Monday, 26 September 2016

Irish Travel Competition T&Cs


Alex Gazzola (http://mistakeswritersmake.blogspot.co.uk) has spotted that the Irish Times are running a travel writing competition (for writers based in Ireland - http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel/travel-writer/submit-your-story), and it’s another classic example of why writers should read the terms and conditions of every competition they enter, just so they know what they’re signing up to. I took a look at them and … well, I just started laughing.

But seriously, it’s another example of why writers should scrutinise the terms and conditions before entering, because they affect not just the winner, but EVERY entrant.

Here are some of the key T&Cs that either frustrated me, or made me laugh with incredulity:

“Entries may be published in The Irish Times or on irishtimes.com. All entries will become the property of the promoter. The entrant assigns all intellectual property rights in his or her submission to the promoter and waives all moral rights. The entrant confirms that all entries submitted by him or her will not breach the intellectual property rights of any third party and agrees to indemnify The Irish Times in the event of any claim by any third party that his or her intellectual property rights have been breached by the entrant’s submission. The entrant agrees that the entry submitted by him or her will not contain any defamatory material.”

Right. So entries MAY be published in the paper or on its website. Note the word entries. We’re not just talking about the winners, or those shortlisted. Any entrant’s work may be published.

All entries become the property of the promoter. Again, it’s ALL entries. Not just the winner and shortlisted. EVERY SINGLE SUBMISSION. (Note, the competition is being run in conjunction with Travel Department, who, if I understand this correctly, are the promoter of the competition. So entries become the property of Travel Department, rather than the Irish Times.)

The entrant assigns all intellectual property rights in his or her submission to the promoter and waives all moral rights. 

EVERY entrant, not just the winner, hands over their copyright and moral rights in their submission to the promoter.

But it doesn’t get any better for the winner, because further down the list of T&Cs it says:

“As part of the prize the winner will be required to submit a piece for publication in The Irish Times. Publication of this piece is at the discretion of the promoter. The winner assigns all copyright in this piece to the promoter and waives all moral rights. The promoter may amend, modify and alter this piece as it sees fit.”

What does this mean? If your entry wins, you’ll get sent on a trip somewhere, and then you’ll be expected to write it up. The Irish Times might publish your piece about your prize-winning trip … or they might not. It’s at the discretion of the promoter. But you give the promoter the copyright in this piece (as well as the copyright in the piece that won you the opportunity to write this piece). They can do whatever they like with it, without further recompense to you. (As the promoter can with all of the other entrants’ submissions.)

You also waive all moral rights, allowing them to amend it as they see fit. Waiving moral rights means you have no right to object to how your work is used by them in the future. That means they could completely change it … and your name could still appear as the author. 

So, in theory, if you get sent on an exotic prize trip to the Corley Service Station on the M6, and you write up a piece about what a wonderful destination this is, they could change it and say it’s the worst place on the planet … and it could still have your name on it (if they publish it). Even though you know that’s not what you originally wrote, everyone who reads and sees your name by it will think that you did write it. And having waived all moral rights you have no right to challenge this. Moral rights are about protecting the integrity of what you have written.

It doesn’t end there:

“The promoter reserves the right to change any aspect of the prize and amend these terms and conditions without notice,”

This phrase means the prize could be enhanced and improved, as could the terms and conditions. It also means things could go the other way. What it means is the T&Cs could change (either positively or detrimentally) after you've made your submission.

“The prize will be subject to any additional terms and conditions of the suppliers of the prize to the promoter.”

Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m signing up to something I want to know exactly what I’m signing up to. What exactly does the promoter of the prize expect the winner to do? 

“The promoter is excluded from liability for any loss, damage or injury which might occur to the winner arising from his or her acceptance of the prize.”

Okay, now I REALLY AM worried about what the promoter is expecting the prize winner to do! Injury? I don’t like getting hurt!

Of course, no one is forcing you to enter the competition in the first place. But it’s a reminder that you should fully understand what you’re agreeing to, because the Terms and Conditions apply to everyone who enters, not just the prize winners. Most competitions have a rule stating that submitting an entry means you agree to all of the T&Cs. Don’t think it’s only something to worry about should you win. It’s something to worry about before you even consider picking up your pen.


