Thursday, 31 March 2011

3BT: translation, chatting and haircuts

1. I spend a happy hour drinking coffee, listening to Mozart's flute and harp concerto, and being transported to sunny Southern France by the translation I am working on. This is what I pictured my life would look like, and I like it.

2. One of my favourite students is chatty today and we spend an hour analysing the joys and challenges of teaching; we're both extroverts who spend most of our day alone at home, so it's a lifeline for both of us, and fun.
3. A new haircut: if always feels as if cobwebs are being swept away along with the old hair.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

3BT: lessons, orchestra and twiddly bits

1. One of my favourite students tells me that her English lesson always brings her "positive energy", that even if she's having a bad day it also picks her up.

2. I look up from my seat in the orchestra and see that one of my neighbours has come to hear us play: her grandson plays the guitar. I never invite anyone, partly because I'm nervous that I won't play beautifully, so it was great to have someone there.

3. I don't miss any of my cues or mess up my twiddly bits or solos: redemption from years of being glared at and terrorised at Youth Orchestra by a Mrs T and never getting the interesting parts.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

3BT: beautiful things, laughter and sunshine

1. I climb into the taxi, where the radio is playing an interview about the importance of positive thinking and thankfulness, and specifically - I kid you not - about finding three beautiful things in each day. I decide that it's time I started doing this again.

2. I laugh a lot with my beginner's English class. (I'm preparing them for an exam and debating the intricacies of the present perfect versus the past simple, so it's not a given.)

3. The sunshine and the longer days have been making me feel as though a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Nivelles swimming pool: a survival guide for the hapless Brit

Lest you suspect I am going to whine, let me be upfront from the start: Nivelles swimming pool is perfectly decent, more than decent in fact, especially when you consider that the population of the town is half that of Lowestoft (where I spent my teenage years), and the pool there is definitely not Olympic-sized.

The water is warm. The price is very reasonable. The pool is open every day - yes, even Sundays - although, this being Belgium, the hours are somewhat erratic. Also, the setting is idyllic - you walk across the Parc de La Dodaine, round the lake and past the happy children in the playground. (Children are always happy in playgrounds, unless they've just fallen and hurt themselves.)

However, going to the swimming pool in Belgium does present a number of challenges to a Brit, who may have certain expectations - like, perhaps, separate changing rooms for men and women.

So be aware of the following:

- You will be handed a token on your way in (without even having to ask for it!). On the plus side, it doesn't matter if you don't have a 1-euro coin with you. On the other hand, the system means that you can only close and re-open your locker once, so you'd be better off taking your shampoo and towel with you to the poolside.

- You will need a swimming hat. These days they come in a nice soft fabric that doesn't rip half your hair out when you take them off, though if you're nostalgic for that, those hats are for sale in the swimming pool shop.

- Men are obliged (as the Belgians would say) to wear Speedos. This is regrettable, but avert your eyes and all shall be well.

- The changing rooms, as mentioned, are mixed. And really, why wouldn't they be, since there are individual cubicles? I'm sure only the Brits (and possibly the Americans) would object to this. To lock the cubicles, flip the ankle-height bar across the door. (I say this because it was not immediately obvious to me.)

- There are a zillion signs that tell you that you absolutely must not under any circumstances be wearing shoes in the changing-room area. However, I couldn't find any signs whatsoever pointing to which direction to walk in for the lockers, the toilets, or the actual swimming pool. If you are geographically challenged, you will need to ask someone, but luckily, the changing rooms being mixed doubles your chances of finding someone to ask.

- There are swimming lanes, but these serve no practical purpose, since people don't swim up one end and down the other in a civilised British way, and children on swimming lessons bump into you (not least because their instructors call them over to the poolside, right into your trajectory).

- The showers (communal and mixed) are violent and ineffective. Make sure you are not facing the wall when you turn them on, or you run the risk of being blinded. Also, don't expect them to actually wash any of the soap away. They are warm, though, so that's definitely something.

Oh, and one last thing. You may not need a 1-euro coin, but if you bring two with you, you can make use of the coin-operated, pay-on-demand jacuzzi. Genius, or what?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

I don't believe in writer's block. And yet.

