Monday, 29 August 2016

Building A Story

A few months ago a neighbour knocked on my door and asked me to join her in her bedroom. Now, I know what you’re all thinking, you dirty-minded lot, but you’re wrong. She was quite fraught, because the builder who was working on her property had demanded £800 cash from her the day before, and expected to collect it that morning. Suffice to say that her husband wasn’t impressed, so he’d phoned the police and spoken to trading standards to find out what to do. Which is where I came in … apparently. When you think about it, it makes sense. Who else would you call on to deal with eight burly builders demanding money? You can imagine my relief when I learned that the husband would be outside liaising with the builders while I was with his wife in their bedroom … listening in to what was said as an independent witness. 

Of course, while I was recording what was being said on my phone, just in case things got nasty, my mind was busy creating a short story. How would someone who hated dealing with tradesmen get rid of an obnoxious builder if her husband was away? And, ideally, could she do it in a way that led to the builder getting his comeuppance? 

It was at this point that my neighbour’s kitchen timer went off, and she clasped both hands to her face. “My dough is ready!” 

I wondered what she was going on about. At first I thought she was referring to the £800 cash the builders wanted. But no. She was proving her bread dough on a low heat in the oven and now it was ready for baking. Dough … bread … money … annoying builders … ah! My story was coming together.

Thankfully, the builders in question understood they’d gone too far and left the premises. One mention of the police and trading standards soon had them packing up their tools. My recording was not needed in a court of law. But it wasn’t a wasted morning. I got a short story out of it. 

Ideas are everywhere, if you know where to look.

Good luck. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Olympic Efforts

You might not feel like an Olympian, as you sit at your desk writing away, but we do share some similarities with our more energetic athletic compatriots. (Admittedly, as far as it goes with me, those similarities do not include the athletic body shape.)

The athletes are all focussed on a specific goal. They’re in training, every day, to become better at their craft and to improve their skills. They use psychology to help them focus and picture their dreams. (I loved the Jack Laugher and Chris Mears tactic of having a blank photo frame above the fireplace in preparation for the photo of them receiving their gold medals - flipping well worked, didn’t it?) They’re competing against others. Some sports have to go through several heats in order to reach their goal. When they win gold they are the happiest people on the planet. But when they lose it’s as though the last four years have been a waste of time. (They haven’t, but that’s what some say it feels like.)

We writers go through something similar. Many of us have a specific goal in mind we’re aiming for: a published short story, article, or even a book. If we can write every day, no matter how few those words may be, we’ll become better at our craft. We know that psychology can help us achieve our dreams (picturing our novels on the shelves at bookshops, or our articles in a magazine on the newsagents’ shelf). We’re competing against other writers: there’s only so many slots in a magazine in each issue, so many new authors agents will take on, so many books a publisher will publish in a year. And sometimes those successes have to be fought for one at a time. The first heat a novelist has to win is to finish the novel. The next few heats is to get it edited. The penultimate heat might be securing an agent. And then the final heat is to secure a publisher. 

And when publication happens, it’s the best feeling in the world. And yet rejection … well. We all know what rejection feels like. But then, that is what makes Gold so special.

So next time you think of yourself as ‘just’ a writer, think again. You have a lot more in common with Olympic athletes than you might think. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to refuel my body with the energy it needs to keep me in this tip-top athletic condition: tea, and chocolate hob nobs. ;-)

Good luck. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Creative Hoarding

Are you a creative hoarder?

At this year’s Writers’ Holiday, in Fishguard, novelist Marina Oliver gave an interesting talk about why writers shouldn’t throw anything away. She explained how she’s developed ideas for certain markets, only for them to disappear, for one reason or another, leaving her with a piece of writing she’d created but nowhere to place it. But then, several years later, often when she least expected it, an opportunity arose and she was able to dust it down, rejig it slightly, and sell her work.

On one occasions Marina was encouraged to write a 50,000-word novel for Mills & Boon, but the editor didn’t like one of her characters and the setting, and instead asked her to write something else (which was published). So Marina put the original book away. A few years later she heard that another publisher was looking for 70,000-word regency novels. Marina rummaged through her hoarded material and came across her old 50,000-word Mills and Boon manuscript. She changed the setting and period, added another sub-plot, and within months had a 70,000-word manuscript to offer. Much better to adapt something she’d already written than start again from scratch. It was published, and the publisher asked for more, which Marina went on to write. (She’s written over 60 novels.)

