Monday, 30 May 2011

Cheap Shoes

I was born in February, which means I'm a Pisces. According to the rules of astrology, this means I'm ruled by my feet. Apparently, it's my feet and toes that cause me the most anxiety. 

I would believe this even if I'd never read anything about horoscope signs. My feet seem to be the lightening rod for the rest of me. If my feet are cold, my whole body is cold. I spend a lot of money on foot massages, pedicures, creams, files and toenail polish. Oh yes, and shoes.

There are women out there who wear size 5, so they get incredible deals on shoes. They can wear sandals with tiny straps, thin soles and no support. They can walk effortlessly for miles on sexy, 3 inch heels.  

I'm not that woman. Even as a teenager, I was never that woman.

I wear size 9. I used to wear 8 1/2, until I had children and my feet got bigger. I thought it was imagination, but my doctor informed me that when you're pregnant, all the cartilage in your body softens (especially around the pelvis) to prepare for childbirth. This includes the cartilage in your feet. So the collateral damage of pregnancy -- along with stretch marks and a pot belly -- can be bigger feet. 

Just what I needed. Bigger feet. Anyway, I'm not alone. A lot of women wear size 9. I know this because whenever there's a sale on shoes, there are no size 9's left. Only size 5's. Does anyone out there have the same problem, or am I being paranoid? 

So I usually lose out on shoe sales. And I can't just walk into any old store and pick up cheap shoes. I need to buy good quality footwear, or I'll regret it in the form of pinched toes, giant blisters and aggravation of my chronic plantar fasciitis. My local foot clinic recommends that I buy shoes that can accommodate my $300 orthotics.  The problem is, sometimes the best shoe for my foot means the ugliest shoe available. 

I absolutely refuse to wear something like this. I'd rather ditch the orthotics and suffer through blisters until I'm screaming in agony. I pride myself on my personal style, and it doesn't include ugly, clunky shoes.

So I compromise. I do own a few shoes that fit my orthotics, which I wear at work or running around. But the rest of the shoes in my closet are expensive, well made, real leather, stylish shoes that are worth every penny of what I paid for them, and I paid a lot. 

But when your feet rule, you have no choice.


Friday, 27 May 2011

Things I learned from my dog.

1. Wrinkles define who you are.

Sam, our Sharpie - a.k.a. Samwise Gamgee, Sam Bob or Charlie Bear
 Wrinkles, freckles, age spots, flab -- all of that stuff -- means that you've spent more time than others exposing yourself to sunshine and lots of good things to eat. I inherited good skin from the women in my family, and don't have too many wrinkles yet. As for the rest, I try my best, but I'm never giving up chocolate.

2. Bacon is good

I know it's pure saturated fat. I try not to eat too much of it, or think about where it comes from, but dang, there's nothing like a few slabs of crispy bacon to go with your scrambled eggs and coffee on a Saturday morning. Sam isn't allowed bacon either, but once in a while he gets a tidbit when he smells it in the kitchen. He hoovers it off my hand so quickly, I can't tell if he likes the taste. 

3. Birds are fascinating

For very different reasons. Sam would like to kill them. I love to watch them at my feeders and in the bird bath, splashing and shaking their feathers. A great way to de-stress.

4. Never give up

Sam is VERY stubborn. He injured his ACL, and is currently wearing a brace. He's not allowed to jump up on things or climb stairs. The living room couch is off limits, and we've blocked the staircase with a card table. His favorite place to sleep when we're out of the house is our bed upstairs. He spends a lot of time huffing and grumping about the fact that he can't nap where he usually does. After a dozen attempts, he finally managed to move the card table aside and I found him on our bed yesterday, as usual.

5. Follow your dreams

Sam loves to chase trains, squirrels, rabbits -- basically anything that moves. Even with an injured knee, I know if I unsnapped his leash he'd be off and running. It's instinctual for him to chase what he was born to chase. I admire his determination. I think about that when I'm frustrated or discouraged.

6. Cesar Milan is cute

The Dog Whisperer has helped me cope with some of Sam's 'issues', like barking at the mailman or trying to eat my neighbour's face. Along the way I've come to love the show and its fearless star, Cesar.

7. Ice cream is good.

I know it's corn syrup, fat and artificial flavors. Sam doesn't care, so I don't. He definitely likes the taste. 