Watch out.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Scrivener for iOS

Many of you will know that I’m a fan of the Scrivener writing software. (www.literatureandlattee.com) At the end of July they released a version of the software for iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system used on iPhones and iPads).

I’ll be honest. My immediate thought was, “Why would I want to write my novel on my phone, or my tablet?” I have a writing desk, with my desktop computer, and I also have a laptop, so I can write anywhere with that, if I want to. Both have the full version of Scrivener. I didn’t need it on my other devices.

But after watching the overview video (https://vimeo.com/175282215) I was smitten ;-). I downloaded it. (There’s also part of me that wanted to support the developer: the iOS app is £15, and the macOS/Windows version is only £35. And he’s also a writer - that’s how the app came into existence - and we writers need to support one another. For those of you who don’t know, the developer, Keith Blount, lives in Cornwall and creates most of the Apple version software himself, and uses a small team dotted all over the world to sort out the coding for the other versions. This is not some large conglomerate business here.)

As with any software, it’s usefulness is determined by how it makes life easier. I couldn’t see why I would want to write new stuff on my iPad. My laptop is light and portable enough. But since I’ve installed the software on my iPad (and iPhone) it has changed the way I work. I’m not using it to write new material. Instead I am using it to edit existing material. This is saving me time.

When it comes to editing, I found it useful to export my text from Scrivener into mobi format and then email it to my Kindle. Seeing the text on a different device, as opposed to a large computer monitor (or even a laptop one), seemed to make errors jump out at me a bit more. So if I wanted to edit the latest chapter of a book I’m working on, I would convert it to Kindle format and email it across. Then, usually in the evening, I would make myself comfortable, get out my Kindle and a notebook and pen, and start reading. Every time I spotted a mistake on the Kindle, I would jot it down in my notebook, with a view to updating the Scrivener file the following day when I was next sat at my desk. 

But all of this has changed. With Scrivener on my iPad I don’t need to move it to my Kindle. Reading it on my iPad is just like reading it on my Kindle. But what makes so much difference is that now, when I spot a mistake, I can make the correction right there and then, directly into my text, on my iPad. There’s no more jotting it down in a notebook first and then waiting until I open Scrivener on my desktop. Whatever changes I make to my text in Scrivener on my iPad are reflected on my desktop and laptop machines the next time I switch them on. (Your Scrivener files need to be stored on a Dropbox folder for this to work best.)

Originally, I didn’t think I would use Scrivener for iOS that much. But I do. I rarely write anything new directly into Scrivener on my iPad or iPhone. (But, who knows? That could change in the future.) But it has completely changed the way I edit my work at the end of the day.

I should also point out that you don’t need to use the desktop version to be able to make use of the iOS version. The iOS version is not far off the full desktop version - so if you enjoy writing on your iPad then check it out, because the iOS version is capable of exporting your text into Word, ePub, Kindle, PDF and other formats. There’s no reason why you can’t write a whole novel on it.

If you’re a Scrivener user and have iOS devices do check out the iOS app. You might not think you need it, but you might find it does help your writing process. (And, no. I’m not paid by the developer to say any of this. I really do like the software!)


Good luck.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Avoiding Predictability

Caroline recently got in touch with me enquiring about how to improve the endings of her short stories. She says she often gets great comments about her stories, but her endings let her down. They are too predictable.

This is a common theme found in many rejection letters. In fact, it could be argued that editors need to come up with a less predictable way of saying our stories have predictable endings!

Predictability is not just an issue for fiction writers. Feature writers also need to be less predictable. Pitch a predictable idea to a magazine and you won’t get far with it. Pitch something out of the ordinary, but perfectly targeted for the publication’s readership, and the editor may be eager to commission.

I, too, find myself falling into the predictability trap at times. And, in my experience, it’s because I’ve just gone with the first idea that’s entered my head. The first solution is rarely the best. This is because the first idea is usually the same one that everyone else has come up with - whether it’s a story ending or a feature pitch idea.

To get round this I think for a little longer, but the way I do this is by using the free writing technique. I will sit down with a pen and notebook (for me it has to be handwritten - if I typed my brain would never keep up with my typing) and then I just write down my thoughts as they occur to me.

