Sunday, October 20, 2013

October...You know what that means

Yesterday was January first, today it's October.

Fine by me. I love October. In North Japan it means School Festivals. All the schools display their handiwork, but even level and school has a different flair. At my techie school, it's jaw-dropping the things these kids make. I mean, a go-kart, really? At junior high there are speeches and a singing contest. And at primary school, it's a day full of cute little plays. Today, the 6th graders did a play they wrote themselves, and it was amazing. Not only because the content rocked, or because a kid beat-boxed (I know, right?), but because two 'random' bits from an early scene were vital to the end of the play.

This ties into the other reason I love October. The countdown to November.

For writers, November is Nanowrimo. If you haven't heard about it before, here's a quick synopsis. You write a novel in November. Pretty simple, huh? They count a novel as 50,000 words. And the only real rules are that you start a new story in November and write 50,000 words of it before November 30. It's not absolutely required that you finish the work, but it is recommended.

I haven't written anything significant since last year, but nano is the one time of year I refuse to ignore my writer soul. If you're a nano-er, or you're interested in joining up, come find me, My user name is muchlanguage.

Enjoy October guys, and be prepared for November. If you're into nano, then...

May the words be with you.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Perks of a Crappy Job

Last week, I talked about how my job kinda sucks (more than kinda actually). But the more I think about it - and I'm a real thinker, folks - the more I realise there are perks to a sucky job.

1. Feels like I'm forgetting something

People tend to get all wrapped up in their jobs. Nowhere is that more true than Japan where your average government worker pulls an 11-hour shift every day. And  a 6-day work-week is standard. Not being caught up in my work means that when I roll out of school, I can forget about school/my job until the next time I roll back in.

This frees up so much time to concentrate on other things. Studying kanji. Getting back to writing. Hanging out with my Japanese fam and friends. Being the super designated driver for the ages. Trying to build up my poor dying town.

2. ABC, easy as 123

When I like a job, I push myself to be awesome. But with this, I just want to keep my pookies happy. And considering my pookies, that's not hard. That's not to say I put no effort into my job, I just don't push the way I usually do in the love affair most people call work.

3. It's NOT hard to say goodbye to yesterday

I know I want to be a writer... or at least an entertainer of some sort... maybe both. But to be either of those things full time, I will have to walk away from whatever job I've been wiling away the hours at. That's really easy when you're not loving what you're doing.

So I guess the crappy job is not all crap. Any other good things about a crappy job?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why my job is crap

But Claire, you can't say that kind of stuff of the internet! You never know who's watching!

Sure, I can. Read on and see why...

I'm an ALT - Assistant Language Teacher. Well, actually, I have a more technically correct name, but that's what the majority of the population knows us by. I assist in English class rooms in schools. I used to work for government in kindergarten, primary, and junior high schools. Now I work through a private company in high schools.

So, what makes my job crap. Well...

1. I was not made for schools

A major problem (in my eyes anyway) in most school systems across the world, is the prioritising of testing over learning. I really don't give a salsa monkey what a kid's test scores are. In a way, that kind of works with my current position because test scores are not in my jurisdiction. But testing is more important in high school, and the structure of my current job involves more direction from the Japanese teachers about what I should and shouldn't be doing. So even though I'm not involved in the testing, my lessons are often geared toward it and it drives me crazy.

2. English

I can't explain how much it sucks as a pluralinguist to be constantly forced to exist in your native language, despite being surrounded by a foreign one that you'd much rather be using. I suppose it's still a step above an English-speaking country where I'd never get to use anything else. But I'd still rather be teaching a language that's foreign to me too. I want to grow and learn too.

Also, English is beautiful and all, but I've never been one for technicalities. And a lot of my job involves explaining WHY. I'm not a grammar nazi. In fact, if you're being understood, who cares. And it's not just with English. I feel this way about all my languages. Japanese, the language in which I've had the least formal training, is always broken when I speak it, but I'm never misunderstood. (At least not any more than the natives. Japanese is ridiculously vague.) I think this actually makes me good at languages, the ability to discard why.

3. Climbing the ladder

I just said I want to grow and learn, right? Well apart from using a language that literally comes naturally to me, there's also no scope for growth in my job. My role will never change. I will always be the assistant.

Also, I'm not usually one for practical considerations, but I'm getting a little better about it now that I'm 31. And if I'm not climbing my salary isn't either. Ever. In fact, my old government job was the pinnacle of what you make in this field. I'm capped out.

4. Not really being a part of anything

It's important as a human being to fit in. Not always, but once in a while. In Japan, that importance is magnified a zillion times over. Japan is all about my group versus not my group. As a black girl in an Asian country, I know that I'll never fit completely, but that doesn't mean I always want to stick out like a sore thumb.

At school, I'm very aware that all the other teachers have responsibilities I don't - leading clubs, being form teachers, planning school events. It gives them a sense of camaraderie and makes me feel like Quasimodo in the bell tower.

There are tons and tons of reasons why my job is crap and I could go on and on all day. But I won't. I just wanted to acknowledge the fact that for the first time I am not perfectly happy in a job. Don't get me wrong, I love my pookies to pieces, but this just isn't my calling. So I've made a promise to myself and I'm now declaring it publicly as well. It won't be forever, but I will stick it for the moment.

