Monday, 20 April 2015

In the Long Run

Who truly knows where the path leads?

Repeat clients are a freelance writers' best friend. When you build up trust and a dependable working relationship with someone it's a win-win situation. They know they can rely on you to produce the content they need, on time and on budget. You, on the other hand, are happy to prioritise their needs because they have clearly defined requirements, give relevant direction and pay their invoices promptly. It's like the end of a rom-com movie, only without the kitsch.

However, working relationships are not something you can ever afford to take for granted - pun intended. Situations change, editors move on and all businesses are subject, to a greater or lesser degree, to market forces. As a wise project manager once told me: always have a Plan B.

Your freelance what-if strategy needs to take into account the following questions:
1.     What if the client decides they want something different?
2.     What if I could increase the rate?
3.     What if there were other ideas I could pitch to them?

Not so long ago I faced all three questions with the same client. It started when I reviewed my rates and realised that I'd written over 20,000 words for the same editor. I approached the editor carefully, by which I mean I was succinct and that I led with the benefits of continuing our business arrangement. The editor agreed to a percentage increase so quickly that I could have kicked myself for not doing it sooner.

However, having reviewed my contributions, the editor also decided that it was time to retire one of my magazine columns. Foul play? Not at all. She went on to explain that most monthly columns do not extend beyond two years - like mine had - and that she would continue to need occasional top-up pieces.

More encouragingly, she was now keen to hear if I had any other column proposals (which I did, naturally), so now there's a potential opportunity to research and write about a completely different topic. I also have around 17,000 words of content that I can repurpose or offer as second rights material.

If you remember nothing else:
1.     Know your own worth, which lies somewhere between what you think you're worth and what your client thinks your work is worth to them.
2.     Don't rest on your laurels. Change is inevitable. Be prepared and be ready to take advantage of new opportunities (and the gaps left by old ones coming to an end).
3.     Push yourself in your writing. My 17,000 words and 30 columns began with a piece about our chickens and grew to encompass composting, recycling, foraging, water management, gardening, grow-your-own, herbs, making a mini-meadow, and much more besides.
4.     Be professional. Anyone who reads this blog will know that over the years I've made some clangers worthy of a campanology for beginners workshop. Even so, if freelancing is your business and your livelihood you need to take a mature, long-term view. Today's stupid client could be tomorrow's work reference!

Take heed. In the long run, you'll thank me for it.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Standpoint - Glossary of British Slang Terms

* * * BREAKING NEWS * * * 
Standpoint is free across Amazon for a limited period: April 11th - April 15th.

It's always struck me as slightly strange that we refer to this language as English when it's really an amalgamation of many languages that have changed and enriched it over the centuries. Back in the day (the late 80s, in case you were wondering) I spent a year in the US and soon realised that their English and my English were merely cousins. I realized it with a z for one thing, and that z was a zee for another.

A recent Amazon review for Standpoint reminded me how important it is to have common reference points, as well as a common language, when communicating. With that in mind, here's a glossary of British slang terms in Standpoint for American readers that will appear with the book from now on.

British slang: US equivalent

’andouts: handouts/charity
’scuse: excuse
4 X 4: four wheel drive vehicle/off-roader
arse: ass
bitter (type of drink): ale
blighty: informal/nostalgic term for England / the UK
bollocking: a severe reprimand
bollocks: nonsense (noun)/damn (exclamation)
booze cruise: ferry trip to bring back cheap alcohol
cheers: when not used as a toast can mean thank you
chuffed: pleased/delighted
civil servant: government worker
clogging: filling/blocking
Cockney Sparra: Cockney Sparrow - native Londoner
comprendez: do you understand [French]
craic: an enjoyable time [Irish]
Diwali: Hindu religious festival of lights
dogsbody: servant or underling
downed: drank
dunno: don't know
durn’t: doesn't
easy-peasy: trouble free
exocet: type of missile
fat chance: slim chance
Feng Shui: Chinese system of balancing energies
get it down yer: drink this
give them a tug: pull them in for questioning
had a skinful: was drunk
hen party: bachelorette party
industrial estate: industrial park/trading estate
jammy: lucky
Jaysus: Jesus [Irish]
lamped: beat up/punched
landed one on: punched
matey: friendly
might’a: might have
mobile: cellphone
Murphys: common Irish surname
nicked: arrested/busted
nought: zero
o’him: of him
oik: peasant/lowlife
okey dokey: OK
on’t: on the
oppo: work buddy
owt: anything
Oxbridge: Oxford and Cambridge Universities, equivalent to Harvard or Yale
paracetamol: painkiller
plonked: placed something without care
poss: possible
prat: jerk (derogatory)
promo: promotional film
quid: one UK pound (currency)
Rififi: a classic French gangster movie
s’pose: suppose
scrunched: squeezed into a ball
shandy: ale or lager mixed with a soft drink
shiter: crappier
skint: poor
snidey: contemptuous
Sotheby’s: Name of a premier auction house
summat: something
sussing out: weighing up someone's character or motives
ta: thank you
telly: TV
tenner: ten pound note (currency)
tête à tête: meeting between two people (French)
tha: you
tossers: jerks (derogatory)
tutted: expressed disapproval
walkie-talkie: two-way radio
wi’: with
yer: you
zip-gun: home-made firearm

