Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Night Sounds of London

I've slept on the sofa for the past few nights in a bid to prevent The Man from my snuffling, sniffling and coughing as I battle the cold from hell. While our bedroom fronts onto the busy street, our lounge oversees a row of gardens that separate the next terrace from ours. The traffic is muted, you can hear the birds, and it's like being in a different world.

View of the gardens in the recent snowstorm.

And in the middle of the night, the sounds are even more unearthly. One night I was awakened by the foreign song of a strange bird. Stupid thing, I muttered; it's not even light yet. As the singing continued, I became less annoyed than intrigued. Its tune was unlike any run-of-the-mill bird, and I was reminded of the time The Man and I saw, to our surprise, three large parrots perched in the trees of Kensington Gardens. Further research revealed that west London -- Kensington, in particular -- is home to a number of parakeets and other exotic aviaries. That's all well and good until they start singing outside your window at 3 a.m.

A sound I am now well acquainted with but that terrified me at first is the howl of the urban foxes. Yes, you read that correctly -- London is home to foxes that exist on rubbish and prowl gardens for treats. I grew up surrounded by raccoons, skunks, wolves and deer, but I'll never forget the first time I saw a fox in London. I was in Camden Town (you can't get any more urban than that) and I saw one streak across the street into the tall grass on the other side of the road. At first, I couldn't believe my eyes, but when I mentioned it my friend he just shrugged as if it was commonplace. Last week, looking out my kitchen window at dusk, I saw the shadowy form of a fox as it scaled the garden wall and jumped off into the undergrowth. They are the prowlers of the city night and their terrible cries have haunted my sketchy sleep this past week.

And finally, you have the noise of the other horrible species: the binge drinkers. They are nothing if not consistent. Every night, no matter Monday or the weekend, you can hear them make their way home, shouting, kicking cans and generally being as obnoxious as possible.

I prefer the parrots and the foxes.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Get Published: Lorella Belli Seminar

Way back in June 2008, I pitched my first novel to Lorella Belli Literary Agency. A few days later, I heard the clunk of my package as it made its way back to me. Better than a rejection , though -- the agency just wasn't accepting any more clients at the time. I had a quick grumble about the £4 I'd just wasted, and put my submission aside.

Those £4 were actually well spent, since about a month ago Lorella Belli invited me to a free seminar she was running on how to get published. Even better, it was just a 15-minute walk from my house. I read a lot of agents blogs in the US, but the UK is still somewhat of a black hole for me, so I was really looking forward to meeting an agent face-to-face and getting some insight into the process from the ground up.

Unsure exactly what to expect, I traipsed down Portobello Road in my now-unfamiliar high-heeled boots, slightly nervous. As I entered the seminar room -- the roar of the Westway and the rumble of the Underground filling the air -- Lorella's friendly face instantly made me feel comfortable. An Italian who has been living the England for many years, she wasn't the 'scary agent' I'd worried about meeting. The small group of eight people -- from illustrators to screen-play writers -- was also welcoming. Most people, like me, were in the beginning stages of their writing careers.

While most of the session was quite basic, it was invaluable to hear the information straight from the horse's mouth. Listening to other people's questions about how to classify their writing, or the difference between publishers and agents, made me realize that I have learned a lot in the past year. Lorella's depth of industry knowledge also showed me that I have a lot more to understand!

Unfortunately, as I have come to learn, there are always one or two in every small group who behave to the detriment of the whole. I have to admit I was stunned at the confrontational attitude adopted by certain members. NOT a good way to get an agent! And one refused to even talk about what genre he was writing -- he was so worried people would steal his idea. Now, I can understand a little bit of artistic paranoia, but how on earth can you expect to get an agent when you can't even pitch your idea? It was a good lesson in how not to behave.

Some key points from the seminar:
(Copyright Lorella Belli 2007)
  • There are now more than 120,000 new titles published a year.
  • Choosing to become a professional writer is a bit like starting a business and should be approached the same way.
  • There are over 150 literary agents in the UK.
  • Commission charges are pretty standard in the industry: 15% (UK sales); 20% (US sales)
  • Lorella Belli agency is interested in non fiction, women's fiction - strong memorable characters, original storyline, pace and good story-telling.
  • Reading a novel is like watching a film: when you start watching it, if you think it's boring, you change the channel. That's what agents and publishers do if your work isn't strong enough to engage them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Writing Adventure Group - WAG!