It reminded me of the time when I wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about self-catering holidays. I submitted it to several publishers over the years, but couldn’t sell the idea. So it went onto the back burner. A few years later, I was looking through a self-catering agency brochure and noticed they’d used the same 3000-word introduction for the previous five years. I wondered if they fancied having it updated, so I got in touch. (Nothing ventured, nothing gained!). And what do you know - they said yes! So I dig out my original book proposal - tweaked the opening chapter, and bingo! A sale.

You never know when something you’ve created might come in useful. Plans don’t always pan out, so never throw away anything you create. Hoard everything you write. And I mean EVERYTHING.

Good luck.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Learning Away

While you’re reading this, I shall be on my way to the Writers’ Holiday at Fishguard, where the sun always shines (well, it always seems to when we’re there) and there’s plenty of laughter to be had.

The writers’ conference season is well underway, and if you’ve never been to one of these then, seriously, put it on your bucket list to try at least one.

Firstly, they’re great fun. Well, why wouldn’t they be? They’re full of writers! Already you have something in common with these complete strangers (many of whom will become friends for life). Honestly, all you have to do is turn round to anyone and say, “So, what do you enjoy writing about?” and the next thing you’ll know is you’ll be on each other's Christmas card list.

But, of course, it’s also a great opportunity to improve your writing craft, through the variety of workshops and talks that you can attend.

In the next issue of Writing Magazine (September issue, out at the beginning of August) I chat to three writers who regularly attend these conferences. What I found interesting is that they’ve all found their writing has progressed. One achieved their dream of selling a story to a popular women’s magazine, another was inspired to finish their novel, while the third gained confidence from these conferences to enrol on a post graduate writing course and has now secured an agent.

So although these events are fun, they also offer an opportunity for you to learn and develop as a writer. Going to these gatherings allows you to immerse yourself in writing. You can put your normal, day-to-day, life on hold and simply be a writer: do writerly things, act like a writer, think like a writer, talk writerly things to other writers, and write. 

Pick and choose the events carefully. If time is tight, opt for a weekend gathering, such as the NAWGFest, or the Writers’s Holiday February weekend. If you can afford a week, then consider the Writers’ Holiday or Swanwick Summer School.

These events might take place during the holiday season, making them great fun to attend. But you’ll also develop as a writer.

Good luck.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Dream About The Endgame

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re working on a big project. Something like a novel or a non-fiction book, both requiring lots of research, can have you scratching your head when it comes to working out what needs to be done next, where do you go to find out the next bit of research, and will you ever get the project finished?

It’s at times like this when a little dreaming is to be encouraged. Take ten minutes and let your mind wander … into the future, to when your big project is complete. Because that’s the moment all of your efforts are pushing towards. And if you keep going, no matter how tiny the steps forwards seem to be, you will eventually get there.

Several of my writing friends are seeing big writing project journeys coming to an end, or rather, they’re seeing the product of all of their efforts coming to fruition. They’ve been wrapped up in the First World War for the Pen & Sword series … in the Great War: books that focus on towns and villages during the 1914-18 conflict. 

Two weeks ago, Janet Johnstone’s book, Oswestry & Whitchurch in the Great War, was published. 

Next month, Julie Phillips sees her book, Kidderminster in the Great War, published...

 and Chris Owen’s Wellington in the Great War will be published the following day. 

Actually, it’s been a busy year for Julie, because she’s also had two other books (Ludlow in the Great War, and Newport in the Great War) published this year.

Last year was a busy year for them. As a bystander, it was intriguing to watch their efforts, and frustrations. There was lots of moaning about staring at microfiche readers for hours on end, looking for any useful snippets from local newspapers. There was also lots of excitement about going and chatting to people whose family members were involved in the Great War. There was frustration at sourcing photographs, and then there was joy at getting all their efforts packed up and sent to their publishers.

But despite all of that pressure, they continued. And this year they’re seeing the rewards for all that hard work (and it is hard work). By 31st August, between them there will be FIVE books published that didn’t exist at the start of the year. That’s five tangible products for them to hold up proudly and say, “I did this!” (And don’t forget, because these are books, that’s five books that are being sent to the five legal deposit libraries ( across the UK and stored for the nation forever.)

