15 December 2009

Annual review 2009

I usually do a bit of a round-up around this time of the year - a look back at another year of freelancing and what happened industry-wise over the preceding 12 months and any impact it had on me as both an individual and one of the many in my sector. Except when I look back at 2008's December posts, the round-up is missing. I know why, of course. 2008 was a bad year for me. Not workwise, but certainly on a personal level. I just didn't want to put all that in a review post, especially as some of what happened in the final quarter was immensely difficult and too personal to write about.

So where am I now?

I'm literally physically elsewhere, from choice. Making the decision to move to the city I'd originally intended to move to 6 years ago was right in every way. Workwise, it's opened up huge opportunities for me, not just in terms of actual work offered to me but the less quantifiable aspects - the contacts I've made, both social and strictly work, the conversations that sparked ideas, the events I've been able to attend that would have been physically impossible previously... all of which have had a huge impact on my future planning. I managed to get myself banned from a networking event I attended for the first time - simply because I was asked for feedback and was critical. I was gobsmacked at the pettiness, but don't feel I've missed out as the networking I've done at practically everywhere else in this amazing city has been so valuable in so many ways. I also never expected to end 2009 planning a new business venture with a freelance colleague or attending a training course that has led to me spending the first quarter of next year returning to a staff position and which may lead on to who knows what else. I feel I'm standing on the brink of something exciting and important and as yet unknown.

Financially, 2009 was ropey for me - as it was for many freelance colleagues. During the first quarter I earned almost nothing because I was busy writing the book and not in a position to take on other work. After I'd delivered the manuscript, work was very erratic. Looking back, I can see I did much less pure journalism than was desirable. This was partly due to my regular markets shrinking - there's not much point in pitching to eds who you know no longer have a freelance budget. It was also partly down to taking on whatever work was going, just to pay the bills - I ended up doing a lot of book editing and copywriting, which led in turn to having less time to drum up ideas for pitches, which I might not have been able to sell anyway.

I dumped a major client, the one that covered all my monthly bills for minimal effort, which was heartbreaking but had to be done because it had become unsustainable in other ways. I took me a while to find a replacement on that level, but in the early autumn I landed another regular who pays well and on time, and covers my outgoings for just a couple of days' work a month. One of my other regulars still owes me money from the first quarter and is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Somehow, I'll be amazed if I'm still writing for them in 3 months' time.

On an industry level, it was a bad year. If 2008 was grim, seeing thousands of staffers lose jobs, then this year was worse in many respects. It started off ok, as the staff redundancies meant there was still work going for freelances to fill all those pages. Then stage 2 of the downturn kicked in - advertising tailed off, leading to slashed freelance budgets and many publications closing. There seems to be a slight upturn now as the number of advertised staff vacancies is showing a modest improvement, but it'll be at least another 12 months I reckon before that translates into the return of freelance opportunities. There's been much industry talk in the last few months about how the future for journalism will focus on branded individuals. I've definitely used the downtime in 2009 to brand and market myself on Twitter, Facebook and the like, which I hope will pay off in work offered next year.

To my great shame, my blogging rate is way down this year - a measly 46 posts including this one. Compare that to 2007's 126 posts and last year's whopping total of 149. And on the other blog, I managed a feeble 17...

So, to the personal. Looking back, I'm quite stunned at how much I've blogged about my disability this year. I know that initially, way back when, I felt very strongly that I'd not let my health issues get in the way of work, or even be a point of discussion - I think I wanted to prove that the epilepsy was irrelevant to my ability to do the job. And so it was, in many ways. Except that only a few weeks ago, I actually admitted to my course trainer that it has hampered my career over the last few years in the sense that there were many jobs I didn't bother to even enquire about let alone chase because I knew it would be pointless. It's a key reason why I stayed freelancing, which is easier than answering awkward health questions and knowing that HR is lying when they tell you why they gave the the job to someone else. Although freelancing means I can cut out much of the stress - commuting, working with others, etc - that could have a negative impact on my seizures. And yet I had more seizures this year than at any time since I was diagnosed in 1997. My diary tells its own tale and so does this blog - living alone for the first time since diagnosis has forced me to face many fears, practical issues and my own mortality. I still feel vulnerable and I don't like it. Only today, colleagues were asking the "where do you see yourself in 5 years' time?" question and all I could see was me either in A&E (or the dentist) getting patched up, or dead, and all the fear came straight back up like I'd eaten a supersized portion of salmonella. 2009 has definitely been the year in which I can't run or hide from the impact of a long-term disability any more, while 2010 is going to be the year in which I know I'll have to look at long-term workarounds and make some big decisions.

As for the other personal stuff, there's been a relationship or two but nothing serious. As the year draws to a close, there are two very interesting men in my life - who knows what will happen? One is another hack, which has led to some interesting situations. I've not dated a colleague for a very long time - the last time, I swore off it as it became rather competitive on the work front even though we worked for different employers in different sectors. I guess the fear about being scooped is hard to shake off! But maybe not this time. We shall see. The other is as far removed from my industry as you could get, which is equally unsettling in some respects. I know how I'd like things to pan out - let's see in the 2010 review if I get what I wish for.

I end the year editing someone's book and looking forward to a few socials for local journalists (I've already done the London rounds). As usual, I'll be working over Xmas. I also close 2009 pondering the possibilities and practicalities of writing another book - a chance discussion with a colleague resulted in the vague idea of writing said tome together. I've no idea if it'll happen or not but I'm keen if they are. But first, there's the small matter of the tiny temp contract at the major meeja organisation to complete...

28 November 2009


One of the the real bonuses of freelancing is that I can have my weekends during the week, and avoid everyone else doing weekend stuff on a Saturday or Sunday. Like shopping in town, for example, which I often do on a Tuesday morning instead when it's quiet. The downside is that I often end up working on a weekend to catch up, if I do that, but I don't mind because the flexibility makes up for everything. And with no kids or partner in tow, I can pretty much please myself.

Taking this past week off to participate in some training inevitably meant I'd end up working this weekend. Several jobs have accumulated in my inbox which need to be done by Monday. Plus I had a business meeting in town this morning with a freelance colleague and friend as we are planning a new venture.

I loathe Manchester city centre on a Saturday morning, especially in the run-up to Xmas. It's full of people who are seemingly wandering round not looking where they are going, apparently for the sole purpose of making my life as miserable as possible. The meeting went well (although I now need to find time to go through the draft business plan and add my input) and I decided to pop into Boots to pick up some essentials before heading home. Big mistake. I got sidetracked by a visit to Waterstones when I remembered I had a £30 gift voucher in my purse. While in there, I spotted my own book on the shelf and nearly fainted with the excitement. I celebrated by blowing £150 on a pair of over-the-knee stiletto boots, as you do. And two pashminas to replace the one I lost recently (am fairly sure I left it behind when I attended Open 09). and £50 on make-up (I swear I only went in for a toothbrush and some face powder). I also acquired a yard broom when I got off the bus home, as my landlord is due to visit this week so I can renew my lease and I really need to sweep the gardens.

I cannot begin to describe how tired I am after the training week, but the rest of today is going to be spent writing someone's newsletter for their business, catching up with the cleaning, buying train tickets for Friday's day trip to London (work meetings, plus a boozy social with freelance colleagues) and reading the business plan. Tomorrow looks like it will consist of more of the same but I do plan to take some time out to do an urban walk in town if the weather holds up. There's a limit, after all, to the amount of time even I can sit on my arse and I have a Phd in arse-sitting. (Actually, there was a further unexpected bonus to the training week - I appear to have dropped 2 kilos spontaneously from all the rushing around. Perhaps commuting is good for you after all.)

But for now, it's back to work...