In the UK (and maybe the US? Have I been away for too long?) WAG stands for 'Wives and Girlfriends' -- usually of football players. Bleach blond, fake tanned and sporting hair extensions, WAG seemed the perfect ironic name for a group of struggling writers who need to force themselves into the outside world -- all thanks to Nixy Valentine, a fellow writer in Scotland I 'met' through my blog. Like me, Nixy is a transplanted North American to the UK, and she has a brilliant blog about the writerly life (not that I'm saying my blog is brilliant, but hey, why limit the comparisons?). So when she proposed the idea of writing adventures to the outside world, I was in!

I'll post the assignment each week on my blog, along with my resulting writing. The more the merrier, so please spread the word and feel free to join in!

And my apologies if this introduction doesn't make sense but I am slightly high on cold medication right now...

In thinking about spending more time Outside and how to use this to become better writers, Hip Chick Marsha and Saucy Jesse have agreed to help me with a weekly exercise adventure. All writers are welcome to join in, and we’ll be doing something a little different every week. Just made an official page for the writers group, but here are the basics:

Each week we’ll do a little mini-writing project together, and post the results on our blogs. Umm, that’s about it. We want to be very light on rules. After all, we’re all crazy artists.

This week your assignment is:

The Sky Is The Limit
Outdoor scenes often use the sky, light, or weather to create a mood. So this week let’s practice that. Go outside and look up. Describe the sky exactly as you see it. Use concrete words, no flowery language or metaphor. The idea is to let the physical speak for itself and to train us to be able to create the idea of “peaceful”, “beautiful”, “amazing” without using those kinds of empty words that tell the reader how to feel. Keep it real. No aliens or imaginings or memories. This is an observational exercise!

If you want, take a picture to put into your blog post as well as backup for your descriptions, or you can let the words stand on their own. It’s totally up to you. It can be night or day, good weather or bad. I don’t care. Don’t feel boxed in, and don’t worry about form. You can post a list of words, one line, or three paragraphs. No rules!

You have one week! (Until Tuesday, March 3rd.) When you’re finished, post the results into your blog. Please include a link back to this post, so your readers can learn more about the group adventure and participate in this and future events! Write to me at nixyvalentine AT gmail DOT com and send me your link. Next Wednesday, I will make a post of all the entries and link to them.

Let’s get other writers participating! Please tweet this page, Facebook status it or blog it!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Search Is Over

When I was nine, I understood what heaven was. I was in Seville, travelling with my parents through southern Spain. It was almost 40 degrees, and we took shelter inside to get something to drink. I ordered my favourite beverage at the time -- chocolate milk. But what I didn't realise was that I was actually requesting hot chocolate (which accounted for the strange look the waiter gave me -- I'm guessing most Spaniards don't drink hot chocolate in the summer).

When it came, it was even better than the cool chocolate milk I'd been craving. This was hot chocolate unlike any other I'd tasted. In fact, I'm not even sure you could call the powdered variety 'hot chocolate' next to this. Oily and thick, you could practically feel it sliding down your throat, its richness coating your mouth.

For the next 20-odd years, I was destined to wander the world in search of hot chocolate that would measure up to my childhood experience. Nothing did -- until last weekend, when the hot chocolate of my dreams re-entered my life. And it was only been a ten-minute walk from my door-step.

Hotel Chocolat, on High Street Kensington, is a purveyor of all things chocolate, from olive oil to chocolate baguettes. After a walk through nearby Holland Park, The Man and I nipped in for our tea. Always cold, my eyes searched for something to warm me -- and fell upon the 'Liquid Chocolate'. I tried hard not to get excited; I'd been let down so many times before. But this looked promising. There were five varieties, from Valencian Orange to Azteca (with chili). Ever the traditionalist (when it comes to chocolate, anyway), I chose the Classic -- a dark chocolate version. I waited, trembling in anticipation. Mug in hand, I breathed in the heady aroma. So far, so good.

The first sip transported me back to Seville. As the liquid oozed down my throat, I knew the search was over.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crash -- and Hopefully Not -- Burn

I was just about to start writing a post about the most wonderful cup of hot chocolate I have ever had when disaster struck.

The Man's hard drive crashed on his laptop. Now, this isn't as bad as it could be -- if it had been the computer where his 90-minute film was stored, I would have declared Armageddon -- but it certainly ain't good. Not only has he lost many important contact emails and marketing material for his upcoming film, but now I have to redo hours of work editing the narrative for his script, which he planned to record this week. Luckily, I have an old version saved on my computer, otherwise... well... I don't want to even think about it. As it is, it will take me most the night.

