The Power Of Accountability: Why I Need A Regular Date With My Writer Friends

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Over ten years ago, I reluctantly went along to a writing group meeting, persuaded by my partner and not planning to go more than once. But that writing group was the reason I ever managed to finish my novel, and now they’re a solid group of friends who continue to make me a better writer. We all lived in London at that time, and used to meet fortnightly. Now that all but one of us has moved away, it’s been difficult to figure out how we can continue to benefit from writing meet-ups, but, thanks to the power of technology, we’re slowly falling into a pattern of monthly video meetings. Having those regular sessions is the reason I need to make sure my own personal projects still get time devoted to them.

The power of having another person – or group of people – know your goals is an incredible motivator. Being accountable for the things that no one’s making me do, that no one’s paying me to do, is exactly what I need to feel I can carve out the time for my own projects. In the case of The Family Tree, it’s being part of a team and having a listenership; in the case of my flash fiction collection, it’s having my writing group there to remind me that there’s a thing I’m supposed to be doing and that I’m doing it because I want to.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, and for me at the moment, it can be difficult to prioritise personal projects while I’m trying to kick-start a new career. Having my writing friends to hold me accountable is going to be an essential part of the process, and I’m endlessly thankful for that first evening that I never wanted to attend all those years ago.

Celebrating The Tiniest Of Stories

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Yesterday was National Flash Fiction Day, established to celebrate and showcase the shortest of stories. I’m a very big fan of flash fiction: I love the power of a small amount of words to tell a big story. Flash is challenging to write and immensely satisfying to read, but it’s often overlooked as a genre.

Each year, the organisers of NFFD host ‘Flash Flood’, posting a flood of short fiction on their site throughout the whole day; this year’s theme was ‘epiphany’. The flood showcases work from a huge range of writers whose work might otherwise not be seen, which is, I think, a wonderful way of celebrating the form, and leaves a wealth of stories online for readers.

Writers across the country organise regional events for the day, and the organisers publish an anthology. This year’s anthology is And We Pass Through, and is edited by Santino Prinzi and Joanna Campbell. I’m delighted that my own story, Beacons of the Bay, is included, and I’m in the company of some flash writers I admire enormously, including Vanessa Gebbie, Sarah Salway and Joanna Campbell – but these writers are just a small sample of the brilliant writers included, and readers have a lot to look forward to in this book.

I’m a day late in my celebrations, but just as people are important even when it isn’t their birthday, flash is there to be appreciated every day of the year. And if you order the anthology, you can indulge in it whenever you’d like… so I say, do that!

Hands Full Of Snow: A Learning Journey

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I pride myself on my ability to adapt in order to deliver exactly what a client wants, and I enjoy it when this forces me into learning a new skill. So when I was asked to research Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for a project this week, I was excited. I listened to an interview with him, read about the method, and began applying it to the project. The job is still a work in progress, so I can’t claim to have trialled The Snowflake Method in full yet, but I am very hopeful that it’s going to be a game-changer for me when it comes to my own fiction projects.

My brain is a bit like pick-up-sticks: lots of solid, brightly coloured thoughts that get tangled up and can’t be moved without disturbing the others. It means I can easily lose track of ideas and forget how I intend them to relate to each other. The Snowflake Method is essentially about building the story out from a small centre – just as you can draw a snowflake by pulling points out from the lines of two overlapping triangles. It keeps everything organised and under-control, and you can’t lose sight of the essence of the story because it’s right there at the heart of it.

The way I wrote my first novel was scatter-brained. It’s true that it resulted in a story that I’m pretty proud of, but it took a very long time and a lot of frustration to get it there. I’m hopeful that using the principles of The Snowflake Method, at least to get a fiction project off the ground, might be really useful to me when I come to write my next novel.

When I worked in primary schools, I was more passionate about teaching the children how to learn than I was about what to learn, and this is exactly why: being willing, eager and able to learn opens so many doors and paths throughout life. Each project I’ve taken on since I started my freelance journey has been a learning opportunity, and each new skill feeds into the next project. I’m excited to find out what will come next.

