Sunday, May 25, 2014

Time is (not) on my side...

I'm in one of those phases where I'm running to stand still. There are so many deadlines to meet at the moment I seem to have a permanent knot in my stomach. The butterflies have given up in there and now it's just tied itself into a tight tangle.

Without boring you all with the staggeringly uninteresting details, I teach an eight week online course four times a year that runs on a strict programme. The students have to complete a specified number of  assignments each week, and I have to mark them all the following week - within the week. With eighteen students doing on average 7 to 10 written assignments of varying lengths every week, I have my work cut out to keep up. I must say, it feels like I'm sprinting to the finish line every Sunday night and I only draw breath again when I've made it. I also have daytime face to face teaching, but luckily that's not as demanding and there is less marking to do.

The big bug bear now, though, is my MA dissertation, which I really, really really don't want to do, but I have to so as to keep my job. I qualified as an ESL teacher some years back now, but thanks to a scandal a couple of years ago involving a college that was employing unqualified teachers, the Dutch government decided that all teachers from high school level up had to have a Masters degree. I wouldn't mind if I were 30, but I'll be 60 next birthday.

Why bother? You'll be retiring soon, I hear you say. Well no. I won't and I can't. Because the government has also decided I have to work until I'm 68 before I am entitled to a pension. To be fair, everyone who is my age now has to do the same. The increase in pension age is being phased in, so Koos, who is a little ahead of me, was entitled to his pension at 65, but depending on one's age this year (or was it last?), the age for retirement increases exponentially (is that the right word?).

Thus..or Dus, as we say here, I will need this Masters to keep on working. I am in the last phase of a three year programme now, but this year makes the last two feel like child's play…deadlines every month to submit material. I can't wait for the summer to be free of work so I can focus on my studies. Regrettably, all plans for extended spuddling will have to be shelved until the beast is firmly under my belt.

That said, I am hoping still that if I keep writing and producing things people want to read, I might be able to give up a little sooner, but 'tis a forlorn hope. I'll probably end up doing my time, but I definitely don't want it to be at the same pace! That French sunset still beckons and I'm still counting on sailing off into it! In the meantime, here's a couple of pics from our latest spuddle.

My lovely Jo, whose relationship to me is
only known here and not publicly on Facebook or Twitter
for reasons of privacy (hers) that I respect

Us two - happiness is in a good spuddle

Happiness is also standing in the bows of my barge

Koos doing what Koos does best in life - apart
from taking photos!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The first spuddle of the season

Today was a wonderful day for all sorts of reasons, but the main one was that we had our first spuddle of the season. It was the most beautiful May Sunday, and yesterday I spent hours painting and smooshing the Hennie H, our 'other' boat that we keep here in Zeeland. The spuddle was a much needed fillip for my efforts as small though this little barge is, it takes twice as much paint and work as the Vereeniging. Everything on it has to be painted - everything. And I don't have that much time, so it's always a race against everything else, not only the clock.

There is still so much to do, but one trip out and I'm revived, happy and willing to do the rest. Here are the photos with my pirate Koos at the helm. But of course, I had my own turn.

Koos, as I first met him - a skipper
not a photographer

Look at that roof. Took me hours to paint :) 
The mighty Gent-Terneuzen sea canal

Look what's coming up behind

Lovely to be on the water

And so it came past...

Yes, I love a turn at the wheel as well!

The crossing. it's a big canal and the commercials are
huge, so getting to the other side can be fun.

That said, things are looking up with the books. I'm so chuffed and honoured to have received the Silver Award for The Skipper's Child in The Wishing Shelf Awards and just as delighted to have been nominated in the e-festival of words for best memoir for Watery Ways. Harbour Ways is becoming relatively popular too and my Eccentrics are drawing some regular interest. My new writing projects are taking shape - slowly, it's true, but they are coming on. And I am getting stuck into my final dissertation now, the end of which should see me with that long awaited MA. Busy? You could say that...

Monday, May 12, 2014

My Writing Process - A return hop - #MondayBlogs

Christina James, whose blog is a big favourite of mine and whose books have been responsible for the revival of my interest in detective fiction, invited me to hop back onto this writing process blog tour. This is as a follow-on from her great and thoughtful post about how she sets about plotting her intricate novels. Although, I have already done a writing process blog, I agreed I could conceivably do another one as I have started a new book - in fact two new books - so I thought I would write something about how I intend to proceed with those two projects simultaneously. So thank you very much for this return 'hopportunity', Christina... it's very kind of you!

