Friday, June 24, 2016

Advice to a newbie writer #amwriting #writing

Hello beautiful people

So it looks like I can pop here once every month - can we please go for that? If I have more worthy content, I will definitely post.

But yeah - a few days ago on a Goodreads group I'm in, someone asked what advice we'd give a newbie author. I wrote a few lines...and then this issue kept working at me throughout the week and it wouldn't let up, so I thought why not put this together in a post and put it out here. I hope some, if not all, of it can be of some help to a writer out there. Maybe a newbie will find it useful; maybe an established author can find a nugget of truth somewhere in there... Either way, here goes!


Write. Then write more.
And then write some more.
There really is nothing more to it than this. You have to be consistently writing, especially when you are starting out. Writing is a muscle, albeit a figurative one, but you have to flex and work it regularly to hone it into its best shape. Through writing, you will discover more about yourself as a writer.


Just finish the story!
You won't believe the number of writers I have met over my career who have remained stuck on polishing those first 3 chapters of the same manuscript over and over again! There are people I met when I started writing, in crit loops. We'd lose touch, then meet again maybe a year down the line (same group or new group), and when asked, would tell me that they're still with the same story I had critted for them when we'd first met - something just wasn't "right" with it and they were fixing that.
And in the meantime, they never finished a story, didn't even move to another one! How can you shop something that's never finished? How do you publish a story...if it hasn't been written? You might be writing, yes, but are you a writer?
Finish a story, even if it sucks! Because we all learn from our mistakes, and this also applies to our writing. I've made so many mistakes over my career, scraped out so many first chapters, that I intrinsically know now what works for me and with me, so I don't fall in those traps any longer. Write it, even if it's crap! Finish a full manuscript then call yourself a writer!


Write to discover!
You'll never have the thrill of starting out except when you're starting out, if that's makes sense. You're right there at the edge of this new world - aka your world as a writer; no two writers' worlds are similar, let alone identical! - where there is so much to discover. What do you like writing? What is your forte? Does 1st person POV come naturally to you, or do you immerse yourself into a character better in 3rd person? Do sweeping descriptions come to you as if inspired by magic? Or do your stories completely lack setting and you find you need to force yourself to add this in?
By writing to discover all this, you will be finding yourself as a writer.
I started out writing omniscient, then found I gravitated more to 3rd person Deep POV. Still, I attempted a novel in 1st person - epic fail; I didn't even get past the first 5 pages, so I know I cannot do 1st person even to save my life, LOL. Went back to omniscient, found I was always falling back into 3rd person. Clinched the deal for me - my writing comes to me in 3rd person, and I don't have to fight it anymore.


Find your ocean
Test out writing in a few genres. You don't know yet what is going to come naturally for you (and you need to be writing something that comes organically to you. It's too much of an effort otherwise and totally not worth it if you value your sanity).
I love reading chick-lit, but see my epic fail at 1st person above - means I cannot write chick lit again to save my life. I tried high fantasy - nope, not for me. Historicals, let's not even go there because I just don't have the history and etiquette and knowledge chops to cut it there. What does that leave me? Well, the contemporary realm...and dabbling in that ocean showed me I could make satisfactory ponds out of small-town romance, cultural romance, espionage/romantic suspense, and even Urban Fantasy. I found my big body of water then made it smaller by creating ponds out of my ocean (ahem, clear as mud?)


Do NOT write for the market!
Especially if this is our first book/you're just starting out writing. That's only setting yourself up to fail. Of course, it might be that vampire+were+zombie apocalypse erotica is the hottest commodity being exchanged right now, and lo and behold, this is something you can actually write.
Then that craze goes away...and it's back to roguish dukes or motorcycle bad boy heroes. Where does that leave you? Start again for that new trend? Isn't that undue stress on you?
Find what works for you (maybe it's extremely Alpha heroes), then spin your stories from that angle. And then adapt to the market if you really wish to go that route...


Be consistent when you're starting out
Find one genre and stick to it. Do NOT spread yourself thin over many different genres that don't even have a hint of crossover to them because then, you'll be working at building an audience over many different genres while you could've been focusing on one and then moved on to another.
I'm guilty of this. When I started writing, I had a pen name for cultural romance, and a pen name for mainstream/non-cultural romance, and then I considered getting a pen name for the heftier espionage stories. Why did I need pen names for each? Because they were all so different that it didn't make sense to regroup them under a single name. Different tone, different voice, different pace. So I was basically being 3 people at the same time - recipe for spreading yourself thin? You bet! I also achieved nothing of building a readership at the time.
Then I kept on writing, refining those 'older' debut books, and time and practice and writing allowed me to see a common thread in all my work - it's family, whether the protagonists are from Desi families in far-flung countries, socialites in London, or even assassins who don't bat an eye when taking out a target. Time and practice and my own eyes opening showed me how to regroup them under my banner. My readers know they will always find the warmth and tangible ties and threads of relationships in my work never mind the genre, and I tend to believe that is what they are coming for when they're coming for my stories. That's "me" as an author for them, what my name suggests and delivers. But yeah, the many years lost in the meantime? I'm never gonna get them back. Don't make the same mistake I did.


Don't pause for publishing until you've found your voice, your special 'tone', that element that always seems to make it into all your stories.
Like I said above, mine is family, and basically, relationships. I've had books published in the past, the contracts running out and me getting the rights back. Said books then get revamped because I've found out who I am as an author in the meantime, and then sent back into the world again. Time lost? Yes. Readers lost? Oh, yeah! Me having been stupid? You bet. If I'd waited to the point where I knew what 'me as an author' meant, I would've sent those stories out in their second, 'better' shape out there into the world (and by better, I mean more 'me', the 'me' my readers seem to appreciate in my writings.)


Chase publishing only when you've found who you are as an author.
This will give you the advantage of knowing how you want to promote yourself out there, how you wish to portray yourself in social media and in the open for your fans to see. You will be chasing squirrels if you're spread thin over genres, like I mentioned above. Establish yourself in something first before jumping/switching/easing into something else. For example, my espionage books when I first wrote them (and sent them out! Long story with defunct e-publishers involved, before I self-published as 'me' a few years later) had very little in common whether in tone, pace, or conflict to my cultural romances. I was doing those two concurrently... Can you say 'reader confusion' and 'author ambiguity' at the time? Yes! Was that favourable to me? Not at all!


