Posts Tagged ‘Stephanie Burgis’

Hello, bandwagon.

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Is this where I get on? I’m talking generally about January-organizational-shiny-new-year-resolutiony stuff, and specifically about bullet journals. When I first saw the words “bullet journal”, I reflexively bristled; I thought it was a product, and I did not want to buy it. But when I realized that it was a concept – no purchase involved – I had my “Eureka!” moment.

It began when I read Stephanie Burgis’s blog post, Planner Love, in which she combines her day-planner with her to-do list and – this is the revolutionary part for me – her weekly goals. Yes! From there, I found Anindita’s link to her own blog post, Systems, which offered a refinement I love: she reflects on each past week and month and documents the things, large and small, for which she’s grateful – something else I want to include. From there, I hopped over to Kate Messner’s blog post about her bullet journal, and all was revealed. (I chose that link because I bought Messner’s picture book, Over and Under the Snow, for my three-year-old this past Christmas and it’s been such a hit.)

For many years now, I’ve kept a minimal calendar or desk diary – basically, appointments and social events – and a small haystack of to-do lists. The to-do lists are usually scribbled on the backs of envelopes or torn from the margins of other pieces of paper. This one’s unusual because it’s quite neat, and also because it’s alone:


The slips of paper float all over the house and drive Nick crazy. And I knew they were getting out of hand when my six-year-old waved one at me and asked, “Mama, is this one current or should I recycle it?” The final nudge came from Jessica Spotswood, who posted a photo of her bullet journal’s January spread on Facebook. So neat! So orderly! While I am only sometimes neat and orderly, I aspire to the brain of a librarian.

So this past week, I opened up the blank journal that my brother-and-sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. Isn’t it sweet?


And I set up my first month in a bullet journal. I started this on January 18 but, as the official Bullet Journal page points out, this is also a way of keeping a diary, so I filled in some activities for the first half of January. I imagine I’ll adapt the basic format, over time, to suit me. On the left-hand page, I’ve added an ongoing list of what I’m reading. (I’ve also smudged some names and phone numbers, for privacy reasons.)


I suspect my list of goals (right-hand page) is overly ambitious, but this is a great way of verifying that. In the past, all I had was a fistful of partially completed to-do lists and a sense of ongoing slippage. With this journal, I hope to be able to analyze on why certain goals weren’t met, and figure out how to change that in the coming month.

Keeping the journal is even spurring me to be more efficient. Now, when I have a few moments of down time, I go to the journal and see what three-minute task I could accomplish. It’s so much more satisfying than checking my email yet again, or reading the first two pages of a magazine article.

I’m writing this in the first flush of love for my bullet journal. I hope it will endure, and I’ll post about my experiences with it after the first six months. As for you, friends, are you busy organizing and goal-setting? Feeling laissez-faire? Watching things fall perfectly into place?

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Alaska, Kingston, Bath

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve got my head down this week, working on revisions to my forthcoming short story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”. It’ll be part of a Candlewick Press anthology called Petticoats and Pistols, edited by Jessica Spotswood. I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been! I loved the research, as always. I used this short story as a chance to experiment with a first-person narrator, which I found both liberating and satisfying. And for the first time, I wrote about a pair of sisters. Yes, yes, there’s that old adage about writing what you know. I confess: I have a sibling, but not a sister. But the Garrett girls’ sibling relationship felt very real to me, and Jessica (who knows from sisters) found it believable, too. Hurray for the dark art of fiction!

Kingston Penitentiary, c. 1901 (image via wikipedia)

Kingston Penitentiary, c. 1901 (image via wikipedia)

In other news, I posted at the History Girls about historic Kingston Penitentiary. (I’ve blogged before about my tour of the Pen – Part 1 and Part 2 are here – but this is a separate post about KP’s past.) Dickens toured Kingston Penitentiary in 1842 and called it “an admirable jail… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every respect”. Can you picture the frantic scrubbing, sprinting, and general fluffing that went on before the great man’s arrival? He was much ruder about the rest of Kingston. The rest of the post is here.