I don't really believe in Writer's Block, if by Writer's Block you mean staring at a blank page wondering what to write. Maybe it's because I use prompts to get me scribbling; maybe it's because I like to brainstorm and re-read notes and I don't beat myself up over word count goals.

Here's the rub, though. I'm experiencing something I'd call mental block. I don't really want to write. I think I do, but then I never get round to it, so surely, that's more telling? I've been doing writing prompts from Janet Fitch's A Writer's Book of Days for a good few months now and they are pure magic - getting the creative juices flowing, inspiring me, sometimes forming the backbone of a new scene or idea. And I only make myself do 15 minutes. It should be possible to do 15 minutes every day. Surely?

And yet, for weeks now, I've hardly ever managed it. I just don't seem to have the motivation. Yet when I'm there, at my desk, doing it, there's nowhere else I want to be. It doesn't make any sense at all. I love writing. I love the writer's high that often follows it. I love my characters and their world.

Part of me, admittedly, just wants to be "done". Maybe I'm scared of the amount of work that deep down I know I still need to do to finish the novel I so desperately want finished and published and in the post to the people I'm dedicating it to and adapted into a screenplay by my hero. Maybe I'm scared that it isn't as good as I think it is and want it to be. Maybe I'm scared of the rejection phrase that will inevitably follow.

Any other writers out there got this problem? Did you work out what was holding you back? Did you find a solution?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Things I learned on the Writers' Retreat.

1. I need an iPhone.

Not only for all the obvious reasons, like the fact that with the Boggle app, you can shake it and all the letters move around just like in the real game. Not even just, though I am very excited about this, for the app that allows you to listen to any radio station live. (This mean that instead of podcasts, which I love but are invariably out of date by the time I listen to them, I can listen to Radio Four and MSNBC live. As it happens. Imagine that.)

No - as a Writer it is essential that I have one because of the amazing Dragon Dictation app. Once the stuff of science fiction, it really works. I spoke to it, said "I don't really believe this will work," and it typed it out, word for word, apostrophe and all. No more digging around in my bag for a pen and my ubiquitous notebook when my characters start talking to me on the bus. (Yours do that too, don't they?)

2. Many grown adults are umable to sit still and quietly for ten minutes at a time.

Seriously. These are people who are supposed to be able to spend hours, locked away, writing. I'm hardly brilliant the silence thing myself - ask anyone who has ever been to the cinema with me - but really? Ten minutes, to allow other people's imaginations to carry them to that Other Place writers know and love? You can't manage that?

3. I just want my book to be finished.

This is no surprise; I've been saying it for a while now. I've decided - though I'll call it an epiphany, since that's harder for other people to argue with - that at some point soon I am going to declare my book to be finished. I am going to stop faffing with it. I am going to stop changing everything so that my latest readers are happy with it. I am going to add the small elements of subplot that are still missing; I am going to delete or find some synonyms for some of my instances of suddenly, gently, slightly, and beautiful; I am going to infuse it with a little more of a sense of place; then I'm going to declare it finished, and start down the path of being rejected by a hundred agents. Because who doesn't look forward to that part?

4. I have an NPR name.

You do, too: take the first letter of your middle name and insert it somewhere in your first name. Your surname is the name of the smallest foreign town you've ever visited. This makes me Clairea St Bertrand de Comminges, which I can't say I'm wild about.

I'm getting used to my pen name - Claire Lyman - though I still seem unable to say it without cringing, and after a couple of my writer friends wrinkled their noses I came up with an alternative: Amy Whitford. I like this one a lot - and so did they - but I'm not sure the cringe factor is any less. It may, in fact, be more. The jury is still out.

(And if you want to contribute to said jury, feel free to vote in the following poll:

5. Self-publishing is cheaper and less hassle than I thought.

I'm too much of a literature snob to consider self-publishing Inevitable, though ask me again after ten years of soul-destroying attempts to have it accepted by one of those elusive agents. But I have had an idea for a non-fiction book trotting round in my head for a good few months now, and it's quite possible that I could not only make the money back but also actually make a profit on it. Maybe that prophecy about diversifying and being a rich woman one day is, in fact, a little closer to being fulfilled than I thought it might be.