I write a lot of drivel in these free writing sessions. (Some people may argue that a lot of my drivel gets published too.) But free writing is not a place for editing, or grammatically correct sentences, or perfect punctuation. It’s about brainstorming. It’s about getting the mind to dig a little deeper. Here’s an example of how awful some of my free writing can be:

What's the ending to this story? I could have Sarah get a neighbour to do all of the liaising, but that's a bit naff. If Sarah doesn't like builders, Sarah is the one who has to take ownership of the problem. What if she phones her brother, who is a builder by trade and get him to come down? Don't be stupid, Simon - if her brother was a builder she'd have given him the job in the first place. No, it needs to be something else. She's got to take the initiative.  It's got to fit with her character …

Fifteen or twenty minutes later I am sometimes rewarded with the right idea. Whether it’s the end of a story or a more unusual angle to a feature idea there is usually something that is better than the first idea that entered my head. If I count back I might find it was thought number eight, fifteen or forty seven that became the better idea. Some sessions work better than others. Sometimes the ideas come quickly, other times they don’t.

But one thing I do know is that the first idea is usually the predictable one. So always ditch your first ideas. And the next six too, if possible.


Good luck!

Monday, 29 August 2016

Building A Story

A few months ago a neighbour knocked on my door and asked me to join her in her bedroom. Now, I know what you’re all thinking, you dirty-minded lot, but you’re wrong. She was quite fraught, because the builder who was working on her property had demanded £800 cash from her the day before, and expected to collect it that morning. Suffice to say that her husband wasn’t impressed, so he’d phoned the police and spoken to trading standards to find out what to do. Which is where I came in … apparently. When you think about it, it makes sense. Who else would you call on to deal with eight burly builders demanding money? You can imagine my relief when I learned that the husband would be outside liaising with the builders while I was with his wife in their bedroom … listening in to what was said as an independent witness. 

Of course, while I was recording what was being said on my phone, just in case things got nasty, my mind was busy creating a short story. How would someone who hated dealing with tradesmen get rid of an obnoxious builder if her husband was away? And, ideally, could she do it in a way that led to the builder getting his comeuppance? 

It was at this point that my neighbour’s kitchen timer went off, and she clasped both hands to her face. “My dough is ready!” 

I wondered what she was going on about. At first I thought she was referring to the £800 cash the builders wanted. But no. She was proving her bread dough on a low heat in the oven and now it was ready for baking. Dough … bread … money … annoying builders … ah! My story was coming together.

Thankfully, the builders in question understood they’d gone too far and left the premises. One mention of the police and trading standards soon had them packing up their tools. My recording was not needed in a court of law. But it wasn’t a wasted morning. I got a short story out of it. 

Ideas are everywhere, if you know where to look.


Good luck. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Olympic Efforts

You might not feel like an Olympian, as you sit at your desk writing away, but we do share some similarities with our more energetic athletic compatriots. (Admittedly, as far as it goes with me, those similarities do not include the athletic body shape.)

The athletes are all focussed on a specific goal. They’re in training, every day, to become better at their craft and to improve their skills. They use psychology to help them focus and picture their dreams. (I loved the Jack Laugher and Chris Mears tactic of having a blank photo frame above the fireplace in preparation for the photo of them receiving their gold medals - flipping well worked, didn’t it?) They’re competing against others. Some sports have to go through several heats in order to reach their goal. When they win gold they are the happiest people on the planet. But when they lose it’s as though the last four years have been a waste of time. (They haven’t, but that’s what some say it feels like.)

We writers go through something similar. Many of us have a specific goal in mind we’re aiming for: a published short story, article, or even a book. If we can write every day, no matter how few those words may be, we’ll become better at our craft. We know that psychology can help us achieve our dreams (picturing our novels on the shelves at bookshops, or our articles in a magazine on the newsagents’ shelf). We’re competing against other writers: there’s only so many slots in a magazine in each issue, so many new authors agents will take on, so many books a publisher will publish in a year. And sometimes those successes have to be fought for one at a time. The first heat a novelist has to win is to finish the novel. The next few heats is to get it edited. The penultimate heat might be securing an agent. And then the final heat is to secure a publisher. 

