Thursday, 29 January 2015

And now for some good news...

Branching out.

I'd planned to post something about anthologies, but that will have to wait. Why? I'll tell you because a lot has been happening. No, I haven't finished the first draft of The Caretaker yet. However...drum roll....


I signed a contract recently with Joffe Books for my two Brit thrillers, Standpoint and Line of Sight to be published as ebooks. They also have the first option on the other three books in the Thomas Bladen series. The Caretaker is the next in line, so that rather creates a welcome sense of urgency.

Another nugget of positivity was seeing a letter of mine in the Winter 2014 edition of the Society of Author's journal, The Author.

Writers spend much of their times in their heads, or facing a page / screen. After that it's a strange and often bewildering journey to get a response, never mind personalised feedback you can actually work with.

How wondrous and stranger still to receive an invitation to submit something and then, after a few weeks and some rapid emails back and forth, an offer of a contract.

The blank page still needs to be faced every writing day and I'm the same person I ever was (although, it has to be said, there's a little spring in my step now). However, now, for the first time in quite a while, I'm eager to see what the edits look like from someone in the industry - what they read into the stories and what they think does or not suit the market. 

As far as I'm concerned I've written my book/s I wanted to write, so bar a culling of any of my favourite characters, I'm open to any improvements that will turn a writers' tale into a commercial novel.

If you write short fiction or novel length stories, is there anything you draw the line at when it comes to other people's edits?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Spotlight on the International Freelancer - Mridu Khullar Relph

While there is no magic bullet for freelancing success there is a wealth of useful information out there online. So much so that sometimes it's hard to know what to download and where to spend your valuable reading time. You need a filter and the one that I use can be summed up in a single word: character

I like to spend my time with people who not only inspire me but whose writing gives me a flavour of who they are. As a general rule, I don't do corporate (which comes as no surprise to anyone who knew me in my BT days).

Mridu Khullar Relph is an international writer and entrepreneur that I always make time for. She has her own way of doing things and talks about the writer's life as well as how to get the right words on paper / screen. 

Happily, she has made time for me too and agreed to do this interview. Have a read, check out the links, and add her to your resource list.
1. As an international journalist and writer, how did you compete in a global market when you first started out?

Looking back, I think I stood out because I was constantly coming up with new and interesting stories from India that my editors had never heard of or seen published elsewhere. At least in my early years, if a major publication had covered a story, I almost never went near it. Instead, I made it my goal to find stories that hadn’t been told before. One year, I traveled across India trying to find stories of women who were doing unique and interesting things and many of them had never been told before. I’d also try to take major news stories and find slants or angles to them that made them unique. This frequently allowed me to break into publications such as TIME and The New York Times.

I’ve found that often, it’s about the story. Find a good one and most editors will have a hard time saying no.  


2. Following on with the international theme, some freelance sites are being criticised for passively encouraging a ‘lowest bid’ approach to secure jobs on offer. Obviously, in a market that embraces different economies, pricing and budget will always be relative. How might authors based in the Western hemisphere gain an edge if they cannot compete on price?

An experienced professional is an experienced professional no matter where in the world you live and in my understanding, high-quality professional writers who live in Asia and Africa frequently charge equal to, if not more than, their Western counterparts because we’re so rare and because we have to work so hard to negate these perceptions of low-quality work based on our location. I never recommend competing on price, no matter where in the world you are.

Compete, instead, on quality. Come up with the best story ideas, write perfect drafts, deliver your work on time, speak to your editors, go above and beyond for them, especially when you’re new to the craft and still learning the ropes. Build relationships, not only with editors but other writers. Share information. Be generous. Give referrals freely. Work hard. Keep learning. Keep practicing. Treat every assignment as if it were paying $1 a word. Never get cocky.

That’s it. It’s pretty simple, really.


3. Do you approach your non-fiction and your fiction differently in terms of time management, headspace and creativity?

Absolutely. I treat my non-fiction, which mostly comprises freelancing at this point, as a business because it is what pays my bills and helps buy chew toys for the dog. So I approach it exactly how a person should approach a business - I run my numbers regularly, I don’t accept work below a certain rate, I’m always careful to carve out time for marketing, and I’m aware that I need to make a certain amount of money per week or month for me to consider freelancing a sustainable way of making a living.