* * * BREAKING NEWS * * * 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Catch Up

The writing journey is a little bit like climbing Mount Everest (or Sagarmāthā, or Chomolungma, if you prefer). There's preparation and perhaps some form of sponsorship, training on smaller climbs, and then you're ready for the off. Except that nothing prepares you for something quite like doing it. The only way to sustain yourself on that long, arduous and potentially treacherous ascent is to treat it as a set of stages.

In writing, we tend to see our stages as: the first draft, the first edit, other drafts, and then submission to an agent or a publisher (which could also be ourselves). Of course, that doesn't take us to the final stage but merely another tent on a ledge.

Against the odds (statistically, I mean) I secured a two-book deal with Joffe Books. Standpoint is out there now, as you're probably aware (I may have mentioned it once or thrice). The sequel, Line of Sight, will be edited this month and is scheduled to launch later this year. I'm also beavering away (a slow beaver, admittedly) on the third book in the series, while beginning to plot the fourth. 

It can get a bit obsessive and all-consuming, but the reviews are coming in now, and the various blog posts are going up, and I'm starting to see daylight again. All of which sounds like the perfect moment to thank everyone who has supported my writing - and especially Standpoint since it has launched. I'm very grateful to you, seen and unseen, and would particularly like to thank Sarah and Richard for flying the flag, and in Richard's case reading an early version of Standpoint on a mobile phone - that's commitment for you!

A more varied blog diet coming soon.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Standpoint - when characters come to life

The first time I thought my Brit thriller, Standpoint, might have legs was when I had an argument with the main character in a car. Yes, I know how ridiculous that looks on a screen, but it's what happened. It was during a novel writing summer school tutored by Jane Pollard at University College Falmouth.

On the very first day two important things happened that had a profound influence on my writing. The first was that Jane told us we'd never write our books the same way again - this, was me, was absolutely true. The second occurred when each of the class outlined their book's plot and themes. When it came to my turn - a tale of a 20-something who leaves London to start a new life in the USA* - she asked who the antagonist was and I said 'life'. She suggested that idea might not be suitable for this course and that I'd be better coming up with a completely new idea.

My first response was one of panic. However, the day's exercises were really useful and when she asked those of us without a clear storyline to think about it overnight I went away confidently. One of the techniques I've used to write short fiction is to listen for 'the voice'. It's a little like meditation, except you have a different expectation when you start and a different focus during each session. It doesn't always work, but I have had good results from time to time. When there's simply no voice present at all, I sometimes used my mind's eye to focus in on an imaginary person, or an object.

There was no voice, only a character reluctant to speak with me. Why? He was busy! So began my introduction to Thomas Bladen. He was taking photographs and keeping records, and it was his job; this gave me a starting point. Once we'd got into some sort of dialogue he told me he was from Yorkshire, which I'd only been to once, as well as his age and the important relationships in his life.

By the next morning, on the drive over to Falmouth, Thomas and I were discussing aspects of this new book. The fact that his character arrived largely fully formed made the process of developing the book more like a voyage of discovery (or investigation!) than one of invention. Of course, not everything played out on the page exactly like the early discussions, but still remember his voice in my head as I parked up on day two of the course, insisting that he wanted a helicopter! Did he get it? You'll have to read Standpoint to find out.

What's your process or technique for creating new fiction from scratch?

Standpoint is published by Joffe Books.

You can find it on Amazon, here for the UK and here for the US
Can one good man hold the line without crossing it?

* Scars & Stripes is now a completed standalone comedy drama, in need of an agent or publisher - I'm just saying... 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Partial eclipse of the heart

The important thing about today's partial eclipse (let's face it - an almost total eclipse, percentage-wise) is that it doesn't happen very often. Anne and I headed to a little-used beach on the north coast and breathed in the sea salt, up on the headland. 