When you know yourself as a writer, then start publishing. BUT build yourself a backlist here before starting serious promo, especially the paid kind.
Let yourself be discovered for a while, and focus on just writing and putting more books out (and not on winning readership, making sales, and yeah, making money, too)
One thing readers hate is a flash in the pan...and this is what you'll look like if you've gone out all guns blazing with your first book then struggle to write the next and end up not publishing anything for months, maybe even more than a year.
Then think about this - you have a few books out. Sales might be okay (or they might be dismal! Having many books doesn't mean you'll be rolling in the moolah!). You've found your footing as a writer, your persona as the author; you know how to approach the world as Author-Name-Name. Say you now go for a paid promo. And the promo bears fruit, meaning you get a lot of sales. Readers discover you - and lo and behold, there are other books from you so they can binge right away if they've totally dug your story they got through the promo.
See how this works to your advantage? Now imagine you've put out your very first book. You wrote just the one - you haven't tried any other genre, you haven't seen if you can still hold the line in this same genre, to be honest...and that first book explodes in sales! Great... Uhm, not so much. Because readers now love you, so they want more. And there's no backlist to go to. So you have to bring out this next book. But what if you're stressed, blocked? What if Book2 doesn't come to you as easily as Book1? What if readers are now clamouring for you to give them the next book asap? What if you're taking too much time? They'll move to someone else...and when you do bring the next book out, you have to start anew - get new readers, and the older ones? They've probably already washed their hands of you, so don't count on them giving you a penny. They might even be blackballing you in the reading community, going like 'I wouldn't lose my time on this one coz he/she takes ages to deliver, if at all.' See where this is leading you?


If you're going for series, plan them well...and write a few before you even do anything with the idea alone!
This leads a bit from the above. You start a series; readers dig it. When is the next book coming out? You're writing it, you say. Then life happens - tragedy, sickness, even happiness like a wedding or a new baby, or you switch day jobs, or have to get a new job with more responsibility, or your day to day life changes for the 'worse' and you no longer have as much time and energy to write. You're stressed, then you block on the ms - the characters are no longer talking to you. Worse, they're giving you the cold shoulder. When, and how, are you going to get that next book out???
But what if you already have Books 1-4 written? Readers clamouring for the next book? Tell them it will be out in so-many-weeks/months. Set the book up for pre-order already, so your readers see you mean business.
Now say Book2 will come out in 3 months, Book3 in 6 months, Book4 in 9 months - you need to write Book5, so you technically have 11 months to finish it (because Book5 will come out in 12 months following this schedule). 11 months is very much cutting it too close, but like we all know, life happens, and you have yourself a breather. Say you commit to writing a book over 3 months. You'll be done with Book5 by the time Book3 is coming out; Book6 when Book4 is releasing, and so on. See how that's so much less stressful for you? And how it's a win-win with your readers, too?


Find your pace.
You can set out X-number of hours a day to write. Or in a week. You can write every single day. You can plan for 1 chapter a week.
Except, it doesn't always work like that for everyone. I used to plan - for everything. Be it writing, studying, projects. I wouldn't be able to bring myself to do it for 2/3rds of the time...then with the deadline looming, watch me power through the whole thing! I have studied for university modules just 2 weeks prior to the exam (and yes, passed the paper. Thank God!) I have let dust bunnies gather all over my house for weeks...then one day, enough is enough and I will clean the flat top to bottom and every nook and cranny. I'm not the 'slow and steady' kind; I'm all about sudden bursts and flares. And same goes with my writing.
I used to falter with writing because of this, losing determination and tempted more than once to throw a story aside because I was stalling too much with it. Then one year, dunno what crazy tick bit me and I signed up for NaNoWriMo - where you commit to writing 50K of a story in a single month, in November. Bursts and flares, remember? I did just that - wrote and wrote and wrote. Result? A 78K story after 25 days (give or take weekends in there). How was that possible? Because Nano bursts were what worked for me, with my temperament. I know now I can never be slow and steady with a story; I need to power through start to finish in one go and be done with it. Has that made me more productive? You bet! Do I sometimes go for months without writing a single word? Yes, I do. But in the end, I do get my books and my writing out there when the time comes, because this method worked for me.
How will you know what works for you if you don't try, if you don't experiment?


I'm not gonna go into the debate of publisher/agent v/s self-publishing - you'll have to find what works for you and what you're ready to set up for (publishers handle all costs, but you have very little control over your book. If the editor working on your story is the kind that feels they need to rewrite every line of your book to meet a certain style, then you're gonna have to accept that axe - it might no longer look like 'you' any more V/S self-publishing - you can't just slap a book out and publish it. It needs a cover, an editor, someone to beta-read it for holes/issues, a proofreader too, maybe, someone to format. Yes, you can do all of that yourself - though not edit! You need 'other' eyes on there to see the stuff you will definitely miss! I'm an author and an editor, and I still need another pair of eyes on my work as there might be some words I've overused, echoes I have missed, something not sitting as right as it should.


But yeah - invest in yourself as an author.
You'll be thankful for that later on.
Or you might not even see how that is helping you, since everything is rolling like clockwork - and this, my lovely, is what you're after. This feeling that everything is working out smoothly. If you prep well, you'll get that smooth road. Trust me when I say many of us 'established' authors today have been through very bumpy rides throughout the years, through trial and error that could've been easily spared if we'd pushed half a brain cell towards it. Or is that what's actually called gaining experience...? Gain from our experience and don't make the same mistakes we did.


And then, finally, keep on writing!
Practice does make as close to perfect as possible, and you'll also begin to write faster, notice what your pitfalls are (I used to stall and drop mss in the middle previously because I was making my heroines too good/Mary Sue types. So yeah, I hit many walls until I realized this). I cranked out a 100K story over 9 months when I first started writing. Today, close to 12 years later, 100K is a month's work if I'm diligent about it. How/why? Because I know how I write, where my strengths lie, what works or not for me as an author and also when/how I'm devising a character and a plot. All this acquired through trial and error, practice, writing.


Then it all keeps adding on to this - write, write more, then write some more. As an author, you'll always need that 'next' book, and that's what it boils down to!


I hope this had been of some help at all (and not muddled things through more for ye all, LOL).


I'd love to know what tips and advice you'd feel like sharing. Comment and let me know!

From Mauritius with love,

Zee

Friday, May 13, 2016

Living (& writing) with #BreastCancer...& why I haven't published anything yet this year #Sorry

Hello beautiful people!

