Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Lessons Learned from National Novel Writing Month

Well I did it! 

It was my first time participating in National Novel Writing Month this year and I reached 38k. Now some might consider that a failure, since the aim is to reach 50k, but I remain pleased with myself. By the end of November, I was 38,000 words further ahead than I was at the start of the month, and I'm well on the way to reaching the end of the first draft now. It will grow bigger too, as I carefully edit it.

What did I learn?

I learnt that I should've planned better first. It was quite hard-going in places trying to keep the daily word-count up. I was still working out mini plots and doing research to establish what is, and what isn't, realistic. My whole plot almost fell apart when I discovered that clinical trials can take ten years to complete. Ten years! That messes up my whole plot entirely! Then hubby pointed out that they manage to bring out new flu vaccines very quickly, so I figure there's some flexibility around that figure.

However the aim of National Novel Writing Month, to complete 50k, does assume that you've already done your research and you're not too far off working out your plot. So perhaps my lack of preparation was my downfall.

What else did I learn? Stop editing perhaps? Editing while I wrote probably didn't help either. If you decide to edit, then you probably won't 'win'. I realised this early on but decided to edit anyway. I figured that if the earlier plots weren't right, then continuing on a theme that was wrong, was just going to end up with a rubbish manuscript. I'm keen to get it right, rather than just do it fast, so I took time out for a little editing too.

Will I do it next year? 

I'll see how I feel. Let's just see how long it takes to complete this first novel and go from there.

Did you take part?

If so, what did you take away from the National Novel Writing Month experience? Do tell in the comments below.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The recession hits freelance writers

As the news of the latest MP pay rise hits the press, I'm experiencing a different financial dilemma. I'm pretty proud of myself for having built up a full-time workload as a freelance writer during economic recession, but now I am really starting to feel the hit from the credit crunch, despite the apparent brightening economic outlook.

In the past few months, I've had some magazines in the UK slash their fees by 25%, while a US magazine who I work for regularly, has just slashed their fees by two thirds! I managed to renegotiate and get a one-third pay cut instead.

Meanwhile, I have withdrawn an article submission from another magazine, because of their abysmally slow payment. One of my earlier articles appeared on their website, four months after it had appeared in print (and I'd missed it). I invoiced promptly, thinking they'd pay promptly. Not so.

Months of chasing, broken promises, and an 8 month delay ensued. I was losing sleep over it because I was furious about being ignored and fobbed off. I felt convinced that I wasn't going to get paid at all. I withdrew the next article because it wasn't worth the aggravation and I've since sold it to another buyer.

The latest turn of events is that another publication, after commissioning an article in March, for the Doctor Who anniversary in November, didn't bother to tell me that they weren't going to run it. So now I have a time-sensitive article that has no home. The reason: "We have so much material!" - e.g. they have commissioned too much stuff.

It's a really tough environment for a freelance writer at the moment, but on the upside, I'd like to explain how I deal with each of these disappointments.

1) The pay cuts, I negotiate upwards as best I can, and I accept the situation where I can't. Then I review the amount of time and effort I put into each article if they are going to pay less. I only pitch ideas that I can do reasonably quickly, without massive amounts of research and inconvenience. I also reassess who gets first refusal of the best ideas.

2) I refuse to work for magazines that don't treat me with respect, so I search the market to find other buyers for my work when I'm faced with this problem.

While I suspect I've been lucky to get this far without experiencing the full effects of the credit crunch in my writing life, I wonder if other writers have experienced recession-related pay cuts and delays? Have you had commissions 'killed' without payment? How did you respond?

What do you think of the MP's 11% rise while we're all making cuts? Do comment in the box below. :-)

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Tuesday, 5 November 2013

National Novel Writing Month

November is 'National Novel Writing Month'. The idea is that you write the first 50,000 words of your novel this month. Of course it's a draft - probably a bad draft. And most novels are longer that this, but it's an event bringing together 275,419 novelists this year, working on their own projects in synch, with a sense of community.

Now some people dislike National Novel Writing Month, saying it's an excuse for people to write shoddy novels in a rush and self publish at the end of the month, giving self-publishing a bad name. While I guess there's an element of that, for me it's something quite different.

I'll admit that when I first heard of National Novel Writing Month, I thought it sounded like stupid idea. I mean, why wait for November? And why try to do it in a month? You can do a better job, probably, by taking your time, and writing it carefully.

