Earlier this year I wrote about the ‘Enemies to Lovers‘ trope in romcoms and today I’m tackling a trope that, for some readers, is a HUGE turn-off. How do I know that some readers vehemently dislike the love triangle trope? Because I’ve written a love triangle and have learnt* that for some readers, a love triangle equates to cheating―regardless of the circumstances.
Also, this is the most popular post defining ‘love triangle’ from the Urban Dictionary:
So, let’s dig in.
Simply, as the Urban Dictionary’s indicates, a love triangle is when the main character has genuine romantic feelings for two other characters.
Where I think a good love triangle diverges from this definition is that it is possible for 2 out of 3 people to end up happy. As I write romcoms, this is critical―readers want a ‘happily ever after’ at the end of the main character’s journey.
Another key ingredient to a good love triangle is when each love interest brings out something special in the main character―that both relationships lead to that character’s growth.
One of my favourite love triangles (ever) is from Bridget Jones’s Diary (book and film series).
Daniel Cleaver is the sexy bad boy who awakens Bridget’s sexuality, sassiness and grit―a downturn in their relationship prompts her to quit her ho-hum job and get into television. And, of course, Mark D’Arcy is the curmudgeon, who despite all outward appearances tells Bridget he likes her ‘just the way you are’ (swoon). Bridget is transformed by her relationships by both men, gaining both confidence and self-acceptance.
Aside: the third book in the trilogy is extremely different from the 3rd film and (I think) vastly better.
In Sweet Home Alabama, which also explores the enemies to lovers trope, Melanie is engaged to Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) and returns home to Alabama to secure a divorce from Jake (Josh Lucas), who she married when they were just out of high school.
[SPOILER] Melanie learns that she’s her truest self when she’s with her soon to be ex-husband and, yes, she shares a kiss with him while still engaged to Andrew, but her ‘cheating’ is far from malicious. She realises that she has genuine feelings for each man and must decide what ‘happily ever after’ means to her.
The television show Younger explores a love triangle over multiple seasons (currently 6 and soon to be 7).
Liza, 40, masquerades as a 20-something to get a job in publishing and has a relationship with the much younger Josh, who knows her real age and doesn’t care about the age difference, and the age-appropriate Charles, who thinks she is 20-something and is, ironically, concerned about the age difference.
Liza oscillates between these two relationships over the multiple seasons, only rarely ‘cheating’ on one when she is officially with the other. It’s a moral dilemma for her as well as a romantic one, because she loves them both and doesn’t want to hurt either man―though, of course she does. This is a love triangle and someone always gets hurt in a love triangle.
In the 1st book of The Holiday Romance series, One Summer in Santorini, Sarah meets and falls for 2 very different men.
Each brings out something different in her. With the older James, she sees herself in a new light―that her ‘heart on her sleeve’ approach to life and the hopeful way she enjoys simple pleasures, make her immensely lovable, something she has never quite believed about herself.
With the younger Josh, she sees how ‘stuck’ she is in her own life and she learns that she has the power to transform it. She needs to stop feeling sorry for herself and participate fully in her own life.
Sarah has genuine feeling for them both and wants to figure out which man―if either―is the right man for her, and in A Sunset in Sydney [NO SPOILERS], we find out.
But along the way, she is in a relationship with both men. This is the core of the love triangle I’ve written and while some readers balk at Sarah’s ‘cheating’, it is never malicious, and being duplicitous about her two relationships makes her uneasy. It should also be said that there is no commitment to either man until the end of Sarah’s love triangle story.
Lastly, I wanted to share my fave love triangle romcom series by Lindsey Kelk, the Tess Brookes series, in which Tess’s love pendulum swings between Charlie, her longtime crush, and Nick, the brooding journalist.
Fair warning, it does take 3 books to find out who, if either, she ends up with but it’s a fabulous ride!
‘Til next time, happy reading and if you have a fave fictitious love triangle, drop in in the comments.
*By ‘learnt’ I mean that I’ve read some ‘passionate’ reviews of my books saying just this.**
**Maybe if you hate a trope so passionately, don’t read books based on that trope. 😉
It truly is a magical thing, so much so that I’m building a career out of writing about it.
And of course, true love is for better or worse, for richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health―whether or not you’ve stood before witnesses and said those words out loud.
My partner of fourteen years, Ben, has been by my side through shoulder surgery, foot surgery, two visits to the emergency room (both in the US and both at ridiculous cost to my respective insurance companies, but that’s another post), anxiety attacks, bouts of depression, the worst flu I’ve ever had, inexplicable dizzy spells, migraines, that weird rash I got in Bali that lasted the better part of a year, and various maladies that have visited me from time to time just because I am a human who lives in the world.
