Category Archives: A Writer’s Life….(article archive)

On toads, work – and writing….

The poet Philip Larkin memorably asked : “Why should I let the toad work Squat on my life?”

That toad –WRITING – has squatted on my life more or less since I was born. The golden thread of consistent attachment to writing, or writing’s consistent attachment to ME, has run through the whole of my life. I have always been true to it, in my fashion, during the promiscuous twists and turns of my vocational quest.

Anne and Friend compose the latest blog post....

Anne and Friend compose the latest blog post….

At school, whilst other kids seemed to dread their composition ink exercises, I looked forward to mine. It was an opportunity to channel into focused black and white the swirling imaginative colours which whirled round my young brain, fed by my six library books a week habit. I read anything and everything.

This voracity had its downside. Victorian novelist H Rider Haggard’s myth-steeped descriptions of his characters’ adventures in Africa last century fascinated me. But da Silva, the Dutch explorer whose frozen body was found centuries after his death in a cave high up Mt. Kilimanjaro, transferred himself from King Solomon’s Mines to the wardrobe in my bedroom, on and off, for a couple of years. Getting to sleep was no mean feat with an imagination like mine!

My ‘real’ life – eating, sleeping, going to school – was incidental to my inner life which was full of the really interesting questions:

“Why are we alive, where do we go after death, do we live on several planes of existence at once, what is happening in other galaxies, if there are x million Catholics and even more Buddhists and Hindus, how come they are all Wrong and Damned and a few thousand members of the Free Church of Scotland are Right and Saved?

What would happen if you unwrapped an Egyptian mummy? I wonder if I could make a shrunken head like the Jivaro people? Why did people paint pictures on cave walls thousands of years ago? “

These issues, fed by reading, preoccupied me for years. I must have written about them, and my essays were often commended. However, attempts on leaving school to obtain my childhood exercise books were met with a bureaucratic “No”  .

During my twenties, spent in further education teaching, I  had a ‘Personally Speaking’ column in a well-known provincial Scottish island newspaper, a copy of which I was reliably informed went to the British Embassy in Peking in China every week.

I also wrote for the local paper in a small industrial town in West Lothian, Scotland, where I had my first English lecturing job in the local technical college. ‘How I was left on the shelf – and found true happiness’ was my contribution to the West Lothian Couriers Spring Brides Feature one year. “Couldn’t you have been a bit more romantic ?” was the Editor’s only comment.

Harrowed in my mid twenties by the realisation that time was speeding on apace without my having yet written an autobiography, I then began the first of what were to be many bouts of journal-keeping…….and so the writing went – on, and on, in a dazzling variety of contexts for the next several decades…..

Any writers out there with amusing writing anecdotes? Do leave them in a comment!

*********

550 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


A note to writers: the gift of honest feedback….

Where would we be without constructive criticism?

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given came from a newspaper editor I once worked for, a crusty old chap who called a spade a spade. “You’re too wordy, my girl!” he observed. (this was in the good old days, before my even thinking he was being offensive might have got him arrested….) “I’ve never known any piece of writing to get anything other than better by the removal of 25 per cent of its wording. Now – take “How I was left on the shelf and found true happiness” away, and chop it!”

Honestly, I did write an article with that title, for the Spring Brides feature of a provincial Scottish newspaper a few decades ago. And yes, dear reader, it actually did get published, minus 25% of its wording. Somewhere in my files I have the cutting to prove it….

Another piece of even earlier straight-from-the-shoulder feedback has just found its way to the front of my braincell. Picture the scene. Aberdeen university, the infamous Sixties. I had left my seriously overdue history essay till the very last possible evening before my second exasperated extension from my usually genial tutor had expired.

I finally stopped procrastination and began writing at one am. Many cups of coffee and cigarettes later, at 8am, the task was completed. It had to be handed in by  9am or I would not receive my History class certificate. Without that, I could not sit my degree exam. Serious business.

Burning the midnight oil....

I ran most of the way to my tutor’s office. It was pouring with rain. On the way, I somehow managed to drop one of the essay’s ten pages into a puddle. It was only rendered semi-illegible – and only the bibliography, I thought, thankful for small mercies. Made it by 9. Just.

A week later I visited my charismatic and much loved, but somewhat fierce, history tutor – Owen Dudley Edwards. He glared at me as he thrust the dishevelled bundle of paper that was my essay back at me. I scanned the title page. “Phew!!” I thought with relief. Fifty per cent. A pass!!

“This essay on ‘The Origins of the American War of Independence” Owen Dudley said severely, in words I have never forgotten, “bears all the hallmarks of the triumph of native intelligence and writing ability over little if any credible content.” There was a long pause. ” The bibliography – I had cited Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples having once flicked through it – I assume is a joke….”

There was a frosty silence. I left, not feeling as chastened as the good Mr. Edwards had intended.

“Mmmmmm” I thought to myself as I headed off to the refectory to buy a much needed bacon sandwich, ” maybe I should be a writer if I ever grow up.

That crusty newspaper editor is probably long dead. Owen Dudley Edwards is still with us, and still giving out his straight from the shoulder opinions. I know this because I heard him on the radio a couple of months ago. I am grateful to both of them for their never-forgotten feedback. It was direct, it pulled no punches. It let me know where I stood. Grit in the oyster, it helped me become a competent writer.