So if you’re in the middle of big writing project, and you feel despondent about whether you’ll ever finish it, give yourself a few moments to dream. Dream about the day when you hold the results of your project in your hand. Dream about what the front cover might look like. Remember it, and remind yourself that this is what you’re working towards. Because as long as you keep moving forward, you will get there.

Good luck.

Monday, 4 July 2016

It's Payback Time!

It’s that time again to get in your claim under the DACS Payback scheme. If you don’t know what it is, don’t panic, because you have until 30th September to make your claim.

What is DACS?

DACS is the Design and Artists Copyright Service. It champions the rights of all visual artists (such as photographer, painters, sculptors, etc), and also collects and distributes money from secondary rights (such as photocopying, artists’ resale rights, and copyright licensing). Think of DACS as the picture version of ALCS - the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (which does the same for writers, but for words).

What Is Payback?
Payback is the name of the scheme whereby artists can claim their share of the money generated by secondary rights that DACS has collected on artists’ behalf. The system DACS uses is that artists have to complete a claim form every year. If you’ve claimed in previous years you should be able to log on to their system and your previous claim information will be there. All you have to do is go through it and update anything.

What’s This Got To Do With Writers?
Whereas ALCS is all about the words, DACS is only interested in visual arts. However, if you’ve written an article or a book, which has been published anytime up to and including the 31st December 2015, and your article or book included some of your own photos (photos that you took on your own camera or smartphone), then that makes you a photographer too - or, as far as DACS is concerned, a visual artist. If your photos have been published then you are eligible to claim.

Any photo you took, which was published in magazine or a book, can be included in your claim. It might not even have accompanied an article. Perhaps you had a photo published on a letters page. If a photo was published before 31st December 2015 you can claim. And you should.

Good luck. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Advice for Writing Competition Entrants

I was recently interviewed by Helen Walters for her competition column in Writers’ Forum, and the piece has just been published in the July 2016 issue, out now. I thought I’d repeat some of the tips here, but if you can, do go out and buy the magazine for the full interview, and also because it’s packed full of other useful articles for writers too.

What do you look for, when judging a short story competition?

I’m looking for an engaging tale: one that draws me into the story quickly. I find the stories that successfully achieve this are those that have a clear main character, so I know whose story it is, and also what the story is about. Usually there’s a problem, or a dilemma, the main character has to resolve, so it’s important that this challenge is highlighted early on. 

But it’s not just this. The stories that make it onto my shortlist are the ones where the main character resolves their own difficulties. They might need help in overcoming their challenge, but they should still be the ones who instigate that help. Main characters need to be active. They need to be the masters of heir destiny.

What about when judging a non-fiction competition?

Perhaps, ironically, it’s the storytelling! Think scenes. With fiction, writing in scenes helps us show the reader the action taking place, rather than telling them what’s happening. The same goes for non-fiction too. Beginning a piece of non-fiction with a scene, or a little anecdote, is a fantastic way to capture the judge’s attention. Dialogue can help immensely, especially if you drop the judge half way through a conversation. Immediately, I’m trying to work out what’s going on, and so I read on.

What other advice do you have for entrants?

Don’t pre-judge your entry! It’s the judge’s job to judge and the writer’s job to write. At conferences and workshops I often hear budding writers say, “I don’t enter competitions because I’m not good enough.” How do you know? You don’t know who else is entering, so how can you compare? One writer once said to me they didn’t enter competitions because their writing was not of the quality of Stephen King’s. Well, that’s only a problem if Stephen King happens to enter the same competition, and what are the chances of that happening? 

Have confidence in your work. Enter competitions. Somebody has to win, so why shouldn’t it be you?

Good luck!

(There’s still time to enter the Doris Gooderson Short Story competition - organised by one of the writers’ groups I go to. For more information visit: and, please, please, please, READ THE BLOOMING RULES!)

Monday, 6 June 2016

Painted Toenails

Last Monday I was running some writing workshops at the Leominster Festival. This year’s theme was Nature and Landscapes, and one of my workshops looked at how writers can draw inspiration from the landscape around us.

It’s an area of writing that interests me greatly at present, and so I purposely take time to stop and note the smaller things around me. As a photographer I love landscapes: huge vistas of mountains dominating a skyline. But our landscape comprises smaller details too. Every mountain has its own geology, flora and fauna. Every field has its own flowers, grasses and insects. Every leaf has its own skeletal structure, texture and colour.