6. I do a mean Californian accent.

Then again, it's possible that Nathan was just being nice, though after an hour of two girls trying to imitate his pronunciation of words like "hawrible" and "awrnch juice" it's difficult to see why anyone would want to do that. Still, though, apparently I'd fit right in in Pasadena, which could come in handy one day.

7. I should go to the Waterstones on Boulevard Adolphe Max more often.

They sell Terry's chocolate oranges and cream crackers. The Guardian wasn't as expensive as I thought; neither was Hello (please don't judge me). Plus, I still have vouchers from a couple of birthdays ago, and the view from the till is not unpleasant.

8. The best thing about Writers' Retreats is the new friends you make on them.

Which is more than just a cheesy note to end on; it also happens to be true.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Why I'm not scared of Google Translate

I started university wayyy back in 1997, when some of you were perhaps still in nappies, when I was still a little scared of email, and still using - shock - paper dictionaries for translations. (Imagine: no wordreference forums! You had to do it all yourself! Take up to two minutes per words you had to look up!)

I vividly remember an argument with what at my pretentious university we called a compsci - one studying computer science, or, if you will, an UberNerd (in the days when it was only marginably more fashionable to study IT than it was to put a capital in the middle of a word).

Computers will take over, he claimed, predictably I suppose. In a few years' time there will be no need for human translators. I was nineteen, idealistc, studying languages, and thus personally affronted. I imagine, since I have not changed much, that I waved my arms around and shouted things.

Fourteen years later, here we are. I may well never buy another bilingual dictionary. is quick, easy, professional, and interactive - it's a real online dictionary used by translators, not one of those Babelfish things that approximates the kind of translation my compsci friend probably thought was sufficient. (Tsk, tsk.) We have Google Chrome, too, which is currently saving my bacon, and I have to say that its language facilities are inspired. And we have Google Translate - much better, I imagine, than Babelfish ever was - I know this because wordreference includes the Google Translate findings in their listings.

And yet the professional linguist is not dead. How do I know this? Because this morning, I had this sentence to translate:

Les vetements de travail du personnel sont enlevés tous les vendredis par une société spécialisée..

Which is roughly equivalent to, the staff's workclothes will be removed every Friday by a specialised company.

Take that, Mr CompSci man. Google Translate would not have had the self-control to put that into unambiguous English. I almost didn't myself.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Apostrophes: a basic guide

It's National Grammar Day in the US, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a related blogpost (and a plea to my fellow countrymen to institute such a thing on our shores).

I've noticed a few of my Facebook friends have issues with using apostrophe's* and so in a spirit of helpfulness (and not at all because a misplaced punctuation mark reminds me of the sound of nails on blackboard) I thought I would write a no-nonsense guide to using them. I'm still trying to decide if I should tag the culprits in a you-need-to-read-this kind of way. What is the etiquette? Has anyone found a way of gently, lovingly yet a little forcefully pointing out that the person in question really does need to have a quick read of this helpful little blogpost?

I'm not going to go into all the complexities. There are three main points you need to remember.


For example, he can't, instead of he cannot. I don't, instead of I do not.


The king's speech.
The girl's bicycle.

If the thing you are talking about is plural, ie if there are two girls and two bicycles, the apostrophe goes after the s, like this:

The girls' bicycles

Sometimes, it's not massively clear that there is a possession, for example in two weeks' notice or last month's meeting. In cases like this, substitute one: one week notice doesn't sound right; even with one there is an s; so the s is not a plural. That means you put an apostrophe there.


If you need to say there is more than one of something, you never, ever (unless you're writing in Dutch) add an apostrophe. Sometimes, you have to change the spelling a little:

When something ends in a vowel, like potato, you need to add an e: potatoes.

If a word ends in a y, like country, you have to change the spelling thus: countries.


But you knew that already, didn't you?

(*this is me attempting to be funny. Because we never pluralise with apostrophes. Never!)