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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part Four: Inspiration—Find It, Catch It, File It!

ethnic woman writing notes in notebook
Everything is Copy! Photo by Keira Burton on Pexels.com

Whenever I get to the end of a talk and ask if anybody has any questions, I can guarantee that where do you get your ideas from? will crop up. That’s easy to answer—anywhere, and everywhere. As journalist and author Nora (‘When Harry Met Sally’) Ephron’s mother told her, everything is copy.

When I worked as an office junior, my bus ride to and from central Bristol each day was a Pandora’s box of half-heard conversations, and scenes glimpsed in passing. The tricky part is turning all that raw information into something useful. To do that, you need to capture and store it in a way that can be easily traced. That last step can be the most difficult one of all.

A lot of us have to make do with daily walks instead of road and rail journeys at the moment, but everything we see and hear while we’re outside provides some great starting points. If you can’t get out, books, magazines, TV and radio can all provide inspiration. Imagine what the characters in your favourite novel were doing immediately before they appeared in the published story, or after they left it. George MacDonald Fraser did this memorably with the Flashman Series. These books gave the bully from Tom Brown’s School Days another lease of life as an anti-hero.

The Fifty Shades series began as fan fiction…Pic by Hanna Kovalchuk, via Pixabay

Don’t trap yourself within the cage of fan fiction—let your mind wander to new settings, and invent new names for your characters. All you are looking for is a launch pad for your thoughts—you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.

Browse Quora to see what ordinary people are asking the hive mind. Give one of those popular questions to your characters, and see if they can solve it. If lots of people are interested in the question, they’ll be interested in your fictional solution to it, too.

Writing competitions often give prompts, which can get your creative thoughts moving. Writing magazines are a good source of these competitions. Once you’ve been inspired by the topic and completed your entry, check the rules to see if you can submit it to other competitions while you’re waiting for the result. If there are no restrictions, you’ll have a piece of work all ready for submission to competitions such as The Bridport Prize and The Bath Short Story Award, which don’t specify a theme.

I always keep a notebook and pencil to hand. They are stashed all around the house, and even in the glove compartment of the car! That way, if inspiration strikes when I’m in bed, watching TV, or stuck in a car park waiting for somebody, I can start writing on the spot.

Moleskine Notebooks, ©Christina Hollis, 2021

I can’t walk into a stationery store without buying a new notebook. I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours but this red Moleskine is my current favourite as it was a Christmas present from my daughter. She knows I love to keep one of these in my bag to channel my inner Hemingway while I’m on the move, and all my other general Moleskine notebooks have been black. They aren’t too easy to find in my huge, black-lined mathom-hole of a bag, but this one is very easy to spot!

The open notebook in the photo is the one I use for non-fiction projects. It’s divided up in a similar way to the Cornell note-taking system, and turned out to be perfect for my university work. There’s space at the top for an overview of the subject, margins for headings and then space for notes. Unlike my many Pukka Pads, the pages of this particular Moleskine are numbered, so I can fill in the index at the front easily (if I remember!).

You can use your phone to make recordings of your ideas as they happen, or use a dictaphone. I’ve tried both, as well as Dragon Dictate for transposing my thoughts directly onto the computer, but I gave up on all those methods quite quickly. I much prefer the process of writing on paper, with a pencil.

Make sure you get permission before taking photos—this is by Hai Nguyen Tien, via Pixabay.

The advantage when you make notes on your phone is that you can snap a quick photo at the same time. That will act as a visual reminder of the geography of a setting, the texture of fabrics, or a particular colour scheme.

If you take photos of people, get their permission first. According to Avon and Somerset Police there’s no law in the UK against taking photos in a public place—even photos of other people’s children, strange though it may seem—but many people don’t like it. Respect their feelings.

Get the landowner’s permission before taking photos. Photographing people anywhere they might reasonably expect to be private, such as inside their house or garden, is very likely to breach privacy laws.

This one is filed as Snowdrops_Home_01022015 ©Christina Hollis, 2021.

Make sure you give each of your pictures a unique, meaningful title when you upload them. That will make it easy to find them again. I have a main folder on my computer for Photos. This is subdivided according to general subject such as food, plants, animals, birds. Each subject is then further divided into cake, flowers, poultry, Alex, for example.

Each photo then gets a unique identifier, so the latest one I took for Instant Lift has been given the name Catkins_Home_12012021. This means I can search for it according to subject, location, or date. If I’m short on inspiration or I’ve been commissioned to write something on a particular subject, I can then go to the top level folders and browse all the content for ideas.