I also want to draw your attention to Stephanie Burgis’s post on approaching Chronic Illness as a Reader and a Writer. It’s a personal response to a novel that uses chronic illness as a way of building sympathy for other characters – ie, the ones who live with the chronically ill. More importantly, though, Steph uses this moment to talk about stereotypes of chronic illness in fiction and confesses that she has, in her own fiction, drawn “on nineteenth-century comic tropes [of the manipulative invalid] from Jane Austen onward – even though I had a chronic illness myself”. This is where Steph’s post goes from being brave and compassionate to being extraordinarily courageous and insightful.

Steph talks about rewriting her manipulative invalid – but not as a reformed character or a misunderstood heroine: “Instead, I left in every line where she wielded her health issues – and the effects of stress upon them – like a sword over her son’s head. I wasn’t writing an unthinking stereotype anymore – I was writing my own personal nightmare of the mother I was terrified to become. Mrs. Carlyle gives in to every temptation to seize power where she can, in a situation where her son is the one with all the legal and financial power and she lives on his sufferance. She listens to that dark voice inside her that I’ve heard, too, and she lets it take charge of her mouth.”

It’s an amazing post, and one that reminds me of the urgent necessity of looking at my own comfortable assumptions very carefully indeed. Thank you, Steph. As Tricia said, you’re a lion-hearted woman.

How about you, friends? What are you writing, reading, and thinking about this week?

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5 Things About My Work-in-Progress

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Hello, friends. The other day on Facebook, my friend Stephanie Burgis posted her answers to a meme, “Five Things About Your Work-in-Progress”. I was delighted! I read it, thinking, “Oh, it’s so great to hear more about what she’s up to!” Then I realized that I, um, NEVER talk about my work-in-progress. One reason is because I’m constitutionally secretive and vaguely superstitious about unpolished work. At some level, I seem to believe that if I discuss it in too much detail, my computer (or worse, I myself) will be hit by lightning. The second reason is because I’ve always assumed that nobody would ever be interested. Judging from my response to Steph’s post, I’m wrong about that. So I’m squaring my shoulders (both literally and metaphorically). Here we go:

1. I actually have 2.5 works in progress. For me, this is a lot. I’m writing the novel I refer to as The Next Book (more below). I’m also writing a short story for an anthology called Petticoats and Pistols, edited by Jessica Spotswood (again, more below). And starting in September, I’m joining The History Girls as a regular blogger. My first post, about historical fiction as a genre, goes up on September 3 and I’m now planning a second, about the history of Kingston Penitentiary.

2. I’m really nervous about the short story because it’s meant to be only 5000 words long. I have no idea how I’m going to compress so many ideas into such a short space! Its working title is “The Fabulous Garrett Girls” and it’s about a pair of sisters running a tavern in Skagway, Alaska during the Gold Rush, and their confrontation with the legendary con man, Soapy Smith. I’ve absolutely adored the research for it but now I have to compress it all into a (hopefully) rollicking story about a pair of accidental con artists. Wish me luck!

Broadway, Skagway, AK, 1898

Broadway (the main street), Skagway, AK, in 1898

3. As part of my research for “The Fabulous Garrett Girls”, I’ve once again been immersed in scenes of heavy toil, knee-deep muck, women wearing men’s trousers, women performing unusual jobs, travel by horse and on foot, and people who are not what they say. Sound familiar, fans of the Agency? The only thing missing, really, is a good romp in a sewer. I haven’t been able to find any enthralling narratives of frontier sewer action. Yet.

4. The Next Book, as I’ve been calling it, also has a working title: Monsoon Season. It’s set in the British colony of Malaya (now two independent countries, Singapore and Malaysia) during the Second World War. I’ve been working on this book for a long time – almost 12 months at this point. That includes two false starts, during which I tried to figure out just how I was going to tell this story. I’ve now found a structure that seems to work, and I’m fine-tuning my narrative voices. Yes, voices: there are three. It’s been quite complicated and nerve-wracking. I’m still not quite sure I can pull this off. But I remain optimistic.

