Choose Your Words Carefully

The one thing you can say for certain about words is that no two people use them the same way. They are symbols for understanding something and they are open to interpretation.

For anyone who wants to write comedy, this is surely a blessed state of affairs, bestowing upon us homonyms, alliteration and a host of other goodies. For any other form of writing - and writer - it suggests that we keep on our toes.

The internet abounds with stories of Advertising geniuses who failed to spot the meaning of a catchy name or the translation of the name in a different language. And yes, I know that the word 'internet' also translates as 'urban myth', but some of those tales are true:

I was at a writer's meeting yesterday, where we gather together, read and critique one another's work-in-progess and eat well. Warren was trying his damnedest (love that word!) to get a point across to me about 'voice' and I just couldn't get my head around it. In the end, it all boiled down to using a metaphor that made sense to me. One could argue that we each speak our own dialect.

Content and Context - the Romulus and Remus of good writing - can sometimes produce minor classics, such as this job ad that might be suitable for a gerbil with a 50 wpm typing speed.

I also found this recently, which rather speaks for itself.

I recently contracted with an e-publisher for a short story of mine and we are now going through a joint edit. It's fascinating to see how my words are interpreted and their insights into how that story can be improved for an international market. One word that I'd taken as commonplace turns out to be Middle English and not used in the US at all. Go figure!

There is a huge difference between writing for yourself and writing for your reader.

Free Association Friday

Taking a leaf out of the Motheroad blog, which I periodically clog with irrelevant comments, here's a list of things I've observed over the last couple of days:

1. A shop assistant on a till, asking the customer in front of me what the fruit or vegetable was that they'd plonked down - because they didn't recognise it on sight. It was a marrow. Okay, botanically it's a fruit although it's used as a vegetable, but come on - really?

2. A job ad entitled Mortgage Broker / Opportunist. You've got to love their honesty.

3. A magazine I'd responded to that wanted a free article a month for the time being. When I asked about their model and timeline for paying writers for original content, I was advised that they would "...prefer someone who is more interested because they love to write, express and share." And also that I "...don't appear to fit with the goals of the magazine."

To paraphrase something mentioned recently on the excellent Strictly Writing website. "Tell that to a plumber!"

4. Time is finite (hey, I never said this was going to be profound). Every half-started, unfinished project that loiters in my in-tray is taking up headspace. While I could argue - with myself - that anything that's languished for months doesn't merit further attention, that doesn't clear it out of the tray. It also means recognising that some of the things I've spent time on have reached a natural conclusion.

5. Action really does speak louder than words.

6. Leave the wasps alone and they'll leave you alone.

Back to the Feature 2

In which our hero sees his future, attempts to change his past (which, from his future's perspective is his present) and then his present's past (which is the past from all perspectives except the past itself and the past before that).

Just as the clippings I preserved so diligently (even if I forgot about the 'referring back to them' part) led circuitously to many of the things I like to write about now, so too will my current interests act as seeds for a future harvest. But it's not linear. Along the way, my enthusiasm for Green Living has led to writing about chickens and polar bears. An interest in personal experiences that shape someone's outlook on life led to writing about my brother, my sister and - albeit semi-fictionalised - my own innocent abroad tale Scars & Stripes (second draft to be completed this year).

I've had a sea-change about the relevance to writing of both ebooks and social media. And while I can't yet claim to have mastered wither, it's clear from even my forays that social media and ebooks require a different mindset and a different model to develop a readership and a client base (which are arguably the same thing). Debate has raged (trust me, I get the emails) about the ways in which self-published and conventionally published authors of ebooks can promote their wares and themselves. I've yet to see a Twitter phenomenon who has built up his or her following predominantly from there, but I'm sure it'd be a tweet to behold (sorry, couldn't resist it).

So integrated communications seems to be a future area of interest - and marketing, naturally. In fact, one could argue that writers could spend so much time connecting with their community and setting out their stall that they'll cut back on time actually spent writing and editing. Which sounds an awful lot like the embodiment of empty vessels...

With all that in mind, I'll take this opportunity to remind you that I am available for freelance writing and editing, and that you can find me in the following places:
LinkedIn: derekthewriter

With a Facebook page to follow, my ubiquitousness will be complete. Until the next media tool comes around, of course.

Back to the Feature

I've been glancing up at the cardboard folder on the top shelf above the screen for, oh, I don't know how long (well, I do now, but work with me on this). It's the one marked 'clippings' and stems from the time when I was a project manager and gathering ideas for my future outpourings of journalistic gold.