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27 November 2009

Learning curve

Just over a fortnight ago,on a whim, I applied to do a top-up training course. Today, I completed the first week of intensive workshops. I'm pretty shattered and tattered but it's been most interesting, for a number of reasons.

The biggest shock to the system was learning to commute again after a 6-year hiatus. Although I'm naturally a very early riser, I fought daily against the excruciatingly loud digital bleep of my alarm clock at 5.30am. On at least 2 mornings I was sorely tempted to roll over and crash out again. I don't know why this is - my insomnia frequently wakes me that early and I'm happy to get up, stick the kettle on and crack on with work. But I dislike jumping straight in the shower, deciding what the hell to wear and putting my face on for the day while it's still dark outside. Catching a bus at 7.10 is anathema, sitting on a crowded train even more so. It's bearable - just - as long as I have a large carton of coffee, a paper and don't have to talk to anyone. By today, I felt I'd just about got the hang of things again - nicely in time to unlearn them.

People. I'm naturally sociable, but equally like my own company and frequently crave solitude. This week has taught me that freelancing from home can definitely turn one into a misanthrope. Working largely alone for so long meant I had to learn to work in a team again, something long since forgotten (and, truth be told, after my last spell as a staffer coping with a colleague who was literally bonkers and made my team's life hell, something probably best left behind). I had a huge midweek bust-up with one of the other trainees, inevitable under the circumstances. It was resolved next day but it's served to remind me that in Q110 I'm probably going to have to button the lips that are normally left to speak as bluntly as they care to.

As for the rest, it was hard not to be aware of the age gap between myself and the other gang members. Interestingly, I was way ahead of them when it came to the geek stuff. Although I'm probably an early adopter, I generally expect 20-summats to be ahead of me there. So it was with some surprise that I discovered that 10 years of blogging, plus proficiency in Facebook, Twitter and a bunch of other social media stuff put me furlongs ahead. I was bored and a little frustrated, therefore, during the first couple of days while we were taught how to blog and exploit social media platforms. In the latter half of the week, I did learn new stuff - how to make a digital movie and audio slideshow, for example.

For me, the most bizarre bonus was undoubtedly the unexpected friendship I seem to have struck up with an investigative journalist who dropped in to teach the group how to dig up information on the deep web. A lot of the workshop was, again, stuff I already knew from doing this kind of work in the past but we not only had that in common but also some other things. We swapped cards, Facebooked each other and before you could shout "publishing deal" we were mooting the idea of writing a book together. How weird is that? No weirder than spending 2 hours in someone's company and feeling like you've known them for ages.

Some other points of note: I've had so little free time this week that I've been coming home to a mountain of email that I've had less than 2 hours to sift through in the evening, dealing with the urgent ones and mainly deleting the rest before collapsing into bed. I failed to put the bins out. I cleaned none of the house. The boy was undoubtedly very unhappy at being locked in all day for 5 days in a row. I was so tired one night I overslept the next morning by an hour (yet miraculously still managed to arrive at the course only 5 minutes late - don't ask me how). I was also so tired that I cancelled several evening social engagements I should have showed my face at. Just how do ordinary people manage all these things? I have clearly lost the knack and I'm wondering just how I will cope with 3 months of this when a mere week was evidently such a struggle.

I have a month's respite now, a month in which I have 2 books to edit for clients, plus do my other regular freelance gigs and somehow psyche myself up for returning to the external workplace for 3 months. Scared? You bet. Cocky? Damn right. Somehow I just know I'll pull it out of the bag even though it will more than likely be through my usual combination of winging it, bluffing it and shitting it.

What I really want to know is where it will lead afterwards. But that's another story. So stay tuned...Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

24 November 2009

National Freelancers Day

A couple of months ago I received a press release for National Freelancers Day. I was going to blog about it at the time but then decided I'd wait until it was actually NFD, which was yesterday. Except I was out all day on a training course and then I went straight to an evening meeting and didn't get home until 11pm. And by the time I'd fed the boy and myself, downloaded a huge batch of email and hit the "mark all as read" button on my RSS reader, it was nearly midnight and I was too tired to blog. I just wanted sleep.

So, here I am blogging a day late about why I don't give a toss about National Freelancers Day (although I do care about the missing apostrophe).

PCG invented this day. Who or what is PCG? It's a company (Professional Contracters Group or something like that). Its strapline says "the voice of freelancing" although it doesn't speak for me. I doubt PCG speaks for most other freelances I know, either. In fact, not one of the freelances I know was planning to celebrate NFD! As far as I can tell, PCG just wants freelances to sign up to it and contract work to them. I'm perfectly capable of finding my own work, thanks.

I'm also more than capable of celebrating my freelance status without assistance. I do this most days, in fact - I celebrate being able to sit at my PC in my pyjamas and sift through my email and work on my clients' projects or file my press copy, while gazing out of the window smirking at my neighbours as they all dash out to work every morning, driven by the need to be present at their boss's office come what may.

In fact, I was brutally reminded yesterday morning how glad I am that I no longer have to commute. My alarm went off at 5.30, I woke up in shock at the loud digital bleeping of the clock and leapt straight into the shower, knowing full well that if I didn't I'd fall asleep again for another hour and then I'd be late. Somehow I made it out of the house on time to catch a packed bus to the station then squeeze into an overcrowded train that had no buffet trolley. I got off an hour later grouchy at not having had any coffee and feeling thoroughly misanthropic because of the other commuters I was forced to share space with.

So I celebrate every day my freedom to set my own hours, work wherever I choose and delight in the knowledge that if I don't want to, I don't have to deal with others. I don't need PCG or anyone else to give me permission to do this.

And what were PCG offering anyway? Let's see. Oh yes, some "events". In my city, that meant a panel discussion with a tax adviser and some recruitment specialists. Just the ticket after a hard day's freelancing. Not. I can't think of anything less enticing than listening to some bigwigs drone on about the various admin aspects of working for oneself. I'd rather stick pins in my eyeballs.

If I hadn't had to attend my meeting, I'd have probably headed for the pub with some freelance colleagues to share a bottle or two of wine and a gossip - a far more productive way to enjoy the freelance life, or at least a spare evening after a hard day's self-employment.

Freelancing is not always a bed of roses. Sometimes it's rough and tough - especially in a downturn. But even in the bad times, I see good in it, even if on the really bad days the only good thing is being able to work in my pyjamas. And I really don't need anyone to tell me that's fine because I already know it is. The cynic in me knows that PCG probably created National Freelancers Day in order to recruit members. That in itself is reason enough for me to avoid it like the plague.

And on the days when freelancing really is stonkingly brilliant, I need PCG to help me "celebrate" it even less.

If anyone reading this did actually get involved, do comment and share your thoughts because I'd be very interested to hear your take on NFD.

11 November 2009

Radio silence. Radio noise?

Apologies yet again for a neglected blog. The last few weeks have been busy, chaotic and strange.

I sense a slight whiff of change in the freelance wind. After a desperately quiet summer, things picked up in the early autumn. It's not just me. Colleagues have also reported an uptick on the work front and there do seem to be more jobs being advertised after a lengthy period of falling axes.

In the midst of all this, I've attended several industry conferences - even teaching some social media stuff at one. And I also decided to apply for some proper training.

It's been a long time since I did training. There was the 2 1/2 years indentures when I started at the tender age of 16 and 3/4. It was supposed to be 3 years, but my bosses had the temerity to go bust and I spent the 6 months I should have enjoyed finishing my qualifications taking my kit off at the local art college instead to pay the bills and stave off starvation.

There have been a few spells of CPD since then, almost entirely 1-day courses with the exception of a couple that were 2 days.