Did you ever work in a job that didn't work for you?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ippo fumidaseba - A single step

I moved down the hill. Literally.

I took this picture from the front of my apartment. That green fence is where I used to live. It's so close that I moved a good chunk of my things down the hill by loading into my backpack or suitcase and walking.

By the way, walking down the street with a used microwave always makes you feel like a thief. Always. Just in case you wondered.

So anyhow, my old place and my new place are so close that you wouldn't think much would change.

Surprisingly everything's different.

My new place is on the road that's the shortcut from the train station to the high school. This means though I hardly used to see these kids before, I now trip over my students the minute I set foot outside of my door. The restaurant down the hill is now the restaurant right next door, which means that if I'm outside, I can hear who's in there. This leads to me 'accidentally' running into people all the time.

Up the hill is just a little gap with like 7 houses, so I hardly saw anyone before. Where I live now, the houses behind me are really dense, so I've lots of neighbours. Many of them are the guys from my festival team. I'm hoping that this leads to more hanging out. The old apartment was kind of at an intersection of routes, you had several choices of which to take. Where I live now, you don't really. This means you walk the same route more frequently. Yet again, more running into people.

イメージ 1

One of my favourite Japanese TV shows is Atashinchi no Danshi (Literally: My boys). In trying to get the 'hikkikomori' (shut-in) son to come out of his room, Chisato (the star) says ' If you take one step forward, the whole world changes. ' (Ippo fumidaseba sekai ga kawaru. 一歩踏み出せば世界が変わる。)

That's what it feels like. I've just moved down the hill, but somehow, I'm miles closer to everything and everyone.

And there's a writing application to today's post too.

Point of view. At first POV doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's like my moving down the hill. A different POV means running into different people, seeing different scenes. Some things changing and some things don't happen at all.

So how do you pick a POV? You could weigh all the pros and cons of what story you end up with depending on where your narrator stands or who he or she is or how he or she talks.

Or you could just move down the hill and see what the world looks like.

Do you have any experiences with the world changing with a single step?

Monday, September 23, 2013

On need

I don't think it's a  secret. The modern world has convinced us that we need much more than we do.

Like refrigerators.

I don't have one. I am not starved. Or malnourished. In fact, I eat healthier now than when there was a fridge in the house. Think about it. How much of the stuff in the refrigerator is stuff you actually need? How much of it is good for you? How much of it would rot in less than 5 days if it wasn't refrigerated?

Maybe not needing a fridge is a little far-fetched for some people. So how about a car? Whether you need a car depends on where you live. How's the public transportation? How far from work/school do you live? Can you get there without a car? If you need something that must be done with a car, is there someone close to you who will do it?

Now that I've got a Japanese license, friends keep asking when I'm getting a car. Truth is I don't think I need one.

I've lived in this town for 5 years. When I came, I didn't have an International license because of the joy that is the Barbados Licensing Authority. I could have gone to get a Japanese license. But two of my schools and town hall were within walking distance. The third school was an easy bus ride for US$2.50. I could walk to the supermarket. Taxis were expensive but not so much so that I couldn't call one if I had a heavy package from the home store. Now, I work at one school I can walk to and my other school is right next to the train station, one stop away. Even after the recent typhoon, when the trains weren't running there was still a bus.

The trains are an hour apart and the buses are inconvenient. It's hell with a cherry on top to get to any town the train doesn't run to, and sometimes it can be complicated for the ones with trains that aren't a straight shot. But, I do have access to cars. My Japanese Dad's car has taken to parking itself at my apartment, and just last night, the mechanic was like, 'Claire,  you can use my carS any time.' I don't really need a car and if do, they are several available.

My friends who keep asking are all drivers themselves or foreigners. I guess they see cars as infinitely more convenient than the alternatives. But since my alternatives are easy, a car looks like a colossal pain in the in-grown toenail. Buying them, insuring them, filling them up, all cost money. They inform people of your every move. If you run into a parked car with just your body, who cares? Run into it with a car and you're liable. I don't need a car.

The third thing I often think of as 'you really don't need this anywhere near as much as you think you do' is a smart phone. To start with, the necessity of a cell phone is questionable. It's linked to your line of work, your neighbourhood, how many people really need to be able to contact you right now. But even if we assume a cell phone is necessary, does your phone really need to be able to plot the entire solar system?

I've only recently crossed over to smart-dom. The only reason I need  a smart phone now is because I've decided not to get internet at home (to avoid ridiculous broken contract fees if I have to move again) and my family on the other side of the world likes to know that they can find me without having to get on a rice boat. I don't even like it. It makes me feel way to over connected. So it spends half the time at home or turned off, making it actually LESS useful than the idiot-phone I had before.

The other funny thing about these ''needs'' is that they all have drawbacks. Guns don't shoot people. People shoot people. But without a gun, people - try as they might - can't shoot people. Similarly fridges make people fatter and unhealthier. Cars cause more pollution than they need to because people get used to having them and drive when they could reasonably walk or use other transportation. I also suspect that having smart phones do all our thinking is going to start to atrophy our brains at some point.

It's a lot to chew on, but I wonder how often people take the necessities for granted. All people really need is air, water and food. After that it's a hierarchy of how much easier life becomes with the inclusion of a particular thing.