So, now, where shall I start? Ah yes, those four questions...

What am I working on at the moment?

After finishing and publishing my last book, Harbour Ways, I went through something of a writing dip. I didn't really know what to do as I had several projects in mind, but couldn't settle on one to get started on. In the end, I took the line of least resistance and began the one that would be easiest (although I've subsequently found it has challenges I wasn't anticipating). This is my fourth and probably final memoir. It's about Belgium, and more specifically Wallonia. Since coming to the Netherlands, I have spent a good deal of time in our neighbouring country and even lived there part-time for three years when I owned a bankside barge on the outskirts of Brussels. I find Belgium a fascinating and contradictory country with all sorts of lovely features that many people are unaware of, so this memoir, unlike the Rotterdam harbour books, will not be written in chronological order, but will focus on different themes.

However, having started this memoir, my brain continued to churn over the other fictional projects I've been thinking of writing. For the one, I need to do quite a bit of research; for the other, I can more or less draw on personal experience and my own resources and imagination, so no prizes for guessing which one took priority. I've wanted to write a novel set in South Africa for some time, and now I have it. I have started a new story set on a farm in Natal. It will be much in the writing style of my Eccentrics, and there will be parallels in that it involves a young and inexperienced couple left to cope with a large and sprawling cattle farm in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains.

How does my work differ from others in the same genre?

I didn't really know how to answer this before, and I still don't. All I can say is that I usually try and give my books something other than just the obvious. This means essentially that with the memoirs, I hope to show what is involved in the kind of life or world I am describing, and also say something about the culture and the people around me. I'm not sure that this sets them apart, but it's a conscious effort to give them a bit of 'value' if that's what I can dare to call it. For my fiction, much the same applies. I don't aim to write literature, but I do hope that my fiction has some substance to it and has something to say or tell beyond the superficial story. For example, the Skipper's Child was very much about family loyalty, while Eccentrics has been called 'life affirming'. I like that. It's also very much about the nitty gritty of the practical side of life on a small farm.

Why do I write what I do?

This is more difficult to pin down. I had the same problem the first time I did this exercise. Then I said it was an outlet I needed for my observations on the people, the places and the environs in which I have been lucky enough to live. Now, I think it's also because I have no creative outlet in my work other than for trying to prepare interesting lessons for my students. I used to work in marketing and communications, which gave me a very diverse and rich platform for all sorts of creative and non-fiction writing. When I started teaching here in the Netherlands, it was like the hands-on person being kicked into an administrative position on the same subject. I loved the hands-on part, and my fingers itched to write something - anything. So you could say this is as much a reason why I write what I do. It's simply because I love it! And if I didn't, I'd drive everyone insane around me anyway.

How does my writing process work?

Well to add to what I've already said, and besides writing everything on the computer with no hand drafting at all, I'm also a 'don't get it right, get it written' sort of person, which is why it takes me so long to edit! I just write as and when I can, which is not every day at all due to the amount of marking and 'homework' I have to do. When I write, I do as much as I can, then read it through and correct obvious mistakes. After that, I'll read it again the next day or next time I am writing and make further changes. From that moment until I start editing, I don't look back. This often means I forget things as I'm writing because I rarely keep to any defined plot or plan. I often make a chapter plan just to get me going. I've done so this time, but the books usually take on their own dynamic and push me where they want me to go. The first edit is then to check for continuity (as they call it in the Film industry) and the logic of the story itself; then comes the nuts and bolts editing (which a few special Beta readers help me with), and finally the proofreading, which can often take two or three trials. And that's it. My writing process in a nutshell.

What I am doing now that I'm writing two books simultaneously is posting chapters on private blogs with close friends as invited readers. I hope that they'll help me keep track of what I'm doing as I haven't tried writing more than one book at a time before. I used to use blogs in the past to post my WIPs and that worked well, so I'm trying it again for the sake of my friends' sanity as well as the continuity.

Thanks again to Christina James for giving me this second and worthwhile opportunity to delve into what I do and how I do it. To keep the momentum going, I'm going to hand the baton to two other writers: my dear friend, Anne-Marie Klein, author of the Behind Blue Eyes rock novels, and Jodie Beckford, author of Death Denied, her debut Kindle start-up.