However, in recent times, constructive criticism seems to have morphed into something altogether much less forthright, much more timid, much more inclined to dish out indiscriminate praise and affirmation regardless of performance. Is this helpful to young people’s education and development?

My colleague Emily Cutts,  psychologist and independent thinker, has her serious doubts. Read Emily’s forthright views, published on MoreBitsFallOff.com :

Emily Cutts: Constructive criticism is a gift

***************

650 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2011
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

***************

Guest Slot: The art of writing – and getting published! Interview with Harry Bingham

Of  the many scary delights of being on the Web, my favourite is never knowing who’s going to turn up! A few weeks ago writer Harry Bingham lightened my January gloom considerably by emailing me with kind words about “Writing from the Twelfth House”. Thus began another positive Web friendship with an accomplished fellow writer. Harry kindly agreed to do a post – this interesting, at times challenging, entertaining and revealing interview is the result.

**************************

Harry Bingham has written historical fiction for HarperCollins and a couple of books on history and economics. He’s also just sold a new series of crime novels to Orion, and is the author of a bestselling guide to Getting Published. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop, which offers help and advice to first time writers.

Anne W: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?  Did you tell anyone?  If so, whom, and when?

Oh gosh, I always knew I wanted to be a writer … at least, ever since I gave up my astronaut / shopkeeper / footballer ambitions. Back when I was ten, a camera crew came to my school to film a short piece about what kids were thinking of as possible careers. Most people said things like ‘policeman’ or ‘nurse’. I said ‘author’.

Anne W: How did you go about becoming a writer? What/who were your major influences?

Um, well, I became an investment banker first. Not really a conventional path that, but forgive me – I was young. Then my wife got ill, I gave up work to look after her, and wrote my first novel while sitting at her bedside. That book was The Money Makers, and is still one of the best things I’ve ever written.

Anne W: Which writers did you love best as a child? Which writers have most deeply influenced you?

I loved Sherlock Holmes and  CS Forester and anything to do with Greek myth. And then all the classics: I got stuck into Victorian literature pretty early and chomped my way through it avidly. As for influences: I never really know. I think everything influences you to some extent. Even bad novels, you have to understand why they’re bad, why you don’t like them, what you want to do differently.

Anne W: What do you think of Ernest Hemingways’s dictum that all writers should have a “built-in, shockproof, crap detector”?

It’s essential. Writing’s a funny business. You need a kind of insane optimism to create a novel in the first place. You really do have to love your work and believe it’s great, otherwise you’d never get out of bed. When it comes to the editing, though, you need the opposite mindset: the crap detection one. You just have to go over your material relentlessly looking for the stuff that’s not OK. There’ll be a lot of it about!

Anne W: Where do you get most of your ideas from? Do you carry a notebook around to record them?

No, and I know writers are meant to do this. I’ve never carried a notebook or anything else. I don’t scribble ideas on napkins. I don’t carry pencils on buses. I just take the dogs for a walk and daydream. Sometimes those daydreams turn into books. I’m lucky that way.

Anne W: When should writers seek advice/help from other writers – and when should they just shut up and get on with it?

I think most writers need to do both. In the end, you write a book by just sitting at the damn keyboard and writing. On the other hand, it’s terribly rare that a writer can’t learn masses from detailed, tough, constructive feedback on his or her work. I’m a fairly practised writer after all (8 books published, 4 more commissioned) and I get a huge amount from my editor / agent. So I think you need both things: lonely hours, intensive feedback. It’s how nearly all writers operate.

Anne W: What has your developmental pattern been toward the stage you are at now? Has it been moderately straighforward or have you done lots of bizarre jobs along the way?

I’ve not had any bizarre jobs. I’ve always sold my books for decent money so, unlike many, I’ve more or less been able to support myself from writing. That is rare, however, and I’d urge anyone thinking seriously about writing as a career to give themselves a proper financial fallback plan. Like marrying someone really rich, that sort of thing.

Anne W: Have you gained formal qualifications in the art and craft of writing? Is this latter route any great advantage, do you think, in a writer’s development? Why/why not?

I’ve got an English O-Level, if that counts. But no: I don’t have any real qualification and I’m not truly a fan of university-level creative writing courses. I don’t think they’re nearly market-driven enough. I don’t think their success record is as strong as it ought to be. I don’t think they’re much good at teaching people how to write genre fiction. But I do think that people will have fun on a creative writing MA course. There are other, better alternatives, however. Our range of online creative writing courses, for example, is deliberately designed so that authors with strong market knowledge and excellent publication records teach the business of writing for publication. That’s, in my view, what nearly all students actually want.

Anne W: What inspired you to set up The Writers’ Workshop? Tell us something about it. How long has it been running, and how do you see it developing?

