Going for...atomic number 79

'On me 'ead, son.'
Like an estimated 1 billion people worldwide (and mindful of apparent restrictions on words that can be used for the next few days), I watched the opening ceremony of the quadrennial 'global sporting event' with a mixture of high expectation, positivity and awe. Danny Boyle, Tracey Seaward and the entire team pulled off a truly magnificent spectacle that drew on the achievement and mythos of Great Britain to showcase a vision of where we've come from and who we are.

Some will have loved it while some couldn't wait to take to Twitter with their outrage, cynicism and general thumb-nosery. Who is right? I guess that all depends on what you think the ceremony is about and how important it is for you to see your own perspective portrayed to the world.

As I watched the nations of the world parading around the stadium it made me think about how diverse we are as a species and how many flags I wouldn't have recognised. It also made me think about the practice writing.

How so? It started with the ideas of preparation, personal sacrifice, dedication and striving to achieve. But there's also another side to it that chimes with the spirit of Olympism (fret ye not, that one isn't on the list and I heard one of the BBC team say it yesterday so it's probably a real word).

Not every country will make it to the podium. Not every competitor will achieve greatness and recognition outside their own small circle. However, each competition represents the culmination of a whole range of factors that started with the intention to compete.

So much of writing now seems to be tied up with atomic number 79. Heaven fore fend that we should only aspire to 47 or 29. I've said it many times before now - we're not all going to the prom. We will not all get a three-book six-figure deal. Some of us may have to be satisfied with a three-book sales sheet. But the opening ceremony reminds us that we can compete on our own terms, by being the writers that we are and doing our best work (and editing and PR and all that other good stuff).

I salute those sportspeople and writers who manage to bring home glory and world recognition for their achievement. They have and will continue to inspire us. I also salute those sportspeople and writers who turn up to give of their best and show their talent to the world, even if the world at large never hears of them again. There is no shame in being outclassed by someone who is better than you. And nothing more honourable than daring to compete in the first place.

Then there was music...

Hello? Police? I want to report a crime against music...

So, the story of the band...

I'm guessing most people start a band because they want to be cool or they want the chicks (or guys) or, best of all, because they idolise a band so much that they learn to play an instrument. I wanted a band so that I could hear what my songs sounded like outside of my head for a change. For my two schoolfriends - let's call them Ringo and Paul, for the purposes of satire - it was a combination of cool and chicks.

First off, we needed a name. That was easy - Bad Timing. More than a band name, it summed up my angst-ridden adolescence at the time!

We had one song to rehearse, Coffin Nails, and I had a notebook of lyrics (many of which still survive) to follow. Somehow I found rehearsal rooms only a bus ride away. I still had my Casio VL-1 (I'd eventually graduate to a Yamaha CS-01 Micro Mono-synth - and by graduate, I mean that I'd buy one - not learn to play it properly).

On the big day we arrived at the railway arches, paid at the desk and went inside. It was like entering another world. The walls seemed to hum with the distant throbbing of other bands making music. The atmosphere reeked of sweat and ozone and leather jackets. 

"Room six - door's open," the musico at the desk told us, pausing to sneer like a rock star. Either that or he had a naturally sneery face. Or he thought my Casio VL-1 wasn't harsh enough. Or all three.

Room six was an Aladdin's Cave, with instruments. As promised, there was a keyboard, microphones and a drumkit. Brilliant. I handed out lyrics sheets (they'd forgotten to bring copies, much as I'd anticipated) and attempted to explain how the song went. Which is no easy thing when you can't write music or play to any discernible degree. 

There was but one rule: no swearing. I intended to record the session. The plan was to nail Coffin Nails, if you see what I mean, and then go through my notebook to see which songs worked for us. I could also tweak the lyrics if need be. I hoped it would transform my writing ability. 

We set up and our vocalist (John, remember?) approached the mic. He tried testing one, two, three, blushed scarlet and then declared sheepishly that he couldn't sing. Not because of a lack of talent - we never got that far to form an opinion. He meant that he was too self-conscious to sing. Not a brilliant trait in a lead vocalist and something I'd have thought he would have encountered before.

So, singer and drummer swapped places - John on drums and Ringo now on lead vocals. Which actually wasn't that bad because the drummer couldn't really play either. And, let's not forget, my rudimentary keyboard skills were unlikely to give Richard Clayderman or Jeff Lynne a run for their money.

And so we began. After an hour of hammering Coffin Nails to death, pardon the pun, we took a break. Machine coffee and chocolate bars in hand, we checked out the grafitti strewn across every inch of wall and ceiling, and John added our name. A 'real' band next door, who sounded like a punk version of Pink Floyd (Punk Floyd?) reignited our enthusiasm.

"Let's do this!" someone might have said.