When it comes to being unwell, he’s my person.
But I’m starting to see social media populated with THE BIG QUESTION from fellow romance authors: Do we write COVID-19 into our contemporary romances?
My short answer―and this is me speaking for myself―is ‘no’.
The longer answer―again, just me speaking for myself―is ‘definitely not’.
I’ll tell you why.
We’re already living in a world that’s post-911, post-Brexit, post-GFC, post-Aussie Bushfire Crisis, post-Trump and mid-Climate Change Crisis. There are likely others, but this list was as much as my hopefully romantic brain could summon.
And those global events do permeate contemporary fiction, including romance, even if it’s just a line about getting a work visa, the winery being lucky to escape the bushfires, admiring Greta Thunberg, popping a bottle into the recycling, or what can and can’t be taken onto a plane.
Of course, with the #MeToo movement, contemporary romance authors are (more openly) addressing consent, and as a genre, we’ve been writing about safe sex for years.
So, why add COVID-19 to the mix?
There are some clever (and fast-writing) contemporary romance authors who have already published stories where the ‘meet cute’ is having to isolate with the best friend/long lost love/biggest nemesis/ex/soon-to-be ex/taboo love interest/the one that got away.
But, I can’t…
I write travel romances―stories about finding love when you travel. And in a mid-COVID-19 world, I am struggling to find the romance in lockdown love.
And as we sit amid yet another lockdown, having to isolate and forego hugs, travel, live performances, dinner parties, and a myriad of other (close-human-contact) joys, our time to read has increased exponentially. Some will want to read about people finding love during a pandemic, and others will want to avoid it altogether, escaping into a book the way we used to escape to somewhere new in a car or a plane.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What are your writing or reading during the pandemic?
Next month is National Novel Writing Month, or as it’s called in the (writing) biz, NaNoWriMo, or NaNo for short. Yes, I know it sounds like something Mork would chant right after he called Orson, but NaNo is serious.
The goal is to write (at least) 50,000 words of your WIP (work-in-progress) in the month of November, an average of 1666.66 words a day, give or take a decimal point.
I did my first (and only) NaNo in 2018 while we lived in Porto during our sabbatical. I had written 30,000 words of my (then) WIP, and I set myself the goal of finishing the manuscript during NaNo. As we were on sabbatical and I didn’t have any contract work in November, I could dedicate myself to full-time writing. I smashed it. 75,000 words in three weeks.
I had an online support group — NaNo encourages community — and a group of young Portuguese writers who I got together with once.
Only once, because the in-person group weren’t really working towards getting published. One of the gals I met was doing her 12th NaNo. She looked so young , I jokingly asked her if she’d done her first one when she was ten years old. No, she’d been eleven. She’d written eleven manuscripts eleven years and none had seen the light of day since. The others in the group were the same — for them, NaNo was about the community, putting pen to paper, or fingers to keys, and letting the stream of consciousness flow.
For me, NaNo was about writing a novel I could get published. (The novel I finished last November, That Night in Paris, is being published in March by One More Chapter, an imprint of HarperCollins. Watch this space — literally.) I gave these young writers online support for the rest of the month, but as we had very different goals, they weren’t really my writing tribe.
Flash forward to July this year. July is ‘Camp NaNo’ with the more achievable goal of 30,000 words in 31 days. I had an idea for a Christmas book and got 35 000 words in. The biggest difference between NaNo 2018 and Camp NaNo 2019 was that this year, I have a full-time job. I was happy with my Camp NaNo word count, and the manuscript — another ‘watch this space’ for Christmas 2020.
The intensive NaNo approach seems to work for me, so surely I am doing NaNo 2019?
No. NoNo NaNo for me this year.
And, as soon as I made that decision, I felt like I could breathe again.
Because, I’ve got enough to get on with in the next few months. Finalising edits for That Night in Paris, then handing over structural edits for the third book in my travel romcom series, then finishing my Christmas book.
I am already at capacity, and I already have the motivation I need to get the work done.
So this year, I will be championing my writer friends from the sidelines. You got this. You’re amazing. Practice self-care. And write, write, write.
The past 6 months of ‘authorhood’ has seen me juggling quite a few projects and responsibilities. I am not complaining—it has been an incredible ride—but I tend to re-prioritise (nearly) daily.