The only person on the beach below was a woman with her dog. She climbed up the path and spoke with us a few minutes before the 'big moment'. She said that she took her dog to the beach every day before work and I thought what a lovely way it was to start your day.

Lacking a quality camera (you may recall that I smashed the last one trying to take pictures of bright green seaweed at Lamorna), we relied on an iPad screen. The image above doesn't really capture the moment pictorially but I like it anyway because it captures a moment. There's a burst of sunlight in the centre and a teeny image of the eclipse, partway through, to the left. I think it's some kind of reflection, but I'll leave that one to the photographers to explain.

Like I said, it's a moment - the two of us peering at the sun on a screen, my hands becoming colder and colder, the still earth at our feet and the breeze bringing in the scent of the sea. Earth, water, fire and air - it has all the elements of all the elements!

I couldn't help thinking that - just like the sequence of near identical images I'd captured on the Pad - we exist in a series of moments, each one slightly different or dramatically different. We like to think that we have autonomy and self-determination, and sometimes that's true, but often we can only choose to be fully present. That was about the time I put the screen away and just breathed in the moment with Anne. That's the point at which, further down the line, stories are created.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Yoga of Writing

Go with the flow?
Writers seem to occupy that curious hinterland between the potential and the actual. We create characters and give them life on the page, and worlds to roam, in the hope that someday other people will visit them to read about their adventures and dilemmas. It's not a given though and for every book that's out there - whether or not it's doing well - you can get your last sixpence that a whole shelf's worth of books never saw the light of day for one reason or another. 

It's arguably a huge leap of faith to start that first sentence and then progress to the end. And that's before the baying hounds of commercial reality and the critics come a-calling. 

There is also a deeper, dare I say it, spiritual side to writing. 

I was in a yoga class for the last couple of weeks (don't too impressed - I have the hip and shoulder flexibility of hardened asphalt) and our teacher, Indra, said something that really struck a chord. He talked about what yoga is and that the physical postures were only an aspect of good practice, to be combined with the breath and awareness. Otherwise, he said, you're just making shapes.

Later, at home with a hot chocolate and biscuits (what better reward for a yogic workout?) I thought about how that approach might apply to writing. Like yoga, writing can be a process of development - and by that I mean development for life. Writers can create good prose, craft  cunning plot lines and sculpt characters that live on long after the book is closed. That's all great and worthy of a book sale. However, the deeper side of writing, extolled and examined in books like The Artist's Way, is that we get to grips with ourselves. 

Some of that introspection and reflection will find its way on to the page, but whether it does or not we grow as a consequence. Now, I know that self-actualisation and the cult of the self is often frowned upon as navel gazing. (My brother used to say I wanted to find myself and maybe I should try one of the cupboards.) 

Writing's all about the words, isn't it? I'm not so sure. 

In yoga, the breakthroughs I've had have been small insights or tiny physical adjustments that teach me something about myself (and not always something good!). Writing offers the same rewards. It can be therapeutic, challenging and bring out our insecurities, competitiveness, focus and compassion. 

When you strip back all the tools and techniques, all the clever strategies and the yardsticks that we measure ourselves by - and beat ourselves up with - we are simply in a class of one. We don't even have to learn if we don't want to. But if we dig deep, beyond the stories that are easiest and safest to tell, we may just find some treasure to share with our readers. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Farewell to Musa

Tomorrow marks the end of Musa Publishing. Although I’d had some short fiction in anthologies and on websites, Musa was the first publisher to put my work out as books. Initially I was hesitant because ebooks were a new venture for me, but what won me over was their warmth,  organisation and openness. It wasn’t just a business it was a also a thriving community of authors, sharing tips, support and experience.

The Silent Hills is a 5000 word suspense story and I was surprised when they took it on as a standalone work. In hindsight it may have been due to their generosity of spirit and desire to build a list than for any commercial potential because, although well-received  and reviewed, The Silent Hills failed to really establish an audience.

However, what TSH did do was get me involved in the Musa community. I met authors of genres I’ve never been near – LGBT, Regency Romance and Erotica, to name but three – and found that our similarities as writers are much greater than our differences. Whatever the genre, the requirements of good writing are the same – always have been and always will.

TSH also gave me the confidence to try something different. Next time I wrote Superhero Club, a children’s book for a mid-grade audience. If anything this book was even more of a challenge because it dealt with bullying, food issues and the value of friendship. It was, once again, a story that wrote itself. An added complication for the book was that it was firmly set in the UK, but Musa’s house style was US English.

