Thursday, 29 December 2011

2011: this was the year that...

I remember, at the of 2010, looking back and thinking, roughly, "meh". It had not been that much of an exciting year, following as it did almost exactly the same pattern as 2009 had, but without the added challenge of moving countries and starting a business from scratch.

I thought my assessment of 2011 might be similar, but, on reflection, realised that this year has been different, in subtle but perhaps significant ways.

This was, after all, the year I met Rob Lowe, and consequently wobbled briefly in my devotion to Bradley Whitford, because when a person is that good-looking and that charming in real life, it can tend to confuse you. I quickly recovered, though.

This was, not unrelatedly, the year that I discovered the Hay Literary Festival. Okay, my meeting with a slightly-famous-author did not turn out to be the key to fame and fortune and a lifelong literary friendship, but Hay was fun, and inspiring, and educational, and there were lots of books, and I want to go again, and again, and again.

It was, however, the year in which a literary friendship did begin: my creative-non-fiction friend Sylvia is a lof of fun and hugely inspiring. And there were other new people in my life too: people like Brian and MA - both DC friends that began online and moved closer to the realm of reality this year.

This was, returning to the subject of meeting famous people (famous to me, that is - for which read people having to do with the West Wing), also the year that I met Richard Schiff, who was reasonably nice to me when you consider that I lost all power of speech and reason and the ability to form intelligent questions like "so do you prefer stage or screen?" It was the year that I failed to meet Elisabeth Moss, though (straying briefly from the West Wing for a second) I did, as a result of attempting to meet her, get Keira Knightley's autograph. It was the year that I met Melissa Fitzgerald (who plays CJ's assistant, Carol), though I hesitate to put her in the same category since meeting her felt less like star-spotting and more like making a new friend.

It was, of course, still not the year when I met either Bradley Whitford or Janel Moloney, but I'm guessing you've worked that out, since I might have mentioned it by now if I had. A lot. Loudly. With many exclamation marks.

It was also the year when I finished my first novel (although "finished" is a relative term - I'm not sure that you ever really finish - it seems you just stop). It was the year when I started my second - Primary Season is its current working title - and I will, at some point, write a blogpost that predictably will compare this experience to having a second baby - it's not that you love your first any less, but you have less time to devote to it, and less time to devote to the second because of the first, and a tiny part of you is already thinking of the third. Anyway, I digress.

It was the year that I did my first real campaigning in America (unless you're counting the few phone calls I made trying to convince people to vote for Martha Coakley way back in January 2009). I did phone banking and door to door canvassing, and I would have done voter registration if the good people of Pasadena hadn't been scared off by the prospect of drizzle (don't get me started).

it was the year I self-published my little eBook on language learning, Conquering Babel, which has sold, oh, forty copies or so, and started blogging about language learning to build a platform in my attempt to take over the world as a language-learning guru.

It was the year, for better or worse, that I discovered Authonomy, where my first novel, Inevitable, is currently in 28th place, meaning that sometime in the first half of 2012 it should land on the desk of a Harper Collins editor, who may or may not offer me a contract, which I may or may not accept.

It was the year when I did (and loved) my first Gotham Writers' Workshop course. It was the year when I was accepted to American University to study for an MFA in Creative Writing (whether or not I end up going is anothe rmatter). It was the year that I did NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month - the challenge of a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in thirty days) for the first time. So I suppose it was a year where writing featured heavily. It has so become a part of my life that I didn't even really notice. It doesn't feel shiny and new anymore, yet I keep going, and for someone who normally moves onto something new after the excitement fades, this is a good sign.

It was the year of my first internal American flight and also my first visit to Portugal, where the coffee, let me tell you, is delicious, and tastes exactly like Spanish cafe con leche, to which my mind often turns as I sip on a Belgian coffee that I wish I could enjoy.

But, wait! This was also the year when Starbucks opened in Brussels, which has considerably reduced my homesickness and irritation at missing trains, and thus my general levels of grumpiness.

It was the year of weddings, too - four, and yes there was a funeral too, and that was incredibly sad. It was the year of the last Brighton Leaders' Conference. It was the year I started swimming again. It was the year in which one of my multiple twitter accounts gained considerable momentum, hit 5,000 followers and kept going. It was the year in which for the first time an article of mine was published in a magazine you can actually buy in WHSmith - Writers' Forum.

It was another year in which I failed to keep a diary, though, so I'm forgetting a lot, no doubt. I'd like to think that next year I will be disciplined enough to fill in a few lines a day in my five-year diary thing that I bought, full of good intentions, at the beginning of 2010. I think I actually might this time, because I am expecting great things of 2012. But that's the subject of another post, another day..

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

3BT: countryside, communication, culinary delights

1. A drive up into the Algarve moutains: amazing views. I love the orange trees.

2. Friendly people, happy to communicate with us in broken and basic Portuguese. In one random village they gleaned we spoke French and went to fetch someone who could help us out.

3. A delicious meal out: mixed fish grill and home-made local dessert, plus great service: the inspiration, finally, to come home and register Food writing and restaurant reviewing is, apparently, my latest New Thing.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

3BT: a good book, sunset, politics

1. I start a Visit from the Goon Squad, and, hooray, I like it.

2. We watch the sun set until it disappears behind the horizon.

3. I am, as always, moved by the story of Barack Obama when we watch a DVD about him - and excited about 2012, the first American election I will care about and understand. Thank you, again, Aaron Sorkin.

Monday, 26 December 2011

3BT: a book, surfers, a solution

1. The book I am reading gets interesting, and then I finally finish it. Now to a Visit from the Goon Squad, which I've been looking forward to for ages.

2. We watch surfers catch some waves. It looks like fun out there.

3. The solution to a quandary I have been pondering for Novel Number Two - "Primary Season" is its working title - pops into my head as I walk along the beach.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

3BT: a present, a pudding, the Queen

1. I've been told not to expect a present, since I'm getting this holiday, and my mum usually means that when she says it. So I was excited to discover that she'd bought me a watch I'd seen in the town and commented on - I hadn't even intended it to be a hint. Its strap is made of cork - a local speciality - and I haven't had a watch in ages. Win.

2. Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. Enough said.

3. The Queen rocks her Christmas message this year, and is clear and direct about her Christian beliefs. I wonder if she's had to fight to say it unequivocally without the usual politically correct bits to water it all down. I hope she has, because then I'd be even prouder of her.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

3BT: carols, nostalgia, lights

1. We watch, as always, Carols from King's. There's a new and lovely descant part to Once in Royal David's City, and this year's broadcast includes two of my favourites- oh Holy Night, which naturally reminds me how much I love Aaron Sorkin, and Chilcott's Shepherds' Carol, which is beautiful amd was written for the choir while I was at King's.

2. We also watch a programme about John Craven, and it's full of heart-warming nostalgia.

3. We wander through the town, hoping to soak up some Christmas atmosphere. There's no atmosphere and nowhere open to have a drink, but there are plenty pf tasteful, pretty lights lining bridges, windows, palm trees.

2011: The year in books

This blog post was originally going to be about how I had failed to be wowed by any books this year in the way that I was in 2010 by, say, Arthur Phillips' The Song Is You or Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin. But then I looked through my list, and I remembered The Grapes of Wrath, The Audacity to Win, the American Future, The Book Thief.

Still, though, I feel disappointed about this year, perhaps because I've read a fair few books that weren't all I had hoped they would be (the subject of a future post, no doubt) and most likely because I will finish without reaching my goal of fifty books. I'll have got to about 32, which is respectable enough, but that isn't enough to appease the competitive urge in me.

There are a variety of reasons for this, chief among which has to be the iPad: long gone and almost forgotten are the days when it was too much hassle to turn on my computer for one last play on Twitter before bed. And when in combination with other addictions, like Authonomy, the online writers' community, it has eaten away many hours.

