Monday, 28 January 2013

Writing For Free

The topic of writing for free seems to be popular at the moment, so I thought I’d add my take on the subject. (There’s an article on the subject in the latest issue of Writers’ Forum magazine, Alex Gazzola has written a post on his blog, and the topic has cropped up in a couple of Facebook groups too.)

Many writers are horrified to hear about others writing for free. It does them out of a job, they argue, and they have a point. To use the example that writers often trot out on this topic, who expects a plumber to come out and work for free? But, if two plumbers knocked on your door and one offered to charge £80 for the job, whereas the other was prepared to do it for free, which one would you choose? (Mind you, which one would you expect would do a better job: the plumber charging for their expertise and skill, or the one who doesn’t value their craft?)

Of course, whether you should write for free is something that only you can decide. Have I written for free? Yes. But there’s usually a benefit for me, for doing so. As an author, I’ve occasionally written free articles to help publicise my books. Sometimes, I’ve offered free articles as an investment in potential future work, which has resulted in opportunities.

There are also other times when I write for free. I like to support a couple of small organisations for writers with free articles, because they helped me so much at the start of my writing career. And, occasionally, I submit to anthologies that are produced for charitable purposes.

At the start of their writing career, some writers are so keen to see their name in print, they’re happy to write for free. And, on occasions, there can be some merit in this. Being published might provide the motivation to start on the next project. It might give the writer the confidence to try a bigger, paying, market in the future. And being able to tell an editor that you’ve been published in XYZ magazine can be useful (especially as most editors won’t know how much XYZ magazine paid you, even if it was zilch).

But you should always be sensible and realistic. Would you expect Cosmopolitan, or Good Housekeeping magazine not to pay their writers? If a publication charges advertisers for advertising within its pages, then it should be paying its writers for the work they produce to appear within those pages. It is those written words that attract the readers to buy the publication in the first place - not the advertisements.

There are many small press publications out there who claim to operate on tight budgets - and many do. Some claim they don’t have the resources to pay for submissions. Others work hard to offer something, even if it only amounts to a few pounds. At least those that offer a minuscule payment acknowledge that a writer should be paid for their craft.

Even writers who (pay to) enter writing competitions do so in the hope that they will win … and be paid for their efforts in prize money.

So, in my view, writing for free has its place, but it should be a small part of a writer’s productivity. If you value your craft, then you should target most of your work at markets who are prepared to put a monetary value to that craft. For someone like me, writing for free doesn’t put a roof over my head or food on the table.

Good luck.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Inspiration from the Past

When was the last time you went and REALLY looked at a gravestone? If ever people pass through one they tend not to linger or, if they do, it's at a grave of a loved one. But think about all of the other stories that lie there.

Some of the older graves often have an interesting story to tell. In my local churchyard lies Ann Cook, wife of Thomas, who died in 18?4 (the grave is weathered too much to make out the detail), and underneath, in four simple lines, is her life story:

On a Thursday she was born,
On a Thursday she was a bride,
On a Thursday her leg was broke,
On a Thursday died.

Clearly, Thursdays were a mixed blessing for her, some being good, whilst others being not so good. But what a wonderful overview, and how poignant that such things all happened on a Thursday (albeit that, mathematically, there was a one in seven chance of these things happening on a Thursday anyway). Do other people remember the day such things happened in their lives?

In this cold weather, it's worth nipping into the church too. In the nearby village of Eardisley, the church has a memorial plaque, near the vestry, to the Barnsley family which recounts the terrible tale of their 'Bubbles Broken'. Anyone who has read Charles Dickens' Bleak House will spot the plot line laid out for all to see in this memorial. (And yes, records show that Dickens did visit the area.)

So, if you're stuck for inspiration, it might be worth hanging out with some folks of the past. You never know what you might come across. And if it was good enough for Dickens, then it's good enough for us!

Good luck!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Dee Do Do Do, Dee Dah Dah Dah ...

A student asked me last week about quoting a song lyric in a piece they were writing. Because they were only quoting one line, and were attributing it to the song and the composer, that was all right, wasn’t it?

No. The safest thing is not to quote a song lyric at all. Even if it’s only one line. To avoid breaching someone’s copyright, you should seek written permission from the copyright holder to use their words in your work. When permission is granted, you should then attribute that quote correctly to the copyright holder. (Authors often use the acknowledgments section of their book to formally thank those copyright holders who have given their permission for their work to be quoted in their text.) 

Whilst the law allows you to quote someone’s work without permission, it does so on the condition that you attribute those words to the person who owns the copyright, the amount you quote is deemed as reasonable, and you are quoting for review purposes. Of course, the law doesn’t actually stipulate how much is reasonable, which is where the lawyers come in!