However, I've since decided that perhaps National Novel Writing Month could be a useful event for me after all. I've been intending to tackle my half-cut unfinished novel for the past year. It was hand-written 20 years ago and ran out of steam. Parts of it have potential and there are some good ideas but it is badly in need of a rewrite. On 2 November I decided to begin that rewrite. National Novel Writing Month has given me a kick up the butt to get on with it.

So to those people who say National Novel Writing Month is all about rushing to complete a shoddy piece of work. Here's my answer...

For me, it’s not about rushing. I need to prioritise this book or it will never be written. I have a day job writing magazine articles that have been taking priority. They will continue to take priority in November, but setting myself a target to do as much as I can on evenings and weekends, will give me a kick up the butt to prioritise it during my leisure time (which otherwise tends to get swallowed up with paying work too). That’s why I have joined the novelists on National Novel Writing Month. Frankly, it’s also nice to have a sense of community egging you on!

Perhaps I’ll only complete 30,000 words, I don’t care – I just needed to get this prioritised. A month of intense commitment to getting on with it, is helping me move it to the next stage – to the first decent draft. Or perhaps just half a draft. By the end of National Novel Writing Month my novel will be in a better place than it was at the start. That's what's important.

For more about National Novel Writing Month

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Saturday, 26 October 2013

British history in a series of ghost stories

Well, I never thought I'd learn so much from writing ghost stories! I think I've discovered where my history teacher went wrong at school. The more I research tales of various haunted locations, the more I learn about British history, the monarchy, and the horrible circumstances under which some people died. I've started to develop a greater appreciation of British history, and connect events that never held much interest for me before.

In order to reveal why the restless spirits of royals and aristocrats roam stately homes and castles across the UK, I've had to delve into the past, learn their stories and tell their tales.

I've learnt about the murder of the Princes at the Tower, the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI dying in the Tower and Richard III. I've got a better grasp of Henry VIII's wives and the life of Queen Victoria. As I research apparent hauntings in old buildings across the UK, I get a better appreciation of British history, and I wonder if this approach might have captured my attention better at school!

So next time you think British history is boring, or ghost stories are silly and frivolous, remember me, and my haunting approach to connecting events in history. Perhaps it'll help you see ghost stories in a whole new light! Or perhaps, it's a way to make British history more interesting for your children. But do take care and don't give them nightmares!

Monday, 21 October 2013

My caravan dispute

When a neighbour keeps a canal boat on his front lawn, does he really have any right to object to my caravan? This seems like double standards!

We are in dispute, and to be fair, the deeds say that neither one of us is allowed a 'house on wheels' or caravan on our drive. However, the thing that gets my goat is that the neighbours are arguing that this house-boat on a trailer, complete with bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and modern conveniences, is not a 'house on wheels'.

Our caravan, which is less than half the size however, is indisputibly a caravan, therefore, we are told to fork out a small fortune for storage, and drive it miles away, so that their sensitive eyes are not offended. While apparently the boat is fine.

Now call me paranoid, but I'm feeling a bit picked on. I could park a double decker bus across the lawn and apparently that would be fine as there is no mention of double decker buses in the deeds. Up the other end of town, no-one is allowed to have a TV aerial (according to their deeds) but they all ignore this.

The trouble is, being a writer, I'm at home all day, getting disapproving, evil, looks from moany neighbours! Only one has actually complained, but I am assured they all object - and the dirty looks, pointing, and exaggerated inspections of the van, suggest this is true. I feel like moving my writing desk to the back of the house so I can't see them all!

We offered to cover it up, build a fence around it, chuck camoflage netting over the top... the list goes on, but nothing is acceptable except its disappearance.

The caravan is clean, tidy, and smaller than a transit van, which would also, apparently, be completely fine. We are now looking into renting the parking space to a VERY UGLY LORRY. :-) So if you have a very ugly lorry, tractor, boat, double decker bus, or other unattractive vehicle, that would fit the 4.3m space available, please apply here. Very reasonable rates to help pay for caravan storage!

Does anyone else have stupid deeds or hypocritical neighbours that take the edge off their writing day? :-(

Monday, 14 October 2013

Get out there and seize opportunities

For me, the dream was always writing. I have never been much good at anything else - it's why I ended up pursuing a career in corporate communications. It was the closest 'proper job' I could get to actually being a writer. But it doesn't come close to freelance writing on topics you enjoy.

I'll admit that once I'd escaped from the constraints of living with my parents, things like mortgage commitments got in the way. Self-employment in a high-risk occupation seemed perilous. Then just over four years ago, I had a short-lived job that changed my life. The experience opened my eyes and gave me confidence. The job was a disaster - but the outcome was a dream come true.