My fiction, on the other hand, makes no money at this point in time and so I treat it more like a hobby or a side project that hasn’t quite taken off. I’ll often write in bed, frequently only when the mood strikes, and there are long periods when I have to neglect it entirely. That’s fine for now, but I’m hoping that at some point in the next two years, my fiction will start making money, too, and at that point I will certainly start approaching it differently.


4. Are there any places in the world you would particularly like to live in and why?

I’m currently dividing my time between my two favorite countries - India and the UK. For now, that works perfectly for me and is the perfect blend of east and west that I like. 


5. What motivates you to write so much content for free, and do you feel writers at the beginning of their journey should try it?

I’m assuming you mean my blog because I don’t ever write for free, nor do I ever endorse that anyone do so.

I started writing my blog back in 2002 when I was first starting out in freelancing. I kept it up intermittently, sharing personal experiences of my travel and things I was learning about the freelancing business as a solo female traveler and a journalist writing for international publications from India. At the time, I seemed to be the only one successfully doing so, and I wanted to share the lessons I learned with people who were following my work, mainly freelancers from countries in Asia and Africa. In fact, many of my readers did go on to write for The New York Times and TIME magazine and it encouraged me to continue sharing those tips, something I do to this day.

In fact, so popular did my little advice blog become that it has actually now become its own website—The International Freelancer (http://www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com). On my own website and personal blog, I’ll continue sharing lessons that have to do with my career and sharing notes about my journeys in the writing world and life. 


6. You write about creativity - is there any book you return to time and again to call out to the muse?

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a perennial favourite not only because she’s so straightforward with the truth about the writing life, but because she does it with so much humor and depth. I love re-reading this book every few years and it never fails to inspire.


7. There are some writers - I’m one - who are happy to write about deeply personal experience. Where would you draw the line in your writing?

I draw the line at family, I think. While I do write about my life and of course, that involves my family, I’m always careful to tell my story and not theirs. My husband is actually pretty open and doesn’t mind my writing about us and our life at all, so it usually does come down to me where that line is and I tend to be cautious more often than not. I won’t often write about my son.

I used to write a lot of essays when I first started writing but lately, I’ve found fiction to be a lot more effective and engaging form of telling parts of my own story.


8. Have you had any success syndicating your work in print? If so, any tips?! I hold my hand up - this one is specifically for me, as I have a back catalogue of Green Living humour pieces that I’d love to find a second home for!

Unfortunately, no. That’s one area I’ve never actually pursued and know very little about.


9. Where can we find out more about your writing?

My personal portfolio is at my personal website, www.mridukhullar.com, but I also run a website for freelance writers and journalists called The International Freelancer, http://www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com.


10. Are there any other forms of writing you want to try?

I’m very interested in audio at the moment, so learning how to write for podcasts and radio is definitely something I’d love to explore in the coming months and although it’s not writing, I also really like the idea of speaking, so I’ve actively been soliciting opportunities in that area as well.


Visit www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com to download 21 query letters that sold to top publications, including The New York Times and TIME, for free.

Friday, 9 January 2015

When words collide

"With our thoughts we make the world." - Buddha
You'd have to be a hermit not to have heard about the atrocities carried out in France this week, which included the murders of writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo magazine. The media - in print and on our screens - are falling over themselves to debate the issues of free speech, free expression of ideas, the right to satirise, and also the freedom to hold religious and political views.

Like countless other writers I have watched the debate and the media storm, as well as the international show of solidarity. As a sometime satirist myself, I believe passionately that humour can enable us to confront ideas that we might otherwise shy away from, and to shine a light on the incongruities and paradoxes within us, our beliefs, our language and the societies we inhabit.

Fiction can take us into some very dark and strange places indeed; characters and circumstances which, even if we did not encounter them on the page, already exist in the 'real world'.

For example, writing about violence, weapons, or fear is not a vicarious thrill for me. Having personally experienced physical threats in the past with a hammer, a knife and a gun (not, I hasten to add, as a result of my writing!), I find myself, at times, simultaneously drawn to similar situations on the page and repulsed by them. However, as a thriller writer, with one or two provisos, I allow the story to develop along its own lines. Sometimes we need to be scared, confronted, challenged and even outraged.

