Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Hitting the airwaves

Last Friday I did something that was a first for me. A local BBC radio presenter noticed one of my tweets and through this found my blog. She contacted me and asked me to go into the radio studios to record an interview. I've never been into a radio studio before, let alone done a radio interview, so this was all very exciting.

On Friday evening I went along to the posh new Media City in Salford where the BBC are now based. On my way from the car park I strolled past the shiny new glass edifices that have sprung from the wasteland that was the Salford I remember. The buildings reminded me of those in Hong Kong or Canary Wharf; buildings in which billions of dollars are transacted daily. Except the buildings in those places aren't brightly labelled CBeebies.

Once inside, and with a visitor's pass strung round my neck, I was escorted several floors up and into a small studio. I chatted with the presenter for a while and explained what my blog was about. Then she clicked 'record' and the interview started for real. We talked about why I'd started the blog, the types of challenges on my list and how I see having a list as a good motivational tool for life. The whole interview lasted just over eight minutes. This might not seem long in 'real life' terms, but in 'radio life' this was so long that when it went out later that night, it was played in two parts with a music interval midway through. Although I'm very chuffed with getting a radio interview, I think I'm even prouder of the fact my first interview got an interval!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

ShAFF travel writing workshop

On Saturday, I attended a travel writing workshop run by Phoebe Smith, editor of Wanderlust magazine. The workshop was one of a varied programme of events at ShAFF (Sheffield Adventure Film Festival) held in Sheffield's Showroom cinema.
The room was full for Phoebe's talk - obviously there are a lot of aspiring travel writers out there! I did notice, however, that very few attendees were taking notes; so either the've got brilliant memories or they're not quite that serious after all.
After telling us a bit about herself, Phoebe spent an hour sharing lots of tips. As part of the workshop we looked through a travel article from the Guardian and discussed the different techniques the author had used. The workshop ended with a Q&A session.  
Throughout, Phoebe was friendly, clear and, even though it was only an hour, managed to impart an awful lot of good information. As I've read so much about writing over the past year and I'm currently taking part in a travel writing course with the London School of Journalism, I had been hesitant about the benefits of attending this workshop and wondered if my time might be better spent at one of the other events. By the end I was so glad I'd made my last-minute decision to go as it was definitely an hour well spent. And I know that if I ever get the chance to do a longer workshop with Phoebe, my name will be first on the list.
I took pages of notes - below I've included some of the main points.
Key Tips

Make people interested in what you're writing – don’t just assume they’re going to be interested.

How do you get people interested?

  • Know who you are writing for:
    • Age
    • Sex
    • Interests 
  • Write accurately
    • Grammar, punctuation
    • Facts
  • Write with a purpose – what’s your aim?
    • Instructing?
    • Educating?
  • Write well – get your audience to come back
  • Practise, practise, practise ... 

 Common Mistakes
  • Not reading your finished piece through first – print it and read it on paper as well as on screen; get someone else to read it
  • Making it too personal – do your readers care?
  • Humour – great if it works; cringeworthy if it doesn’t
  • Toilet stories – nobody wants to know about your bowels
Getting the Introduction Right
  • Grab the reader in the first paragraph
  • Make it suit the tone of the article
  • Try a couple of intros to see which is best – you can make your final decision later
  • Look at how other people begin their articles – read the work of others analytically
  • You can start with a strong quote, but it has to be good
  • Write straight away – don’t worry about what you write, you can change it – just get started
  • Go back to the intro at the end – do you need to change it?


Story Structure
  • Beginning – grab your reader with the introduction
  • Explain and elaborate – explain why you’re doing the trip or activity – each paragraph has to move the story forward – don’t lose sight of the purpose/reason for your article
  • Ending – don’t suddenly end because you’ve got to your destination or the activity has finished – bring it slowly to a conclusion – slow it down over the last few paragraphs before concluding it


Getting Started

  • You can write about anywhere at all – it doesn’t matter if you’re not travelling – where you are now is a destination for someone else
  • Notice everything – e.g. people’s habits – what are they doing with their hands? Are they chewing, fidgeting, limping?
  • Record everything – always have a pen and paper – you will forget details if you leave it till later
  • Speak to people – get local knowledge
  • Start writing


Writing the Perfect Journal

  • Who is your journal for? - Is it just for you? Is it online for friends and family to read?
  • When writing your journal think about potential beginnings and endings for articles – circle or highlight them so you can easily find them when you look back
  • If it’s a public journal, leaving out things can be as important as what you include – don’t woffle or include every minute detail to the point of boring your readers
  • It doesn’t have to be chronological
  • Use your senses - what can you smell, taste, etc
  • Dialogue – have a ‘cast list’ at the back of your notebook – people's names and notes about their personality, etc – assign a symbol or number to each so you can quickly refer to them in your main text, especially when making a note about what they have said
  • Avoid listing everything
  • Get out a pencil and sketch
  • Scrapbook it – stick tickets, receipts, etc in your journal
  • Do use a date
  • Do leave gaps so you can make notes on your notes
  • Stick to what interests you
  • Get it down on paper while it’s fresh
  • Enjoy it!