And when publication happens, it’s the best feeling in the world. And yet rejection … well. We all know what rejection feels like. But then, that is what makes Gold so special.

So next time you think of yourself as ‘just’ a writer, think again. You have a lot more in common with Olympic athletes than you might think. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to refuel my body with the energy it needs to keep me in this tip-top athletic condition: tea, and chocolate hob nobs. ;-)


Good luck. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

Creative Hoarding

Are you a creative hoarder?

At this year’s Writers’ Holiday, in Fishguard, novelist Marina Oliver gave an interesting talk about why writers shouldn’t throw anything away. She explained how she’s developed ideas for certain markets, only for them to disappear, for one reason or another, leaving her with a piece of writing she’d created but nowhere to place it. But then, several years later, often when she least expected it, an opportunity arose and she was able to dust it down, rejig it slightly, and sell her work.

On one occasions Marina was encouraged to write a 50,000-word novel for Mills & Boon, but the editor didn’t like one of her characters and the setting, and instead asked her to write something else (which was published). So Marina put the original book away. A few years later she heard that another publisher was looking for 70,000-word regency novels. Marina rummaged through her hoarded material and came across her old 50,000-word Mills and Boon manuscript. She changed the setting and period, added another sub-plot, and within months had a 70,000-word manuscript to offer. Much better to adapt something she’d already written than start again from scratch. It was published, and the publisher asked for more, which Marina went on to write. (She’s written over 60 novels.)

It reminded me of the time when I wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about self-catering holidays. I submitted it to several publishers over the years, but couldn’t sell the idea. So it went onto the back burner. A few years later, I was looking through a self-catering agency brochure and noticed they’d used the same 3000-word introduction for the previous five years. I wondered if they fancied having it updated, so I got in touch. (Nothing ventured, nothing gained!). And what do you know - they said yes! So I dig out my original book proposal - tweaked the opening chapter, and bingo! A sale.

You never know when something you’ve created might come in useful. Plans don’t always pan out, so never throw away anything you create. Hoard everything you write. And I mean EVERYTHING.


Good luck.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Learning Away

While you’re reading this, I shall be on my way to the Writers’ Holiday at Fishguard, where the sun always shines (well, it always seems to when we’re there) and there’s plenty of laughter to be had.

The writers’ conference season is well underway, and if you’ve never been to one of these then, seriously, put it on your bucket list to try at least one.

Firstly, they’re great fun. Well, why wouldn’t they be? They’re full of writers! Already you have something in common with these complete strangers (many of whom will become friends for life). Honestly, all you have to do is turn round to anyone and say, “So, what do you enjoy writing about?” and the next thing you’ll know is you’ll be on each other's Christmas card list.

But, of course, it’s also a great opportunity to improve your writing craft, through the variety of workshops and talks that you can attend.

In the next issue of Writing Magazine (September issue, out at the beginning of August) I chat to three writers who regularly attend these conferences. What I found interesting is that they’ve all found their writing has progressed. One achieved their dream of selling a story to a popular women’s magazine, another was inspired to finish their novel, while the third gained confidence from these conferences to enrol on a post graduate writing course and has now secured an agent.

So although these events are fun, they also offer an opportunity for you to learn and develop as a writer. Going to these gatherings allows you to immerse yourself in writing. You can put your normal, day-to-day, life on hold and simply be a writer: do writerly things, act like a writer, think like a writer, talk writerly things to other writers, and write. 

Pick and choose the events carefully. If time is tight, opt for a weekend gathering, such as the NAWGFest, or the Writers’s Holiday February weekend. If you can afford a week, then consider the Writers’ Holiday or Swanwick Summer School.

These events might take place during the holiday season, making them great fun to attend. But you’ll also develop as a writer.

Good luck.



Monday, 11 July 2016

Dream About The Endgame

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re working on a big project. Something like a novel or a non-fiction book, both requiring lots of research, can have you scratching your head when it comes to working out what needs to be done next, where do you go to find out the next bit of research, and will you ever get the project finished?