In March, after job-hunting for a couple of months, I was notified that I’d landed a fulltime job at the company I’d worked for prior to my sabbatical. I was concurrently signing with HarperCollins. Timing wise, I would have about a month before I started fulltime work and received my structural edits for my debut novel.
I got to work, starting Book 4 in my travel romcom series, about a character called Jaelee (who you will meet in Book 2) taking herself off to Bali on sabbatical. In a month, I got 50000 words in.
Then I started my new job and received my structural edits, so Book 4 was left in the drawer. Once my edits went back to the publisher, I started on the marketing for my debut. With my agent and publisher, we teed up early readers and a book blog tour, and I shouted out about pre-orders. I built my online presence even more.
My debut launched at the end of June.
In July, I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, tasking myself with writing as much as possible of a stand-alone Christmas novella, an idea that had arrived overnight in late June. I wrote 35000 words of the novella in July—while working fulltime and marketing my debut.
In August, I sent my half-finished novella to my agent, who loved it and had feedback. I tweaked it, and the manuscript, along with a lengthy synopsis of ‘what happens next’, went off to my Editor. I can’t say too much about this at the moment, but watch this space (hint, hint, it’s good news).
September came and I learned the publication date for Book 2 was being bumped up three months. EDITING TIME!!! The book was written, but I hadn’t touched it since January, so I gave it a comprehensive structural edit—particularly important as when I wrote it, it was 3rd in the series and now it will be 2nd, so some chronology to fix.
I sent the edits off in September and went back to Book 3 (which I wrote 2nd), conducting a similar structural edit to tighten up the writing and fix the chronology. I am about 70% through that edit, but I’ve just received edits for Book 2 back from my Editor, so I am switching gears again.
When Book 2 edits have been handed back, I can wrap up my edits of Book 3, which I will aim to have done by the end of the month.
But, back to the Christmas book or Book 4 in the series, both unfinished? I really want to do NaNoWriMo next month, with the lofty goal of 50000 in 30 days. BUT, the last time I did it (75000 words in 3 weeks!) I wasn’t working fulltime. Writing was my only job. And marketing for book 2 will start soon…
Mostly, the juggling feels like this:
But sometimes, it’s like this:
And occasionally, like this:
But on the whole, I love this ‘being an author’ gig.
Now that my debut novel is out in the world, I am fielding lots of questions about what’s next, so I thought I’d blog about it and let you know!
Aside: I have been overwhelmed by the support from the writing community since my debut was published, especially romancelandia, and by the responses to One Summer in Santorini from readers. I’ve had messages, Tweets, Facebook comments and so many wonderful reviews and ratings. Around 95% of readers love my book and it is still sitting well in the charts. I am humbled, grateful and excited by this. Thank you!
But what now?
As you may know, I work fulltime for an educational company as a professional development specialist. My work is 90% reading, writing, and editing educational materials, so sometimes finding the impetus to write and edit fiction is tricky.
But, I have found a solution!
On weekdays, I get up 2-3 hours before I go to work, and I do author biz (respond to emails and messages, post to social media, and so forth), then I write or edit. The early starts have worked well for me.
In July, I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and wrote 35000 words of a Christmas novela – all in the wee hours. I’ve set that story aside for now, as I am currently (re)editing book #2.
Book #2 is actually the third book I wrote – after the sequel to One Summer in Santorini – and because it is in the same world (it’s about Sarah’s sister, Cat), I am editing to ‘fix’ the chronology. It now takes place right after One Summer in Santorini, and I’ve edited out all the spoilers for the sequel to Sarah’s story.
I had edited this book – I call it Cat’s book at the moment – last year, after I finished writing it, but I am a better writer now, so I have also tightened it up in this editorial pass. I will soon hand this over to my editor for their edit. When it comes back to me in a month or so, I will incorporate their edits and it goes back across to them. In the interim, it will get a name and a cover(!)
When I hand over Book #2 (sometime in the next 2 weeks), I have a few options. I can work on the Christmas story, which will now be a full-length novel, go back to Book #4, which is based on a character Cat meets in Book #2 (I’m about 50000 words in), or begin a structural edit of the sequel to Sarah’s book.
So many choices!!! However, the two unfinished stories do call me.
Essentially, what I have learned about being an author, is that there is always something to do. I move between writing and editing, and while I work on these 4 books – each in its own stage of development – there are other book ideas busting to get out. I temper those ideas by making notes, but not letting them take up any real estate in my mind – it’s already crowded in there.
Today is the last day of the book blog tour for One Summer in Santorini, and it has been a blast. I first learned about BBTs last year when I was an indie author and I knew I wanted one for my first novel with HarperCollins.