I set up the Writers’ Workshop as a way to earn a little extra money when I was between projects. So I built a website, offered editorial advice … and the manuscripts just started to pour in. We’ve now got a team of about 80 novel and other book editors offering tough, professional advice on novels, children’s fiction and most varieties of non-fiction. We also have a policy that whenever we come across material which is strong enough to be marketed, we’ll do all we can to place it with a literary agent. We obviously can’t help everyone through to publication, but we do have multiple success stories, including a number of people who have won literary prizes or become top 10 bestsellers. We also, as mentioned above, run courses. Oh, and we run the annual Festival of Writing. And various other things. You can get the full background by clicking on: The Writers’ Workshop: Your Path to Literary Agents.

Anne W: Biggest hope?

That my crime novels take off – I’m more excited by these than anything else I’ve ever done.

Anne W: Biggest worry?

That e-readers are going to kill the books trade.

Anne W: Thing you love the most?

Bringing a really beautiful book (or six) home from a bookshop.

Anne W: Thing you hate the most?

When good writers are turned down by cowardly publishers. I HATE that!

Anne W: Single best tip?

Cut your work by 10%. Then  do the same again.

Anne W: Thanks, Harry. Great stuff! Come back and talk to us again soon!

**************************

Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham

THE WRITERS’ WORKSHOP
run by writers for writers

Reach us by email, or call us on:
0845 459 9560

www.WritersWorkshop.co.uk
info@WritersWorkshop.co.uk
7 Market Street, Charlbury, Oxon, UK OX7 3PH

**************************

1200 words copyright Harry Bingham/ Anne Whitaker 2011
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

**************************


Constructive criticism: can we do without it?

Where would we writers be, without constructive criticism?

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given came from a newspaper editor I once worked for, a crusty old chap who called a spade a spade. “You’re too wordy, my girl!” he observed. (this was in the good old days, before my even thinking he was being offensive might have got him arrested….) “I’ve never known any piece of writing to get anything other than better by the removal of 25 per cent of its wording. Now – take “How I was left on the shelf and found true happiness” away, and chop it!”

Honestly, I did write an article with that title, for the Spring Brides feature of a provincial Scottish newspaper a few decades ago. And yes, dear reader, it actually did get published, minus 25% of its wording. Somewhere in my files I have the cutting to prove it….

Another piece of even earlier straight-from-the-shoulder feedback has just found its way to the front of my braincell. Picture the scene. Aberdeen university, the infamous Sixties. I had left my seriously overdue history essay till the very last possible evening before my second exasperated extension from my usually genial tutor had expired.

I finally stopped procrastination and began writing at one am. Many cups of coffee and cigarettes later, at 8am, the task was completed. It had to be handed in by  9am or I would not receive my History class certificate. Without that, I could not sit my degree exam. Serious business.

Burning the midnight oil....

I ran most of the way to my tutor’s office. It was pouring with rain. On the way, I somehow managed to drop one of the essay’s ten pages into a puddle. It was only rendered semi-illegible – and only the bibliography, I thought, thankful for small mercies. Made it by 9. Just.

A week later I visited my charismatic and much loved, but somewhat fierce, history tutor – Owen Dudley Edwards. He glared at me as he thrust the dishevelled bundle of paper that was my essay back at me. I scanned the title page. “Phew!!” I thought with relief. Fifty per cent. A pass!!

“This essay on ‘The Origins of the American War of Independence’ ” Owen Dudley said severely, in words I have never forgotten, “bears all the hallmarks of the triumph of native intelligence and writing ability over little if any credible content.” There was a long pause. ” The bibliography – I had cited Winston Churchill’s  ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’ having once flicked through it – I assume is a joke….”

There was a frosty silence. I left, not feeling as chastened as the good Mr. Edwards had intended.

“Mmmmmm” I thought to myself as I headed off to the refectory to buy a much needed bacon sandwich, ” maybe I should be a writer if I ever grow up.

That crusty newspaper editor is probably long dead. Owen Dudley Edwards is still with us, and still giving out his straight from the shoulder opinions. I know this because I heard him on the radio a couple of months ago. I am grateful to both of them for their never-forgotten feedback. It was direct, it pulled no punches. It let me know where I stood. Grit in the oyster, it helped me become a competent writer.

However, in recent times, constructive criticism seems to have morphed into something altogether much less forthright, much more timid, much more inclined to dish out indiscriminate praise and affirmation regardless of performance. Is this helpful to young people’s education and development?

My colleague Emily Cutts,  psychologist and independent thinker, has her serious doubts. Read Emily’s forthright views, published today on MoreBitsFallOff.com :

Emily Cutts: Constructive criticism is a gift

***************

600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

***************

Guest Slot: Resources for Web Readers and Writers by Donna Cunningham

Donna Cunningham will already be known to many of you as a world class astrologer, writer and teacher – and is now a brilliant blogger at her  SkyWriter blog, which I featured on this site in February, in my Kreativ Blogger Awards 2010.