It’s at times like this when a little dreaming is to be encouraged. Take ten minutes and let your mind wander … into the future, to when your big project is complete. Because that’s the moment all of your efforts are pushing towards. And if you keep going, no matter how tiny the steps forwards seem to be, you will eventually get there.

Several of my writing friends are seeing big writing project journeys coming to an end, or rather, they’re seeing the product of all of their efforts coming to fruition. They’ve been wrapped up in the First World War for the Pen & Sword series … in the Great War: books that focus on towns and villages during the 1914-18 conflict. 

Two weeks ago, Janet Johnstone’s book, Oswestry & Whitchurch in the Great War, was published. 



Next month, Julie Phillips sees her book, Kidderminster in the Great War, published...




 and Chris Owen’s Wellington in the Great War will be published the following day. 



Actually, it’s been a busy year for Julie, because she’s also had two other books (Ludlow in the Great War, and Newport in the Great War) published this year.




Last year was a busy year for them. As a bystander, it was intriguing to watch their efforts, and frustrations. There was lots of moaning about staring at microfiche readers for hours on end, looking for any useful snippets from local newspapers. There was also lots of excitement about going and chatting to people whose family members were involved in the Great War. There was frustration at sourcing photographs, and then there was joy at getting all their efforts packed up and sent to their publishers.

But despite all of that pressure, they continued. And this year they’re seeing the rewards for all that hard work (and it is hard work). By 31st August, between them there will be FIVE books published that didn’t exist at the start of the year. That’s five tangible products for them to hold up proudly and say, “I did this!” (And don’t forget, because these are books, that’s five books that are being sent to the five legal deposit libraries (http://www.legaldeposit.org.uk) across the UK and stored for the nation forever.)

So if you’re in the middle of big writing project, and you feel despondent about whether you’ll ever finish it, give yourself a few moments to dream. Dream about the day when you hold the results of your project in your hand. Dream about what the front cover might look like. Remember it, and remind yourself that this is what you’re working towards. Because as long as you keep moving forward, you will get there.

Good luck.





Monday, 4 July 2016

It's Payback Time!

It’s that time again to get in your claim under the DACS Payback scheme. If you don’t know what it is, don’t panic, because you have until 30th September to make your claim.

What is DACS?

DACS is the Design and Artists Copyright Service. It champions the rights of all visual artists (such as photographer, painters, sculptors, etc), and also collects and distributes money from secondary rights (such as photocopying, artists’ resale rights, and copyright licensing). Think of DACS as the picture version of ALCS - the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (which does the same for writers, but for words).

What Is Payback?
Payback is the name of the scheme whereby artists can claim their share of the money generated by secondary rights that DACS has collected on artists’ behalf. The system DACS uses is that artists have to complete a claim form every year. If you’ve claimed in previous years you should be able to log on to their system and your previous claim information will be there. All you have to do is go through it and update anything.

What’s This Got To Do With Writers?
Whereas ALCS is all about the words, DACS is only interested in visual arts. However, if you’ve written an article or a book, which has been published anytime up to and including the 31st December 2015, and your article or book included some of your own photos (photos that you took on your own camera or smartphone), then that makes you a photographer too - or, as far as DACS is concerned, a visual artist. If your photos have been published then you are eligible to claim.

Any photo you took, which was published in magazine or a book, can be included in your claim. It might not even have accompanied an article. Perhaps you had a photo published on a letters page. If a photo was published before 31st December 2015 you can claim. And you should.



Good luck. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Advice for Writing Competition Entrants

I was recently interviewed by Helen Walters for her competition column in Writers’ Forum, and the piece has just been published in the July 2016 issue, out now. I thought I’d repeat some of the tips here, but if you can, do go out and buy the magazine for the full interview, and also because it’s packed full of other useful articles for writers too.

What do you look for, when judging a short story competition?

I’m looking for an engaging tale: one that draws me into the story quickly. I find the stories that successfully achieve this are those that have a clear main character, so I know whose story it is, and also what the story is about. Usually there’s a problem, or a dilemma, the main character has to resolve, so it’s important that this challenge is highlighted early on. 

But it’s not just this. The stories that make it onto my shortlist are the ones where the main character resolves their own difficulties. They might need help in overcoming their challenge, but they should still be the ones who instigate that help. Main characters need to be active. They need to be the masters of heir destiny.

