Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Importance of Keeping Your Promises

Balinese children at a friend's English school. Another friend and I
sponsored two children so they could attend as well.

It's easy to get swept away when you travel, especially when you travel to a country that is radically different from your own.

If you've visited developing countries, it's probably a given that you've met wonderful people who are in desperate need. You want to help them, but maybe you don't have the means at the moment, with your bare essentials crammed into a backpack and a meagre travel budget.

So you make promises.

Almost everyone does.

Once you're back home, jet-lagged and playing catch up at work, those promises are easy to forget. Or maybe you've changed your mind. That money you'd said you would donate might seem difficult to part with when the Visa bills roll in.

And packing up those old clothes and books takes so much time.

You put it off. You push it to the back of your mind. And eventually, you forget about it.

But the person you've made the promise to doesn't.

What may seem like a small amount to some of us can make a world of difference to someone else.

And the promise of help--however small--is intensely meaningful to someone who can't afford to eat everyday. Or go to school. Or get medical care.

With those well-meant promises, you are offering hope. All they have to do is wait patiently for you to get home, and you will follow through, right? You will remember their friendship, their kindness.

Can you imagine how they feel when they receive nothing?

What if you're the only Canadian, American, or European they met that year? Doubtful, given the amount of travel that takes place in the world today, but still possible. Or what if you were the first experience they had with a Westerner?

When I traveled to Zimbabwe in 2001, I met so many lovely people. And most were in desperate need. The country was in the middle of an uprising, so tourism had dramatically declined, and with it many of the villagers' sources of income.

I gave them everything I could spare at the time, and promised to send more clothes and shoes when I got home. I actually followed through, but it cost me almost $100 to send that box, which seemed like a lot of money. I never heard back from anyone, and I had no idea if the people who needed those things had received them or not.

As a result, many of those who'd been promised photographs from me never received them. I feel badly about that. I should have taken the time.

It feels good to know that you can make a difference, however small, in the lives of the people you meet when you travel. But if you're not 100 percent sure you can fulfill that promise, please don't make it.

It does more harm than good.

Has traveling inspired you to make a difference? Have you ever regretted a promise you made during a trip?

Photo credit: Greg Klassen

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

You Can Grieve, But You Can't Live There--What Kickboxing Taught Me About Writing

Becoming a fighter was one of the best things I ever did for my writing career.

It gave me the thing one needs to survive any difficult industry.


You see, I had some really hard days in fight camp. Lots of them. Humiliating days, painful days, days when I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.

But when you're in a small, select group of fighters who are counting on you to get back up--you do it.

Quitting was not an option. There was no way in hell I was going to let those people down.

So I wiped my tears, iced my wounds, and got back in there. By the time I got in the ring, the outcome didn't matter. I knew exactly how many battles I'd won just to get there.

I wish I'd learned this lesson sooner.

When I got a big NYC agent, I gave her four years to sell one of my books. Four years of excuses which are so bizarre that they'd make a great comedy book--Shit My Agent Said. Illness, deaths of minor family members, countless vacations, inability to quit her editing job, her assistant quitting, power lines going down in New York, more vacations, the husband going on vacation, children's illnesses, etcetera. The list went on and on. 

Four years is a long time, but I wasn't ready to accept that I'd chosen the wrong agent and needed to start over again.

So whenever I confronted her, and she said things would be different, I believed her. Until I couldn't any longer. She still hasn't sold a single novel on her own, so I know I did the right thing. 

What I did after that is the problem.

It took me FIVE YEARS to market my work again. Five long years!

Sure, there were reasons--a.k.a excuses. All-consuming day jobs, fight camp, intense relationships, blah blah blah.

What really held me back was fear. I didn't trust myself any longer. If I'd been fooled once, it could happen again, right?

Sure. But nothing good was going to happen if I didn't get back in there, either.

A fighter could have told me that.

You can grieve, but you can't live there. Life will knock you down, but when it does, you have to dry your tears, ice your wounds, and get back in the ring.

Please don't let it take you five years.

What's the biggest setback or hardship you've faced? What helped you overcome it?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"I Hate You": What Jealousy Really Means

Don't hate me because I groped a panda.
This could happen to YOU.