You think you need it, but do you really? And is it actually doing you more harm than good?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What is to is, must is

Back in January, I posted 'How Happens' about the fact that everything would be up in the air after August, when my contract at the time expired.

I don't remember if I said it here, but the Japanese school year runs April to March, and the JET year (the programme I was on) runs August to July. This meant that I would need to break contract to be eligible for most of the teaching jobs.

But breaking contract isn't in my vocabulary. The way I see it, keeping promises is one of my few virtues. I try very, very hard never to give it up. So I let April pass. With it, a chance at a similar job on the other end of the prefecture for comparable pay. But worse,  I gave up the job at the high school in town. The ONLY other job that I can legally work in my town. By keeping my word, I basically gave up all hope of being where I finally feel I belong.

I started looking feverishly for work. I got through with one job in April only to find that they needed me to start immediately. So I waited until June for my next batch of applications. Finally, I bit the bullet and made the exactly 600-km trip down to Tokyo for interviews. There are no words to describe how much I despise Tokyo. But a 3-hour shinkansen ride is a lot closer to my town than the opposing hemisphere of the Earth.

I was just waiting to hear back from the jobs in Tokyo, when suddenly the job in my town opened up!

It feels like a personal miracle. It is very literally the ONLY way I could stay here, and it was not supposed to be available. I gave it up in April with the finality of signing my own death warrant, and yet here it was knocking on my door again.

So, I'm still here. In the town I love. It's nowhere near as cushy as before - but then nothing is as cushy as government -  but I'm here. It was not supposed to be possible but it is.

And I got here without having to compromise my character.

What is to is, must is.

PS, "What is to is, must is," is from the Samuel Selvon novel, A Brighter Sun. It may just be my favourite quote of all time.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Secret to Success

I did my driving test yesterday. I don't know how many times I've done since I have to take off work to go, and it costs an arm, a leg and 2 manicured toenails. Since I've let 6 months laps between when I started the procedure and yesterday's test, I had to do the whole thing over from scratch. New application, written test, eye exam...

I finished all that stuff, and was sitting inthe waiting room killing time until I could do the actual driving test.


Huh, I thought. The Licence Center staff call me, "Gittens-san." I remember it really well because they are the only people in Japan that do. (Way back when, someone told Japan that in the West we go by our first names, and they think it means always. For some weird reason there is one lady at the bank who calls me "Dawn-Marie-san." Not sure what boat she's on...)

I looked up to see my friend Ryusuke. I know him through hip-hop dancing. But he's also one of my driving instructors.

CRAP!!! He was there for some refresher course with a bunch of other driving school instructors. So much for sneaking off in secret and never telling them if I failed. (Japan's Driving Test has little to do with ability to drive and lots to do with protecting ridiculous rules. I learned that the first time I failed and the examiner was like, "Well, it's not that you can't drive but...")

Up until that point, I'd been totally relaxed - or at least relaxed about the driving test. I periodically freak out about my impending unemployment, and all else pales in comparison. But from the moment I saw Ryusuke that changed. Now I had to pass. Otherwise I'd have to step off the course and possibly run right in to him and look him in the face and tell him I suck.

Yesterday's driving test may be the worst I've ever driven in my life. It was not at all a smooth ride, but I made a point of exaggeratedly obeying all the rules. And somehow, I passed! As soon as the printed out the license (finally, I understood the pain of people who have mugshot-licenses)  I ran over to the restaurant the driving instructors were eating at.

"Ja-jan!" (Ta-da in Japanese) I shouted as I whipped, out my card!
"Yokatta!" (Yay!) Ryusuke's face broke into a smile. He's been after me since I started lessons... When are you taking the test Claire? Why haven't you taken a test lately Claire?...

Then I messaged a friend to tell him I'd passed despite my driving instructor being there. But then, maybe not. Maybe it was less "despite" and more "thanks to." I couldn't fail because I couldn't bear having to tell Ryusuke right after the fact while it was still raw.

Thinking about it, I'm the same way with Nanowrimo. When I want to throw in the towel, I bite down and dig in, because I don't want to tell people I suck. Failure is not an option. How many other times am I like this?

Maybe that's it for me. The secret to success is the absolute inacceptability of failure.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Are you a writer?

When do you get to call yourself a writer?

Some jobs require a qualification. Noone calls you a lawyer until you pass the appropriate exam. Whether or not you work in a law firm. By the same token, it doesn't matter if you've ever tried a case or not, people will assign you the title once you've got the qualification.

Other job titles are in the doing. Doing a culinary course does not a cook make. But if you work in a kitchen, preparing food, then people will happily assign you the title. No matter how much or how little you did to get to that position.

When do you get to call yourself a writer?

It's certainly not by qualification. If we look at writing certificates alone, many of the industry's biggest names would not make the cut. Is it in doing the job? If so, where's the starting point? Do you get to be a writer because your novel is published? How about when it sells to a publishing house? When you get an agent? When you have a polished manuscript? First draft? When you publish a short story? A single article in a major newspaper? What about self-publishing?

Years ago when my mind was drawn to this paradoxical question, I struggled with it for quite a while. I call myself a writer, but I've never published a novel. I've written a handful of short work which appeared in anthologies or newspapers. Was that enough?