What about when judging a non-fiction competition?

Perhaps, ironically, it’s the storytelling! Think scenes. With fiction, writing in scenes helps us show the reader the action taking place, rather than telling them what’s happening. The same goes for non-fiction too. Beginning a piece of non-fiction with a scene, or a little anecdote, is a fantastic way to capture the judge’s attention. Dialogue can help immensely, especially if you drop the judge half way through a conversation. Immediately, I’m trying to work out what’s going on, and so I read on.

What other advice do you have for entrants?

Don’t pre-judge your entry! It’s the judge’s job to judge and the writer’s job to write. At conferences and workshops I often hear budding writers say, “I don’t enter competitions because I’m not good enough.” How do you know? You don’t know who else is entering, so how can you compare? One writer once said to me they didn’t enter competitions because their writing was not of the quality of Stephen King’s. Well, that’s only a problem if Stephen King happens to enter the same competition, and what are the chances of that happening? 

Have confidence in your work. Enter competitions. Somebody has to win, so why shouldn’t it be you?

Good luck!


(There’s still time to enter the Doris Gooderson Short Story competition - organised by one of the writers’ groups I go to. For more information visit: https://wrekinwriters.wordpress.com/doris-gooderson-short-story-competition/ and, please, please, please, READ THE BLOOMING RULES!)

Monday, 6 June 2016

Painted Toenails

Last Monday I was running some writing workshops at the Leominster Festival. This year’s theme was Nature and Landscapes, and one of my workshops looked at how writers can draw inspiration from the landscape around us.

It’s an area of writing that interests me greatly at present, and so I purposely take time to stop and note the smaller things around me. As a photographer I love landscapes: huge vistas of mountains dominating a skyline. But our landscape comprises smaller details too. Every mountain has its own geology, flora and fauna. Every field has its own flowers, grasses and insects. Every leaf has its own skeletal structure, texture and colour.

During the workshop one of the delegates mentioned that she marvelled at the way nature writers describe everything they see and witness. How do they come up with such fascinating adjectives, similes and metaphors?  The answer is simple: describe what you see … but zoom in on the detail. Then you see more.

During the workshop we went off for a short walk and came across a field of buttercups. 

“Describe what you see,” I suggested.

“Sunshine reflectors,” said one. 

“Yellow-petalled saucers,” said someone else.

And these were valid descriptions from our standing viewpoints. But then I suggested everyone should get down on their hands and knees and take a closer look. (Which, admittedly, was easier said than done, for some.)

“I never knew that before,” someone exclaimed. “Five petals on each flower.”

“Look how shiny they are,” came another observation. “The sheen is just like nail varnish.”

There was a giggle. “It would be a lovely colour for your toenails! Such a joyful colour. It reminds me of summer sunrises.”

And then there was gasp. “That’s it! Five petals. Each flower represents a foot: each petal, a toenail. Here we have a field of yellow-painted toenails reflecting the joyous summer sunrise.”

I smiled. They’d found the detail, which had inspired a more interesting description. Never again will they see a field of yellow buttercups. They’ll always be painted toenails from now on.

We don’t need to overload our descriptions with such minuscule observations. But one or two, that cause the reader to stop and think, can really lift the interest in your writing. And it can work in fiction as well as non-fiction too.

So next time you feel your description feels a little lacklustre and distant, why not get closer and really scrutinise what it is you’re looking at. Perhaps it’ll open up a whole new world of description to you.


Good luck. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be

Thank heavens for some glorious weather! I’ve been making the most of it, sitting in the garden (but only after cutting the grass, I hasten to add), judging the Travel and Memoir categories of the National Association of Writers Groups competitions.

Last year, when I was judging the travel writing category, I posted about pieces I called WIDOMHs, or What I Did On My Holidays. These were obviously lovely holidays for the writers concerned, but a travel piece should inspire others to follow in the writer’s footsteps, showing them what they can do on their holidays.

I’ve found something similar with the Memoir category. I call these pieces MLIFHW, although that doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as easily as WIDOMHs did. For those of you who can’t work it out, MLIFHW stands for My Life In Fifteen Hundred Words.