I use a similar system for each writing project I begin. Everything from initial ideas to character descriptions and timelines are stored in a single folder with an obvious title, such as Thriller. I then add the date I started it, so it becomes Thriller_Jan 2021. Within that main folder, the individual documents are called Characters_Thriller_Jan 2021, and so on. That way I can find things easily, and I know how long a project takes from beginning to end.

Next time I’ll be exploring some of the ways writing can help your family, your mind, and even your bank balance. Sign up below to follow my blog, so you can read it the minute it’s published!

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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part Three: Finding Your Audience

Finding your audience and giving them what they want to read is a big part of becoming an author.

The most important member of your writing audience is you. Never forget that, because if you’ve enjoyed creating a piece and you’re happy with the result then you’ll have satisfied 100% of your audience. Your enthusiasm will shine through your work, too. As the old saying goes, if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life—but if you want to get published, you’ll need to keep a wider target audience in mind.

I took some of the photos for my latest book, too. Find out more at https://amzn.to/2JK7g3U

Some authors create detailed profiles of their ideal reader, right down to their likely politics. Others write for themselves, then submit their work to publishers of the things they read for pleasure. That’s how I began my professional writing career. The first article I sold was to The Garden magazine, which is the monthly journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. I’d already been a member for long enough to absorb their house style, and had a detailed knowledge of the kind of article—its subject matter, length, and approach, for example—they would be likely to accept.

When I was making my living by writing articles for magazines, it helped that I could supply my own photographs. I could offer a complete package, the publication’s production team didn’t have to worry about sourcing illustrations and I was paid for each picture. That meant everyone was happy!

There aren’t as many opportunities to sell short stories to magazines as there used to be, but those which accept submissions offer detailed guidelines so make sure you follow them. You would be amazed how many people miss out this vital step. Do your research by reading plenty of back copies to get a taste of what the editor is looking for. Don’t send a story about a serial killer to The People’s Friend, for example.

Pic by K Concha, via Pixabay

Visit any publication’s webpage and you’ll find a link to their guidelines for submission. It’s usually right at the bottom of the page, close to “contact us”. Study them, and you’ll be able to make sure your work won’t be rejected because it’s unsuitable.

When it comes to non-fiction, there are more opportunities to see your name in print. Letters to the editor, or short, accurate articles written from personal experience make useful fillers for magazines and newspapers. This is where my memories of how things were done before the Internet Age will find a home. Again, study the publications which might accept your work for several weeks before submitting.

Editors love to see something similar to, but different from, the things they already publish. They’re looking for new angles and new voices on topics that are already popular with their readers, so give them what they want. Whatever you write, make sure it has a snappy title. Why did King George V Say ‘Bu**er Bognor’? is more likely to get a second glance than What I Did On My Holiday in West Sussex (I’ll leave you to argue what His Majesty did or didn’t say on his deathbed!).

If you want to write novellas, full-length novels, or non-fiction books, luck and fashion are almost as important as literary brilliance. You can improve your chance of acceptance by finding out exactly what type of book literary agents and publishers are looking for by studying a reference book such as the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2021.

If you haven’t found your writing tribe yet, you’ll find the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook invaluable. It’s packed full of information, with details of writing competitions, magazines, newspapers, literary agents, and publishers but make sure you use an up-to-date copy as contact details within the publishing industry change frequently.

Once you’ve made sure you aren’t sending your novel to a professional who doesn’t accept fiction, or your autobiography to a firm that only deals with poetry, whether your work is accepted doesn’t only depend on how well-written it is. An editor might enjoy your work without feeling the surge of endless enthusiasm needed to see your project through the months of editing and promotion needed to produce, and then sell, it.

Competition is so great for the limited number of publishing slots available, my advice is to write the book of your heart—a project that you would work on for free. Throw all your enthusiasm into it and that will show in the quality of your writing. If you are completely committed to your project, your conviction will see you through the submission process until you are successful, no matter how long it takes.

I’ll be covering book submissions in more detail in future parts of Writing for Pleasure, Profit and Posterity, so make sure you subscribe to my blog using the form below. That way, you won’t miss a thing!

Writing competitions give you an important incentive to get a piece written and polished before the closing date. Use an easily readable font and type-size—Times New Roman, 12-point is a good one if the competition doesn’t have a specific requirement.

white printer paper on macbook pro
Follow the rules!
Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Make sure you study the rules. You don’t want to be disqualified because your work is too long, or you’ve missed the closing date. When I became a mature student at the University of Gloucestershire, my daughter (an alumna of the University of Reading) gave me a handy tip regarding assignment deadlines which works well for writing competitions, too. Put a note on your phone or calendar for a week BEFORE the closing date. Finish your piece by then and you’ll still have a whole seven days to refine it, instead of cramming all your checks and edits into the last frantic hours before the deadline. During my recent university career I had reason to thank my daughter lots of times for that suggestion!