During the workshop one of the delegates mentioned that she marvelled at the way nature writers describe everything they see and witness. How do they come up with such fascinating adjectives, similes and metaphors?  The answer is simple: describe what you see … but zoom in on the detail. Then you see more.

During the workshop we went off for a short walk and came across a field of buttercups. 

“Describe what you see,” I suggested.

“Sunshine reflectors,” said one. 

“Yellow-petalled saucers,” said someone else.

And these were valid descriptions from our standing viewpoints. But then I suggested everyone should get down on their hands and knees and take a closer look. (Which, admittedly, was easier said than done, for some.)

“I never knew that before,” someone exclaimed. “Five petals on each flower.”

“Look how shiny they are,” came another observation. “The sheen is just like nail varnish.”

There was a giggle. “It would be a lovely colour for your toenails! Such a joyful colour. It reminds me of summer sunrises.”

And then there was gasp. “That’s it! Five petals. Each flower represents a foot: each petal, a toenail. Here we have a field of yellow-painted toenails reflecting the joyous summer sunrise.”

I smiled. They’d found the detail, which had inspired a more interesting description. Never again will they see a field of yellow buttercups. They’ll always be painted toenails from now on.

We don’t need to overload our descriptions with such minuscule observations. But one or two, that cause the reader to stop and think, can really lift the interest in your writing. And it can work in fiction as well as non-fiction too.

So next time you feel your description feels a little lacklustre and distant, why not get closer and really scrutinise what it is you’re looking at. Perhaps it’ll open up a whole new world of description to you.

Good luck. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be

Thank heavens for some glorious weather! I’ve been making the most of it, sitting in the garden (but only after cutting the grass, I hasten to add), judging the Travel and Memoir categories of the National Association of Writers Groups competitions.

Last year, when I was judging the travel writing category, I posted about pieces I called WIDOMHs, or What I Did On My Holidays. These were obviously lovely holidays for the writers concerned, but a travel piece should inspire others to follow in the writer’s footsteps, showing them what they can do on their holidays.

I’ve found something similar with the Memoir category. I call these pieces MLIFHW, although that doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as easily as WIDOMHs did. For those of you who can’t work it out, MLIFHW stands for My Life In Fifteen Hundred Words.

In some ways I admire the writers who’ve attempted to encapsulate their entire life (so far!) in 1500 words. That is some achievement. However, as a reader (and a judge) I don’t feel that I’m really getting to know them. They’re painting an outline of a lifetime, whereas I’m looking for the intricate details of just one moment of their life. 

Memoirs are important. We need to record our lives because social history is vital. But we don’t record EVERY detail in our diaries or journals. We capture the highlights of the day, our thoughts, and our feelings.

I’ve read some amazing entries so far, and they all have something in common. They’re recounting a brief moment in time. An afternoon at a tea party. A bombing raid during the war. Moving house and saying goodbye to a much-loved childhood home. 

And there’s a story to them too. Part of growing up, or simply growing older, is about understanding and becoming wiser: learning what makes us who we are. And the successful entries are the ones that tell a story to reveal why the writer now does, say, or think, what they do. Memoir moments are those that define us.

If something happens to you today, which makes you stop and think about your actions, or encourages you change your ways, then write about it. Record your sights, smells, sounds, tastes (if appropriate) and feelings. Explain your thoughts. Not because you might one day want to enter a memoir competition (although this will help), but because as writers we need to records these feelings, emotions and experiences. What perfect material it makes for a short story, or perhaps even the basis for an article (nostalgia slots exist in many magazines).

And if you do want to enter a memoir competition, think about specific incidents. Don’t write about your school days. Instead, write about that one afternoon when you came face to face with the school bully. Don’t write about your career in nursing: write about your first day as a qualified nurse … or your last.

Don’t try to cram your entire life into 1500 words. After all, hopefully, we’re all living lives that are worthy of far larger word counts.

Good luck.

Monday, 2 May 2016

New Chapters

I’ve just marked my 4,578th Writers Bureau assignment. It was also my last. I’ve decided, after nearly 12 years, that it’s time for me to move on. 

I feel guilty for those of my students who’ve yet to complete their assignments with me, but there’s a band of fantastic tutors ready to take over, so I know they’re in good hands. And I’ve made many good friends over the years: staff, fellow tutors and students.