  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep e.g. don’t say you’ll write every day if you can’t
  • Be unique
  • Write about what you know
  • Let the passion show
  • Be accurate
  • Use photos
  • Get to grips with some of the techy stuff e.g. SEO, plugins, etc
  • Social media is your best friend
  • Do try to get some revenue, but don’t do it for the money!
  • Your blog is a great shop window – it’s the portfolio of the modern day


  • Think about your local papers as well as the national press
  • Try digital magazines as well as print magazines
  • Write for other people's blogs - guest blogging
  • Other websites
  • Guidebooks and advice books have more need for writers – you need to be very disciplined and write within a strict structure – much more so than a personal travel-writing book


What Editors Want / How to Pitch

Phoebe used an interesting scenario to explain this -  
Imagine a bar full of editors and writers – editors are needy and promiscuous, but getting a lot of offers – as a writer you’re trying to catch an editor's eye – build some trust – let them see who you are and that you're serious and dependable – it can take a long time to get noticed as you have some pretty stiff competition - it took Phoebe two years of trying before she got a freelance article published in Wanderlust even though she was an established writer.
Continuing the allegory, Phoebe advised us to start by asking the editor for a drink and not proffering a marriage proposal straight away, no matter what your long-term intentions are. In other words, start by pitching a short article, not a full-blown series.
Getting that first date is the hardest - once you've got it, make it a success, then you'll find the second date much easier to get.
Phoebe gets around 100 pitches a day and although she reads every one you're going to have to stand out from the crowd to have any chance of being successful - make sure you have a good subject line and introduction.
As for how to pitch, most magazines will have guidelines on their website. The guidelines for Wanderlust can be found on the ‘about us’ tab.
Your pitch should include:

  • Paragraph about the article/pitch
  • Intro of the article
  • A bit about you

Other tips when pitching include:
  • Photos are not usually essential, but if you have them it's better to include a link rather than clogging up the editor's email box up with attachments.
  • There are many reasons why you might not be commissioned – the magazine might already have enough articles; they might have already covered the topic or already commissioned it.
  • Magazines plan 6 months/issues ahead   – bear this in mind when pitching, especially if your article is topical
  • Newspaper features/articles are usually 700-1000 words
  • Magazine features/articles are usually 2000-2500 words
  • Multi-pitching – make it different for each pitch – if multi-pitching the same or a similar article and an editor accepts after another one already has, tell the second editor the article is no longer available



Monday, 23 March 2015

Sheffield Adventure Film Festival

Is it possible to go to a film festival and not see any films? Well, on Saturday I did just that. I spent the day in Sheffield at the Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF). The festival lasted the whole weekend, but Saturday was the only day I could be there as on Sunday I was supposed to be in a hot air balloon floating above Bakewell. It didn't happen AGAIN, but that's another story. Back to ShAFF.

ShAFF has been an annual event for a few years now and is a brilliant showcase for the (usually short) films made by (usually young male, but not necessarily short) people who are making their lives all about adventure. I was really interested to see some of these films and get myself a good dose of inspiration, but was far too distracted by all the great workshops, forums and talks that were on offer.

First up was a travel writing workshop run by Phoebe Smith, editor of Wanderlust magazine. I made lots of notes and was really pleased to hear a lot of what she said tallying with what I've found out from all the research and reading I've been doing over the past year. It's so good to know I'm on the right track!

Rushing back to the 'lecture theatre' (aka the bar area) after a quick lunch of rather tasty fennel and potato soup, I found it already filling up for the cycle touring forum. The only seats left were on the front row, right in front of the panel. As one of my personal mottoes is 'live life on the front row', this was definitely not a problem. 

Leon McCarron (young, male, not particularly short) led the panel which included another solo male cyclist and a couple of couples (half of each couple was female. YES!). The six had done very different tours and had different views on speed with Ed Shoote being the most zoomy. They each spoke a bit about their cycle tours and then answered questions from the audience. Cycle touring is on my list of things to do so it was quite interesting to hear what they had to say. Though I'm not planning on cycling round the world as Laura and Tim Moss did or even cycling 2,500 miles along the Great Divide from New Mexico to Banff in Canada as Hannah Maia did for her megamoon (a longer, more adventurous version of a honeymoon) with new husband Patrick. A week in the Netherlands might be quite enough for me. 