Then I was watching some medical drama and one of the characters provided the definition of pain. "If a patient says they're experiencing pain, then they are." I don't know if that's truly the definition of pain, but it makes sense to me. As far as I know, there's no objective way to measure pain. If you think something is painful, I can't tell you it's not. And that's exactly what it's like being a writer.

It's not about qualifications. For me, it's not even that much about the act of actual writing. Being a writer iss a state of mind. It's seeing things that others don't. Hearing voices. Loving stories. It's in imaginary people being painfully real.

You're a writer because you feel it.

You're a writer because you say you are.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Far Out Friday: Hikikomori

There are lots of beautiful, amazing things about Japanese culture and society. I love the privilege of being able to share them with you. But I also believe, above all else, in truth. Which is why I don't shy away from the stuff that might not be all unicorns and rainbows.

The meaning of the word "hikikomori" falls somewhere between the English "recluse" and "hermit." Hikikomori are people who don't (or seldom) leave home. As opposed to a recluse, who may just not be sociable, but be perfectly functional in society when they need to be. Or a hermit, who's withdrawn completely and lives in a cabin in the woods.


I think the reason that hikikomori are so common in Japan is partly due to the society. Everybody knows that Japanese society is a very strict one. There are rules governing everything, from the ways you can use chopsticks to the order in which colleagues should sit in when riding together in a taxi.

The flipside of all of these rules is an extreme aversion to failure. In Japan, it's not uncommon for a leader to take responsibility for any failure by resigning. It's a major part of the reason that I've seen 6 Prime Ministers in my not-quite-5 years here.

Another side effect of the strict society is the hikikomori. Hikikomori have usually failed at something. Some did badly in school. Some haven't worked out well with the opposite sex. Recently, I even saw on a drama one girl who ended up being a hikikomori because a guy called her ugly.


The thing is I don't think Westerners can really be recluses of the hikikomori variety. If you don't get up and go to work, you can't support yourself. And your parents or whoever else aren't going to keep leaving food on your bedside table if you refuse to brave the 10-minute walk to the supermarket. Not to mention the school-aged hikikomori. What do you mean, you're 13 and you've decided that going to school is too hard? Let me introduce you to my friend the truant officer.


When I first came here, hikikomori were bad ju-ju. Not in that they were bad people or something, but in that, somebody should have been doing something to help them. But I'm kind of re-evaluating that. The truth is that lately, I'm leaning (almost horizontal) towards being a hikikomori. One thing led to another, and being around people is kind of painful.

I'm not like some hikikomori who CAN'T go out or anything. And it's not like there isn't at least one place I still really enjoy going to. But I don't see the point in making myself go out if it's not fun. Spending my weekends and weeknights, curled up under a blanky (snowed earlier this week- Spring, where are you?) and watching J-dramas is fine by me. In fact, as a Japanese student and a writer, watching the ridiculous amount of dramas that I go through (an average of 11 episodes on the days I'm not at work) counts as studying in more ways than one.

I expect I will go back to the real world at some point. I suppose the writer in me doesn't have a choice. Unless I want to write re-hashings of J-dramas or anime, all the material is outside. But for now, I'm not sure that retreat is such a bad thing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

One Deux Tres Quattro 五 (MOMM)

With my impending unemployment, I've started (frantically) trying to improve/ refine/ dust off the skills I already have. Of course my major selling point is always the whole quintilingual thing. Just in case there's a possibility that my next job provides an opportunity to use my languages, I've trying to bring them all back up to par.

By using all 5 languages every day.

Of course, I don't get it done every day. It isn't neccessarily hard to find the time to get to all five. I think what's hardest for me is to stop what I'm currently doing and start something else. For example, if I'm reading a book in French, I can't just read it until I'm bored, or I won't get to the other languages.


English is my native language, but ironically, it may be the language I miss most often. I only need to use English if I blog or go on Facebook (which I don't do that much these days), if I go out with the 2 other English-speakers in town, or if I have to teach (which I don't do every day). Any English-speaker who lives in Japan (outside the metropolitan areas) can tell you how much fun it is to forget your native language.

Not that you ever completely lose the abilitiy to speak English. Imagine if you were a professional runner, and then for several years, you didn't run. You just walked. If you tried to run, it would feel weird and you wouldn't be as good as before. That's the English of an ex-pat. I forget technical words sometimes. Like "exfoliate." If I needed to use a word like that in conversation, I would probably not be able to pull it up. I'd have to pause and think, or I'd have to explain the term instead of just using the correct word.

It's not so bad yet, that I'm seriously worried about my English, yet. But I think I should do something to get it back to it's old levels of shininess at some point.


I'm actively studying French, that is, going through a Grammar Review book. I'm surprised to see that I still remember so much considering I haven't studied, or really used, French in 6 years. But then, it's my university major, and I did spend 11 years in school and months (cumulatively) in Martinique and Montreal.

I'm also reading Roald Dahl's Matilda in French. I call this "passive study." It's easier and more relaxed than studying grammar patterns. I think it also helps you to speak more naturally. My current process is to read books that I'm already familiar with. When you read, there are really two processes going on. The first decodes the individual words and the grammar. The second works on the content of the story. Reading in a foreign language is hard because you get so caught up in the language you can't enjoy the story. But by reading books I'm familiar with I can enjoy the story and concentrate on the language.