In some ways I admire the writers who’ve attempted to encapsulate their entire life (so far!) in 1500 words. That is some achievement. However, as a reader (and a judge) I don’t feel that I’m really getting to know them. They’re painting an outline of a lifetime, whereas I’m looking for the intricate details of just one moment of their life. 

Memoirs are important. We need to record our lives because social history is vital. But we don’t record EVERY detail in our diaries or journals. We capture the highlights of the day, our thoughts, and our feelings.

I’ve read some amazing entries so far, and they all have something in common. They’re recounting a brief moment in time. An afternoon at a tea party. A bombing raid during the war. Moving house and saying goodbye to a much-loved childhood home. 

And there’s a story to them too. Part of growing up, or simply growing older, is about understanding and becoming wiser: learning what makes us who we are. And the successful entries are the ones that tell a story to reveal why the writer now does, say, or think, what they do. Memoir moments are those that define us.

If something happens to you today, which makes you stop and think about your actions, or encourages you change your ways, then write about it. Record your sights, smells, sounds, tastes (if appropriate) and feelings. Explain your thoughts. Not because you might one day want to enter a memoir competition (although this will help), but because as writers we need to records these feelings, emotions and experiences. What perfect material it makes for a short story, or perhaps even the basis for an article (nostalgia slots exist in many magazines).

And if you do want to enter a memoir competition, think about specific incidents. Don’t write about your school days. Instead, write about that one afternoon when you came face to face with the school bully. Don’t write about your career in nursing: write about your first day as a qualified nurse … or your last.

Don’t try to cram your entire life into 1500 words. After all, hopefully, we’re all living lives that are worthy of far larger word counts.

Good luck.


Monday, 2 May 2016

New Chapters

I’ve just marked my 4,578th Writers Bureau assignment. It was also my last. I’ve decided, after nearly 12 years, that it’s time for me to move on. 

I feel guilty for those of my students who’ve yet to complete their assignments with me, but there’s a band of fantastic tutors ready to take over, so I know they’re in good hands. And I’ve made many good friends over the years: staff, fellow tutors and students.

But life is not about standing still, and the same goes for our writing. I have some ideas and projects I want to develop, and to do them justice I need to devote more of my time to them. As I’ve commented on this blog several times, we all get given the same 24 hours in a day, but it’s up to us how we make the most effective use of them.

I think it does writers good to step back for a moment and go through all of our projects. Sometimes a new idea intrigues us so much it takes over, and we find ourselves devoting a lot of time to it. In the meantime, some of our other plans end up languishing at the bottom of in-trays and in half-forgotten notebooks, waiting to be rediscovered.

Stepping back, and taking time to reacquaint ourselves with those projects, can reawaken forgotten dreams. I’m currently liaising with a publisher about a non-fiction book idea I’ve had for a long time. It’s exciting, because they’re keen on the idea too. It’ll mean more time in the great outdoors (assuming we get a summer this year!), but that’s not a bad thing. I have a camera, notebook and pen - what more does a writer need?

I started this blog on 29th November 2007, with a post called Which Magazines Do I Write For? Although aimed primarily at my Writers Bureau students, I hoped it would also offer some useful tips to any other passing writers. And here we are, 495 posts later. See? Who’d have thought back in 2007 I’d have written nearly 500 blog postings by May 2016? (Remember what I’ve said in the past - regular writing makes you a more productive writer!)

This is not the end of this blog, though. Far from it. I plan to continue posting, although I shan’t be posting quite as frequently, as I have done in the past. I fancy taking a week or two, or three, off, from time to time. (Why not sign up for updates by email, to ensure you keep up with my less frequent posts, if you haven’t already?)

So here’s to new chapters. Why not go through your own in-trays and notebooks and reacquaint yourself with some of your old ‘new’ ideas? You never know what you might stumble across.


Good luck!


PS - And if you’ve read this blog since the start, can I thank you for reading all 242,031 words!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Thinking Time

Do you take time out to think? I don’t mean sitting around waiting for the Muse to strike. I mean making the effort to sit down, with a project or idea in mind, and working out how to develop it?