The moral of this story? Back up your work, people! And come by tomorrow when hopefully I will still have the brainpower to write about my mouth-watering cup of hot chocolate.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Art in the Park

Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens

We are so lucky to have the Serpentine Gallery in our back yard (or back garden, as they say over here. When I first moved to London, I told my super-posh flatmate William that I loved our back yard. I'll never forget the look of horror on his face as he made it clear to me that a yard is a concrete apron outside of factories etc., and this was a 'back garden'. But I digress...)

On my first forays into Kensington Gardens, I was more interested in Kensington Palace or the Lido at the Serpentine Lake. I never even realised that the pretty brick-and-white building was an art gallery until The Man took me inside. Small -- with only 5-ish rooms -- and intimate, the gallery often exhibits one artist at a time, allowing you to feel like you've entered into separate compartments of the artist's mind. Recently, we went to see a collection of works by Indian artists and we were blown away by the massive, brightly coloured paintings mounted around the outer walls of the gallery.

'Indian Superhighway' Exhibition, Serpentine Gallery, December 2008

Every summer, an internationally renowned architect is commissioned to design an outdoor pavilion. We watch it rise with curiosity, wondering what unique shape it'll take on this time. Last year, Frank Gehry created a geometric behemoth of glass and wood, complete with different platforms almost at tree-top level. Outdoor parties, concerts and films are shown there all throughout the short British summer.

Pavilion by Frank Gehry, Summer 2008

The Serpentine feels like our own gallery. As we watch tourists peruse its offerings, we always feel a strange proprietorial air, as if this inauspicious gallery among the trees of Kensington Gardens has done us -- and Londoners -- proud.

Friday, February 20, 2009

How Do I Procrastinate? Let Me Count the Ways...

And oh, there are many to count! I'm having a bit of an 'off' week, a week where I just can't seem to sit still and concentrate. Since I want to treat my writing as a job, I try not to do things I wouldn't have done in my previous corporate life -- like get to work late or bunk off early. It's funny how I was so committed to my job when I was slaving away for others, but now that I'm my own boss and striving for something that's very important to me, I'm struggling.

And here are my top five enablers (to procrastinate, not to write!):

1. Looking out the window. Sounds innocuous, doesn't it? But it's amazing how much time I can waste. I live on a great street, as I've blogged about before. There are always people and buses going by, the odd police car with siren flashing, and forlorn tourists. After sitting at my desk for a year, I am intimately acquainted with the rhythm of the street. I know what time the woman from the antique shop across the way comes out to empty her rubbish (and usually, I know what coloured stockings she'll be wearing -- she seems to own only one pair in hot pink). I know it's eleven o'clock when the clothing shop 'My Favourite Thing' opens up. And unfortunately I know it's three o'clock when the group of screaming teens takes over the bus-stop directly across the street, pushing and shoving as hormones hurtle through their veins.

2. Google Reader. I love reading blogs, but they do take up a lot of time. I've tried to limit my blog-reading to either morning or evening, but once you break the rules, you're sucked in as you follow link after link. It's like being pulled into a vacuum where you can only escape by forcibly wrenching yourself away -- or in my case, turning off the Internet connection.

3. Twitter. I believe Twitter was invented to prevent writers from writing. It is the Devil's work. Enough said.

4. Food. What better way to procrastinate than by eating? After all, we need to eat to survive! Nothing wrong with grabbing a few cashew nuts in the morning. They're good for you. Hm, maybe I should just finish that bag.... you see the problem here. One handful of cashews is never just one handful of cashews. I will keep going, shamelessly, until I finish the whole bag. I figure it's better just to get the distraction out of the way. I don't buy cashew nuts anymore.

5. Online newspapers. In my case, The Guardian and The Independent -- because I need to know what's going on in the world! And maybe I'll get some good story ideas from them. What's this, Victoria Beckham has a new collection out? How interesting. And TopShop has a sale?

I'm getting annoyed at myself just writing this! I need to get some work done!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

You Gotta Have Faith... and Chocolate

A lot in writing is about having faith -- in yourself, that you'll be able to finish your novel; in your writing, that it'll get better with practice; and in your ideas, that they'll come together in the end.

