Monday, 31 August 2015

A Roadmap of Action

I’ve had what feels like an unproductive week. When I say unproductive, what I mean is that I’ve not written many words. That’s the problem with writing. A good measure of whether you’ve done any writing is to count how many words you’ve written. The more you’ve written the more productive you’ve been.

Of course, quantity does not equal quality, but at least with quantity you have the opportunity to edit your way towards some quality - that’s the ethos behind the ever-popular NaNoWriMo event held every November. (Get 50,000 words written during the month of November and you’re a good two-thirds of your way into the first draft of a novel - so you’re more likely to finish the first draft, giving you something to edit.)

But, even though I’ve not written many words this week I have still been busy. I’ve been planning. I’ve been:

- researching who to ask for help for my next article in my Business of Writing column in Writing Magazine (and then I’ve asked for that help),
- reading a biography for a book idea I’m developing,
- researching publishers for another book idea I have,
- processing photos from my Scottish holiday the other week, and identifying any useful images that may help secure some pitches,
- pitching ideas to editor and creating new angles for new article ideas,
- sorting out some workshops I’m running in Leeds at the end of September (there are still places available - check out for more details)
- planning the next few scenes in the current chapter of a novel I’m writing.

It’s only when I stop and look at this list that I realise I have been more productive than I originally thought. All these things are helping me progress my projects further, and get them to a stage when I will be writing something.

The planning part of our writing projects is vital. I’m not just talking about plotting some fiction, or structuring a piece of non-fiction - I’m talking about the practical steps we have to take in order to move our project one step forward.

Every time you start a new project sit down for a few minutes and list the steps you need to take to get started. Perhaps you need to research a subject. Perhaps you need to research potential markets. Perhaps you need to make a few pitches. Whatever it is, be specific. Don’t write: Do research. Research what? Research where? Research how?

Instead, write: go to the library and research which books will be useful to read on the subject of XYZ.

That’s much more specific, which means you’re more likely to do it. And that’s what will get your project moving. That’s what will get you closer to the writing stage.

Planning is the roadmap to completing our writing projects. We don’t like it because it doesn’t feel like writing. But without it we’re less likely to get our writing projects started, and therefore less likely to get to the writing stage, and therefore, ultimately, finished.

Good luck.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Don't Switch On the Television In The First Place

I’ve just returned from a week-long holiday in Scotland (which also included a week of entertaining my seven-year-old nephew … so it wasn’t exactly a relaxing holiday, as such). But it was a holiday with a difference because the only television in the entire self-catering property was located on the upstairs landing. There were no televisions downstairs, and none of the bedrooms had one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big television fan. I like to keep abreast of the news. The Great British Bake Off is a must at the moment, as is its associated Extra Slice (Friday evening). If the soaps are on then I may keep tabs with what’s going on, but I can just as easily forget them. The Family Guy cartoon series will often attract my attention, even though I’ve probably seen every episode six times now. But even so, it’s surprising how often the television gets switched on just as background noise, or with the intention of switching it off when the news is over, only to find two hours later that I’ve gained a sudden interest in Eastern Russian nomadic living according to the latest celebrity chef. 

But last week, while I was away, it was more difficult for the television to attract my attention. So I read. Or wrote. I also did a lot of thinking … because it was quiet. It highlighted to me that although I’m pretty disciplined (if I have a deadline and I need to focus then the television stays switched off and doesn’t distract me at all), if there’s no urgent deadline then I do have a tendency to switch on the television. And once it’s on it soon sucks my attention from other activities.

So I’ve made a decision. In the evenings the television only goes on if there’s a specific programme I want to watch. If there’s nothing on, then it doesn’t get switched on. I’ll read. Which is probably a good thing, because while I was on holiday we went to a bookshop and I bought three new books. (Three? That’s quite refrained for me!) Or I’ll write. Or think. 

Review your writing area to identify any distracting machines, and consider ditching them, or keeping them switched off, and then consider what impact this has on your writing life. You may not get any more writing done. You might decide to read instead. But reading is just as important to writers as writing is. And reading helps us to think, too. Which means that more thinking could spark off more ideas. And what’s a writer without ideas?

Good luck.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Positivity Notebooks

There are writers who wallpaper their offices with rejection slips. There are writers who use such rejections to throw onto the fire to keep themselves warm while they write their next submission. And there are those writers who turn their rejection letters over and use the blank side to start writing something new.

But that’s enough about rejections. What I’m interested in is what you do when something goes well. And I don’t just mean acceptances. Every so often, we may get a nice email, or a comment on social media, that brightens our day. So what do you do with those?

Last week, I had an email from an editor who’d commissioned me to write a piece. Although he’d explained what he wanted, I wasn’t quite sure of how the text should be structured, so I invested some time in analysing the particular slot in the publication. Once I’d done this, I was clearer on what was expected of me. This is what everyone does, isn’t it? Well, from the email I received, it seems not.

“I have to say, after all the faff we’ve had in the past with this slot – it’s been hard work sometimes getting people just to answer us – it was a total breath of fresh air to read the one you’ve sent in. Perfect, just as it is. Utterly delighted.”