So it was with some trepidation that I applied, almost on a whim, just a week ago for a 3-month placement. Yes - 12 whole weeks. I don't think I ever took the application seriously - I didn't really think the training on offer was for members of the Venerable Order of Knackered Old Hacks, but for the thrusting, bright young things snapping at my heels, which are very definitely not Louboutins.

Thus, it was a slight shock to be invited for interview. I was given 4 days' notice and asked to prepare a presentation on social media platforms for news. To show you just how seriously I took this challenge, I did nothing until 2 hours before the deadline to submit it. Then I flung it all together and emailed it with literally 1 minute to spare. (Not forgetting the computer crash I had at 30 minutes to go, with a struggle to reboot.) I wrote the notes to go with the slides while on the 40-minute train journey to the interview today.

Nothing like looming deadlines, eh?

On arrival, I was thrown straight into delivering my presentation - unrehearsed, naturally - and somehow managed not to swear, have a seizure or otherwise cock things up. But still I departed thinking, That'll teach me...

So I was delighted at 10.30pm tonight to get an email offering me a placement. I can't quite believe it. I shed a little tear, swore a lot, went totally nuts for 10 minutes and then reality kicked in.

From January to end March, I'll be doing paid upskilling training in a newsroom. Ignoring the fact that I've almost no proper newsroom experience, despite the 3 decades in the job, it's just hit me that my life is about to change completely.

No more loafing around in my dressing gown all day. I'm convinced my postie believes I'm an invalid, given the number of times I've answered the door in my pyjamas. It's been almost 6 years since I last actually "went out" to work. Almost 6 years since I last set the alarm clock for a pre-dawn commute to an office. I've forgotten what it's like, forgotten how to be on my best behaviour. Freelancing definitely deskills you in some respects, like how to get dressed at a sensible hour and how to maintain a wardrobe of suits. How to cope with colleagues for 8 or 9 hours a day. Perhaps this is what the training is for - to teach me how to handle a workplace again.

I jest, of course. I'm really looking forward to January and the opportunities that lie ahead, even while I'm wondering how I'll adjust to such a massive, if temporary life change.

I'm also wondering where I'll be placed. A newsroom for sure - I want that experience, after 31 years of feature writing. But there's a good chance it'll be at a radio station. So if you hear someone reading a bulletin oop north in giveaway soft southern jessie tones, there's a fair chance it'll be me...
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30 September 2009


An interesting feature appeared today on Reuters about the disappearing hyphen.

I'd definitely agree that hyphens are going out of use thanks to the internet. I've dropped many over the years - some because of the influence of the web, but others have gone for other reasons. Language shifts style for many reasons and the growth of the internet is not the only one. For example, the scientific community was merging medical, technical and scientific terms that previously had hyphens long before texting and email started affecting language use. Nor is Oxford University Press the sole guardian of our language. I do check spellings, including hyphenation, in Oxford's spelling dictionary or its other specialist style guides for editors, but I also have half a dozen other style guides on my shelves.

The Guardian style guide (which uses Collins for its house dictionary) is one I use frequently, not just because I sometimes write for it but some of my editing clients use it as a style guide too. And the Guardian was dispensing with hyphens ahead of the great post-2000 growth of the web. I'm very much in favour of dispensing with overfussy use of hyphens and merging words where they look cleaner, or even splitting them in two if they look better that way.

Style is often a matter of choice rather than a hard and fast rule. There are several major publishers in the UK who produce dictionaries of English - none is identical to any other, including in some choices for spelling or hyphenation. And until we have a French-style English Academy set up here dictating unbreakable rules, we will continue to see our language evolve and adapt.

And rightly so.
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21 September 2009

Working tools

I've been thinking a lot lately about my changing work practices, in terms of the tools I use to improve the way I work or just offer different, more interesting ways of getting things done. Here's a quick run-through of stuff I've tried, tested, stuck with, abandoned or am just doing differently.

I've always had a desktop PC and fixed-line broadband. My router (a BT HomeHub) has wifi too - cued into this are my netbook and phone (see below for more on these). For a long time, the PC was my main work tool, except when I took the laptop away on business trips or holidays. It still is - I like to sit in my front window and watch what's going on in my street while beavering away. Admittedly, my street is fairly quiet but seeing my neighbours going about their business or watching the squirrels racing around helps me feel connected. I've just replaced the previous PC, which was bought off the shelf 6 years ago and was too old to patch up any more, with a custom-built monster capable of handling my work needs for quite a few years to come. I have the latest processor, oodles of RAM and storage space and can appreciate the benefits already of working on a more efficient machine designed for how I work.

I sold my laptop to a friend/colleague not very long ago. There was nothing wrong with it - it was only 5 years old, ran on Windows XP and had a wifi card plus Firefox and Open Office, which was enough on the hoof for checking email and surfing the web, plus working on documents. But the battery was knackered, so I had to be plugged into a socket to do anything, and I was fed up of having to cart a laptop bag everywhere as well as my handbag. And I had my eye on a shiny new netbook. I had my purchase customised with extra battery life and a few other extras. It looks funky (swanky scarlet, with matching mini-mouse) and weighs just over a kilo. It's small enough to fit in my handbag, meaning I can now escape Wordsmith Towers when I have cabin fever and go and work in a café for a change of scene while catching up with friends in town. Adding a pay-as-you-go dongle means I can get online easily, should the unthinkable occur and there's no free wifi (which is abundant in my city). The netbook also has way more capacity than the old laptop so I've been able to install more software, giving me yet more work options.

This has been the most revolutionary change for me. My 5-year-old Nokia was due for replacement and after a couple of friends let me tinker on their iPhones I was hooked. I've had my iPhone since April and can't imagine using anything else now. It's not just that I find the touchscreen easier to type on than a traditional mobile phone keyboard (or that the spell checker is preferable to predictive text). It's the apps that make the difference. I can sync lots of things now with my desktop and netbook, so wherever I am it doesn't matter what kit I'm using, I can still match things up. The only drawback is I haven't yet found a way to sync the built-in calendar (which is fantastic) with ReminderFox on my desktop PC or, indeed, Google Calendar, which I use occasionally. If anyone has an answer to this, I'd love to hear from you.

I'm discovering the joys of using some really useful web-based applications that can be synced - for a freelance on the move, this can make a big difference to accessing things you might suddenly need. I do carry a flash drive with me when I take my netbook out, but it's only as good as what I've stashed on there. Web-based apps mean I can access more documents while on the go. I follow a couple of useful blogs that recommend new apps - AppsFire and Web.AppStorm - which have given me the heads up for the newest software, and sometimes offer access to invite-only beta versions with special promo codes.

I can't shout loud enough about how brilliant this is. I have Evernote installed on the desktop, netbook and iPhone, plus Firefox. I use it for jotting down ideas for pitches, tasks lists, snippets of software code I need to work on a CMS that I'll never remember, even shopping lists. The syncing means I'll never forget anything again and the beauty is you can dump anything in it - text, photos, even voice.

Like Evernote, DropBox is web-based and can be synced across devices. I've never used Google Docs as I felt uneasy about trusting lots of data to their servers. With Dropbox, I can just dump files in it before I go on the hoof and retrieve them to work on wherever and whenever. I can share files, too, if I want, it backs up automatically on a save and I can also recover previous versions of files if I need them (very useful if you accidentally delete something). So far, I've found to be amazingly simple and utterly reliable. I'm still discovering features on it and when the iPhone version is approved I'll be even happier.

My desktop PC is set up so Firefox saves my passwords for the various websites I use. Obviously, having the same set-up on a portable is less advisable and while I keep a file of sites and their passwords, I was never particularly happy about either copying it over to the laptop or netbook, or keeping it on a flash drive, which is even more likely to become lost. My solution was to open an account with PasswordSafe. This nifty app allows me to stash all my passwords and lock it with one. I only need to remember that one password, so I'm now far safer when working away from home. Result.