I am also aware that the other side of the argument carries some weight. In the workplace bullying is often defined not by the intention of the act, but by how it is experienced by the victim. It can't simply be taken back with, "I was only kidding - I didn't mean it that way." Context cannot be presumed and it's a truism that one can only reason with people who are reasonable.

Where does this leave us as individuals, as writers and as a society? In a word: troubled.

We need open dialogue, recognising that although our similarities will always be greater than our differences, it is those very differences that may us who we are (and who we think we are). 

If there may be one positive to come out of this tragedy I hope it will be an open and adult conversation about what it means to live in a democracy - both the freedoms we enjoy and the responsibilities it places upon us. In the meantime let's all be mindful of the stories we tell and the ones we choose to consume - and occasionally remind ourselves that they are, in fact, just that: stories.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Should old attainments be forgot

It’s traditional at this time to reflect on the previous 12 months and then to make a list of well meant but seemingly unachievable goals (that are neither SMART not SHARP), in order to improve one's circumstances in the coming year. And who am I to stand in the way of tradition? So, a drum roll if you please, as we skip through the highs and lows of a writerly year.

2014 saw me working for a bonafide millionaire – and not in a Monopoly sense, although property was involved. They really are just like any other client, which is probably why, once I'd signed on to the project, the scope of the job expanded like a festive waistline and I learned definitively that ten hours’ worth of work cannot fit into the seven you’ve agreed. Even so, it was a great experience, and one day I hope to find the speech on Youtube.

There was another even more interesting client once, although I didn’t find out exactly how interesting until I’d agreed to take on the job. Two words for you: Naked. Sushi. And don’t even ask me about seaweed. (And yes, of course I know you’re going to look it up now.)

2014 saw the launch of three mini-ebooks, each one a collection of 100 or so themed gags. You can find out about them here - you won’t find cheaper laughs anywhere else...

Elsewhere in my dream factory, my monthly green living / humour column finally came to an end after two and a half years (and 16,000 words). The mag editor and I are discussing other topics and meanwhile I’m exploring the world of second rights. Speaking of rights, my short story, The Silent Hills, reverted to my ownership after three years with Musa Publishing, following a mishap after I misread what I was signing (genuinely true and not added for comedic effect). They’re still the publisher of my mid-grade ebook, Superhero Club, so I’ll know better for next time!

Although NaNoWriMo was a great opportunity to make some headway with third thriller, The Caretaker, I have to report that I didn’t get the entire 100,000 word first draft down on paper. Still, 77,000 isn’t bad going.

I met some brilliant new web / blog clients and contacts, mostly as a ghostwriter. Part of the joy of meeting new clients is the challenge of writing about something different. Sometimes, as in the case of healthfoods, pedelecs or zombies, I already had a headstart. However, I can now also wax lyrical about history, mobile discos and digital advertising with the best of them. You could even say I’m a beacon of information – and if you understood that quip award yourself a bonus point. 


A special end-of year shout-out to Chloe Banks, who celebrated the publication of her first novel, and to David Brown, who completed the first draft of his first novel (and who is now making headway into his second).

As for next year, I have a few things planned. I want to finish the first draft of my third thriller, The Caretaker, which is timely because I’ll be hearing from an ebook publisher in January about whether they want to work on the series. I also have a short story collection I want to put together as an ebook, using the cover supplied by 
www.goonwrite.com. Work, obviously, is important, but it’s only as aspect of life (and don’t let them tell you otherwise). 

My thanks to you for reading my words and may 2015 bring you happiness, joy and creativity. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

The truth of it?


Do writers of fiction, like journalists, owe a responsibility to the truth?

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction I've been asked how I compartmentalise my brain when it comes to finding inspiration.

"How do you know whether an idea will result in a blog piece / article, or a story? I mean, they're completely different types of writing, right?"

Erm...not really. Oh, sure, I know that writing about reincarnation and magical beings clearly isn't what you'd call conventional copy, unlike anonymised data and the value of terabit storage. However, even once you get past the requirements of grammar, spelling and punctuation, there are other shared conventions.