I hope you're all doing well. I'm okay, just battling the stupendously cold weather that slammed down on Mauritius this week.

Anywho, by now, you all prolly know I have been diagnosed with cancer. Twice. It's been 5 years since the second diagnosis. I don't really talk about it (it's boring, and there are way more informative and funnier blogs from cancer survivors out there) but I think the time might have come to speak out a little more about what it is to live once you've been diagnosed with cancer.

In short, it sucks! LOL. But hey, you're alive, still there and kicking, getting to spend another day with your loved ones, do things you like, enjoy life, develop yourself physically and spiritually... Still, it's a struggle, and I'll get into more detail in a few.

Let me bypass that for a second and tell you about something else, that's somehow connected. I'm an author. Meaning, I write books...for readers to enjoy. As an author, too, I have committed to writing a few books a year, most of them from series with a loyal following (thank you, readers!). One of these is a PNR/UrbanFantasy series I co-write with my bestie, author Natalie G. Owens.

So here's the thing - looking at my schedule this week, and also while speaking with Natalie, and also through hearing from our fans, I've come to realize that the first 4 months of 2016 are a blank writing-wise for me. In so doing, I am also dragging Natalie in this mess, because we have both committed to bringing Eternelles (that's our co-written series, btw) book number 3 out early this year. And where are we at? Well, we're expecting a few key scenes from me before Natalie can work her magical voice in there and wrap it all up...

Because of me, we are letting our readers down...and I am also letting readers of my series down. I'm sorry for this...

Is this a matter of choice? No! I will never consciously go out of my way to be such a biatch as to get peoples' hopes up and then not deliver. But unwittingly, I have done it. Wanna know why? The reason lies in some dates and yes, living with cancer.

I was first diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago in March, at the age of 22 (yes, it happens so young. Case in point - me). Went through the whole hoopla - surgery, chemo, radiation. Then moved on to a series of regular appointments as there was no further treatment for me, given my cancer had not been triggered by hormones (there are medication regimens out for treating this triggering-by-hormones thing, as I would soon find out.)
Fast forward 5 years - back then, if you'd been cancer-free during the five years since your last treatment, you were considered unofficially in remission. Not cured, mind you - you're never cured of cancer. But yeah, remission meant you're as close to normal as a cancer patient can get.
I would've hit my 5-year mark in October...and would you believe, in September, there I find another lump, in the other breast... Back to the surgery table, no chemo this time as it was caught early, but radiation, and then the hormone therapy (which basically makes your body go into menopause, never mind if you're still in your 20s when this is taking place!) So this hormone therapy (drug called Tamoxifen, which is an estrogen inhibitor - won't go into all the boring details. Let's just say it negates the effects of estrogen in the body...exactly like at menopause, when estrogen starts to dwindle down) - well, you gotta take this medication for 5 years. When do I start it, after we get the hormone receptor results? January 2011.

Fast forward another 5 years - remember, there is still that unofficial remission line you could cross at that mark, though doctors are oh-so-cautious now about bandying that term around. When would my 5-years be, aka also stopping the meds? January 2016 - you got that right.

My life was going as normally as it always had until December 26, 2015, when I had my appointment with my care team at the hospital. I had been writing, having just finished a rewrite of a reverted story (Upon A Stormy Night, which I made a prequel in the Daimsbury Chronicles series) and had also translated it in French! I'd also just handed Natalie my next scene in the lineup of the upcoming Eternelles book.
This was supposed to be a routine check - get in, answer a few questions (prolly from a junior doctor/resident who looks like he's just out of pre-school), grab prescription for hormone therapy, get out - all while you've lost hours in the hospital waiting room, cramped in between people like in a tin of sardines; most of the time, people who have no concept of deodorant, body odour, bad breath, mouthwash, or even brushing their teeth. Joy, NOT.
But there's a new doctor there - my regular doctor, a lovely, wonderful lady, had retired, and her case load had come to this new, very young doctor. I don't know if he's still green or wet behind the ears medical-wise, but there he goes, starting to talk of recurrence, procedures that should've been done to make sure I had the least chance of recurrence possible, genetic markers' testing, my risk factor which is apparently very high...

My head starts to reel. I mean, look at this. One month before my 5-year line last time, I'd been smacked with another bout of cancer. And here we were again - I hadn't even realized it was again just 1 month before the next 5-year line, and once this dawned upon me... Cue the panic! When I'd had my second surgery, even the surgeon had been certain I had a benign lump. I'd had to fight him and the doctors all the way to request a mastectomy rather than the localized lumpectomy they wanted me to have (lump was barely 2 inches big, so it couldn't be cancer, according to them, despite my history). I fought, and I won my mastectomy...but they had taken just the flesh, and not the conduits where cancer cells can spread through - aka lymph nodes. According to this new doctor, I was at a higher risk of cancer cells, if they ever decide to come back to my chest wall (yeah, you can still have cancerous cells develop on that wall despite not having any breast tissue left. That's the world of cancer - you have it, you can get it. You don't have it anymore, and you can still get it!)
And where would that cancer spread to, or else, where could it originate again? In my ovaries. That's also why he wanted genetic testing done, because those markers could show if I was also at risk of developing ovarian cancer more than the 'average' woman.
Best route to go? Surgery, to remove those lymph nodes. To have the clearer picture possible, he orders tests - echographies, X-rays, blood tests. Still, it's a given that surgery will be necessary, and I get a next appointment in March, when we should have all the results.

By the time I come out of that consultation room, I am no longer breathing. Unfortunately, my husband hadn't been able to accompany me inside that day, so I am reeling all on my own from all this news. And yes, it's 1 month from the 5-year line...again. Was the cancer coming back for me? Will 4 years and 11 months be the only rest I will be able to glean before I have to wage another battle again, in what seems now to be a war I just cannot win?

I speak with my husband; I speak with Natalie... I just know I won't really be 'living' for the next 3 months, until we get those results back. Tentatively, I already pencil in 'surgery & recovery time' in my diary for the first 2 weeks of April, which would've been Easter break and thus no school for the kids. Both understand the surgery is a priority, and I have their full support.