I've only just installed Subernova, which is a project-management application that runs on Adobe Air. I've not used it long enough to appreciate all its features but because I have a diverse work portfolio that includes journalism, editing and corporate writing, I need a tool that enables me to keep track of what I'm doing and when I have deadlines. Putting the latter in my calendar apps is fine up to a point but it doesn't really crack the problem of juggling everything then remembering to bill someone (this is vital if you're invoicing in stages). So far, Subernova seems to be meeting a lot of these needs for me. And again, it has an iPhone version. This is the only paid-for app I'm using. I'm on the free 30-day trial as I write this - if it proves it's worth by mid-October, I may well fork out the US$5.99 a month to keep running it.

I just discovered Wakoopa today and I'm addicted already. It installs a little widget on your computer and tracks all the apps you use. Ok, that doesn't sound that enticing but it does much more than tell me what I'm using. Wakoopa's tracking tells me how much or how little I'm using a particular program or widget. I've already decided to uninstall a couple of things as I was barely using them. Where it gets really useful is that I can add tags to what Wakoopa is monitoring, favourite them and share them with other Wakoopa users. And by looking at the page for each app, I can see ideas for similar apps to try out as well as click though to others' profiles and see what they are using. Everything can be rated and reviewed - this has almost instantly become one of the most useful tools I have for discovering other useful tools.

If you have other suggestions for harnessing tools that help the hard-pressed freelance, do leave a comment!
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16 September 2009

Conference by numbers

I've just returned from my annual trip to the SfEP conference. It went something like this.

3 - people I really did not want to talk to.

2 - people who apparently did not want to talk to me.

8 - people who came to my workshop.

1 - workshop I attended, apart from my own.

9 - my room number.

100+ - people in attendance.

8 - people on my table at the banquet.

2 - bottles of wine on the banquet table for 8 people to share for the entire meal.

50-something - times I logged in to Twitter while sitting in seminars.

197 - total emails awaiting my attention on my return.

534 - items awaiting my attention in my RSS feed on my return.

1 - friend/chauffeur I fed when arrived home last night.

5 - minutes it took me to log into the campus wifi network (a record, as I had no problems).

0 - complaints I made this year (also a record, as I usually have at least one issue).
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06 September 2009

Media clones

I was reading investigative journalist Nick Davies' blog last night - he was musing about Keith Waterhouse, who died a couple of days ago. Waterhouse was a legend and a true old-style Fleet Street hack, as well as a fabulous writer.

Anyway, Davies reckons no one would offer Waterhouse a job today if he was fresh out of school.

"The sad death of the legendary Keith Waterhouse, has rightfully, attracted many plaudits in national newspapers. Reflections on his life....left school with no qualifications.....fond of the odd tipple or three.....a true original...etc. etc. Yet is it not ironical, that if a similar young Keith Waterhouse presented himself to a newspaper today, he'd very quickly be shown the door. No qualifications?...most newspapers today desire only graduate clones in grey suits, keep your heads down and don't rock the boat if you want to survive"

I'd be in the same boat. I left school at 16, the day I sat my last O. I was a scruffy, mouthy punk and I dyed my hair grass-green the next morning, which prompted my eviction from the family abode. Nevertheless, within a week I had somewhere to live (after borrowing a friend's sofa for a few days) and a job - I walked off the street and into the offices of a weekly magazine and walked out an hour later as their newest music critic.

Two local papers had already rejected me because of the green hair, the black eye make-up and my unique dress sense. I didn't mind too much as I didn't really want to be a reporter anyway, I wanted to write about music and that probably wasn't going to happen on a mainstream daily. But, infuriatingly, neither paper had looked at my writing to see if I had any talent. The mag that took me on looked beyond my appearance and asked to see my work - at that stage, a handful of ranty columns and reviews in a punk fanzine. I think they were also impressed with my enormous chutzpah (but probably not the equally big ego I was schlepping around with me back then).

A lot of really great hacks who were or are my contemporaries (and who have been infinitely more successful and famous than I) would also not have got a job in today's corporate climate. Julie Burchill and Steven Wells are two that spring immediately to mind. I somehow can't picture either of them doing a journalism degree followed by weeks of unpaid work experience in the hope it might lead to a job.

The industry is going through massive upheavals right now as it struggles to reposition itself in a digital world with new business models. It would be sad if, as part of that process, the hirers continue to look only for Davies' "graduate clones".
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02 September 2009

Flattery, ignorance

First, flattery. So there I was on Twitter a week or so ago following various conversations, one of which asked people to plug a certain teenage journo. Normally, I wouldn't, but I was the same age (16) when starting out and had the same hunger. It struck a chord, so I did the RTdecent thing and retweeted something this person had written.

I was rather flattered some days later to see that said teen hack had plugged me on Mr Tweet, and described me as "amazing, sharp, humorous, the best journalist there is". I'm paraphrasing, obviously but I did enjoy the ego-stroke. It almost convinced me I should have taken on Julie Burchill, after all.

So it was with some disappointment that I discovered, some days after the announcement of the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards, that I'm probably not among the (currently) 120+ nominations for the simple reason that I'm not yet listed on the blog roll at The Manchizzle, not this one or the other one. Or indeed any of the other ones. An oversight or several that I'm hastily trying to correct.

Never mind. I have survived long enough without gongs. I'm happy to have fans of a tender 16 years, which probably counts for a lot more.

But a nomination would be nice. HINT HINT...
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Vocabularly 101

I stumbled across an interesting blog post today, courtesy of Twitter, and it spoke to my heart.

30 Words You Need to Stop Using was a great summary of corporate jargon that should be banned (actually, it was today's update of another 30 words that I discovered - 30 more words that are equally valid for banning). In a previous lifejob on the Dark Side (aka doing PR for a charity) I was in a constant battle with my bosses and the charity's board when it came to vocabulary. One of the charity's veeps took it upon herself to "approve" any official blah I produced. As I was on a mission to cut jargon and use words that ordinary people could understand (based on the KISS principle), I often felt like resigning when my carefully crafted drafts were returned and simple words such as "use" were scored through and replaced with "utilise".

Those were the days when I really felt like banging my head on the desk or the wall because that would clearly have been a more productive use of my time. When I first arrived at the charity, all the corporate blah had clearly been produced with the board in mind, not the end-users (apologies for that one, I do hate that phrase!). And so, when the board agreed - finally - that our blah needed to be aimed at the people we were supposedly helping, I was overjoyed. Until the veep rewrote everything in my new draft and we ended up with an almost identical version to the blah we were supposed to be ditching.

But I digress.

I don't agree with all the words on the list. No. 7 - leverage - is used all the time in financial circles, where it has a very specific meaning. And as I do a lot of financial stuff, I can't avoid it. Mind, I'd strike it in any other context. No. 8 - solutions - is a particular hatred of mine and I never, ever use it in journalism. Sadly, though, I get paid to use it in corporate work. The corporate work pays the bills and no matter how much I may try to persuade the client that "solutions" is a hideously over-used cliché, if they're paying and they really want it, they get it. The customer is always right, even when they are wrong.

I'm sure I could add a few choice examples to Good Copy Bad Copy's list. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on her updates, as should any self-respecting wordsmith.
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20 August 2009

Blog overload

Not content with this one, the other one and the handful of other blogs I update or guest on here and there, I've only gone and started a new one!

The new one, though, is proper work on a topic that passes for an addiction in the Wordsmith Towers household - soap. No, not the stuff I lather up with in the shower. The other sort. On TV. One of 'em, anyway.