Check out  Donna’s ebooks at Moon Maven Publications. It is my great pleasure to be featuring Donna’s writing on the Guest slot this month. She has provided a terrific and varied set of resources which I have been working my way through and finding invaluable – I have no doubt you will, too. No matter how experienced a reader or writer you are, there is always more to learn!

cartoon by Paul F Newman

Anne W and Friend write for the Web

(cartoon by Paul F Newman)

 

Internet User’s Reading Habits—

How Research Findings Impact Internet Writing

©2008 by Donna Cunningham, MSW

The most significant research into internet users’ habits has been done by the Nielsen-Norman Group. They use highly technical methods like eye-tracking cameras to discover exactly what internet visitors do when they visit a site—how long they spend on a given page, what parts of the page their eyes zero in on, which pages of a website they are most likely to visit, and how long they spend on that page.  Below are some of their research findings.  Jakob Nielson has a huge collection of pithy and useful articles at the site below.  You’ll be meeting him often in this course!

Research Findings:

“How Users Read on the Web.” Jakob Nielsen.  In their research, 79% of test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-by-word. Specific ways these findings need to be applied to website content.

“Information Foraging” Jakob Nielsen.Habits of internet visitors, whom he calls “informavores.”

“Research report:  A guide to email newsletters and usability” Dan Farber. The Nielsen-Norman group’s findings in summary form. The study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.

Internet Writing Style Tips:

Here are some excellent articles by web professionals. Although they aren’t writing specifically for metaphysical sites, their advice is sound.

“Writing Style for Print vs. Web.” Jakob Nielsen.

“Six Ways to Turn Techno-Babble into Commanding Copy,” Jonathan Kranz

Amrit Hallan, “Writing persuasive website content.” (Lots of articles; worth visiting)

Continued at: “Persuasive Writing”.

“How to Write Successfully for the Web.” WikiHow,
Also see more articles on this topic at: http://www.wikihow.com/Special:LSearch?fulltext=Search&search=write+for+the+web

“15 Internet Writing Rules to Keep them Reading your Content.” Internet Based Moms

“The 10 Commandments of Internet Writing.” Garth A. Buchholtz

“Discovering that writing for the Web is different… every day, for the first time.” Excess Voice.  (Lots of articles; worth visiting)

“Make Your Copy Specific and Personal,” Nick Usborne

HEADLINES—The Key to Grabbing a Website Visitor’s Interest:

Market research says that 8 out of 10 people read the headlines but only 2 out of 10 read the main copy.

“Your headlines are the strongest weapons in the arsenal of your copywriting.” Amrit Hallan.

“10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work.” Brian Clark, Copyblogger:

“Headlines Make The Difference (and the Sale)!” Tony L. Callahan.

“Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines” Jakob Nielsen.   (Strong, researcher)

“How to Write Magnetic Headlines.” Copyblogger. (Links to several good Articles)

*****************************

550 words copyright Anne Whitaker/Donna Cunningham 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Guest Slot: “Shaping the Writer” by Annie Evett

Last year I was fortunate to come across that diverse and stimulating, not to mention inspiring, writers’ site Write Anything. Our mutual love of nature, and writers’ efforts to capture its large and small wonders, brought me into contact with writer Annie Evett from that site. It greatly pleases me this month to have Annie’s account of growing up in the Australian bush and its profound influence on her as a writer. All our childhood experiences are unique. But some are more unique than others! Over to you, Annie ….

Although I dislike the pigeon holing of genre based writing, it would appear from readers’ feedback, that my writing success lies within my descriptive narrative; specifically that of a setting. Anne contacted me a little while back to ask if I might write on whether one’s earliest memories of environment influence one’s main style of writing.

In particular she was interested in my experience within the bush and my love of nature writing. Noticing minute detail is important to a writer building a realistic and believable character or scene – and to country folk relying on specific information in order to diagnose sick animals, fix machinery or identify an area in danger of bushfire.  The latter are skills which seem to be ingrained from an early age.

Rural life taught me the zen of chicken taming, the aikido of sheep handling, the philosophy of cattle herding and the oneness felt between a rider and horse on a long dusty road. With our modern society bent on cotton padding every bump, growing up in the bush taught me to take and make risks, be proactive, inventive and constantly seek answers both from within and outside. Valuable lessons for any writer.

Nature writing binds characters to the natural wealth and expanse of the wilderness with words of respect, admiration, and empathy.  It marries up the divorce between nature in the plastic world and  reminds us in every phrase, that nature has its eventual dominant place. Growing up as I did, instilled this belief deeply within my soul.

 

Annie - contemplative mode

Annie - contemplative mode

The eldest of six children, born to a shearer and housemaid who subsequently set themselves up within the fine wool industry, I lived my first seventeen years within the Australian bush on a mixed produce property . My primary school had up to twenty students enrolled; the nearest town boasted a population of nearly five thousand people.  Despite only living half an hour to town, modern living and experiences such as going to the movies or having a milkshake (in fact any sort of fast food) was something I didn’t indulge until I left home and went to University in the big smoke (our capital city). I believe this extended innocence has given me the opportunity to look at situations with unsullied eyes and the ability to twist things to a different perspective.

Daily childhood experiences involving the stark reality of drought, flood and bushfires, the brutal honesty of the cycle of life and the truth in death  colour my writing.

Memories cutting deeply into my psyche include droughts where the piles of carcasses grew daily. Bullets were too expensive to waste on the dying; so children were sent to cut throats and drag bodies behind utes. (Ed: a type of pickup truck) Memories, too,  of bushfires devastating vast expanses of land, native animals and farm equipment – caused by the careless flick of a cigarette from a passing car, or the malicious act of bored teenagers from town. It is through these eyes I am able to ‘cut to the bone’ of a story, revealing its inner strengths without being distracted by sidelines or flattery.

