Monday, 28 May 2012

A Little Preparation Goes A Long Way

Last week, I drove 16 miles to see the Olympic Torch Relay (yes, I'm one of the 5% of the population who isn't within 10 miles of the route.) I'm not particularly sports-orientated, so the Olympics don't interest me that much (not until a Brit gets through to a final heat, anyway), but I did want to see the Olympic Flame - or rather the 'child' of the Olympic Flame, because the 'Mother Flame' is kept in one of the many convey vehicles, in case a torch flame goes out.

I didn't just jump into my car and drive the 16 miles to Ludlow, though. A few days beforehand, I did a bit of research. I looked into the exact route of the torch relay, and made a note of where it was scheduled to be at what time. Because of the rather circuitous route it was taking, I realised that I could find a place to watch it enter Ludlow, and then once it had passed, I could cut through the town and catch it again as It was leaving the town.

This wasn't the only preparation though. I specialise in landscape photography, which means I'm used to putting my camera on a tripod and sorting out everything else whilst the landscape in front of me sits still, patiently. Now, the Olympic Torch Relay wasn't going to hang around for me to get myself sorted. So I spent some time, learning which settings on my camera I was going to need to capture movement, as well as find the setting that allows you to take several images in quick succession - one press of the button and suddenly you have 50 photos (of which, hopefully, one is in focus and sharp!).

With my preparation sorted, I was ready, and on the day in question, managed to get myself set up in the position I'd planned, just as the relay came across the bridge. First came the police cars, followed by the police bikes, and then some more police cars, and then more police bikes, followed by a fire engine (presumably in case the Olympic flame set light to anything it shouldn't have done), then came the police dogs (in a van), then some more police bikes and a couple of more police cars. (Incidentally, the police motorcycle outriders were clearly having fun, blowing whistles whilst riding ... and there was me thinking that it was an offence if you weren't concentrating solely on the road ahead!)

Then, eventually, the official Olympic Torch Relay vehicles arrived ... followed by the sponsors' vehicles!

But, my planning paid off, because finally, the runner with the torch finally arrived!

Oh, by the way, the torch runner is flanked by several Metropolitan Police out-runners, so if anyone living in London is reading this, and you're wondering where half your police force is, then now you know!

Should any of you be planning to see the torch, just bear in mind the following - there's a lot of 'traffic' before the torch - police, olympic relay vehicles, and the sponsor vehicles, then suddenly the torch arrives and within seconds it has gone past.

As soon as the torch had gone by, I left the crowds and began heading back through town, as planned. I had to cross the route again, this time, at the Bull Ring, and did so just as the relay had passed through. Because of the route they were taking, they had further to go, than I did. But even this image here, shows how quickly people began dispersing as soon as the torch had gone by (you can just make out the tail end of the final vehicle in this photo).

With minutes to spare, I managed to get in position again in preparation to see the torch go by on its way out of town.

Moments later, a different runner came around the corner with the torch (thankfully I'd missed all the sponsor vehicles again!).

The point of this post (yes, there is one) is that planning is the key. It can make such a difference. The Olympic Torch was travelling through Ludlow once. I couldn't ask it to go back 300 yards, to give me time to take another photos. Planning is about using your time efficiently. The same goes with our writing too.

It's easy to be excited when we have an idea, and want to start writing it down, there and then. But it's worth taking a few minutes just outlining what it is you want to say. Once you're clear about where you are going, and what you want to say, the actual writing process will become easier. I spent a few minutes planning my photographs for the Olympic Torch Relay, and I got the shots I wanted. Everything worked out how I wanted it to. If you want everything to work out with your writing, a little preparation can go a long way.

Good luck.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Sometimes It Takes More Than One Attempt ...

I'm sure the European leaders won't be sitting around a table soon to agree to the abolition of the Euro. There's far too much at stake, even for those of us not in the single currency. Whether Greece stays in the Euro is not a debate for this blog, but the point I want to make is that Europe's leaders aren't just going to give up and start another project.

I try to say to students tackling the course, not to simply produce an assignment, send it in for me to mark, and then move onto the next assignment. And for all writers having a go at a new area, or genre, don't let despondency set in after your first attempt.

The first time we write an article, short story, poem or novel, we're learning. But, that's the start of the learning process ... not the end. So, if you write an article and it gets rejected, that doesn't mean that you can't write articles. It doesn't mean that the idea wasn't suitable. It simply means there's still a bit more to learn. So, have another go. Review what worked and what didn't work with your last project, and learn from it ... then have another go. Put what you've learned into practise.

Don't put it to one side and say, "Oh well, at least I had a go." Just because that first travel feature didn't work, it doesn't mean that the next one won't. Have another go. And another. And then another.

Good luck.

Monday, 14 May 2012

How (NOT) To Be A Magazine Model

Last Tuesday I was a magazine model for the day. It was one of those classic situations when the magazine rang up, asked if I could help out, and I said Yes, but it wasn't until I put the phone down that I began thinking about what I had just let myself in for.

(Perhaps now is the time to point out that I hate having my photo taken, which is why I prefer to be the one taking the photos.)

Anyway, Rachel (pictured), staff writer at Country Walking, rang to say that she was coming to Much Wenlock to do a feature and was going to walk one of the walking routes I'd recently been commissioned to write. She was bringing the photographer, Tom (pictured) with her, and wanted to have another mug walker in the photos too. Would I be able to help them out?