So, if you’re not quoting for review purposes, then you must seek permission (and this student wasn’t reviewing the song). It is the copyright holder’s choice how much they charge for quoting their work. Some charge a fee, others are happy to waive a fee and simply ask for an acknowledgement. That’s up to them. However, many music copyright holders charge a fee - and rightly so - you are using their creation. (It's no different to writers charging a fee to magazines and book publishers for publishing their words.)

These fees can be substantial. In my book, The Positively Productive Writer, I wanted to quote the chorus from a song, but after making enquiries I realised the cost for this could be prohibitive. Instead, I found a different way of explaining the point I wanted to make. Thinking the cost might have been a touch unreasonable, I did a quick search on the Internet and discovered that, actually, the cost was similar to what other writers were being charged.

Blake Morrison wrote an excellent article about this in The Guardian about how he found out, to his cost, how expensive quoting lyrics could be. I recommend reading it. It could save you a fortune.

So, if you absolutely must quote a particular song lyric in your work, get permission and then get out your chequebook. Because if you don’t get permission, the legal consequences could mean that bailing out Greece would be cheaper.

Good luck.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Sometimes "Yes" Is The Right Answer

I would like to point out that I don’t make a habit of standing on street corners touting for work. Before Christmas, I was stopped by a woman in the street who made a proposition. I was merely going about my usual daily walk when this woman, who I knew by sight, stopped me and said, “You’re that writer aren’t you?” (Which is always a difficult question to answer because you don’t know who that writer is, that they’re thinking about.)

Anyway, she asked me if I would be interested in writing a story for her, which she would give as a present for a relative. She didn’t want me to ghost-write the story - she wanted a writer to write a story that met her requirements.

“What do you want the story to be about?” I asked.

“Oh, anything you like,” she replied. “Except that it must have my relatives’ three cats in it.”

“Okay,” I replied. “ I’m sure I can come up with something.”

“Oh, and he likes the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so a fantasy story is what he’d really enjoy reading.”

“Right …”I replied, now panicking.

I don’t write a lot of fiction, but I do dabble. But I don’t do fantasy. I tried reading Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they just don’t do it for me. I can’t be doing with those unusual names. I need to substitute Frodo for Fred, and Gandalf for Garry, but after a few pages I forget who Frodo should be, and who Gandalf was. Is he Garry or Graham? And then I realise that it’s too much hard work, so I stop reading them. But this woman was convinced I could do what she wanted and before I knew it, I’d uttered the word, “Yes.”

It wasn’t until I started walking home that I began to think about what I’d taken on. And this is a birthday present to someone celebrating a significant milestone - so no pressure there, then.

When I came to sit down and write this story, I had no idea what I was going to write about. The blank screen stared back and I racked my brain for an idea. Then I cursed myself, for yet again, I’d said “Yes,” to some work without thinking things through.

But as I’ve said here on this blog many times, it doesn’t matter what you write, just writing something. Only when you’ve written some words, do you have something to edit and work with. I assumed that I’d write a story of about 1,500 words. I felt that would be a suitable story length.

After an hour, I’d written nearly 1,000 words, and some semblance of a storyline was coming together. The following day I wrote another 2,000 words and a structure was beginning to reveal itself in the plot line. I couldn’t believe that I was 3,000 words in and not at the end of the story yet.

Three days later, I finished the first draft of the story, at 6,000 words. I was dead chuffed. There on the screen were 6,000 words I never dreamed I would ever write. It was even a (sort of) fantasy story.

After spending a couple of days editing and polishing, I finally plucked up the courage to deliver a copy to my commissioning woman. She telephone the following day to tell me how much she loved it. Phew! And because it is 6,000 words long, I’m getting it printed into a little book.

Looking back, I surprised myself how much I enjoyed writing the story. It was a style and subject matter that I never thought I would enjoy writing. But I did. And in the next few days there’ll be a little book - something tangible - for me to hand over to my customer. And there’s a clue as to how I eventually tackled this. This was any other writing job. I’m a supplier, and I had a customer who needed a job doing.

Sometimes in this writing world it’s a good idea to say, “Yes,” to something before you’ve really thought things through. It forces us out of our comfort zones. 

A few years ago there was a film produced on this principle, based loosely on a book by Danny Wallace, about a man who decided to say “Yes,” whenever an opportunity came his way. I’m not saying you need to change your life this drastically, but it can be beneficial to tackle a writing project where your gut instinct is to run a mile in the opposite direction. 

Good luck!