I'm busy pimping it right now on Twitter and Facebook and I'll be updating it at least once a week. That'll keep me off the streets in the evenings. And it's good to be hacking again...

17 August 2009

The long haul

My current job, a book edit, was supposed to finish a week ago. A combination of circumstances meant I needed an extension to complete it. That was duly negotiated and I even worked over the weekend to ensure I'd complete it today.

Alas, it was not to be. I'd been working at a good pace over the last fortnight or so, despite the aforementioned issues. Then I hit a brick wall. With just over 60 pages to go, my pace plunged to an all-time low of 2 pages an hour. Yes, 2. I'm used to doing 8-10 pages an hour. Even the ghastliest stuff I've worked on - usually something written by a non-native speaker of English and therefore prone to all those typical foreign errors - I can scrape through at 5-6 pages an hour.

Not this bastardbaby. I'm doing the reference section and it is, frankly, the worst one I've ever had to work on. And that's saying something, as I've edited some real stinkers in my time. I am having to google every single citation to check author names, title, publisher and the rest, because nothing - but nothing - is consistent, not even where the same citation crops up several times. Then there's the spelling, the punctuation, the styling... ok, ok, I know that's *my* job but the author had at least made a fairly good hash of it in the body of the book. When it came to the references, I suspect he chucked out the publisher's style guide along with his empty beer bottles and pizza boxes.

I've done a 15-hour day today, with barely a break. And I still have 40 soddingpages to go... Spare a thought for me, please.

At least I have an away-day tomorrow. Perhaps I'll be in a more willing frame of mind when I return to the grindstone on Wednesday. Then again, maybe not.

(Think of the cheque, Wordsmith, just think of the cheque...)

11 August 2009


Not me, I'm no fan of scalpels unless there's a tin of Cow gum, a steel rule and a cutting mat involved (ah, nostalgia for the days of galley layout!).

No, I've tarted up the Diary.

It was long overdue. When I started it, a year after I'd been ranting about freelancing on MySpace, the options on Blogger were limited. Later, the new templates became available but I've been putting off the upgrade for the best part of 2 years. Naturally, just when I really ought to be working my socks off to meet a deadline, I found myself in dire need of procrastinationdistraction and decided to overhaul things here. So - same style, but more widgety things and I've updated my blogroll and industry links so things are a bit more current and relevant.

I hope it all works. Tomorrow's probably when I'll discover that I've messed up my stats feed or something.

09 August 2009

Call yourself a writer?

Along with a bunch of others, I've been tagged by hack-cum-blogger Linda Jones to come clean about my writing career. That'll be the writing career that was once very promising, lapsed somewhat when I exiled myself across the Great Ditch (aka the Channel) for over a decade, and is currently languishing in the doldrums as all my pitches vanish into a commissioning editor's black hole or two. But what the hell, I still call myself a hack and I'm not one to run away from a challenge. So, despite my current lack of any paid writing work whatsoever (and thank gawd for the editing work that's still paying the rent), herewith my answers to Joner's questions...

Which words do you use too much in your writing?

All manner of sweary stuff, especially on here. Writing for an adult mag also means I can use lots of anglo-saxon verbs and nouns legitimately, which gives me a smidgen of childish joy. I suspect the majority of this blog's vocabulary consists of grouchy, grumpy words as this is where I like to whinge. Fortunately for the rest of the world, my paid writing is more cheerful if no less serious. Or should that be was? And will be again if some lovely, charming editor ever hires me again this decade. Pleeeeeeeeease! Oh, go on. You won't regret it.

Which words do you consider overused in stuff you read?

I've given up reading a lot of mags for pleasure as they all seem to emanate from cliché central these days. I'm sick of reading about outmoded yet still perpetuated male/female stereotypes, how much I'm supposed to love designer labels, and crappy trivia about Z-list "stars". Oops, there's one - Z-list. "Dumbed down" is another overused phrase but I think it's appropriate for describing a lot of publications now. Sharp, interesting, thought-provoking and original writing seems to be in ever-shorter supply. And while the Liz Joneses of this world earn megabucks for peddling crap, many fantastic journalists are losing their jobs.

What's your favourite piece of writing by you?

I'm quite proud of this blog. And the various ones that preceded it. I had a brilliant blog about my sex life for several years, but I took it down a while back for various reasons. I've saved all the posts - racy, intellectual and entertaining as they are - and they may yet re-emerge in another format.

Of the paid stuff, I'm fond of my early stuff - I interviewed some great bands, including some I discovered and introduced to the wider world. I did some corking political features before I got cynical and cared less. And I had a fabulously bitchy TV review column in a listing mags for a while, although when they started televising the House of Lords I nearly got fired for calling the great and good "doddery old cocksuckers".

Regrets, do you have a few? Is there anything you wish you hadn't written?

Very few. I got expelled from boarding school for writing porn just before I was 13. That pissed my parents off immensely but I can't say I regret it - the school was awful and I really hated it but that youthful beginning got me out of there, so I don't regret that at all.

I've had a few run-ins with editors when I sailed too close to the wind and nearly sparked a few lawsuits. There was a column about the alleged drug habits of a certain Rezillo, for example, that had to be withdrawn and apologised for. The one about the doddery old cocksucking aristocracy that earned me a major bollocking. And a few others in a similar vein that nearly saw me collect a P45. I like to take risks, though, and tell it like it is. Safe is boring.

The only thing I really regret is getting utterly rat-arsed in the pub one night and telling a roomful of fellow hacks which famous Fleet Street journo I'd been shagging while still doing my indentures... They've never let me live it down.

How has your writing made a difference? What do you consider your most important piece of writing?

I doubt it. I went into journalism because I wanted to write. I wanted to change the world too, but I did that by getting involved with various causes and earning brownie points by doing stints on picket lines and at Greenham Common, and drinking lots of beer at benefit gigs, not by writing. I'd be amazed if anything I wrote had actually changed anything. In 31 years, I've only had one reader come forward and say thanks for making a difference. Which just proves that I'm utterly expendable as a journalist.

Name three favourite words

Hot, metal, and pub...

...And three words you're not so keen on

My office. Now.

Do you have a writing mentor, role model or inspiration?

Jean Scroggie was my English teacher when I was 14. She was everything I didn't want to be - prim, Scottish, repressed and a spinster. But she gave us a short-story writing assignment at which I astonished myself. She gave me the highest praise imaginable and I beamed, because she gave me permission to believe in my talent. Sadly, the story - called "Flight" and demonstrating a maturity way beyond my years - went missing shortly afterwards and I've been gutted about it for the last 33 years.

What's your writing ambition?

To get commissioned again. Honestly. Right now I'm at my lowest ebb ever as a journalist. I know it's not me - there's a recession on and my industry is going through upheavals that will change its landscape for ever. I'm not starving as I have enough corporate writing and copy-editing work coming in. But I'd really rather be writing for the press. Any press. Well, ok, not the Daily Mail, I wouldn't stoop that low. (Not even for Liz Jones' salary?) Is it too much to hope for that someone out there still wants to pay me NUJ minimum?

Plug alert! List any work you would like to tell your readers about:

Well, there was that book earlier this year. The one I still hate my publishers for because they mucked me around so much. I couldn't possibly plug the other stuff without outing myself. Those in the know know what else I've done or is shortly about to hit the shops. None of it will make my fortune so I should probably consider drafting some ghastly chick-lit novel instead. Or flogging this blog to a publisher...

Tag alert!