My agent, Lina Langlee, was across BBTs from her experience in the world of publishing-marketing, and she helped by walking me through critical steps. Once I told my publisher I was working on a BBT, they reached out to bloggers they work with regularly – and they created the banner above.
I had support and I learned a lot, so I wanted to share what I learned. Whether you are an indie author or are being published by a publishing house, a BBT will require a lot of hard work and dedication from you. But I think this it is worth it. I think it helped me reach a larger readership.
WARNING: This is a really long post – but it includes everything I learned. Here’s what to do, including step-by-step instructions.
Plan ahead. A book blog tour takes time to set up. Give yourself a minimum of three months, two if you are extremely efficient and you already have a strong network of bloggers and fellow authors.
Read (blogs) widely. If you want to create a fabulous book blog tour, start by reading book blogs. Ask readers and authors in your genre who their favourite book bloggers are. When you find one whose style you like the look of, follow them on social media and see which book blogs they read. You are building a wishlist.
Be an active online community member. Subscribe to your wishlist book bloggers’ sites. Follow them on social media, respond to their content, and share it. There are many terrific book bloggers – people who genuinely love books and who are creative in how they support the author community. Support their work.
Be a supportive member of the writing community. This has to come from a genuine place. Seek out other authors in your genre, or who share a common connection. While I am connected with many romance authors through our writing community, I am also connected with authors in other genres through the Australian writers’ community, through my agency, and through my publisher.
Many authors (like me) blog. If you like an author’s books, subscribe to their blog. There are hundreds of Facebook groups and Twitter communities for authors. Find your tribe and participate. Offer support, even if it’s just a well-time tweet. If you have a special skill related to the profession, offer to help. Be a beta reader, edit a blurb, connect an author friend with a graphic artist friend.
You will grow a professional network and it’s very likely you will make friends. I have dear friends whom I’ve only engaged with online.
And when it comes time to create a blog tour, you can ask authors who blog to join in.
Think outside the box. Not every post on a book blog tour must be a review. Once you’ve created your wishlist of bloggers and authors, make note of those who also post interviews, ‘share a scene’ posts, essays on writing, or other innovative ways to engage your readers.
On my recent blog tour for One Summer In Santorini, fellow author Belinda Missen challenged me to describe the perfect Greek dinner party. That post was a blast to write.
It may be easier to get people commit to the tour, if you are doing the heavy lifting with regards to content. For my recent blog tour, I wrote nine different pieces.
The practical stuff for a DIY blog tour
Create a spreadsheet for your wishlist (Excel or Google Sheets will work) and include:
The name of the blog
The URL (web address) – make it a link
The name of the blogger/author
Their email address or a link to the contact page of the blog
Any other information that may be useful when you contact them
Columns for tracking data: date email sent; date of reply; format of blog post, etc.
Write your reach out emails (the templates). You will want slightly different versions for bloggers and authors. The emails should be friendly, clear, and succinct:
If you are not yet connected with the person, introduce yourself and explain why you’d be thrilled/honoured to have them be part of the tour
Give a brief synopsis of your book
Give the proposed date range for the tour
Be explicit about the type of post you’d like and if you’re offering to create the content for non-reviews
Ask them to RSVP before a particular date, so you can start assembling the tour
Link to your website or most public social media profile(s) – they may want to see how much reach you have
Edit your reach out emails and get feedback if you need to
Carefully send the reach out emails:
Ensure that each one is addressed to – and is specific to – the person you are emailing
As you receive responses:
Reply with a thank you (for every response – even ‘no’)
Update your spreadsheet
If it is a yes, mention you will be in touch soon with more information
When you’re close to the deadline, send a quick follow-up to any non-responders
Schedule the blog tour:
Use a tool such as Doodle (free to use)
Set the date range
In the settings, limit to one or two blog posts per day
Send a notification email (through the tool) to all bloggers/authors who said ‘yes’ – include a ‘due date’ and follow up as you get closer to it
As people respond, update the spreadsheet with the dates for each blog post
Note if you need to create content and set up calendar reminders
Most bloggers and authors will tell you in their email what they require from you – if not, ask
Email each blogger/author to confirm their date for the tour
Prepare assets and content:
Book Blog Tour Banner
If you have a publisher, send them a succinct spreadsheet with the book bloggers/authors (often their Twitter handle or website address) and dates
Ask them to create a blog tour banner
If you don’t have a publisher, you will want to create a banner with the book cover, blogs and dates. Search online for what these look like.