After a coffee and cake break, it was time a film making workshop. In the first half Paul Diffley showed techniques for interviewing people on camera and explained how to set shots up. The second part of the session focussed on sound with Chris Prescott making us aware that good sound engineering is just as much about the sounds you remove as those you leave in. This is all really useful as I've used video a lot in my teaching and at some point I do want to make a short film of my own - this being another item on my list of things of do.

The final session of the day was a series of Shed Talks. These were modelled on the slightly better known TED Talks, but as we were at ShAFF in Sheffield the moniker 'Shed' sounded more appropriate. The talks were all motivational with the most moving speaker being a climber with terminal cancer who, after diagnosis, set up the charity 'Climbers Against Cancer (CAC)'. The charity has raised thousands of pounds internationally and I felt privileged to hear founder John Ellison tell his story in his brief ten minute slot. When diagnosed he was given two years to live. That was three years and four months ago.

I thought of how much he's achieved and how important it is to never waste a second of the life we're given. With that sobering thought we repaired to the bar to sample Abbeydale Brewery's special ShAFF IPA (no, not Indian Pale Ale, but Intrepid Pale Ale of course).

ShAFF is held at the Showroom Cinemas and Workstation close to Sheffield train station. As well as films, workshops and talks, there are stalls advertising or selling adventure related products and a second-hand kit stall where you can sell your old kit and use the proceeds to buy someone else's old kit.

The website for ShAFF can be found here.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

First Feedback

Last week I wrote about how I'd finally got round to starting my Freelance and Travel Writing Course with the London School of Journalism. Yesterday I received the first feedback from my tutor. There wasn't a lot (it would have been a HUGE blow to my confidence if he'd obliterated my assignments with red pen!), but what there was, was really positive. He even said my English skills were exemplary. Exemplary! Such a nice word; sort of rolls off the tongue. Hopefully, I'll be hearing it a lot more over the coming months.

He has provided me with a list of recommended reading. I got straight onto Amazon and, as some of the books were extremely cheap, I have them winging their way to me as we speak.

I've downloaded my second lesson and have already started working on it. If I keep up this level of enthusiasm, I'll have to re-assess my previous estimate of 45 years being the amount of time I'll need to complete the course!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Writing course

About 3 years ago I signed up for a online course with the London School of Journalism. I'd been recommended the course by a friend and also noted that other writers I follow had mentioned doing courses with them. 

The course I signed up for is Freelance and Travel Writing. Each unit has a chunk of reading and then a series of writing tasks that I complete at my own pace, emailing the finished tasks to my assigned tutor when I'm ready.

The reading for lesson one is basically background on journalism: history of journalism and printing, types of journalism, types of publication. The first of the four assignment tasks was to write a personal statement including prescribed criteria and with a strict wordcount. For the second task, I had to detail the journalistic equipment and resources I have (computer, camera, books, etc) and my relevant abilities e.g. my computer skills, level of English and knowledge of other languages. Thirdly, I had to provide written advice for someone who wants to be a freelance writer, and finally I had to submit a 'character study' of a magazine of my choice and a 'pen portrait' of the type reader it is marketed to. Each of the assignments has a maximum number of words allowed. 

On several occasions over the last few years, I've sat down and attempted these tasks. I've ummed and ahhed, written a bit, scribbled it out, written it again, scribbled it out again, given up. This isn't because the tasks are difficult, but, I realise now, because my head wasn't in the right place. It was far too full of lesson planning, marking, meetings, extra-curricular activities, union work, Duke of Edinburgh Award training, finding time for family, finding time to go to the dentist or renew my car insurance. There was no room in my head for something that seemed frivolous, a mere hobby. Even though it was something I really wanted to do. Fortunately, when I enrolled for the course I ensured it was one with no deadlines as, even then, I knew I'd struggle with time constraints. I just didn't realise how much I'd struggle.

Finally, my head is clearing. I'm feeling like I'm getting to the top of the mountainous mess of my life and the view is good. I can see where I've been, where I am and where I want to go next. It was with this clear head I finally sat down to look at the assignments again and this time I could see exactly how I wanted to complete them. I had to spend a lot of time re-writing to get the wordcounts down to the required maximums and this meant corrupting some sentences I'd really like to have kept as they were, but at no point did I feel as though I was floundering. I knew I could do it. I even enjoyed doing it. 