A brief delve into the wad of yellowing newsprint tells me that my interest was piqued by:
- Religious pieces about the real Noah's Ark, the real Mount Sinai, a Muslim husband with a Jewish wife (Oy!) and the Vatican's list of approved angels.
- Green technology, local currencies, ethical shopping, downshifting and investing in woodland.
- The new face of feminism and a female gladiator.
- A woman whose 12hr flight took three and a half days because the airline 'lost track of her'.
- A man who became an artist after a stroke.
- Allergy testing, depression and death.
- Corporate gamesmanship, cyber security and surveillance.
- The EU's (and John Prescott's) regionalisation of England.
- Recommended building societies (hey, it was a few years ago) and planning for a secure retirement (ditto).
- Ebooks and a publishing phenomenon (no, not her this time - someone else).
- The insurance firm that offered everyone a fun-sized Mars bar when it gave them redundancy news individually.

The interesting thing, from my perspective, is that I'd happily write something inspired by any one of those subjects today. Perhaps I see more springboards to fiction now, but even so, the trails are still warm. What surprises me is the earnestness with which I collected them and the recognition that I wrote very little with any direct link.

Green Living, Creative Writing, Human Interest and Politics all remain staple interests of mine. But as I've progressed on my writing journey, I've learned not to write pieces on spec unless I have free time and a burning passion. Far better to organise my ideas and put draft proposals together.

The other thing I discovered in the folder was a collection of headlines that would not seem out of place of BBC Radio 4's News Quiz or BBC1's Have I Got News For You. See image above.

Altogether, it's a little like a 10 year-old time capsule from a millennial me to the 2011 version. I'd like to send a message back: YES, I'M WRITING. THANKS FOR ASKING.

Share and share, a lie.

Most people enjoy an occasional gamble. It might only be a once a year punt on the horses, a lottery ticket (It could be you - or someone else) or a scratch card. It seems to be part of our nature - the desire to take a risk and acquire a disproportionate reward. The trick of course is to have minimal risk for maximum payback, but probability is also a factor.

And every form of gambling has its own wonder tales and mythical set of golden rules. It's usually a friend of a friend who made a windfall and lived happily ever after. My brother David actually won £3500 on Euro 96, although he had staked £500. You could argue that's not a great rate of return for the risk (I did, after the fact), but he was convinced it was a sound bet based on the form.

David was also into backing horses. He once insisted I pick a horse out for the Grand National, given my interest in the esoteric. Never one to resist a challenge to my ego back then, I took the bait, scanning the list of names with my third eye blinking at the page (probably). One name caught my attention: Earthstopper. I think he put 50p or £1 on it, just to see what would happen. It ran the race, came in fifth then dropped dead.

Of course, there is one type of gambling that purports to not be gambling at all: investments.
Here is a brief history of my occasional foray into the world of sharedealing.
1. The ballad of Telewest. When I worked for BT, I read an article in the press, quoting a BT board member who mentioned Telewest and future developments. That was bonjour for me, as Delboy might have said, so I bought some. Within a week, they were on the slide. A smart person would have cashed in or walked away or both. Not me - I was now an investor. So naturally I bought some more when they were half their value, confident that I could cash in when the price once again rose heroically. Last I heard, following all kind of consolidation and restructuring, the company had morphed into Telewest Global and my several hundred pounds' worth of investment had been reduced to ONE share.
2. Energis. Gone. Popped like a spot.
3. There was another telecomms company. I can't remember its name, but let's call it 'Icarus 1990s' by way of summing up the experience.
4. Uniq. I actually inherited 201 shares from my brother and, following a restructuring exercise, it magically reduced down to just 20 shares. Add to that a looming takeover and I'll walk away with 20% of the previous value, whether I want to or not.

Writing is also a gamble. Just like investments, you benefit from doing research, from keeping abreast of trends and by studying the industry news. But unlike investments you can actually improve your chances of success by writing, editing and presenting to the very best of your ability. Plus, there's nothing to prevent you from investing the same material in two or more places at once. (And yes, I know that's frowned upon by some agents or publishers. Just as waiting six months for a response then being promised a phone call that doesn't materialise twice is frowned upon by me.)

Writing - it could be you next!

Lost & Found

I've spent a little time this week scanning in photographs for blogs-to-come and as memory joggers for Scars & Stripes. Following feedback from Anne, Susie and Monika, I've decided (I think) that S&S works best when it's 1st person and more honest than the first draft appears to be. Warren was definitely right that 3rd person opens the book up, but having recently read Michael Wright's C'est La Folie, I'm thinking about approaching the book from a different angle.

The picture here is almost certainly from West Runton campsite in Norfolk. The car - as most of you will know - is a Morris Traveller and that special hound on the left is Tess. David is the one holding the football. Mum is probably making tea and dad is taking the photo. I'd forgotten this picture existed - there aren't many of Tess.

The photo is a nexus point for so many different streams of thought and recall. The pennants were from the camping club of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - they mainly showed all the places mum and dad camped before we came along. The Morris Traveller was one of a succession of cars, all smelling of vinyl and dog (ours).

I remember car sickness, the way my bare legs would stick to the vinyl in the heat, the handles for the windows and those jumpers that mum knitted for us. I remember the feel of the deckchairs and how they'd topple over at the slightest provocation. I can still hear the sound of the aluminium pots and pans, and the way the table legs used to screw in.