 

Seasonal chore aged 5 - Annie plucks turkey

My childhood days would start with a seasonal chore, such as fruit or vegetable harvesting, mustering animals or milking with the children saved only by the need to get changed and catch a battered bus to go to school. Far from thinking this was a prison camp, in no way would I change a single memory or experience. Indeed, I would wish a similar childhood for my own children.

Imagine a wondrous childhood where over three thousand acres of land lay to be explored on horseback? Where it was safe to leave after breakfast and not come home till dark? Where at anytime your pet list included a half dozen chickens, up to twenty motherless lambs or calves, horses, ducks, goats and dogs?

My first paid job was as a roustabout for a shearing team when I was thirteen. Here, I met some of the outback’s true characters; a deeper appreciation for humour, regardless of the situation, was born. I feel privileged that my parents pulled us all out of school (just before my final year exams) so that we could go droving for a month. I joined the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson on horseback; those were hours of staring at the moving masses of animals ahead, and the great silent expanses of the open road. You cannot but be provoked to poetry, music or creative writing when surrounded by the palette of moving scenery and blissful solitude.

I was unaware that stories of my childhood sounded straight from a film set, naively believing that the majority of people understood the fine balance we humans hold with the land, animals and the gift we call life.  Folk from the bush tend to be quieter, more reserved; but in no way should that be perceived as less intelligent. With the stillness and quiet comes a deeper understanding of and connection to the fragility of life – of the inner sanctuary of strength of character, and appreciation of friendship and community bonds.

As writers, our anthropocentrism runs deep. Blinded by the politics and theatrics of human relationships, we forget that a piece can be just as interesting without the people, as dramatic simply by utilising the environment and the landscape. Caught by the busyness and artificiality of their surroundings, many writers forget to indulge in the quiet inner space, or of the peace which can be attained by noticing the delicate details etched in any leaf, blade of grass or flower. I feel blessed to have been exposed to the harshness of the outback life, now able to harness the solitude and imagery it has gifted me as a writer.

**************************

Annie Evett

Annie Evett

Annie writes a weekly column for Write Anything  (http://writeanything.wordpress.com ) and Type A Mom (http://www.typeamom.net/mom-types/suburban-moms.html) , is coauthor of an online adventure series Captain Juan (http://www.captainjuan.com) and has written a survival guide for parents – Reclaim Sex After Birth. (http://reclaimsexafterbirth.com) Continue your discovery of her writing at her site ( http://annieevett.com)

**************************

1100 words copyright Annie Evett/ Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


Introducing first guest writer: Paul F. Newman

 

” THE ODDS AGAINST SCIENCE FICTION.”

The odds might be scarier than the stories

by Paul F. Newman

(This article was first published in The New Writer, No.66, May/June 2004)

‘ “…don’t submit articles about rejections to magazine editors. It’s all been said before and there’s nothing new to add on the subject…” [Suzanne Ruthven, The New Writer Nov/Dec 2003].

This is not an article about rejection. It’s more about getting stuck some place in a zone between light and shadow. “Sf”, as the insiders like to call science fiction, appears to be a thriving genre. And it is. The problem is that just about every life form seems determined to write for it. I thought it only fair to pass on my experience of the current odds (in 2004) for getting a short story published in some of the leading monthly science fiction magazines.

Firstly, to define my credentials, “hard” sf has never been my line; I’m much more of a “soft” man myself. That means, like most of the sentient universe, I’m more interested in the fiction in science fiction that the science in it. There are certainly publications that do veer more towards the hard stuff, like the American Analog for instance, whose writer’s guidelines tell you that they prefer “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.”

Well, fair enough. If you’re a rocket scientist I foresee no problems for you there.

The Twilight Zone....

The Twilight Zone....

But if your mind is whirling more in flights of fantasy than in astronautical units you might deduce you were quarking up the wrong tree with Analog and feel more at home with three other of the market leaders: Fantasy & Science Fiction (US), Asimov’s Science Fiction (US) and Interzone (UK).

Over the last 12 months I sent a different story to each of these magazines in turn. These are the results.

Fantasy & Science Fiction politely declined my riveting story of two men taking an excursion into a sideways world within two weeks. (That is, it was declined within two weeks). In a personally signed letter from the Editorial Assistant in New York I was thanked for submitting it, but regretfully informed that it didn’t grab his interest this time. I had no clue as to whether it might have grabbed his interest at a different time or whether it was complete crap at any time. But I was most grateful for the swift reply.

Britain’s Interzone took four months to reject my next effort. A cheeky little tale of a near future when everyone’s higher selves were visible behind them. The setting was a casino, as it would be of course. To be fair, Interzone never led you to suspect that they would be particularly eager to receive your latest masterpiece in the first place. The small-print paragraph headed “submissions” on page 3 of their magazine baldly stated the required word range and little else, except what they would be unable to do: like reply if there was no return postage or accept responsibility for loss or damage to unsolicited material etc. Without a website to its name (what century are we in?) there was none of the cheery encouragement to writers that I found on the sites of the American magazines.