1. The writing has to meet the needs of its audience in terms of information, tone and relevance.
2. The writing has to obey the logical conventions of the genre (I'm calling non-fiction a genre today).
3. You need to deliver on your promises.

Examples? Certainly, step this way.

Your headline deliberately provokes a reaction and the subheaders suggest you have pertinent answers to your core question. But you skirt around the issue and end up leaving your readers high and dry.

You write a fantasy novel, where a magical ring can save the good guys, but each time it's used one of their kin has to die. All the way through the book there have been noble sacrifices, until our two heroes are there, unarmed, cornered by marauding orcs / wizards / demons. Never fear, they can use the magical ring - only which one of them will survive to tell the tale? Imagine how peed off you'd be if no one died (oh, just me then...). You might feel as though you'd been cheated.

Writing for children and young adults places further demands on the writer. Mostly, there are happy ever afters, but that hasn't always been the case. The shadowy heart of many traditional 'fairy' stories is well-documented, despite the Disney cinematic versions that have all but replaced them in popular culture.

Should we though, sometimes, just tell it how it is?

Let's face it, Disney Studios are unlikely to option The Old Curiosity Shop; not without substantial rewrites, anyway. The fabulous writers, Jacqueline Wilson and JK Rowling, are just two authors among many who allow children to experience some of life's harder lessons on the page.

When I came to write my mid-grade ebook, Superhero Club, I spent some time considering why children and young adults read books. Here was the list I came up with:
-    Escapism.
-    Wish fulfilment.
-    Looking for answers.
-    Curiosity.
-    The enjoyment of a good read.
-    Permission to experience experience.

Once I'd met my main character, 12 year-old Jo, and understood what the story was about, I realised I had a duty to show the shadows of her world and to accurately portray the ugliness of bullying and its impact on lives. As the plot developed and secondary characters found their way into the spotlight (that's how it worked in my head), I also saw how friendship and self-acceptance were the shining threads in the tale. It was important that the story wasn't too preachy, although I wanted Superhero Club to include the following messages:

-    It's never the victim's fault and there are positive things they can do.
-    Hope.
-    Everyone has a story, a reason for what they do, even if we never get to hear it in detail.
-    There aren't always easy solutions.
-    We are more than our circumstances, whatever they happen to be.

Today I'm being interviewed about Superhero Club over at Sharon Ledwith's blog. To be in with a chance of winning a free copy, pop over this week and leave a comment.


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Life hacks from writing fiction

Lovers of fiction, whatever the genre, will often tell you that it's true to life (for them) and portrays real people with real emotions, often going through extraordinary circumstances. Fiction allows us to live vicariously, and to explore 'what if', often - to quote from the TV classic, The Water Margin: "...In a world very different from our own."

Of course, it could be said that fiction - and especially the writing of fiction - also has a lot to teach us about life in 'the real world'.

1. Character is revealed by how a person responds to circumstances.
Think about Stephen King's The Dead Zone for a moment, and the insight we gain into Greg Stilson from his first scene. It tells you everything you need to know. We have the full measure of him for the rest of the book.

2.   Show, don't tell.
Following on from the previous item, talk is cheap actions speak louder than words (although they are revealing too).

3.   Adverbs give colour to actions. As Bananarama sang, it ain't what you do but how you do it. Think about the difference between smiling joyfully and smiling malevolently. For those of you who rally against the humble adverb (one wonders exactly how you rally), just consider how you might want your actions described in some other way.

4.  Life is a series of drafts, followed by a series of edits.
There's a common idea that the first draft is for the writer, the second draft is for the reader, and all subsequent drafts are for the agent / publisher. The important point is that writing - like living - is a process rather than a destination. It's also not a pass and fail exam. If life deals you a rejection or a failure, it's time to regroup, redraft and redouble your efforts.

5.  It stops when you do.
One often cried writers' lament, especially in the early days, is: "When does it get easier?" Or they ask what it takes to be a proper writer. The funny thing is that getting published doesn't make you a writer. It makes you published, sure, but it's only writing (and continuing to write) that bestows that title on you fairly. In life, a dream or ambition is only over when you say it is. No one else, just you. Of course, you may have to modify your goals and aspirations - that's part of the editing process too!