I used to be extremely jealous of people who travelled.

Travelling was something I longed to do, but it never seemed to happen.

I did go to Africa once, but it was nine long years before I left the country again.

Someone else was always living a more interesting life, going to places I wanted to see and enjoying experiences I wanted to have.

My life changed when I realized travelling didn't have to be something that "other" people did--if I really cared about it that much, it didn't require a better job or more money or even more holiday time.

What I needed to do was realign my priorities.

Here's what I did:

1) I got out of debt: This had to be the number one step for me. I couldn't feel comfortable travelling if that meant I was digging myself into a deeper hole. In just a year and a half, I managed to pay off over $30,000 in debt, and I'm far from rich.

I did it by sacrificing some of the things I loved, avoiding things that triggered an urge to shop for stuff I didn't need (such as catalogues and fashion magazines), putting every extra cent I had into paying off debt, and taking on extra work--a lot of extra work. But it was so worth it!

2) I sold stuff. Lots of stuff: During the years that I'd been unhappy at work and unhappy in my relationship, I'd engaged in too much retail therapy. I had paintings! I had pottery! I had jewellery, and clothes, and too many shoes. And how much of it did I really love, use or need? About 20 percent, if that. Selling my belongings online has helped pay for a lot of my trips, and there always seems to be more to sell.

3) I stopped waiting for other people: Early on, I took trips that I wasn't really interested in because some friends were going. Someone to travel with! I found it challenging to find willing travel companions--there was always a lack of time off, a lack of money, or a significant other who didn't want to be left behind. I wasn't interested in travelling by myself, so I stayed home.

Finally, I booked a tour with a group of strangers, and it was one of the best things I've ever done. Not only did I make awesome new friends and meet like-minded souls from across the globe, but in some ways it was easier than traveling with close friends. If someone irritates you on a tour, you don't have to see each other again. A long-standing relationship is not at risk.

4) I prioritized: Almost everyone has expendable income--it's just a matter of finding it. I don't have a car, which is very annoying and inconvenient in a city where it's winter at least six months of the year. My house is far from perfect. I no longer care if my clothes or shoes are "the latest thing." I don't own expensive animals or have expensive habits. I don't have kids or a cell phone.  I owned the same shitty computer for thirteen years. I don't have a cabin. I still go out for lunches and dinners, but I much prefer a $10 bowl of noodles at the local Vietnamese place than a $100 steak anyways, so it doesn't need to cost that much.

The majority of my money goes to two things: building my writing career and travelling. Those are my priorities, and finally my spending is aligned with them.

5) I quit my job: This one is a bonus step that has given me a lot more freedom and flexibility, but it's certainly not for everyone. I was lucky enough to have a solid freelance career waiting for me (which I'd spent years building and maintaining, so lucky might not be the right word), and a spouse that was 100 percent supportive of me following my dream to become a full-time writer.

I had to give up the fancy title, the benefits, the workplace camaraderie, the perks, and the salary, but in the end, I gained a lot more. And I'm no longer limited to three weeks of holidays.

What are you jealous of? Could you realign your priorities to make it a bigger part of your life? Have you ever made big life changes to increase your happiness? I'd love to hear your story.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

If You Want Support, Give It (In Other Words, Don't Be a Dick)

Chuck at the Surrey International Writers' Conference.
Photo credit: SiWC 2014

I see a lot of writers asking for help on social media.

Buy my book! Follow me on Twitter! Like my Facebook page! Review my book! Did I mention I have a book coming out? Oh God, PLEASE BUY MY BOOK!

You know the easiest way to get support from other writers?

Give it.

Get to know them as people. Like their Facebook page. Follow them on Twitter. Ask them how their writing is coming along.

Social media is for building relationships, not for constant commercials and pleas for support.

And the funny thing is, if you're the type of writer who gives support to others, you will get a lot of it back--without even asking. How awesome is that?

I've met a lot of writers--some famous and some not so famous. And I've discovered you can learn a lot about these people by observing how they treat their fans and colleagues.