After that experience, I knew I could write better than some other professionals that I'd met in the field. I had bags of initiative and the first thing I did was to throw out the rule book. I built a career from nothing, with no contacts - just sheer tenacity, determination, and a sometimes annoying refusal to go away!

So the moral of the story, is to get out there, be proactive, and seize opportunities! Are you pushing open doors and creating opportunities or are you tapping away at your computer, blogging perhaps, and hoping to be 'discovered' one day?

My book, Freelance Writing on Health, Food and Gardens, tells the story of how I broke into freelance writing and made a good living from it within a few years - and how you can too. If you're interested in hearing more, do subscribe to my blog, follow me on social media, and grab yourself a copy of the book!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Meet prize-winning crime writer, Dave Sivers

When I first joined my local writers' group, among the first people I met was crime author, Dave Sivers, who has self-published a range of ebooks for Kindle and recently found his work among the top selling books in his genre.

His latest book is Scars Beneath the Soul, a detective story of murder and mayhem in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire. I asked Dave to tell me about his writing journey. This is what he said...

"I seem to have been a ‘writer’ for about as long as I have known how to read and write; it has been a constant for me through all the changes that life throws at you. In a sense, either my writing has been like a soundtrack to my life, or my life has been like a soundtrack to my writing - I’m never 100% sure which.

"My first love was fiction. I started trying to write 'proper' novels in my twenties, and produced something half-decent in my thirties, which received encouraging feedback from agents and publishers - but no publication deal. Over the next ten years, I found that I had a tougher outer shell than I had realised. Writers have to learn that rejection is an occupational hazard - you either learn from it and move on, or give up in favour of something less challenging, like alligator wrestling.

"Joining a writers’ group marked a big step-change. Suddenly, I was exposed me to a wide range of 'real' writers who were doing all sorts of stuff that I hadn't thought about. And I realised that I needed to be flexible as well as persistent if I was going to make a success of writing.

"So I tried my hand at journalism, first securing weekly columns with two local newspapers. This developed my professionalism, gave me discipline, and led on to success with magazine articles. I won prizes and publication with short stories, and have also dabbled in amateur stage material and TV comedy sketches.

"The big life lesson I had learnt was this: if at first you don’t succeed, don’t just try again, but try a different approach. I've quite recently become a songwriter, almost by accident, and found I'm rather good at it. I have also started self-publishing my fiction as e-books, after years of ‘near misses’ with agents. If I'd only been getting standard rejections, I would have known I was rubbish, but there has been enough positive feedback to encourage me to take the plunge. 

"As a self-publisher, I’m not only author, but editor-in-chief, typesetter, publisher, marketing manager and press officer. If I really was doing it all by myself, then writing really would be the lonely, solitary occupation the clich├ęs say it is. But you know what? It doesn’t have to be. I have a little team of readers whose opinions I trust who read my stuff and offer suggestions. I have enjoyed collaborative work with various co-writers. I have my writers group and other writing mates to ‘talk shop with’. And I have my family, who have always supported me. Writing can be as much about team work as any other profession.

"I've also discovered that, for a writer, no bad experience is wasted. It can lead to an article, or it can be grist for fiction. Instead of getting mad at people, I can make them characters in short stories and murder them horribly. There’s no other job like it."

Dave's Books: You can view Dave's literary collection here: Follow him on Twitter @DaveSivers or visit his website

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The highs and lows of a writer's life

Being a freelance writer is a wonderful life - you are constantly learning new things, the variety of work is immense, the creative buzz is exhilarating, and submitting your work for publication provides a feel good factor all of its own. Then finally seeing your work in print.... it's all good.

However, many writers know that there is a downside that needs to be managed effectively too. Writing is often a lonely occupation, that can leave you feeling blue. Sitting alone all day, your mind is prone to wandering. And if you're feeling burdened by hurtful negative comments from other people, it can start to eat you up inside. Don't let them get you down. Seeking support from a writers' circle, photography club, or other group of like-minded individuals can help to keep you smiling, as well as all those positive editorial communications!

When I started freelance writing for a living two years ago, my dad came round to tell me I was going to fail. I was furious. I ignored him and did my best to break into the market because it's all I've ever wanted to do. I proved him wrong, and proved to myself that I could make a success of my dream - because frankly, when I started, I didn't know if it was going to succeed or not!

