Copy That! (Change Please - part 2)

As opposed to the ones on holiday.
The word epiphany is bandied about a great deal. You could argue that it has now joined the upper ranks of clich√©, proudly taking a comfy seat next to 'upping my game', 'this would mean the world to me' and the mathematically dubious 'I'm going to give it 110%'. Oh, go on then - let's also make space for 'I've been on a journey', which, ironically, doesn't travel well. 

However, epiphanies can and do occur. And, in my experience, once you've epiphed, it always seems so obvious.

So, picture the scene if you will. I have some freelance clients lined up, fees have been agreed and I'm good to go. Except that, rather than feeling elated, or just grateful (it's been a sticky month financially), I had that Sunday evening feeling you used to get as a kid when you used to think about school the next day. "What gives?" I ask myself. (I find talking aloud soothing because I've always enjoyed the sound of my own voice.) My reply is that some of the freelancing I do just isn't fun any more. I actually laugh then, but I can see what I mean. 

At this point in time, freelancing isn't a full-time occupation. I do okay out of it, for the work I undertake, although I don't remember the fun part being an essential component. I mean, how many people find their jobs fun even part of the time? 

Only...only now I realise that it does matter and I recall a conversation with our Dad, back when I was unloading lorries for a living. "No one enjoys their job," he assured me. He then qualified it by telling me about how a Radio 4 programme only found one person who really enjoyed their job - a man who made wooden wagon wheels using traditional tools and methods. (This conversation would have taken place around 30 years ago, back in analogue times.) 

I remember insisting that I was going to find a job I enjoyed, and how he'd gave me a knowing and slightly patronising smile, as if to say, 'Yeah, good luck with that.'

Anyway, back to the epiphanous present. I love writing, always have. The first thing I bought for myself out of my savings, when I started working, wasn't a suit, or a moped, or driving lessons; it was a typewriter. It dawns on me now that what I enjoy about writing is a blend of information and character; I like to add my own voice and make a piece of writing distinctive. That's much easier to do when you know the subject matter well - less thinking involved.

When it comes to copywriting I've been a bit of a generalist.

 Subjects I've written about include: Sushi, yoga, poo, voucher discounts, matchmakers, relationships, weddings, sex, VOIP, PTSD, exhibitions, technology and software, ageism in the workplace, privacy, start-ups, interior design, website design, social media, branding, life-long learning, online dating, private investigations, education, interviews, coaching, freelance writing, safeguarding, staff motivation, parental engagement, exercise, cycling, art, health, green living, green tech, chickens, creative writing, big data, cycling, comedy writing and creativity.

What can we learn from this? (Apart from my range, versatility and suppressed humility.)

1)    Become the writer you are (and not just the writer you think others want you to be).

2)    Get noticed for who you are.

3)    Develop your own, unique style. Whatever I write, when I have a free hand to create the voice of the piece, it's more often than not a conversational, informal tone with a sprinkling of humour. That's the bit that makes it fun - adding character to content.

I know what you're thinking: whatever happened to part one? It set up home here:

The Value of Feedback

It's said that a true friend is one who will tell you what they really think - and why. For a writer, getting reliable feedback is invaluable. Just as a good proofreader can spot those rogue apostrophes and homonyms that you read past without noticing, so a good reviewer can tell you the essential and occasionally bitter truth. 

One must use discernment these days, of course, when reading social media and online book reviews because they offer such a wide canvas for jealousy, mean-spiritedness and invective, as well as encouragement, support and constructive feedback - if you're lucky. 

It's all in the game, I suppose, and for every book that's praised to the rafters there will also be a proportion of readers who thought it stank like last week's haddock. In fact, I received what must surely rank as the worst review I'll ever receive (on that site at least!). If I tell you it was for my magical fantasy, Covenant, and on one of the major - and tax ambiguous book retail sites, you can easily find it if you're curious.

I'll wait for you...