At the Surrey International Writers' Conference, I was thrilled to finally meet Chuck Wendig. I've been a fan of his blog for a long time, but I didn't want to just go up to him and say, "Hey, thanks for all the free content! It's awesome, and I'm repaying you by not doing a goddamn thing."

So I bought one of his books and asked him to sign it.

He was great--a lot sweeter and more approachable than you'd expect from reading his hilarious-but-often-caustic blog. But it was what he did after the signing that really made an impression.

He followed me back on Twitter! And if you don't think this is a big deal, you haven't followed many published authors on Twitter. Hardly any of them follow back. (And why? It's such an easy thing to do and it makes people feel so good.)

I kept hearing it over and over again throughout the conference. "CHUCK WENDIG FOLLOWED ME ON TWITTER!" Everyone who said it was beaming. Chuck made a lot of people feel really good that weekend. And what did it cost him? Nothing. He doesn't have to read our tweets (but he does). He could just make lists of the awesome people and ignore the peons if he wanted to.

The day after the signing, we crossed paths in the hall, and he remembered me. He asked me some questions about my writing--questions that made it clear he had actually taken the time to look at my profile.

So you know what I did when I got home? I ordered a bunch of Chuck Wendig books. I'm really enjoying the book I bought at the conference, but even if I wasn't, people like him deserve support.

The people who constantly ask for support but never give it? Not so much.

I've bought books from at least seven different authors at that conference based on who they are as people, not their work. I'm not a fan of epic fantasy, but I buy Jack Whyte's books because he is so supportive of other writers. He sponsors an annual writing contest, interacts with fans on his forum, and holds a masterclass where he patiently reads and critiques umpteen pages of crap.

It's not enough to be a great writer anymore. You also have to be a good person.

So, in the immortal words of Chuck Wendig, don't be a dick.

Have you met a famous or not-so-famous writer or other celebrity? How did the encounter go? Have you ever bought someone's work (or seen their show, etc.) simply because you like them?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why I'm Doing NaNoWriMo Again (Even Though I Hated It The First Time)

Am I a sucker?

A glutton for punishment?

Someone with too much time on their hands?

Probably yes to all except the last one.

But that's not why I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo (and which I personally call 'NaNu NaNu'. I'm sure I'm not the only one).

Last year was my first in the trenches.

And I hated it. Hated it with a capital H. Hell, I'd use all caps if it wouldn't make it seem like I was screaming at you.

I know how to write a novel. Not to belittle the accomplishment, but I've done it more than a few times. I already know I can finish what I start.

So why NaNoWriMo?

I've read those pretentious posts--and if you're a writer and at all interested in this kind of thing, I'm sure you have too. You know, the ones that suggest that National Novel Writing Month is just for beginners, for people who "don't know how" to write a book.

Bullshit, I say.

I'm sure it's helpful for beginners too, but they're not the only ones who can take something positive away from the experience.

Writing 1667 words per day doesn't seem like much, and if you want to write for a living, it probably shouldn't seem like much.

But I don't normally write during the weekends. And if something really amazing comes up, I rarely turn it down in order to write. Sometimes I'm tired. Sometimes I have headaches. Sometimes I have way too much journalism work to do.

That's the beauty of NaNoWriMo. For this one shining month, there are no excuses. You must write, even if you don't feel like it. Even if life intrudes. You just tell life to back the hell up so you can get your words in.

It's torture, yes, but there's also something freeing about it.

I had about a week left of NaNoWriMo last year when a dear friend took his own life. The last thing I wanted to do was write. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, and sometimes I did.

But the looming deadline forced me to press on. My friend's death was devastating, but I told myself I did not need to feel like a failure on top of everything else I was going through.

So I finished. I wrote the 50,000 required words. I wasn't finished my novel, but it didn't take me too long to write the last 10,000 words--a decent length for a young adult thriller.

When I read it over, I was surprised. It was good. It wasn't the piece of crap all those snobby NaNu NaNu articles had led me to believe. Even my editor liked it, and trust me--he's picky.

I'm a writer. I write a lot. But I can't look back at any other month in the past year and say, "I wrote a novel that month."

Which is why I'm taking the plunge once more.

The end justifies the means.

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo, or is there another challenge you take part in or train for? What are the value of these types of challenges for you? Of course, if you hate them, feel free to say that too!

