How to win work as a writer: be brave and send a cheeky letter!

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Last May I was lucky enough to be involved in ‘For and Against: Art, Politics and the Pamphlet’, a multi-media arts project staged by Loughborough University’s Radar Arts.

I say lucky, but in truth it happened because I did that thing creatives often find hard to do: I opened my mouth and asked if I could join in.  In other words, I emailed the project’s producer and let her know that I was available, have relevant knowledge and skills, and was keen to do something for the project.

Self-doubt is no stranger to the writer: we already live with that mocking voice asking why we’d think anyone wants to hear our stories.  If you add to that a reluctance to push ourselves ahead of others – to queue jump, in effect – and to ask for something that we want, then we’re stuffed.

But several years as a freelance have shown me that simply having a good set of skills and being in the market place isn’t enough to get you picked for things. Sometimes there’s no turn-taking.  Sometimes when you spot an opportunity, you’ve got to be brave and just go for it before somebody else thinks to do it instead.  To send off what Creative Coach Pete Mosley calls a ‘cheeky letter’ and suggest yourself for a piece of work.

What’s the worse that can happen?  They might say no – and your ego will be bruised for a bit (and, for a while at least, you’ll probably hate every artist who does get taken on for the project!)  Even then, they may well remember you for next time, when your skills and experience are a better fit for what they need someone to do.

But they might also say ‘wow, that’s a fab idea – let’s talk!’ and you’ll be one step closer to running that workshop, or book reading, or the contract with the new agent.

It’s then that luck comes into it – luck that they’re running workshops at all, that they haven’t already got someone who can do what you do, that your style and experience fits with what they’re looking for.

That’s what happened to me.  I was lucky, but I wouldn’t have achieved that luck – and the freelance fee – if I hadn’t first been brave and let LU Arts know that I was out there.

And that means that I wouldn’t have run the writing workshop at Charnwood Museum which introduced me to new members of the local writing community nor heard the fantastic things that they wrote.

I wouldn’t have read my children’s story to an appreciate audience in Queen’s Park (thus achieving my New Years’ Resolution 7 months early!)

I wouldn’t have flagged my ‘writer’ status to 45 pupils at a local primary school nor worked with artist Chiara Dellerba on the workshops we delivered there.

Nor known what a positive impact it had on the children to see their work published, nor been as proud as punch to view it on display at the end-of-project exhibition on campus.

I very nearly didn’t hit ‘send’ on my email to LU Arts because it felt a bit ‘spammy’ sending it.  But I’m so glad that I did.  Because they clearly didn’t mind and the project ended up being a wonderful opportunity for me – to my standing as a writer in the community and for my creative output, too.

What ‘cheeky letter’ could you send to move yourself forward with what you want to do?

For and against

 

 

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I love the ORM!

Yes, I definitely do!  And we need more people to love Loughborough’s Old Rectory Museum, too, so it can be preserved and made use of for generations to come!


Acts of Remembrance: National Memorial Arboretum visit

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I spent the day at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire yesterday with the guys from of Coalville’s Hero Project.

The site is a twenty-year-old, 150-acre ‘centre of remembrance’, much of it planted with nicely maturing trees which extend the wildlife corridor of the National Forest surrounding it.

There are lots and lots of memorials there, too, designed and paid for by the many groups who applied to have their comrades, workmates, friends and townsfolk commemorated forever on the site.  Including those who served in the Armed Forces.

Coalville Hero’s are currently working on a project – the Famous Fifty Exhibition – to honour the memory of the Coalville men who served in World War I.  The trip to the Arboretum was to find out more about their experiences and about post-conflict acts of remembrance in general.

I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t think I’d enjoy the place much.  I’d imagined it would be aggressively patriotic, applauding the sacrifice of dying for your country instead of highlighting the sadness of such needless loss.  That sadness was over-whelming at times, it’s true – there’s nothing like seeing rows and rows of trees and knowing that each represents one lost life (or, in the case of the wooden stakes of the Shot at Dawn memorial, one life that never reached its full potential).

But the whole thing was dealt with very tastefully and I came away with an understanding of the place as somewhere for the grieving to focus their grief, to share it with others who have experienced loss as they have, and to ease the pain a little. For many, it seems, parking the weight of it there lightens the burden they must carry elsewhere in their day-to-day lives.

There’s something life affirming about trees, too, isn’t there?  They’re a fantastic metaphor of the cyclical nature of life.  Leaves fall, but spring brings new growth.  Seeing the trees of the Arboretum in autumn, with their leaves turning to such beautiful colours, was very special.

I’m very grateful that Coalville Hero’s invited me to go along for the visit, and very honoured to be involved in their wonderful remembrance project.