6.  NANOWRIMO
November is National Novel Writing Month, although any month will do. It's a commitment to lay some foundations, however rocky, and worry about the quality later. Writers aim for and commit to a certain word count per day for an entire month. They share this goal and activity with other writers who offer mutual support, because everyone wants everyone to do well. Whatever you are doing, it's important to find a supportive environment, preferably with knowledgable peers, and to learn as you go along.  

7. Plotters and Pantsers
Some writers don't write a word of prose until they know exactly what happens to whom and when. For others, writing is a glorious leap of faith, starting with a seed of an idea and raw enthusiasm. Whatever your style, either way, it's a journey of becoming. Sometimes in life, prior planning prevents poor performance. At other times, you can't afford to wait, so dive in!

8. Take your inspiration from life and the lives around you.
Many first novels draw directly from personal experience, whether it be composite characters from your own life, or true stories you've seen, heard or known first-hand. Writers know that when you pay attention, look closely and listen, the world is filled with extraordinary people, each with their own unique stories. There are also universal themes, played out in subtly different hues on living canvases. Whatever you aspire to become, or struggle to deal with, know that someone else has stood in very similar shes and found a way through it.  

9. POV
Point of View. Three small words that make all the difference on the page. I once started a novel drawing directly upon personal experience, so I naturally wanted to write it in first person. However, I soon found that intimacy constraining. What I did was start afresh, in third person, and then I found it easier to separate my book and what my characters did from what had actually happened (well, according to my recollection, anyway). In the end, after several chapters and a few thousand words, I went back to first person, but with a different perspective on the scope of the book and what could happen. 

Another word for POV is perspective. Writers learn that even in their own books it's not always about them. Characters do strange things, suggest new ideas, confound us and generally breathe new life into our fiction - if we're lucky. Life can do that too, often when we least expect it. Sometimes it's about something bigger than our needs and our concerns. A shift in perspective can make all the difference.    

10. Writers write - what are you?
Like I said earlier, you can tell a writer because she or he writes. It's as simple as that. Any qualitative assessment is for the critics. So if you want to know who you are, and who you're perceived to be, take a close look at what you do on a regular basis!

Friday, 28 November 2014

Top ten excuses for not paying up

One of the benefits of a conventional employer / employee relationship - apart from the free pens - is the certainty of a regular salary. However, when you step off that merry-go-round and join the freelance dodgems, all manner of hurdles can get in the way.

Here's my countdown of the inexcusable, the incomprehensible and the downright laughable. I hope they amuse you - they were hard won - and that you enjoy the comments in brackets. I would also love to hear the pleas of poverty you've had to put up with, and what you did about them.

Here we go...

10. I've had a lot of outgoings this month (paying other writers, maybe?).

9. I went on holiday for a week (although the payment deadline was actually before you vacated).

8. I wanted feedback from friends first (and maybe a whip-round).

7. I was too busy making money to pay you. (A work of genius.)

6. Crowdsourcing hasn't come through yet (now you tell me...).

5. I was in an accident. (Sorry to hear that. However, you only need one finger for Paypal.)

4. I didn't like what you produced, although I've never told you before - and I can now specify my requirements fully.  (Better late than never...)

3. I kinda thought, despite our agreement, that you'd work these two hours for free, as an opportunity (to starve).

2. I'm broke (and it's your responsibility now).

And the number one spotÂȘ - which also genuinely happened to me...after chasing the client for weeks.

1. Sorry, I've been really busy - I've got a new puppy. (She gladly showed me the picture when I asked. ÂșIt was a cute Dalmatian. However, despite assurances that she would now pay the invoice, ten days went by with nada contact. I lost patience, fired her and kept the work she hadn't paid for. She being the client, not the puppy.)

Going forward

Setting clear expectations at the outset can help, as can getting references from a client (it may seem a disproportionate response for a single piece of work though). The best approach is to have standard terms and conditions that you both sign off against, which effectively becomes a contract. Most importantly, treat your business with the same consideration that you would a client's. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Looking sharp


You don't have to be smart these days to recognise a SMART goal when you see one. Sing it with me, people:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Realistic
Time-bound

SMART goals are really useful, both personally and professionally, giving shape and definition to abstract aspirations. Those five filters are also a great way of applying a little objectivity.