SC came out about a year after TSH and barely made sales into double figures. It could be that the subject matter was too close to home for the target readership. I did contact a variety of youth organisations, but either the timing was wrong or the staff had any pressures and priorities. I mention all this because I recognised (and still do!) that any publisher can only do so much. Every author must play their part in actively marketing their books and the more creative the approach the better.

I didn’t submit another book to Musa. I was thinking about a sequel to SC, but that would have been in the autumn. I didn’t part with any full-length novels because I thought the house style would make edits a nightmare. Editing was always a collaborative experience, so I had some idea of what I might be taking on!

All of which is a way of saying I had less to lose with Musa with my books, but I was fully committed to their cause. It was a virtual place of passion and enterprise with an online infrastructure that’s unmatched by anywhere else I’ve seen. Musa have been responsible for dozens of books and dozens of first-time authors. It’s to the credit of the team that they are ending Musa precisely because they have been unable to run it along commercial lines. In the meantime royalties have always been paid and everyone that I’ve spoken with in the Musa family has felt a genuine sense of loss and admiration for the dream that has now come to an end.

Time is running out if you want to grab yourself an ebook bargain. Naturally I’d be delighted if you picked Superhero Club, but I also encourage you to check out the wider Musa site to see if anything takes your fancy.

Thank you, Musa, for everything, and good luck to my fellow Musan authors out there.

“Nothing good is a miracle, nothing lovely is a dream.”
   Richard Bach,   Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Monday, 23 February 2015

TIme and Tide and Recovery

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was in Junior School, they would occasionally wheel out a large television and we’d watch part of a series that was considered both entertaining and educational. From what I recall, we never got to see a whole series – perhaps two or three episodes at most (out of six, I think). 

One series involved an alien child – you knew he was an alien because his face and clothes were silver – befriended by an Earthling child and trying to escape the clutches of someone in authority. Yes, it does sound a little like ET.

I have very little recollection of the other series, apart from the ending! A group of children have followed clues to a small box hidden in a garden, possibly in a rockery, and inside the box there’s a note that reads: Time does not stand still. As a child this was not the kind of treasure I wanted to find. 

However, as well as not remaining static time can bestow perspective. History, I once scribbled into a notebook, is just a series of stories we tell ourselves over and over again. Ask someone else and the history changes. Time changes history not only because there may be more facts and less propaganda as the years roll on, but also as a consequence of the context changing.

What’s this got to do with writing? Quite a lot and not much, depending upon your perspective.

I had a bout of flu recently, which is still taking its toll (rambling alert), but I can now see some improvement every day. I spent the first day of proper sickness in bed – I haven’t done that since I was a child. When it comes to flu, you know the drill – shivers, sweats, headaches, pains in the teeth, the jaw, behind the eyes (I also had them for a day or three before), sneezing, coughing, nausea, no sense of taste and a total loss of appetite. I also had tinnitus, which included repetitive noises – sometimes like music or machinery – and repetitive thoughts. 

Sleeping for maybe an hour at a time, sometimes far less, your perception of time itself changes. Even my dreams were on a loop. I approached the same wall at least half a dozen times and I can’t get past it. (Yes, I am a fan of John Wyndham’s novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, as well as the 1960 film, Village of the Damned – I like your thinking!)

Not really eating and not really sleeping, apart from feeling very debilitating, can act like a detox because your mind begins to empty. Precepts and concepts that seem inviolable peel back with ease like a banana. 

I’m not going to lie to you – as soon as I became cogent, or something very like it, I checked my emails. Much of it, while not exactly spam, was not really relevant. The bulk of that was elective, perhaps when I was interested in specific information about ebook marketing, business models, entrepreneurship, marketing, governmental policy, civil liberties, cyber-security and all the other good stuff I read about for business and pleasure.

But…when you only have five minutes of focused attention it tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. What I did with my five minutes was this:
1.    I updated a freelance profile to show I was ill with flu and therefore all work was suspended.
2.    I changed my preferences and eradicated around 50% of all not really relevant emails. I’ll take a view on the other stuff when I want to take a closer look at it.

In my next five minutes of clear thinking, which doesn’t include the time slot where I just felt sorry for myself and was only slightly amused by Anne coughing like a distressed sea lion (of course, she had the flu first…), I did some actual thinking.

Writing requires introspection, and lots of it, not only so that you can trace the muse through the wondrous forest of your own imagination (where both fiction and non-fiction are born), but also so that you can get your head around the other stuff that fits around your writing and connects you to the world – preferably the parts that wants to buy your work.

