Monday, 29 July 2013

One Of Those Weeks!


Last week was what I call ‘one of those weeks’. Those of you who’ve read my book The Positively Productive Writer will know that I’m one of these people who plans out what my targets are for the week ahead. Well, last week was supposed to be a ‘quiet’ week where I spent most of my time cracking on with a big project I’m working on. That didn’t happen.

On Monday I was delighted to get an email from the editor of The Simple Things magazine accepting an article I’d submitted on spec several months ago. I don’t do much on spec work, because you’re always taking a risk that you could be wasting your time. But I’d done my market research, and I had an idea that I thought might fit, so I decided to give it go - and as with all risks, whilst there’s a chance they might not work, there’s also a chance that they might - and this one did.

What took up so much time on Monday was dealing with the paperwork. The magazine is published by a company who haven’t published me before [what took them so long? ;-)] so the editor had to send me the contributor contract (which I had to read carefully to understand - and actually, it wasn’t bad!), and then the accounts department needed to set me up on their systems, so I had more forms to read, complete, sign, scan and return digitally, and then once that was all done, the editor was finally able to send me the commission form, accepting my article and giving me the all important purchase order reference for me to quote on my invoice.

On Tuesday, I received an email advising me that my article entry into the Writers’ Digest Annual Writing Competition had been placed fifth, and I’d won some prize money! Being USA-based they’d emailed the relevant form that I needed to fill in, scan, and return by email, enabling them to pay my prize money (complicated slightly because I’m UK-based and not USA-based, so it’s an international payment being made).

Understandably, I was on a bit of a high after that news, when an editor then got in contact asking if I could help out with a 1250-word article that needed researching, writing and photographs sorting. When did he need it by? This Friday. Ah. Time to re-arrange my schedules again. I suggested an approach for the article to the editor, who decided he didn’t like that, but told me what he was looking for. Fine. It’s good to get these things sorted out at the start.

By Wednesday afternoon I’d got the first draft of that article sorted when the editor got in contact again. Having just chatted with the page layout designer, he wanted to change the way I dealt with the article I was doing for him. The new approach bore an uncanny resemblance to the approach I’d first suggested to the editor, early yesterday morning. Anyway, the customer is always right, so it was time to start rewriting!

On Thursday I realised I needed a few more photos for this piece, which meant nipping out to get them, whilst avoiding the huge black clouds that kept passing over. Whilst the forecasters have been threatening heavy downpours, here on the Welsh Borders we appear to have dodged them. My problem was I needed blue-sly photos, not big-black-cloud photos. Still, mission accomplished, the feature was all emailed off by Thursday evening, ahead of deadline. Phew!

Friday, I was all set to get cracking on what I planned to start doing on Monday, when the postman delivered a surprise. My latest book, The Bluffer’s Guide to Dogs, has just been published, and this was my own personal copy! After admiring it (as you do), the administrative process kicks in again - time to start registering it for PLR (public lending right) and filling in forms on ALCS (Authors Licensing & Collecting Society) to register it for foreign public lending rights too.

By Friday afternoon, I was finally free to get on with what I planned to start doing on Monday morning! On the one hand it was an infuriating week because I didn’t get done anywhere near what I’d planned to get done. Yet it was also a fab week of achievements! I should point out that weeks like this are rare (for me), but I do think it demonstrates that as long as you get into the habit of sending work out there, good things can happen. And Murphy's Law says they'll all happen at once!

Good luck.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Happy Times


I’m in receipt of a brand new Moleskine notebook - my prize for having a letter published in the latest issue of Writers’ Forum magazine. I was writing in response to a letter in the previous issue, where a reader was moaning about the number of sad, melancholic stories that judges were selecting as the winners in competitions.

It was an interesting observation, but, as I pointed out in my letter, a judge can only select a winner from the entries submitted and if all of the entries are dour and melancholic, then the winners are going to be dour and melancholic!