I am editing my third novel now and while I'm excited about it, I often ask myself if it's good enough. The answer: Who knows? Writing is such a subjective thing that while one person may love it, another may hate it. The only thing to do is to push through any self-doubt towards the feeling of accomplishment when you finally finish and you're happy with the end product -- regardless of what others may think. Easier said than done!

I've found both chocolate and wine to be of assistance in overcoming self-doubt. I'd be interested to hear what gets other writers through!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No Kissing, No Laughing -- Just General Unpleasantness

'Peak hours may necessitate that you let other people sit on your lap.'

'Penalty fare if you fail to hide your true emotions fully or make any attempt to engage with passengers.' Photo courtesy of Whatleydude.

Speaks for itself, non? Photo courtesy of The Independent.

Two of the above photos are spoofs that have appeared throughout the London Underground. But the real sign -- the bizarre depiction of two people (from the 1950s?) kissing -- is just as silly. Today, The Independent reported that this sign was posted at Warrington station the day before Valentine's. Apparently, amorous couples were blocking the station platform.

Hunh? Come on! Surely in these economically challenged times, local councils have better things to do than post such silly signs. Yes, I've pushed past my share of lip-locked couples blocking my way throughout the Underground, but I would never deem it a problem. I can't believe Warrington has such a number of highly sexed individuals that they need to resort to a ban on public affection. Who doesn't need a bit of lovin' to help them cope with the trauma of British rail?

I say, kiss away!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rejected

A group of seven British novelists has just launched The New Romantics to champion the genre of romantic fiction. As I drooled over the jackets of their published novels, I thought about how many groups there are for published authors, while all of us unpublished writers -- languishing away in the nosebleed section of the bleachers -- watch from the sidelines. Yes, there are lots of great books for inspiration and brilliant blogs such as Miss Snark's First Victim. The Romantic Novelists' Association even has a New Writer's Scheme for aspiring writers.

But oh, how nice would it be to meet up with other writers, also getting rejections in the daily post? To have a drink or two in the company of people who feel your pain when your year-long toil meets with the 'Sorry, but we're not enthusiastic enough' response? Sure, partners can be supportive and friends sympathetic, but only those undergoing the same plight can truly understand.

So, as a bit of self-indulgence, I propose the following.

1. The group will be named 'The Rejected'.
2. To be a member, you must have been rejected at least twenty times.
3. You must have written no fewer than two novels and remain unpublished.
4. As soon as you are published, you forfeit your membership.
5. Once a month, members will meet and set fire to all rejections received that month.
6. Any positivity will be kept to a minimum and is strictly frowned upon -- the sole purpose of the group is to wallow in the agony and pain of rejection, hopefully producing a cathartic result.

Anyone up for membership?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fairy Cakes, Cupcakes... Whatever the Name, They're Goooood!

My first memory of cupcakes is when I baked some (with my Mum's help) for a Sunday School cooking competition. I might have been four or five at the time. They looked great until I took a tumble walking them over to the table for display and they went flying into the gravelled drive. We secretly picked out all the pebbles and I think they won some kind of ribbon, probably for the crunchiest.

Cupcakes -- or fairy cakes, as they're known on this side of the pond -- always have the power to put me in mind of birthday parties or end-of-year school celebrations, something out-of-the ordinary that gives the whole day a special tinge. So when I heard that Hummingbird Bakery was creating a special Valentine's cupcake, I couldn't resist.

Hummingbird cupcakes. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail - mine didn't last long enough for photos!

I've been a Hummingbird addict for some time now. Smack in the middle of Portobello Road, their cupcakes are so delicious it's as if they've dropped straight from the sugar god. A moist, tender cake topped with creamy, sweet frosting, I can't devour them fast enough. Apparently I'm not the only one. Every time I've been to their tiny shop, the queues stretch out the door -- even on weekdays, when the market isn't on.

Queue outside the bakery in December 2008.

As much as I love the quirkiness of the Saturday Portobello Market, I'm definitely not a big fan of the crowds. But even this was not enough to put me off my quest for Hummingbird's Valentine cupcakes. Pushing through the tourists (strangely, there always seems to be loads of Italians?) and past the stalls selling everything from rugby balls to brass door handles, I finally got to the door -- where, as expected, no fewer than 15 people were waiting. At £2.50, the cupcakes aren't cheap, but they're well worth the wait. I chose my favorites: a chocolaty cake topped with cream cheese frosting, and a vanilla sponge smothered in chocolate frosting.