My poor Spanish. Spanish is a very mixed bag for me. I dropped it like someone else's snotty tissue in 2nd form (age 13), and then continued learning it watching TNT Latin America (true story). Then I decided to major in it (along with French) at university.The interesting side effect of not having really been taught Spanish is that my reading and listening are awesome, but my grammar sucks. Which causes my speaking and writing to also suck.

I'm passively studying Spanish by reading Stephenie Meyer'sTwilight on my Kindle. (There's a language menu on the left in the book section on Amazon, making your Kindle a valuable foreign language resource.) Obviously Twilight is not very difficult language-wise, but I'm still surprised at how well it's going. I've also been off Spanish for 6 years, and it doesn't have 11 years of formal study to back it up.


Sometimes I think I'm only good at Italian because I'm good at French and Spanish. I took an 8-month conversational course five years ago. Then I studied on my own for a month earlier this year. Somehow I've managed to pass an exam that's meant to be taken after 2 years of university study.

Earlier this year, I actively studied Italy. But for the moment, I'm just trying to keep from losing the little skill I have. I'm reading Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. I couldn't find it Kindle on the US site, so I had to buy  a hard copy off Amazon's Italian site. (Amazon is a great resource for language learning since they are in so many countries across the world.) Since Italian is my least practised language, it was really really hard in the beginning. But I stuck with it (mostly because I had an exam last month) and it's gotten much easier. In fact, I look forward to my Italian reading the most. Frankly, I think that's a real testament to the strength of the story of the Hunger Games.


It might be easier to ask what I'm NOT doing in Japanese. There's a language course attached to the programme I work for, and I'm studying that. I also was doing the Pimsleur course, but I haven't done any in a while, because I'm way past the level Pimsleur takes you to. I'm also using a intermediate textbook.

For passive study, I'm watching music videos from my favourite Japanese artists on youtube. I also watch tv dramas (rather obsessively). I bought myself a series for my birthday in December. I've watched the whole thing (11 episodes) 8 times since then. Entire sentences will come out my mouth  in a most natural way, because I hear them in that series.

It takes a long time to get to the reading stage in Japanese. You know, the whole 2000 characters reccommended for daily use thing. But I've managed to pick up about 1500 of them, so I can know read like a 14 year old. I'm reading Harry Potter, which is sort of hilarious, since most of the words are made-up. But my reading skills have improved significantly since I started.

I have no idea how many of you blog-reader-type folk are interested in foreign languages or have studied them. But I hope that if you're looking to start one, or improve one you already have, this will help. Plus it's Monday, and that's what's on my mind.

PS. The title of the blog is counting to five in my languages. Deux is French. Tres is Spanish. Quattro is Italian. 五 (pronounced go) is five in Japanese.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Agent Hunter - An Online Resource for International Writers (WAW)

It's been a while since I've done a Write Away Wednesday (WAW), but I'm very glad to bring it back today to introduce Agent Hunter!

As an international writer, there are many American agencies and  publishers that will not even look at my work. Many of the larger ones will point me in the direction of their British counterparts. In fact, some of my work is very much more suited to Britain anyhow.

For someone who is (or at least, once was) very active online, the British publishing industry is a little disappointing. Many agencies don't accept initial contact by email. Not that many agents have blogs or twitter accounts. And there's nowhere to find a giant list of all agents.

Or there wasn't until now.


The brilliant folk at The Writers' Workshop have collated a list of all the agents they could find in the UK! You can search agents by a number of terms. Writing sci-fi? You can find only the agents that represent that genre. Since I live in Japan, it's very important that an agent accept email submissions. I don't even want to imagine the postage on 20 partials to the UK. (*shudder*) That's one search term I've always got clicked. For the same reason, it's important that my agent be active online, and you can search by agents with blogs and twitter accounts.

Here's a list of the other terms you can search by:

Agent experience
Client list status (are they looking to take on clients)
Who represents who?
Specific likes
Specific dislikes
Opportunities to meet (conferences etc.)
Size of agency
AAA member

And, of course, if you know the name of agent you're interested you can just search for that particular agent.


Once you've found an agent you like, you can click over to their page. There you'll find all the imformation listed above as well as a short bio. When they were setting up the site, The Writers' Workshop attempted to contact all of the agents in the database. Some of them provided a bio. It's one of my favourite things on Agent Hunter. With US agents, they're all over Twitter and they have blogs. There are some agents who I feel like I know well beyond broad categories like "Accepts YA". That's something that's always been lacking in the UK industry. The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook (published by A&C Black) gives a comprehensive lists of agencies, but it won't tell you which agent would die for a protagonist who's obsessed with yarn bombing. (I haven't come across any yet, but then my protagonist isn't obsessed with yarn bombing either.)

Another useful category on the Agent Page is "Authors and Books Liked". Publishing is not an exact science. (Not by a long shot.) So once again, the simple genre listings that you may find in the Yearbook or in other resources don't say much. An author may like paranormal, but have had it up to here with vampires. If your manuscript is about a teenage Dracula, then why waste your time and the agent's? Agent Hunter can save you that trouble.


I'm not going to speak much of them (because I'm most interested in the Agent Search) but you can also search for Agencies and Publishers. On the Agency Page you can find more detailed submission details and the average response time. The feature most of interest for international writers is the "Accepts overseas writers" field. The Publishers pages aren't much use if you're a fiction writer, since most publishers no longer take unsolicited submissions. But you can search to see which ones do.