And iPad or no iPad, Authonomy must shoulder some of the blame. It may well be that I have, in fact, read fifty books' worth of first chapters: the idea is that you comment on other people's books in the hope that they will read, comment on, and vote for yours, edging you ever closer to the desk of an editor at Harper Collins. So you read many books that you would ordinarily not go anywhere near. Some of the writing wowed me, like Rena Rossner in her first novel Blown to Smithereens; some, it has be to said, did not.

Then there was NaNoWriMo. I usually read most when travelling; this year, I wrote instead. I take the train less these days, too, and when I do I sometimes use the time for emails, or Authonomy, or - ahem - Boggle. (Yes, the iPad again.) There are many excuses I could offer, some slightly more worthy than others. Perhaps the very fact of having a goal made it seem a little too much like a chore.

I wonder if there's another reason for it too, one that renders all the excuses almost irrelevant. Louis de Bernieres said that "love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision..." My love for the English language was a little like that. It came out of nowhere and blew me away, and last year's voracious reading was a symptom of that. The temporary madness might be over now. Maybe that's why I had to look at a list to remember the books that wowed me, when last year I could have named them without thinking twice, or barely even once. But, he went on to say, "... and when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part."

I suppose that's the stage I am at with my reading. There are moments of awe, of course, but they are fewer than they used to be. But it is inconceivable that books and I, words and I, the English language and I, should ever part. Even though I don't yet know what my target for next year will be, or even if if I should have one, I'll never stop reading.

Friday, 23 December 2011

3BT: reading, sunshine, fresh juice

1. A lie in with a book.

2. Breakfast on the sunny balcony.

3. Freshly squeezed pineapple juice. Yes, pineapple juice. New to me too. Not pineapple juice, obviously. But the freshly squeezed part. Also, the sitting on a Portuguese beach part.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

3BT: holiday pleasures

1. The ocean glints in the sunlight.

2. I sink my heels into the wet sand.

3. The red wine goes perfectly with the slightly kicky goat's cheese.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

4BT: coffee, tomatoes, reading and laughter

1. The coffee tastes perfect, just the way cafe con leche tasted in Spain. I haven't had a coffee so good in a very long time. Afterwards, I indicate with a thumbs up that I likes it and the lady teaches me to say "o café é bom".

2. The tomatoes are bright red and full of flavour and richness. If fruit back home tasted the way it does here, I would happily eat a lot more of it.

3. I read in the sun with my feet up on the balcony edge.

4. I laugh with my mum and step dad about how everything, particularly vegetarian meals, tastes better with bacon.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ah, Europe, how I'll miss you...

Today I took a wander through my town's little Christmas market. From what I had read - and, ahem, written - it was grand and impressive. In fact, it was neither of those things, but it was sweet, and complete with quirks like a stand where you could pay €5 to have a picture of yourself taken with an owl on your shoulder. Ah, Belgium.

I was hoping for lots of this kind of thing:

But mostly it looked liked this...

... which I imagine is a huge relief in super-cold years like 2010 (the tents are slightly heated), but the smell of cheese can be a little overwhelming, and it is undeniably not as charming or picturesque as the Brussels Christmas market. Still, it's hard not to love a place where you can buy this...

And this...

And this...

(Okay, those were all the same stand, but, mmm.) There were oysters, too, for those who like that kind of thing - and because it's a traditional Christmas delicacy in these parts...

And then, there was this. No, that is not a big block of cheese, though it looks a little like a huge camembert from a distance. But any disappointment I may have felt at not being able to Facebook-tag my West Wing friends with an obscure reference to Andrew Jackson (look it up, people) was obliterated by the realisation that this was, in fact, a big block of nougat.

Not only that, but there were multiple flavours of nougat - orange, Speculoos, chocolate, you name it, and the very helpful, very nice man let me taste all of them before I bought them.

I suppose it's time I started a "things I will miss about Europe" post...

Friday, 9 December 2011

Gifts for language learners « Conquering Babel

Gifts for language learners « Conquering Babel:

The nights are drawing in; the leaves are beginning to turn and fall; there’s a chill in the air. This can only mean one thing: the Christmas shopping panic is only weeks away. But fear not, dear reader: if there is a language lover in your life, panic is unnecessary. Instead, you can have a look at our suggestions and find the perfect gift.
Fridge Magnets Who can resist a bit of fridge poetry? And all the more so when it’s educational as well as fun? Go to for magnet kits in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian.
Board Games Scrabble is, of course, the quintessential word game, available in a wide variety of languages, and you don’t even need an opponent. Challenging yourself regularly is a great way to build vocabulary. Bananagrams is another good one to try, as well as other games such as Pictionary and Taboo: for learners up to intermediate level, I’d recommend the children’s version of these.
Magazine Subscriptions A specialist language-learning magazine is an invaluable tool. For French intermediates and up, there’s Bien Dire; for Spanish, you can’t do better than Punto Y ComaAuthentikalso publish a range of materials of A Level standard in German, French and Spanish. For more advanced learners, a great option is to find a mainstream magazine allied with their interest: Vogue, or National Geographic, or France Football, for example. Whatever your friend or family member is into, there’s bound to be something for them.
iTunes vouchers There’s a wealth of apps out there that can help with language learning, as can films, music and audiobooks from the country whose language they are learning. Just make sure you specify the purpose of the voucher on your Christmas card to ensure it doesn’t get used on  Angry Birds or Tetris apps.
Language Lessons  Maybe you know someone who would really value the occasional feedback on their language skills, or the opportunity to practice conversation or ask questions on the more tricky aspects of grammar. Some language tutors, including this one, offer gift vouchers: you can buy anything from half-hour sessions to 100 hours of hour-long lessons. The vouchers available here are valid for one year, so the recipients can take the lessons whenever is most convenient for them: in the run-up to an exam or a holiday, for example.
A Practical Guide Whether they’ve tried to learn before and got stuck, or are starting from scratch and are not sure where to begin, this eBook will help. It’s packed full of tips about strategies and resources for learning, and answers questions like “how can I stay motivated?” and “do I really have to learn grammar?”. You can snap it up on for just £1.99, or for $2.99, and you don’t even need a Kindle to read it – it will work on any electronic device, including PCs and iPhones.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Living the dream: in the beginning...

One day there will be a new blog, and it will be called something like, and it will document the beginning of the journey, and the beginning might turn out to be yesterday.

Or it might turn out to be the day I borrowed Emily's laptop to watch a Friends episode but instead ended up watching the DVD that was already in there, Season Two, Episode Five of a little TV programme called the West Wing and thinking "you know what, this is actually really good".

Or maybe the beginning was moving back to Belgium: maybe there's something in the air here, writing stardust or something  Here was where I wrote my first poems, my first "novels". Here was where people began to talk about me as a writer and believe in me when I was far too young to warrant that kind of title or that kind of confidence.

Or maybe it's not the dust, or the water, or anything about my childhood. Maybe it's the chance I got to write articles that reminded me there was far more to my love of language than a passion for correct grammar in three languages.

Or maybe it's the fact that I moved here with no big agenda, had no television, and one July had no social life either, and the only two things that kept me busy were work and the West Wing, and one day, walking down the street after a lesson with a Russian diplomat I thought, "wouldn't it be fun to teach Bradley Whitford French?" and suddenly, there was my novel.

Who knows, really, where it began? But yesterday I got an email, the email I've been waiting for, except I thought I was waiting for a letter, and I thought I was waiting till March. It said, "It's the Director of the MFA program at American University. I wanted to touch base with you personally and let you know that you've been accepted into the program starting fall 2012."

At this point, I don't know much. I don't know if I will get the scholarship I need to make this feasible. I don't know if it's God opening a door, or just me shoving at it really hard.

