Monday, 29 June 2015

It's A Hard Life, But Somebody's Got To Do It

I’ve just got back from a press trip. And yes, it was great fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a luxury break in one of the country’s finest houses, oozing with history, and with an opportunity to partake in a five-course taster menu in the grand dining room, surrounded by some impressive paintings, including a couple of Van Dyke’s.

If ever you get an opportunity to go on a press trip it’s worth remembering there are many elements to such trips. Yes, you need to enjoy the experience. But you are there to work. Most press trips are offered to commissioned writers, or at least writers who the PR companies know will sell their copy. (I’ve been commissioned to produce two pieces, which is why I’d been asked to go.) So, in between all of the nice bits of getting access to areas the general public don’t see, and sampling wonderful food, there’s also the important aspect of collecting the material you need to produce the work you’ve been commissioned to do.

On this trip the timings of the schedule overran, which isn’t uncommon at all, in my experience. In some ways that’s a good sign because it means attendees are engaged and asking questions, keen to know more. But one of my commissions involved interviewing the Head Butler, and although I’d missed my slot because the tour hadn’t returned us to the house on time, I was quickly assured that this wasn’t a problem. Well, it wasn’t for me, although I did feel sorry for the Head Butler, who was happy to be interviewed as long as I didn’t mind him working at the same time.

I have to say, I felt rather guilty interrupting him doing his job. And what an important job he was doing - he and his assistant were busy setting up the table for our dining experience in three hours time. But, of course, he accepted the interruption with grace and dignity. Nothing was too much trouble (an attitude all the staff had).

But it reminded me the importance of preparation for such trips. I’d already planned the questions I wanted to ask. This enabled me to get the answers I needed quickly, and assess the situation as the interview progressed. I was able to ask more questions, which was great, but had we needed to cut things short, I would still have got the answers I wanted.

It’s also important to be flexible on these trips. Another interview the following day had to be brought forward. Again, with my questions prepared beforehand this wasn’t a problem.

It’s also worth remembering that such press trips are a networking opportunity too - not just with the organisations hosting you, and their PR company, but with other writers too. And sometimes, it’s not just writers - editors like a day out of the office sometimes and opt to take part in such events. I spent time chatting to an editor with whom I’d emailed pitches in the past. Who knows what opportunities that might throw up in the future?

Being freelance also means you need to maximise the value of such trips. Yes, I’ve been commissioned to write two pieces for one magazine, but I was also collecting research for other potential ideas. You never know what ideas might arise, and the more you can get out of such trips the better. In addition to the two commissioned pieces I now have other three ideas I shall be pitching, and who knows what else will crop up over the coming days as I think about things further?

Over the next few days I shall be processing the hundreds of photos I took, typing up notes, typing up audio interviews and cataloguing information - all ready to use for any other ideas that crop up. It’s important to get these things done while everything is still fresh in your mind.

Are press trips fun and exciting? Too blooming right. But to make the most of them, they’re hard work too. It’s work that will reward you, though.

So, if you get the opportunity to go on a press trip, make sure you enjoy it. But remember why you’re there, and exploit the opportunity to its maximum.

Good luck.  

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Significance of Chocolate

“This wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s been great fun,” said a new face last week at one of the writers’ circles I go to. I think it was a compliment!

Our potential new face was, quite understandably, nervous about going to a group of writers. She was expecting a more formal tone, I think, where the written work was scrutinised at a grammatical level and writers were given lines if they dare split an infinitive. Instead, we tend to argue over other more important matters; what are we going to open first; the chocolate HobNobs or the Guylian chocolates?

The point it that all writers groups comprise individual writers, which means the groups are individual too. I’ve said before that I go to two groups, because I get different things from each group. One has a large membership, which means we’re in a financial position to organise events, such as workshops where we invite guest speakers in, run international competitions, and organise retreats. Whereas the smaller group offers me an opportunity to read out and get feedback on longer pieces that I don’t get time to consider at the bigger group.

But, one thing that both groups have in common is that they encourage writing. Whether it’s 100 words or 2,000 words, both groups inspire me to put pen to paper. I might not always end up with something to take along to every meeting, but the encouragement is there. And attendance exposes you to different forms of writing and exercises. On Saturday, at the larger group, we were drawing scenes from famous films, using stick men - thankfully - and passing our masterpieces around to see whether others could identify what the scene was depicting, and whether it inspired us to write something else. Now, that’s not something I would normally do on my own, but when I came away from the meeting I’d written something in my notebook and I came away with an idea for s short story.

So it doesn’t matter how a writers’ group operates as long as it inspires its members to write. Yes, through open discussion, it’s good to offer constructive criticism, for that’s how we learn and develop, But we also need to be inspired the first place.

If you’ve never been to a writers’ group, or if you already go to one, why not find a new group and give them a try? You won’t know if you’ll benefit until you step through the door.

Not every writers’ group is right for every writer. But I can guarantee one thing. It’s always a good sign if there’s chocolate on offer.

Good luck.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Looking Back

They say you should never go back, but last weekend I did just that. I’d been invited to run a couple of article-writing workshops as part of the Leominster Festival, which were being held in the very building where I used to work, before I became a freelance writer.

Although I was going back geographically, I wasn’t completely stepping back in time, because just like I have, the building I used to work in has also moved on. (Not geographically, but in design and use.) No longer owned by the council, it’s now a community facility with a lovely cafe, meetings rooms (great for workshops), historical displays and small office units for local businesses. As I explored the building there were only a couple rooms that I recognised, such was the transformation.

It was a wonderfully nostalgic trip down memory lane, but it also reminded me that as writers we can’t stand still. It’s important we move forward, developing new specialisms or areas of interest, because the world is always moving on.

In one of the workshops I looked at market analysis and one delegate picked up a copy of The Lady for the fist time in several years. She couldn’t believe how much it had changed. (I broke it to her gently, that the publication is now edited by a man.)

Nostalgia plays an important part on some magazines these days, and while it is important to think back to the way things were it’s also important to look at what else has changed. This includes ourselves as writers.

So why not spend a few minutes looking back at some of your earlier writing? How have you changed as a writer? But perhaps more importantly, ask yourself what your next changes are going to be?

Good luck. 

Monday, 8 June 2015

WIDOMHs and Other Problems

I’ve just finished judging the NAWG (National Association of Writers Groups) travel writing competition, and the entries have taken me right around the world.

My initial sift enabled me to cull at least half of the entries. So why did those ones fail to win me over?

1. They were WIDOMHs. What’s a WIDOMH? It’s a What I Did On My Holiday piece. Being blunt, I couldn’t give a toss what you did on YOUR holiday. When I’m reading a travel piece, I want to think about what I can do on my holiday, if I were to follow in the writer's footsteps. There’s a difference between writing about your own experiences in a way that will inspire readers to want to go there, and simply regurgitating your itinerary for your two-week break. When you share an experience you need to convey the atmosphere. Use your senses to paint a picture. What could you hear? What could you taste? What could you smell? How did you feel? And what specific details did you see? Don’t say that you did this, then you did that, before you did something else. WIDOMHs don’t show the reader what they can do on their holiday - they just bore them with your holiday. But the readers aren’t going on your holiday, are they?

2. Not enough travel. The concept of a travel article is quite broad, in my opinion. But again, travel is about atmosphere and experience. It’s not a simple regurgitation of the historical facts of a place. That’s a historical piece, not a travel piece.

3. Needs an angle. A travel article is more interesting if it has a clear focus and strong angle. Don’t write about Tenerife. Write about Tenerife’s wildlife, or its literary connections. When you write about a place you need to offer more than a tourist brochure, and you can do this by writing for a specific readership. Where would you recommend gardeners go, when visiting Tenerife? Which top three clubs would you recommend for the under 25s? What is there for a family with children all under 5 years old to do? Think about your reader and what they want to know about a place.

4. Don’t get sidetracked. I know, when it comes to travelling, getting sidetracked is when you make the best discoveries. But getting sidetracked when you’re writing a travel article is the worst thing you can do. And if you have a strong angle, and a clear idea about who your readership is, you’re less likely to get sidetracked. In fact, one piece began brilliantly, but then suddenly veered off at a completely different tangent. This new tangent was boring. It lost its humour and colour. Had the second half been as good as the first this particular entry would have been in the running for first place. But instead, it got sidetracked, so it failed the first sift. A shame.

5. I’m thick. So make things easy for me to read. Please. My brain can’t cope with opening sentences that are also the entire opening paragraph. All 348 words of them. By the time I was half way through the sentence I’d forgotten what the point was and I had to go back to the start again. Three times that happened. That’s like taking off, all excited that you’re underway, and then being told by the captain that you have to return to the airport. Read your work out aloud. If you have to stop to draw breath then you need to rewrite your text. 

Give yourself time when entering competitions. Not just time to come up with an idea, and time to write the first draft. But time to put it away and forget about it. And then time to reacquaint yourself with it, and time to edit it. It will all be time well spent.

Do that, and all of your writing, not just your competition entries, will survive the reader’s first sift, whoever that reader may be.

Good luck. 

Monday, 1 June 2015

Britain's Got Talent

This last week of television has been full of talented hopefuls doing their best to please four judges and millions of television viewers.

Whenever I hear the thud of a rejection falling on the doormat (or pinging into my email inbox) I often imagine hearing four loud buzzers going off and four huge red crosses flashing above my head.

While many of these performers exhibited some impressive talents, sometimes it's the hidden talents that are the real heroes. Some of the acts told stories of trudging round the country performing in village halls, pubs and clubs, often away from home for weeks at a time. And despite not getting the break they longed for, they've continued doing what they believe in.

The talent of perseverance is one all writers need. We're going to get red buzzers, but with a talent of perseverance to practise our craft and to learn from our mistakes, we'll find ourselves getting through to bootcamp. And there will be times when everything seems to come together at the right time to produce something that results in the golden buzzer.

So, the next time someone asks you what your talent is, say you have two: you write, and you have perseverance.

Good luck.