As someone who has judged several short story competitions, I’ve seen myself how frequently judges are subjected to such sad stories! I’ve had to sit down and read through a pile of over 200 stories, all with sad and poignant endings, and it isn’t easy to remain upbeat and positive after that! I understand why writers want to tackle such subjects. Often, they are emotionally charged, tackling matters that many judges and readers can empathise with: the loss of a loved one, the passing of a family pet, or the coming to terms with a life-changing illness. Some writers may even feel that tackling such subjects lends itself to a more literary style of writing, and perhaps a better piece of writing, which they think may improve their chances of winning. 

On occasions when I’ve judged competitions and found myself reading about death, after death, after death, after death, I’m desperate to read something funny and upbeat (to save myself contemplating my own mortality, if nothing else!). And if I come across such a story, it’s more likely to stand out in my memory. As a result, this increases its chances of being placed within the winning entries.

Which also raises a point I’ve mentioned before in this blog: the first idea you have isn’t always the best. Whatever you’re writing, spend some time developing your ideas. Churn them over in your head for a few days and see what develops. Often, the first three ideas should be rejected, because they’re the same three ideas all the other writers are going to come up with. It’s the different idea that stands out.

Back in 2005, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson was fatally wounded. Many of my students wrote competent anniversary articles commemorating the battle and Nelson’s life. But of the hundreds of articles on this subject that I read, the one I can remember today, eight years later, is the article that looked at the life of Nelson’s mistress, Lady Hamilton, after his death in 1805. 

So, if you’re fed up of reading morbid, depressing stories as winners of competitions, then why don’t you write something different and enter it into a competition? If you dismiss your first three ideas, you may just come up with something different enough to make your writing stand out when the judge comes to read it.

Good luck. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Conquer Once - Conquer Again!


I’ve been reading Elizabeth George’s Write Away (ISBN: 978-0340832097), which is subtitled as One novelist’s approach to fiction and the writing life. The first few sections of the book deal with the practicalities of writing novels: plot, characterisation, scenes, etc. In the final section, George writes about how she tackles her writing projects and the processes she goes through.

For her big projects she maintains a journal where she records her thoughts about the book she’s currently writing, mulls over any problems or difficulties she has, and tries to identify potential solutions. It’s not clear whether she records this information in a notebook or electronically, but I found it interesting how she uses this information.

For her, this journalling process is a two-step activity. For step one she gets her current journal and writes about her WIP, work in progress. There’s no prescribed length, or word count - she simply writes what she needs to write to get her thoughts down and to mull things over. Once she’s done this, she moves onto step two. This involves opening the journal for her previous big project, usually her last novel. Reading one entry per day, she reads her next entry.

At first I was a little confused by this. Why read about the problems you were having in the last book that is now complete? However, George goes on to explain that she does this to remind herself that in her last project she encountered problems which, at the time, felt insurmountable, yet she knows she did complete the book, so they weren’t really insurmountable. This helps her cope with her current problems, reminding her that she’s overcome problems in her writing before, so she can do it again.

This process has shown her that she often has similar insecurities at the same point in the novel writing process. Her previous journals have taught her that her current queries and self-doubt are simply part of her writing process, and by maintaining the journal for her current book, she knows that she will, eventually, overcome them.

Following on from last week’s post about using notebooks to write your way out of your current dilemma, it struck me that it might be worth taking a few minutes to look back through some of your own previous notebooks too. Why not remind yourself of some of the writing challenges you’ve faced in the past? As George says: if you’ve overcome your difficulties once, you can do it again.

Good luck.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Streaming Notebooks


In September last year, I mentioned an experiment where I’d asked a handful of writers to join with me and undertake a creative writing technique, called Morning Pages, to see if it boosted a writer’s creativity. (You’ll be able to read about in more detail in a future issue of Writers’ Forum magazine.) The post explained Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique where she encourages writers to wake up and before doing anything else, write three pages of anything that enters your head, to clear it ready for a day of productive writing, whilst also capturing any ideas that you might have had overnight. (You can read the post in question here: http://simonwhaleytutor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/morning-pages.html.)

The idea of such stream-of-consciousness writing is that you don’t evaluate what you write, you simply write, and when you’ve written your three pages, then you review and see what’s there. Hopefully, you’ll discover some little gems of ideas for you to develop.