But I reserved some blog domain names just in case. Just in case I get to write about living in DC, studying creative writing, and campaigning for the Democrats. Just in case, in other words, I get to live my dream and tell you about it.

Monday, 5 December 2011

NaNoWriMo: Where I wrote

Apparently I now go to America in November; it's just what I do. (Since next year is a Presidential election year, I expect the pattern to continue.) In 2009 and 2010 I thought vaguely about NaNoWriMo and what a shame it was I wasn't going to be able to do it. In 2011, I came to my senses and realised there was no reason I couldn't write while travelling. That the writing might make the travelling both more fun and more purposeful and the travelling might make the writing more inspired, more grounded in the city where I seem to keep setting my novels.

So I went to DC, and I wrote.

I began my novel in Peregrine Expresso in Capitol Hill.

The next day, I took a train to Philadelphia, and I wrote.

I went back to DC, and I slacked off for a bit, but then I went to a Write In at Yola in Dupont Circle.

It was my first Write In, and I loved the experience, despite the two girls having a very noisy conversation, oblivious to the fact that everyone, but everyone, around them was studying or reading or trying to write a novel in a month. I met some super friendly people and scribbled for a happy hour or so before meeting a friend to go to see the Capitol Steps.

The next day, I had grand plans to write in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Penn after church, but NatWest scuppered those plans by blocking my bank card and causing me to spend hours and lots of dollars on the phone to sort it out.

But then, the day after that, I finally, finally made it to Politics and Prose, for an event with Erin Morgenstern (whose successful novel, The Night Circus, started out as a NaNoWriMo novel). It's a wonderful place - with a name like that, how could it not be - and they have a coffee shop downstairs where I sat with another WriMo and scribbled my way to a writer's high.

The next day, I went back to Peregrine Expresso to see my new friend who had offered to marry me and my cute British accent so that I could have a visa. (Note to any immigration people reading: I'm pretty sure he was kidding.) While I was there, I wrote a little more, before heading to the DNC headquarters to do some phone banking. (Because, you know, if there's one thing I love more than phones, it's cold calling complete strangers who probably won't understand my aforementioned accent.)

The day after that (we're on 9th, if anyone is following), I got a few words down in Café Milano in Georgetown before my salmon and fennel dish arrived...

... then I paid a pilgrimage to the soon-to-be defunct (sniff) Barnes and Noble and its Starbucks, where I sat at a high seat by the window...

.,. and then I walked back to the hotel, dropped off the books I had accidentally bought in Lantern Books, and popped into another Write In, this one at Panera Bread at Dupont Circle (you'll note from the fact that the trees in front are not autumn colours that I borrowed this photo from Google Images). I had trouble with the ordering system, but made it downstairs with my orange juice and my cookie eventually. It was distracting down there: there was a Spanish lesson going on right behind me - it was hard not to think, "hey! When I move here, I could do my lessons in Panera Bread!". (Immigration people, if you're still reading, I of course will only do this if I have a visa that allows me to engage in paid employment.)

The people who were writing there were of a talkative disposition, which ordinarily I wouldn't have minded, but I didn't have very long, because owing to the distractions of Georgetown I'd got there later than I'd meant to, and I had to rush off after an hour to go and hear Umberto Eco at the 6th and i Synagogue. I was glad I had some moral support around me though, to ease my distress at having penned the words "she was drowning in his blue eyes".

By 10th, I was hitting my stride, and mourning my imminent departure. After an afternoon at the Newseum and a yummy dinner at America Eats with possibly the most delicious pecan pie I will ever taste, I joined the write in at the now familiar Starbucks on 3rd and Penn. (It's close to We the Pizza and to where the Hawk and Dove - sob - used to be; i.e. it's where I would hang out all the time if I worked on the Hill.) Amazing Starbucks, complete with a real-looking open fire in the very quiet and studious upstairs part.

I was just hitting my stride after a twitter break (ahem) when they kicked us out of there, though. I wrote a little more downstairs and then headed back to my hotel...

where I made up my quota with my newfound determination, or possibly to avoid packing, and thus the thought of leaving.

The next day, I boarded a plane to LA, just like Josh Lyman did all those years ago to go and get Sam. I fell way short of my word quota that day, but I did manage a few pages up in the air.

I had ideas about writing some more after I got to my hotel - if you can call it a hotel - in Pasadena, but I was stressed and tired and tearful (perhaps at the prospect of being so close to Bradley Whitford) and so I never quite made it.

The next day was sightseeing and catching up with Brianna (yay), and the day after that when I'd had plans to go to a write in, then All Saints Church, then the mid-month NaNoWriMo celebrations in LA, instead I made a last minute decision to spend the day with her. Which was lovely, and her church was fab, and we visited a posh hotel beloved of Presidents (with good reason), and ate the first cupcakes I've actually enjoyed in America, but still, it was one of those times I wished I could have cloned myself and been in two places at once.

We rounded the day off with a delicious meal at Russell's - so that's what a hamburger ought to taste like - and then I spent a happy couple of hours in a Barnes and Noble. ("Does Bradley Whitford ever come in here?" "Who?" "He's an actor... Josh Lyman from the West Wing? He lives in Pasadena." "Oh,  yes, he's a regular." You are so totally making that up, given that a minute ago you didn't know who he was, but I want to believe you, so I am going to.) Next door was a Starbucks - open till midnight, ah, civilisation, how I've missed you - and I planned to sit and make my quota if it killed me. But the seat by the window that I'd had my eye on got taken before I could get there, and the people who sat themselves next to me were very talkative, and wanted to know all about me. I have a hunch they were famous in some way - one of them was very whacky and wearing a weird hat, and the other told me her sister used to live downstairs from Allison Janney in New York, which is confusing since I thought Allison Janney lived in California, but anyway - but to cut a long story even longer, I got no writing done.

So the next day, I was determined. I wandered round Old Town Pasadena and looked round All Saints Church, then spent a happy rest of the morning in Vroman's, which is an amazing independent bookshop, where I succumbed to a Pasadena tshirt and the novel "Helen of Pasadena" (which actually was not bad, and unexpectedly made me cry. I wonder if Jane Kaczmarek has read it, and if she cried too?). It also has a café, so I sat and wrote there...

... and then, after paying a small visit to the Pasadena Playhouse and sighing over the Artists' Entrance, where, if any of you would like to donate a few hundred dollars or a couple of thousand airmiles I could potentially meet my hero in just a few months' time, I went to Sabor 2 which is where some of the write ins were held. The coffee was not that nice and the people were not that friendly, but it was a cool place.

And then I got on a plane, and then another plane, and I came home to frost on the ground, tenacious jet lag, a trip to the UK, and about 40,000 words still to write. By 19th November, I had a choice: full steam ahead or give up. I wasn't going to be half-hearted about it and get to 25,000 words. I tweeted and asked for advice, and my fellow WriMos were very encouraging, for which I am eternally grateful.

So I wrote in the spare bed at Tim and Jacqui's flat in Stockwell, and then on the train from London to Oxford for the wedding...

... and then I wrote in Giraffe in Victoria after Church...

... and then I wrote in bed, and then I wrote on the Eurostar back to Belgium...

... and then I finally stopped international travelling and wrote some of the rest of my novel on trains between Nivelles and Brussels ...

... but mostly at my desk in those final few days when I had to crank over 20,000 words in not a very long time. I could have sanitised and tidied it for you, but this, minus the tissues which I admit to throwing away, is what my writing table looks like. I am an artist. It's okay to be messy. It's part of the persona.

I know it's not pretty, but it got the job done. So maybe the moral of the story is there is no need to be somewhere interesting and different to do NaNoWriMo. Wait, no, that can't be what I was trying to say...

