Friday, 29 May 2009

Perfection isn't instantaneous

One of my students, Sameer, from India emailed me today with a problem that many new writers face.

I need your help and guidance in something. There's this plot that has been taking shape in my mind since a very long time now; in fact it's been cultivating since the past whole year. I wish to put it down on paper. The entire plot is ready in my head, but I am facing problems to find the right words, sentences, phrases. I believe I have found my genre, and fiction & mystery seem to be it. This plot too is a fiction story. The problem is, the moment I try to pen it down I do not find it gripping enough. Thus I have three different beginnings to the same story and thus I am stuck.

My queries are:
1. Should I carry on and try to finish my book first?
2. When I am thinking I do find the right words, but somehow cannot put it down on paper.

I'm sure many writers have experienced this, I know I have from time to time. The problem is often down to perception. When you pick up a book in the bookshop, you open the cover and read the first words to chapter one to see if you like it. If it's an author you already know, the chances are you will be captivated by their words and turning the page within minutes. The author has done their job and sold you their book.

But as you pick up the book and read those words for the first time, our minds trick us into thinking that the author just sat down and penned those words in that order. For many writers, this just doesn't happen! Perfection isn't instantaneous - it has to be worked at!

And it doesn't matter what you write, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, writers face the same problems. Here's what I suggested to Sameer.

Step 1. Get your story down on paper. Write the book, don't worry about getting the right words. Books get rewritten, they don't just appear in perfect prose straight from the author's pen. So, just concentrate on getting your story down on paper. If the plot is clear in your head, then it's important to get it written down. The brain can play horrible tricks on you and you may think you'll always remember it, but you probably won't so get it down as quickly as you can.

Once you've written the first draft of your text, then you can go back and try to find the write words. That's when you hone and craft your text. The novelist Jodi Picoult once said, "You can't edit a blank page" and this is so true! As soon as you have something written down, then you have something to work with.

2. It's going to take time to get all this down on paper, but that doesn't matter. It is not time wasted. This is the first part of your investment in creating your text. When someone builds a house they put in firm foundations. This first draft is your foundation. From here you will build upon your text and improve it. No one can see the foundations of a house, but they know they are there. A house benefits from being on firm foundations, and a book benefits from being built upon a first draft.

Once you have those firm foundations, then you can build your text into the highly polished prose that you are looking for. That's when you become a writer. It's not the four walls and a roof built on those foundations that make the house a home, it's the style of decorating that is lavished upon it afterwards that makes the building a home. Editing is where the writer applies the decoration and the style to their text.

So forget about choosing the right words for now - ANY words will suffice at the moment! Fill that blank page. Perfection can be crafted in later.

Good luck.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Three Successes

I thought I'd use today's posting to bring you news of 3 successes. The first comes from one of my students in Malta, Luca Caruana. Luca has just seen his second assignment published in the June issue of Military Illustrated.

Not only is this a great success, he also discovered that his article (about Napoleon) has been used on the front cover to 'tempt' readers into buying a copy off the newsagent's shelf.

Solange Hando is a fellow writer who specializes in travel features and when she's writing an article, she often 'visualizes' it being splashed across the front cover like Luca's is here. Visualization can be a great technique to remaining positive and upbeat about a submission. Next time you're writing an article, try to imagine the magazine's front cover shouting about the article or short story that you are writing about. It can work! What words or phrases do you think the magazine might use? You might find that this exercise produces the perfect title for your piece!

Hope Hamilton also wrote to me, explaining that she'd been sidetracked from the course slightly because she'd become engrossed in writing her father's biography. (Thta's the beauty of a correspondence course - there are no set timescales to complete the course, so it's okay if life gets in the way sometimes!) Already she's 20,000 words into this project. Producing 20,000 words is a success in itself, in my opinion, but it also raises the point about enjoying what you are writing.

I often say to students, "If it's flowing - keep it going!" There are times with our writing when suddenly everything seems to click and the words just flow. Or perhaps, when we're working on a larger project we find it easy to slip back into the writing at the start of each new day. If this happens, try to keep it going for as long as you can, because the enjoyment that you are getting from your writing will show through in your text. I'm not saying that your text will be perfect, but when you come to read it back, you'll find that it has vitality and energy and probably flows better. This is text that the reader will enjoy reading.

So if you're tackling one project and then another seems to take over, listen to what your mind is telling you. Let it take over, because it means that your brain is more excited about this new project. Make the most of that excitement and use it to produce sparkling writing. You can always go back to the other project later on. It will still be there. If you force yourself to finish one project before starting the next, not only will your writing suffer on the 'old' project because you're forcing yourself to finish that, but your writing on the 'new' project will also suffer too. When you finally get around to starting it, you may have lost that initial vitality and that will show through in your work.

Having lots of projects on the go, is one of the joys of writing. It should mean that you can always find something on your desk that interests you and inspires you to write each day!