However...

Not so long ago I was on the member's forum for Sophie Lizards' http://beafreelanceblogger.com and the community was discussing blog post ideas. I got to thinking then that maybe it was time for a new acronym for goals (I'm also a fan of new proverbs, as any reader of The Little Book of Cynics or As Above So Below magazine can attest).

Hence, SHARP goals!

Singular - A defined objective that can be a subset of something larger.
Holistic - All implications and impacts on environment and people have been considered, as well as how achieving this fits in with the bigger picture. (If you achieve 'X', then what?)
Ambitious - This  goal stretches you and demonstrably furthers your ambitions.  In other words, this goal matters and takes you forward.
Reasoned - You've thought this through and determined that, all things considered, this makes sense for you to do right now.
Practical - You understand the steps necessary to achieve the goal.

How do you decide which goals are the right ones for you?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Silenced Hills

Image by kind permission of
Kelly Shorten and Musa Publishing
All writers love stories, and some say that the best comedians are really storytellers - with a bit of tragedy thrown in for good measure. I'm not really sure where this tale fits, but I've been itching to share it with you.

Back in the mists of time I was travelling from Cornwall to London by train and a story began to unfold. It was the tale of a man on the run, perhaps even from himself. It unfolded over the course of the five hour journey and, from the beginning, was known as The Silent Hills. Many writers have that experience of a story arriving, fully formed, and this was one such gift.

In August 2011 I was fortunate to come across Musa Publishing. To my surprise and delight they enjoyed The Silent Hills and wanted to publish it as a standalone story. There swiftly followed some mid-Atlantic editing and a cover design, before TSH was duly published in October of that year. 

The whole process has been an education and a joy, but - and not for want of trying - TSH never soared to great heights. As a standalone story, frankly, it stood alone. I was encouraged by the publisher to write a follow-up, which made perfect sense when you read the story. However, the 'voice' wasn't there for part two and I knew I'd have to create the plot and narrative this time, which risked ending up with a contrived piece of writing. (Yes, I know that all writing is contrived, but there's often an added inspiration or intent that breathes life into the endeavour. Not so this time.)

I don't know what constitutes good sales, as I have nothing to compare TSH with. It received some good reviews and the feedback suggested that people appreciated the same things about it that I did.

Well, folks, time moved on and I wrote something completely different for Musa - the mid-grade story Superhero Club. Elsewhere, when I wrote the first of my Brit thrillers, Standpoint, I like to think that some of TSH's DNA was also present. One great thing about having Musa publish The Silent Hills was that one of my fellow authors there suggested I join the International Thriller Writers to get regular updates connected with the genre. 

At that time the newsletter covered novels, but not short stories. However, three years is a long time in writing and politics. ITW started listing new short stories and I thought it might be good to get a line in for The Silent Hills, as part of its third anniversary as an ebook. All of which was fine. However...two mini events coincided.

1. The ITW kindly gave The Silent Hills a mention and included Musa's book link.
2. Musa wrote to me on the three year anniversary to remind me that rights would be reverted to me, unless I wanted them to continue publishing The Silent Hills. I, of course, understood that rights reverted to me automatically, so when I received a contract requiring an electronic signature, I assumed it was to re-contract TSH for another three years. Not so. It didn't help that I'd checked out the email and e-contract using an iPad, which is not blessed with a giant screen. 

The upshot is that TSH's rights were returned to me and, quite rightly, Musa removed all versions of The Silent Hills available for sale online. Of course, this occurred at the very same time that the ITW came out that included TSH and a sales link. This is why, if you happened to receive the ITW newsletter, and you liked the title, The Silent Hills, you might have been perplexed why it was impossible to get hold of a copy.

As the young John Connor said in T2: Are we learning yet?

We are now!
Today's lessons are:
1. Always take copies of book reviews.
2. Always read the contract carefully!
3. Always have a Plan B.

Realistically, I now have two choices:
a) Republish The Silent Hills myself, as a standalone story.
b) Incorporate it into a collection of short stories.

Whichever route I take, or even if I decide to retire TSH, I'd like to thank the good people at Musa Publishing for getting my story to a wider audience. It's been quite a ride!