Triple check the names, dates and other information on the banner
Author photo (high resolution), book cover (high resolution), book blurb, buy links, your social media links, and any other ‘assets’ you have been asked for
Write content you have promised or answer interview questions
Email the blog tour participants individually and send assets (and content)
Give them as much notice as possible
Refer to the spreadsheet and previous email exchanges to ensure you are sending each person exactly what they need/have asked for
Count down to the blog tour on social media to generate hype – tag the participants
Once it starts:
Post your blog tour banner each day of the tour, tagging that days’ blogger(s) and thanking them for participating
Like and share their social media posts
Save the links to their blog posts about your book
Grab quotes from their posts and use these to reshare their posts on social media
Comment on their blog post with a thank you
Loop back to previous posts and share these, tagging the blogger
I met with a financial advisor once – once. When he asked about my long-term plans (career, finances, retirement), I replied that I would probably never truly retire, because one day I’d be an author and I would continue to write ’til the day I stopped breathing.
He laughed at me. Out loud. Then he tilted his head and gave me a pitying look. I asked him to leave and went back to my desk and wrote a chapter.
That was in 2001.
I finished that manuscript, a travel biography of my year as a Contiki Tour Manager, then stuck it in a drawer. For years.
I dusted it off once and gave it to a writer friend. “This should be a novel,” she said, so I started turning it into a novel. In late 2012, I got 70000 words into a re-write, then queried it to an agent in Australia. He loved the first three chapters and immediately asked for the rest.
“This isn’t your first book,” he said on the phone a few days later. “It’s good – you’re an excellent writer – but you’re not Liane Moriarty. There are too many narratives, too many characters. Go and write a single narrative – a simple story. Then come back to me.”
Encouraged, I did.
Mining my own (sometimes interesting) life, I turned my true-life love story into a novel. I wrote You Might Meet Someone about a woman in her late-thirties, who – post-breakup – is fed up with men and takes herself on holiday to Greece, sailing the Cyclades Islands. Everyone tells her how she might meet someone – so condescending and unhelpful – but she just wants to travel and soak up the briny air and sunshine. Of course, she does meet someone – make that two someones.
(Aside: in real life, there was only one someone and he is still my someone.)
I went back to the agent. “Hi, do you remember me?” – that sort of thing. He did and said he’d read the first three chapters. Loved them and later that day, he asked for the rest. The next morning, well before I’d had my first cup of tea, I got the call. He’d read it twice and loved it. ‘Eat, Sail, Love,’ he called it.
He represented me for a year – per our contract – to no avail. No publishing deal. In retrospect, my synopsis and pitch were ‘off’, but my agent thought I should add some ‘danger’ to the book – apparently, danger was selling at the time. I wondered how I could do that. How could I turn a travel romcom into a book with danger? We parted ways amicably and I put the book in a (metaphorical) drawer. That was 2015.
In 2016 Ben and I had been together nearly 10 years and we decided to celebrate our real-life ‘meet cute’ with another sailing trip around the Greek Islands with the same skipper.
On return from that wondrous trip, I was inspired to pull out the book and give it another pass. “Why don’t you self-publish on Kindle?” asked my supportive love. I percolated on that question for a short while, gave the book a final edit, handed it off to a colleague with editorial chops, collaborated with a cover artist in London, and – bottom lip firmly between my teeth – published it on Kindle.
My book was out there. I was an author.
Fast forward to our sabbatical in 2018 and I wrote the sequel (also published on Kindle), then book three in the series. Sarah (books one and two) and her sister, Cat (book three), came to life. The men they loved, their travel adventures, their friendships, their internal battles, their journeys to love, came to life.
Concurrently, I soaked up as much as I could about author life. I took a course on building my author profile and engaged with fellow authors on Twitter. I read widely – both within my genre and about the business of being an author.
As I embarked on the indie author path, I tweaked and honed and finessed my pitches to book bloggers, agents and publishers. I joined author communities. I sought and gave feedback. I engaged beta readers and I became a beta reader – I learned what a beta reader is and why they are so important to the writing process. I entered contests and Twitter pitches, and was featured on book blogs and UKRomChat (hi, lovelies – I adore you so much!). I even did my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and smashed it, writing 70000 words of my third book in three weeks.
I worked my little Aussie bum off.
Along the way, I made friends with some incredibly talented, generous, and supportive people – most of whom I’ve yet to meet face to face. I became part of the writing community.
Excitingly, my blood, sweat and lots of tears – a.k.a. ‘hard work’ – is now paying off. I have a new agent, the inimitable Lina Langlee of the Kate Nash Literary Agency in the UK, and she has secured me a two-book deal (!) with a soon-to-be-named imprint of a soon-to-be-named (big five) publishing house.