Obviously, those words meant a lot to me. They brightened my day immensely. Not only was I pleased I’d done the job right, but I’d clearly made the editor’s job easier too - enough for him to take time out of his busy schedule and tell me, too! I know I bang on about market analysis, but this is why. 

Although I don’t paper my office walls with my rejection slips (despite having sufficient to enable me to redecorate on a monthly basis) I do keep a Positivity Notebook - a book where I record any successes and moments to be proud of. It might be an email like this from an editor, a note from a reader who’s found one of my books has motivated them back into their writing, or even a letter on a magazine’s letters page where a reader has written in response to an article I wrote. It can be anything. In fact, the last time an agent got in touch and said he’d enjoyed reading the first three chapters of my novel and asked to see the rest, I wrote it in my positivity notebook.

As writers, we frequently focus on the bad stuff. That’s because it’s easy. but if you make an effort to keep a positivity notebook you’ll find you have the perfect antidote the next time you get those rejection blues.

Good luck.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Solange's Top Travel Writing Tips

As I mentioned last week, while I was at the Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard, I did Solange Hando’s Travel writing course, so I thought this week I’d pass on some of her top travel tips. (You can read more about Solange and her travels on her blog at: )

1. Travel is about people and places. It’s not just about a destination, but what people can do there, what the customs and traditions are of the people who live there, and the way they live their lives. So put people into your travel pieces, not just the places.

2. When you write an introduction, think detail. Be positive. Describe a scene, or draw upon anecdote. What this does is it quickly draws your reader into your piece. A scene or anecdote gives your piece life. There is something happening, if you describe the way a member of the waiting staff is flirting with you, or if someone is having an argument with a local and neither can understand each other’s language.

3. Don’t start your travel article at the start of your trip. Do that, and it becomes what I call a WIDOMH (What I Did On My Holidays) piece. Start with something exciting. Focus on one small part of your trip. If you’re going to write about the afternoon you spent scuba diving in the Red Sea at the end of your holiday, begin with jumping into the water, all kitted out, not arriving at the airport all ready for a fab fortnight away.

4. Analyse your target market and use the terms they use. So do they say ‘kids’ or ‘children’? Do they refer to ‘husbands and wives’ or ‘partners’? Copy what you see - so if the magazine prefers the use of the word ‘partner’ then use it, even if you’re happily married!

5. Work out what your word count needs to be, then deduct 100 words for the introduction, 100 words for the conclusion, and divide the rest by the number of points you want to make. So, if you have 1,000 words, Solange would knock off 200 (100 each for intro and conclusion) leaving her 800 words to play with. If she wanted to focus on four key points about a place, she’d know she had 200 words available for each point.

6. Maximise your trip. Don’t write one article about your trip, write six pieces about different aspects of each trip. Think of as many different markets as you can to approach, and pitch your ideas. And don’t give up until you pitched an idea to at least 100 different markets! (I think she was being a little harsh here, but her point is a valid one. Keep pitching because an editor will be interested someday!)

Good luck!

Monday, 3 August 2015

How Do You Do It?

I’ve just got back from a week in Fishguard at the annual Writers’ Holiday (, where I was running my Photography for Writers course. (And thank you to everyone who pointed their cameras at lots of things and took photos!)

But while I was there, I was also able to participate in a course myself, and I opted to take Solange Hando’s course on travel writing. (Solange has written a really good book on the subject too: Be A Travel Writer -

One of the delegates turned to me and said, “I’m surprised you’re here. You’ve had lots of travel pieces published. What’s left for you to learn?” And they were right. I have. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new for me to learn. As writers, we all do things slightly differently, and that’s why it’s interesting to know how others go about their craft. And Solange is a tutor who likes to make her delegates graft! (She is very nice, though, I do want to point out.) During her 8 workshops, I identified three new markets, and I produced an outline, an introduction, a conclusion and the first 1200 words of a 1500-word travel piece. Had I had a bit more time I would have finished the first draft of the whole piece. But it’s three quarters complete, so I’ll get that first draft sorted in the next day or so. Then I’ll pitch it to my target market. (Normally, I would pitch first, but Solange wanted us to write the first draft.) Although workshops are great places to learn, they’re also a good opportunity to put into practise what you have learned, which means you generally get a bit of writing done.

It’s also useful to go on these courses to find out what you have in common with other writers. Solange went through her writing and pitching process, and I felt it comforting to know that her system is similar to mine. Working on our own, it’s often difficult to know whether our methods of working are right, or efficient, or need improving, and so finding out how other people operate can be really useful.

So if you see a course on an genre of writing you think you know well, don’t dismiss it. Consider giving it a go. You might find you learn something new, and even if you don’t, knowing that you operate in the same way that other professionals do will still give you confidence.

Good luck!

PS: if you’re looking for some writing courses, check out Relax and Write at: 

And there’s still time to book for the National Association of Writers’ Group’s Festival of Writing during the first weekend of September: