Monday, 30 March 2015

How Do You Lose Yours?

It’s now British Summer Time, and outside it’s peeing it down with rain.

I always think this is a harsh time of year for writers. We never have enough hours in the day to write as it is, and then we have to cut one from our schedule. So how do you lose yours? 

For many years I would wait until I woke up on Sunday morning and then go round the house changing the clocks that hadn’t automatically updated themselves. But I didn’t like this. It felt that the hour had literally been snatched from me. I would wake up, with a whole new day ahead of me, with a long list of things to do, and then suddenly, five minutes later, when all the clocks were updated, I’d be half way through the morning, and the rest of the day was running out with less time to do all of those things.

So then I started putting the clocks forward just before I went to bed. (That can be an interesting exercise when you can’t remember which clocks automatically adjust themselves and then you wake up on Sunday morning to find you’ve lost two hours, not one!) But I still felt as though I was losing an hour’s sleep, because instead of settling down at 11.30pm I was now settling down at 12.30am. So I either lost an hour’s sleep if I were to wake at my usual time the following morning, or if I slept for my usual length of time, my Sunday was still going to be an hour shorter.

I’ve found my solution. I now change my clocks mid afternoon on the Saturday. By doing this, I’ve found that I’ve already achieved something in the day by this time, so the pressure to achieve other things is not as great. (I still have things to do, but with the important things of the day tackled first, it means they’re already done.) And I still have the rest of the afternoon and evening to adjust to the time change, so by the time I go to bed I’m pretty geared up to British Summer Time.

For me, I’ve discovered that losing my hour between 2.30pm and 3.30pm on a Saturday afternoon is a lot easier to manage.

So what’s this got to do with writing? What we achieve in our writing often comes down to how we manage our time. I’ve heard some writers say they hate the change to British Summer Time because they lose an hour from their Sunday morning, and mornings are their time for writing. I know of one writer who is a late owl, and writes from 10pm until 2am, normally four hours, but on this night it’s only three.

If something doesn’t work for you, then change it. Just because the clocks officially go forward at 1am, doesn’t mean that you have to do it at that time. (Heck I’m too busy sleeping then!) Experiment. 

It’s up to us how we manage our time. It’s easy to lose an hour on Facebook, or browsing the Internet, or channel-hopping on the telly, and we often think nothing of that. When British Summer Time comes calling, we get quite worked up about losing an hour. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Good luck.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Simply Does It

So, were you able to catch a safe glimpse of the eclipse? Here in very sunny Shropshire we were a little dazzled by it all. I was hoping that I might be able to snap a photo of the event, but I don’t have the necessary special equipment for capturing it on my professional camera, and in some ways, the clear blue skies and brightness of the sun would have made this difficult. So, instead of going all hi-tech, I had to go low-tech instead.

It was time to make a pin-hole camera: cue white sheet of paper on a clipboard, a piece of card, and a drawing pin. As you can see from the photo, it worked really well! I also used the colander from the kitchen and got that to produce a multitude of eclipses! Sometimes, the old fashioned ways are the best ways of doing things.

It reminded me of a time last year when I was called to help out Country Walking magazine. One of the staff writers had done a walk in the area and dictated the route description onto their smartphone. When they came to write it up, back at the office a few days later, they were horrified to discover that the recorded route description was all garbled and unusable. 

As a local contributor to where they’d walked, they asked me to tackle the route and produce a detailed route description. No problem. Of course I could help out. I was being paid, after all. The staff writer asked how I recorded my route descriptions. I use the low-tech method: pen and paper.

I have tried to use dictaphones in the past, but in my opinion they don’t work well. When you’ve said, “Cross the field and then a stile. Cross the next field and a stile. Cross over another field and a stile. Continue over the next field and a stile …” and then you find yourself in difficulty and need to retrace your steps, it’s not easy to work out when you’ve rewound the directions exactly which field and stile you’ve wound back to. Whereas with pen and paper, you simply cross out each stile and field as you retrace your steps.

Likewise, although I like my laptop and computer, when it comes to just jotting down thoughts and ideas, a notepad and pen work best for me. The slowness of forming the words as I write help me to formulate my ideas. I type too fast to be able to do that straight onto a computer. (Clearly, I’m a slow thinker!) 

So, next time you need to do a writing task, just pause for a moment and ask yourself the question: am I using the right tools for the job? Sometimes, the simplest tools work best.

Good luck.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Second Fluke Originality

Well, it seems that flukes can happen twice. What is a fluke? According to the OED it’s an unlikely chance occurrence, especially a surprising piece of luck.

I’ve just sold a second short story to Woman’s Weekly. It took me nine years to first crack this market (and that’s why I always bang on about being persistent), and it’s only taken me another year to crack the market again. How lucky is that? Cracking it the first time was a fluke so cracking it a second time just proves flukes can happen twice. Or does it?

I’d almost given up on this market, before I made my first sale to it last year. Nine years is a long time. And I know of writers who’ve spent longer than me trying to break into this market and have yet to succeed.

I was chatting to a group of writers as a workshop recently, and one said that, “You’ve obviously discovered the formula for this market.” I wish I had, because then every story I write for this market would be accepted! But there is no formula, as such. I do, however, think there is a mindset, though. It’s all about getting a feel for the type of material the publication uses, what their readers want, and then, being able to add a twist - and I’m not talking about tales with a twist, where the plot misleads the reader into thinking something else. By adding a twist, I mean a twist of originality.

Every writer, whether we’re writing fiction or non-fiction, has to present their thoughts in a way that comes across with a freshness, that might not be completely original, but is different enough to make it stand out.

The story that has just been accepted is written from a groom’s point of view in the run up to a wedding. It’s not a completely original idea, but having read the magazine for the last few years I couldn’t remember reading a story on this theme with a man as the main character. (Nor one where the groom keeps asking the vicar to lie!)

This was not the first submission I’d made since my last acceptance. It was actually my fourth. But, looking back now, those previous three submissions were all very similar, and perhaps too contrived to be a Woman’s Weekly story. While readers want the comfort of picking up a publication that has a similar feel to it each month, they still want the contents to be engaging, and different enough to be entertaining.

So, there are several lessons to be learned from this experience:

1. Never give up. As Thomas Edison once said: “Many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up."
2. Look for any different angle. With a short story this could mean a different point of view, a slightly unusual setting or a quirky character. With non-fiction it could be an obscure anniversary, a tenuous link (I’ve just sold an article about Portmeirion - in Wales - to a local county magazine in Surrey), or a different perspective on a well-known topic.
3. Be yourself. While it’s good to adapt your style of writing to fit that of your target publication, don’t let it adapt the way you think. We’re all unique, and it’s our uniqueness that can help us identify those original angles for our work.

Good luck.

Monday, 9 March 2015

A Detailed Brief

My two latest commissions have been a joy (Country Walking and Discover Britain). Why? Because the brief I was given from both was detailed. I knew exactly what was required and what was being offered.

The commission from Discover Britain came after a pitch I’d made several months ago (and had chased up a couple of times … so it pays to be persistent). The editor was lovely (and I’m not just saying that because she’d commissioned me!). Her email, formally commissioning me, stated exactly what she wanted:

- main article length, and what it was to cover,
- fact file length, and what it needed to cover,
- photographic requirements,
- rights required in the article,
- fee for the job, and when it would be paid,
- deadline.

Country Walking magazine got in touch because they wanted me to help them with a new section they’d recently launched. Because it was new (there’d only been one published so far in the series), the deputy editor provided me with a detailed brief of the different sections the piece needed, what they were to cover and how many words were required for each section. Some sections could run to as many as 90 words, whereas with others I had a whole 30 words to play with! Although it could be seen as restrictive, this level of detail is quite comforting, because you know exactly what it is you need to provide.

Of course, not every commission is as detailed as this, and not every writer has editors commissioning them at this level of detail. But one way of improving the the detail is to be just as specific in your own pitches to a magazine. When you pitch an idea to an editor, tell them:

- the specific angle of your idea and why it will appeal to their readers,
- which section of the magazine you envisage it working best for,
- how many words you’re offering for each part of the article (main body, plus additional fact files)
- whether you can offer photos,
- what rights you’re offering,
- when you can deliver the piece, if they commission the idea.

By being this specific in your pitches, not only will the editor see that you’ve done your homework (because you wouldn’t dream of pitching a 1200-word piece for a slot that only uses 800-words, would you?), but if they want to change anything, they’ll let you know.

If we’d like editors to be more specific with us, perhaps we should start by being more specific with them.

Good luck!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Through Someone Else's Eyes

Part of being a writer is being able to see things through someone else’s eyes. Viewpoint is important, and that doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

On Saturday, while doing my daily walk, I bumped into a man in his eighties, who I often see out and about, no matter what the weather. Even when it’s pouring with rain he always declares what a wonderful day it is. As a blind man, he gets about with the aid of a white stick.

I bumped into him (not literally, he’s adept at using his stick) along the bridleway that gently slopes down to a National Trust cafe in the valley. For me, it’s a gradual slope, which only requires caution during snow and ice.

Not for my friend, though. He pointed out to me that we had stopped to chat just after drainage channel number 16. His white stick drops down into all 21 channels that cross this section of the path. Now, ask me if there are any drainage channels and I’d have said there were about three or four. But not 21. I counted them yesterday and he’s right. There are 21. I’ve just been blind to the other 17 or so.

It takes him ten steps to get from the concrete bridge to the flatter section of grass that avoids the ridge where the sheep like to lean against. And that concrete bridge was fourteen steps from the pot hole in the road … or it was, until someone decided to fill in the pot hole. My friend has had to recalibrate his walk since the road has been ‘improved’.

After chatting about the different birds we’d heard this morning, and how quiet it was compared to last weekend, when it was still the school half-term holidays, we parted company and continued on our own walks.

I found myself counting the rest of the way home. And looking for potholes. I was now looking at a route I’ve done regularly for several years in a completely new way. I was now looking at it through the eyes of a blind man.

So the next time you find yourself doing something complete routine, try looking at it through someone else’s eyes. You may find it inspirational, and you never know what you might see.

Good luck.