This morning I checked the submission info, attached my work to an email and hit send. It felt good. As well as adhering to the set criteria for the tasks, I've tried to write in a way that demonstrates my writing style and is 'journalistic' rather than just a list of information. I'll know if this was the right thing to do when I get my feedback.

As there are a total of 15 units and it's taken me 3 years to complete the first one, if I continue at this pace it will take me 45 years to finish the course. By then I'll be aged, erm, er ... well, I hope I'll still be alive. 

Monday, 9 March 2015

Walk - Lyme Park

It might have been a rainy grey day, but we were in need of a blast of fresh air. Waterproofs on and hoods up, we strode out from Lyme Park car park at 1pm. The rain was supposed to stop at 2 o'clock so hopes for sunshine were high and I had my sunglasses at the ready.

The path climbed south from the car park following the Gritstone Trail. We gained height quickly as we trudged through gloopy mud and splashed through rain-formed rivulets streaming across the path.

'You'll see deer a bit further up', someone informed us as we climbed over a tall ladder stile. A bit further up, we stopped to look back and admire the view that had opened up below us. Despite the cloud and rain we could still see the estate spreading out beneath us and the built-up areas skirting it. On a clear day we'd have been able to see as far as Liverpool and probably North Wales as well.

No deer though. They must be much further up than we'd been led to believe. As we turned back to the path to continue onwards and upwards, something moved and caught my eye. That'd be the deer then. There must have been well over a hundred of them. They were close to the path and not at all bothered by us. Their coats blended into the yellowed grassy background camouflaging them perfectly. If we hadn't stopped to look at the view and had hurried on, heads down, hoods up we'd have walked right past them and not seen a single one.


The path topped out on a lane by the Bow Stones. These are thought to be the middle sections of late-Saxon crosses and may have been used as boundary markers. The only surviving cross top is in the courtyard of Lyme Park. 

We followed the lane downhill for a while. At a pond alongside the lane we stopped to chat to the very vocal white geese. Behind them, sat at the pond's edge, was a very large white goose. Presumably it's used for rides by guests staying at the hotel to which the pond belongs. We wondered what the geese made of this inanimate giant in their midst.  

Heading north now, we climbed a few stiles, plodded across fields and got dripped on by trees as we picked our way through a small wooded area. One wooded area was fenced off and a sign informed us this was an area planted with a variety of native trees for the millennium. The fences weren't to stop humans, just deer and rabbits.

Bollinhurst Bridge was closed off as it has been declared structurally unsound even for walkers. A wooden walkway has been created to the side of it, so we were still able to cross the river without having to resort to wading.

We followed Bollinhurst reservoir with views to the Cage on the far side. Originally built as a hunting tower in the 16th century, this Gothic looking building had a make-over in the 18th century, later becoming an overnight prison for poachers. This area has been a traditional hunting ground through the centuries and long ago was part of the King's hunting forest of Macclesfield. The Cage could be seen intermittently throughout our walk and was a good navigation aid. The house itself is hidden in the trees and couldn't be seen at all on our walk.

Reaching the far end of the reservoir we followed a lane back into the grounds of Lyme Park and down to the main drive. As we didn't want to walk down the tarmacked drive dodging cars, we crossed and looped through the woods on the far side instead. We walked alongside the river coming out very conveniently at the teashop. We went inside for tea and scones just as the sun was finally breaking out.

Lyme Park has been in the care of the National Trust since 1946. Prior to that it had belonged to the Legh family who had been granted the land in the Royal Forest of Macclesfield by Richard II in 1398. Over the centuries the medieval manor house was transformed into the classic stately home of today. Between Easter and October the house and formal gardens are open to the public and definitely worth a look. The house is probably best known in modern times from the BBC's 1994 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It is here that Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) was famously filmed in the lake, semi-clad and soaking wet.

Approximately 6 miles
3 hours

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ann Cleeves

Today was World Book Day. Instead of dressing up as a book character, I celebrated by attending a talk by Ann Cleeves at Bolton Library.

The library is fortunate to have lecture theatre and as we all threaded our way into the tiered seats I noticed that I seemed to be the youngest person there. That doesn't happen very often! I don't know why the audience was predominantly older people as I'm sure her books and the TV series appeal to a much wider age range than that which was represented.

Ann was relaxed and informal, inserting snippets of humour into her stories. Although she was stood at a lectern her style was more that of a friend having a chat over coffee than a professor delivering a lecture. She read an excerpt from Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series and followed this with a reading from the latest addition, Thin Air.