Explorer, soldier, and naturalist Freddy Spencer Chapman (he's the one in knee socks)

Explorer, soldier, and naturalist Freddy Spencer Chapman (he’s the one in knee socks)

5. My research for Monsoon Season led me to the extraordinary figure of Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British explorer, naturalist, and soldier whose life really should be made into a film. For about three years during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Spencer Chapman was considered missing and presumed dead by the British Army. In fact, he was alive, hiding in the dense Malayan jungle, and performing work that included destroying bridges and trains, attacking Japanese soldiers, and collaborating with local Communists who were also resisting the Japanese military government. Despite being ill for most of his time in the jungle (at one point, he was unconscious from pneumonia for 17 days and only realized this after the fact, when he noticed the lapse in his journal entries), Spencer Chapman also kept notes on bird species and collected plant seeds to send to Kew Gardens. I’m about to begin his memoir of that period, The Jungle is Neutral.

And that’s what I’ve been up to. Exciting times! What are you writing and reading, friends?

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Being your own good boss

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Hello, friends. Just this week, I was fantasizing about having an extra six hours a day. With a 30-hour day, I reckoned I could work enough, spend sufficient time with my family, and sleep adequately. But I soon realized that it’s a just pleasant delusion – not only because it’s temporally impossible, but also because I’m sure other things would crop up. Even if I had my miraculous 30-hour day, I’d probably end up grinding my teeth and muttering about a 36-hour day.

So when my friend, the author Stephanie Burgis, linked to this lovely piece of writing advice from fellow children’s novelist R J Anderson, I made time to read it. It’s called “How I Stopped Being My Own Bad Boss”, which immediately made sense to me. We all undermine ourselves from time to time (right? RIGHT? If you don’t, I’m not sure I want to hear from you) but being self-employed carries its own special range of freedoms and responsibilities. And, more often than I care to think about, I have sabotaged my own work day.

My recent specialty was running errands on work time. I’d drop off the children at school/babysitter and think, “On my way home, I’ll get groceries.” It made so much sense: I was already going past the store. Going alone is so much quicker than taking along two small children. It was even a great time of day to shop: no queues at the checkout. And groceries are the reverse of frivolous. But only after a couple of months did I realize how much time I was stealing from myself. It wasn’t just 20 minutes in the grocery store. It was getting home and putting the food away. And then cleaning up after the morning rush. And then, while I was at it, throwing in a load of laundry. And then remembering that online banking/phone call/random bit of life admin I’d meant to do. And before I knew it, it was 11 o’clock and I’d lost the freshest, most focused part of my work day. So I made a vow: from now on, I only run errands with children at my side. It’s a much longer trip to the grocery store, by a large margin. It’s a little odd, showing up at the accountant’s office with two miniature bodyguards. But I’m protecting my work time. I stopped doing things outside the writer’s job description. In R J Anderson’s words, I stopped being my own bad boss.

Anderson’s advice is terrific: forthright, concrete, constructive. As she bravely admits, “I used to [feel] stressed & overwhelmed nearly all the time… In fact, I seriously considered quitting writing altogether at one point because I felt like I had no life outside of writing anymore.” This is what she did to turn herself around.

If you’re a writer, an aspiring writer, self-employed, or otherwise looking for ways to work more productively, I highly recommend reading what Anderson has to say.

How about you, readers? Do you have any tips to share, or bad-boss confessions to make?

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The Magickal Agency Contest

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Today is a glorious, big-news day. First, I’m so pleased to feature a double interview and contest with the delightful Stephanie Burgis. It’s a double contest because we’re each giving away a fantastic prize pack of each other’s books (details below). And it’s a double interview because I asked her 10 questions, which she twisted up and turned back on me. Plus, I can now share with you the details of my THREE launch parties: Kingston, North America online, and the UK/Europe online.