To give dad due credit, since then he's appeared in a couple of my articles and seems to be moderately enthusiastic about my writing career now.

Sometimes you just need to be thick skinned and get on with it. I'll admit to being about as thick skinned as a skeleton sometimes, but on this occasion I was hugely driven anyway, and frankly, his opinion was no great surprise.

On the other side of the coin, when you're working as a freelance writer, you may also feel bombarded by rejection letters! Don't let this demoralise you. Think of rejection letters as opportunities, not set-backs. If I get a rejection letter I'm pleased because it means the editor thinks enough of my pitch to make the effort to communicate with me about it. That's a great start! Perhaps next time, my idea will fit his or her editorial requirements better! :-)

As time passes, my hit rate is increasing, and I spend much more time writing than pitching. When I started writing for a living it was very definitely the other way around!

I wrote a couple of articles for Writer's Forum last year on the topics of dealing with negativity and rejection letters. Extracts appears in my forthcoming book, Freelance Writing on Health, Food and Gardens. The book covers how I broke into publishing with no contacts, little experience, and a shed load of determination... and how you can do the same. It should be out, hopefully, by the end of the year. Watch this space!

What challenges and criticisms have you faced and overcome in your writing career? Do tell on the comments box below!

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And finally, if you have the appetite for another blog on the topic of focusing on your dreams and overcoming obstacles, you might enjoy this blog by Kris Heap on Successify:

Monday, 19 August 2013

My first novel - a 20 year work in progress!

Last night I was working on my novel. It's a rewrite of a book I began 20 years ago, so the foundations are laid, which I find quite helpful. Some of the characters are reasonably well created in my head, and since returning to the project I've also firmed up the plot so that the whole thing is more true to life and has a clear ending. The project ran out of steam 20 years ago and had no ending!

I've had a helping hand in getting this novel out of the closet, dusted off, and brought back to life, from my writing tutor on a correspondence course that I started over 20 years ago. No. That's not a typo. I really did enrol over 20 years ago, became demoralised, and stopped submitting assignments in around 1995!

One of the perks of the course was that you could take as long as you wanted to complete it. Imagine the school's surprise when I got back in touch to resume my course in 2011!

I looked back at my early assignments submitted between 1990 and 1995. One of them attracted a 6 word critique from my tutor at the time: "That's just not how it's done," he said. That was it. Nothing constructive or helpful. Six words. It was depressing.

As you can imagine, I didn't learn much from the experience in those days. I had a huge ring binder full of rejection letters and a tutor who thought my work was so rubbish that he couldn't even be bothered to tell me why!

When I looked back at that folder in 2011, I fully understood why I gave up. It seemed hopeless and I needed guidance - essential guidance that I wasn't getting. I recycled those unhelpful comments, the rejection letters, and the failed assignments, and I started again!

As it turned out, in the intervening years, the course had improved leaps and bounds. I was given a new tutor and my last assignment received 13 pages of detailed feedback from a knowledgeable tutor whose skill at fiction is so much better than mine! He's helped me work on the storyline, and helped me to plan that crucial ending in style!

The course is such a different experience today. And guess what? My tutor thinks the story that I began 20 years ago has the potential to be made into a film. Now I'm not getting too carried away. I've got to juggle writing the novel with my journalism work and any other projects - a mind blowing task! And then I need to find a publisher which is no mean feat... this might take some time!

But the moral of the story, is if you're on a course like that, and you're not getting helpful feedback, perhaps changing your tutor would be beneficial? It worked for me.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Literary masters and quack doctors

I never gave much thought to my ancestry until recently when I dedicated time to it for an article I was working on. I delved into the past, engaging with my dad over the work he's done on our family tree. Now I knew we had some distant relationship to Lord Byron, but I didn't know the details. Finding out about it was an interesting process, if a little long-winded!

It transpires that my great, great grandfather was Henry James Byron, the actor and playwright, second cousin to Lord Byron, the famous Victorian poet. I am also related to Samuel Solomon – one of the most notorious, and successful, quack doctors of all time.

This second relationship was a complete revelation - he's an interesting character who sold Solomon's Cordial Balm of Gilead across the world in the 18th century. It supposedly contained magical secret ingredients, including pure gold.

Now because I'm into natural health, which my dad thinks is a load of baloney, I think he might hold the view that some of Samuel Solomon's charm has rubbed off on me. I however, prefer to think I take after the literary masters, the Byrons, and hope I can do them justice in my forward career!

Pics: Henry James Byron; Samuel Solomon.