I returned to the large keyboard in situ - the one with a few dead keys, and struck up what had become the opening chords.

"Okay guys, one run through and then we'll get a perfect take. And then we'll move on."

We were mid song and I was thinking about how great this all was, and wondering why the rooms were so affordable, when a train passed overhead. I say overhead, but it sounded like it was about to come through the walls. It was an immersive locomotive experience. I think the lights dimmed too. Rock and rolling stock, as you might say.

Back to the grind. There was too much laughing and joking around, so we took a quick break. I came back from the loo to find our vocalist-turned-drummer lighting up a joint - for his nerves - and slumping in the corner. Clearly, he'd started the rock and roll life early.

As if to balance the mood, I started ranting. If someone is mellow there is no point ranting, but that wasn't going to stop me.

Somehow we made it through to the end of a three-hour session, with our friendship and my aspirations intact. We had one song on tape. The same song. Over and over in a variety of hideous takes. It turned out that making music was harder than I thought.

I still had hope though. Along with a clutch of other songs that I was determined to get on tape come hell or high water. We made plans to return in a couple of weeks, and retured to the pub. Where our drummer turned vocalist (Ringo, not John) reclaimed his drumsticks and posed them out of his back pocket at the bar, in case any passing groupie was looking for a musician to worship.

I made copies of the tape for each of them and gave them another copy of the lyric sheet to learn. Three weeks on, when no one had bothered (yes, of course I tested them - I was and am that fixated), I gave them an ultimatum. Which of course they ignored. And thus ended Bad Timing.

There was an aftermath, of sorts. We were offered a gig at a pub in Hackney, but that's another story. And I went on to write more lyrics - some of them passable and some merely dire. I sent material off to Safari Records, for Toyah Wilcox to consider, and they sent it back. I joined the International Songwriters Association and bought tapes of drum tracks. I bought a Yamaha CS-01, like I said, and I once (literally, once) rehearsed with a real musician playing background keyboards for him to tweak his own songs. In a sense it was a teeny tiny rock & roll story of a dream that, unnurtured, died. But it was never forgotten. I'm pleased to say that the music world struggled on without me. 

Bang Bang Bang Bang
Another nail in your coffin.
Bang Bang Bang Bang
Not long to go.
Bang Bang Bang Bang
Gone too far for stopping
But just remember,
It's the way you chose.

We Need to Talk

Sometimes things just don't add up.
I posted recently about the ways, in my experience, that freelancers can add value. It prompted a few responses and a lively dialogue with professional copywriter Alasdair Murray.

For the record, let me state that:

1. I enjoy being challenged, where it makes me think about what I'm communicating - and why.

2. It's not about getting consensus, it's about developing and presenting a reasoned argument with evidence and supporting information.

3. Alasdair has a point.

You can read the post and comments here, or I can sum it up in a few lines. Okay, I said one way of securing regular work was signing up with sites that advertise writing work. I mentioned that I'd signed up with Copify, enjoyed their blog and that the signs were good so far. (That's all true. I wrote one piece for £12 and it took less than an hour, although I didn't state that in the piece.) Alasdair countered that the site offered work for 2p per word, which is low when compared with the professional rate and undermines the profession.

The dialogue throws up some interesting questions:
- What distinguishes a professional from a beginner or an intermediate practitioner?
- If the rate you want / deserve is not available, what do you do?
- How long ought one to write at a lower rate in order to build a portfolio?
- What if it were a magazine offering a lower rate or a publisher slashing a royalty percentage?

In short: When does a professional become a professional?
And what about the pic 'n' mix writers like me? How much experience is enough experience?

After the discussion, I went back to Copify to ask about their average rate per word.

Hi Derek,
I can tell you that over the past 30 days, the average per word rate we have paid out to writers has been 2.9p, the average pay in total for a job is £12.

If you need any further information, please don't hesitate to contact me!


Now, in the interests of balance, it must be said there are jobs posted there that could equate to £6 per hour. Would I write for that amount? No. In fact, the last writing gig I really fancied doing was advertising that rate, for an hour's work, and I bumped them up to £16 on the basis of my background, experience and promised turnaround. I got the job.

It's a conundrum. When I had a piece commissioned by and published in The Guardian, I expected it would open doors and lead to further newspaper work. Thus far, that hasn't been the case - although I have written for several magazines (different rates and regular work). So what's a writer to do if the work stream dries up, as it can do from time to time? Do we hold the line and say that if no one is paying the rate we'll go and shell peas instead for a bit?

Come to that, should we, for the good of the profession, maintain standards even when they have a potentially detrimental impact upon us? Alasdair's point, in part, was that not everyone has the skill and talent to be a copywriter.

That's true.