If you're interested head over to the site. Just in case you can't click the linkies, it's
You need an account to access the site, but don't worry that's super-easy. And free. You can get poke around and get a feel for the site. And you'll have access to some of the information.


Some of the information will also be blurred out. If you'd like to access all of the database's information, there is a subscription fee: £12 ($18 USD) for a whole year of access. That's less than a month of  Publishers' Marketplace ($20 USD) or The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (currently £12.15 on Amazon UK - on sale). There's a 7 day free trial, so you can dip your toes in and if it's not your kind of pool, you can hop back out. No consequences.

What are you waiting for? If you're an international writer, you should head over there now.

I said NOW. Why are you still reading this? ;) 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My neighbour's not dead! (and other happy thoughts)

I hadn't seen my neighbour all year. I normally see her a lot. She lives directly across the road from me, and she has this weird habit of squatting in my driveway or the one next-door.

She's almost 80. I've seen her do some pretty out there things, but I'm not sure if it's because she's slightly off, or because she's old and Japanese and therefore has given up on caring what society thinks. Either way, she's been MIA lately. Then, for the last couple weeks, her always-open gate was closed and there were curtains drawn in all the windows and doors. (Curtains are really unusual in old houses since they have shoji- the paper sliding doors.)

I began to worry that she'd died and I just hadn't seen the black and white bunting around the house.

I left for work today and her door was open. I thought about going over to ask whoever I found if the old lady was all right. But then I saw my around-the-corner neighbour with some trees in a wheelbarrow, and I didn't want to look strange and stalkery, so I continued on my way. It didn't matter though, because she was in the driveway next-door. She was just standing there talking to my winter neighbour (who lives in a house somewhere in the mountains all summer) like nothing was up.

"Wow, it's been a while. I was a little worried," I told her.
"Yes," she said back to me.

(Yay for the Japanese language and the art of being vague.)

I spent the next 5 minutes practically skipping, humming to myself, "My neighbour's not dead, my neighbour's not dead," over and over. Until I got the house next to the barber shop. With the black and white bunting. The sign in Japan that a house is in mourning. My neighbour was not dead, but someone was.

It gave me a weird slice of perspective. I am happy. But someone, somewhere in the world is in a pit of despair. And the reverse is also true. When I am sad, someone somewhere is celebrating. The day that my loved-one died is the day that someone else's beloved child was born. The day I graduate is the same day someone else gets a rejection letter.

Two sides of the same coin. Could we even have happy without sad? Would it be worth it?

Who knows?

Happy and sad.
Ying and yang.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fly to your Heart

I'm currently engaged in two activities that many people all over the world have trouble with. Two activities where people are always searching out magic solutions, or the "best" way, or "foolproof" methods.

#1 Working out.

I've been overweight my whole life. Since I'm not at all a visual person, it doesn't usually bother me. But I've been through a couple of hard-core workout phases. The first was due to the fact that it is hard as heck to buy clothes. I realise now that's more because of my ridiculous proportions. My lower half spans 3 sizes!  Recently, I've been working out because of genealogy. Older people in my family seem to have every disease under the sun, and I'm trying to give myself a fighting chance.

All of this leads to having been on the work out train forever. So I'm sometimes on fora where people are looking for the "best path" to get in the shape they want to.

#2 Foreign language learning.

I'm a pluralinguist. (According to Wikipedia, that's a more accurate definition for someone who kind of randomly picks up languages with little or no formal teaching.) I like languages, and I'm always trying to get better at the ones I speak, while fighting off the urge to pick up more. (Soon, Korean. Soon.)

As I browse products to improve my Japanese ability, I come across tons of people who want to know. "What's the best program for my money?"

Disney's Tinkerbell has the answer.  (Because Disney always has the answer!)

(Okay, I realise Tinkerbell was not the first to stumble upon the concept of "to thine ownself be true," but she's definitely the cutest.)

How I do.

I've always been an extremist. Love something or hate it. Do something every day, no prob. Or not at all. Sure, I can keep up a middle ground for a while. But it's so much easier to just find the way that works for me. Then, instead of working at it, I can just sit back and watch it all fall into place.

So, I've designed a workout program that works for me:

A ton of workout DVDs from several big-name workout franchises. (Because I'd get bored of one cast.)
Alternating between off-the-deep-end working out and normal-people-pace. (I'd get bored at normal people pace, but I'd eventually burn out going off the deep end.)

For languages, generally the market-leaders are two particular programmes: one based on listening, one more visual. Well, obviously, the visual one was never an option. I'm currently doing the listening programme, but I've come across a problem I didn't expect. Just listening bores me out of my mind. I have to do something else while I study. I don't think that's how it's supposed to be.

My favourite language programme never gets called in the top 3. It's kind of like the books you probably used in school. Dialogue/ essay-type piece, followed by vocab, grammar break-down and exercises.

Should be obvious.

Once you've kind of stumbled onto the fact that stuff is easier once you tailor-make it for yourself, you wonder why it wasn't obvious. Cuz hold up a minute:

Things are easier when they're made to suit you.

Which part of that is NOT completely obvious? And yet, it takes us years to discover it. Some of us never do. And even after we have, we keep trying to crawl back into methods that have been proven to work well for others, but don't neccesarily gel with us.