Thankfully, the weather was good, but being a magazine model isn't all it's cracked up to be. Firstly, there was no Winnebago or make-up entourage to make me look photogenic (but then there are some things in life that are unachievable, so why waste the effort trying?). We met in an isolated Shropshire Wildlife Trust car park on Wenlock Edge at 10.30am, with Rachel and Tom having left Peterborough at 7am and driven straight across to Shropshire.

Now, being a (walking) magazine model isn't just about putting one foot in front of the other. No. Firstly, the photographer has to spot a potential shot. When he does, this usually involves asking the models to retrace their steps for the previous 200 yards, so the photographer can capture them walking through the scene ... yet again. At which point the sun goes in, which upsets the photographer, meaning the models have to retrace their steps once more and wait for the sun to re-appear. We did a lot of cloud watching that day. They don't tell you that in the "How To Be A Model' guides do they?

There's also an art to being a walking magazine model. You have to be able to stride out confidently, whilst gazing out across the amazing view, without tripping over. (You try walking and not looking at where you're putting your feet.) I also learned that to be a photographer of magazine models, you need to be able to shout, "Look up!" every two seconds.

Then there was the section of the route marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Jacob's Ladder. It's a 270 feet climb at an angle of 1:2. There are no steps, and after the wettest April on record, we decided it should be renamed as Jacob's Slide. Cue photographer at the foot of the climb, as we climbed up. Hmmm ... does my bum look big in this? I bet it does as a double-page spread - that's all I can say.

In the photo above (yes, I managed to get my revenge on the staff photographer!) you'll see Rachel and Tom sitting on a water trough. Tom thought this trough would make a good photo and asked Rachel to sit on the trough, with me standing beside her, passing her my water bottle. Now, photographers like to take several photos because we models aren't perfect all of the time - the false grin sometimes slips, the wind might blow a strand of hair across our faces, a horsefly might land on our nose. So Rachel then had to pass the bottle back to me, so that I could then give it back to her. We spent several minutes passing the water-bottle-baton back and forth, until Tom was happy he'd caught a good shot. At the end of that one shot, I felt as though I'd passed more batons than every nation taking part in the Olympics this year.

Later on, the route travelled through a section of track where the path and the local stream share the same bit of land for about 100 yards. When I walked the route in March (dry) the stream was only 2 inches deep. After the wettest April, it was now nearly a foot deep. Of course, as magazine models, we had to do this three times - once wading through with the photographer taking photos from behind, then we had to retrace our steps through the water and then walk through it all again, so the photographer could take our photo as we were walking towards him.

As you can imagine, our 8.5 mile catwalk turned out to be nearer 10 miles with all the to-ing and fro-ing. And after 10 miles of walking, one doesn't tend to look their best, so I bet the magazine uses the shots taken near the end of the walk, not the start!

We got back to the car park at 3pm, which was lucky, because Rachel and Tom were meeting someone from the Wenlock Olympian Society at 4pm. Then in the evening, they were off to a festival event to interview someone else. (Short working day, then. Just remember that the next time your email pitching your latest brilliant idea doesn't get answered straight away.)

So, if you've always wanted to get into magazines, perhaps you should give modelling a try. Especially if you enjoy getting hot and sweaty and retracing your steps several times a day.

Good luck.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Does Life Get In The Way Sometimes?

Finding time to write is always difficult, even for those of us who write full time!

Arrshie emailed me recently, explaining that a new job meant he'd have very little time in which to write. With a 3-hour commute and working 6 days a week, that didn't leave much time in the week to do any writing, especially as he'll need day 7 to recover from his six-day working week.

At first, it might seem that his writing aspirations are doomed, but this needn't be the case. Remember, we all have the same amount of time in a day, it's all down to how we choose to use it. I gave Arrshie the following suggestions, some of which may be of use others, perhaps, completely useless, but I hope it shows how thinking a little differently can help you achieve some writing during your week.

  • Can you use the commute? If you commute to work by public transport, can you use that time to do your writing? Sitting on a train (assuming you can get a seat) for three hours a day offers an opportunity. You don't need to be typing on a laptop. Spending thirty minutes scribbling in a notebook will be of use. Pop some earphone in your lugholes to blank out the rest of the train and write to your heart's content. It's how Anthony Trollope wrote some of his novels.
  • If your commute means you have to drive, can you use the time to think instead? When you arrive at work (or back at home), jot down the ideas and thoughts you've had before you step out of the car.  
  • Use your lunch break. I know the one hour lunch break is rare these days, but can you take yourself away from your desk for thirty minutes? Go and sit in your car, if you have to, or find a quiet room to escape to. And walking away from your work desk will help to reduce your anxiety levels, which may mean your afternoon is less stressful - your line manager will be happier about that!
  • Don't make every lunch break a writing session though. Limit it to two or three sessions a week. Use the other lunch sessions to do writing related stuff, like reading the writing magazines, or doing market analysis.
  • When you're at home, can you find fifteen minutes in the evening, just before you go to bed to scribble down some thoughts? Fifteen minutes a day doesn't sound a lot, but over a six day week, that an hour and a half. It soon mounts up.
Snatching ten minutes here, fifteen there, and another thirty minutes elsewhere means you'd be surprised how much time you can find. It might take a little preparation. For example, if you're going to spend your lunch break analysing a potential publication, then remember to take the publication with you to work!

Does anyone else have any tips for Arrshie, they'd like to share?

Before I go this week, I'd also like to mention an opportunity for any expat writers. the expat writers group, Writers Abroad, are currently seeking submissions for their next anthology. For more information, visit their website at

Good luck!