Dairy Queen Vanilla Soft Serve

Monday, 23 May 2011


Today is Victoria Day in Canada – Queen Victoria’s birthday (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901).  I suppose this is our version of Memorial Day in the U.S., since it represents a long weekend and signifies the beginning of cottage season. We shop, we garden, we drink beer and throw off fireworks. Nobody really thinks about the Queen.

But ever since I saw the movie “Young Victoria” with Emily Blunt, I’ve been thinking about Victoria. She really was an amazing lady. She inherited the throne at the age of 18, ruled England for 63 years, and was madly in love with her husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, with whom she had 9 children.  She was known as ‘Drina’ as a young woman, and later named ‘the Grandmother of Europe’,  owing to the fact that 26 of her 42 grandchildren married into royal European families. 

That got me to thinking about some other famous women named Victoria. Does anyone remember Victoria Principal? She is lately known for starting her own line of skin care products and jewellery, but she is most famous for her role as Pamela Ewing on Dallas. Who can forget the famous scene where she wakes up, turns over and sees Bobby, the husband she thought was dead, lying next to her? I’m dating myself, I know. 

In an effort to get Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing) back into the show after killing him off, the writers turned an entire season into a bad dream. Viewers felt cheated, and there was quite an uproar. It’s what’s referred to in the arts as ‘deus ex machina’ – a plot device where a seemingly impossible problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with a contrived and unexpected intervention by higher forces - in this case, the producers. It was a lesson in how not to write a television episode. But you have to give them kudos for shock value.

The only other Victoria that comes to mind is Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie company. I have to say, they make the most comfortable bras EVER. I’ll never buy a bra anywhere else. I have to cross the border to buy them, but it’s worth it. 

Disclaimer: my bras dont' have tassles, and my boobs never looked like that, even when I was younger. Just in case you were wondering.
If I’ve forgotten any other famous Victorias, my apologies. 

Happy birthday, Drina.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Three Tips for the Passive Writer

Definition of 'passive':  
  1.  not active, but acted upon. Suffering or receiving or enduring without either active sympathy or active resistance; without emotion or excitement; patient; not opposing; unresisting; as, passive obedience; passive submission.  
In a discussion about a 'passive' writer, I don't mean a writer who is a door mat, the victim of slings and arrows, blindly and passively following without question.
I mean a writer who writes passively. He or she still might be a doormat, but this blog is about his or her writing.

When I first started writing I didn't know I was passive. But as I learned my technqiue, I discovered that for many writers, writing 'passively' is a 'default' mode, a stale habit that needs to be overcome. 

What's the difference between 'active' and 'passive' voice? Recall, if you will, your grade school grammar classes:
Mary threw a party, and her guest enjoyed themselves. (Active - the subject of the sentence is actively doing something, and the subject comes before the verb)
The party was at Mary's house, and a good time was had by all. (Passive - the subject of the sentence is having something done to them, and the object comes before the verb)

So how do you know if you're writing passively, and how can you keep it in check? Here are three tips:

Don't overuse the verb 'to be'. This is a passive verb, and describes existence only. There is no action here. If your sentences are full of the word 'was' (see the passive sentence above - the verb 'was' is used twice) you are in passive mode. Example: "Harry was unhappy." (passive) "Harry slumped in the chair and sighed.' (active)
Show, don't tell. Every writer's mantra. When you are in passive mode, you are probably 'telling' what's going on, rather than showing. (See example re: Harry's unhappiness). Allowing your reader to experience your story by showing them what's happening is always preferable to simply telling them.
Avoid too many 'ing' verbs. You'll need some of them, of course, to strike a balance, but if you find you are using too many in a sentence, you are in passive mode. Example: "I was walking to work when I saw that my next door neighbour was chasing her dog." Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence, but it reads like an amateur wrote it. Revision: "I walked to work and saw my next door neighbour chase her dog." These are horrible examples, and the difference is subtle, but the second sentence is more 'active' and in the moment. Cutting back on 'ing' verbs automatically cuts out 'was' and other qualifiers like 'when' and 'that'. Just a more polished voice. 

And for those of you who write passively AND are door mats, you might want to try dumping a bit of that passivity and taking action over your life. Just sayin.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Cinnamon Splendor

My name is Nancy, and I have a sweet tooth. There, I said it. Am I cured? Do I still need a 12 step program? I thought maybe I'd outgrow my sweet tooth as I got older, but no such luck. I love chocolate and candy in all of its forms, except for Skittles. I can pass on those, so I guess that means I'm not a total addict.