Sunday, 4 December 2011

NaNoWriMo: how I'll do it next time

1. I'll spend October getting ready. 

I wanted to do that this time, too, but for the third year in a row the last couple of weeks in October were a little crazy, with translations suddenly arriving right when my pieces for the What's On section of Away Magazine were due - and there are always more of those in the run-up to Christmas anyway, what with the markets and castles and carol concerts to write about.

So yes, there was time to throw things in a suitcase for my America trip; there was time to go out and carefully select pretty notebooks for NaNoWriMo, and I fitted in reading Chris Baty's "No Plot No Problem" well in advance. But there wasn't time to do character sketches or draw up timelines or brainstorm subplots. Which, in a way, is fine. I wanted to see if NaNoWriMo worked when you do no planning whatsoever - as it is, in fact, supposed to. It's the opposite of how I wrote my first novel - carefully, deliberately, a scene when it would pop into my head, all of which after spending a long time getting to know my characters - and I was curious to see if it worked, and it kind of did, but I also kept thinking how much more productive it would be if I had a better idea of where it was going. And how much easier it would be to start each writing session if I had, as suggested my someone on I can't remember which website, written thirty index cards, each with a scene to develop.

That said, I don't know. Some of my best writing to date has been when I've started with a writing prompt and just written for thirty minutes, the aim being to keep writing, and see where it takes you. NaNoWriMo is, the way I did it, a long experiment in freewriting, and I think there is value in that.

Besides, I can do the character development and backstory and subplots and timeline now, and rewrite and add words as I need to. (And I need about an extra 50,000 words, so those things will come in handy.) Also, it's very possible that I'm remembering the process of writing Inevitable wrongly or selectively: a lot of the brainstorming and post-it note sticking was done between drafts.

Still, next time I'll do it the other way.

2. I'll start on 1st November.

I'm fortunate to live in a country which has two bank holidays during NaNoWriMo - on 1st and 11th November, and if those days fall on a Tuesday or a Thursday, you tend to get an extra day off work thrown in too. My teaching also slows down during the first week of the month because it's half term here. Which of course has been my excuse for taking that time off to go on holiday for three years in a row now. I'm glad I left on 1st November this year, because if I hadn't I may not have made it to Philadelphia to see Staging Hope and meet Melissa Fitzgerald. But another year I will make sure I spend as much of 1st November as possible writing - or doing the brainstorming that I yet again won't have had a chance to do in October. Then on 2nd, I'll take to the skies. (I assume, by the way, that my next NaNoWriMo won't be next year, because next year there is an election to win.)

I did start on 1st, and I got 1,000 words or so done, and only had to stop because the whole of Peregrine Espresso was spinning and I started to feel as if I was going to fall off my chair, what with jet lag, sleep deprivation and messed up eating patterns. And my novel starts with Aaron jiggling his leg because on the bus from Dulles to Rosslyn there was a guy jiggling his leg as he spoke very quietly into his mobile phone, and it intrigued me, because when people are stressed enough to be jiggling their legs they are normally shouting. Also, there was something nicely symbolic about beginning my NaNoWriMo novel in DC, where it is set, in a cafe of which I had thought on my last visit, "I would like to come and write here". But still, it would have been nice to have started, say, 1,000 words ahead, rather than a few hundred behind.

3. I'll travel.

Yes, it's great that Belgium gives us writing time in November. But what's less great is that, like so many things, NaNoWriMo has yet to take off here. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is the community aspect: you write together at "write-ins", you meet up for half-month parties, you send each other encouraging emails. Yes, nominally there is a NaNoWriMo "region" covering "Belgium and Holland", but it irritates me that they only send out their emails in Dutch - since just under half of this country speaks French - and there are very few Write Ins, and the ones there are tend to be in Flanders or Holland. Also, I have not found the Belgians to be super friendly when you first meet them, so the thought of walking into a coffee shop to join in with strangers and being met with a blank stare when I say "Hi, I'm Claire" is a little discouraging. In the US, everyone is super-friendly, especially WriMos. In the UK, I'm among my own kind, so I know what to expect. In other countries, there are also more Write-Ins - I love the idea of the California one that takes place on a a train. Write-Ins are a great way to meet people when you are travelling alone, too.

Plus, of course, there's the inspiration factor. I don't know if all my novels will be doomed love stories set in DC - though it's looking increasingly likely - but there is something fantastic about sitting in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Pennsylvania writing about a date in the Pain Quotidien on 6th and Pennsylvania (although I didn't quite manage to be that in sync, sadly): about looking around and getting the real details from the real place, about eavesdropping on conversations and making a careful note of them. The dad who told his toddler "senate is in session" by way of explanation of something or other will almost certainly make an appearance in my novel, as will the dogs and small bilingual children in Lincoln Park. This kind of thing makes the place feel more real to the writer and therefore to the reader. Well, hopefully.

4. I'll hand write.

I almost always hand write my first drafts. Working on my writing is almost the only time that I use pen and paper now, so it signals to me and my body that I am in creative mode. I am a creature of habit, and I found my writer's voice sitting in St James' Park writing with a pen and paper, so that's the way it'll stay. It's also how I do my dailyish freewriting exercises. Fewer distractions that way. Long enough for my brain to catch up with my hand.

Maybe by next time I will have mastered the art of sitting at a computer and not flicking back and forth from my writing to Facebook to twitter to Authonomy to Blogger and back to writing. After all, I have been sitting here typing this blog post for quite q while now and resisted the temptation, so you never know. Plus, I have this funky wireless keyboard thing for my iPad now, and it's a pleasure to type on.

But still, an iPad and a keyboard, light as they are, are more hassle to carry around than a notebook and a pen. You have to remember to charge them, and hope that nothing goes wrong with them, which they rarely do, but it does happen, and if it happens, you can guarantee it will right at that breakthrough moment when you're typing a pivotal scene.

I also live in constant fear of my iPad being stolen, which is one of the reasons I don't carry it around with me everywhere when I'm going to be hanging around touristy places. And yes, okay, my whole handbag could get nicked, and if my notebook were in it that would be a real shame - particularly because I back up by taking photos of my notebook, and my camera would likely also be in my bag - but I don't furtively look around me when I get out my notebook and pen to check no one looks like the notebook and pen stealing type.

Speaking of notebooks, it's also an excuse to buy pretty notebooks and post it notes. And who doesn't need one of those from time to time?

5. I'll count my words every day.

Arguably the best reason for typing NaNoWriMo novels is that the whole point is to get to 50,000 words, and therefore you need to know when you've got to 50,000 words. I've found my estimations to be wildly inaccurate - well, not wildly, but wildly once you multiply 20 words by 90 pages, which led to a frenzied final day of NaNoWriMo and a collapse in exhaustion rather than a triumphant hooray. This was, of course, after I'd hand counted most of 50,000 words over two or three days. Try it. It's not a lot of fun. But I really did need to know if I had made it. I think I have. But then again, I might have counted completely wrong. Next time I'd like to know for sure, and I'd like to watch the little NaNoWriMo graph go up steadiliy. I'm sure I can count 1,667 words much more patiently and accurately than I can count 20,000.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

I've won NaNoWriMo!

Well, I did it! I wrote 50,000 words in a month. The exact official number is 50,143 words, but you can ignore that completely, because I hand wrote, and also hand counted, and given my propensity for mathematical errors the real number could be anywhere between 45,000 and 55,000 words.

Oddly, I'm not as excited as I thought be. Not even as relieved - though doubtless that will happen tomorrow when I realise I can spend train time reading and free time inanely clicking on refresh on twitter, just like before. Maybe I should have planned some kind of momentous event or at least champagne drinking to celebrate with friends. Well, there's still time, so let me know.