Through our Valentine's dinner in Soho and Vicky Cristina Barcelona at the Curzon, all I could think about were those cupcakes awaiting us at home. Finally, the moment was upon us. Two brief gulps and it was over -- a little drop of sweetness at the end of the day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Love in a Foreign Land

I'll try to keep the schmaltz to a minimum, but it being Valentine's Day (almost) I thought I would share my story of how a Canadian and Egyptian met in a city far away from both their homes.

The Man (the Egyptian) and I (the Canadian) first met at the Embankment Tube station a week after I arrived in London. It was a blind date, and I'd just had the day from hell. My first day supply teaching in UK classrooms, I'd been assigned to teach at a school near Edgware Road. Since I lived in North London at the time, that meant I had to take the dreaded Northern Line which more than lived up to its reputation that fateful day.

Eager to be punctual and create a good impression on my first day of work, I got up at 6 a.m. and was out the door in half an hour. All fine -- until I got to the Tube. The Northern Line was not working due to a signal failure. I had no idea what that meant; the buses were packed; I didn't know which direction to go in and I had no map. Two embattled hours later, I finally made it to the school where, needless to say, they were not impressed. My head throbbed, my muscles ached with tension and I was in no mood to meet a strange man that night.

Home late due to more transport issues, I showered and changed for our concert that evening at the Royal Festival Hall. After trying to get through station overcrowding at Camden Town due to more Tube issues, I'd pretty much had it with London. It was a rare hot, humid day in May, all my make-up had practically sweated off my face, and I was a wreck. One week -- and one day teaching -- and I was ready to call it quits.

I left the Tube station in a daze of heat and nerves, searching the waiting faces for a man who looked like the picture he'd sent me. He looked good in the photo, but as I knew from previous experience, photos could be deceiving. But in this case, the photo proved to be accurate and his friendly, smiling face was an antidote to the grim Londoners I'd come in contact with all week. As we walked across the pedestrian bridge crossing the Thames, I couldn't help but be impressed -- both by him and the city around me. The river glinted in the early evening light and in the distance, the pods of the London eye gracefully arched in the air. And The Man, well, let's just say he rivalled the city.

We entered the glass facade of the Royal Festival Hall, reveling in the heat of the first summer-like day of the season. Sipping crisp white wine, the ringing bell signalling the start of the performance could barely drag us away from our conversation. Sitting in the darkened room, I could barely believe I was in London, in a concert hall, next to a man who I'd only just met but felt like I'd known for ages (this is as schmaltzy as I'll get, I promise!).

Five years on, we are still together despite our many cultural differences. I hate the cold; he loves it. I enjoy the sun; he detests it. I am constantly closing the windows he opens, and vice versa. He piles my plate high with food, while I never cook enough to satisfy his appetite. I mock his accent; he mocks mine. Yet we have more important things in common: our love of music; theatre; art; and, of course, wine. It was him who encouraged me to pursue my dream of writing, and I was inspired by his dedication to finally become a film director -- from writing a screenplay, shooting it with a crew, and now editing.

And so, a Canadian and Egyptian found love in a foreign land.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sore Labour's Bath

I've been unable to blog for the past two days, mostly because I've been unable to sleep. Sleep and me have never been good friends, even less so now that I have a symphonic snorer beside me each night. I toss, I turn; I kick, I poke; and if I'm lucky somewhere in there I manage to catch a few hours.

Some people say they never dream, or at the very least they can never remember their dreams when they awaken. I have a very active dream-life, and for the past few weeks I've been plagued by writing query letters; getting both good and bad agent responses; etc etc. It was the same when I worked in the corporate world -- my job always invaded my sleep. The worst was when I worked as an editor and I'd dream all night of endlessly tracking the same sentence to make it fit on one line.

But to dream, you first need to get to sleep. For me, this is where the true pain lies. I have tried everything: warm bath; hot milk (yuck); writing down my racing thoughts on a notepad by the bed; visualisation; lavender pillow spray; staying up later -- all to no avail. Sometimes my frenetic thoughts are rewarding: Last week, I came up with a new idea for my next novel. I even thought of a great title! But mostly, they are the annoying things that flood your brain as soon as your tired head hits the pillow. I can't think of any of them right now, but I'm sure that once I try to sleep I'll be able to provide a million examples!