First of all, though, here are Steph and I in conversation:

Ying: What book do you wish you’d written, and why?
Steph: Any of Jane Austen’s novels. SO smart, so funny, and so full of layers!
Steph: Literary death-match among your favorite novels: Middlemarch, Emily of New Moon, or A Wrinkle in Time? WHO WILL WIN?
Ying: Middlemarch in a heartbeat, because I’m not 9 years old anymore. It would also win a literal death-match, as it’s physically the biggest book.

Ying: Black olives or green?
Steph: Green, stuffed with feta cheese!
Steph: Cornish pasty or Yorkshire pudding?
Ying: Cornish pasty FTW! Did you know that traditionally, Cornish pasties had a blob of jam in one corner for a dessert-like finish? This has always troubled me. I mean, what if you started at the wrong end?

Ying:  What are 3 things that make you laugh?
Steph: My crazy-sweet dog, my son, and Joan Bauer’s novel Squashed.
Steph: Which 3 literary heroines do you wish you could hang out with in real life?
Ying: Elizabeth Bennet, Harriet Vane (from Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey mysteries) and, like you, Amelia Peabody (from Elizabeth Peters’s Victorians-in-Egypt adventures). It would be a lively but dangerous gathering.

Ying: And are you a giggler or a cackler?
Steph: A giggler when reading, a cackler when writing. 😉
Steph: Are you a careful bookmark-er or a ruthless page-folder when you read?
Ying: Ack! Would you fold down the corner of your baby or puppy? I THOUGHT NOT.

Ying: What trait do you most admire in others?
Steph: Kindness.
Steph: What trait do you wish you had more of in yourself?
Ying: I’d like to be more disciplined – about writing, chores, time-management…

Ying: What’s the strangest place you’ve ever found your camera or keys?
Steph: In the refrigerator!
Steph: Confession time: which children’s TV show theme-songs have you memorized since having your son? (I know EVERY “In the Night Garden” song.)
Ying: This is going to sound so horribly smug, but we unplugged our TV 3 years ago and haven’t got round to setting it up again. (But it’s not because we think we’re better than everybody else! Promise!) But I’ve seen many, many more videos of tractors and fire engines on Youtube than I’d ever dreamed existed.

Steph: I am inherently great at _remembering historical trivia_. I am inherently terrible at _remembering to re-charge my mobile phone_.
Ying: I am inherently great at _remembering phone numbers_. I am inherently terrible at _remembering poems_.

Ying: What’s your favourite intersection?
Steph: The spot where the Kaerntnerstrasse runs into the Stefansplatz in the center of Vienna. Gorgeous!
Steph: What’s your favorite building in London?
Ying: The British Library. Yes, it looks like a giant primary school circa 1988, but it’s my spiritual home in London.

Ying: Do you have any reading rituals?
Steph: Curled up under the covers, drinking hot chocolate while reading is ideal!
Steph: Do you have any writing rituals?
Ying: Coffee. Glass of water. Email-check. Blog-check. Wander away. Herd myself back. Snack. Bathroom break. Really get started. Oops – reply to urgent email. Answer door. Back to desk. This is why I need more discipline.

Ying: If your mother had to describe you in 3 adjectives, they’d be:
Steph: Eek. Tempted to turn this over to Mom to answer, but at a hopeful guess: stubborn, smart, creative
Steph: If your husband had to describe you in 3 adjectives, they’d be:
Ying: Smart, funny, opinionated. Or maybe just opinionated, opinionated, opinionated.

(Seriously. My husband jokes that I should have a radio show called, “Strong Opinions”. I counter that there isn’t enough air-time in the world…)

And speaking of strong opinions, I thought that for the launch of Body, I should do more to reach readers who aren’t near the vast metropolis of Kingston, Ontario. To that end, I’m holding 3 different events.

UK/Europe online party: Tuesday, September 28 @ 16:00 BST

US/Canadian online party: Tuesday, September 28 @ 16:00 EST

Both online parties will take place on Twitter and the hashtag will be #body. Walker Books UK and Candlewick Press will be there! We’ll be giving away swag! If you’re not already using Twitter, it’s easy to register. And if any of this is confusing but intriguing, leave a comment or email me – I’m happy to answer your questions.