I'm sure I'll be musing about NaNoWriMo a fair bit in the next few weeks: why I did it (to prove to myself that I still had it in me to be self-disciplined!), whether I'd do it again (the jury is still out at this point),why I hand write, and what I learned. But for now I wanted to proudly display my winner's badge:

I even got a winner's cerificate that I could customise and print, but since I haven't decided what to call myself or what to name the novel, I won't add it here just here. It's pretty fab though - those nice people at NaNoWriMo really have thought of everything. Almost everything. If someone could please design an app to count hand written words (so that you basically just point an iPad at a page), that would be wonderful.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Techniques for upping your NaNoWriMo word count

The end is in sight. 30th November draws near. How's your word count doing? Scrabbling around for those extra few words? Here's some tips I've picked up. 

1. Give your character a dilemma. 

That way things can keep going round in a circle, to illustrate said dilemma. Particularly if she's also indecisive. Like, she wants him but she knows she can't have him but she really does want him but she really can't have him but... 

Indecisiveness in general is also good, since you can add things like "oh, I don't know, I think I'll have the cheesecake... no, the pumpkin pie. Oh, I don't know. I'm so terrible at decisions. Help me, oh my hero, to make the right choice." (You'll be glad to know nothing like that appears in my novel, but you get the point.)

2. Have your character know something else well, and quote from it frequently.

Maybe she's a Christian, and keeps using the Bible to make her arguments. Or maybe he's a West Wing fan, and borrows Aaron Sorkin's words frequently. (I resisted that particular temptation this time - in fact, it took me till page 133 to mention the West Wing at all, and that's because I wanted my character to wear a suit and backpack, and didn't feel like I could do that without a nod at Josh Lyman.)

3. Get your character to speak a foreign language from time to time.

That way, they have to saw everything twice: once in the language, and once in translation. 

4. Use circumlocution.

If he says, "no", that's one word. If "he shakes his head no", that's five. If he "explains", that's one word. Have him "say by way of explanation" instead, and get yourself some extra.

5. Show, don't tell. 

Yes - at last some sensible writing advice that holds even if you're not doing NaNoWriMo. What I mean here is this, though: instead of saying, "she was kissing him", make it last: "she was kissing him, kissing him, kissing him". If their arguments are going in a circle, show it by making your narration go in a circle too: "And so they were back. Not to Square One exactly, more like the "go" square on the Monopoly board, they went round and round and they kept ending up in the same places, and round and round, but each time was different as well as familiar". There's a sneak preview into mine. 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Things I will miss about America

In no particular order

Being complimented on my glasses


Walking where Bradley Whitford has walked

Political discussion


Being thought of as charming, because of the accent

Being asked if I am over 21

Flying over beautiful scenery

People on the Obama campaign loving me and giving me lots of attention because I've come all the way from Europe to help them out (and not at all for a holiday, oh no)

The convenience of everything

The speed of the internet on my mobile

The constant exciting prospect of perhaps bumping into someone famous (shame that I don't recognise anyone who a) wasn't on the West Wing and b) wasn't a pop star circa 1988-1992)

Getting to randomly speak and hear Spanish

Being asked if I am Spanish

The cheapness of electronics

Free refills

A church where you get free muffins and bagels and you can buy almond-flavoured lattes

Churches with amazing music and depth of preaching


Starbucks - and especially their ubiquity

Being in the right time zone for reacting in real time to political news

Hanging out with other politically minded people

Getting to ask my political questions and not being thought of as stupid, since I'm British and it's therefore natural that I don't know

Being a novelty

Good-looking men

NaNoWriMo write-ins

People knowing what I'm talking about when I mention the West Wing

The friendliness of people when you meet them

Discovering new places

Wifi on trains

The gorgeous red of the sugar maples

Being offered tap water at every restaurant - sometimes having it brought to you without even having to ask

Pretzel bread

Things I won't miss about America

Having to repeat everything I say because no one understands me the first time round

Having to get most people to repeat what they say because I usually don't understand them the first time round

Toilets (sorry, restrooms) in public places like restaurants and airports: why don't they build cubicles whose walls reach from floor to ceiling? What is with those huge gaps - and the one between the door and its frame?

Never being quite sure if people know where Belgium is, but not wanting to assume and patronise by explaining, and feeling awkward about that every time someone asks me where I'm from

And, erm, that's it.

Claire's big America trip - day fourteen

What I learned

Pasadena really is a lovely place. I could live there. You know, if I really had to for any reason.

Where I ate

Breakfast was yet another blackberry "scone" from Starbucks - I am a convert to those - and a grande latte.

Lunch was at the California Pizza Company close to All Saints Church in Pasadena. My waitress, Maria, was super friendly and nice, and the view was beautiful, and the barbecued chicken pizza was scrumptious - I loved the addition of coriander, it added a certain je ne sais quoi, as did the applewood smoked bacon. (I've noticed that bacon in America often seems to be applewood smoked, and while I don't really know what that is, the bacon in American often seems to be delicious, so I'd say they're onto a winner there.)

Dinner at Du Bar's in Studio City (not Studio 60, haha, I get that joke now) was purely functional and a little mediocre - kind of what I had assumed American food was usually like - a cheese and bacon burger that bore no ressemblance to the similar sounding but infinitely superior meal I had yesterday

Where I wrote

Determined to make my word count today (and I think I did), and being done with all the rushing around, I spent an hour in Vroman's scribbling away, and then after lunch another hour in Sabor 2, which is a very cool and trendy place to hang out but where the water tasted of very weak lemon squash and the caffe con leche was nothing like the ones from Spain.

Vroman's, though, did not disappoint. It's an enormous and very cool independent bookshop that also sells things like bags and shoes (?), and has a posh stationery shop attached to it. What with it being the last day I bought a couple of cheesy souvenirs and caved in to buying a novel, "Helen of Pasadena", which is probably not the kind of thing I normally read, but hey, how many other novels do you know that are set there? (Yes, yes, gap in the market - maybe my next book will be about a Brit who moves there in desperate hopes of meeting her favourite actor.)

American experience of the day

I spent the evening at a political book club, where they loved me, particularly when I told them (truthfully) that I'd scheduled my flight home so that I could be there. (Thankfully, it wasn't drizzling, so it didn't get cancelled.) It was fascinating. We were discussing a book called "The Whites of their Eyes" (which I'd read a decent chunk of, and enjoyed) and the discussion was well structured and I was able to ask questions. I learned a lot and it was a great environment for me. I loved being surrounded by other politically minded people and the buzz as they were planning trips to neighbouring states to help register voters. "Shame none of us speak Spanish," one of them said, and I said that I did, and that I'd like to come and help on the campaign, at which point I was offered a spare room in Woodland Hills. The aptness of this will not be lost on you if you know who else is from Woodland Hills - if you don't, never mind.

LA experience of the day

I always find it a bit nerve-wracking using public transport for the first time in a new city, and never quite knowing how safe it is. But although I was a bit nervous on the way home (until I got back on the gold line to Pasadena, because only nice people live there, apparently) I'm very glad I did it - I feel like I had a truly Californian experience, from the man who was "moved by the Spirit" to sing to us, to the young men practising transcendental meditation and then engaging a quantum physicist in debate about which was the most appropriate belief system.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Claire's big America trip - day twelve

What I learned:

- It does, in fact, sometimes rain in Southern California. Sometimes the sky is grey and you shiver your way through the Hollywood tour bus experience and try to picture how beautiful it would all look against the backdrop of the blue sky you have been promised.

- I am incredibly rubbish at making decisions. I had a whole day scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday), but once Brianna asked me if I wanted to go home with her instead and spend the day in Riverside, it threw me into complete confusion and disarray.

Where I ate:

Breakfast was partly hotel, partly Starbucks. Lunch was at the Cheesecake Factory in Pasadena - their white chicken curry was yum, but unfortunately a little too fillling so that even between us we couldn't finish a piece of cookie dough cheesecake. But wow - what a menu!