Almost 6 years ago, when I had my second mastectomy, I went the route of the free government-funded medical system, aka local hospitals, for my care. Because I'll be honest - I couldn't afford to be paying a minimum of 150,000 rupees for this procedure in a paid private clinic. We just don't have that kind of money. And that was just the quote - imagine if there are complications, etc. The bill could easily ratchet up another 100K. No can do. So we went to the hospital...where I shared a ward with 35 other women...with no privacy...restrictive visiting hours and again, no privacy with your family...2 toilets available for 36 women, and one of them was Out of Service...a bathroom with no hot water...a drafty ward and just a threadbare blanket (and it's frowned upon to bring in your own blanket)...bed quality, let's not even go there (redeeming qualities were the amazing, fantabulous, really lovely nurses on duty. And in the surgery recovery room, the nurses wake you calmly and speak to you and gently push your hair from your forehead to soothe you when you wake up so disoriented and groggy. A far cry from the private clinic where I woke up with tiny slaps to my cheeks and a woman blaring in my ear! Hospitals also seem to use less anaesthetics, so there is much less nausea and vomiting post surgery. But even these great points pale against the rest, but beggars can't be choosers, so people with no money have to fall on the free hospital system.)

Lymph node surgery is a quick procedure, less than an hour. Open, nip, tuck, sew, out. Can be done on an out-patient basis in a private clinic (in during the morning, surgery, recovery, then out this same afternoon. No overnight stay). Plus you get your own room, and conveniently for us, there's a private clinic really close to our house. I wasn't gonna have the women's ward episode again, sorry. And I so was NOT staying overnight for a procedure that could be over and done with in 8 hours - hospitals would keep you for at least 3 nights (eve of procedure, procedure day, then one more day+night under observation).
Now, where to get the money? Hubby is the sole earner in our household. My parents offer to lend us the fee for the surgery, my in-laws do, too. But we're not going to take a loan, even from them. If we can't afford out of pocket (and covered by medical insurance), then we'll be going the free route.

In the past 5 years, something that's happened is that I have finished my university schooling, and had also established myself as an editor. I was earning a bit. Not much, but with what I made, coupled with what insurance was ready to cover, we could've made it.
So here's me taking on as many jobs as I can between January and March. Because I will need the money, you know. My head's not in the game, and certainly not of writing. I do manage a translation of an older work, but translating is a different process - your brain almost on cruise-control when you're bilingual. For the life of me, I couldn't put a new word down on the page. So no new writing... All projects at a standstill.

Late March comes, and it's time for the appointment. All the results, etc... I'm on tenterhooks. I want everything cleared out so I can go and schedule my surgery for April ASAP!
Lo and behold, the doctor isn't even here! Meet his resident...who has no clue about the need for surgery and all that! I am so NOT going out of that room without a firm idea what's going on, so I stand tall and ask to speak to another attending oncologist. Never mind that they don't know my case from Eve's - I was not gonna be kicked like a football on the pitch and be sent to another appointment in another 3 months' time! My sanity would not be able to take it! Come on, I need to know if I have better chances of dying from cancer in the coming years or not, or if it's already too late (side note - nobody knows when and how death will come. I might not even get to finish this blog post, who knows, except God? Point being - I needed to find out if cancer was back in my life again...)

And on I go with the other attending...who takes one long look at the thick file I have accumulated there in the past 11 years... and would you believe - he tells me he wouldn't push for the surgery! Not that there isn't a need, but it would be rather pointless in the big scheme of things... Best thing to do, according to him, is to monitor my ovarian cancer markers just like we've been monitoring my breast cancer markers all this time. Blood test for the ovarian markers would show if there is elevated activity already, and if not, will be used as a baseline for future tests. According to him, blood tests every 6 months should be the only thing I need to bother with (oh, and yeah, remember the hormone regimen? The guideline now is to take it for 10 years, and not just 5. So here I am saddled with another 5 years of hormonal therapy. Well, won't turn me into more of a hag, so let's stay put there...)

Still get kicked to another appointment for these new blood results...6 weeks. Aka, early May.

I'm ecstatic at this point. I mean, no surgery, and I might not be dying from cancer, after all. The fear is always there - will the cancer bogeyman get you? Because you have no clue how or why it came for you in the first place. Is it lifestyle? You know that if you smoke, you have higher risk of getting lung cancer, but every other cancer? There seems to be no cause! So how do you prevent a recurrence? How do you live your life so cancer has the least chance of striking you? Yes, you might be genetically predisposed...but why does it activate in you, suddenly, out of the blue, and not someone else? This is what cancer survivors live with every day. It's an eternal Damocles' sword over your head, dangling, waiting, ready to strike... I remember once reading a book about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and the person who wrote that memoir said something along the lines that OCD is living with a permanent pall of doom over you, like expecting the sky might fall on you at any moment, that the air around you will crush you at any instant...and OCD is actually a way to manage this kind of anxiety, to mitigate it.
Once you've been hit by cancer, this is what your life is then reduced to. This similar anxiety...but cancer survivors don't really have ways to mitigate it. We can't arrange or rearrange anything in our lives so we can 'control' what happens next, if the cancer will get us. It's a bogeyman, always there behind your shoulder, ready to strike...

Still, you make do... You've been granted a second chance, when others haven't been so lucky, every second you get to live. Let's face it - a diagnosis of cancer means you have brushed with death, at least with the inevitability of it... And this is the fear you live with all the time. Under some circumstances, it can take over your life...like it did mine in the first 4 months of 2016. I only started breathing again last week, on that appointment when we got the cancer marker results back. Praise be to God, the numbers are 'normal', so there's that.

But in the meantime, I had a life on hold. A career in limbo. A shadow of me living like a zombie, going through the motions. Yes, I do put on a brave face - you wouldn't know I experience this anxiety if you see me everyday (which you do, if you're with me on Facebook). And FYI, I need to point something out here - battling cancer is not a 'brave' thing to do. I don't mean this in the sense that it's got no relevance...but once you've been diagnosed, what else is there left for you but to fight? Fighting is half the battle won against cancer...and we have no choice! It's not a choice to fight it - you just do it! So that's what I mean by the bravery of fighting cancer. You just do it...

So now, I am trying to step out of that darkness. It's like I've been numb ever since that December 26 morning when I emerged from that consultation room. I'm still finding my bearings...

