) (750x1280)

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing

Tag — I’m it. This post comes to you courtesy of Ruth E. Walker, author of Living Underground. She caught me, fair and square, in this game of blog-tag that’s making the rounds with authors. When you finish reading my answers, hop over to her blog and read hers.

What is your working title of your book? 

“Twice A Ghost”


Where did the idea come from for the book? 

It started as a writing prompt. I’d been spelunking, a grand term for crawling around in caves, and wondered what it would be like to enter a cave with someone already in it. Would it be startling? Frightening? Exciting?

And what characters would meet in such an unexpected way? Would it be someone running away from home? Perhaps a runaway slave on the underground railroad? A modern-day teen? A murderer? Maybe a prince?

All this I pondered on a long walk. I came back ready to write a sketch or a short story. This novel is what came of it.

What genre does your book fall under? 

“Twice A Ghost” is a shifty creature. It’s probably best categorized as a young adult fantasy set in an imagined historical setting. Some would call it historical fantasy. Others would classify it as high fantasy. It has crossover potential, since many adults read this type of fantasy. So it crawls into a whole lot of genre caves.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

That’s a tough one. I’d leave the casting up to the director. If I’m fortunate enough to worry about that.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

Another toughie! Here goes: “Twice A Ghost,” a YA medieval fantasy with a glimmer of magic, spins the tale of a princess who runs away to save her life, and fights her way back to save her people. But there’s so much more to tell!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

 That’s easy. Although self-publishing suits many writers, I choose to follow the traditional path to publication.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

Years. Years and years. The writing prompt launched the story in 2003 or 2004. But it also launched Merlin Writes, my freelance writing business. “Twice A Ghost” has been a pick-it-up-and-put-it-down project. Since I started attending Writescape retreats in 2008, it’s gotten more attention. Since receiving an Ontario Arts Council Works in Progress grant a year ago, it’s become a bit of an obsession. I’m in revisions now and expect to finish by the summer.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 

Readers who enjoy books by Tamora Pierce and Kristen Britain would like “Twice A Ghost.” Like Alanna, Kel and Karigan, my protagonist Embrie is a strong heroine discovering who she is and what she believes.

Not my idea of a princeWho or what inspired you to write this book? 

I wrote three short curriculum-based books for Nelson Canada in 2002. Just stumbled into it. I enjoyed the experience so much, I decided to take a stab at writing professionally. That leap of faith a decade ago brought me here and brought “Twice A Ghost” to life.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Embrie started out as a prince. When I was a girl, I couldn’t find myself in the books I loved. Oh, endless plucky princes and heroic young lads, but girls? We waited to be rescued. That’s why my prince is now a princess, and why she’s hiding as a boy. And it’s also, ironically, how the title came to be. But you’ll have to read “Twice A Ghost” to figure out why.

Thanks, Ruth. Your questions got me thinking.

And now it’s my turn to play the game. Tag — you’re it, Erin Thomas. You too, Tobin Elliott. And you, Sharon Overend. Like Ruth, these are talented writers with something delicious cooking on every burner. Take a peek and have a taste.

Lights. Camera. Action!–The 21st century book flap


You can’t judge a book by its cover. But can you judge it by its book trailer?

Book…what? Think movie trailers–only for upcoming novels instead of coming attractions. They’re short, flashy videos that act like virtual book flaps.

Turning browsers into buyers

Book trailers are big news. With the boom in online ordering and ebooks, these catchy commercials let readers see what they’re buying.

Who’s making them? Young adult books rank tops for quality and quantity. No big surprise. Tech-savvy young readers do more web-surfing. They watch more movies. So book teasers on YouTube? They’re a perfect way to connect book with reader.

Here are a handful of my favourite trailers, pulled from young adult, fantasy and historical fiction:

The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

What’s your favourite book trailer? Why did it make you want to read the book? Did it deliver on its promise?