In the evening, we stopped off on the way to Riverside at an In and Out drive-thru. As fast food goes, it was really quite okay - at any rate miles ahead of anything we have in Belgium!

Tourist experiences of the day:

Yes, yes, go ahead and judge me - I did the Hollywod bus tour. It was interesting, and our guide was fun, but he did repeat himself a bit and it would have been better in the daytime. (Also, when I asked him if he'd ever met Bradley Whitford, he said, "who?", which never bodes well.) Better still would have been the option to hop on and off which is falsely advertised - having been told there was a bus every half hour, we turned up in good time for the 4 o'clock, only to be told there were only two more buses - at 4.30 and 5.30 - which severely reduced hopping potential. Also, the rate advertised online is $20, but they opened the bidding at $45 and tried to make out they were giving us an amazing deal at the original price.

Beverley Hills was amazing, though, and if I ever come back, I know where to go for star spotting. And I enjoyed feeling cool and trendy sipping a cocktail at the Hard Rock Cafe.

Standing where George Clooney has stood was also quite fun, as was spotting the various stars' names on the Walk of Fame. (Kermit the Frog being my personal favourite).

More exciting than standing where George Clooney has stood, though, was standing where Bradley Whitford has stood - and will stand in a few months' time. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't wait till January to come, so I could see him in ART at the Pasadena Playhouse. I think it had something to do with wanting to network in DC in time to come back to volunteer early in the campaign. I think it was the right decision. But what with my rubbishness at decisions, who knows?

Friday, 11 November 2011

Staging Hope: Acts of Peace in Northern Uganda

I don't watch many documentaries; the ones I do tend to be about the lives of American presidents or the development of the English language. I am afraid of pain - my own, and other people's - and what I watch tends to reflect that.

I've known about Staging Hope for some time: it's a documentary made by Melissa Fitzgerald (aka Carol from the West Wing, for those who are wondering) about a drama project in Northern Uganda. I thought it was going to be full of the kind of thing that's hard to hear and even harder to watch, the kind of thing that makes me flick channels when it's on the news because it hurts to be confronted with just how evil people can be and with my own inertia in the face of that same evil.

And there was some of that, of course. That, after all, is the reason d'être of the Voices of Uganda project and of the film which sprang from it.

But Staging Hope is warm and funny, too. It's the story of an unlikely friendship between a group of Ugandan teenagers - who have known nothing except war and poverty and the kind of suffering we would happily plug our ears with cotton wool not to have to hear about - and a group of American actors whose lives, like all of ours, are incredibly privileged by any reasonable standard.

It's the story, too, of the power of drama to connect people, to instil confidence, to help people tell about the things that they need to tell and that others need to hear. And if you're sceptical - if that sounds like Hollywood mumbo jumbo to you - then I defy you to watch this film and not change your mind.

Staging Hope is also something else, something that touched me deeply as someone who hopes one day to be recognised for her art. It's the story of one woman who used her relative fame and connections not for her own gain but for advocacy on behalf of others: to raise awareness of an issue, the war in Northern Uganda, which has been called the greatest forgotten humanitarian crisis of all time.

The children in the film repeatedly asked the Americans not to forget them; Melissa and her team have not. They are in regular contact with them, and are resourcing them to keep telling their stories and teach others to do the same. They've also been instrumental in bringing about a piece of legislation that has enjoyed unparalleled bipartisan support and that hopefully will contribute to ending the war and alleviating the suffering of the kids in the movie and thousands like them.

An issue like that one can feel dry and distant - bills debated on in Washington DC to help people we don't know in a country most of us couldn't place on a map. Staging Hope restores the human angle to the debate - more than that, it places it centre stage, no pun intended - and, rather than making me want to channel flick, it made me want to do something.

Claire's big America trip: day ten

What I learned:

Californians are wimpy!

Let me explain. Right when I started planning my trip, I logged onto the site to see what political activities I could take part in while I'm here. I found the perfect one in Pasadena: voter registration on the farmer's market. I can do that, I thought. It's not as scary as phoning people, and there's always the chance Bradley Whitford might walk past and congratulate us on our hard work. Heck, he might even join in. It's the kind of thing he does, which is one of the reasons I love him. Anyway, I digress.

Today, I got an email. The event is cancelled, because it's going to rain. Oh, I thought, it's probably a tornado or something. Nope. Reading further in the email it turns out that drizzle is what's expected. Drizzle! Imagine if the rest of the world stopped doing things because it was drizzling!

Where I ate:

Breakfast was back at the Breadline, where I had so enjoyed my bacon and egg sandwich earlier in the week. I knew it almost certainly wouldn't be as good this time round, and it wasn't, but I was famished by the time I made it there, plus they were doing me a special favour - breakfast, they claimed, normally ends at 11, and it was well after that time - so I didn't mind too much.

Lunch was at the Newseum, and purely functional - I dived into the food court minutes before it closed (well, technically after it had already closed) so there wasn't much left. I had a small pepperoni pizza which was nothing to write home about but a little on the pricey side. Still, again, I didn't mind, or at least not too much, because it meant I only had to stop for about 15 minutes, and there was so very much to see.

Still, this left me with a quandary for dinner, because I had thought that in the absence of any blinding flashes of inspiration I might go back to We, The Pizza - partly because it's on that little stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue very close to the Capitol where I've found myself a few times this week - where the Hawk and Dove used to be and close to the Starbucks where I needed to be for the write in later on.

But leaving the Newseum and looking for a metro stop on the right line, then being distracted by some white tents on 8th Street, I came by a place called America Eats, which seemed like a fitting place for my last meal in DC. It had lots of traditional American food - including things like Clinton's gazpacho and some other president's stew. After much deliberation, I chose to have Southern Chicken alongside a waldorf salad. Now, if you think you've had Southern chicken because you've been to KFC, then let me assure you, you have not. It was delicious (though the third piece I had was a little dodgy and could perhaps have done with a minute or two more of cooking), and served alongside ketchup which is not like any ketchup I've ever tasted: blackberry rather than tomato based, with hints of Christmassy spices like nutmeg and cloves. Yum. The salad was excellent too, and I can't believe I almost didn't have the dessert: a delicious pecan pie served wtih ice cream and something called bourbon air. The combination of flavours was something else.

Where I wrote:

After my final latte at Peregrine, I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, past We, The Pizza to the Starbucks on the corner of 3rd street (where I had popped in for a "scone" and a latte the morning I went canvassing). The upstairs was not remotely Starbucks like - it has enormous pipes on the ceiling, and a roaring fire (fake, but still) in the fireplace, and it was so very quiet as people sat and read or wrote. They kicked us out of that room at 8.30, which broke my flow a little (they are open till 9, and I moved downstairs, but it was very much not the same) and meant I had to finish off my six-page quota back in my hotel room. I may or may not have broken through the 10,000 word mark - I wish someone would invent an app where you can feed in handwritten pages and get a word count. Or maybe they have and I just don't know about it yet? Anyone?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Claire's big America trip - day nine

What I learned:

Georgetown is not as far as I thought it was (and it's still gorgeous). My overwhelming memory of it last year was of sore feet, but this was chiefly because of the Sketchers Tone Ups I'd bought in New York. Bad, bad idea.

Also, if you are eating alone in a restaurant, and you want to take in the atmosphere and eavesdop on conversations for later inclusion in novels, you need to ask to be seated appropriately.