I know it's asking much, but here I am asking for you to please bear with me. I don't wish to let you down, and I will be doing everything in my capacity to deliver to you those stories I have promised. The schedule might look a bit erratic, seem totally unpredictable, but please remember that I am there as an author as much for you as for myself, and yes, in the past 4 months, I have also let myself down. Because writing is my blood, my heart's sustenance... You know, I actually started writing because of my cancer diagnosis. I knew then that 'one day' might not come for me, so 'one day, I'll be a writer' needed to happen, and it did. I wrote my first book mainly on the eves of my chemotherapy days, because I couldn't sleep from the anxiety, knowing I would be so sick for the next 72 hours, hoping that the drugs would be doing what they needed to do - kill the cancer.

So this is another apology from me, especially to all those Eternelles fans out there waiting for Book3.

From Mauritius with love,

Zee

Friday, April 22, 2016

Back In (the) Black #BadPuns

Hey beautiful people!

Did you, like me, just hear the opening music of the AC/DC track based on the title of this post? I sure did. I mean, epic or what? Such a silence-breaker, that one. And it was a play on me being back to blogging (no longer in the red...so basically in the black...?) Yeah, bad pun, right? Hence the hashtag...which has gotten drilled into me by my almost-13-yr-old Internet savvy kiddo. Actually, according to him, everything I say is a bad pun, so, I tend to hear "hashtag-bad-pun" a looooot when he's home with me. Which he has been - 2 full weeks of April break. We can't call it Easter break this year as Easter came and went before the first school trimester was out, so there you have it.



(I couldn't resist - sorry *grin*)

But yeah - back in the black... Apologies for being away, totally MIA, from blogging this past month, peeps. It all started with huge health worries - it was possible that I would've needed some elective surgery this month regarding the threat of cancer recurrence, so I was on tenterhooks all through March as that's when I would be meeting with my oncologist.

Turns out it was a false scare (all thanks and praise go to GOD for this!), but you can imagine the stress... I mean, it's surgery. No matter how small the procedure, you have to go under, be cut, have stitches, recovery time, and the most awful: that period where you just cannot get everything done by yourself, having to rely on others, your mind at 150% but your body and system just not following along at all... I also hate being away from my home (and my bed!) unless I am with my family at a resort or something, so having to spend even one night in the hospital? Nope!

So yes, the stress...and then I was in the hospital waiting rooms for 2 Mondays in a row (tests and then meeting the doctor to read the results) and wouldn't you know? I come out of there having caught the mother of all flu bugs! Seasons are changing here (summer going into fall) so this is the perfect prone time for viruses to lurk around and hit you when you least expect, and there I was, sick with the %$#@&* of all flu bugs! 2 bl**dy weeks it kept me down! Arghh! I was barely human and trying hard to just meet my work commitments (because life doesn't stop when you fall sick, sadly) and trying to be the woman of the house and getting stuff done (like food on the table, though my darling husband did offer to help and cook, too. God bless that man).

After that, barely recovered, April school break is here - aka 2 weeks of having the kids at home. And so they won't miss the Friday prayers (they're both grown boys now, almost young men), hubby takes both Fridays off (remember, that's the day I post). And best of all, he's like, "Let's make the most of the day off..." so off we find ourselves for 2 consecutive weekends away to a hotel in the north of the island.

Prior to this week, I had started to forget what my flat felt like, because it seemed we'd been away more than at home these past few weeks (we also go to my parents' a lot more during break weeks), so this is me now getting my bearings again...

...and here I am, back in the black. Well, I hope I am back in the black with you folks.

Oh, side note - if you're with me on Facebook, you will know that I was finally able this week to get my own domain name for the site! Yep, been the highlight of this past week and also a huge milestone in my career...so how about we celebrate that today? Mocktails on me!

Side note - I'll be making virgin pina coladas later today. Easy peasy - just dump one can of pineapple rings in the blender, one can of coconut milk, and about 10-12 ice cubes. Process until thick and fluffy. Pour in jug. Drink as is or place in fridge to chill even more. *smiles*

Happy Friday, ye all! Hope ye'll enjoy a lovely weekend! I, for one, will be glad to be staying perfectly inside my little flat, at home... (God willing, lol, because there's always something or the other happening in our world!

From Mauritius with love,

Zee

Friday, March 18, 2016

Coconut Quick-Mix Yellow Cake with Marshmallow Frosting - All #Homemade! NO #Chemicals!

Hey peeps!
 
So I know I've built a reputation as an undomestic goddess....but I've been working to remedy that 'flaw' and so have gotten quite proficient in the kitchen, especially the baking area. If we're friends on FB, you'll often see pics of my baking during the weekend on my wall.
 
And a couple weeks ago, I made this cake and a lot of people asked me for the recipe. Rather than blowing their eardrums off with my rambling, I decided it would be best to post the recipe with all its tips and tidbits here so everyone could have access to it. And also, I love to share whatever I have acquired as knowledge, so here goes.
 
Other thing if you know me well - I am a huge, huge, huge proponent of the from-scratch, homemade avenue for everything, especially what we eat. Don't forget - I've had cancer twice so it's really the sensible thing for me to do to steer clear of all the chemicals and stuff they push into processed food out there. And this involves cake mixes - and is there a more ubiquitous store-bought cake mix than Yellow Cake?
 
So I was digging through my recipes and came across this one. Can't recall where I actually got it from...could be a recipe I pilfered from my MIL's cake recipe box...
 
And then, there's the frosting. I remember when I was little, there was a White lady who lived actually just one street from where I am now based and we used to order this scrumptious, moist, and decadent cake from her all the time. I recall the frosting was something out of this world, and I hadn't tasted that in anything ever since (we're talking 25 years or something. I think she passed away around that time, coz I recall her as already being very old at the time. Think Maggie Smith-kinda old, LOL).
Then one day, I was on YouTube, on the Joy of Baking channel, and I saw the woman there making Marshmallow Frosting. I think she called it 7-Minute Frosting (as in you had to beat the frosting over a bain-marie for 7 minutes using a mixer on full speed). It looked really easy...but I only own a stand mixer now and no electric beaters, and I sure don't have that much elbow grease in me to whip egg whites for 7 whole minutes at a constant high speed! So I scraped that off, thinking I wouldn't get to make that.
Fast-forward and I was on French channel by this Parisian guy called Herve (pronounced Air-vay) and he was making Marshmallow Frosting (watch the vid here. It's in French but you can get the gist of it. Frosting starts at the 3.22 mark). Hope rose in me...and soared when I saw how he actually made that frosting. Easy-peasy...and I just knew I had to try this! At the same time, I recalled that cake from when I was young, and a light bulb went off in my head telling me that the frosting that little old lady used must've been Marshmallow Frosting.
 