But life is not about standing still, and the same goes for our writing. I have some ideas and projects I want to develop, and to do them justice I need to devote more of my time to them. As I’ve commented on this blog several times, we all get given the same 24 hours in a day, but it’s up to us how we make the most effective use of them.

I think it does writers good to step back for a moment and go through all of our projects. Sometimes a new idea intrigues us so much it takes over, and we find ourselves devoting a lot of time to it. In the meantime, some of our other plans end up languishing at the bottom of in-trays and in half-forgotten notebooks, waiting to be rediscovered.

Stepping back, and taking time to reacquaint ourselves with those projects, can reawaken forgotten dreams. I’m currently liaising with a publisher about a non-fiction book idea I’ve had for a long time. It’s exciting, because they’re keen on the idea too. It’ll mean more time in the great outdoors (assuming we get a summer this year!), but that’s not a bad thing. I have a camera, notebook and pen - what more does a writer need?

I started this blog on 29th November 2007, with a post called Which Magazines Do I Write For? Although aimed primarily at my Writers Bureau students, I hoped it would also offer some useful tips to any other passing writers. And here we are, 495 posts later. See? Who’d have thought back in 2007 I’d have written nearly 500 blog postings by May 2016? (Remember what I’ve said in the past - regular writing makes you a more productive writer!)

This is not the end of this blog, though. Far from it. I plan to continue posting, although I shan’t be posting quite as frequently, as I have done in the past. I fancy taking a week or two, or three, off, from time to time. (Why not sign up for updates by email, to ensure you keep up with my less frequent posts, if you haven’t already?)

So here’s to new chapters. Why not go through your own in-trays and notebooks and reacquaint yourself with some of your old ‘new’ ideas? You never know what you might stumble across.

Good luck!

PS - And if you’ve read this blog since the start, can I thank you for reading all 242,031 words!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Thinking Time

Do you take time out to think? I don’t mean sitting around waiting for the Muse to strike. I mean making the effort to sit down, with a project or idea in mind, and working out how to develop it?

I think writers get used to thinking all of the time, and so we become blasé about it. It develops into one of those activities we do while doing something else: washing up, cutting the grass, going for a walk or doing the weekly food shop. But for us, as writers, thinking deserves more respect.

I’ve just finished reading David Allen’s revised Getting Things Done (GTD). It’s one of those books that needs to be reread every couple of years, just to remind yourself of some of its finer points of his technique. His idea is a simple one: have a system for collating and managing all of your to-dos, because our brains are not designed to be filing cabinets keeping track of everything we should be doing. Instead, we should clear our brains of all of this stuff and give them the space to do what they were designed to do: think.

It’s a similar principle to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique in her book The Artist’s Way. She espouses the benefits of waking up in the morning and writing three pages … of anything. She sees it as an opportunity to declutter the brain of its overnight thoughts - often things we’ve realised we need to do at some point.

Once we’ve done that, according to Julia, our brain is then free to think. To be creative. Well, isn’t that what every writer wants it to do?

So, do you make time to think? How do you think? Do you stare at a blank wall? Or gaze wistfully out of a window? Do you play soft music in the background and close your eyes? I’d suggest doing whatever feels right for you, but do two more things:

- take yourself off somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed,
- take a notebook and pen to record your thinking.

Take a project you’re working on (story, article, novel, non-fiction book) and simply think about it. Ask yourself some questions to get the thinking process started:

- What do you need to do next with this project?
- Is something stopping you from moving it forward?
- How is your character going to resolve their current problem?
- Have you considered all of the angles for your article?

Jot down everything that comes into your mind in a notebook. Personally, I find writing in longhand helps with my thinking process. The slow pace of handwriting gives my brain time to cogitate (although, perhaps that’s just because my brain is slow at thinking).

Experiment. Set a timer and give yourself ten minutes of thinking time to start off with. Be realistic with the other demands on your life. Take yourself off somewhere: garden, the car parked on the drive, the smallest room in the house even. Just see what happens. Over a period of time you may discover a time, place, environment that works best for you. Perhaps three ten minute blocks of thinking time a day will work better for you than one half an hour block.

Writers are often perceived as daydreamers, but thinking is a crucial activity for us. It’s not a process to be hurried. Thinking is just as important as our writing - perhaps more so, for without thinking we might not have anything to write!

Think about it.