Illness, however, doesn’t believe in media campaigns and schedules. It has ‘missing out syndrome’ pegged: you can’t miss out if you’re not really interested.

The world, of course, goes on without you and you might lose a little business. Then again, that can happen any day of the week. I think I might have lost a job not so long ago over less than a penny a word, although that might have been the flu addling my pitching technique.

Where was I? Yes, don’t wait until you’re unwell to stand back and take stock. Make time to regularly ask yourself the difficult questions:
1.    What sort of writer have I become?
2.    What sort of writer do I want to be?
3.    How am I measuring my success?

That last point is all-important. In business we’re told that the bottom line is profit and loss. Well, yes, as a business; but not as a human being. If you’re so focused on leverage and margins and all the other stuff that can make being in business so interesting that you don’t see the bigger picture, you’re really missing out on something vital.

Writing makes writers what they are, but it doesn’t make them who they are.

Put your pen down; turn off your tablet, desktop, laptop, or smart phone. Live. Before you do, here’s something to ponder:

There will never be another day exactly like today, so what will you do to distinguish it from all the others?

Look alive, people – spring is coming. It’s time for some changes, and some more vitamin C.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

All For One - Anthologies

One of the more obvious challenges a writer faces is how to fill a book. Ask any novelist and they will likely tell you that the second half of a novel is easier to write because the characters and plot are already well established, and part two is often largely about resolving the consequences of part one.

For those who pen shorter material, although there are competitions and magazines out there eager for flash fiction or 2000 words on a theme, putting together a collection of stories for publication can seem onerous because short fiction can be a hard sell.

One solution is to create or contribute to an anthology, showcasing the work of several writers. Books can be themed or stand as a general celebration of the art of short fiction. (If you thought sculpture was difficult, try sculpting a 250-word piece.) Anthologies are also a blessing for those writers who are uncomfortable in the spotlight – there may be more of those than you think!

Other advantages of a multi-writer anthology

-       You have more chance of filling a book.
-       Individual writers can focus on a small number of contributions.
-       You automatically start off with a group of people keen to spread the word.
-       Those same people (unless they all live on the same street) are likely to have separate communities, increasing the potential for word-of-mouth recommendations.
-       Every author is likely to buy at least one copy* so that ought to get the ball rolling.

The challenges of a multi-writer anthology

-       There may be differences of opinion in the editing process, unless you have clear ground rules or an editor-in-chief.
-       Some contributors may not want or be able to get involved in the marketing of the book.
-       There has to be a running order, preferably one that’s carefully balanced.
-       Erm…the money.

Anthologies can be funded in several ways. Costs can be shared among the contributors (in which case it might be wise to agree a set word count for each story). Grants may be available, especially if it’s a thematic anthology or raises funds for a particular cause – the Arts Council is a good place to start in the UK. There’s still the faint possibility of anthologies being funded by publishers in what used to be called the traditional way with contributors receiving royalties from sales. There’s also the buy-out option where writers are paid a one-off fee to use their material in perpetuity.

If you’re funding the book yourself / yourselves, costs can be reduced by publishing as an ebook (if you have the time and the know-how, your only expense will be the cover design), or by producing a Print-on-Demand version.

I’ve been fortunate to contribute to four anthologies.

Beyond the Horizon is a general fiction anthology published by Bamboccioni Books. I contributed a sci-fi tale, in the spirit of Asimov, Rogue, about what it means to really live.

The Coffee Shop Chronicles Vol 1 (Oh the Places I Have Bean) is a themed anthology about coffee from A Word with You Press. It contains a mixture of anecdotes, poetry and fiction celebrating the much-loved** caffeine creation. I was one of four editors and my fiction contribution is Diner, a short tale about relationships, lies and self-deceit.

Kissing Frankenstein in a general fiction anthology published by Flash-Fiction South West. I contributed some really short pieces (some only six words long) and my main piece, Between the Lines, was a story about taking chances.

Miracles of Kindness is a themed anthology contains anecdotes about…well…kindness. My contribution, The Street Angel, is about the folly of first impressions when I found myself stranded in Chicago late one night.

My plan, later this year, is to put together an ebook anthology of my own work. Entitled Into the Void and sporting a stylish cover design supplied by, it will feature a mixture of favourite pieces, new material and experimental work.

* Not always though. I know of an anthology where the contributors received a small buy-out fee and a significant proportion of writers never bought a copy.

** Although, ironically, not by me.