Writing - of any kind - takes practice and discipline to develop. If there are more writers than highly paid work, what's the solution? Is undercutting the industry rate akin to strike breaking? Is it any different from a plumber (yeah, I know - writers and plumbers...) competing on price to the detriment of those who can't afford to work that cheaply? Isn't that the reason the UK manufacturing base has diminished?

(Tangentially, on the subject of loss leaders, look at the milk industry at the moment.)

Some would argue that businesses seeking a low rate per word have already decided that they can't or won't pay the industry rate. So one way or another a writer was never going to get, say, 10p per word from them.

I encourage you to share your views in the comments field. I think Social media can be more than just an opportunity to say I wuv you or Buy my book you bastards or even Social media is the work of Satan. It can be a platform for dialogue and meaningful conversation. It can be a tool for education and change. It can even be a way of challenging ourselves.

Bottom line. I was happy to take on a quick writing gig for £12. Should I have? And would you?
The floor is yours!

Addendum: Copify advises that its highest rate is 4p per word. I also asked for their views about its rate versus a higher industry rate.

Our intention has never been to undermine anybody. The rates we charge and the rates we pay reflect the state of the copywriting market, and in my experience what people are willing to pay. The site is intended for those who are starting out and also established copywriters who maybe need extra work to see them through quiet periods. 

Going for a song

Henri could rock out with the best of them,
but first the month end accounts were waiting.
Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone and then they phone you? Or maybe you've been thinking about a type of dog and suddenly one comes walking around the corner towards you? The psychoanalyst Carl Jung labelled such experiences synchronicities and there are people who point to these coincidences as indicative of a 'world behind the world'. More sceptical observers are quick to point out that we have an incredible capacity for filtering and selective memory, thus we remember the one percentage because it stands out from the commonplace and read into it a significance that, in a wider context, we may see differently.

Funnily enough, that wasn't what I came to talk about about at all today. Well, there was one synchronicity / coincidence - call it what you will. I was in the garden, singing. And if your imagined ears are already offended, it gets worse - the song was one of mine. Yes, back in the day, I fancied myself as a lyricist.

I'm not entirely sure how we got there, but Wolf and I were chatting on the phone recently and the subject of poetry and lyrics came up. Before you can whisper, "Oh good grief, no," I'd dug out my old lyrics book from the shelf and delved within.

I mentioned to Wolf, in passing, that I'd once written a song called Coffin Nails (jolly, n'est pas?), back when two friends and I had decided to start a band. One of us - let's call him Vince - had started a job as an apprentice at a funeral director's. It was a short-lived job (yeah, I know), in the end, but it provided the inspiration for the first of several songs that we daydreamed releasing as an album entitled 'Live at the Golden Egg' - a cafe in Stratford, back in the day.

Anyway, I found a Word version of the lyrics and sent them to Wolf and said I also have a rehearsal recording of said track. I should point out at this point that we were absolutely crap. So bad that the whole misadventure merits a blog post of its own. I'll simply say here that there was only ever one rehearsal - for one song - and the band, named Bad Timing by me, disappeared from the annals of entertainment thereafter. Which, trust me, was a kindness to all of you.

What was interesting though was seeing the dates next to some of my lyrics. Noting the flurry of creativity every few days, or trying to remember what I was doing with my life at that time. Even more interestingly, for me, are the missing pages.

Anyway, Wolf is pestering me for the cassette and I just can't seem to lay my hands on it. Funny that!

One of the many things that continues to inspire me about writing is that there are no small stories, not if they're well told. In the same way that a trip to the shops is a huge adventure to a young child, when something captures the imagination it captivates our interest. We are compelled to make the journey, whether it's a remembrance or an invention.

Beating the odds

Key inventions that changed the world.
No 24: The pooper scooper.
All freelance writers have a perennial set of challenges to get their heads around:

- Writing content to order.
- Meeting deadlines.
- Revising work where requirements have changed or were less than...ahem...fully defined.
- Establishing which rights are being sold and who owns the work.
- Agreement on bylines and back links.
- Getting the client's sign-off.
- Getting paid.
- Getting a testimonial or recommendation.

And, of course, there's one significant challenge that freelance writers share with anyone who runs their own business - that of finding the work in the first place. The good news is that  the internet has opened up the entire world for writers. And the bad news is that the internet has opened up the entire world for every other writer too.

Word-of-mouth recommendation often goes a long way, but it pays - literally - to have several sources of work and a range of pies to stick your fingers in. Yes you can trawl through Craigslist (it's worked for me), Gumtree (not so useful for me) and a host of other sites, or you could register with sites specifically set up for copywriting and other types of writing. 

Step forward Copify - my most recent signing (or that may be the other way around). I like the fact that they're in the UK, as it's a market I want to grow for my business. I also think their blog is pretty funny. It's early days yet - and I'll keep you posted, but the signs are encouraging. If any other freelance writers want to give them a go, click on the link you've just passed.

