Thursday, November 26, 2009

(2004) Jumping through hoops

November 2004

Dear Aunt Agatha,

We've now been here a month, and life is starting to settle into more of a routine after the frenzy of the first couple of weeks.

After the euphoria of signing paperwork on a house, we had a night of heart-stopping panic while we tried to transfer funds over from Guernsey to cover our (legally binding) commitment. We had a transfer instruction all ready to fax to our bank back in Guernsey, but although the apartment had a fax machine we couldn't get the darned thing to go.

At first we assumed we were doing battle with the phone network again, maybe barring us from faxing to an international number, but obviously we were on panic stations right now. We tried calling the bank, but only ended up talking to some minion in a call centre somewhere on a premium rate and with our phone card rapidly expiring. Luckily I was able to call Dad, who managed to get a direct Guernsey number to use. Once we were through to a "real" person at the bank all became clear. The published fax number had been changed so the one we were trying was out of date.

Punched the correct number in, crossed fingers, toes, anything crossable, and it worked! Yay! Money on the way, and we can pay the deposit.

Of course, all this was taking place at 2am our time (in order to hit the business day in the UK) so we were not in the best frame of mind to deal with such shenanigans.

We were also most thankful that, way before we left Guernsey, we'd switched all our banking over to HSBC. Dealing with an international bank made things so much easier for us. We were able to open up Canadian accounts before we left, and had already been in to speak to our very nice account manager here in Victoria, so we had help both sides of the Atlantic to smooth things along.

Then we had the rest of the house-buying process to work through, checking out all the conditions, or "subjects", on the contract. Our friendly realtor was very understanding and steered us through the process quite painlessly.

Now we had another hoop to go through - getting a BC drivers licence! Our UK ones are useable, but only for 90 days, so we both had to book lessons and tests. This was another major source of anxiety. Ali was worried about the theory test, while I still recalled my Guernsey experience where examiners seem to be on a mission to generate revenue by failing almost all first-timers. We made full use of the ICBC website where you can learn the rules and practice the theory test. There were a lot of small and large differences in driving rules to get used to: four-way stops, shoulder-checks on right turns and lane changes, and being allowed to make a right turn against a red light!

One more hoop looming on the horizon: job hunting. I've started checking out the job market, and one of the themes I keep hearing again and again that this town is very hard to break into. Most jobs are never advertised and are filled on the basis of who you know. Despite the so-called shortage of skilled IT workers, this is starting to look a lot more difficult than it sounded from the other side of the pond.

Still, with all the things we've had to do this month I'm glad to have the time off for now.

And we've been finding time for some fun things too. Lots of picnics (in November! Who'd have thought?), a riotous African-theme dinner/dance at Megan's school, and the massive Victoria Santa parade.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A new novel on the go

Busy few weeks just recently, and starting to panic that it is only FIVE WEEKS TO CHRISTMAS! Heck! How did that spring out at me, all unpredictable like?

Last month I had an idea for a new novel, and started making notes. Knocked out the first 3,000 words in an effort to be ready for my turn in my online writing group's critique circle.

Then started to get cold feet. After the initial excitement, I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for the story. When I read it back to myself, it seemed that the characters might be too remote and distant from everyday experience for readers to identify with them, and what was happening in the opening scenes just didn't seem as interesting as I first thought.

I wonder how common is that kind of self-doubt in the early stages of a project?

But I finished that section off and submitted it anyway, and have got an overwhelming positive response back. And, no, people in this group are not afraid to say if they don't like something, which gives me new hope and renewed energy to tackle the uphill battle of knocking this sucker into shape.

I think that after the euphoria of completing one novel, something that I never dreamed I'd be able to hold my head up and say, I'd forgotten how much hard graft and uncertainty went into it during the actual writing process. Now I'm back at the foothills of that same mountain and the memories are flooding back. Another long road ahead! And I think I just needed some hint that I was not setting off down a dead end.

But I've had such fabulous encouragement that, darn it, I guess I've got to crack on with it now!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Some of the things I like about this place

I won't claim that our experience here applies to everywhere in Canada, or even British Columbia, but here are some of the highlights for me about where we are now living.

Courtesy on the roads - pedestrians come first: Whether a car is emerging from a gateway into the road, or at an intersection with a stop line, or in a parking lot, traffic gives way to pedestrians. In those early days when I walked Megan to school through the suburbs of Victoria, what a breath of fresh air after the "I'm a motorist, get out of my way" attitude in St Peter Port traffic.

Go ahead, have fun: Parks and playgrounds everywhere, with well-maintained (and unvandalised) play equipment. And adults joining in un-selfconsciously.

When we went swimming at the Panorama recreation centre for the first time, I saw grown-ups amongst the youngsters using the rope swing and the six-foot slide by the side of the pool. "Can anyone use that?" I asked one of the attendants, being so accustomed to rules and restrictions. She gave me an odd look, as if the question was meaningless. "Of course," she said.

Now I think about it, I don't think I've ever seen a sign here prohibiting the bigger kids from taking part.

Family-friendliness everywhere: This cuts both ways, from child tolerance in "adult" settings like restaurants, to encouraging parents and friends to join in childrens' activities arranged by schools, clubs, and churches. Picnics, barbecues, games nights, movie nights, camps and other outings, the rule of thumb is "the more the merrier" combined with "and why wouldn't you want to be with your kids?"