However I would soon learn what I was up against. The closely-printed rejection form enlightened me that Interzone was now receiving about 200 manuscripts a month. You didn’t have to be an Analog reader to figure out that with an average of just 5 stories published each issue – and with favour obviously going to any known writing names in the field – you had about as much chance of entering the Interzone as entering the Twilight Zone, or of having a sherry with H.G.Wells.

Well probably more chance with H.G.Wells. On a good day his Time Machine might be working.

I was left with the distinct impression that Interzone would be happier if all these people would stop sending in manuscripts and take out subscriptions instead.

I had more or less abandoned all hope of ever hearing back from Asimov’s Science Fiction. My powerful drama of four people on a cruise ship being dangerously affected by the invisible gravitational point at the second foci of the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun and activated (naturally) at aphelion, had probably caused it to disappear from the earth plane itself in mutual sympathy. But my impatience was premature. Seven months later the polite rejection arrived.

Not a signed letter this time but a standard though nicely-worded apology that informed me that unfortunately my piece had “failed to rise above the other 849 seen that month”. Yes, 850 manuscripts a month. That was the figure quoted as being received at Asimov’s from which, the stated figures suggested, only one unsolicited piece might fight its way through. Like a determined sperm I suppose. Why were all these blind hordes writing science fiction stories anyway? I reckon ninety per cent of them must be aliens. It’s obviously all a conspiracy.

But in the end I began to feel truly sorry for the science fiction editors on the receiving end of all this. What an existence. The poor devils, red-eyed and exhausted, doomed to plough forever through an ever-replenishing pile of eccentric bilge. How much more could they take? Being cursed by the gods in Ancient Greece was of nothing in comparison.

I pictured one of these skeletal individuals – I’m talking about the editors, not the ancient gods now – muffled against the storm, collapsing homeward on the subway train. With head swimming through doppler shifts and time dilations, eyes lowered to avoid recognition (in case anyone offers them a new story), their gaunt frame belies a spirit still clinging to the slender hope that tomorrow the number of submissions might actually start to decrease.

A suspicious-looking man in black, obviously a government agent disguised as an old-fashioned ticket inspector, stops before them fumbling with something inside his uniform. Is he going to produce a metal clipper or a ray gun? No, instead he extracts a scrappy sheaf of papers with a menacing flourish and asks if there would be any chance of getting his manuscript published. At this point the sky falls in and the editor, crying “Enough!” crouches submissively to the swaying floor, sobbing and crying like a baby pulverised by meteoric infall…

Hey, maybe there’s a story there.

Paul F Newman

Paul F Newman

 

Paul F. Newman is an astrologer, astrology teacher, writer and contributor to many journals including ‘The Mountain Astrologer’ and  ‘The Astrological Journal’, author of “You’re not a person–just a birth chart” and  “Declination in Astrology The Steps of the Sun” He can be contacted at pneuma@ukonline.co.uk

1000 words Copyright Paul F Newman 2009

To the website! Chapter Three (at last!)

“Welcome to Facebook! Say goodbye to your life….”

(Message from a friend on the day I joined)

Now read on!!

Chapter 1

“……Much of 2007 was taken up in reflecting on a challenging topic: should I become more computer literate – a writer with a website – or sink slowly to the bottom of an ageing and increasingly befuddled slime of computer-refusing baby-boomers?

Befuddled slime did not appeal……”

….. To the website! Chapter One (c/f July 08 archive) described the process of acquiring a new AppleMac laptop and getting on the Net via mobile broadband – both accomplished during April 2008.

Chapter 2

“……Still can’t quite believe this….it is September 2008 and I am now a writer with a website. To inspire and encourage other writers in the same direction, the first thing to say is this: the process of moving from dinosaur to cyber-babe has been great fun, very creative, and not that difficult…..”

……To the website! Chapter Two (c/f Sept 08 archive) chronicled my progress – as I slowly built Writing from the Twelfth House – from bottom of the cyber-literacy food chain to a few links up, ably aided by my web person Susan Elena and my highly cyber-literate friend Willie Miller. In September 2008, not without some trepidation, I started posting articles weekly. Traffic soon increased….

and I said “……To the website! Chapter Three…... will appear in a few weeks, to give you some ideas and tips on the very important ongoing task of publicising your site. Watch this space…”

Chapter 3

Nine months and a considerably longer number of weeks later than I had intended, many apologies to those (three? four? two? one?) addicted writer followers, gazing at an empty space, whose lives have been blighted by the persistent non appearance of Chapter Three. Sorry. Sorry! OK?

Seriously though – it has taken much longer than I thought for a perspective to emerge which I hope may be useful to other writers who are still contemplating the leap into cyberspace. The terms of reference of this third article, therefore, have broadened somewhat from my originally stated intention….

Regular readers will know from the ‘Just let me get old, ok?’ theme that one of my preoccupations is how to face the reality of growing older with as little denial and as much grace, humour and realism as possible. An aspect of ageing which needs to be resisted is that increasing pull to stay with the familiar, avoiding taking on new challenges.