Back to you.

All of this of course gets me to wondering. How many parts of our lives are we doing this with?

Working the jobs we're supposed to have. But not going as far as we could, because it's not what we want to be doing.

Being involved in good organisations. But not taking them forward, because they really don't pique our interests.

Writing what we're supposed to. How we're supposed to. Where we're supposed to. But not as well as we could, because it's not the best thing for us.

Takes a long time to learn the simplest lesson.

Do you.
Be yourself.
To thine ownself be true.
Fly to your heart.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

When it rains or Sometimes life throws you a bone

I mentioned before that I hadn't written since June last year.

But recently, Life stepped up to bring back out the writer in me. Mummy turned 60 on Sunday, and they're having a big to-do on Saturday. I can't be there because I have to work. The school year in Japan, and other parts of the Far East, ends in March, so it's Graduation season. And as a teacher, you kind of can't skip Graduation.

For all the misunderstanding that my family and friends can do, everybody knows I'm a writer. And a linguist. You need something written or translated, Claire's your girl. I guess it all started with Granny's funeral. I wrote 2 poems. The funeral home made one into a bookmark, and I read the other at the service. And then, somehow, I got into the dubious business of writing funeral poems...

So my brother asked me to write a poem.

I made him no promises. After all, it's been 9 months since I've written. I mean I was pretty sure I still had IT. I just wasn't sure where IT was. So I sat down with pen and paper. And with my keyboard. A couple of times. Nothing happened.

And then Mummy was all like, "Write me a poem, and I'll make bookmarks for the party."

And I was like, "Ick!" I couldn't guarantee anything. But the thing is, when your mother asks you to do something on her 60th birthday, you pretty much have to try.

I stopped trying to write for a while and just let the ideas float around my mind. Today was the graduation ceremony at Junior High. It was my last graduation as a teacher at that school. I was determined not to cry. So, I pulled out my Italian notebook, and started to scribble to distract myself.


And then it just flowed. I wrote that poem. Then another. Then another.

And then I wrote a super-specific poem. One of my trademarks - a poem that makes everyone in the room go, "Yep, that's that person, all right."

And then, I wrote my very first poem IN JAPANESE.

Seriously, that's how much of a roll I was on. When it rains, it pours.

I'm still up to my ears in Japanese study. And I'm now trying to reclaim my French as well. I want to complete my TEFL, since it's paid-for. And I still have a very full social plate. So it's not like I'm miraculously going to start dedicated every waking minute to the literary craft.

But I'm getting back to being a writer. And I'm beginning to find the balance between that and everything else.

It will only get better from here.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Pixar's 22

Mid last year, Emma Coats, Pixar storyboard artist and director, offered these 22 nuggets of advice on the art called story. Obviously, they're meant for film, but story is story, and certain things are universal.

PBJ Publishing produced a nice graphic to show these rules.

But I'll write them out for you as well.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Do you agree with all of them? Are there any you feel particularly passionate about?

It's a lot to digest in one sitting, huh?  That's why I'll be going over them (most, if not all) in their own individual posts. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

One thing

One of the reasons I used to be so good about this blog is because I WAS a writer. I don't mean that I'm not a writer now. I'm pretty sure I will always be a writer. But back then, I defined myself as a writer. Being a writer was the essence of my very soul. Or something like that.

So it's not hard to imagine, when you place that much importance on something, that it's easy to focus completely on it. I wrote a lot. Blogged a lot. Tweeted a lot. Made lots of writer friends. It was great.

But it's not all I am.

Even longer than I've defined myself as a writer, I've been calling myself a linguist. In university I double majored in French and Spanish. At my university, all Faculty of Humanities students had to take at least basic foreign language courses. Bi- and tri-linguists were nothing impressive. But in the regular world, people are really impressed with speaking multiple languages. Even moreso now I've clawed my way up to 5 languages.

But I couldn't be a linguist and a writer too. Ironically, it's a problem that drives me crazy about Japan. I always say that in Japan, you are only allowed One Thing. Like me reggae-crew friends. Their cars are decorated in reggae colours, they always play reggae CDs, they pretty much only go to reggae events. Life = Reggae.

That's not me.

All my life I've been interested in many things. And all my life, I've tried to tame that in favour of the old prevailing school of thought. You know, the one where you pick something, master it, spend 33 1/3 years doing it and then retire and spend your days cruising Alaska.

For years I fought to pick one thing. And then I did. I was a writer. I was lining all my little duckies up for my great writing future. Until I decided to stay in Japan. Which, in my books, meant being fluent in Japanese. Which, at my level (of Japanese ability and obsessiveness), meant 6-8 hours of study at least 5 days a week. In addition to all that periferal stuff, like work. There wasn't any room for writing. I was a linguist. I WAS A LINGUIST.

After almost a year of burying myself in foreign languages, my writer soul is beginning to surface. And I'm beginning to understand that I don't need to be one thing. I can be a linguist and a writer. And any number of other things I choose to be. Sure, I don't want to go off the deep end and dilute my efforts so much that I don't make any progress in any of my endeavours. And for now, I'm still concentrating more on the linguistic side than the writing side. But I'm still determined to write again.

Forgive me. It's all new. I struggle a lot with not fitting the mold. And now, I'm trying to accept that I won't ever. It means that this blog may won't be the same as it's been before. And right now, I can't say exactly what it will be. Or what my writing future holds.