Then, of course, there is the country itself. Forests, lakes, wilderness. Coming from a small island, it's an amazing feeling to be a short drive away from so much emptiness. And wildlife so close to home. Eagles, hawks, seals, orca, deer, raccoons, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, owls. Apart from seals and orca, we've seen all of these just sitting on our own deck. And, just to remind us that we are living in still largely untamed country, there are occasional sightings of bears and cougars on the Peninsula.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We will remember...

Something that took us by surprise very early on in our time in Canada was the way in which Canadians mark Remembrance (or Armistice) Day.

Schools, government offices, and many businesses close. There are parades and services, and laying of wreaths at memorials even in little towns like Sidney. With the family heavily involved in both the Scouting and Guiding movements we all took part in the Sidney parade this morning. There was a great turnout of youngsters, and, more remarkably, hundreds of people of all generations lined the streets for the few blocks along the route.

Why is it that places so far from the trenches mark the occasion on the right day, with the whole community stopping to pay their respects, while Britain buries it on the nearest weekend, attended in comparison by only a dedicated few?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Salmon run

While Megan was at a friend's birthday party this afternoon, the rest of us headed out to Goldstream Provincial Park to see the salmon run. It seemed like half of Victoria was taking advantage of the break in the November rains today to get out of doors because the parking lot was overflowing.

The fast-running river right now is choked with salmon, struggling against the flow, spawning, and dying. The fish spend most of their time hugging the bottom. They're difficult to see past the surface of the water and they blend in with the pebbles of the river bed, but the water is shallow and there's a good trail right alongside the bank so we can get right up close.

All those dark grey and pale silvery blobs in the water are salmon. And occasionally one of them makes a move. Here Matthew was startled by sudden splashing nearby.

Friday, November 6, 2009

(2004) Stop press - we have a house!

November 2004

Dear Aunt Agatha,

Well, we are all still a bit shell-shocked. This has happened so much faster than we expected. After less that two weeks in Canada - we've bought a house!

When you put it like that, it sounds irresponsibly hasty, but believe me it didn't feel like it at the time. I guess because life is still such a whirl of novelty that time is still playing tricks on the mind.

We spent a few days driving through various districts around Victoria, checking out locales and driving past a few properties listed on MLS. I suppose, in our defence, that we'd really been on the property search for months rather than mere days. Ali is the family researcher, and she'd been on the Internet endlessly since we got our letter from the Canadian High Commission back in January. But for all that, there's no substitute for getting out there and looking for ourselves. For example, there were some beautiful areas that, when we actually got out there, we decided were just too remote for us.

It didn't take long for us to narrow our search to the Saanich Peninsula. Plenty of rural open spaces, but loads of amenities and handy for Victoria. So we got ourselves a realtor, talked over what we were looking for, and she started showing us around some properties.

Having a realtor acting for the buyer, as well as one for the seller, is a major difference over here. But it proved invaluable having someone to look after our interests and walk us through the process, especially as house-buying is so different from what we were used to.

One of the big things to beware of is that when you make an offer, you are already entering into a legally binding contract. You can choose to place certain conditions on the offer, such as finance and property inspection, but if those conditions are met then you are committed. It's no good unearthing something a few days later that you don't like the look of. So you need to pay attention to include anything you want to investigate that might become a deal-breaker. In our case we included conditions like checking for developments or restrictive covenants at the local municipal hall. We were surprised to find, for example, that if we'd bought a bit further up the road from where we now live, then we wouldn't have been allowed to fence our yard, put up a washing line, or park an RV in our driveway. Things like that are worth checking!

So we fell in love with house number six, which seemed to hit all the right notes with us after properties that would have involved some serious compromise. Our realtor played devil's advocate, pointing out all the things we might not have thought about, but in the end it came down to a matter of probabilities. We asked what was the chance of another property coming up in the next few months that came so close to meeting our needs?

Just one fly in the ointment. We can't move in for another three months. The current owners have their own affairs to sort out which will take time. All the same, we are getting a spooky feeling that this was "meant to be". Right now we have a short term rental on an apartment which we know we have to vacate in ... three months.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Every "no" takes you closer to "yes"

My first (finished but unpublished) novel is called "Ghosts of Innocence". It is a science fiction novel about an assassin, determined to exact revenge for the destruction of her home world, who is ultimately moved to help those she has spent years trying to destroy.

I finished the first draft back in February 2008, and worked on revising the manuscript, with excellent help from the Critters forum, through the rest of that year. In fact, the whole experience of reading and critiquing other peoples' work, an essential part of the forum, was at least as valuable as the direct feedback itself.

But that was only the start of the hard work. At the same time as revising, there was the whole mysterious world of publishing to get to know. Many, many hours on the Internet later, I finally started pitching to agents this year. Sending out a few queries at a time and seeing what happens, taking stock, revising strategy, and trying again.

Query stats to date:

Queries sent: 30
Partials requested: 2 (both subsequently rejected)
Form rejections: 14
Non-replies (assumed rejected): 6
Still hopeful: 8

Huge help with the query process from Query Shark and the Public Query Slushpile, plus uncounted trawls through agents' blogs. After the first batch of outright rejections, I heavily revamped my query letter and chose a new title. Got my first partial request soon after, so presumably moving in the right direction.

I am now at the stage where I think my query letter itself is sound, but wondering if the manuscript (especially the early pages) is letting me down. Time to go through again with a fresh and critical eye before lining up another batch of queries ...
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