I feel a great sense of satisfaction at having managed to tackle and overcome my own fears and resistances, succeeding (with a lot of help!) in setting up a site which not only pleases me, but more importantly – judging from the messages and emails I have received – does offer support, information, entertainment and inspiration: my stated aspirations in setting up Writing from the Twelfth House.

Here, then, are a few perspectives I have gained in the last year which may be of use:

* realise from the outset how addictive the internet is – if you aren’t disciplined your whole life will get sucked into it. How much time do you want to spend? If you don’t build in restrictions, the Web will take over. Networking sites need to be especially watched for this reason. My friend’s sardonic comment on my joining Facebook could have been predictive!

That same friend thinks I’m mad (he’s a 12 hour a day minimum web nut) to lock away my computer over the weekend in the office, and to have a policy of not checking emails every day – though at times I do give in. If you aspire to a balanced life, and are too weak-willed to resist the siren call, use tactics which will separate you from the Web.

* set your site up as a blog – initially I was rather dubious about a blog format – I’m not interested in daily chatter about my cat etc, which was rather the way I perceived blogs until I researched other people’s, set up my own, and became more knowledgeable about how flexible an instrument this format can be. It can be adapted for whatever your purpose is.

The interactive nature of blogs is also ideal, opening your Web experience out to a positive and creative sense of community-building. If you join eg WordPress which I really like, there are various safeguards built in – great spam filtering and ease of monitoring comments, enabling you quickly to get rid of anything you do not wish displayed.

I can see that my own site is more like a magazine than anything else, since I use it to republish articles which I still think are of interest, offer new material, and publicise my books. From June 2009, I am pleased to be launching an occasional Guest slot, in which I will be publishing material from writers whose work I like which fits into the ethos of “Writing from the Twelfth House”.

* it is very important to keep in mind what your site is for – and what your aims are. Your Home Page should state this briefly, simply and compellingly. Humour helps in getting the message across – as does an arresting visual image. It keeps focus to refer back to your objectives often.

* have lively and varied content – post regularly, interact with your readers, cultivate contacts with sites you like and build relationships, trade links, be generous. Post articles on showcasing sites eg Author’s Den, Creative Carnival, Blog Carnival, Technorati, Zimbio: get listed as much as possible.

Anne interacting with her reader....

Anne interacting with her reader....

* be happy to take critical feedback on board – for example, in the autumn of 2008 I had an email from a visitor to my site saying that she found my use of colour – mostly black and green, with some purple –confusing. She had clicked on some parts highlighted in green or purple thinking they might be links: they weren’t.

Not having had anyone else comment on this, on checking I discovered that I had not followed an early golden rule, ie underline all links: do not use underlining in editing UNLESS it is a link. I could see where there might be some confusion, over the next couple of weeks re-editing the whole site to fix this problem. Thanks, Linda!

* keep adding new links – I have begun to date the links I add, partly to let readers see how up to date they are, but also to keep me on my toes!

* don’t get complacent and sink into a comfort zone – be aware that your site is a work in progress, and keep an eye open always for ways to improve it.

* know yourself and be realistic about your limitations – this applies to everything in life, including running a website. For example, although I have got myself listed on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (professional networking site) etc, I simply cannot be bothered chattering for chattering’s sake and acquiring scores of cyberfriends (I prefer the flesh and blood kind!) although I know perfectly well that this is one of the best ways to build up a big following. (it is also a major way of saying goodbye to your real life!) I also don’t want to carry ads or do any of the commercial things which will bring traffic to my site but distract attention from the content.

My overall aim is for gradual growth of traffic, and moderate success in attracting a regular group of visitors who share my interests and preoccupations – as well as now having an essential tool for promoting my books. This is happening. I am a happy cyber-babe!

STILL teetering? Go on – jump!!

*********************

1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2009

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Writers !! Are you now, or have you ever been….distracted?

I can see you.

The spray can of heavy duty industrial oven cleaner parked on the kitchen floor is a dead give away. Peel off those rubber gloves, stop pretending that your family will drop dead of food poisoning tonight if you don’t clean those charred meal residues insulating the inside of the oven right away. Follow me. Yes, just as I thought. The study door is ajar. I can see the laptop screen from here. Closer….yes, that’s it. Don’t die of embarrassment, it won’t help. A new document  is open on screen. A title?

 

(NB – provisional ) Of authorship and toads….

" Of authorship and toads...."

And ?  I suspected this. One paragraph indentation, and the word  “The”…...can that really be all ? Oh. There’s a new line.

“ F— this, I might as well be cleaning the oven!!!!”

I have two words to say to you. Pay attention, they really will help, I promise:

Natalie Goldberg.

A few months ago, I visited Glasgow Buddhist Centre in search of a meditation stool. Yes, you’ve guessed, I had an article which had to be in the post by 5pm. I was distracted from the article by the stool, then distracted from the stool by Natalie Goldberg. Her book “ Wild Mind : Living the Writer’s Life” drew me like a lure. What a wonderful writer! What an inspiring book! Did the article get to the postbox? I’m not telling you.

Natalie Goldberg is an American writer  and creative writing teacher. She is sharp, witty, compassionate, lateral….and tough. She has bottom lines and is not afraid to state them. She has rules. My guess is, if you follow these rules on a regular basis, you’ll rarely be distracted by oven cleaning or any other form of housework ever again.