Finally, the third success is one of my own. I received an email yesterday from Sean Nolan, editor at Ireland's Own magazine. He liked one of my short stories I'd written and was emailing to ask me to email him a copy of the text, so he didn't have to type up the story from the hard copy that I'd submitted. When I read his email though, I didn't immediately recognise the title of the short story. It was only after searching my records that I discovered I'd originally submitted the story to him back in January 2008. So the acceptance arrived some 17 months after submission. Now many of you know that I've often commented here on this blog that this writing game is a waiting game. Now you know it's definitely true! Remember the maxim - no news is good news!

Good luck!

Monday, 25 May 2009

If you only do 5 things this month...

Well according to Country Walking magazine's June 2009 issue, if you only do 5 things this month, one of them should be to read a book entitled "The Bluffer's Guide to Hiking".

All I can say is ... I most definitely agree!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Standfirst ... then sit down

In this week's blog posting, Simon Whaley discusses the occasionally seen 'standfirst paragraph'.

Some magazines, though not all, use what is known as a 'standfirst' paragraph. It's not part of the main article, but it often appears in a slightly larger font than the rest of the piece, right at the beginning. It usually always includes the writer's name.

standfirst paragraph is very much a stylist device. It's not seen in every magazine, but if there, it is often used in most articles within the issue. The idea is to help trap the reader into reading the article itself.

But isn't this what the opening paragraph of the article is supposed to do? Well yes, but because a
standfirst appears in a bigger font size, it is more likely to catch the reader who is flocking through the pages relatively quickly.

It is usually written by the sub/editor, not the writer, however, I take the attitude that if you spot the magazine uses
standfirsts, then you won't come to any harm if you have a go at providing one. The worst that can happen is that the editor simply deletes what you've written and decides to write something else. The best that can happen is that it demonstrates to the editor that you've actually looked at the magazine and seen that they use them!

But one other point to examine is the article's start. Does this differ from an article without a
standfirst? A standfirst may grab the reader's attention with a startling fact, or set the scene, but it will give quite a lot of information to the reader about what the article will actually discuss. Look at the standfirst I put at the beginning of this blog. Having read it, you knew what I was going to talk about, even if you didn't understand what I was going to talk about. Because of this, an article with a standfirst, can sometimes get to the gritty detail of the piece much earlier, than one without.

It's quite a stylistic point to look out for, but its worth scrutinising for. Because if you write an article with an introductory paragraph that explains what the article will be about, and the editor needs to write a
standfirst, he/she may then need to rewrite your introduction. The editor's standfirst will do all the introducing, therefore your article doesn't need to do it. And as we know, the less work an editor has to do, the more chances there are of publication.

So next time you flick through a magazine for analysis purposes, check out whether the style of the publication includes a
standfirst paragraph.

Good luck.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Administrative Tips

I thought I'd share some administrative tips with you today. Whilst the world of freelance writing is about creating ideas and producing exciting text, as any business knows, it is only as good as its administration. But here's a couple of tips, which I hope you may find useful.

Firstly, do you get fed up with typing the same addresses into your documents? If so, have you considered Autotext? This is the term used in Microsoft Word for the auto-completion of text, and you'll find it under the 'insert' option in the dropdown menu. (Other word processor programmes have a similar feature.)

To make a new Autotext feature, simply type the address that you want to add to your system, then highlight it. Then go to 'Insert', and select 'Autotext'. A sub-menu appears offering the choices of 'Autotext' and 'New'. Select 'New" and give your selection a name. I usually use the name of the magazine. Then click on OK.

This information is now saved in your Autotext. Next time you want to use that information, simply go to 'Insert', select 'Autotext' and then 'Autotext' again and select the information from the menu offered. The information, in this case the address, will be inserted wherever in your document the cursor is.

You can set Autotext up so that it completes the autotext entry when you begin typing the first few characters of the entry.

All my commonly used addresses are stored in my Autotext section, so I simply have to select Autotext and Insert it, rather than open a Contacts database and copy and paste, which may not always use the right font or formatting.

Folder File Names
How do you save your files? Do you give them the title of your document? That's okay, but what happens if you decide to change the title? What about if you decide to give two pieces of work the same title? (I've used the same title for an article and a short story.) Do you save the document with the new title and delete the old one, or keep the two together? Do you then get confused which version you've sent to someone? Using a numerical file name folder system can make things easier.

Every article or piece of work I produce, I allocate a sequential number to, after the year of creation. So for example, the first piece I wrote this year I filed in a folder called 20090001. The second piece was filed in the folder 20090002, and so on.

By giving my 'writing project' this number, it doesn't matter if I decide to use a title again for a different article or other writing project. It also has a few other benefits. I mentioned in an earlier posting about the practicalities of invoicing. When invoicing, you need to give each invoice a unique identifiable reference number. When I sell a piece of work, the unique reference number I use on my invoice, is the same reference number I allocate to the folder. It makes it much easier keeping track of which invoice relates to which piece of work.