There is nothing more comforting - or forbidden, these days - than sprinkling cinnamon/sugar on toasted, buttered white bread. If you have no candy or chocolate in the house, cinnamon toast is a great substitute. But you must use butter and white bread, otherwise, what's the point? Keep a shaker of cinnamon sugar handy to sprinkle on oatmeal, Chai lattes, rice pudding, etc. Or just sprinkle it on your tongue, for a quick fix.

I have never been a fabulous baker, although I used to dabble with it. These days life seems so busy that even dabbling is out. Is it me, or have the bakeries in the local groceries stores learned to make really good pies and cakes? I mean, why bother with all that fuss if somebody else can do it better than you can?

However, once in a while a recipe comes along that is so super easy, even I can have success with it. Your family and friends will think you slaved for hours when you didn't.

I included this famous family recipe in my first novel, Buried Secrets.

The main character Callie's sister Doreen is a caterer, and in one scene (below) Doreen is baking these famous Cinnamon Pinwheels in the kitchen:

Two excruciatingly long hours later, Callie arrived home crammed full of beef, salad and too much wine, which she’d guzzled to take the edge off of spending far too much time with Byron Dumbrell.
She did a double take as she passed the kitchen. Doreen stood at the counter, pounding her fist into a large ball of dough.
“What are you making?”
“Cinnamon pinwheels. The Miller baby shower.”
Doreen slammed the dough into the granite and kneaded it with so much force, she was panting.
“You look a little stressed,” Callie said. “You want to talk about it?”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“How’s Tom?”
Doreen grabbed a large cleaver and split the dough into two pieces with a thunk. “Tom who?”

Warning: No kneading or splitting with cleavers is required for this recipe. That was included for dramatic effect.

So for those who love sweet cinnamon and hate hard recipes, this one is for you.

Cinnamon Pinwheels:

3 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable shortening, softened
1 cup milk
Brown sugar

Cream shortening in large bowl. Add sugar and mix well. In separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt together. Add to sugar/shortening mixture, along with milk. Stir, then knead gently into a ball.

Roll dough out onto floured board with floured rolling pin into a rectangular shape, approx. 9x 13", to approx. 1 1/2 " thickness. Spread with soft butter or margarine. Sprinkle with brown sugar (approx. 1/2 cup) and cinnamon to taste.

Starting at the shorter side of the rectangle, roll dough into a log, then slice crosswise into circles approx. 1 1/4" thick. Place each slice on a greased cookie sheet. Bake in 350 oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Adventures in Book Covers

After five years of writing, knocking on Big Publishing’s door and getting it slammed in my face, I decided to publish with an independent, small press. I figured it was better than having my manuscripts lying in my desk drawer, where nobody could read them.  I got my novels published in both digital and paper formats, and I have to admit I cried when I held my first published novel in my hands. 

I’m not sorry I made that decision, because I learned some very important things about the publishing industry. If you want to sell books, you need three things: distribution, distribution and distribution. 

Did I mention you need distribution? 

Distribution is how your book gets into a bookstore, where the consumer will buy it. There are two major distributors who have relationships with the big publishers in North America. Baker and Taylor, and Ingram. 

My publisher didn’t have a relationship with either of them. But that’s another blog.

The other thing I learned is that (apparently) the quality of book cover art is directly proportional to the size of the publisher.  For months prior to publishing, I roamed the aisles of bookstores and studied the covers in front of me, to find out what was selling.  I discovered what I liked and didn’t like. I had a vision for my own novels. 

I was assured by my publisher that she had an artist who did her covers, and he was very good.  She felt, in fact, that her covers were such high quality, they set her books apart.

I published three novels with her. The first cover wasn’t bad, but only because my niece, who is in graphic design, conceptualized the look, and the artist’s final rendering was based on her idea. I didn’t like the font he used – too flowery.  But I kept my mouth shut. Even though I am allowed to give suggestions, the cover is not in my control, and it’s the publisher’s choice that’s final.

Novel number two came along. The publisher suggested  a photograph of a man and a woman on a motorbike. I liked it. Then she sent me her final draft – the artist had added a rainbow in the sky over the heads of the people in the photo. It looked hokey and cheap. I asked them to take out the rainbow. Thank heavens, they did. I still didn’t like the font. Why do small press publishers love flowery, complicated, twirly fonts? Don’t they know that simple is best? That simple fonts look more professional? Do they even shop in bookstores?

Novel number three.  I’m wary. I discuss with the artist what the book is about, some key themes and concepts, and I send him examples of fonts and graphics on other covers he’s done that I liked. 