Good luck.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Twenty Words

“Do you write every day?” a student asked, when they emailed their latest assignment.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I wish I had the time to sit down and write every day. But some days I barely get ten minutes to myself.”

I could almost hear the sigh of despondency in her response. And then the penny dropped. (As some of you know, I can be quite slow on the uptake at times.) Many people assume that when I say I write every day it means I sit down and write a complete article, an entire short story or the whole chapter of my latest novel every day. I wish.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have days when a lot of writing gets done. Last Thursday, for example, I drafted the 1700 words for the next piece in my Writing Magazine column. But the day before I only wrote 20 words. Yes. Twenty. Not because I had the back of my hand clasped to my forehead in frustration at the failed appearance of the Muse that day. It was only 20 words because life got in the way. 

It’s a new tax year, so I was experiencing the joys of gathering one’s paperwork together in preparation for the tax return. I also had to drive a relative to their appointment at the physiotherapy department. And the driveway was being tarmacked, which involved the noisiest and most earth-shuddering equipment known on the planet operating just a foot away on the other side of my office wall.

But I still managed 20 words. It was the opening to a short story. I haven’t got any further with that particular project at the moment, but hopefully, this week, I’ll be able to develop it further.

Even though it was only 20 words, it was still some writing. Writing every day doesn’t mean you have to write complete pieces. It just means … writing. Something. Anything.

The next time you’re waiting for a bus, or a train, get out a notepad and pen (or your notes app on your smartphone) and write something. Write the opening paragraph to an article, or a short story. Write six opening paragraphs. You don’t have to develop them all. But one might inspire you to carry on with it at a later date, when you have more time. Keep writing until the bus/train comes. Then, when you step on board, you can sit down with the smug satisfaction that you’ve done some writing today. (and why not continue writing, if you’re not too worried about missing your stop?)

It might not be much. But you have written. And that’s what makes people writers.

Good luck. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Writers' Groups

Two weeks’ ago I blogged about Rowling’s Rejections (I’m making the most of this blog post, aren’t I?). And, if I’m honest, there’s one comment in one of her rejection letters that really annoys me. It’s a phrase I’ve seen in many publisher and literary agent rejection letters (and I’ve certainly had a few of those over the years). It usually goes along the lines of recommending the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and then suggests joining a writers’ group.

There you go. It’s easy. Get rejected by a publisher or a literary agent and it doesn’t matter, because if you go to a writers’ group they’ll sort you out. 

Er … not necessarily. I always wonder at this point how many publishers and literary agents have been to a writers’ group. They certainly haven’t been to the two I go to (although if any are reading this, and are interested, do feel free to get in touch). What annoys me about this suggestion in their rejection letters is that it implies a writers group will turn them into publishable writers. Again: not necessarily.

A writers’ group is only as good as the members it comprises. Many are voluntary-run community groups. There are some fantastic groups out there and there are some that perhaps aren’t quite as good. Some groups organise guest speakers, run workshops, get professionals in to share knowledge and experience. Others may be no more than a glorified appreciation society.

I wish publishers’ and agents’ rejection letters recommended finding a good writers’ group. That immediately flags up that not all groups are the same. I go to two groups: two very different groups. I get different things from them, but I do get something from them. I’ve always said that it’s important for a writer to find the right writers’ group for them (if they want to join a group). This may mean going to several different groups and trying them out.

Likewise, it is not every writers’ group’s responsibility to be the perfect writers’ group for every new face who walks in through their door. 

So if you get a rejection letter from an agent, or a publisher, and decide that, following the advice in their letter, you want to join a writers’ group, then that’s great. But do your research. Find out what experience the members of the group have. Is it the right experience that will help you? If they’re all poets and non-fiction writers, and you want to write cross-genre romantic vampire cosy crime novels (now there’s a niche market) are they really the right group to help you?

The right group can help you tremendously. They can offer constructive feedback on your work, and perhaps point you in the right direction for further advice. But don’t just join any writers’ group because a publisher or literary agent suggests so.

Good luck!

Monday, 4 April 2016

Giving Up

Last week I blogged about JK Rowling’s rejection letters and her (and the rejecting publisher’s) encouragement to never give up. My post fell into the timeline of a writing facebook friend who was currently in a ‘giving up’ mood. It was interesting reading the comments and support from her other friends. One mentioned how she too felt like giving up, but hadn’t and had just won a national writing competition. Another explained how only we are capable of telling our stories, and giving up would mean those stories would not be told. And there was also advice to take a day off, too.