Where I ate:

Breakfast was a cupcake in Baked and Wired, a trendy, well, cupcake place on the same street as the soon-to-be-closed (sniff) Barnes and Noble. I've come to the conclusion that I'm not much of an American cupcake person - they're too, well, too something for me - too sweet seems odd to say, but maybe that's it. Or maybe it's the sheer amount of icing. After much deliberation, I opted for the Tessita - vanilla with dulce de leche filling and "satin hazelnut" icing. Exhausted from that decision, I found myself with another one to make - which coffee? So many options - even for a basic cappuccino. The problem with choices, I've realised this week, is that I invariably feel I made the wrong one. The coffee wasn't quite what I needed. But it was a nice experience nonetheless; they write your name in pink pen on the mug (cue new profile pic on Facebook) and I can tick Baked and Wired off in my guide book now. Ultimately, it's a little too trendy for me - and I like my seats to have backs - but I can certainly see the appeal, and I love the idea of having a whole wall covered with messages and drawings from previous customers, many of them on serviettes.

I splashed out on food today, all in all. Both lunch and dinner were in posh places, and oddly at both I chose some kind of fish with some kind of fennel. The first was Cafe Milano - where Anthony Wiener was spotted just the other day. The food was delicious but I made an error of judgement by asking for a table outside (the weather was gorgeous): I ended up alone on the patio like some kind of naughty schoolchild wanting to be let in to play with the grown-ups and it all got a bit awkward when I asked to move then change my mind and I'm sure the waitress rolled her eyes.

In the evening, I went to the Monocle, a classic DC establishment and worth it just for the picture of a very young and handsome Bill Clinton on the wall - along with dozens of other frames, signed pictures of important politicos past and present (most of whom, sadly, I did not recognise). Also, there were some great quotes on the wall - "if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog" and my waiter was super-friendly and very helpful with suggestions about DC sights (a little late, since tomorrow is my last day). But I had a similar experience where they put me in a corner by myself - though some of the conversations were loud enough that I could hear them anyway. They also topped up my wine glass on the house - twice - after checking I was over 21, which made my day.

Where I wrote:

I scribbled a few words down before my lunch in Cafe Milano arrived, but the bulk of today's writing was done in the Starbucks at Barnes and Noble in Georgetown. It was actually a perfect spot - I had a nice view, a comfortable chair (with a back!) and a wide surface. And of course coffee.

One of the best things about NaNoWriMo (although not in Belgium, unless you're Dutch-speaking) is the idea of write-ins: you basically let people know through the website: "I'll be in such and such a place writing, feel free to join me". It's good for moral support and also for meeting people. I've been to a couple of these now, and I went to my third in Panera Bread on Dupont Circle (where the barista and I had considerable trouble understanding each other). I got my word quota down, but I found it hard to concentrate - the people at the write-in were very chatty, and just behind us was a Spanish tutor teaching a group the basics of numbers and days of the week - always interesting to listen to. As a result, the whole Aaron/Louisa "I can't go out with you because you're not a Christian" conversation did not go well. In fact, she put it off till another day. He is very good-looking though, so I understand that.

DC experiences of the day:

Shopping for books in the Lantern in Georgetown - a second-hand bookshop that seems to be run by three elderly but very friendly ladies. I hadn't meant to buy anything (okay, I can hear you all laughing) but on the first bookshelf as you walk in they clevely put "latest books" - and they included two that I wanted to read: "Game Change" (yes, another political one) and "The Ninth Wife", which I'd looked at longingly in Politics and Prose the other day because it's set in DC, although possibly a little chick litty for me.

Attending a cultural event at the Sixth and I synagogue. Umberto Eco was speaking about his new book, and I had no idea he was so funny. More on that at some stage. I didn't buy, and, let's face it, probably won't read, "The Prague Cemetary", but I might well pick up "The Name of the Rose". A few minutes after I had this thought, he said that sales of his first book always go up when a new one comes out - presumably, he thought, because people realised "oh, but I haven't read the first one yet, and that one is cheaper". Ahem.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

3BT: coffee, a small politico, and a victory

1. Another day, another perfect coffee: filtro con latte seems to be what I have been waiting for all my life.

2. The cutest Obama supporter I've ever met joins us for the phone banking event: she's fifteen months and wearing a 2012 tshirt, and has the sweetest cheeky smile.

3. The Senator I canvassed for on Sunday - getting up at seven am and stepping in dog poo in the process - gets re-elected. It feels good to have played a tiny part in that.

Claire's big America trip: day eight

What I learned:

DC is currently undergoing major renovation. There's netting on the ceiling of Union Station, for example, which is likely related to the recent earthquake. I'd planned my entire day around a walk by the Reflecting Pool - the favourite place of Senator Kate Leemans in my novel, and one of mine, too - and it is being totally dug up as we speak. However, once you get there, there really isn't much option other than to keep walking. Still, it was a gorgeous day, and now I have yet more photos of me by the Lincoln Memorial, in case last year's and the year before's weren't quite enough.

Where I ate:

At lunchtime, I paused my walk along the mall and jumped on the metro to the Oval Room. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but I had my mind set on it and I know me: once I get an idea in my head, the quicker I give into it the better. Anyway, it was a great decision. For a start, it's one of those quintessential DC places that I don't think they ever mention in the West Wing but they really should. It wasn't as big as I imagined, but it was funky (the good British funky, not the bad American funky) and classy all at once. The waiter was super nice and super friendly and made me feel welcome and not at all like a loser for eating alone.

And the food was good - I went for the chicken salad, which sounds dull, but once you add in avocado, and interesting dressing involving ginger it turns into something interesting. The chicken pieces were substantial, too - it wasn't one of those pathetic girlie salads consisting mostly of wilted lettuce leaves. (Though, aesthetically, I thought it could have done with a bit more green.) The desserts sounded a little fussy and complex for me - give me a brownie with ice cream and I'm a happy girl - but I was too full anyway. My one regret was that I didn't get to eavesdrop on any high-powered conversations.

Later on, I went back to We, The Pizza (there are a lot of cheesily named restaurants in DC, but I have to say that I really like this name) and discovered that - surprise, surprise - ordering pizza in a pizza place is a much better idea than ordering salad. I had the Mexian Spicy Pie (or something) - more chicken - and it was yummy. It cost $4.44 (my salad yesterday was $9.99, they seem to like those kind of numbers, which I don't think are a commentary on Herman Cane's silly tax plans) and for around $2.50 you can also get a refillable "soda".

Where I wrote:

In the morning, on my way back from Democratic Gain (where they failed to instantly offer me a job, tsk tsk), I more or less randomly found myself walking into a coffeshop simply called "caffe". It had lured me with its bright red Illy sign, and it turned out to be attached to a posh hotel, so you could sip your coffee - mine a filtro con latte, which seems to be a new thing, and is exactly what I have been looking for all these years - in an impressive lobby which is perfect for writing (or would have been if it has not been for the noisy conference guests). I wrote the first half of Aaron and Louisa's work dinner which later turns into a date.

The turning into a date part I wrote at Peregrine later that afternoon (yes, I am a creature of habit). I only meant to write a page or two, but I was putting off a decision about whether to go to a church community group or a political phone banking event, and I was in the flow, so I kept going. I've written about six pages today, which is more or less what I need to make my 1,667 daily words for NaNoWriMo. (I'm handwriting, so I have to estimate.)

DC experience of the day:

If you know me, you'll know that I hate phones with every fibre of my being, but politics is what brought me here, and I thought phone banking might be a good way to meet people. Which it was. I returned to the DNC offices for the fourth time in five days (Josh Lyman would be proud) and was directed to a room full of enthusiastic, friendly, welcoming Obama supporters, who were very patient with my stupid questions and explained to me that I was to call this list of people and ask them if they were "in for 2012". I was also meant to invite them to a few specific events, but since one of them never happens on the West Wing I was completely confused about it so I was pretty glad that I didn't get that far with anyone - I made around 30 calls, and most of those people were out. Oddly, the good-looking guy in the room seemed to get a lot of his calls answered, almost as if they knew. Go figure, as they say over here.