Attacked After Hours: The Curse Of The Smart Phone

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Smartphones make freelancing easier. They also make it very much more stressful. Apparently nearly half the freelance workforce relies on their personal phone for business use, which must make drawing the line between life and work tricky for many of us.

With all the best intentions to ignore everything once I’ve shut my computer down for the night, I still can’t seem to stop myself glancing at emails in the evening. I’ve been advised to remove Slack from my phone so that I’m not plagued by work demands in my free time. This is excellent advice, but I haven’t done it yet: much as I hate it, it can actually be really useful, if I’m out and about, to see what I need to deal with when I get home. But that pesky ‘ding’ after hours is like an itch demanding to be scratched. I can actually almost feel it physically, the little red icon of a notification taunting me every time I look at my phone. It’s not even that I feel I should be working when I see it – it’s more that I want to know what it is and why it’s creating an unsolicited to-do list for me.

Being able to see emails and messages when I’m watching a film or climbing a hill is not useful to me. It doesn’t make me more productive; it doesn’t change my working habits. So why can’t I stop myself from looking? Why can’t I bring myself to get rid of the Slack app and leave it on my desktop for office hours?

The smartphone is, in many ways, a great asset to the freelancer, but it’s also a curse. And, just as giving in to the urge to scratch an itch is nearly always a bad idea, giving in to the demands of the phone rarely leads to anything that you couldn’t have done better if you’d left it until the morning.

Taking Time To Power Up

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Just as I know that getting more sleep would be good for me and somehow still don’t prioritise it, I know I should read more. You get out what you put in, be that to your mind, your body or your piggy bank. Wide reading is the fuel for good writing, and I know how important it is to do it; to constantly be learning and growing and fuelling the desire to write. But, just like going to bed earlier, it falls down the priority list easily. It feels like an indulgence; a treat; something to do to relax rather than a crucial component of developing as a writer. Finding work; doing work; staying on top of admin: that all feels more important, and somehow reading, for me, has slipped to become a weekend morning treat.

I love reading. The world is full of books that I want to read, and the rational part of my mind knows that reading them is good for me, both personally and professionally. I also know that sleeping more would make me a healthier and more productive person, yet still I don’t go to bed early enough. So how do we find the balance? How do we allow ourselves to accept that sometimes down time is part of on-it time? While the responsibility is ultimately on me, I can’t help but think it’s a cultural problem, part and parcel of trying to survive under capitalism. So urgent is the need to earn, and so engrained is the idea that we need to work all the time, that unpicking the stitches is difficult. Studies suggest that a shorter working day would lead to more productivity for businesses, allowing workers to be properly rested and fully engaged during the hours they’re on the job. I’m a big believer in working less and living more, and I know how important it is to fuel the fire. But still…

With reading, the short-term answer for me might be audiobooks. I’ve only tried a free one so far; I haven’t yet committed to a subscription. But listening to an audiobook in transition between one place and another seems like it might be the best solution for me, at least until I can find a better balance within the waking hours I have available. It’s a plaster on a wound that needs to heal properly, but sometimes dressing the wound is the best you can do in the moment.

As for sleep, that’s still a work in a progress.

Battling The Inbox

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I have an inbox full of newsletters. Sometimes I do a bit of a clear-out, but there are a few that remain relevant, a few that I can’t justify unsubscribing from. So they sit there, and they build up. And occasionally, over lunch perhaps, I go through and find out how many deadlines I’ve missed.

The newsletters I keep are ones that link me to relevant, writing-related blogs and articles; they’re ones that list competitions; they’re ones that provide writers with advice; and they’re ones that list job opportunities. I also have a Mslexia subscription that arrives every few months and sits on my desk begging me to read it. I want to read all these things. They’re useful, and when I manage to do them in time, I nearly always find useful opportunities and tips. But how do you schedule these things in? They might lead to things that will generate an income, but they might not, and investing the time to read through them all and then follow up on things that need action can take a lot of time away from the working day. And I’ll be dammed if I’m going to read newsletters in the evening when I could be curled up on the sofa watching The Good Fight.