I think writers get used to thinking all of the time, and so we become blasé about it. It develops into one of those activities we do while doing something else: washing up, cutting the grass, going for a walk or doing the weekly food shop. But for us, as writers, thinking deserves more respect.

I’ve just finished reading David Allen’s revised Getting Things Done (GTD). It’s one of those books that needs to be reread every couple of years, just to remind yourself of some of its finer points of his technique. His idea is a simple one: have a system for collating and managing all of your to-dos, because our brains are not designed to be filing cabinets keeping track of everything we should be doing. Instead, we should clear our brains of all of this stuff and give them the space to do what they were designed to do: think.

It’s a similar principle to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique in her book The Artist’s Way. She espouses the benefits of waking up in the morning and writing three pages … of anything. She sees it as an opportunity to declutter the brain of its overnight thoughts - often things we’ve realised we need to do at some point.

Once we’ve done that, according to Julia, our brain is then free to think. To be creative. Well, isn’t that what every writer wants it to do?

So, do you make time to think? How do you think? Do you stare at a blank wall? Or gaze wistfully out of a window? Do you play soft music in the background and close your eyes? I’d suggest doing whatever feels right for you, but do two more things:

- take yourself off somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed,
- take a notebook and pen to record your thinking.

Take a project you’re working on (story, article, novel, non-fiction book) and simply think about it. Ask yourself some questions to get the thinking process started:

- What do you need to do next with this project?
- Is something stopping you from moving it forward?
- How is your character going to resolve their current problem?
- Have you considered all of the angles for your article?

Jot down everything that comes into your mind in a notebook. Personally, I find writing in longhand helps with my thinking process. The slow pace of handwriting gives my brain time to cogitate (although, perhaps that’s just because my brain is slow at thinking).

Experiment. Set a timer and give yourself ten minutes of thinking time to start off with. Be realistic with the other demands on your life. Take yourself off somewhere: garden, the car parked on the drive, the smallest room in the house even. Just see what happens. Over a period of time you may discover a time, place, environment that works best for you. Perhaps three ten minute blocks of thinking time a day will work better for you than one half an hour block.

Writers are often perceived as daydreamers, but thinking is a crucial activity for us. It’s not a process to be hurried. Thinking is just as important as our writing - perhaps more so, for without thinking we might not have anything to write!

Think about it.


Good luck.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Twenty Words

“Do you write every day?” a student asked, when they emailed their latest assignment.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I wish I had the time to sit down and write every day. But some days I barely get ten minutes to myself.”

I could almost hear the sigh of despondency in her response. And then the penny dropped. (As some of you know, I can be quite slow on the uptake at times.) Many people assume that when I say I write every day it means I sit down and write a complete article, an entire short story or the whole chapter of my latest novel every day. I wish.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have days when a lot of writing gets done. Last Thursday, for example, I drafted the 1700 words for the next piece in my Writing Magazine column. But the day before I only wrote 20 words. Yes. Twenty. Not because I had the back of my hand clasped to my forehead in frustration at the failed appearance of the Muse that day. It was only 20 words because life got in the way. 

It’s a new tax year, so I was experiencing the joys of gathering one’s paperwork together in preparation for the tax return. I also had to drive a relative to their appointment at the physiotherapy department. And the driveway was being tarmacked, which involved the noisiest and most earth-shuddering equipment known on the planet operating just a foot away on the other side of my office wall.

But I still managed 20 words. It was the opening to a short story. I haven’t got any further with that particular project at the moment, but hopefully, this week, I’ll be able to develop it further.

Even though it was only 20 words, it was still some writing. Writing every day doesn’t mean you have to write complete pieces. It just means … writing. Something. Anything.

The next time you’re waiting for a bus, or a train, get out a notepad and pen (or your notes app on your smartphone) and write something. Write the opening paragraph to an article, or a short story. Write six opening paragraphs. You don’t have to develop them all. But one might inspire you to carry on with it at a later date, when you have more time. Keep writing until the bus/train comes. Then, when you step on board, you can sit down with the smug satisfaction that you’ve done some writing today. (and why not continue writing, if you’re not too worried about missing your stop?)

It might not be much. But you have written. And that’s what makes people writers.


Good luck.