Monday, 7 November 2011

3BT: breakfast, coffee, and writing

1. A delicious breakfast, the best I've had in a long, long time: crispy bacon and perfectly scrambled eggs on beautiful, beautiful bread.

2. Lovely coffee and fun, friendly banter in Peregrine, one of my favourite places to hang out.

3. For the first time this November, I make and exceed my NaNoWriMo word count. I am carried along by the story; I am getting to know my characters.

3BT: inspiration, a walk, a song

1. At the Obama For America day of action, a young black guy speaks briefly and movingly about how the President's election showed him he too could do or be anything.

2. I walk from Union Station down First Street to Capitol South. The sun is setting; the light is almost magical; and I love DC.

2. My iPod battery runs out just as one of my favourite songs is finishing. I walk into church, and that is the song we start with.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

3BT: winter, writing, and bread

1. It's my favourite kind of day in DC: crisp and clear and filled with the colours of autumn.

2. Writing in a crowded cafe with three strangers, who begin to feel like friends.

3. Pretzel bread: unusual and dellcious and slightly garlicky.

3BT: luxuries, seasons, coffee

1. The Washington Post is waiting for me outside my door this morning. I'm not sued to luxuries such as this one, and this is not just any paper. This is my favourite city's paper, and here I am right in the centre of that city,

2. They are cutting the grass in Washington Circle, and it smells like summer again.

3. I find somewhere that does café au lait just the way I like it. Ths is no mean achievement: I am not easy to please.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Am I crazy?

Until very recently, it looked as if my now yearly pilgrimage to West Wing Land DC was not going to happen in 2011. I consoled myself with thoughts of going for the cherry blossom festival instead, and happy if unfounded hopes of being accepted by American University this year and soon getting to live there full time. 

I consoled myself too with the prospect of NaNoWriMo: every year, tens of thousands of writers worldwide indulge in (inter)National Novel Writing Month, the aim being to crank out a 50,000 word first draft in the space of a month. For the last two years, I've been on holiday and in the midst of another novel in November. Not this year. Maybe this was the year to give it a go.

When it turned out I could go to DC after all, I was not, initially, as excited as I would have expected to be. This concerned me - was it some kind of sign? It took me a little while to realise that I was, in fact, disappointed to be missing out on another NaNoWriMo. 

And then it dawned on me: why are travelling and NaNo mutually exclusive? Particularly when my next novel, like my first, is going to be a doomed love story set in DC, and DC is where I am going? 

This may be the best, or the worst, idea that I've ever had. But I've got a week in Washington this time, and I've taken the obligatory photos, done the obligatory tours, stood in the street where Josh threw snowballs at Donna's window (though I still don't know which house number it was - anyone?). I have time, in other words, to set aside a couple of hours a day to sit in a coffee shop and scribble in my notebooks. I also have plane journeys and train journeys. 

And one of the best things about NaNo is its communalness (this is where I wish, not for the first time today, that there was a decent English translation of the word convivialité). People meet in cafés and bookshops and write together. Not much in Belgium - and the ones that do seem to be Dutch-speaking. This is one aspect where being in the US will work for me. Maybe. 

NaNoWriMo requires stringent self-discipline, and I hesitate to be unrealistically harsh on myself and force myself to write 1,667 words a day on holiday - particularly in the 36 hours I have in Philadelphia and the four days I have in LA. But I have signed up to those NaNo regions just in case. The write-ins may actually be just the nudge that I need to keep me going at least every other day. And if I get ahead while I am in DC, I may not need to be too stringent. 

By the time I get back from the US, I should have 25,000 words of a novel written - perhaps more, because I know from experience that jetlag makes me useless for a good few days after I get back (and to make it more complicated still, I then have a trip to the UK for a wedding.) I have no idea if it's going to work. But I'm certainly going to give it a try. I don't want to wait another year. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Quirky things about Belgium: the Atoma notebook

Searching the internet for a picture to illustrate my next blogpost on essential tools for language learning, I discovered something I don't think I ever knew: the Atoma notebook is Belgian.

Not only that, but it seems difficult to purchase in other countries. Their website lists just one outlet in the UK; they are all but absent from Amazon.

I should have known this, of course. Maybe, on some level, I did once know. When I moved from Brussels to the UK in 1991, it was long before the days of Paperchase and I longed for the superior stationery of the continent. I don't know if Atoma notebooks were one of the things I'd missed. I hadn't been allowed them much, anyway, because they were expensive. And with good reason.

Here, they're everywhere. My little local supermarket has a stack of them every rentrée and sells them on a 3 for 2 deal. You can buy them in every shape and size, and they are wonderful. 

For the uninitiated, what makes these notebooks so great is that you can rip out the pages and then replace them elsewhere in the same notebook, or even a different one, since their binding is identical across their range. This makes them a dream for those afflicted with OCD tendencies. It also makes them a dream for the perennially disorganised (with whom I have much more sympathy): you don't have to worry which notebook to take with you, just grab one, and you can play with the pages later. 

You can buy dividers, too, and split your "learning Italian" notebook into a section for vocab, a section for grammar, and that kind of thing. They sell address books, too - no more running out of space under S, you can just steal a page from the Z section. Or how about a writer's journal? Jot down any idea, overheard dialogue, or descriptive detail on any page: no more worrying about whether it's in the right section, because that is easily fixed afterwards.

So, there you go. The Atoma notebook: just one of the things that makes this little country great. 

Monday, 10 October 2011

On the birthday of a talented actor

I don't know if Bradley Whitford seeks the limelight. If having legions of twitter followers is any indication of such desires, it would appear he does not.

But, you say. Hang on. Who chooses to be an actor if they don't have, somewhere inside them, this desire to be looked at, respected, recognised, admired, worshipped? Well, leaving aside the question of whether we all, to some extent, want those things, perhaps there are some who love acting for its own sake, for the sake of the art; perhaps all the baggage and the glitz that come with Hollywood is, to those people, incidental.

Those are the people with talent, or perhaps these are the people who, because of their devotion to their art, have studied and practised and read and observed: perhaps they are skilled, rather than talented. It is not the accident of birth that has made them what the are, but rather discipline, hard work, and determination.

The concept of talent is comforting to the rest of us: if some people have it, and I don't, well that's that, my bad luck. This mindset does not demand of me that I work hard, sacrifice sleep and time and money and sometimes relationships. I can leave that to the talented people. Who probably don't need to do that anyway, since they have it naturally. Right?

And so talent becomes revered, because it is almost magical. It is mysterious, after all: no one knows why some people have it and some don't.

Bradley Whitford may or may not be talented. What? I can hear the outcry from here. How could he not be talented? Have you not seen The West Wing? Do you not know that he won an Emmy or a stunning performance of a PTSD-afflicted Josh Lyman? Of course I know. And - unlike some Emmys, which are motivated by plenty of other factors beside the quality of acting, viz Best Supporting Actress, 2004) - his was wholly merited.

But here's what I also know: he studied for four years at Juilliard, where the hours are incredibly demanding - 8 am to 11 pm most days - and where they don't let even let you perform in public until your fourth year. You are not, in that time, seeking acclaim or pursuing celebrity. You are honing your art for the love of it. You are, often unglamorously, often exhaustedly, putting in a substantial proportion of those 10,000 hours widely believed to be required for becoming an expert at something.

Ah, you say. But 750 to 1,000 people apply to Juilliard each year, and they only take twenty. So there must have been something about Bradley. And you'd be right.  But he had, importantly, already fallen in love with his art. He wanted to act more than he wanted to be an actor. He had fallen in love with the process, and the results would follow. He had found joy in the journey itself. Perhaps that's why he does not appear to be lured by the trappings of fame.

Is he talented? Probably. I want to say, definitely. Because I too am wowed by talent. But I'm also wowed by his devotion to his art. And I think you should be, too.

Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

- Bradley Whitford