Starting young–markets that publish young writers

girl writingI received an email from a Saskatoon teen recently. She wanted to know about contests and scholarships that would help her pursue her passion for writing. Her request got me thinking. And brainstorming. And digging around online for resources for teen writers. Here’s what I came up with:

The thinking part:
  • Yearbook, school newspapers and writer’s craft classes give high school students practice and experience.
  • The Writers in Electronic Residence program connects schools with professional writers.
  • Public libraries or community centres sometimes run youth writing groups.
The online digging:

I found a bunch of magazines that publish youth writing. I can vouch for the value of New Moon and Cicada. The other publications are unfamiliar to me, but it’s been (ahem) a few years since I was a youth.

New Moon

Eighty percent of New Moon‘s content is written by girls. It’s ad-free and produced online and in print.


Cicada is Cricket magazine’s “older sibling.” This US publication offers regular contests for writers.

Teen Ink

Teen Ink is a US teen magazine, book series, and website devoted entirely to teenage writing, art, photos and forums.

Skipping Stones

Skipping Stones is an ad-free nonprofit literary magazine for youth that encourages communication, cooperation, creativity and celebration of cultural and environmental richness.

Stone Soup

Stone Soup is a bimonthly American magazine made up of stories, poems, book reviews and art by young people through age 13.

The Claremont Review

The Claremont Review is a Canadian literary magazine that publishes poetry, fiction, drama and art by writers aged 13-19. It comes out twice a year.

Polyphony HS

Polyphony HS is a high school literary magazine written, edited and published by high school students. It accepts poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction.

Here are a couple of other resources I found:


Know of any other youth-friendly resources and markets? Please share them.

Yes, I’m a killer

I have a confession. I’m a heartless, cold-blooded killer.

It was completely premeditated. In fact, I selected my victim before I even got to know him very well. Then I used him and eliminated him without a speck of guilt. He had it coming, after all.

The murder was cruel, painful, bloody. It took him hours to die and I watched every excruciating minute.

Wait! Do I hear sirens? No, no, officer–you’ve got the wrong idea! A character–I killed a CHARACTER!

Put your characters to work

I created a character in my novel a while back. He had a job to do. An important job. But once he’d fulfilled his responsibilities, I had no use for him. In fact, he’d be in the way. So what else could I do?

As soon as I decided to kill him, I gave him a raise. He may as well enjoy his short life. I invested in him, developed him. I made him weak and selfish, but likeable. I gave him hopes and dreams and motivation. I got to know him–and so did my reader. And then I gave him a choice: live a traitor or die a hero.

He bled his life away over three pages.

Invest in your characters

I read the scene aloud to a group of writers on the weekend. It met an appreciative audience. But among the group was a friend from my novel critique group who was familiar with the story. She cried. And then she told the group why.

I’d gone back and methodically developed him, she explained. She’d grown attached to the doomed fellow, despite his many flaws.

So there you have it. Not only am I a cold-blooded murderer, but I’ve profited from my crime.

Do you have a character you’ve killed? Why?

It’s a grant! It’s a pen! It’s SuperScribbler

What do you do with an Ontario Arts Council (OAC) grant? I have a year to find out. And so do you.

Thanks to a suggestion from my writing buddies Deb and Theresa, I’m chronicling the year I finish my novel. Want to come along for the ride? Climb in and buckle up.


I found out this week that the Ontario Arts Council (God bless them) approved my request for a Works in Progress grant. So what did I do first? You mean besides the wildest happy-dance ever? Sharing the news with my dearest writing friends and family? Looking at the cheque a hundred times?

I wrote a thank you note to the OAC. Really.

Realigning my creative compass

Now, it’s time to get down to business. I’m spending the end of October clearing my desk. Then, mild-mannered freelance writer Heather O’Connor ducks into the nearest phone booth and turns into Super…Something.

Well, it’s not actually a phone booth. It’s Writescape’s Turning Leaves Retreat. But I’ll be meeting superheroes there: Ruth Walker, Gwynn Scheltema, Barry Dempster. Great writers. Inspiring facilitators. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Well, maybe not that last part.