She started by telling us a bit about her early life; how she had dropped out of university, believing she didn't need an English degree to read books, and found a job in London. She didn't adapt well to the hectic pace of the city and found her escape when she met a man who was about to leave for Fair Isle. He was to take up the position of assistant warden at the bird observatory there and wasn't particularly enamoured by this opportunity, describing it as a bleak, windswept island in the middle of nowhere. Ann thought it sounded great. Fortunately the observatory was in desperate need of an assistant cook and so Ann travelled north to take up with the role, despite not knowing where Fair Isle was or being able to cook.

Over the next two years she got to know the island and the islanders well. Magnus, the eccentric elderly man in Raven Black, was based on one of the local characters she had shared many a dram with. It was during her time in Fair Isle that she also met her husband, a keen bird-watcher. Over the following years she had a variety of jobs culminating in her training to be a probation officer. Her varied life experiences have supplied her with material for her books.

Ann comes across as much a great storyteller in her speaking as she is in her books. She didn't have notes, just let the stories unfold, and explained this is much the same way she writes her books. She doesn't plot in advance, but rather starts with her basic idea and sees where it takes her chapter by chapter. Before she was able to write full-time, she would write for pleasure after a full day's work. Her motivation was not knowing herself what was going to happen next and being just as surprised as her readers are today as the story unfolds.

The Shetland books came about when her husband wanted to go to Shetland to see a rare bird and she took him on a crazy day-trip as a birthday treat. Crazy because most day-trips don't involve a long drive and a 14 hour ferry journey at either end of the day. As he went in search of the bird she wandered about noticing the stark contrast of black ravens against the white snow. Being a crime-writer, she mentally added blood to the scene to a create an even more powerful contrast. From this idea the first book was born; first as a short-story, then as a novel, then as a quartet and now as a longer series.

Shetland is one of the safest places I know. Ann knows this too and originally planned the book as a one-off thinking it would be too far-fetched to have so many murders in a placid archipelago of 22,000 people. As positive feedback poured in she realised that when it's a choice between credibility and a great story, reviewers and readers will usually cast doubts about likelihood to the side and go with the story. And so the book became a series.

Ann shared some of her inspirations for the other books in the series and explained how she had chatted to a former policeman in Lerwick as part of her research. She was surprised to find out that in the case of an actual murder, the serious crimes squad from Inverness would not be flown in on a specially chartered flight, but would have to take the scheduled flight along with everyone else. Even if this meant waiting 3 days for the fog to lift before they could reach the islands. Bodies needing to be shipped to Aberdeen for autopsy travel on the ferry. An anonymous looking transit van is used to protect the sensibilities of passengers who may otherwise be perturbed to know they are accompanied by a corpse.

This is only a tiny part of what Ann shared with us. She spoke for the best part of an hour and then answered questions. One topic she was particularly vocal about is her support for libraries. She has never taken part in any writing courses and, as mentioned above, didn't complete her degree. Instead, avid reading has taught her all she needs to know about writing. Libraries give people the chance to read no matter what their budget. They give people the chance to read authors and genres they might not be prepared to try if they had to pay for the book. She pointed out that the combined creative industries bring £8.8 million an HOUR to the UK economy. That's nearly £80 billion a year. I struggled to get my head round this, but it's true: the figures are there on the government's own website. The creative industries which include, not only publishing, but also film and television programme making (all of which rely on writers), provide 1.7 million jobs and make up 5% of the total economy. With these facts in mind, government cuts to libraries and the creative industries seem not just misjudged, but downright foolhardy.

Following the talk everyone moved to another room for tea, biscuits and book signings. I filled in the feedback form, still flabbergasted by the statistics and with a head buzzing with all stories Ann had told. This was a far better way to celebrate World Book Day than merely dressing up as Harry Potter or Where's Wally.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Self-publishing Conference

The full page advert in Writing magazine could hardly be missed. A conference with a choice of workshops on many different aspects of self-publishing is to be held in May. As I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with my book, the timing is perfect. I checked out the website and found lots of free resources from the last two years' conferences. No writing was done for several hours as I instead spent my time reading up on the importance of metadata (something I'd never heard of before) and how to get libraries and booksellers to stock my book. I was convinced and handed sixty quid over to secure myself a place. I'm hoping for some good networking opportunities as well as useful workshops. It's also a good incentive to get on with my book. It'll need to be finished sharpish after the conference otherwise everything I'll have learnt will be out-of-date; things really do seem to move on that quickly these days.

The conference is taking place in Leicester, a city I haven't been to before and know very little about. So I'm going to make a weekend of it, meet a friend and do some exploring.

The website for the conference is here.