He obviously didn’t listen. He sent me a very dark cover, with what looked like a bright, red testicle on the front. 

Yes, a testicle, that thing that hangs between a man’s legs. 

It was his version of an orchid. I had mentioned that an orchid on the cover might be an idea, since orchid smuggling is part of the plot. I didn’t expect a round, gross-looking thing. 

I flipped out. I was ready to rip up my contract. I told my publisher that if she didn’t do something I wouldn’t lift a finger to promote the book. That I would deny it was mine. She calmed me down and assured me she would change it. I think even she knew it was too hideous to show the public. 

The cover I ended up with was better, but not great. He did some kind of underwater thing in a very dark blue – yes, the guy loved anything dark- and again, used the exact kind of font I hated. He probably did that just to piss me off, since I wrote him a rather nasty email. 

Suffice it to say, the whole experience made me decide not to renew my contract.
Because I believe, I’ve always believed, that people do judge books by their cover. 

Fast forward another five years of getting doors slammed shut in my face, and now I’m self-published, digitally. Now I make my own damn covers. I think they’re very good, and I’m proud of them. 

If you want something done right, sometimes it’s best to do it yourself.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Twilight, Regurgitated

I’m going to blog one more time about teaching creative writing, and then I’m done, since I sound bitter and disillusioned about the whole thing. Which I am. I just don’t want to beat a dead horse. I love horses.

I met a lot of creative people during my three years of teaching, with some notable exceptions. One of which was a very disturbed individual whose story was basically a torture scene in which the main character slices all the limbs off his victim and reattaches them to the opposite sides.

Difficult to read for so many reasons: 1) I have a weak stomach for that sort of ‘fiction’. I try to keep an open mind when reading students’ work. Even though I don’t read horror stories, fantasy stories or vampire stories, I can still appreciate good writing and compelling plots. I actually read Misery by Stephen King, and enjoyed it. Believe me, there was nothing ‘King-like’ in this story.   

2) There were so many grammatical errors and syntax issues it wasn’t a story so much as the ramblings of a sadist.

3) I used to be a nurse, and I took issue with the lack of medical knowledge on the part of the writer. A victim whose leg is being sawed off would not be able to speak in coherent sentences. He’d be unconscious from major blood loss. Also, you would not be able to stop the bleeding of a femoral artery by simply cauterizing the wound. You would need clamps, suction, sutures and probably an OR nurse (or two) assisting you. This student’s sloppy research, on top of his obvious psychological problems, made me lose a little sleep. 

When the kid mentioned his story was based on real life events, I called security, who had a little chat with him. He admitted to being off his meds for a while, but was feeling much better.

Then there was the girl who handed in the story of a vampire named Edward who falls in love with a young girl named Bella.

I get the whole fan fiction thing. I really do. But I had asked the class for an ‘original’ story. When I suggested that she write an original story rather than rehashing someone else’s work, she got lippy, stopped attending class and I never saw her again. Begging the obvious question: Why are you taking this class?

Which led to the next question: Why am I teaching this class? Why aren’t I writing my next novel?

That class heralded the beginning of the end of my teaching career. I don't think anybody was sorry to see me go. The feeling was mutual.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Cringe-worthy Question

There's a question other writers ask me that makes me flush and gets my pulse racing. 

Not in a good way, either. 

The question? "Will you look at my stuff and tell me if I'm on the right track?"

I suppose I should be flattered to be considered a good enough writer that anyone would ask me my opinion. I remember being surprised when my local community college asked me to teach their creative writing classes.

"Me? You want me to teach somebody else how to write?" 

I had published three novels (albeit with independent, small presses) but I think the average reader out there doesn't really care who publishes you - they see your book with your name on it, and that's good enough for them. So the college figured I must know something worth teaching.

I was paid for the hours I taught in the classroom. I wasn't paid for the many hours I spent critiquing the homework I gave my students. So when a student would hand me fifty more pages of their work-in-progress, I would grit my teeth and marvel at their cheek. 

I guess they figured I had lots of spare time and reading their work was some kind of honor. I don't know. But I do know how doctors, lawyers, accountants, horticulturalists, pick-any-profession-you-want-and-put-it-here - must feel at parties when people approach them and ask - 'can you take a look at my - back, custody case, budget, backyard garden - and give me your opinion?'

Professional opinions cost time and effort, which translates into compensation. Professionals should be compensated for their time and effort. Money is the common form of compensation. Enough said. 

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