I’m looking forward to a weekend of writing, brainstorming and planning. But I promise–no spandex.

I’ll keep you posted.

You can’t win unless you get a ticket, part two

I’ve just received a golden ticket. A gilt-edged invitation. Freedom and joy and power, all wrapped up in a fat brown envelope from the Ontario Arts Council (OAC.)

Motivation and backstory

Rewind a bit to last June, as the deadline for the OAC’s Writers’ Works in Progress grant approached. This generous grant funds writers who are working on an existing manuscript. I fit the criteria. I had a manuscript. I had a publication history, albeit in magazines and newspapers.

Most importantly, I had the guts. I’d applied before. Three times. I’d been turned down before. Three times. But I’d been plugging away at my manuscript for years. The grant was a get-out-of-your-day-job-free card.

And I wanted it.

Inciting incident

When that fat envelope arrived in the mail, I held it in my hands for a few moments. I didn’t need to open it. “Thanks for applying” looked nothing like this. It bulged with folded-paper promises too large for a standard legal-sized envelope. It held a permission slip, in the form of a $12,000 cheque.

As a working writer, the paying work always takes precedence over my novel. Which will pay. Eventually. If I get time to finish it. And I find a publisher. I can’t feed my family on that.

Overnight, my novel became the paying work.

Happy ending—and happy beginning

So I’m clearing my desk. I’m setting a new deadline for my assignments—October 28, the day I leave for Writescape’s Turning Leaves Retreat. No longer an illicit weekend of fiction writing, Turning Leaves will be a honeymoon. I’m ready to be inspired by Ruth Walker, Gwynn Scheltema and Barry Dempster. I’m ready for the company of fine writers and dear friends. For time to write by the fire and dream and incubate and map and plan.

It’s been a long gestation, but a baby’s getting born next year and I’m bursting with it.

And the adage here is: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

You can’t win unless you get a ticket

Winner's wreathWant to win a writing contest? Here’s my best piece of advice.


Sounds easy, but it’s what holds back more writers than anything else.

Let me tell you a story…

The Oshawa Public Library recently held a short story competition. Write a humorous family story. Maximum 1500 words. Deadline September 25. No entry fee. Must hold an Oshawa library card.

I spotted the contest brochure only a week before the deadline, but shared it to the creative writing class I teach. The library is right next door, I told my students. You all write. It’s free. Enter it.

Then, I followed my own advice.

I thumbed through old stories I’d written and never submitted. I found a comical anecdote about the week my daughter Anne turned two. (She made me scrambled eggs. On the carpet. No bowl.)

I gave the piece a quick buff-and-polish and sent it in. To my surprise, I won. First place. The prize was a $100 gift certificate to Chapters. Not bad for a funny little bit of family history.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

A friend of mine, the incomparable Ruth E. Walker, heard about the prestigious Montreal International Poetry Prize. It offers a mind-numbing $50,000 for first place. That’s 50 grand for one poem. Do the math to figure out how much that is per word. Per syllable.

Ruth’s a brilliant wordsmith. She makes a handful of words sing a symphony of meaning.

But still. High-profile contest. Huge prize.

Ruth entered anyway.

She learned last Thursday she’d made the longlist. It wouldn’t surprise me if that $50,000 cheque ends up inscribed with her name.

Gotta get a ticket

So if you see a contest, enter it. I can’t guarantee you’ll win if you do, but you certainly won’t win if you don’t. It’s a bit of a riff on the “God helps those who help themselves” adage.

Now here’s my plug for the Whispered Words Prose Competition. Just enter. Do it. It’s the only way to win.

Who are the people in your (writing) neighbourhood?

Promoting reading Pass the Book

I attended the closing ceremonies for Oshawa Public Library’s Pass the Book Event on Saturday. This year, seven Durham libraries participated in the community-wide reading program, from Ajax to Clarington and north to Uxbridge. The title chosen in Oshawa for 2011 was Stuart McLean’s entertaining Stories from the Vinyl Café.