I gather I'm supposed to saddle some other suckers writers and bloggers with the challenge of furthering this meme. So, in no particular order:

Anne Brooke

Bill Hilton

Scott Colvey

The rules according to Joner: If you have time to do this meme, then please link to this blog entry, then link to three to five other writers or bloggers and pass it on, asking them to answer your questions and link to you. You can add, remove or change one question as you go. You absolutely do not have to be what you may think of as a "published" or "successful" writer to respond to this meme, I hope people can take the time to reflect on what their blogging has brought them and how it has been useful to others.

30 July 2009

The numbers game

So an email's circulated on a list I belong to, offering a book that needs copy-editing. There's a catch - the copy-ed needs to be super-familiar with the topic, because it's rather specialised. No problem - I fit the criteria perfectly, whizz over my CV and a cover email and sit back and wait...

A week goes by. No word. I presume someone else has been given the book, which inexplicably infuriates me. Not just because I really wanted to do this book, but because there's a recession on and I need all the work I can get. But then, lo! Another 3 days pass and out of the blue I'm asked if I'm still available to edit the book. Damn right I am.

I'm given a word count and a "budget", which can be roughly translated as "this is the fee on offer and if you don't like it, tough." I dig out my calculator and do some sums. I know I'm skilled. I also know I can work fast as well as accurately. And so, sight unseen, I estimate that if the MS doesn't need too much work it'll only take X hours and the fee, while not brilliant in today's recession-driven climate, will be reasonable and at least cover August's rent and bills. I accept.

The manuscript arrives. I do my usual procrastination but of course there's a deadline and I eventually knuckle down. Half a day in, with 40 pages under my belt, I suddenly notice that the word count is almost a fifth higher than I was originally led to expect. Ouch.

I go back and examine the chain of email between me and the desk ed. It doesn't look as if there's any room for more money. But wait. This is a major publishing house. And this is not about an extra 1,000 or 2,000 words. If it had been, I'd probably have sucked it up in the hope of getting more work in the future from the client. No, it's an additional 20,000 words...

Only one thing for it. I fire off a diplomatic email and politely ask for more money and an extra 3 days' editing time. Within minutes, I'm granted both. Result. I get the extra 3 days, more if I need them.

And best of all, the revised fee I agree to accept is more than a fifth higher than the original. In other words, I'll be paid more overall pro rata.

Now that's what I call a win...

17 July 2009

Hacking, slacking and death

The older I get, the faster time seems to whizz past. And so yet another month has somehow whistled past my ears without me blogging. There are reasons for this. Wimbledon, as usual, sucked up a fortnight of my time, during which I did very little work. Like many bloggers, I seem to have shifted my excess verbiage to Twitter instead of posting here. And while I've not exactly been loved up, I do seem to have acquired a new Mr WfH, which has also occupied my precious spare time.

On the work front, I've been semi-busy. It's tough out there right now (of which more in a mo). I gave up pitching a couple of months back when it became clear that the pitching I was doing was disappearing into a budget void. The distraction of the tennis generally means I slack off over June/July anyway so I can lie on my sofa and yell at the tv. And I've had enough copywriting and editing work to keep things ticking over enough to pay the bills. I'm now actively chasing new work and contemplating a fresh round of pitching features again.

The book continues to do well. I've completed the amendments that will be incorporated into the 3rd edition and a friend who has been commissioned to create a graphic novel about the story of Joy Division is going to quote me and the book in regard to Ian Curtis' epilepsy. Fame at last, steady on old girl!

In the interim, I've become an avid follower of certain blogs about journalism. I'm loving Journopig, a splendidly sarky take on the media. Fleet Street Blues continues to provide a great service posting vacancies, which are in short supply these days, as well as some pithy commentary on the current state of play. Overheard In The Newsroom amuses me daily. And last, but by no means least (to eke out that tired old cliché one more time), I'm reading Playing the Game. Sometimes I want to cry when I peruse the latest entry, others I want to howl with laughter (viz. the entry on HR). Much of this reminds me of my days as a junior on a weekly listings mag - the drinking, the piss-taking, the swearing (how the fuck do you think I learned to drink like a pro, eh?), the stroppy ed or two... I'm sick of reading about how my industry is dying (it's not, it's just going through a period of major change, ok) but PtG reminds me of everything that is good about the trade I love and why it's being ruined by profit vampires and accountants.

Lastly, I've yet again spent a couple of days in sad reflection and been on the receiving end of a journalist's mic. Many moons ago, as a young trainee, I worked alongside the very talented Harry Horse. We were more or less the same age - two teenagers forging our way in the press. I lost touch with Harry many, many years ago and only 18 months ago discovered the tragic circumstances of his death. So it was with a huge shock that I learned this week - a year to the day of publication - that the circumstances were far more bloody and gruesome than I could ever have imagined. Within 24 hours I was being interviewed by the hack investigating the story and reminiscing about the teen artist I knew 30 years ago. Poor Harry (and Mandy, obviously). It seems so out of character for the man I once knew and was close to. My heart breaks.

And on that note, till next time...
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13 June 2009

Catching up

My poor blog has been shamefully neglected once again. I must plead pressure of work, as I've been inundated with editing jobs and copywriting gigs. I've worked a lot of evenings but have also been making a concerted effort to get out more at night and weekends to socialise, so there's been less time spent at the keyboard when not working.

I've been exploring the possibility of doing an MA in Online Journalism - I filled in the application form, but to my embarrassment have yet to return it. This has mainly been down to the fact that I have to make a "personal statement" which, along with the interview, will be the determining factor in whether I'm offered a place on the course. The trouble is, when I went to uni to do my BA on my last career break, back in 1984, I wasn't asked to make a personal statement. I don't think these things even existed back then. I've made about dozen attempts to draft the statement and scrapped every single one as inadequate. Crazy, given I'm a professional writer. I just don't know what to say in it. I've never had to write anything like this before and I've no idea how it should be structured or if I'm supposed to plead my worthiness or whatever. I think I need to do some research. Online, of course.

The other big issue about the MA is can I afford to do it? Times are tough at the moment. Like all my freelance colleagues, whether writers or editors of whatever sort, I'm turning down almost no work just now as the future is too unpredictable. I don't want to take out a so-called career development loan to pay for my tuition fees because I fear being in debt (and have managed so far never to owe money to anyone). And I'd still have to support myself. I have bills to pay and a mouth and a cat to feed. And studying would have a massive impact on the amount of time available earning income. This is a major dilemma as I do really want to have a crack at the MA.

I need to make my mind up soon. That place won't be available for much longer.

Trivia: I've been listening to Electric Ink on Radio 4 the last couple of Fridays. It's a comedy series about the clash of old and new media at a newspaper. It's amusing in parts, especially the witty observations about cost-cutting and pandering to the advertisers, but the stereotyped characters are irritating and Robert Lindsay is wasted here. It's a shame as the potential to be a classic was there. I think I'll dig out my DVD box sets of Drop the Dead Donkey and Hot Metal instead.

I was vain enough to bag vanity URLS on Facebook today for my various profiles. Say hello to facebook.com/wordsmith4hire.

I will try to resume normal service again on here...

21 May 2009

A fair fee for the job

Sometime last week, a publishing company not a million miles from Wordsmith Towers got in touch to offer me some on-site copy-editing work. I'm not averse to working on-site - it can make a welcome change from being home-based, with the opportunity to meet new people and make new contacts.

And so it was that yesterday I got suited and booted and headed into the darkest depths of south Manchester to go and shake hands and talk terms. The job was straightforward enough in terms of what was required and all the work was on-screen (I gave up working on paper proofs 20 years ago). So far, so good.

Inevitably, the discussion turned to money. I was completely gobsmacked to be told the budget was £10 to £15 per hour - for this, they want a skilled and experienced copy-editor who can correct, rewrite, re-order material, fact-check, flag up queries, deal with authors and all the rest. (Plus I was facing an hour's commute each way, by two buses.)