It’s happening. I am being published – by a world-renowned publisher.
I am embarking on a long-distance, long-term relationship with an agent who loves my work and believes in me, and a publishing house who described my writing as ‘beautifully sumptuous and evocative’.
So, as I commence writing my fourth book, as I assemble the dream cast for the movies of my books, as I continue to work in a field I (also) love and am great at – adult education – I am humbled, excited, terrified, vindicated, grateful, and … well, I am an author.
p.s. Doesn’t Lina Langlee have the best name ever?
p.s.p.s. If you read either of my first two books while they were out in the world, thank you. They’ll be back. (pssst, please leave a review on Goodreads)
I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question since I returned from Cape Town, South Africa just over two weeks ago. It’s a perfectly valid question, as I was doing something quite unique. In February, I spent two weeks with 12 others from around the world, working with small children in the township of Vrygrond, as part of the 2015 Pearson Global Assist Fellowship. In the mornings, we worked in pairs and threes in one of the many crèches in and around Vrygrond, that are supported by the organisation, True North. In the afternoons, we gathered at True North’s community centre, where we partnered with Pearson South Africa to deliver a 2-week literacy program for 5 and 6 year-olds.
For the first few days after I returned, I was fighting horrid jetlag and trying to catch up on the hundreds of emails that had filled my work inbox in my absence. The question was wasted on me then. “How was it?” ‘It was exhausting,’ I wanted to say. It’s been over two weeks since I landed in back in Melbourne and I feel like I am still catching up on sleep. However, ‘exhausting’ is not a satisfying answer for someone who wants to hear that it was amazing and life-changing. Initially I trotted out the usual clichés, just to hold everyone at bay until I could wrap my head around exactly what it was. At that point, I just didn’t know. I remember saying to my room-mate sometime in the middle of the fellowship, “I know there is a lesson to be learned here, but right now, I just don’t know what it is. I hope it will reveal itself when I’m home.”
And it has. Now that I have stepped back from it and have had time to reflect, I feel I can answer the question with greater depth: Exhausting, humbling, replenishing, amazing… Still, listing adjectives just doesn’t do the experience justice, so I will attempt a better response to the question here.
“How was it?”
Most of the people I met had so much to give – their time, their experience, their laughter, their wisdom. I sat down with people from True North and Pearson South Africa who are literally saving the world, one school, one crèche, one child at a time. Their work matters. Their work can mean the difference between a child being protected and educated and fed, and being left out in the world to fend for themself. I worked side-by-side with teachers who are acutely aware that just beyond the lilac-painted fence of the crèche, there are knife fights, drug deals, prostitution and domestic violence – all on a regular basis. These women are educated, intrepid, and respected, because their work is noble and their work is hard.
The crèches in Vrygrond – and the extension of Vrygrond called Overcome, where I worked with fellows, Romeo and Esther – cater for babies through to 6 year-olds. The children are under the care of the teachers for up to 10 hours a day. They eat breakfast there – a tasteless rice gruel – and lunch – a protein-enriched rice. The children nap, play, draw, read stories, sing songs, and learn basics like shapes, colours, letters and numbers. In many ways, these crèches are just like any other childcare centre, except that they do all this with few resources, no sewerage, no electricity, and in a place that can be extremely dangerous.
The creche where I worked is called Little Lambs and in Overcome, there are no paved roads like in Vrygrond. The crèche has no electricity, a corrugated iron roof and walls to match. On the days when it is hot outside, it is even hotter inside. 45 children are packed into three small classrooms, and the children share the same toileting facility – a handful of non-flushable ‘potties’. The teachers use a port-a-potty, which takes up a large portion of the cemented play area. Water trickles from two taps – one on the front wall of the crèche and one in the ‘kitchen’ where the children’s meals are prepared. When children are given water to drink, they share the same four or five cups, each taking turns and waiting for their classmates to finish. The cups aren’t washed in between children. The children are told to wash their hands after toileting and playing outside and before they eat – yet for washing, they all use the same bucket of water which is replenished only once a day – and there is no soap.