So on I went, and made the cake and frosted! And would you believe it - I was taken back to my very early childhood when I tasted this cake...because it tasted just like that old lady's cake! Even my husband concurred (he, too, had been ordering that cake from her when he was younger. Strangely enough, from this same spot we now live in, as this property has been his family stronghold like forever, LOL).
 
Now a few things before I give you the recipe.
 
1. I don't own two same-size cake tins (I don't think I even have matching plates in my kitchen, come to think of it... Anywho...). So I have a 9-inch pan and a 10-inch one. The reason I have only 3 layers in my cake? The 9-inch cake was split in 2; the 10-inch one came out flatter and I just trimmed around the sides to make it the same size as the other 2 layers. If you have two 9-inch pans, you should be set and manage to get 4 layers when you slice them into 2.
 
2. I made this amount of frosting from the recipe...and it was barely enough to fill and cover the 3-layer cake. My advice - double it up (or make it in 2 batches). You can never have too much frosting in a cake!
 
3. I don't crumb-coat and then frost. It's gonna get eaten, anyway, so why bother? (and the blokes in my house don't eat - they wolf down or inhale food, and they certainly don't use their eyes to look at the food; it's only their taste buds and stomach that do the work here). So if you're gonna crumb-coat and then frost after 20-30 mins in the fridge, you need a double batch of frosting.
 
4. I very rarely use a recipe as is. I love to experiment with the numbers. Like, my husband is diabetic, and sugar tends to turn the boys into rabid monsters, so I try to cut it down as much as possible without losing flavor. And I also prefer something not too sweet, too. So the sugar in this can be cut by a third and the integrity of the cake will not be affected (they all say baking is a science that needs precise measurements and such...I've found that's pretty much BS in most cases...).
As for butter, there isn't that much in here, but you can cut it by a quarter if you want. I actually prefer my cakes really buttery and soft, so I rarely tamper with that unless I discover it feels like I'm eating textured butter when the cake comes out as there is just so much in it! But this one works great with the butter measurement, so it's up to you.
 
And on we go with the actual recipes! These are both fool-proof. I forgot to add the milk when it was called for and remembered at the end and dumped it in...and it still came out great! Also forgot the lemon juice in the frosting (kept wondering why it wasn't "picking up" then I recalled that and added it. No harm done - frosting came out fine!)
 
Quick-Mix Yellow Cake
 
(versatile - I made mine coconut, but you can make it vanilla, almond, pretty much any flavor you want)
 
Half cup butter, softened (I think that makes 125g, which is an American stick. I use Kerrygold 200g packets here - butter made from milk of grass-fed cows! - and just used half of it, so it was 100g that I used)
1 and a Half cups sugar (can be brought down to just over 1 cup. And yes, white granulated here. The very small white crystals - never mind what it's called, LOL)
3 large eggs (I don't get really large eggs here, so I used 4 smaller ones and it worked fine. I also don't have the weights, so go with your gut here.)
2 and 1-quarter cups all-purpose flour - sifted, of course!
1 teaspoon salt
3 and a Half teaspoons baking powder
1 and 1-quarter cups whole milk (DON'T try to use 2% or skim here. Just won't do!)
1 teaspoon essence/extract of your choice (I used coconut)
 
Optional: If you're making coconut cake, have about one-third cup of grated or flaky coconut and soak it in the milk that you will have heated prior. Then allow it all to come to room temperature. I don't recommend coconut milk here as it's too thick, but this does the trick.
And if you're making an almond cake, add about one-third cup of almond flour to the mix.
 
- Preheat your oven at 350F/180C
 
- Grease and flour your pans. You can also use a layer of greaseproof paper on the base, but I didn't find it necessary as the cake detaches really well from the pan if it has been well greased and floured.
 
- In your stand-mixer with the whisk attachment, or with hand-held beaters, cream your butter and sugar until it gets really thick and fluffy and pale. (basically, this is just mixing the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until it is whipped. Nothing complicated. Takes about 3-4 minutes. Might need to scrape down the sides a few times with a silicone spatula - these things get everything off the sides!)
 
- Add your eggs one by one (Tip: break the egg in a small bowl and NOT directly into the mixing bowl. I've had eggs be 'weird' inside and ruining my food, and also, if some cracked eggshell fell into it, you can easily remove it beforehand.)
By now, your batter should be looking pale yellow, and the sugar crystals will have dissolved. Don't worry if there's still some grainy sugar in there.
 
- In your flour, mix in the salt and baking powder. (almond flour, too, if you're going the almond route)
 
- Slowly add the flour to your mixing bowl (3-4 Tablespoons at a time). When it is all in, beat it on slow/low speed for about 30 seconds, just to combine.
 
- Add in the milk slowly (or it will all blow into your face!). And remember, your coconut is in there, too, if you're making coconut cake.
 
- When all the milk is in, beat on High for 3 mins until the batter is really well-combined.
 
- Pour into your prepared pans.
 
- Bake for 25-30 mins (It can take a little more than that, depending on your oven. I have a convection oven and it still took about 40 mins to have mine done. But check at this time mark, anyway)
 
- Let cool in pan. Invert onto rack. Let cool completely before slicing in 2.
 
- Fill with the frosting, then decorate.
 
 
Easiest Marshmallow Frosting Ever!
 
4 egg whites (Side note: I usually use the yolks to make mayonnaise when I make this frosting. No wastage!)
180g sugar (again, the small white crystals kind. Granulated, I think it's called, or Caster)
Half teaspoon cream of tartar - and if you don't have it, like it's the case in Mauritius, then use the same amount of fresh-squeezed Lemon Juice.
Flavor extract (I used coconut as I was making a coconut cake)
 
- Place a bowl over a pan of simmering water (a bain-marie, or a double boiler. The bubbling water should NOT be touching the base of the bowl, though. Just the steam/heat)
 
- Mix your egg whites and the sugar and tartar/lemon juice off the heat, then pour into the bowl (You could also just mix it in the bowl and then place said bowl over the pan of water, Duh, lol)
 
- Using a hand whisk (trust me, it does not require that much elbow grease!) or a handheld beater, whisk the mix over the heat.