Victory over Blindness

A sculpture representing the 2 million British servicemen who became permanently disabled during World War 1.

Poppy display

Visitors are encouraged to add poppies to this memorial.

Signpost to WW1 memorials

'Gas, boys, gas!'

A re-enactor demonstrates the 9 seconds a ‘Tommy’ would have had to put on his gas mask. The air breathed in was made ‘safe’ by passing through an asbestos filter in the bag.

Sleeping quarters in the trenches - if you were lucky!The Funk HoleA trench sign

Memorial to the Bevin Boys

A memorial to the Bevin Boys, who helped the war effort by mining coal back home in the UK.

Memorial to the Bevin Boys (2)Memorial to the Women's Land Army


For & Against: the Art of the Pamphlet exhibition

It was fantastic to be invited to the opening of the ‘For and Against: Art, Politics and the Pamphlet’ exhibition staged by Loughborough University’s Radar Arts.

Thrilling, too, to see that so many of the exhibits grew out of my involvement with the project: creative pieces from the writing workshop I ran for adults, art work produced by local primary school children at workshops led by myself and artist Chiara Dellerba, and also the pamphlet that artwork was reproduced in, displayed alongside genuine political pamphlets from the project’s exhibition at Charnwood Museum.

It was good to see the pieces validated alongside the work of the other creative artists involved in the project.

 


On author platforms and how to set them up

I attended a couple of really useful professional development workshops given by Leicester Writers’ Club this spring.

The regular masterclasses the club stage for its members are one of the many fantastic things about being a Leicester Writer.  A core group of experienced, well-published authors, many of whom also lecture on creative writing courses at nearby universities, regularly share what they know with the rest of us for little more than the price of a packed lunch from Tesco’s.  The quality of knowledge and skills picked up over each day-long course are akin to sticking on a pair of seven league boots and taking a huge leap forward on your personal writer’s journey.  Priceless.

The professional development sessions focused on marketing ourselves as writers rather than on writing craft itself.  Over the two workshops, long-term members Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan got us to evaluate what we were already doing then led us through good practice in networking, blogging, using social media and reviewing other people’s work.  It was eye-opening stuff and I came away with a strengthened belief in myself as a ‘writer’ and a determination to sort out my shop window.  Which is useful, because it’s in something of a mess.

How to properly brand ‘Alison the Writer’ has puzzled me since first being advised to create a blog by our tutor on the Creative Writing Masters course.  Conflicting advice from a wide variety of sources (including online and in ‘how to’ books) and indecision over the best path to follow has prompted me, variously, to set up –

I’ve dabbled with a newsletter and have a fairly active Facebook presence, though mostly just for the benefit of friends.

To complicate matters further, I have a LinkedIn page – which a creative coach recently told me is the only platform I should be posting on – and I write for a local history website I co-developed in 2014 as part of a funded post.  The post was short-term, but I’m still passionate about collecting our town’s history and contribute articles to the site whenever I have time.

The advice I’ve read is to decide what kind of writer you are and then stick with that, avoiding confusing your audience with different facets of yourself.  The problem is that there are lots of facets to me, all with equal validity, and try as I might to choose one, I can’t. I write stories for children. I love history – fiction and nonfiction.  Memoir leaks from my fingertips, often at inconvenient moments, and though I’ve tried to ignore it, I’m a teacher at heart and want to share what I know about teaching with others.  All these aspects demand expression through writing and that writing needs a platform on which to reach the world.

But keeping up so many platforms – particularly whilst earning your living elsewhere – is time consuming and pretty much impossible.  I’m spread too thin and paranoid about damaging my professional credibility.  So I end up doing very little on any of them and never writing down the thoughts in my head.  My writer’s voice is silenced, in effect, which leaves me feeling more than a little unhinged. (Those chattering voices need syphoning somehow and, sadly, I don’t have the magical skills to use a pensieve).

At the end of the Leicester Writers workshops I emailed Emma Lee – a very experienced blogger – to ask what I should do about my blog, whose subscription was up for renewal and which I shared with the world anonymously.  She suggested I let go of the blogger account and merge the articles on it with those on my author website, giving them a brief edit to help them fit.  But weren’t the topics too ‘private’ for my ‘professional persona’ to share?  ‘There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to how much personal stuff gets included on a writer’s blog,’ she answered.  ‘Some writers use it as a starting point. Some writers avoid it.  It’s a personal decision as to how much information you want to give.’

It’s a tricky one, this idea of acknowledging my thoughts and feelings so publicly, of being brave and expressing my true, authentic voice under my own name.  Of standing up and stating so forcefully ‘take it or leave it but this is me!’

But very necessary to my development, both as a person and as a writer.  Indeed, the lack of willingness to do so might very possibly be the thing that’s stopped me finishing that one important book that only I can write.