All of these are valid points and useful. I like to think of these thoughts of 'giving up’ as showing we care about our work, and that we want to offer the best we can … but it’s the lack of confidence that questions whether we’re capable of producing the quality we strive for: that our writing isn’t as good as someone else’s. That’s when we think about giving up.

We’re always questioning ourselves: it’s why we’re writers. My confidence always takes a knock when I’m working on a big project and it’s just not flowing. There are times when I get stuck and can’t see a way forward. Without that clear path ahead it makes the journey seem impossible. So why push on, especially when we could take a wrong turn?

At times like this I dig out something I wrote several months ago. I’ll look at an article, or a short story, anything that I completed. It needn’t be something that’s been published. Just some writing that I finished. And that can help put things into perspective.

We tend to forget about what we’ve finished: what we’ve achieved. When negative feelings envelope us, encouraging those thoughts of giving up, they often have us concentrating on the problems with our current writing project. They cloud our judgement, obscuring all of our previous work. Sometimes I pick up something I wrote several months ago, read it and think, “Blimey! That’s good. Did I really write that?” And other times I’ll read something and think,”That’s awful. That doesn’t work because of X, Y and Z.” But I take comfort from the latter because it means I can see what the problems are now with that piece. I understand that as a writer I have grown since I first wrote that piece. Therefore, I am improving. I am still growing as a writer. That helps me to carry on.

So don’t panic if you feel like giving up. It shows you care about your writing. But don’t make any rash decisions. As someone else suggested, take a day off. Go and do something completely different. It’ll put things into perspective. If you really want to do this current project, you will find a way. It may not be the way you originally intended, but you’ll work something out. Feeling like giving up now will only enhance that sense of achievement when you do accomplish your writing dream.

Perhaps that’s what we need to remind ourselves: what are our writing dreams? If it really is a life’s dream of ours, then we never should give up.

Good luck. 

Monday, 28 March 2016

Rowling's Rejections

On 25th March, JK Rowling tweeted a photo of two rejections she received , when writing as Robert Galbraith. She’d already had her Harry Potter success, so this was her starting again from scratch, in a completely different market. (As she mentions in her tweet, she’s removed the names from the letters to save embarrassment, and because she’s not publishing them for revenge, but to answer a request from a writer asking to see some of her rejection letters

Did she give up after those rejections? No. She could have done. Let’s face it, financially she did not to need to write any more. But she continued submitting. And eventually, she was published as Robert Galbraith. (It wasn’t until after it was published that news broke who Robert Galbraith really was.)

I know from my own chats with agents and editors, that it can be immensely frustrating being a writer. It might seem such a straightforward question a writer can ask: “What, exactly, are you looking for at the moment?” To which most editors and agents reply, “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I see it.”

As someone who enjoys photography, I do understand this concept. I frequently stare at a landscape view and think there’s a nice photograph there somewhere, but I can’t quite see it at the moment. My mind’s eye is surveying the whole scene, trying to identify what it is that will make me get my camera out and take the photo. Often, I’ll stand there for a while, looking. I’m hopeful there’s a decent image there somewhere, but I can’t quite determine it. If anyone were to ask me what exactly I’m looking for from that image I couldn’t tell them. But, when I do eventually find it, I know it!

The rejection letters Rowling/Galbraith received show that her books were not what those particular publishers were looking for. (Or perhaps they didn’t realise that that was what they were supposed to be looking for, and that in itself is an interesting point.) When it comes to fiction, and in some cases non-fiction too, nobody knows what’s going to be the next Big Thing. (Yes, it is frustrating that whatever happens next, it has to be Big, as far as publishers are concerned. But then, it is the Big stuff that generates the profits that enables publishers to take a risk on debut writers.)

Last week, I had my royalty statement from Hodder & Stoughton for my book One Hundred Ways For A Dog To Train Its Human. First published in September 2003, lifetime sales (to 31st December 2015) now stand at 250,996, with an additional 5,000 copies for a special print run, and Hodder are currently processing another order for 3,000 copies for another specialist supplier. (And those figures don’t include eBook sales, either.) It’s times like this I appreciate not giving up when I received my rejections for this book. I certainly never dreamt it will still be selling as it does nearly 13 years later. 