Comb through the small print before submitting anything to make sure that by entering, you aren’t signing away your rights to send the same piece to other competitions.

In Part Two of this series, I suggested that you should find a writing community to support you. Whether you belong to one of the big writing associations or a smaller local one, they will be able to give you lots of information about which publications are buying work, and news of competitions.

There are also lots of Facebook groups which can help. Just key “writing groups” into the search box. As with all online content it pays to be cautious, so make sure you’re a good fit with other members. There are always some people who like to take charge and they can be intimidating when you’re just starting out. Whether you join a virtual writing group or a real one, don’t be afraid to leave if you’re not finding the help and support you need.

Part Four will cover where to find inspiration for your writing, and how to capture it. To read the next episode of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity as soon as it’s published, subscribe to my blog using the form below.

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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part Two: Finding Your Writing Community

Writers are always being asked the question where do you get your ideas? The simple answer to that is anywhere and everywhere, but that’s not much to go on when you’re starting out as a writer.

Later in Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity I’ll be looking at capturing inspiration and the best way to organise your notes, but today I want to focus on the importance of finding your writing community. That’s your support group of cheerleaders, mentors, and others you’ll need in your quest to become a writer. They’ll help you formulate your ideas, brainstorm your projects, and provide you with inspiration.

Don’t worry if you don’t know any writers yet. I didn’t know anybody when I started out, but once I made the commitment to become a full-time writer, I was soon getting advice from all quarters. The writing community is supportive of newbies, and is keen to pass on the tips and wrinkles they’ve learned over the years.

You need people who will support you, but won’t be shy about offering constructive criticism when needed. While it’s lovely to have the backing of your immediate family (my career as a successful writer relies on tons of support from my husband and our children, for which I’m very grateful) don’t be tempted to show them your first efforts. If your family is like my tribe, they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Should your relations be less than supportive of your dreams, you might not like what they have to say.

The obvious first place to start is with a writing professional, such as the tutor of a good local (or online) creative writing course. You should expect to pay for their advice by enrolling, which is how I found my first writing mentor, the award-winning poet Paul Groves. Paul was running classes in creative writing at a local college. We became friends after I joined the course, and he has been giving me advice and support ever since.

In a future edition of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity I’ll be covering courses in detail and how to choose a good one, so make sure you subscribe by putting your email address in the box below. Don’t worry, I won’t ever pass on your details, or send out spam.

Courses and workshops are vital to help you improve your writing, and they are a great source of inspiration. Students can bounce ideas off each other, and a good tutor will provide details of opportunities for writers such as competitions. Most writing competitions specify a theme. Like mortal danger, the idea of finishing a piece before the closing date is a great cure for writers’ block!

If you are serious about becoming a professional author, the Society of Authors offers loads of benefits such as workshops, training, and a contract vetting service. They also have an extensive branch network with lots of social events in non-Covid times, and plenty of online meet-ups during lockdowns.

If you already know what you want to write, it’s worth joining a specialist association. I belong to the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The RNA and its members have helped me every step of the way. I was a published author before I discovered them, and wish I’d known about their New Writers’ Scheme when I was first starting out. It gives unpublished writers the chance to have their work critiqued by professionals (including me), and each year the RNA presents the Joan Hessayon Award to the best debut novel. In 2020, this was won by Melissa Oliver’s historical novel, The Rebel Heiress and the Knight.

As well as writing “Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol”, I took some of the photos which illustrate the book. This is the oldest pub in the city, which predates the more famous “Llandoger Trow” by nearly sixty years.

It was through my links with the Romantic Novelists’ Association that I came to write my first non-fiction book, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol. You can find out more about Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol here. Pen and Sword Books were planning a series about women’s lives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in major towns and cities around the United Kingdom. They had authors for all of the intended books except for Plymouth, Bristol, and Bath. The news was posted on the RNA site, and as I was born only a few miles from Bristol, I submitted a proposal for the book and won the contract.

Writing Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol introduced me to the delights of researching in an archive. I had never done anything like that before, but the staff at the Bristol Archives and the Bristol and Avon Family History Society were all so helpful, I really felt part of their community while I was working there.

There’ll be more about research for writers, and how to write proposals in future editions of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, so subscribe to my blog by using the form below to make sure you don’t miss anything!

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Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity

Part One: Why Write?

Writing for pleasure is cheap and satisfying. Anybody can do it once they’ve learned to form letters into words, and it can be turned to all sorts of uses from novel writing to memoir. That makes it the perfect hobby—but writing can do much more than that.