At a time when the City of Toronto is cutting back library hours, kudos to Durham. Bravo to our libraries for a lively reading program that encourages people to talk about books. Thumbs up for the reading and writing programs they’ve offered, from creative writing workshops to book clubs, speakers, draws—even a short story writing contest. What a way to support literacy, creativity and community.

Supporting writersWriters' Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR) does for writers what libraries do for readers. It creates a critical mass of creative types who support and encourage each other. The organization is over 300 strong. Journalists and editors mingle with fiction and memoir writers. Novices rub elbows with veterans. Like author, journalist and broadcaster Ted Barris. Like actor and funny-guy Neil Crone. Like Rabindranath Maharaj, whose novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy took both a Trillium Award and Toronto Book Award. It’s a generous, talented group.

Creating opportunities Whispered Words logo

The Whispered Words prose competition comes from this vibrant community of writers. Proposed three years ago by long-time member Ruth Walker, the annual themed writing contest serves members and the broader writing community by giving feedback with every entry. Win or lose, every writer can improve by entering.

Each entry is read by two of the first-tier judges. Entries that proceed to the second tier receive feedback from our three second-tier judges. The top ten entries receive feedback from our final judge. In addition, the contest publishes 20 to 25 of the entries in the Whispered Words anthology. Each contributor receives a $25 payment and a contributor’s copy. How’s that for supporting the writing community? Will you be entering?

Here are your Whispered Words writing prompts for Monday.

  • She blew and the white-frosted dandelion seeds danced away on the breeze.
  • “Hungry!” he whispered.
  • He loved the sound of satin against her skin.
  • The aviary was alive with the song of wings dancing.
  • Nights like this, when the wind moans low? That’s when they come. But you can’t hear them coming.

Got a question about writing contests? We answer them Wednesdays. Want to contribute a good prompt? Let’s hear it. Send your questions and prompts to Now, get writing!

Na-No-Wri-Mo is coming!

National Novel Writing MonthNa-No-Wri-Mo (National Novel Writing Month) is just weeks away. This 30-day challenge will have writers all around the world scribbling, typing, creating. The goal? To write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30. It averages out to 1666 words per day.

Get published

This intensive writing discipline serves some writers very well. Take Kevin Craig, for example. The Oshawa author participates annually in novel marathons. His recently published novel Summer on Fire, found its genesis at Na-No-Wri-Mo 2003. He’s just signed a contract for Sebastian’s Poet, a novel begun at the 2007 Muskoka Novel Marathon.

Get started

Want to give it a try? Just sit down and write. It makes a difference. Like showing up for work in the morning, you never know what the day will bring, just that you’ll be working. You can register on the Na-No-Wri-Mo website for information, encouragement, web badges and even some funny cartoons. Join the club.

  • Over 200,000 people took the Na-No-Wri-Mo challenge last year
  • 37,500 people completed it–that’s a lot of manuscripts!
Get inspired

If you’re looking for inspiration, either fleeting or marathon-style, sink your teeth into a writing prompt. I’ll be posting Whispered Words prompts every Monday and Friday. Why not try one of them?

  • “I’m sorry,” he whispered, then slipped the knife between her ribs.
  • The quiet music of the fountain played on the terrace. He waited for her, hidden in the shadows.
  • The wedding gown was a whisper of satin, a rustle of silk, a frosting of lace.
  • “Cancer,” he whispered and a tear trailed down his face.
  • Daddy heard a rustle in the cornfield. That’s how it began.

The Whispered Words prose competition ends November 30—the same day as Na-No-Wri-Mo. If your month of writing produces a short story rather than a novel, send it in. One thousand words could win you one thousand dollars. Happy writing!

Got a question? We’ll answer it. Want to contribute a good prompt? Wonderful! Send your questions and prompts to

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