The Real Live launch party: Wednesday, September 29 at 7.00pm at Novel Idea Books. Click here for a map.

I hope you can make it to one of these events!

And now, the contest details

Here’s the deal: Steph and I are both offering a prize pack featuring each other’s books. I’ll be giving away the UK edition of Steph’s debut novel, A Most Improper Magick, along with an AMIM bookmark and postcard set! And over at her blog, Steph’s giving away a copy of The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower, plus an Agency sticker and bookmark.

Here are my contest rules. (You can, of course, enter both contests.)

– To enter, leave a comment answering any one of the interview questions above.

– You may have extra entries by sharing the contest on Twitter and/or Facebook (1 extra entry per site).

– The winner will be randomly selected.

– My contest closes on Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

Good luck, dear readers, and don’t forget to click over to Steph’s blog to enter her contest, too.

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Adventures in reading

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Today, I want to talk books. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Vanessa Chu, a reader who got in touch via Twitter. We stood outside an (unexpectedly) closed bookstore on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive and gabbed about Victorian England, the research behind the Agency novels, and books we loved. I recommended some of my favourites and realized that if, like Vanessa, you adore Victorian novels and C19 history, you might be interested, too.

I’m a huge fan of John Sutherland because he talks about literary matters in a way that makes them irresistible to non-academics. Among his many books are 3 that analyze puzzling questions in Victorian fiction: Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, and Who Betrayed Elizabeth Bennet?. They’re absolutely addictive. I dare you to pick up one and not gallop the whole way through.

I adore Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and am on a bit of a mission to make everyone read them. They get better as the series continues but if you’re a stickler for starting at the beginning, the title you want is Whose Body? Jill Paton Walsh’s continuations are also excellent and I’ll be reading the prequel, The Attenbury Emeralds, that’s published later this month.

Vanity Fair (the novel! not the magazine!) by William Makepeace Thackeray is extraordinary – that’s news to nobody, since it’s a canonical Victorian novel. But I find Thackeray’s comprehensive vision absolutely fascinating and VF is one of the few C19 novels to depict brown-skinned people in and about London. VF‘s narrator is quite often nasty about them – this is no PC, celebratory acknowledgement of non-whites in England – but their presence is pervasive and quite possibly dangerous.

I’m sure there are more books I mentioned, but they’re slipping away from me right now. Vanessa, if you’re reading, can you remind me in the comments?

And now, I want to talk about a debut novel that had me laughing aloud with pleasure and up well past my bedtime. Here’s my full disclosure, for what it’s worth: Stephanie Burgis and I first met about 18 months ago, when she wrote to me after reading A Spy in the House. My delight in her debut novel, A Most Improper Magick, may well be tinted by her appreciation for my work, our growing friendship, and the fact that she has one of the warmest online presences I’ve ever encountered. You can’t fake that stuff. So please consider yourselves advised. Oh, and I bought the book myself.

So. On Sunday evening, on my way up to bed, I thought, “I’ll just dip into the first few pages. Maybe I’ll read it tomorrow.” STEPHANIE BURGIS OWES ME 3 HOURS’ SLEEP. My gritty eyes aside, AMIM is an absolute pleasure: a whirlwind adventure, a cheeky homage to Jane Austen, a lively tribute to sisterly love and solidarity, and an assured, beautifully paced, pitch-perfect romp. Discerning readers of middle-grade and YA fiction, this ought to be on your wish lists. It’s out now in the UK, and will be published in the US (as Kat, Incorrigible) in April 2011. You won’t regret it.

And how about you, dear readers? What books would you recommend to me?

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Witchcraft in the time of Jane Austen

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Stephanie Burgis has a zippy new book trailer for her novel, A MOST IMPROPER MAGICK. The book is a dreamy-sounding combination of magic, adventure and romance; I’m really looking forward to it. You can also read the first chapter at her website,

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