It’s time, I think, to let the chattering voices say what they really want to say …

So that’s what I intend to do.  Over the next few months I’ll be re-working blogs I previously published on other platforms and bringing them all here.  Nailing my colours to the mast and putting my name to articles which have previously been anonymous.

It’s an important step for me as a writer and the only way I’m ever going to merge the different elements of myself into one, strong voice.


The Iron Duke

Tidying through piles of handwritten notes recently – a perpetual task, it seems – I came across a couple of short texts I’d written on a June afternoon in 2014 at the writing group I run at the local library.  I can’t remember what the writing prompt was now, but I was working on a section on the Battle of Waterloo for my children’s story and was deeply immersed in the history of that particular period.  There’s something about only having 10 minutes to knock something together which sharpens the creative process and I’m always amazed at how succinct and relatively well-formed these pieces turn out to be.  Mostly I don’t do anything with them other than stack them on a pile on the bookshelf which periodically needs weeding through, but not wanting to throw them away un-birthed, I’ve typed up a couple for sharing here.  Enjoy.

The Iron Duke


I could hardly contain myself when I saw the Duke of Wellington riding down the Mall this afternoon.  He’s in town for the Season I believe – Carruthers says he’s taken a house in Bloomsbury, though the stabling there is appalling and he’d be far better to have lodged in Westminster or St James.  Damn fine sight to see, tall and straight as a ramrod on that excellent roan of his, and easy to identify with that very distinctive nose.  Carruthers said he has the look of a pelican about him but I said “no, sir, no!  The man’s a Hero, the Saviour of the Nation, and without him we’d have been overrun by now by the bally French!”  And I let him know that if I heard any more of his nonsense, he’d find himself ejected from the Club!


Crossing Creative Boundaries: the story of Ladybird and their illustrated picture books

On Monday I listened to a fascinating talk of interest to me as a writer, an educator and as a history geek.

Part of the Loogabarooga Children’s Illustrated Literature Festival, the talk was given by Roy Smith, a brilliant artist who worked his way from apprentice to Art and Production Director at Ladybird Books during the time it was based in Loughborough.  Roy illustrated his story with quick-draw sketches very evocative of the Ladybird style I knew as a child.

Roy's quick-draw illustration of his car in the Angel Works' car park beside the boss's Roll-er, explained in Tootle the Taxi-style verse.

Roy’s quick-draw illustration of his car in the Angel Works’ car park beside the boss’s Roll-er, explained in Tootle the Taxi-style verse.

Which brings me to fact number one: there’s a surprisingly huge interest from adults in vintage Ladybird titles.

I suspect this is because the books act as a reminder of happy, childhood times.  People came from all over the place for the talk and for the previous Friday’s vintage book swap, and many could name their favourite Ladybird book and when and with whom they used to read it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day in the future some adult or other looked back on reading my books with such fondness and nostalgia?

Fact number two: it’s now much easier to produce a picture book than it was even ten years ago.

My grandfather was a printer, and some of the processes discussed reminded me of my dad’s stories of watching Grandad Edgar at work.  Roy mentioned laboriously copying artwork by hand to transfer it to printing plates, hours spent setting out tiny metal letters with tweezers, the need for huge, individual rollers for applying each separate colour and how thousands of book sheets had to be printed off at a time and stored in the warehouse, ready to fulfil any sudden demand.

Now-a-days we have the ability to scan drawings, manipulate them on computer with a graphics package, change font with a click of the mouse and print out quickly on modern, efficient printers.  It’s possible to produce a book in a matter of hours and, with print on demand techniques, to run off as many – or as few – as are immediately needed.

How Ladybird books were laid out on the page so each could be produced from one sheet of paper.

How Ladybird books were laid out on the page so each could be produced from one sheet of paper.

Roy stated several times how difficult it was to make layout changes to books in his day.  This made me smile as I’ve just spent two weeks on the computer working on a picture book of my own.  Facebook posts document my frustrations with the unfamiliar graphics package I’m using.  I had thought myself very hard done by.  Listening to Roy, though, I’ve changed my mind.

Roy’s talk was the last event in the Loogabarooga programme and after the excitement of the festival, I’m back on the computer, tweaking illustrations and adapting pages so that text fits around them as it should.  I’m cutting it fine for having physical copies ready for the ‘window of opportunity’ I’m aiming at, but I’m hopeful to make e-book publication at least, and for the satisfaction of knowing that at long last, my story is out there.  It’s all a bit of a gamble, I know, but you never know what’s possible until you try.

A hundred years ago last year a little printing company called Wills & Hepworth took a bit of a gamble on putting out a children’s book.  It was a real privilege to hear Roy Smith tell the story of how well that gamble turned out.