Thursday, July 25, 2013

Getting a UK VISA: From Headache to Happy-Dance

I have a VISA! And no, I don’t mean a credit card (although I just got one of those, too). I now have a UK VISA, allowing me to study in Scotland.

It seems like a little thing. After all, it is just a little sticker in my passport. Getting it, though, was a lot more involved than I thought. That’s why I decided to write this post: so anyone considering going to the UK to study can have some idea what sort of hoops they’ll have to jump through.

The process began about a month ago, when St. Andrew’s issued me with the CAS (Confirmation of Application of Studies) number, which allowed me to begin my VISA application. I found the right form (Tier 4-General) relatively quickly using their form finder (, filled it out, and paid for it online.

This part of the application was a lot simpler than I assumed. Mostly it was basic info like name and date of birth, then things like passport number and whatnot. One nice feature is that you create a username and password that allows you to log in and out if you want to finish the application later. Also, after you’ve completed the application, you’ll need to print it out and sign it (on legal-sized paper supposedly, though I used normal 8.5x11 and it was fine) and since I didn’t have print capability at home, I was able to log in at school and print it there.

After the online application, you have to make a biometric appointment, in my case using World Bridge (, which is a company that the UK government hires to help with visa applications. There are very few World Bridge centers in Canada, so be prepared to travel! You’ll also have to bring a couple important documents:

 -T he printed/signed copy of the application
-One passport-style photo (Note that this photo is smaller than a Canadian passport photo)
- Your Self-assessment points form

You’ll get a detailed list of what to bring in an email, but those are the main things.

This was by far the worst part of the application. For starters, I had to go all the way to Halifax for my appointment (a 3.5 hour drive). They also had only one available appointment all summer, meaning I was forced to take a day off work. Once there, the appointment was only ten minutes long, and consisted of a woman looking at my papers, taking my fingerprints, and getting me to say my name into a camera. She also told me that my photo wasn’t good enough (because my bangs slightly covered the corners of my eyebrows) so I had to get new ones taken afterward. It didn’t matter for me, since I had to courier the application in myself, but at other places where they courier it for you, you need the photos to be right the first time.

After the appointment, it took me about a week to get new photos taken and courier the package to the Visa application center in New York. I also had to purchase a return courier service through the World Bridge website and include the receipt in the package. I tracked my package to New York (it took a few days, since I choose the cheap service) and then I received an email saying that the embassy had received my application and would email me again when they made a decision.

According to the website, student Visas are usually processed in 3 weeks, but it can take up to 12 weeks. In the first email, they said their average time was 8 days. My visa was processed in just 4. They received my application on Tuesday, and by Friday my Visa was already in the mail.

I wasn’t too impressed by the return courier they used. The service was supposedly overnight, but it didn’t arrive until Tuesday afternoon (five days), and they simply left it on my doorstep. Considering that the package contained some very important pieces of ID, I would have preferred a more secure method of shipment… but it still arrived, so it’s okay.

Basically, I’ve been very pleased by everything on the UK end of the application (the original online application and the response time) and a little annoyed with anything to do with World Bridge (the appointment and the courier service). So, if you’re in a bigger city where the UK has their own offices, you can relax. If you’re in a more rural area like me, well, at least you know what you’re getting into.

To recap, here’s a timeline and a summary of costs:

Online application- One day
Biometric appointment- A week later
Couriering to processing center- Several days
Adjudication- Four days to twelve weeks
Return courier- Several days
Total time- Approximately a month (basically dependent on the adjudication period)

Application- $492
Photo- $18
Appointment fee- $175 (only for mobile clinics)
Travel to appointment- $110
Couriering- $55
Total- $850

I apologize for how long this post ended up being, but I hope y’all have a sense now of just how complex applying for a VISA is, and I really hope that I’ve helped some potential exchange student who’s in the same position I was a month ago. Applying for a VISA can be extremely stressful and expensive, but I’m sure that once I get to Scotland it’ll be worth it. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Writers Can Learn from S. J. Kincaid's "Insignia"

I plucked S. J. Kincaid’s Insignia off the library shelf randomly the other day, was enticed by Veronica Roth’s blurb and the fact that it was published by Harper Collins’ imprint Katherine Tegan, and then proceeded to devour it in a few days (which is fast, considering that I’m working full time).

According to her blog, Kincaid apparently wrote something like eight novels before finding a publisher for Insignia. There’s always something a little sad about trunked novels, but with Insignia all the experience definitely paid off. It has the freshness and unassuming tone of a first novel, but with the structure of a bestseller, which I really hope it was.