I'm very much looking forward to what both these writers have to divulge!

And in case anyone's interested in having a close look at what I do, there's a heap of links in the sidebar here, so click on!

Saturday, May 03, 2014

A little light relief

Aha, I can hear you all thinking that I'm going to write about something less inclined to give you the heebies this week - sorry, I'm not going to let you off yet. My title really is the subject of this post, but as you might have guessed by now, it's about light on a barge - or rather the lack of it.

Many of you will have seen live aboard boats at home or in your own areas. Many of you will also have spent holidays on boats, but I wonder how many readers here have spent time on a traditional, or historic barge.

In the Netherlands, it's an amazing fact that there are more boats per capita of the population than almost anywhere else in the world. Quite something for such a small country, isn't it? So the Dutch have a strong sense of their waterways heritage as well as being very active boaters themselves. Our particular harbour is dedicated to the restoration of the barges that thronged the rivers and canals from the mid 19th century up to World War II. Our duty, as the barge owners and restorers, is to maintain the exterior of our boats as they were in the days when they were in use as cargo carrying vessels. And our job is to try and restore them to the state they were in when they were first built.

There is a slight snag with this. They were, as I've said, cargo boats. Their holds were never meant to be lived in; they were closed spaces covered only by wooden hatches and they had no windows. But practically all of us who own these old barges convert these cargo holds into living space, so what do we do about light? Since we are absolutely not allowed to place windows in the sides, it ends up being a kind of compromise.

I describe in Harbour Ways how I sneaked a window into the rear end of the hold after I raised the 'roof' or height of the Vereeniging. It's difficult to see this window from a normal standpoint, so I got away with it. In fact, it's just a kind of wide slot between the engine room roof and the top of the hatches, but for quite a while, this was the only natural light I had inside. This meant that one end of my space, the bedroom area, had light, but the area where I spent most of my time - closer to the entrance - was constantly dark.

The sneaky window at the back of the hold - barely noticeable
Now I don't know about any of you, but I don't really relish living in a cave. I didn't mind it when I was a student and trying to be cool with my Indian drapes, jos sticks and Pink Floyd music on the stereo. But having reached that certain age when my eyes were no longer so good and I really needed to see my face before presenting it to the public, light became something more of an issue. As things were, there was many a time in my early Vereeniging days when I would put on non-matching earrings or different coloured socks. I even wore blouses and tee-shirts inside out once or twice, and never even noticed till I got to work. And I won't  expand on how embarrassing the odd shoes were (one brown, one blue) - or the yesterday's mascara smudges  - or the splodge of toothpaste on my smart business jacket - none of which I could see in the gloom. I still go all hot thinking about the shame of it even now.

So, more light became something of an urgent matter. My first move was to make a new entrance hatch with a window in it. That helped, and again, it couldn't be seen by a casual observer. But it wasn't enough. I started getting cabin fever a bit too easily. I won't go into how it manifested itself but imagine PMS mixed with menopause madness and you get something approaching the symptoms. Not pretty. Luckily, I realised it was lack of light that was the culprit, so I did something very daring.

An old photo showing the window in the entrance hatch

I cut a carefully measured hole in the brown sail cloth that covered my hatches, removed a single heavy hatch-board, and found a fitting piece of perspex. This was then attached to a frame and slotted over the space where the hatch-board used to be. The difference was amazing. I could see - even in the early morning; well at least as far as my waist. The bottom half was still a bit vague and I still got my socks mixed up, but the improvement in my mood was substantial. And I had managed all this without losing my monumental status - and yes, I do mean that.

'Strip' lighting in the hatches. I want more of these!
In the summer, light was and is less of an issue. I can take out a panel in the side of the barge, which is just lovely. And more recently, I have made a nifty and discreet permanent  window in one panel which has a flap over it that I can close if I need to be totally authentic, or rather the barge does. So with each stage of development in the boat and with each of my advancing years, I do a bit more to improve the light inside.

I should say I now have plans to take out more hatch-boards and have what is effectively 'strip' lighting down the centre of my ceiling, but that's for next year. Or maybe I'll do it in stages; I don't know yet. For the moment, I'm happy to say I am no longer given to bursts of light-loss lunacy. But it's true that the challenge of solving the problem without losing my Vereeniging's historic status has been one that has taxed even my stubborn and bullish nature!