The Insecure Writer's Support Group's purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It's a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Women Don't Go To The Police

One question keeps getting asked about the Jian Ghomeshi situation....

"Why didn't the victims go to the police?"

I understand why people are asking this. In fact, I asked it myself at first.

And then I read the stories of young women who had entry-level jobs in media. Women who hoped to make something of themselves. Women who were excited that this "big star" was paying attention to them.

Women who thought their careers would be ruined if they said anything, and I got it.

I thought about my own story.

In October of 1991, I broke up with my verbally abusive boyfriend.

On the same night, he attacked me. I was in a truck with a male friend, and my ex drove his car into my friend's truck SEVEN times--while we were driving. My ex only stopped when my friend managed to flag down the police.

A high-speed chase ensued before the cops were able to catch my ex-boyfriend.

My friend and I went to the police station to give statements.

There were at least three other guys in my ex-boyfriend's car when he did this. Presumably, they gave statements as well, and I heard through a third party that they were horrified by the guy's actions--that they hadn't seen it coming.

My spine was fractured in two places due to this little "adventure." For years, I couldn't stand, sit, or lie down in the same position for more than five minutes without extreme pain. A doctor told me I'd be in a wheelchair within a few years, but thankfully she was wrong.

I've done a lot to heal myself through exercise and healthy living, but I still suffer from chronic back and neck pain, as well as brutal migraines. That will never change.

So there you have it.

My ex wasn't famous. He wasn't a beloved media celebrity with the court of public opinion on his side.

He broke my spine in two places. I reported it to the police--several people did, and the police witnessed part of this mess themselves when they had to chase him down.

And what happened to this guy? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He counsels troubled youth now--how's that for chilling?

I have nothing against police officers. I count some of them among my closest friends, and I realize they have a very difficult job to do.

But if the attack on me--which was extremely public and violent--didn't have any repercussions for the perpetrator, how could we expect any of these women to put so much on the line and maybe still not get any justice in return?

Sometimes going to the police just doesn't work.

That said, I encourage anyone who has been abused or assaulted to file a report.

Just don't point to a lack of reports as evidence the women are lying.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Best Piece of Advice Stephen King Ever Gave Me

True story.

Stephen King used to be on Facebook.

And not the official author page he has now.

He used to have an ordinary profile page, just like the rest of us.

It was pretty fleeting, as I'm sure he realized early on that Facebook is a huge time suck and it was distracting him from his writing. Plus, he probably got tons of crazed fan mail from people like me.

So I was once "Friends" with Stephen King--one of the great highlights of my life, as I'm sure you can understand.

Not one to waste an opportunity, I jumped at the chance to ask him for some advice.

At the time, I was juggling many freelance journalism assignments with a full-time public relations and communications job. I was working on a novel, but my motivation was lacking. I found it extremely difficult to make my fiction writing a priority, even though being a novelist was what I wanted more than anything in the world.

I poured out my heart to The King and asked for advice. "My day jobs leave no time for my own writing," I said. "What should I do?"

He responded with two words: "Write more." He went on to say that I should write more articles, poetry, short stories, novellas--anything.

To say I was unimpressed with this advice would be an understatement. My problem was that I was writing too much already! How on earth could I possibly write more? And how would it help if I could?

Now that I can look back on this advice with years of perspective, I see that he was right. People talk about muscle memory--well, the ability to write is a muscle too, and the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

As for not having enough time, I think that I was confusing a lack of time with a lack of prioritization. I was whining about not having enough time to a man who once worked as a teacher while struggling to be a good husband and a father to young children. A man who still found time to write novels and stories while crammed into the tiny closet he used as an office. Is it surprising he wasn't too sympathetic?

People often complain that there's not enough time in the day. Not enough time to exercise, not enough to see friends, not enough time to write or be creative in any way that moves us.

But those are some of the things that make life worth living, or help us to live longer. How are you really spending your time? Do you regularly fall down YouTube or Wikipedia rabbit holes that make you less productive at work, meaning your day job duties creep into your spare time? Do you spend hours watching TV or playing video games? Everyone needs down time, and it's important, but if you want to succeed at writing--or any other passion you may have--you need to put in the time.