Firstly, I loved the opening line: New town, new casino—same old plan.

I love this because it’s so perfectly concise. We have seven words—seven—and we understand exactly what Tom’s life has been like and what it seems like it’ll continue to be. Kincaid didn’t need to go on for a few paragraphs about how Tom journeyed from casino to casino, beating people in the Virtual Reality parlours. Instead, she gives us one fantastic sentence and then shows us, in a well constructed scene, the sort of life Tom leads.

The entire novel fits together like a puzzle. Every scene has a point. There’s always something to be gained or lost. There were never any extra details that just sorta got left behind.

That was the most impressive bit: everything tied in with everything else. Little details at the beginning of the story ended up relating to major plot points near the end. Certain scenes that seemed a little useless early on became necessary to later scenes. Eventually, whenever something seemed to be a little extra, I started watching for it to crop up again, and it always did.

All in all, I loved Insignia for its characters, and its plot, and its ideas, but I was most impressed by Kincaid’s structure. I’d definitely recommend the book to any sci-fi/dystopian fans, and to any YA writers in general who want to create intricate and interconnecting plot lines.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Summer Goals: An Update

So. About three weeks ago I wrote a lovely little post about my summer goals, full of optimism and hope for a productive summer. Now, over a quarter of the way into my vacation, it’s time to ‘fess up to what I haven’t accomplished… and maybe celebrate a little about what I have.

The most obvious goal I haven’t met is that I definitely haven’t been blogging twice a week. I’ve got a number of excuses (poor internet connection, over-enthusiastic inner editor, lack of time, etc….) but the fact remains that this is only the fourth blog post in three weeks, so I’m a few behind. I’ve decided to start publishing my backlog of book reviews twice a week, so at least that will be something, and I’ve got another couple ideas for posts on writing. Basically, I can almost guarantee that this blog will see more activity in the coming weeks.

Secondly, I definitely haven’t been writing as much as I wanted. For the first week, my 15-minutes-a-day goal worked wonderfully, but when Saturday hit and I was nowhere near my 5 hours for the week, discouragement hit and I haven’t written since. I definitely need to find a better way to get myself writing, since I have a few projects that I would love to work on. It’s just so difficult to get in the writing groove after coming home from work.

But, enough with the negativity. My PEI goals have been coming along nicely; I’ve already seen three shows and discovered an awesome beach I didn’t know existed. I’ve also visited several old favourite places of mine, like Canoe Cove beach, Brackley beach, and Avonlea village. The weather here has been wonderful recently, and I’ve spent a lot of time swimming and lying on sand pretending to tan.

Finally, my reading projects have been going well. I’ve finished three Shakespeare plays and am halfway through a fourth, (Coriolanus, Richard II,  A Winter’s Tale, and Henry IV) and I’ve read a number of YA novels (Entwined, Ophelia, The Power of Six, Looking for Alaska, Hate List, Never Have I Ever, Two Truths and a Lie, and Insignia). What’s wonderful is that I’ve really enjoyed all the novels I read and have found a few new favourites (which I’ll be blogging about soon).

In short, I’m feeling a little down that my writing goals haven’t really helped me to actually write, but everything else is going to plan. And, most of all, I’m enjoying my summer, and that’s what really counts. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: A Million Suns

Godspeed was once fueled by lies. Now it is ruled by chaos. 

It’s been three months since Amy was unplugged. The life she always knew is over. Everywhere she looks, she sees the walls of the spaceship Godspeed.

But there may be hope: Elder has assumed leadership of the ship. He's finally free to act on his vision—no more Phydus, no more lies.

But when Elder learns shocking news about the ship, he and Amy race to discover the truth behind life on Godspeed. They must work together to unlock a mystery that was set in motion hundreds of years earlier. Their success—or failure—will determine the fate of the 2,298 passengers aboard Godspeed. But with each step, the journey becomes more perilous, the ship more chaotic, and the love between them more impossible to fight.

Why I read it: I read Across the Universe last summer and really enjoyed it, so I had to read this sequel.

What I liked: Like Across the Universe, this was a story with a great plot, full of twists. I enjoyed how Beth Revis managed to reveal even more secrets inside this story. Throughout the whole book she hinted at one big secret and I was so worried that it would be a letdown, but then when I finally read it I was definitely shocked. So, kudos to Revis for the excellent plot.