Ah, there you are. What did you think? Me? I was both disappointed and amused by it. Firstly, it suggested that I hadn't given the reader something of value - which is what I think most writers strive to do, irrespective of the topic or genre. Secondly, it amused me because I'd be hard pushed to get a review that bad again under any circumstances. (Although no one has reviewed my gag ebooks yet...)

The real worth of feedback, to me, is that it's an indication of whether I've succeeded - in the reader's eyes - in parceling up my ideas, feelings and themes into a cohesive package. More than that, where it's fiction, I want them to have felt something. Where my reviewer, who didn't like Covenant, is concerned, I can at least be certain that they felt something!

Many months ago I spoke with my editor at Musa Publishing about finding out if my mid-grade book about bullying and transformation, Superhero Club, might be suitable as an education or support tool. With their blessing, I contacted two organisations connected with young people's well-being, as well as a couple of local schools in Cornwall. The schools didn't respond, but eventually, after some polite reminders - over five months and one year respectively - the two organisations said they either didn't have time or were not in a position to review my book. And you thought agents and publishers took a long time...

Undeterred, although frankly pretty ticked off by the experience, I contacted two more organisations, and almost immediately (within a day or so), I had responses from each. (Note to self: choose wisely in future and perhaps ring up first.)

One organisation has now provided three brilliant pieces of feedback, yielding some unexpected comments. Remember the context here - this feedback is from professionals working with vulnerable / troubled children.


- Suitable for a young person who enjoys reading.
- Liked the style and conversational approach.
- Felt it illustrated the benefits of talking therapy.
- It's simple and gets to the point, making it quite accessible. 
- It gives awareness that adults have issues as well.
- An interesting story covering various issues, giving an insight into how bullying affects people.- A very touching story and easy to follow, it could help a young person understand how a group could help them.

- Didn't like the use of American English although it probably wouldn't be a problem for young people.
- Concerns that the group of young people in the book were copying the bullying behaviour towards the bully.
- Some of the language was difficult for some children to understand.
- The supportive group of young children bullied the bully and the teacher just ignored the situation, sending out a negative message to vulnerable children readers that there's no point in telling teacher as they won't do anything about it anyway.

I'm indebted to the reviewers because it has given me a completely different perspective on my children's book. 

It all raises some interesting questions:
1. Would a rewrite of Superhero Club turn it into a useful educational / support tool?
2. Would a rewrite of Superhero Club increase its popularity?
3. If I hadn't had that feedback from professionals, would I have been content with the book as it stands?
4. What would my publisher, Musa think?

I was talking recently with abstract artist Harriet Hoult, who will be guesting on this blog soon, and she felt that each piece of art she produced had its own conclusion. Perhaps every piece of creative output, once it exists in the outer world (i.e. beyond a drawer or a file on a desktop), has become what it was supposed to be. Maybe, where a book or a story is concerned, revisiting and editing after that point only unravels all the elements that put it together in the first place? 

What's your feedback on that?

A Miscommunication Masterclass

The plan was simple, oh so simple. I'd ring Anne from the penultimate station, giving her time to drive down to the terminus and pick me up. What culd possibly go wrong? Several things, apparently. It's a comedy of errors, unless it's happening to you at the time.

1. It was only at the penultimate station, when I dialled home, that I realised I had no credit left on my phone. No problem - go to plan b. I emailed her to say I had no credit and that I'd be at the terminus soon.

2. Ten minutes of waiting at the terminus with no sign of a pick-up and I sent my 'free' text to make contact.

3. Ten minutes after that I emailed to say I'd start walking and hopefully find a payphone on the way.

4. Hooray, I found a payphone. But she didn't get to the phone before I'd given up listening to rings.

5. I decide to wait anyway, just in case.

6. A minute or three later I get a text back to say she's on her way.

7. Then it starts raining. A lot.

Naturally, when she does pick me up, I use the opportunity to turn sarcasm into an artform (for me, anyway). I forget that a sensible person would check they had some phone credit, and instead I mention my original plan, which was to only phone if the train was going to be late. 