And so I drag my tired brain to my desk each morning at 8 a.m., sucking back my coffee as I begin revisions on my next novel. And pray for a better night's sleep. Maybe tonight...

that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

-- Shakespeare's Macbeth

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Scares You More: Ducks or Geese?

If forced to commit, I’d say I feared geese more than ducks. Man, 47. Fears geese more than ducks.

Are you without a date for Valentine's Day? If so -- and you're looking for someone bog standard -- I don't recommend reading The London Review of Books Personals section.

I subscribed to The London Review of Books for over a year, but I never noticed it had a Personals section. I was only alerted to it today when a fellow blogger reviewed the London Review Cake Shop and mentioned it in her blog. After a quick perusal and a few laughs, the magazine has to have the quirkiest personals section I've ever seen.

A few examples:

I hate you all. I hate London. I hate books. I hate critics. I hate this magazine, I hate this column and I hate all the goons who appear in it. But if you have large breasts, are younger than 30 and don’t want to talk about the novel you’re ‘writing’ I’ll put all that aside for approximately two hours one Saturday afternoon in January. Man, 33.

My Weltanschauung informs me there are plenty of losers in this column but very few winners. It also tells me there is possibly one dentist and a smithy, neither of whom are me. I’m a lecturer in media studies. But if you are the dentist or smithy, or if you’re friends with either of them, why not write? M, 47. Mancs.

I refuse to let my sadomasochistic tendencies and love of koi define who I am, but if our relationship is to progress to any meaningful level then we will be spending an awful lot of time in the Japanese ornamental garden section of Worcester Homebase. Man, 46.

My door is always open. Mostly because I live in a barn. Farm-dwelling survivalist and rural hedge enthusiast. Man, 62.

If a break-up to you means spending most lunchtimes crying over chicken skewers at All Bar One then join me, big-boned F (37), and we can share a World Tapas bundle dish and save ourselves a fortune. Afterwards we can make love, but not before the chocolate fondant dessert. I can be found at the Henrietta Street branch, Wednesdays between 12 and 2, requesting fries with my hoi sin duck quesadilla.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My First Ever Rejection Letter: 1989

Like most people who write as adults, I started writing early on in life. My first project was entitled 'Disasters in Florida', a non-fiction narrative detailing my family's trip to Orlando when I was nine. It was fraught with troubles such as delayed airplanes and damaged rental cars. A great subject for a novel!

Hot on the heels of that success, I began my second project, fictional this time. It told the story of Angela, a girl who wanted to become a gymnast but was held back by her poor family's finances. I can't recall the title but I do remember I drew a great illustration on the cover.

When I was eleven, I decided to get serious. Inspired by Gordon Korman, a Canadian teen who published best-sellers, I was determined to write a proper book this time. My subject: a handicapped girl who wanted to become a champion diver. She would defeat all the odds -- overcome her disability -- and win the gold. Typing away on the trusty Commodore 64 during the hot summer months, the novel began to take shape. My interest dwindled when school started, though, and the project languished until a year or so later when I got a second wind and decided to finally finish it. Sixty pages later, 'Glint off the Gold' was born.

I have to laugh reading it, but it's actually quite a morbid story. Anne, my main character (named after Anne of Green Gables), loses her best friend to a drunk driver and her Grandmother for reasons I can't quite recall. And Anne herself dies of cancer at the age of 40.

Full of enthusiasm to have finished my 'fictional only' story, I was sure it would get published. I looked in the front of some of the books on my shelf and decided to send it away to Tyndale House Publishers. Tyndale House is a Christian publisher and I thought they might be nicer. So I printed out the whole thing, shoved it in an envelope and sent it off.

Time (almost a year) passed and I'd pretty much forgotten about the whole thing until I got a letter in the post turning down my offering. Disappointed, I put the whole thing aside and straight out of my mind.

It's only now, twenty years later (yikes!), when I'm querying agents to try to get published that I truly appreciate the response from the Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief (or his assistant). I didn't include a self-addressed envelope, I had no cover letter, yet someone took pity on me and decided to respond anyway.

And thus, my journey towards getting published had begun.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Onwards and Upwards: Novel Number Three!

Having spent the past few months researching agents, obsessively redrafting my cover letter and synopsis, polishing my manuscript and finally starting to send out a few queries, I'm ready to go on to my next project. I could continue with my current state of checking my email every few minutes or straining to hear the clunk of the post through our front door, but that's probably not such a productive way to move ahead. Not to mention that I'm driving myself crazy! So next Monday, I'm starting to redraft Novel Number Three.