But this I know for sure:

I am not one thing.

Friday, January 18, 2013

I can't write

I haven't written since the SCBWI Tokyo Writers' Intensive Retreat in June, I think. As I dip my toes back into the writing world (on this blog, and eventually on Twitter), I find myself thinking about why that is...


Right this moment, there is something more important to me than writing. Something that takes up the time and the brain-power that I normally would happily let writing have. That something is the fight to stay in Japan. I mentioned in my last post that my contract will end soon, and that I have to find something else to move onto. I also mentioned that I'm doing everything in my power to be prepared for any opportunity that may pass my way.

That everything includes learning Japanese. Not that I wasn't learning Japanese before... But my spoken Japanese, while understandable, is not Business-level Japanese, rendering it utterly useless in my job search. That means I have 7 months to get fluent. On top of which, Japanese uses the Chinese characters called kanji, of which there are literally THOUSANDS. The joyo kanji (Daily Use Kanji) is a list of 2136 characters. I'm currently working on learning them so that I can be on par with my the competition. So between grammar and kanji, every ounce of spare time I have goes into Japanese study.

But Claire, surely you could afford to sacrifice a few minutes a day to pursue something you love and want to make a life of.

No. Not really. Yes, I want to be a writer. But I also want to be in Japan. Being a writer doesn't have an expiry date on it - which is probably why so many potential novelists talk about 'one day.'  Being in Japan does. Unless I find a job. Which, in my mind, revolves around being prepared. Which, in turn, equates to spending ever spare moment studying. 


I make the choice to spend every spare moment studying. But, here's a little secret. When you study hard-core for 6 to 7 hours most days (in between work and maintaining a house and a pretty active social life), your brain has zero desire to be engaged in non-study hours. I can't create when I'm working this hard.

At the end of a day's study, I curl up with my DVD player, pop in the Japanese remake of Ikemen Desu Ne, and watch a few episodes. Even that is study, but at least it's passive, and way more enjoyable Sometimes I read Harry Potter. In Japanese. Or hang out with friends. Mostly Japanese, of course. But. nothing that involves my brain.

It might be different if the activity I was putting my all into was purely physical. But it's not, and when I close the textbook, my brain does that automatic log-off thing like your bank's website when you leave it open too long.

In fact, pushing myself to study so hard, means that Japanese has taken over many of the places where creativity would normally be. No more hilarious situations or quirky characters. I dream about kanji!

I don't mind it that much though. I know it's not forever. I'll be back to the creative world come August. After I secure this one goal, I'll get back to working on that other one that's taking a back seat for now.

Until then, I can't write.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How Happens

I've mentioned my job before, but I'll just give you a quick recap. I'm an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET programme. The biggest issue with this job, from my current point of view, is the time limit. The point of the programme is exchange. The Japanese government means for you to go back home and take your Japan experience with you. So the programme is capped at 5 years.

It's my 5th year.

Since the latter half of my 4th year, I've been thinking about what happens after August, 2013. I live in a small-town, so there's no opportunity for me to work here outside my current job.  In an hour's driving radius, there are only 11 other posts for ALTs. And getting one of those would require someone else leaving. In August, when my contract is up. And not in April, when the Japanese school year and most other contracts start.

Lately I've been thinking KISS. Korea - Italy - Sendai - Sapporo. (Sendai and Sapporo are both big cities in the North of Japan.) The problem I may have in Korea is the distinct preference for hiring Americans. But I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how to go about living in Italy. When that occurred to me, I thought for a second that I should cross it off my list. And then I shrugged and thought: How Happens.

I started the JET programme, not because I'd researched it and thought it was a good fit. Not because I dreamed of going to Japan. Not because I wanted to teach English. (I actually find teaching my native language rather un-challenging. Warped brain of a linguist. Go figure.) I came on this programme because How Happened. I was working as a French and Spanish teacher, when I passed by my university to drop off some paperwork. I stopped by Student Services, since I'd been a Guild of Students' representative and had worked with the staff.

One lady, Louisa, asked me 'What are you up to these days?'
'Teaching,' I responded, 'But I wish someone would pay me to go overseas.'
'Well, we have this thing here from Japan.'

10 seconds that changed my life.

I knew nothing about Japan. No more than the average Westerner. Sushi, sumo, sayonara and Suzuki. But I was in a position to apply. I met the minimum requirements of having a degree and being under 35. I had experience in teaching foreign languages to children. I had learned foreign languages myself. I had lived away from home. I'd been in non-English-speaking countries before. I'd never heard of the JET programme and certainly wasn't preparing myself for it. Yet, I'd put myself in a position to be considered a good candidate.

And I got in.

That's how I'm looking at August. I don't have a clue what will happen. If I'll be able to stay in my area, Japan, Asia, the international scene... or if I'll have to return to Barbados. But right now I'm just concentrating on putting myself in the best position. I'm polishing my Japanese up to the highest level I can. I'm taking an Italian exam. Hopefully I'll get some writing done in between all that as well. I don't really have that much say over how things go. I can only control what I do and who I am. So I'm determined to be the best me I can be.

When How is ready, it'll happen.

(PS, Happy New Year everyone! 2013 for dreams coming true!)