It's important to keep track of where you send all of your work to, so that you don't send the same piece of work to the same magazine twice in error. And when you do sell a piece of writing, it's important that you know which rights you've sold in that piece. Over the years, I've developed and expanded my own database system using a programme called FileMaker Pro. Now this is quite expensive and I wouldn't advocate you buying something like this when starting out, but when you've written as many articles, short stories, non-fiction books and other material as I have, a card index system becomes completely unwieldy!

A database though is simply a collection of data, and for most people, a simple spreadsheet is sufficient. And this is where my numerical file naming system comes into play again. I record this file number, as well as the title of the piece, where it was sent to, the date it was sent, how many words it contained and whether it was a commissioned piece or a speculative piece. When I get the decision, I record, the date of the decision and then whether it was accepted or rejected. If accepted, I then record how much to invoice, when to invoice etc, as well as which rights I have sold.

The great thing about recording all of your information in a spreadsheet, is that if you decide you need to use a better dedicated database programme, most of these will allow you to import your data from a spreadsheet, which means that you don't have to type it in all over again! (I currently have data going back to 1997, so I'm not going to type that lot in again!)

If you need to think about using a database programme, FileMaker Pro is available for use with Windows PCs and Apple Macs. It is expensive though. Alternatively, for Apple Mac users, FileMaker produce a slimmed down version of the product called Bento, which retails for under £30 and can be used to begin with.

Yes, administration can be a pain in the neck sometimes, but time spent investing in procedures, is time well spent. It is necessarily the sexiest aspect of freelance writing, but it is one of the most important!

Good luck.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Anywhere near Southampton?

Penny Legg is setting up a 'Writing Buddies' group, which will meet at the Southampton store of Borders. It's first meeting will be at 2pm on Friday 22nd May, so if you're in the area, why not pop in and say hello?

Meeting fellow writers is so important in this game, because it offers a chance to chat, swap ideas and also learn. Writers up and down the country face similar problems, and discovering how others cope with the problems that you face, can be a real boon.

Penny's hoping that this will be a relaxed environment, where writers, both professional and non-professional can meet up for a chat, swap ideas, news and views. The good news is that Borders are keen to support the group, so hopefully the first meeting will be the start of many.

And anyway, if you call yourself a real writer, what excuse do you need to go into another bookshop!

For more information read Penny's posting on her blog here.

Good luck Penny!

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Getting Sidetracked - Definitely Worth It

Just a quick post to say that getting sidetracked was definitely worth it. Further to my post of 29th April 2009 about why you should allow your writing to be sidetracked, I'm pleased to say that the article this inspired for Cumbria magazine has been accepted! I don't have a publication date yet, but I do have one of those nice emails from the editor!

So, if your writing isn't taking you where you were expecting it to take you, then consider going with the flow for a while. You may surprise yourself with what you produce!

Good luck!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Just look what a simple idea can lead too....

I've written in the blog before about the benefits of networking, and over the last bank holiday weekend, I've seen the result of one of those networking opportunities. Many months ago, at an author event in one of my local bookshops, I mentioned to one of the other authors that it would be nice to do an author event at a National Trust property. Now, this other author happened to be a volunteer at my local National Trust property, and so she approached them. They turned out to be enthusiastic about the idea. For the first May Bank Holiday each year, they hold a Secondhand Book Fair, so it seemed natural to have local Shropshire Authors selling and signing their books at the same fair.

Now both of us are members of the same writer's circle too, so the idea expanded into making it an event where we could publicise some of our work as a group too. We ran a writing competition for children and adults to enter, encouraging them to write about anything connected with their visit to the National Trust property at Attingham Park. We're looking forward to judging the entries as they come in, and we've even got a representative from the National Trust getting involved in the judging too.

Not only did the event turn out to be a useful sales opportunity, but because we'd tried to contact as many writers as we could who lived in the area with books to sell, we met with many whom we'd never seen before.

We also managed to get a local book distributor to come along too, and they wandered around the stalls looking at all of the books on offer. As a result, I know that they will be buying copies of my walking book 'Best Walks in the Welsh Borders' from my publisher's sale rep who happens to be visiting them today! Which also means that my books will soon be in many more local shops and retail outlets, perfect for the market.
So from that one small idea many, many months ago, somehow, through a lot of hard work and determination from several members of the writer's circle and the staff and volunteers at the National Trust, we had a great event. And it was interesting to hear both authors and visitors mentioning an event 'next year' too. Oo-er, what have we done?

And of course, it goes without saying, I shall be 'writing about what I know' and I hope to get an article or two out of this!

This exercise clearly shows that you benefit from the hard work that you put into something. So put the work into your writing, and you'll reap the benefits too.

Good luck!