When I arrived each morning, I would set up an activity at one of the small tables, and the children would rotate to me in groups. Others worked on puzzles or crafts. There was a constant chorus of, “teacher, teacher, teacher,” as each child vied for a moment of my attention. After the table activities, they had a 1/4 of a piece of fruit and played outside on the rectangle of concrete. Then I’d usually read a story and sing songs with them – ones that had actions, so we could work on coordination and memory. ‘Incy-wincy Spider’ became an instant favourite. And there is nothing sweeter than hearing a group of children sing, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are…” Then it was usually time for lunch. Before the meal, the children put their hands together, bowed their heads and sang, “Thank you, Father, for our food, many, many blessings, Amen,” to the tune of ‘Frère Jaques’. I suppose that they are blessed – or a least, fortunate – because although they often came to school in the same clothes several days in a row, and they may not have had an evening meal the night before, there are about 1500 children in Vrygrond and Overcome who aren’t in crèches at all.
The classroom I worked in was for three and four year-olds. Admittedly, they were a challenging group in the first few days, but they grew to learn that I didn’t put up with naughtiness and only paid attention to well-behaved children. ‘Time Out’ was my closest ally in the first few days, and I channelled the Super Nanny every time I said, “No. That’s unacceptable.” The naughtiest child in the class on day one – Daniel – was one of the oldest and biggest children in the class. He was loud, aggressive, and a bully. After the third Time Out in about 20 minutes, his teacher removed him from the room and took him in with the babies. He hated that and begged to come back to the class. For some reason and from then on, he worked very hard for my approval, and thrived when he was given important tasks, like handing out rice to the other children.
We had two trips to the nearby park over the two weeks. To say that I was nervous about taking 3 dozen children through the dusty streets of the township to the park, was a gross understatement. Firstly, as strangers in the township, we fellows were not allowed to walk around outside the crèche without an escort by someone from the township – or someone from True North. Simply, we were not safe on our own, and we got more than a few sideways glances as we chaperoned the children from one place to another. Then there was the aforementioned violence, drug deals and prostitution. It wasn’t as though those activities rolled to a halt because the local pre-school was on the move. And there was the fact that the children had very little road sense; we spent most of the journey corralling them off the road as though we were herding naughty little sheep. Once at the park, they were fine. They ran and ran and ran – something they couldn’t do within the small confines of the crèche. By the time we got back to the crèche a couple of hours later, they were ready for a nap, and so was I.
As a person who has opted not to have children of my own, I am sometimes asked if it’s because I don’t like children. That’s not why – and the reason why is a whole other blog post, so I won’t go into it here. The thing is, I love being around children. I loved being around these children. My time with them exhausted me physically – and even mentally at times – but it fuelled me emotionally. And what I learned from these little faces, was that it doesn’t matter where you go in this world, kids are kids. When I would sneak into the babies’ room – ’cause they were irresistibly sweet and affectionate – they would smile and reach their chubby little hands up to me. They loved clapping and singing, just like babies and toddlers anywhere, and they giggled with delight when tickled. And they craved cuddles, which I happily obliged them with.
The older children were funny, cheeky, inquisitive, and each saw themselves as the centre of the universe – just like any other group of 3 and 4 year-olds. They love being read to, cuddled, praised, and to sing. They wanted attention, affection, and someone to kiss it better. Over only two weeks, I went from a stern stranger to someone who could make them smile with just a wink or a silly face.
In the afternoons, we returned to True North’s community centre, where we each worked with two children on a pre-literacy program developed by a team at Pearson South Africa. The aim of the program was two-fold: to determine how much impact the proposed literacy activities could make in just 8 sessions (of 2 hours each), and to introduce a reading resource specifically designed for children who lived in townships. We worked from four newly-developed books, and the illustrations were just incredible. The children instantly engaged with the accurate representations of their world. Vrygrond is a place where most books they read are cast-offs, and are often irrelevant to their lives or inappropriate for their age group. It was incredible to watch their delight as each new page was revealed.
My two were called Trizza and Clever. Trizza was shy at the start of the project, but by the second week was comfortable enough around me to show her bossier side. She was extremely bright and sometime lost patience with Clever, who was slower to master the given tasks and concepts. Clever was a kind and warm child, gregarious and a leader on the playground, but I wondered if his moniker would set unreasonable expectations for him throughout his life. He struggled with some basic literacy tasks, but I admired that he never quit. He was often among the last in the room to complete a task, but he always wanted to finish. By the end of the two weeks, Trizza demonstrated an enhanced ability to recall details and sequences. Clever, who began the fortnight by roughly turning pages, creasing and tearing them, learned to respect books as something precious, and how to turn pages carefully. They were both excited to be given their own take-home copies of each of the four books. “Who are you going to show your book to?” I asked each time they got a new one. “My mummy and my sister,” Trizza would say. “My daddy!” replied Clever. Both of them smiled with pride at having something special to share with their loved ones.