There have been times in my life when I’ve really had to struggle to get out of bed—when I was suffering from postnatal depression, physical health problems such as arthritis or migraine, or even when there was something as simple as a maths test on my horizon.

During every kind of crisis in my life, writing—along with the right kind of professional help—comes to my rescue. Capturing my thoughts gives me something outside of myself to focus on. Once I can see the problem in words, I can focus on it and find a solution.

Keeping a journal help you to put your thoughts in order

During lockdown, we’ve all been forced into our own company, possibly for the first time in our lives. It feels strange to be cut loose from the daily routine of commuting, the school run, office politics, and having a good old gossip with friends.

Working from home surrounded only by our closest family (if we’re lucky enough to have them) feels strange at first. It takes some getting used to but it’s actually closer to how people are supposed to live, rather than the nine-to-five grind which gives us so little time to see our partners or children.

Here are Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden. They can’t say they weren’t warned…(Pic by Falco, via Pixabay)

Think back to creation stories. Adam and Eve, Lucy, the little group from Laetoli and Australia’s people of the Dreamtime didn’t have tick-boxes, timetables, or clocks. Life was hard for them and let’s face it, often horrible as they discovered which foods were good to eat, which would get them thrown out of Paradise, which animals to chase, and which animals were likely to chase them.

What all those early people did have was each other, open spaces, and stories. Lockdown has made us realise how much we rely on interacting with our friends and family. Lack of space indoors means this can’t always be on our own terms. That’s why it’s such a relief when we can get outside for a change of scene, and take some exercise.

Stories around the fire!

The human race needs the company of its own kind, and to feel fresh air and sunlight on its skin. If those needs can’t be satisfied, the next best thing is to read about someone else experiencing them. That’s why people will always want stories.

If you can satisfy their desire to escape from their own life for a little while by reading about someone else’s experiences, whether fictional or real, then your writing will also be profitable. You’ll have satisfied your creative instinct, and made your readers happy. You may even make some money.

Writing is a great way for everyone on the planet to make their voices heard. You can learn to formulate your arguments into a protest piece, or an email to your member of parliament or other political representative. Writing will also preserve your unique voice for posterity. Life has changed enormously over the past few years. It’s hard to remember how we survived before sat navs, iPhones, and Airbnb for example, so write down your memories. Future generations will love them!

Can you remember what this is? Answers on a postcard…if you know what a postcard is!

Memoirs by people such as Winifred Foley and Laurie Lee give us glimpses of a life before the Internet Age. Future generations will be fascinated to read about the early years of the twenty-first century, so why not make a start now, by capturing all the strange things we used to do such as smoking in public, or buying paper copies of maps?

Without a doubt, the best thing that’s happened to me over the past few years is going from school dropout to university student. I got the chance to meet all sorts of people, and do things I’d never dreamed of doing—such as becoming managing director of a project to create Heritage, an anthology of new writing.

What’s your favourite pre-lockdown memory?

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Goodbye, 2020 — Welcome 2021!

Goodbye, 2020, you won’t be missed. The past twelve months have been so bad for everyone, I’ve decided to do what I can to stop the rot. Voltaire is supposed to have said that although life’s a shipwreck, we can at least sing in the lifeboats—so I want to get as many people on board my lifeboat as possible, to try and raise everyone’s spirits

Never give up hope. The winter days are short and gloomy here in the UK right now, but we’ve got nine minutes more daylight today than we had on 21st December because the sun is setting a little bit later each day (check here if you don’t believe me!). And while the pandemic is raging everywhere, the fight back against Covid is gathering speed.

In the Victorian language of flowers, snowdrops mean “Hope”. I’ve planted lots here at Tottering Towers!

Back in the 1990s, I was right at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Our house was mortgaged, interest rates were above 10%, my husband’s job was in danger, and I was living in the deep shadow of postnatal depression. The day I realised we had less than £2 to spend on food for the week, it was the exact opposite of all my Christmases coming at once.

We survived, but it wasn’t easy—so this year my blog will be dedicated to sharing the tips and wrinkles that have helped me through disaster, debt and depression. The world turns right round in twenty-four hours, and sunrise always follows sunset. Good times are bound to be around the corner—a lucky break, a chance encounter, a medical breakthrough—so hang on, and have faith in yourself. You can do it, because you are stronger than you know.

My blog focuses on writing, gardening, and cooking, as these are the things that have helped me through bad times and given me ways to celebrate good times.

Next week I’m starting a new series here. It’s called Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, so make sure you catch Part One by popping your email address in the “Subscribe” box below!