I pointed out, as politely as possible but through somewhat gritted teeth, that the suggested minimum rate my professional body, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, recommends for such work is £26 per hour. My own minimum rate is even higher, and that doesn't include rewriting and re-ordering. His face was a picture when I told him how much I charge.

Somehow, I don't think I'll be accepting the work if it's offered to me, although I doubt it will be. I'm simply too expensive, dahlinks. Besides, it looks as though I've enough work right until at least July (and yes, the holiday has been postponed, but I will take one soon).
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15 May 2009


I've spent the last 2 days hanging out at Manchester's Futuresonic festival - a glorious mix of technology, music, art and other stuff. I went on a press pass, with the aim of digging out some interesting tech stories to sell to a national paper. There was a huge choice of sessions to choose from, sorted into various themes: digital futures, identity and trust, mobile, semantic web, and environment 2.0. A lot of the sessions I had a personal interest in had to be skipped in favour of those I thought might be more newsworthy.

I have to admit to being very disappointed in the keynote speeches on day 1. First up was Stowe Boyd talking about the future of the web. Most of the ideas he was framing have already been covered by the tech media over the last few years and given his audience was largely a bunch of geeks, he seemed rather to be preaching to the converted. I waited impatiently for him to say something new and profound but it didn't happen. The other keynote speech, for the identity and trust strand, was by Rachel O'Connell of Bebo. I was expecting her to tell us about all the new and exciting ways Bebo is handling ID issues, given Bebo is largely used by the under-18s, but no. What we got was a lot of corporate blah about how wonderful Bebo is. The ensuing breakout sessions were also rather bland.

Day 2 got off to a bad start. I woke with crippling back pain at 3am which kept me awake for the rest of the night and by the time I turned up at Futuresonic, drugged up to the proverbial on painkillers, I'd missed the first block of sessions and then I had a bust-up with a friend, which spoiled the day even more. I was starting to wonder if I was going to find anything to write about at all, but then the semantic web strand started and I finally started to smell some possibilities for a feature or two. Unfortunately, my back pain was now so bad I could no longer sit down and the painkillers were having no effect, except to make me teary. It was time to quit and I reluctantly went home to lie down and take some stronger medication.

Following the Twitter feeds for Futuresonic, it was obvious that I was now missing the most interesting sessions and, by default, the opportunity to pitch some stories. Sod's law. A hack's big fear is always that they'll miss the story and this was exactly how my day ultimately panned out. I'm now lying on the floor working on my laptop as I can't sit at my desk, and I've also had to cancel all my plans for the weekend - I have a huge amount of work lined up for next week and my lumbar region needs a rest.
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12 May 2009


I'm having a frustrating day. I pitched a national first thing Monday morning with something very topical - just an op-ed piece worth a mere £85, but it would have helped plug my book. Three emails and 2 chase-up phone calls later, I got a polite but very firm no.

This morning, I flung an op-ed post together on my other blog about MPs' expenses and it's been picked up and run with all over Twitter, media websites and the blogosphere. It's nice that people are taking what I write seriously, to the point they are spreading it across cyberspace for me, but apart from the publicity I have earned exactly £0.

Frustrated doesn't begin to cover it. I know things are tough in journalism right now but it's infuriating that I can't get paid even a paltry sum for a piece on disability, while a throwaway piece I did purely for myself to let off steam is probably going to see my blog ratings go stratospheric.

At least I've got 2 new jobs lined up for the rest of the month, copy-editing for a couple of clients - 1 regular, 1 new. That'll take the pain away a bit as my finances are looking rather iffy just now. I'm not in a unique position - other colleagues are also struggling and it's been a trending topic today on certain hack forums. I still have to pay the bills though...
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09 May 2009

JEEcamp and duckonomics

I went to Birmingham yesterday for the 2nd JEEcamp. Last year, it was very much an experiment to see what might happen if you stuck 50 journos in a room and let them unconference for a day. I came away feeling inspired and full of plans, but then my personal life upended itself and the online journalism venture I'd been mapping in my head for 2 years was no longer going to happen.

So, where are we 12 months on? Last year, I went alone, for 1 thing. This year I found myself on the early train with half a dozen other hacks - fuelled on pints of coffee, we took over an entire train carriage and annoyed all the commuters with our chitchat about modern hackery.

On arrival at JEEcamp, there was the usual opportunity to shake hands with people you co-follow on Twitter but only just met for the 1st time. Kyle McRae gave a really interesting account of his attempt to set up a picture agency trading in citizen journalists' photos and what happened when it all went horribly wrong.

There were breakout sessions and a couple of really good panel discussions about the future of journalism, particularly about paid-for content models (Rupert Murdoch had just annnounced his own thoughts on this), the problems with council-funded newspapers and the kinds of enterprises journalists might want to engage in.

A year ago, we were just seeing the start of the recessionary effects on our industry - job cuts, closed papers, freelance budgets affected etc - now the landscape looks very different and one thing is clear. Whatever that landscape will look like in another 12 months' time (and none of us can predict that), hacks are going to have be enterprising and create their own opportuinities (or do what I do and run a portfolio career). A colleague of mine who's been in the trade even longer than I have has a theory about the current state of play for the traditional business model for newspapers: "it's all as fucked as a fucked duck from Planet Fuck". Er, quite. Which is why events like JEEcamp are so important.

Andy Dickinson, who teaches journalism at UCLAN, was bang on the nail when he said we can't exist in isolation. For all we network on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere, there's no substitute for getting together face to face . So here's to next year's JEEcamp!

The train journey home went quicker, fuelled as it was with wine and sushi (and we'd already sunk several pints in the pub between JEEcamp and New Street station). On arrival at Piccadilly, it was a toss-up between going home or heading to the pub. I chose the latter, schlepping laptop bags across town while trying not to fall off my heels, to catch up with a friend. Several gallons of wine later, I fell into a cab, then my bed and decided nothing made sense anymore...

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07 May 2009

Sold out

No, not me. God forbid. If that ever happens, please line me up against the Mur des Fédérés in Père Lachaise and pull the trigger on an AK 47.

Apparently, my first edition has sold out in under a week. So my publisher says. To me, it's meaningless. I don't even know how big the first print run was (although I think 2k). Yes, it's going into a second edition - I'm the biggest-selling author my publisher has ever had, not that that's saying much. It's a tiny outfit with 3 staff (largely indifferent) and they've not exactly been proactive with promotion.

I still haven't even seen the book and I'm gutted I'll now never have 1st edition copies to sign and give to those few people who really matter to me.

I was so excited this morning and now I feel hollow. I rang one friend, my rock, but what I really wanted to do was go out and get pissed with mates but it was obviously not going to happen for a number of reasons. Ended up getting drunk solo, never a good idea. Now have to get up at stupid o'clock to catch a train to Birmingham for a networking/training day when I think I'd rather stay in bed.

Stacking shelves at Aldi suddenly looks very tempting...

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05 May 2009


I've been struggling on and off today to fill in an industry questionnaire. It's not a difficult one, just one that will boost my profile within the hackosphere and, ideally, push my book a bit. It's just that some of the questions are proving a touch tricky to answer diplomatically. Let's face it, if I answered them honestly I'd trash my reputation at a stroke and probably consign the rest of my career to stacking shelves in Aldi.

How can PRs be useful to you?
- By never contacting me except to send me free bottles of 70 proof vodka? Hmm, maybe not.

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
- Easy. On Grade A Bolivian coke, of course. Except, obviously, I wouldn't because Class As are out of the question when you have epilepsy, and the truth - that I'd probably really struggle to blow that much cash in one go - is rather boring.