My first novel took years to finish. I had to completely rework it from scratch. Twice. This year, I wrote three. Are they of lesser quality than the first one that took years? No, they're better. Tighter. By flexing that writing muscle, I have become a stronger storyteller. And a novella I crammed into an already jam-packed schedule will be published next year.

So I'd like to thank Stephen King for his wonderful--yet deceptively simple--advice. I'm just sorry it took me so long to follow it.

What was the best advice you ever received? What's your favourite Stephen King quote?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Five "Must Haves" To Take To A Conference

I'll be leaving for my favourite writer's conference soon.

I look forward to this conference all year long, and when I've been unable to attend due to work commitments, I've definitely felt something was lacking in my life.

Writing can be so isolating that an opportunity to connect with other like-minded souls should not be missed.

But these must haves don't just apply to writing conferences--they're important for any kind of conference you may attend.

1) Business cards: You're going to be meeting a lot of people. Awesome people. People you'll want to keep in touch with--people who may end up being important business contacts in the future. I've seen too many scramble for a piece of paper and a pen when someone asks for their contact info. Don't be one of those people--come prepared with a professional-looking business card. It doesn't need to cost a bundle, but it's so much easier to hand someone your card than it is to scribble your name on a napkin. And there's a much better chance that the people you meet won't lose a business card. Random scraps of paper are easily misplaced.

2) Samples of your work: I was always told never to give an agent a sample of my writing at a conference. Imagine my surprise, then, when an agent asked for one. The only reason I was able to deliver was that I had a blue pencil appointment that day that required me to bring part of my novel with me. Otherwise, I would have shown up empty handed. Always bring printed samples of your work along. You never know who might ask to see what you can do.

3) Cash: In these days of paying for almost everything with plastic, hardly anyone carries cash anymore. But it can come in handy and save some awkward moments when you're at a bar with your fellow conference-goers and everyone's trying to split the tab in twenty different ways. It's also great for tips, vending machines, and spur-of-the-moment emergencies. At my particular conference, most of the books can only be paid for with cash.  Talk about an emergency!

4) Professional Wardrobe: I've said it before, and I'll say it again--it never hurts to look professional. Even when you're in a creative field like writing or design, it's still a business. Don't give the wrong impression by turning up for a workshop in your beloved "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt.

5) A Smile: I know a few introverts who feel like they could never enjoy a conference, but that's not true. An introverted friend I met at last year's conference simply sat beside me, smiled, and said hello--or I said hello to her. We're not sure which, but we've been friends ever since. If you smile and look approachable, you will make friends. You're at a conference with a whole bunch of people you have something in common with. Almost everyone wants to make friends. Almost everyone is nervous and doesn't want to be the only one sitting alone. So smile--at a conference, it's worth more than cash.

Do you ever go to conferences? Do you like or dislike them? What are your must haves for a conference?

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Most Amazing Thing Just Happened....

I'm going to be published.


I'm still in shock. I found out on Monday night, signed the contract on Wednesday, and the press release went out from Samhain on Thursday morning.

I wanted to tell you right away, all of you who have been so supportive and encouraging throughout my journey, but I haven't been able to find the words--isn't that ironic?

When I first found out about Samhain's call for novellas dealing with childhood fears, I thought it would be a fun excuse to write something new. My awesome writing group encouraged me to put my current project on hold and go for it, and I'm so glad I did.

Look how it turned out.

I'm honoured to be published by one of the biggest, most respected names in the e-publishing world. I'm beyond thrilled that my story was chosen out of over a hundred submissions, and that I'll be appearing in an anthology with Bram Stoker-award winners.

To say it's surreal is an understatement.

Thank you so much for reading this blog, for commenting even when you didn't feel like it, and for all the support and encouragement.

I hope you'll read "The Bear Who Wouldn't Leave" when it's released. And I hope you'll love it. Maybe, just maybe, it'll make you look at that teddy bear with a little more suspicion.

If so, I've done my job.

PS...Samhain started out publishing romance exclusively, so if you go to their site, don't be put off by all the bodice rippers--Samhain is getting to be quite a big name in the horror field as well.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ten Ways to Survive Traveling With Strangers

My G Adventures Group in China--I'm on the far left, in the back.