I wrote the first draft really quickly - 80,000 words in one month. After finishing, I put it on the shelf for awhile. I like to have a bit of a break from my novels before going back to them. I find it helps clear my mind and lets me look at it with fresh eyes. It's so much easier to identify any problems or issues after a few weeks away. Even before looking at it again, I know it needs a lot of work with plot and characterization. Both are things I struggled to balance in my second novel, forcing a major rewrite of the second half. But I think I've learned a lot through the process, and hopefully this time I won't need to rewrite so much.

For me, redrafting is one of the best parts of the novel-writing process. I always feel a little bit anxious in the first-draft stage: Is this going to work? Where is this going? Will it have enough 'legs' to last 80,000 words? What are my characters doing? At the initial stages, it feels like my story is controlling me, and I'm not good at not being in control!

But once I have it all down on the page, I love feeling like I am the god of the world I've created. I can move the pieces of the puzzle to create the picture I want. It's hard work and sometimes I want to pull my hair out, but somehow it always seems to come out alright in the end.

So -- here's to Novel Number Three!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Into the Wilds... of Primark

My at-home uniform of jeans from the 1990s, tattered track bottoms and faded jumpers was sorely in need of a revamp before it all fell to pieces. Since I'm not exactly pulling in big money (rather, I'm making no money) I had to limit my extravagance to the cheapest clothing retailer in UK existence: Primark.

You need to steel yourself for shopping at Oxford Street Primark. It's two floors of bargain-hunting madness, with women going crazy over £3 shoes and £2 jumpers. Sometimes, you can barely push through the aisles. Forget about trying anything on unless you want to wait for at least thirty minutes. And the one cardinal rule to abide by: Never, ever, go on the weekend.

Even this morning -- a rainy, cold Thursday -- the place was jammed. Sales assistants were frantically trying to tidy rails of clothing, a futile pursuit as the racks were only torn apart a minute later by the next wave of shoppers. I rammed my headphones in a little bit further, turned up my music in an effort to disassociate myself from the chaos, and plunged in.

Thirty minutes later (my limit for Primark), I emerged relatively unscathed and £30 lighter. The most expensive item I bought was a pair of indigo jeans for £7. I also managed to pick up a polo-neck jumper for £1, along with tons of black socks and various other comfy, warm items (my only real criteria for at-home wear).

Surprisingly, most of the items I've bought at Primark actually last. One of my favourite pair of jeans is from almost a year go, and still going strong! And all of the my Primark t-shirts still have their seams intact.

It's not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can stomach the Primark-madness the low prices seem to induce, it's worth it -- if you can't afford anything more, anyway.

British Jobs for British Workers?

As Britain slides further into recession (or depression, according to Brown), the war cry has begun. Actually, it began in June 2007, when Gordon Brown pledged to train British workers for the plethora of jobs to become available. Now, however, his words have come back to haunt him. Under threat with the economic crisis, and foreign contractors using foreign labour, workers all over the country have staged wildcat strikes in an effort to preserve their posts.

Although it peaked this week, it's not the first time protectionism -- or xenophobia -- has raised its head in the UK. Since Poland, Hungary, Slovakia et al jointed the EU in 2004, thousands of workers have poured into the UK. In London, you can almost be assured that your server in any given restaurant will be from one of these countries -- and in most cases, more educated than you. Many have taken low-paying jobs like cleaning or working in the fields. According to the BBC, 56% worked in factories. In short, they do the jobs that many Brits don't want to, due to low pay or poor working conditions. However, that didn't stop many people from complaining that their jobs were being taking by immigrants.

I came to the UK in 2004, as well. At the time, there was a severe shortage of teachers. The perception of state schools and the behaviour was so bad that the UK was having trouble attracting its own to teaching programs. I got a job straight away on my two-year working holiday visa and proceeded to educate the youth of Britain.

As EU workers continued to come to England, I began to hear my students grumble about all the 'foreigners' and 'immigrants coming over and stealing our jobs'. Since they weren't working themselves, I can imagine where these sentiments came from: their parents. The funny thing is, they didn't realise that I was an immigrant, too -- maybe because I come from a 'colony', I look like them and my culture is similar to theirs. To them, an immigrant is someone who is fundamentally different, and who threatens the UK culture with that difference.