The answer, I think, is to carve out a chunk of time each day to go through the most pressing material: the job opportunities. Competitions can be done maybe once a week, or once every couple of weeks. But reading other writers’ blogs and news is something I’ve yet to figure out. I think what I’d like to do is set aside a half day once a week for general industry research; reading those things would slot into that time. But keeping a well-managed inbox is a challenge for most people, I think, and newsletters, while useful, are amongst the trickiest to keep on top of.

The Injustice Of The Pay-Per-Word Model

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Writers’ fees vary hugely, and the debate about how much writing is worth continues to be a hot topic with no easy answer. I set my fees based on the work a job requires, and I’m always open to discussion and negotiation with my clients, but I’m at the beginning of my career, and as such sometimes have to accept work that doesn’t pay me fairly. At the top of my list of grievances as a freelance writer is the pay-per-word model.

Pay-per-word as a concept makes me angry. I’ve done it, and I’ll continue to do it while I have to, but it makes me cross how much it devalues the art of writing. You’d never pay an artist for the number of brush strokes they used in a painting: the idea would be ridiculous. The brushstrokes are the components of something much greater, the creation of which has taken time, planning and creative energy.

Writing an article – which is the sort of piece you normally find paid for by word – takes research, planning, crafting and editing. 800 words are not quickly chosen at random and flung onto the page; they are not berries weighed in a punnet after picking. If it were that easy, then anyone could pick the 800 words – you needn’t pay a writer at all if you don’t believe any craft is required. And if you do believe that craft is required, then you should be prepared to pay for it. 800 random words can be written in maybe 15 minutes. 800 carefully chosen, well-researched words, tailored for a specific audience and purpose, and then edited and reworked for impact, cohesion and clarity might take several hours. It is not the same thing, and it makes me really angry how little writers are expected to work for under the pay-per-word model.

We don’t pay for cakes by the number of ingredients in them: we accept that talent and skill has gone into creating a whole item. The idea that a piece of writing should be any different is baffling to me, and it devalues the work that has gone into it, resulting in unfair pay and writers working for far less than they are worth.

Beyond Creative: The Physicality of Writing

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Prose is architecture, not interior decoration – Ernest Hemmingway

Above all else, what I really want to write is fiction. But part of the decision – which recognised immediately that fiction wouldn’t be the bulk of my work – to make the transition to writing full time, was my realisation that what I love about writing goes beyond the creative. I love to create. I love to craft words and weave stories. But I also love the mechanics of writing: the tapping of keys; the rearranging of words; the structuring of an efficient sentence. Admittedly without the endorphins, there’s something about the physical act of writing that satisfies the same physical urge to do as walking or running does. The satisfaction of filling a page with words and having to show, at the end of it, a job well done scratches an itch I wasn’t able to attend to in all my years in education. Certainly that comes with a huge loss – human contact, for example, and the warm glow of knowing that you’ve had a positive impact on a young life – but there’s a satisfaction in completing a writing job that I appreciate beyond creative fulfilment.

The bulk of my work is done digitally. It’s practical, it’s quicker, and it’s immediate. But I do still write by hand, particularly when I’m drafting fiction, a process I find both meditative and creative. I make more mistakes this way, but never is it intended to be the final product, and I often find it sparks something that could not have been sparked at the computer. Indeed, if I’m stuck on something, I often take myself away from the laptop for a while and scrawl out some notes with a pen to get the juices flowing.

I have to take conscious steps to be physically present in the world now that I spend my working day at my computer, but there’s no doubt to me that, in a small way, writing is a physical, albeit low energy, pursuit.