It didn't help that Anne had:
a) Forgotten which train I was on and my arrival time.
b) Forgotten that the Internet could have told her, based upon my planned departure time.
c) Was in the attic when the phone rang.
d) Couldn't get a decent mobile signal.

The lesson here is that communication is a two-part process of sending and receiving (preferably with the original message arriving intact). As writers, whether we're communicating with clients, with agents and editors, or with readers, we have to take responsibility for what we say and how it's interpreted.

And always, always, give credit where credit is due!

On Failing and Failing Better

Like many of us, I read a lot of blogs. Some are informative and some are entertaining; the favoured few are both. I'm not sure how long I've been following Chloe's blog but it's one that  I always make a beeline for when I see it in my list. As one of many who enjoy her writing, I'm   delighted to be part of her debut novel's blog tour. Come and meet her, and hear what she has to say about success, failure and final requests.

Chloe Banks lives in Devon with her husband, son and an obsession with words. She started writing for a dare and forgot to stop until it was too late. She is a prize-winning short story writer and a first-time novelist, represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.

The Art of Letting Go tells the story of Rosemary, whose peaceful seclusion is disrupted by the man who she was involved in a traumatic relationship with decades earlier; only this time he’s lying in a coma and Rosemary must decide whether to let him live, or let him go. In the midst of her secret dilemma  she meets an abstract artist who is used to manipulating shapes and colours to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And can he help Rosemary see her own situation in a different light?

The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.

On Failing and Failing Better

Many people have asked me where I got the idea for The Art of Letting Go. I wish I had something creative and brilliant to tell them. But the simple answer is this: I failed. I failed three times actually.

The first time I failed was in writing a piece of flash fiction (Dear Margaret) about a vicar who was trying to find God again after losing his wife to cancer. It got some good competition feedback, but never won the prize.

The second time I failed was in writing a short story about a girl who meets an artist on a beach during a wet summer holiday (Absence Makes The World Go Round). I loved using colours to enhance the mood of the story, but the plot itself didn’t work.

The third time was another short story (Flicker). This one was about a woman whose abusive husband was in a coma. She was convinced he could hear everything and wanted to live, but the doctors thought he was completely unconscious and so she had to choose whether to keep him alive or let him die. Her dilemma interested me, but I just couldn’t get the writing right. The plot was there; the good writing wouldn’t come.

In autumn 2011, I was looking for a new writing project and was browsing my file of stories that never made it. In a moment of flippancy, I wondered what would happen if I took the positive elements of Dear MargaretAbsence Makes the World Go Round and Flicker and smashed them up into something entirely new. I invented a new main character to tie the stories together – picking an woman in her seventies as I think older people are often more interesting than younger ones! – and started writing. 

It wasn’t the easiest way of making a coherent plot, I’ll admit that. But in starting out with three failures, that each had their own positives, I was able to create something far richer than I would’ve done if I’d started with one idea and built it from the ground up. Although The Art of Letting Go has been through many re-drafts, there are still one or two lines in it – and many ideas and themes – that come directly from those three pieces of failed short fiction. And – here’s the lesson, folks – I couldn’t have done it, if I’d deleted my failures. 

There are loads of files on my computer that I am ashamed of – stories where the writing is appalling. But I haven’t deleted them because you never know when the ugly duckling of one bit of fiction might become the swan you were looking for. I would be mortified if anybody browsed my writing folder, but I am proud of what has come out of it. In addition to those three total failures that made a success, some of my best and prize-winning short stories have been ones where I have failed first time round and taken a fresh look. Sometimes I’ve just edited more critically, sometimes I’ve re-written the story from a completely different point of view or in another tense. The originals weren’t terrible, but they weren’t right. Sometimes getting things right takes time, patience and a lot of trial and error.

So I have one piece of advice and one request for you, dear readers of Derek’s blog...

Advice: never delete or shred any piece of writing.

Request: if I die, please burn my computer before reading.