It was mostly hard work, but it wasn’t all hard work. After preparing lessons for the following day, we gathered to drink wine and talk about our lives back home. We told funny anecdotes about loved ones, and learned the names of each other’s children, best friends and significant others. We exchanged job descriptions, because although we all worked for Pearson, we had a diverse range of roles. We debriefed about the highs and lows of our days, laughing and crying in equal measure. Half of us got sick: colds, food poisoning, and a mystery illness which seemed to combine the two. We shared gifts and goodies we had brought from home, teased each other relentlessly, gave dozens of supportive hugs, danced to Madonna, and drove each other crazy by hogging the bathroom or using up all the internet.
Over the two weeks, we became a sort of mismatched, semi-dysfunctional, supportive, infuriating, and endearing family.
Over the 17 days I spent in Cape Town I also got to catch up with some dear friends who live there – 2 couples I know through previous travels. I managed several early morning workouts and yoga practices, which were particularly memorable because Cape Town sunrises are so breathtaking. Over one weekend, we all went sightseeing (organised by the fellowship) and wine tasting (organised by us). We were taken out to dinner several times to lovely restaurants, and I must say, South Africans do incredible seafood, and have an extensive (super-affordable) repertoire of delicious wine. And, after the fellowship wrapped up, four of us did an overnight safari at a private game park (this must be saved for its own post). And, most happily, I made some dear friends, including my roomie, Jenni, from Texas and my crèche-mates, Romeo and Esther.
So, how was it?
It was something I will remember my whole life. I know how fortunate I am to have such an incredible opportunity.
Last Wednesday I flew into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (the international part) and knowing I would need a SIM card for my US phone, purchased one from a vending machine.
Over the next two days I attempted to use the new SIM card in two different phones. I even called the T-Mobile helpline. I was told by a very nice-sounding English woman that the wait would be up to 15 minutes and that calls to speak to a human would be charged at 50p per minute. I wondered how they would charge me when I had no credit on my account, as I was still waiting to ‘top up’.
Eventually – and without human help – I worked out how to get the log in I needed to access the payment section of T-Mobile’s UK site. I then discovered that the site would not accept my US credit card. Sigh. Really?? The SIM card I purchased in the international arrivals lounge of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 could not be topped up with a non-UK credit card? Who do they think is buying these?
I was the quintessential (extremely) frustrated customer. I’d had no help from the misleading instructions that came with the SIM card, and upon further investigation I discovered that T-Mobile’s customer service options included the aforementioned expensive phone calls, to write them a letter and send it via snail mail (this is a telecommunications company), or contact them via Twitter or Facebook.
Ah, of course, the Social Media Fairy will fix my frustration and help me to use your sub-par product with the confusing instructions and misleading selling point. For some reason, some companies think that ‘social media’ is all-powerful, like Dr. Who’s trusted sonic screwdriver.
I went to the company’s Facebook page, where dozens – perhaps hundreds – of others had gone before me. It was populated with feedback from other frustrated customers and I could see that even if the company had a large, highly-skilled team of customer service reps servicing just this one Facebook page, they would have difficulty playing ‘whack-a-mole’ to address all the negativity and vitriol. It seems that T-Mobile UK thinks that a mismanaged Facebook page and Twitter feed are adequate replacements for individual, online customer service.
Having recently managed an online customer service team, and in that role regularly partnering with the PR/Marketing/Social Media team, I can attest that although there is some cross over of responsibilities, the two groups have distinctive roles. When the product is technical or complex, or the site that customers interact with is convoluted and difficult to navigate, a Facebook post, a tweet, or an FAQ answer can fall short of providing what many customers want, which is service.
Further, I see a growing number of job openings for ‘Social Media Experts’, which is on the whole encouraging, but in many instances is concerning. Yes, social media can be an excellent tool for marketing and for developing a ‘community’ from a group of customers. It is an integral part of modern life, and will continue to be for at least the foreseeable (and likely distant) future.
That said, we must remember that social media is not a static entity. It evolves regularly, as any Facebook user knows (how often do they change the features and functions of this one site?) and as does anyone who had (has?) a MySpace page, a FourSquare account and any of the other dozens of social media tools that are now either defunct, redundant, or just plain uncool.
Understanding how to leverage social media to improve service or to grow a customer-base is an ever-evolving art; the specialists themselves learn daily. I have collaborated on several social media initiatives to help improve customer service and am very interested to see where this fusion of disciplines can go. However, companies that pare back their customer service provision without really understanding how to integrate social media and without ensuring that their customers will still feel supported, are remiss. T-Mobile UK is just one example.