However, this stream-of-consciousness writing technique is not just for first thing in the morning. I’ve had a couple of projects recently where I’ve got stuck and not known what to write next. One was a novel, one an article and one a short story. So I simply picked up my notebook and just started writing. Why am I stuck? What is it that isn’t flowing? Why can’t I get going again? What is missing? By asking (and writing down) a series of questions, I then began answering them - simply jotting down any answers my brain came up with - and every time a solution became apparent. I literally wrote my way out of the problem. When you begin writing Perhaps I should … or what about if I … and what would happen to X if I let Y do this? you might surprise yourself with the answers that flow from your pen. Particularly with the novel, thoughts came to me that tied up neatly other aspects of the novel. And with the article, I realised that a whole different structure was needed. Sometimes, this stream of consciousness writing reveals what our subconscious has been thinking.

I found that my answers usually came to me after about ten minutes of writing. Once I had those answers I stopped and got on with my projects. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself doing this more and more. If I get stuck, or the words just don’t flow, I pick up my notebook and start writing, simply putting my thoughts down on paper. When the answers arrive, I go back to my projects and continue. I don’t write three pages - I write enough to get me going again.

I still do Julia Cameron’s Three Pages technique many mornings a week (not every morning, though). One of the criticisms of the technique is that the goal is three pages - you have to keep going until you have written three pages, which isn’t always easy. Sometimes I’ve felt that after two pages I’ve cleared my head and solved some problems for the day. As a technique, though, it generally works well for me. But looking back now, I can see how I’ve also adapted it to suit my needs during the day, too. If I get stuck, I start writing about my problem, and then, somehow, capturing these thoughts writes me out of the difficulty.

Next time you find yourself getting stuck, pick up a pen and some paper and write. Ask yourself what the problem is. Write down why you feel something isn’t working. You might be surprised what you end up writing. And when you’ve found your solution, go back to your project and use it right away - whilst the excitement of having that solution is still within you. 

Good luck.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Choosing The Right B****y Words!


There are some great blog posts around at the moment, by writers, for writers, designed to give the blog-post readers a good kick up the writing a**e. If you fancy reading a couple, (although anyone who doesn’t like swear words should avoid these links) you can find them here (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/06/25/50-rantypants-snidbits-of-random-writing-storytelling-advice/) and here (http://www.matthaig.com/some-fucking-writing-tips/).

Both of these posts offer some great advice. They also use some *interesting* language to get their points across. For me, the use of the language in these posts works … for the individual posts. However, there seems to have been a plethora of such posts recently, doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and as a result, they don’t have the same impact that the first two posts I saw (above) had on me. The repetition of the swear words loses their impact.

There’s a time and a place for swear words … and it does surprise me sometimes when I see a student using them in their article drafts … particularly when they’ve told me which market they are targeting! I always highlight swear words in a student’s text and suggest they check their target publication to see if they use such words. If you see other articles using them, then at least you know the readers are used to reading them (and the editor is happy to publish them). But if none of the articles you read use swear words then that’s a pretty big signal that neither should you.

Even if you only use one such word - because it has the impact you want it to have (and used correctly, they can have impact) - if your target publication doesn’t use them at all, the editor will edit it. As a result, your text will no longer have the impact you wanted. Far better to rewrite your text in a different way to give it the impact you want. 

I’m not saying don’t use swear words - I’m just saying use them for the appropriate market. You might find the occasional swear word in some men’s magazines, for example. But again, check where you see them. Are they used by the writer, to get a point across? Or are they used in a direct quote, because that conveys the interviewee’s character? 

So next time you want to use a swear word in your writing, ask yourself is it necessary? There are times when it might be, if it gets your point across. But always let your market dictate its usage. And, generally, the use of swear words works better if you follow the principle of “less is more.”

Good !?*/&!ing luck.

(Of course, this applies to all words, not just swear words. Take it from the man who once had an editor delete the word ‘fart’ from his text and replace it with ‘break-wind’.)