- Whisk until the mixture is thickened and opaque, which pretty much happens around the 5-min mark. Don't worry if it doesn't look like frosting yet - it doesn't need to at this point.

- Once your mix has turned opaque, take the bowl off the heat and scrape the contents into the clean, dry bowl of your stand-mixer, and whisk this on High, just like you would make whipped cream. (You can also continue using your handheld beater if that's what you're using, but basically, get it off the heat at this point. Also, I forgot to add the lemon juice before and my mixture was looking like fluffy egg white pillows. I added it at this point and the whole thing whipped up just fine from here on.)

- Stop once your mixture is thick and fluffy and it leaves stiff peaks in when you remove the whisk.

- Let cool completely, then use to fill and frost your cake.
 

So there you have it, peeps! It looks like there are a lot of steps, but it's really very, very easy, and the only chemical in there is baking powder, so you're safe on that front. *grin* And this cake is definitely to die for, and would make a stunning birthday cake or dessert centerpiece.
Definitely best when eaten chilled, so keep it in the fridge and take it out like 10-15 mins before you'll be serving.

I'm not sure how long it keeps in the fridge - I'd say 3-4 days is a safe bet, but mine disappeared the day after and has never 'survived' beyond Day 3, so I really dunno here. But anywho, this cake won't last long once you get a taste of it. *grin*
 
Hope you'll enjoy! Let me know if you've tried it - yes, I want pics!
 
From Mauritius with love,
 
Zee

Friday, March 11, 2016

From Couch Potato To Exercise Freak: My #Fitness Journey Amid #Cancer Struggles

Origin: Rebel Dieticians.us
Hey beautiful people!

Post didn't manage to come in on Wednesday; I hope you won't mind that I moved the day a little as it seems Fridays are/will be a bit less mad in the big scheme of things.

So it was my birthday last week, and when I turned 32 a year ago, I took a long, good look at myself and my lifestyle and I knew something had to give. The thirties were creeping up on me (slow metabolism, finding carbs to be almost toxic to my waistline, sugar making me balloon up, loss of energy, listlessness) and this was all not helped by the fact that I also take Tamoxifen, the estrogen blocker hormone therapy that is a fixture of post-estrogen-receptive cancer diagnosis. It was my fourth year on the drug, and though I'd been originally told on 2010 when I came down with breast cancer for the second time that I would need to take the drug for 5 years, in the meantime, the consensus had changed that the drug should now be taken for 10 years (!!!), to be switched after those 10 years with another drug that caters to post-menopausal women. But in my case, I had come down with this cancer at the age of 27, so 10 years onwards would make me only 37, not at all even close to 'real' menopause and certainly not post-menopausal...
But I digress. One of the side effects of Tamoxifen is (but of course!) a slower metabolism and making you put on weight all while having a sharp tendency to raise your cholesterol levels. It's literally what a woman would've gone through at menopause, when the body dwindles to a stop the production of estrogen (Tamoxifen is an estrogen inhibitor that blocks the hormone, effectively negating it, in the body).

Watch me packing on the pounds then!

Awry numbers on the scale? Check.
Spare tyre around the belly? Check.
Thicker arms that looked like wobbly salami? Check.
Thighs...well, let's not even go there, shall we?

I'll be honest with you guys. I've never been 'naturally' thin. I was a chubby kid - prolly because my mother made me drink about a pint of whole milk morning and night (right upon waking, last thing before going to bed). Then when she would take out a plate for me, the rice (we are Indians, after all, so yes, rice) would be what an adult is supposed to eat portion-wise. Add to this that I was never encouraged to exercise (Indian mums and aunties tend to think that exercising runs the risk of turning women into those body-built, steroid-enhanced women whose muscles bulge everywhere...and something else, too: too much exercise could affect your 'womanly' balance. Read by that make you a woman who doesn't like men anymore...aka a lesbian. I dunno where they got that idea, but still, I digress again.)

So I never exercised. I would run 200 yards in PE class and already have a stitch in my side. I would be among the last to cross the line at the school cross-country race (unfortunately, you couldn't bail out of participating). I remember one year we had a male PE teacher and every other week (or for as much as I could get away with it), when asked why I wasn't in my PE clothes, I would use the classic excuse, "Got my period." Being a man, he would look away and never call me or my friends on our BS with this excuse, so there you have it. I even faked pain in my knee and got a medical certificate once to be excused from PE class for a few months.

That's the extent I ran away from exercise...without actually running away, if you get what I mean. In the meantime, I was still a chubby, flabby girl with monster thighs and who had never seen a flat stomach on herself.

Then the year I turned 16 happened, and I was doing my O-Level exams. Kind of a big deal, so lots of studying, and lots of walking all over the school campus as I had one of the most eclectic electives schedule so I was always rushing to and from classes. At the same period, my dad started buying Oolong Tea to drink for his cholesterol levels to go down, and me being forever Daddy's Little Girl, I would have a bowl of the tea with him in the evenings after dinner.
At the start of my 16th year, for my Dress & Textiles class' exam, we had a course work component - we had to make a blouse and a skirt for ourselves, taking the most extreme care with the stitching and all that lovely hoopla to showcase that we knew how to sew from scratch (or maybe, from pattern, coz we never drew the pattern). I took my measurements, made my skirt and blouse from these, sent off the garments to Cambridge. Forgotten about it completely afterwards.

Results come in early 2000, and I passed my papers with flying colours (all that studying paid off). Then our course works were returned to us...and shocker when I got mine, and even the teacher mentioned her shock there - the clothes were a full 1.5 sizes too big on me now! Went to investigate - over the period of my studying and exams - let's say it was 3-4 months - I had lost...get this, 12 kilos! That's almost 25 pounds!

Spurred on by that monumental weight loss, I took to better habits. I cut soda and sugar, even from my tea (no clue today how I ever managed to do that!), I reduced my portion sizes, especially with rice. I drank only water, to the amount of 3-4 litres a day. Cut the milk, as well, and switched to milky coffee in the mornings.

This continued for a few more years, and by the time I married my husband (current one, who is actually Husband #2 - long story for another post, lol), I was at my lowest weight of 46 kgs/101pounds for a height of 5'3/1m61. I remember there was a Max Mara outlet in Mauritius back then, from where I got a pair of trousers that were, get this, Size 0! I wore this on our honeymoon flight back home.