The Daily Jigsaw

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One of the first challenges I faced as a freelancer was how to structure my day. I’ve spent all of my working life, in one way or another, tied to primary school life: there have been clear start and end times, and there’s never been any flexibility. If I wanted to go for a run, I’d do it before work. If I wanted to go swimming or shopping, or pop to the bank, I’d do it after work. Now I don’t have to do that: any of those things can happen in the middle of the day, if I like. And I do like. I love an empty swimming pool or a quiet towpath, and so I’ve been structuring my day, by and large, in two shifts: I work in the morning; I have a long break in the middle of the day; and then I work again until about 7pm. It’s one of my favourite things about my new life, and if I have to go back to normal work day structure, I’ll really miss it.

I actually thought that the tricky thing about structuring my own work day would be making myself do the work. The reality is, I’m too anxious not to have a strong work ethic, and so I have no trouble with this at all… my problem is not working. I’m pretty good at making sure I have one day off a week (usually!) but rarely do I feel like I can justify more than this. Balance is something I have to strive for going forwards. It’s tricky here at the beginning of the journey though: while I’m still trying to build up work and earn enough to get by in the process, I feel that I should be working all the time. Even my big break in the middle of the day feels over-indulgent sometimes, even though I know I’m clocking enough hours throughout the day.

The other element I struggle with is balancing projects. It’s quite helpful that I have a set editing commitment Monday to Thursday, and this is a job that requires a defined amount of time. But other projects, I struggle to timetable efficiently. How much time a day should I give this project? Would it be better to spend two solid days on that one? Am I spending too much time on this job? When I was at school, if a thing didn’t get done within the working day, it would simply have to be picked up again the next day. This doesn’t always work out in my new life: now, if something doesn’t get finished in the time I put aside for it, it’s on me, and it has an impact on other projects. Luckily, my work ethic means that it’s only me that suffers when I get it wrong. I will always deliver on time. I just might miss out on an evening or have to work solidly all weekend to achieve it. I hope this is something I’ll get better at going forwards.

Apart from when it doesn’t work and I have to abandon all my plans to hit a deadline, I strive for this by implementing certain rules for myself: I have to stop by 7pm; I have to go out in the world every day; I have to exercise every day: these are the ways I protect my physical and mental health and aim to draw the line between work and life. But it doesn’t work if I haven’t balanced the projects well. Hopefully, as I move forwards, I’ll begin to get a better feel for how long a job will take me and how best to fit the pieces of the day together to complete the puzzle. But for now, this is a work in progress, and one of the biggest challenges I face as I begin my freelance journey.

Beginning at the Beginning

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It has been almost five months since I officially became a freelance writer. I say ‘officially’… I actually just accepted that this is what I’m doing, and pulled myself out of the blind panic that comes with jumping off a cliff. In September last year, I sat down at my desk and thought, Right. I’m doing this.

I have been working in education for over 15 years, writing constantly on the side. I loved working in education, and I learnt so many skills that seep into my work as a writer, but it’s time for me to try something new. It’s time for me to focus on the work I love the most: writing. I reached out to other freelance writers I know, asking for advice on how to get started. I signed up to online writing communities and newsletters, and I started listening to Hot Copy Podcast at every opportunity (a great resource for working writers). In fact, it was on the advice of Kate Toon and Belinda Weaver, who I’ve come to think of as my virtual mentors (despite the fact that neither of them know they’re mentoring me) that I decided to start a blog to track my journey.

I’d kept a blog for years, which remained, until very recently, neglected on my website. It was more of a journal than anything else, and lacked the focus I want to demonstrate. I’m hesitant to start a brand new blog at the same time as looking for work and completing projects, especially when it will show clients how close I am to the start of my journey. But every great journey starts somewhere.

I know I can write.

 I need other people to know I can write.

 I want other people to know I can write for them.

My blog is a tool – I am a highly experienced writer (just not highly experienced at making a living from it) and I need to show that. I believe in honesty and openness, and so, it is with slight trepidation that I launch Track Changes, in which I aim to share my insights, experiences and resources as I begin this terrifying journey into self-employment.

Welcome to Track Changes.