I hate to travel alone.

Over the years, this has meant I haven't traveled nearly as much as I'd like, as my friends or significant others haven't always had the same means, time off, or desire.

I've also traveled to places I wasn't overly interested in because someone I knew was going, and hell, it was a chance to go somewhere.

So when the opportunity to go to China arose, I decided to take the plunge and do something I'd never done before--sign up for a tour with a bunch of strangers.

I was nervous, but I consoled myself with the fact that we'd all have at least one thing in common--we wanted to see China so much that we'd signed up for this crazy tour.

If you've read my past two posts, you already know that I had a fabulous time and met some amazing people, some of whom I hope will be lifelong friends.

BUT that doesn't mean there were no bumps along the road. If you're considering joining a tour, here's some helpful tips for surviving travel with a group of strangers.

1) Be Friendly With Everyone, Dependent on No one: If you've traveled with a friend, or even a spouse, you know there's that point in the trip when you start to get on each other's nerves. The great thing about a larger group is that this never has to happen, because you can vary who you spend time with and who you talk to. If you spend all your time with one or two people, you miss out on the chance of getting to know others in the group, whom you may have just as much fun with. If you're friendly with everyone, you won't wind up having to do things by yourself when your chosen buddy doesn't feel like going out.

2) Be Prepared to Share: One of the great things about my G Adventures group was that it didn't feel like sixteen people traveling on their own---it felt like sixteen people pooling their resources. If someone got a blister, a headache, a cold, lost their luggage, or just didn't get to the store to buy provisions, they had about fifteen offers of help. It was pretty awesome how everyone pitched in for the good of the group.

3) Be Careful What You Say: There were some "uh-oh" moments when people said things assuming that those they were talking to agreed with them. Whether these were racist comments or slamming people of a certain age, best not to say anything you wouldn't feel comfortable announcing to the entire group. Especially if you don't know the ethnicity or age of the person you're talking to! Appearances can be deceiving.

4) Be Considerate: If you join a group like this on your own, you're most likely going to be paired with a same-sex roommate, so a little consideration is in order. As long as you're always mindful that you're not living alone and that the other person has as much right to the space as you do, you're on your way to being a great roommate.

5) At All Costs, Avoid Drama: The guys on the tour managed to avoid drama. How? They didn't take things personally, they were friendly with everyone but attached to no one, and they didn't take things personally. Did I mention they didn't take things personally?

6) If You Can't Avoid Drama, Don't Let It Ruin Your Trip: Of course it would be ideal if everyone in the group functioned like one big happy family all the time, but that's not realistic. Travel--especially strenuous, adventure travel--puts a strain on everyone, and emotions can be heightened. But always remember it's your trip, and you paid good money to be there. Don't let petty drama ruin even one day of your vacation, or you'll regret it later. Shrug it off and suck it up as much as possible. You'll feel better the next day.

7) Be Prepared to Get Sick: When you're traveling with a group, someone is bound to get sick. And once one person gets a cold or a flu, almost everyone else will come down with it as well. Bring an arsenal of cold and flu medication, just in case, especially cough drops, which can be hard to find in some countries. If you end up not needing them, you can give them to the person who does.

8) Be Inclusive: Maybe you've really hit it off with a few people, but see that person who's always alone? Why not invite him or her to join you for dinner? When it comes to traveling in a group, the more, the merrier. Whenever I expanded my horizons, I never regretted it.

9) Realize It Might Just Be A Moment In Time: Traveling like this really bonds a group of people. Promises are made--to keep in touch regularly, or to visit each other. Maybe to travel together as a group again. And these things might happen, but they can seem like a fantasy when everyone returns to their real lives. Enjoy your group as much as you can in the moment, because no matter how close you are, the sad fact of the matter is that coming home can (and often does) change everything. It's nothing personal.

10) Be Positive. The very best advice I can give is to be positive. If you're generally cheerful, encouraging, and can make people laugh now and then, you'll get along just fine.

Have you ever traveled with a tour group before, or if not, have you ever considered it? What are your best travel tips?