She is fanatical about writing practice. “ If you learn writing practice well, it is a good foundation for all other writing.” We need to do it as regularly as possible, she says.

“ When you sit down to write, whether it’s for ten minutes or an hour, once you begin, don’t stop. If an atom bomb drops at your feet eight minutes after you have begun and you were going to write for ten minutes, don’t budge. You’ll go out writing.”

In essence, writing practice is a technique for cracking open the confining grip of our conscious, rational mind – and flying free into the big blue sky of what Goldberg calls “ wild mind”.

Here, briefly, are Natalie’s rules:

(She also thinks they mostly work for hang gliding, tennis and sex.)

1. Keep your hand moving. If you stop your hand, you stop the creator’s flow and give the editor in you an opportunity to interrupt.

2. Lose control. Just say what you want no matter how inappropriate. Just go for it.

3. Be specific. Don’t write flower, write narcissus.

4. Don’t think. Stay with the first thing that flashes into your mind.

5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.

6. You are free to write the worst junk in America ( or in your case, could be anywhere in the world ! )

7. Go for the jugular. Whatever comes up, no matter how frightening or disturbing, write it down.

There you are. Begin writing practice today. Next step, buy Goldberg’s books on the writers’ craft. They are a wonderful investment. I’m doing well with my writing practice, by the way. I’ve bought two new notebooks. Still can’t decide which one to start….

(slightly edited – first published in the Women Writers’ Network Newsletter June 2004)

600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Astrological help for writers….

Indulge me. Have a guess. Which planet, do you think, might be specially linked to the writer’s craft? Yes, very good. It is indeed Mercury.

Mercury represents the principle of communication in all its facets. Pitching and selling ideas, reworking, appraising, editing; all the activities of the scribe’s trade are encompassed by the Mercury function.

Gorgeous Mercury!

Mercury – isn’t he gorgeous?!

In the spring, summer and autumn/winter of each year, the planet Mercury does something strange. It appears to slow down in its orbital pace, stop, then start to move backwards. This is known as retrograde motion. It is of course an illusion. Otherwise, we’d have fallen off the solar system aeons ago.

However, the effects down here on Earth when Mercury is in its  2-3 week retrograde phases are anything but illusory. For years, I studied this phenomenon in my own life, the lives of family, friends, and astrology students. In sum, communications of all types become strangely awkward and hard to manage during those times.

I learned to look forward to having some rest during Mercury Retrograde, since my referral rate dropped. Normally clients always turned up for appointments, MR periods being the exception. Cancellation rates increased. Once, a client called to cancel because her house had just caught fire (yes, she called the Fire Brigade first!).Two clients often turned up at the same time. Cheques invariably got lost in the post, or clients forgot to bring cash. One summer I moved office during MR, becoming involved in a dispute of byzantine complexity with the telephone company which took almost a nervous breakdown to sort out.

As MR periods approached, I used to entertain my students by looking at their individual horoscopes, which enabled me to be more specific regarding possible MR effects. I told one student, a lawyer, that a female helper in his workplace was likely to have communication problems which would impact on him. His feedback?  His secretary sprained her wrist, and was unable to type during the entire MR period.

Mercurial people, eg writers, are those most affected  by Mercury’s retrograde phase.

What can we writers do to maximise advantage and minimise disruption when Mercury is retrograde? MR is a positive time for going back over all matters to do with communication, and cleaning up.

Some examples: if you’ve been putting off a purge of your filing system, do it now. If your accountant has asked you nine times for your last year’s papers, use this 2-3 weeks to update them. Dig out and finish some of those half-worked articles. Use MR times for reminder letters to editors. If you’ve been writing furiously and the brain/wrist is seizing up, have a break. Catch up with some reading. As we know, fallow time is creative.

The don’ts? If it is not feasible as a working writer to avoid or delay taking new initiatives or completing existing processes, eg sending out new proposals and submissions or signing contracts, leases, etc, try to accept complications or thwartings philosophically. Also – be prepared for delays, eg when travelling, especially long distance.  Don’t sit under the mailbox waiting for cheques. And please, don’t arrange for a phone installation!

“Come on then !” I can hear you shouting as you search for my phone number or email. “Tell us WHEN !”

Just send me a £50 cheque and a self addressed envelope….

….oh, all right. Since this is a writer’s website, I’ll tell you.

The Mercury Retrograde periods for 2009 are: 11 January to 01 February + 07 May to 31 May + 07 September to 29 September.

(update: The Mercury Retrograde periods for 2009/2010 are: i) Retro 26/12/09, Direct 15/01/ 2010. ii) Retro 17/04/10, Direct 11/05/ 10. iii) Retro 20/08/10, Direct 12/09/ 10.iv) Retro 10/12/10, Direct 30/12/ 10.)

Let me know how you get on ! Susan Elena my web person, a highly Mercurial person, has a very rude name for Mercury Retrograde. She is on her way back from Istanbul at present. I will be amazed if it goes smoothly……

(slightly edited : first published in the Women Writers’ Network Newsletter August 2004)

********************

600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page