So what can you do about those odds?

Two words for you: over deliver

Not, I hasten to add, in terms of the client's must-haves. They, after all, know what they want in terms of topics, word count and tone. 

Here's where you over deliver and 'add value'*

1. Distinguish yourself from the competition by delivering error-free copy that hits the mark, ahead of schedule.
2. Once you have an established and successful relationship with an editor, suggest variations on their requirements for additional pieces.
3.Take a single theme from the piece and suggest something totally new from a fresh angle.
4. Offer to take on short deadline work (editors will love you) if ever there is staff sickness or unexpected problems. But only promise what you know you can deliver.
5. Offer to promote their business in comment back links on writing sites and blogs.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a client to impress!

* I know, you can take the boy out of the corporate world...and you ought to.

Defending Joe

Often in a novel, alongside the protagonist, antagonist and a host of other characters, there will be an additional presence. I'm talking about the location. Sinclair Macleod's series that started with The Reluctant Detective is based in Glasgow and that's also the setting for Paul Vincent Lee's debut novel, Defending Joe. I caught up with him recently over email and put him on the spot.

What sets Glasgow apart for you?
My debut novel, “Defending Joe”, is set in Glasgow and although that can maybe be seen as a little bit unadventurous it did make it easier to visualize scenes so it does have its advantages.

Just as can be said for any relationship, whether it be with a partner, kids or whatever…you can love something but not actually like them all of the time…and that is how I feel about Glasgow and, indeed, Scotland. But it has undoubtedly shaped me as a writer…for better or worse.

How did your main character appear and did they change from your first draft?
My main character changed dramatically from the initial idea…not least in that it changed from a woman to a man and from a cop to a civilian. 

What made you decide to go down the self-publication route and what have been your main lessons?
I guess self-publication came about through a mixture of not getting any mainstream publishers to take me on, although Canongate were encouraging, and a drive to just move things on in whatever way I could. I certainly don’t regret the journey although it was stressful & frustrating at times especially if, like me, your I.T. skills are limited! LessonJust Do It. 

What comes first for you - plot or character?
Neither! An idea for the beginning of a story takes shape and I let things flow from there. The best thing I saw written about a story was by Stephen King who says that stories are like unearthing a skeletonyou slowly uncover it without really knowing what it is until it reveals itself to you.

What are you working on at the moment?
To be honest my main focus at the moment is marketing “Defending Joe”. I know some writers claim not to be interested in sales, and I don’t quite understand that, but I am as my dream is to make an acceptable living from novel writing. That’s not to say that writing isn’t involved, but what I am trying to do is learn the “business” side while pondering the writing side.

How would you define the Glaswegian character?
Funnily enough I feel there is a close link between drama and comedy in the Glaswegian psyche. Glaswegians love self-deprecating humour and laughing at the absurdity of life, which is often reflected in laughing at tragic situations.

Where can we get hold of a copy of your book?
The book is available now on Kindle and will be available on Amazon at the end of the month or from my website: www.paulvincentlee.com

Don't mention the war

A novel beginning?
I've always had mixed feelings about American Independence Day. I mean, I get it - I understand the historical and cultural significance, as it is commonly understood. And let's face it, who the heck wants to be disproportionately taxed and ruled by a foreign power from overseas?

I also know 'stupid stuff'. That John Hancock's signature on the declaration was so large that his name became a byword for a  signature. Also that the Declaration was written with ink made from pokeweed.

But a deep dive into any historical period or event will likely show us the interconnectedness of cultures, nations and factions, alongside the actions of individuals. In the case of the American Revolutionary War, it was something of a global affair.

When I spent a little time over in the US, the two July 4ths I experienced were a combination of:
- Inebriated people telling me how, "We sure kicked your asses."
- Receiving consolatory pats on the back and reminders that, "We're all friends now."
- Pageantry, flag waving and celebration.
- Reflection upon what it means to be truly independent. (Hey, I never was the party type.)
- "Hey Limey, how's it feel to come second best?" (Actually, it felt pretty good - pass the tacos.)

The UK is not dissimilar to the US in many respects. We define ourselves by those times when we've been a proud nation standing up for what we believe in. And we're a little more reticent about those times when we've been less than honourable. A lot like individual people, you could say.

In our recent Jubilee public events there were critics and naysayers (do people naysay any more?) alongside those who just wanted to feel good about being British and to wave the flag without accusations of jingoism. We can neither deny nor erase history. For good or ill, everything before us has led to here. We are the inheritors of the past. Or at least, the past as we understand it.

With all - and none - of that in mind, I wish my American cousins a wonderful Independence Day and I thank them for their support, encouragement and inspiration in my writing. At the very least, I owe them a novel!