Then soon after, I got pregnant. Eating for two, coz I really didn't want this baby to have a bad start, I packed on the weight, to end up at 64kgs/140pounds on the day I delivered him. He weighed only 6 pounds, so guess what - I was left with over 30 pounds extra on my body. No clue what to do with that...and the plan was for us to try for another baby once he'd be a toddler, so bit pointless to lose the weight only to gain it back, right?

We hadn't counted on cancer to make an appearance (well, who does, really?). The year my son was to turn 2, I noticed I was losing weight, and everyone was pointing it out. I thought my lifestyle was making me shed the post-baby weight - who in their right mind, at just 22 years of age, thinks acute and sudden weight loss is actually rapid-growing cancer cells eating off the sugar and fat in their system? And bam, we had breast cancer on our hands. Over a year of treatments later, I just wanted to be left alone...

Notice there is no exercise in there whatsoever! I was still allergic to it. Fast-forward a few more years, and my 5-year potential remission date approaching. I wanted this number to have full meaning for me - for the doctor to tell me I was "cancer-free" and that I should go and enjoy my life like a "normal" person now. (Side note: it doesn't actually work that way... More on that in another post).
But lo and behold - 2 months before that 5-year mark...*drum roll*...you guessed it...another cancer pokes its head out.

And that's when I got to the point of "enough is enough!" To prevent cancer, or at least try to coz you can't really plug it in, you should be living a healthy lifestyle full of antioxidants, vegetables, no bad fats (and these to me mean vegetable fats, NOT butter and the kinds that they tell you are supposedly bad for your heart. Again, another post on that later...), and shocker of all -well, not really- you need to be active, aka exercise.

I'd done everything I could to escape exercise my whole life, but guess I would have to pinch my nose and swallow the bad pill here. I had no way out.

I don't really remember how it started... I think it was a Jillian Michaels' DVD (Ripped in 30, I think it was). Around the same time, my husband was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes so he, too, needed to get on the exercise wagon. We bought our first treadmill - which he wanted to get as a manual one, as in you need to get the rug moving by, well, moving. Not the automated kind that moves and pushes you off onto your arse if you're not paying attention. Then soon after, we got our elliptical machine, which I used 3 times a week. I won't tell you about the pain in my legs the day after - will spare you that horror!

From there, I discovered Zumba, and from home and armed with DVDs and YouTube videos, I learned the moves, started dancing and working out along the music, and in the process, unlocked all those joints that had never seen any movement and even corrected my two left feet!

As for results - was I getting them? I did see a faint tone in my arms, but the belly and thighs? Come again, they seemed to be saying to me. But I was in all the way, and I am one of those people who once she's started something will not give up unless a force majeure is at play to stop her. So I powered on, tried different stuff - strength training, HIIT, Kickboxing, and finally, Yoga (all this last part in the course of the past year).

Today, I cannot conceive of a week where I'm not working out at least twice for 45mins-1hour as one where I can expect to feel good. Exercise is my drug, you could say, and I am seeing the results they're bringing. FYI - this girl, at 33, finally has a flat belly and stomach, for the first time in her life! This is how I feel good now, what powers my body and keeps me not just in shape but in a good mood, allows me to sleep better (Tamoxifen & menopause bring a lot of insomnia, not to mention night sweats and hot flashes that further disrupt your sleep). And the biggest change happened in the past year - will break it down to the hows and whys in further posts.
And is it working for the cancer? Well, I know my cancer marker numbers are staying consistently low (praise be to God!), so yes, it does seem to be doing its job.

Bottom line - if I can do it, anyone can! I was the epitome of the couch potato, the one who never moved beyond maybe getting the remote from the couch. Housework? You gotta be kidding - I got off with the bare minimum while using the least energy and movement possible. Does that describe you? Well, give exercise a try - you might come to actually like it!

And I now realize this has been a looooong rant... Thanks for having stuck by if you're still here! And please, think about what I've said. You could be saving your life through just a bit of movement a few times a week.

From Mauritius with love,

Zee

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Falling Off The Wagon...and getting back on again #MyMeaCulpa

Life passing you by...
Hey beautiful people

First, I have to apologize for being both MIA and AWOL from here for quite a while. Life happened, blah blah blah (or is it bleh bleh bleh like Dracula in Hotel Transylvania? I digress...) So yes, I do have that excuse...but that's exactly what it is - an excuse.

Have you ever fallen off the wagon? I clearly have, and case in point, blogging. Where did I lose myself, where did I fall, and where did I land?

When I started this blog and its accompanying site, the major goal was visibility. I was building my reader base, getting to know people online, but that was a very small catchment area for attention, so what advice did I follow? Yes - increase your visibility by getting more people to your blog. How did I do that? Blog spotlights and review tours and other such book tours were the preferred route.

And then it caught up with me - I was reviewing not for fun & pleasure, but as a duty to the date booked. Then I looked at the string of 'last posts' on my Dashboard and saw that they were about books I had read and signed up to spotlight.

Which got me thinking - I no longer wanted to do this, but the real kicker came when I realized what I was putting my readers through. Yes, you people - you signed up/come here to 'meet' me (lol, I know it's just a handful of people, but even if it had been just one person, I have failed you.) Why are you really here? It might be about my books - you liked one or more and want to know more about when the next is coming, and how it is coming along. Or you liked me as a person, and wanted to get glimpses into my crazy/nutty/over-the-top life and maybe get a laugh from the antics happening in my existence. Maybe you came here for both these reasons.

In which case, I have let you down, because there was no longer any 'me' present in this space. Zee had vacated the spot, without an excuse, without an apology, without, it seems, any due consideration. Pretty terrible person, I would say... I'd hate to have been treated like that. I didn't give my readers any dues, and I fell prey to that awful bug known as 'marketing and visibility by all means'. Book/blog/review tours would've brought 'their' people to my blog...but what about 'my' people? I left them high and dry...

So here is my Mea Culpa, peeps. I'm sorry for having been such an asshat person in the past year and more. I apologize for not paying you, my readers and followers, due consideration and also instead turning into one of those voices that just shouts in the dark without any care nor concern for how many eardrums of those who close to her she is bursting.

Can I say I am back here, for good? Me, and nothing but me? I am trying to say just that...if you people will still have me. Once a week - I'm not asking for much, but I'll understand if you don't want to advance me even an ounce of your attention. I'll work for it, I promise...

Gosh, feels good to be back, to be talking to ye all again!

From Mauritius with love,

Zee
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