So don’t let rejection get you down. Be proud that you have something to offer publishers in the first place. And keep plugging away. JK Rowling has proved not once, but twice, that writers should never give up.

Good luck. 


Monday, 21 March 2016

Everyone's A Loser

Alex Gazzola’s excellent Mistakes Writers Make blog commented last week about a competition Vogue are running, for journalists under 25. And the classic copyright clause that all writers should be aware of pops up in the terms and conditions. Rule 3 states “Copyright of all entries belongs to Conde Nast Publications Ltd.”

Chatting about this to writer friends the other day, one of them commented, “Yes, but the winner gets £1,000 and the runner up wins £500.” This is correct. They do. And if you’re happy to sell the copyright in the two 800-word articles and three 200-word pitches you have to produce for that much money, then that’s your decision.

However, the rule wasn’t saying that the winners would be selling their copyright. The rule says that the copyright in EVERY entry rests with Conde Nast Publications Ltd, not just the top two. So, by simply entering this competition you are handing over the copyright in your 800-word articles and 200-word pitches to Conde Nast. You don’t have to win to lose your copyright. You just have to enter. 

Once you’ve submitted your entry you won’t be able to do anything else with it without getting permission from the copyright holder: Conde Nast. You can’t send them to any other publications. You can’t even put them on your own blog or website.

This is why it is so important to read all the rules of a competition. Competition rules are a contract, so it’s vital that you understand their implications. If there are any terms or conditions you don’t understand then get in touch with the competition organisers. Seek clarification. A competition organiser can impose whatever terms and conditions they like - it’s their competition, after all. (Whether Vogue really need copyright in every entry is another matter.) But it is the entrant’s responsibility to ensure they are fully aware of the rights they are granting when submitting an entry into a competition.

Good luck.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Testing, Testing, 1 ... 2 ... 3 ...

Good morning, everyone. I do hope you can hear me okay. Yes, you read that correctly. I am talking to you. Or rather, I am sitting here at my desk talking to my computer. (The best thing about this is it doesn't answer me back!) And, I have to say, I am impressed by the accuracy of the dictation software.

I have always known that my computer has dictation software pre-installed, but I have never had a need to use it. However, after reading an article on how easy it is to use, I thought I would give it to go. This software included as part of the operating software for my computer. It is possible to buy dictation software created by other companies for use on both Apple and Windows computers, and Dragon dictation software is probably the most well-known. 

If you live somewhere with a fantastic mobile phone signal (which is a bit hit and miss where I live) then you may be used to talking to your phone and asking it what the weather is like in Japan today, or where the nearest cafe is that sells iced doughnuts topped with hundreds and thousands. The mobile phone connection is needed because your speech instructions are received by your phone, transmitted via the internet to Apple’s/Microsoft’s/Google’s servers in America, interpreted, the results identified and then sent back to your phone for it to speak back to you.

Dictation software is different. It sits on your computer (although some offer the option of using the Internet for processing). And it is incredibly easy to use. Once activated, all you have to do is start talking. You do need to think about punctuation, though. And that means stating the punctuation mark that you require. So when I want a full stop, I simply say, “full stop”. 

Because of this, I found myself thinking carefully about what it is I wanted to say first, before actually saying it. It forced me to consider my sentence structure and my choice of words. You may notice that I have not used many contractions in this piece. That is because I have found the software to be more accurate without them. Of course, the longer you use such software the better trained at recognising the words you say it becomes. I have only been playing with this for about a quarter of an hour. Interestingly, I have spoken over 600 words in that time frame. Now, not all of these words are perfect, but at least I have a really good first draft from which to work.

It goes without saying, that this software works best when you are in a room on your own with no other noises or distractions to confuse it. This also means you will not be embarrassed talking to your computer screen! So if you find staring at a blank computer screen off-putting, then why not start talking to one? It can be quite surprising how quickly the words fly onto the screen. Indeed, you may find the ease with which they appear there encourages you to continue talking. And, who knows? Instead of writing your next piece you may find dictating it easier. Once you realise how quickly you can dictate these first drafts, talking to yourself becomes less embarrassing!

One occasion when I will really find this useful is when it comes to typing up handwritten work. I often write fiction first drafts in my notebooks. Instead of typing up the text, I’m going to try dictating it instead.

So why not give dictation a go? It could open up a whole new way of working to you.

Good luck. Or should that be, “Over and out?”