I also loved the characterization. Amy was a wonderful female protagonist, and I loved how she wasn’t dependent on Elder, but she didn’t just shove him aside out of a desire to be falsely independent. I thought her romance with Elder was really realistic. And as for Elder… he was fantastic in this book. I loved all the curveballs Revis threw in his way, and the way Elder handled them was perfect. He made some good choices and some bad ones, and he had to work through a lot of what it meant to be a leader. Basically, I loved Elder’s character in this book.

What I disliked: There wasn’t anything big I disliked about this book, but there were some small things. First off, the ‘bad guy’ at the end was a little predictable, simply because there were so few characters in the story that it had to be a specific person. Also, while I did enjoy the plot, it never got to that frantic page-turning stage like in The Hunger Games (still, I read the book in about a day, so it was definitely interesting enough). In short, maybe the book could have been a bit better, but that’s just being nitpicky.

From a Christian perspective: In terms of questionable content, this story was a lot cleaner than Across the Universe. There’s basically no sexual content, other than frequent references to an attempted rape. The replacement swearword “frex” was used frequently. As for religion and the beliefs of the characters, Revis steers far clear of that; as far as I remember, no character mentions anything that could be called religious.

To buy or not to buy: All in all, I think I enjoyed this book more than Across the Universe, which has made me excited enough about the trilogy to want to add it to my collection. For fans of dystopia, sci-fi, or mystery, this trilogy is a must-read. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Wonders of Non-Fiction

One of the most wonderful things about working in a library is that I’m surrounded by hundreds of books. Conversely, one of the worst things is that I’m surrounded by hundreds of books. Shelving definitely takes a lot longer when you’re constantly stopping to read a back cover or the inside flap.

Sometimes, I can pass this lollygagging off as work. If I stop to read a children’s book, for instance, I can say that I’m just looking for good books for kids’ story time. Or, if I take a good look at a YA novel, I’m ‘researching’ so I can make better recommendations when someone comes in looking for a book.

Today, though, I got a little sidetracked in the non-fiction section. Normally, I tend to think of non-fiction as being sort of dull, just the bare facts. Today, though, there were all sorts of interesting books. There were author biographies, Tolkien’s essays on Norse mythology, true crime, a man who went a year without money, how autistic children relate to animals, and my personal favourite, How to Avoid being Killed in a War Zone (no, that’s not a joke. It’s a legit book for people travelling to war zones).

As fiction writers, I think we should be reading non-fiction just as much as fiction. There’s nothing like reading a book on schizophrenia to help you write about a character with mental illness. If your main character is an actress, read a book about audition prep. If you’re writing an international thriller, read about how to avoid being killed in a war zone.

So often, if we only read fiction, we tend to see the world as authors represent it, not as it really is. Now, I’m not trying to suggest that authors don’t do their research, since many spend ridiculous amounts of time checking their facts, but their books still are works of fiction. So, when we write, instead of imitating life, our novels become imitations of other novels, effectively imitating the imitators.

Non-fiction books are your primary sources. They can give you facts, ideas, or provide little details to make your story more realistic. They present real thoughts and emotions, not just an artist’s representation. A memoir of a genocide survivor will tell you exactly how they felt when their family was murdered, not just how an author imagines people would feel.

Non-fiction has a sort of ruggedness that fiction tries to reach, but never quite can. As good as an author is, they can never really break through the reader’s knowledge that the book is simply a work of fiction. With non-fiction, there is no wall. The reader doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief, because everything is supposed to be believed. There’s something so really real about non-fiction that we as fiction writers should learn from. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Got flights?

I do!

To say that I'm excited would be an understatement... we just booked my flights about an hour ago! It's not the best flight ever, with far too many transfers, but it's booked, and it wasn't expensive, and I'M LEAVING FOR SCOTLAND IN 61 DAYS!

I know I'll hate it at the time, but right now I'm actually kind of excited about my many transfers. I bus from PEI to Halifax, then fly to Boston, then fly to Rekyavik, Iceland, then fly to Glasgow, then bus to St. Andrew's. Within twenty-four hours, I'll visit six cities and four countries. Considering that as of now I've only seen Canada and the US, the idea of visiting four countries in a day is pretty fantastic. My biggest regret is that I'll only be spending an hour in Iceland, and it'll be dark.

I've also got my VISA application off in the mail, so hopefully I'll hear back from them within a few weeks. It's been a lot of stress recently with all this paperwork, and I know there's a lot more to do, what with power of attorney, travel insurance, and money transfers, but at least I've got some of the major things figured out.

At this point, I'm just going to enjoy the fact that in exactly two months I'll be in Scotland...!