I do understand that there are people worrying about their jobs in these difficult times. But I don't believe we should demonize foreigners because they may be willing to accept less money or more difficult conditions than a British-trained worker. They kept the economy buoyant in the past few years, when Britain was on a consumerist spending spree. They even helped the country rebuild after World War II. It's beyond hypocritical to invite them in when we need them, and kick them out when we don't.

I love being in the UK, and I'm thankful that, as an immigrant, I've been able to stay. But I feel for all of those who came here with high hopes of building a future, only to face such unwelcoming -- and sometimes threatening -- attitudes.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Until moving here, I always pictured the British as posh, refined people eating cucumber sandwiches and delicately sipping their china cups of tea. That my vision applied to only about 10 per cent of the population came as a harsh reality. And nowhere was this more evident than in the British tabloids.

While North America has its share of disreputable tabloids, I've never seen a country tear itself and its people to bits like in the British tabloids. Take, for example, the News of the World, who today features reality television star Jade Goody in all her glory. Jade has cancer, and the tabloid can't wait to spill all the gory details. Or if terminal illness doesn't do it for you, you can cast your vote for the biggest chav in show business! Chav, for anyone not familiar with UK vernacular, stands for Council Housing and Violent -- or the North American equivalent, white trash.

A lesser offender is the Daily Mail -- again with the Jade Goody tale along with the prerequisite photo of Victoria Beckham. I have to confess that I do read the Femail section sometimes, although I feel a mix of resentment at the paper for forcing me into the demographic of women who read such stories and resentment at myself for reading them.

And if you can't get enough voyeurism through the papers, there's always the telly! A few weeks ago, a show called Fat Teens in Love was on ITV1. "Bobby has a decision to make – will he put butter or mayonnaise on his chicken baguette?" Or if that doesn't do it for you, how about The World's Most Enhanced Woman and Me, on tonight in Channel 4? Or Kill It, Cook It, Eat It, on BBC?

From the lofty heights of the BBC to the dark depths of Heat Magazine, Britain is certainly a nation of journalistic contrasts.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Snow Day!

As a Canadian, I should be used to snow. However, living in London has softened me considerably. When I first moved here after spending a winter in the Arctic frigidity of Ottawa, I told everyone that if I never saw snow again, it would be too soon. Five years on, though, I have to admit I do miss that unique snow-smell (if you've grown up with it, you'll know what I mean) and the quiet that falls over a city when white flakes drift through the polluted air.

Snow-covered tree on our terrace.

When the flakes started falling last night, I was sure it would all be well over by the time I awoke. But by 7 a.m. this morning, the snow was still falling and London was covered in a film of white. Perhaps because I didn't have to go anywhere, I actually felt excited -- I wanted to go explore this new world.

Street behind Notting Hill Gate.

It was strange to see this new London. Everything was bright, white and pure-looking.

Phone boxes, Kensington Church Street.

Kensington Gardens was packed with Londoners busy making snowmen, sliding down the (small) hills and throwing snowballs. There was a festive atmosphere in the air, as if we'd all been given an unexpected holiday.

Kensington Gardens.

But my favourite thing by far had to be the snowman built outside our local pub, The Churchill Arms. Smoking a cigar and with its very own beer tap, it embodied the high spirits of Londoners in the snow.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dead or Alive?

I've been a bit lax recently with my blogging, since most of my mental energy has been taken up with obsessively editing my manuscript and synopsis. As a former editor in the medical publishing industry, it's nice to actually care about what I'm editing -- as difficult and time-consuming as it is -- especially after reading this article (see below).

I couldn't help but laugh. Although the article is indeed tragic, it put me in mind of the sheer boredom I experienced while editing medical journals for a publishing company in Montreal. It was my first job after graduating from journalism school and a far cry from what I'd envisaged when I first decided on journalism. One of the heights of excitement in the office was the debate over 'urinary tract infection'. Is there a hyphen? Is there not? Medical textbooks say no, but Canadian Press style says yes. I say: who cares?

Luckily, most of my colleagues were also young, impoverished j-school graduates and we entertained ourselves by passing around the office collection of DRE and frost-bite photos (and if you don't know what DRE stands for, you'll have to look it up yourself!).

Hours of editing dry medical text meant it was very hard to stay alert. My colleague D often used to fall asleep at her desk and we perfected the hand-on-cheek, pencil-in-hand nap, jerking awake when someone approached our desks. I can almost understand why it took someone five days to discover that poor worker's body!

(Thanks to Jen for sending me the article.)