And those trails that lead off into their future and my past. I remember years later, meeting Carl Nunn while climbing the oak tree on the site and the first words I said to him, "Oi, Tarzan, want any nougat (which we pronounced nugget back then)?" He came from Cambridge and had a collie dog and a penknife with a rabbit's foot at the end.

I remember being 11 when Tess died and not knowing how to cope with the grief. And then at 13, we went camping in Somerset and it felt like the end of a chapter of my life.

So many points of reference from one photograph, all of them bathed in emotion and significance. And that's what I'm aiming for now in Scars & Stripes.

Make Believe for Grown Ups

Creative thinking and the use of the imagination are often hailed as two of the secrets to productivity, originality and a whole bunch of other 'alities' (except banality). Most people can remember a time when, as children, we would play as characters from TV, the cinema or books, or even from our own imaginings.

I'm sure I'm not alone (it would be interesting to do a poll) in still remembering some of those characters even now, as an older child in my forties. I may have been a little unusual though in also having subsidiary characters and subplots as well.

One of the highlights of corporate project meetings, for me, was during the Ideas phase when we would brainstorm scenarios (before brainstorming became thought showers and after it had reverted, last I'd heard). Apart from the endless pleasure of calling out the first thing that came into my head - knowing that the scribe was duty bound to record everything, no matter how seemingly nonsensical - there was also the opportunity to try on different viewpoints and approaches. One way of achieving that by playing a part - designer, engineer, user, marketeer, customer, etc.

Of course, however much we may invent a character - whether it's in writing or for a specific function (first date, interview, new identity), there is always an element of us in there somewhere. And that element reveals something about us. In the case of some project meetings, it probably revealed my desire to do something different. Persona non gratis, you might say (unless you had a classical education).

I was thumbing through an old notebook recently and discovered a monologue, written from an invented character's viewpoint. Like the very best of first draft material, it was written at a gallop, with very little filtering going on - just a voice and its ideas rampaging across the page. It never made it to a second draft because I couldn't find a use for it, in anything I was working on at the time. What comes to mind now is a surly patriarch, trying to instil wisdom while his apprentice struggles to grasp what he's really talking about.

The tyranny of time is the tyranny of the mind. Its currency is certainty and inflexibility. Blinded desire is its ally. To be free we must free ourselves, purge our fixed expectations and let go of long held and cherished perspectives. Lose ouselves in the void to emerge cleansed, victorious and liberated.

Peace isn't merely the absence of conflict. It is the conditions in which confict is unable to flourish. Peace, like conflict, is a harvest. The ground must be prepared, tended and nurtured. The seeds must be planted long before the reaping and the crop attended to. And when the harvest has been gathered, what reminds must be ploughed back to resume the cycle.

Creativity requires us to make contact with that inspirational spark and to let its mystical flame engulf us. It is a process of connection and reception, and can be learned.

What we are each here to fulfil is the expression of our own essence. The courage to pur our souls into the cup of experience and drink it back in a banquet of becoming.

Everything you have felt, have known have dreamed - all lies within you. Ready to serve as your guide, your warning and your inspiration.

Lift yourself free from your burdens. Set the baggage of your past and the imagined future to one side. Rest at the roadside and wait. Is it yet too late to change your journey?

The Setting Sun

The wonderful thing about photographs is that, when they're your own, you can step into them in your mind's eye. Every picture has a story, but more than that, it also has a range of sensory memories. Take this little beauty above.

It was the last day of the trip to Egypt and the sun was sinking rapidly. Jon nipped off to get his camera (we had ours handy) and by the time he'd rushed back the Mighty Ra had been swallowed by the Nile again. If ever there was a blink and you'll miss it moment, this was it.

The small group of us stared out on the shadowy Nile, breathing in the heady scent of Jasmine in the evening heat and listening to the Nile softly lapping against stone. If you gazed just right, away from the hotels and tourist feluccas, you were transported across the centuries and gently deposited 2000 years ago or more. Nobody spoke for a few minutes; each of us was in our own private communion.

I have thought about that sunset moment many times since then, regularly reflecting on the need to embrace the moment (I was never one for seizing). Whatever our beliefs, we are in the here and now for a finite time. I had cause to consider that once again yesterday when I received word that a friend of mine (also a writer) died unexpectedly last week.

Sometimes it's easy for us to get so caught up in the business of daily life that we forget what it is to truly live. My friend seemed to understand that principle. Practical, capable and creative, he was one of those people who always had a clutch of projects on the go, but who nonetheless had time for other people. Although we never quite got our arts projects off the ground - the funding race we thought was a sprint turned out to be a marathon - we had fun together at our ideas-and-cakes meeting. I'm humbled - and a little bit ashamed - to realise that I still have a couple of his stories left to read. He not only wrote well, he lived well. Another sun has set.