What books are on your bedside table?
- Right now, apart from Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (a truly brilliant look at the state of contemporary journalism), I'm halfway through a crime novel and I'm also flicking through a "how to" manual on cock and ball torture.* This really is the truth - I'm reviewing it for one of my regular clients, along with a pile of other smut for which I shall be paid - but I fear being honest here will be the kiss of death for the juicy commissions I seek at some very serious financial industry publications.

You can see my dilemma. If I tell the truth, readers will either think I'm a junkie, barking, a filthy pervert or just dull. Or possibly all four. If that's possible. Yet I still need to make it witty and interesting so my peers can see what a brilliant writer I am.

I think I need to sleep on this and give it another go in the morning...

* Warning: NSFW

01 May 2009

BADD08-09 - a snapshot of changes

I know I said recently that I wasn't going to keep blogging about my disability issues on what is, after all, a work blog, but it's Blogging Against Disablism Day and so, in what I promise will be my last blog on this for a while, unless strictly necessary, I want to look back at how things have changed for me since BADD08.

Healthwise, things have changed little. My seizure frequency remains more or less unchanged. I'm still on the same meds, at the same dose, and have a very good trade-off between stability and quality of life. No complaints there, then.

What did change for me was that very shortly after BADD08, my personal life underwent a big change - I became single again. That might not sound like a big deal to most people (setting aside the emotional upheaval a split always brings in its wake) but it has massive implications when you've been used to having someone around to be a carer, pick up the pieces after a crap day, ferry you to medical appointments because you can't drive yourself there, and so on.

I was partnered up when diagnosed more than a decade ago and then, when that relationship ended, moved almost seamlessly into my next relationship (purely by happy accident). For 12 years, there was someone by my side to tuck me up in bed after a seizure, fight my corner with the medical establishment when needed, and basically help me manage my life so I could continue to live as independently as possible.

Moving out to live on my own has reminded me how vulnerable I am, actually. I'm fortunate that the tiny handful of tonic-clonics I've had over the last year have not left me in urgent need of hospital treatment. But if I had, who would have called the paramedics? The last couple of simple partials I had left me very emotional afterwards - weepy and edgy, more so than when I was coupled up.

I've always been fiercely independent and am relishing being single again in many ways, but it's also made me aware that my need for independence mostly overrides my ability to ask for help. I had a tonic-clonic just days ago that took me 3 whole days to recover from. While friends both near and far were quick to text, tweet, ring and email to check on me once they heard, not once did I feel able to ask any of my friends or family who live near to me for assistance, even though for those 3 days I barely ate, could barely drag myself out of bed, was too frightened to attempt a shower as I felt very unsteady on my feet and cried a lot.

From a work point of view, that was also 3 days I didn't earn any money and, when you're single and self-employed, no one's going to pay the bills for you.

Ironically, that seizure was triggered by stress caused by my frustration with my publisher, for whom I've written a book on - epilepsy!

So, for me, the last 12 months have been very much about learning not so much how to live alone but how to cope alone, and making the necessary adjustments to my daily life to keep myself as safe as possible while staying independent. I guess I still need to learn how to ask for help when I need it. Ask me again in 12 months how far I got with achieving that particular hurdle...

29 April 2009


...or at least starting to.

I don't think I could have gone any lower yesterday. My body was just shutting down. By noon, I'd lost count of the number of times I'd burst into tears and I felt shattered, I went back to bed, and managed to sleep for 3 hours. When I got up, I sat at the PC but nothing on the screen made any sense and I abandoned any pretence at doing work.

I managed 6 hours' sleep last night and then I went back to bed at 9am and slept another 2 hours, then about an hour later I went back to bed and slept another 4. After 2 months of chronic insomnia, I'm craving the sleep I've missed out on. Needless to say, I've not done any work today. I can't face it. I feel really guilty as a PR friend is helping push the book, but I've not done any of the things she asked me to yet. I've lost interest, but I know it's just my brain protecting me after weeks with inadequate sleep.

I had a long chat with a hack friend on the phone last night. My fear is that my exhaustion will trigger the Big One (by which I mean a tonic-clonic seizure) - I've not had one for a while and the tiredness could well be the catalyst. The amount I've slept today is staggering but clearly I need it. I'm going to try to work tomorrow - at least the most urgent stuff.

Edited to add: after all that, I had the Big One anyway, and it took me 2 days to realise it (this is not unusual, and I'm not talking about me personally). The signs were all there - banging headache that painkillers had no effect on, muscles so painful and stiff I felt like I'd been trampled by a horse, the urge to sleep, sleep, sleep. I'm not sure when - either Monday night or (more likely) during my Tuesday nap. I'm as sure as I can be that it was during my sleep otherwise I'd have at least some recollection of waking up on the floor somewhere. It only dawned on me late yesterday afternoon that I must have had a seizure. Not my worst, but I could do without it right now.

28 April 2009


I managed 5 hours' sleep last night but don't feel rested and my eyeballs feel like they have been sandpapered. I have a splitting headache and don't want to work today, although I'll have to.

Yesterday, I spilled about some of these problems on one of the hack forums I hang out on. One friend told me to book a holiday. She's right - this is the 2nd time this year she's told me I need a break. I've not had a holiday since I spent a week in Larnaca a year ago (and it wasn't a happy trip - I split from Mr Wordsmith on our return). I've not even been away for a weekend and my only "mini-breaks" since then have been the occasional trips to the Smoke to large it with my hack colleagues on the legendary JournoBiz Massive drinking sessions. (There's 1 on tonight that I'd planned to go to, but am forced to miss because of my workload. I'm gutted as it's always great fun, and the networking is always useful too.)

I can't put a break off any longer, or I think I may crack. The insomnia is now so persistent that I've lost my appetite (and 2 kilos this week) - most days I'm forgetting to eat breakfast and in the evenings I'm so shattered I can't face cooking. And I love cooking. I feel guilty that personal emails are piling up unanswered in my inbox and on Facebook, because I never seem to have time to reply. It's amazing I still have friends, I've neglected them so badly.

One reason I've not taken a proper holiday for 12 months (and I even worked on Xmas Day!) is things were a bit chaotic on the personal front after splitting with Mr W. Then there were 2 house moves, the book to write, features to pitch and write, stuff to edit. I was very aware that I needed to up my income now I was single.

I have a serious longing to return to Crete and hike the White Mountains again. I need sunshine and good food and, more than anything else, to switch off and let my mind recharge. It'll need some planning - mah boy will need kennelling, for starters. But with luck, I'm going to be on a plane before the end of May...

27 April 2009

Throwing the book

I have a book coming out in a matter of just days and I want to throw the entire print runit at my publisher.

I've been so wrapped up in contract work, and slaving away for long hours to get it all done, that I didn't really pay too much advance attention to the book. I kept thinking - it's a few weeks away, I've plenty of time to start pitching. Then suddenly the weeks whizzed past and this morning it dawned on me that I'd heard nothing from my publisher at all since mid-March.

Where the hell were my dozen author copies? What had they lined up for promotion? (Back in mid-March, I'd filled in a massive form detailing stuff about various press contacts, local bookshops, names of editors at local radio and TV stations etc, precisely to assist them with that.)

I was just about to pick up the phone when an email arrived from the bunny at the publisher. The bunny's job is to get publicity for the books they publish. So, 4 days before publication she decides to let me know she's hastily cobbling some promo slots together for me.

To say I was enraged was an understatement. My anger was not helped by the fact that I've been severely sleep-deprived for a couple of months, which has made me very grouchy indeed most of the time. I asked her where my books were.

- We posted them to you at the end of March, she said.

- I haven't received them, I replied.

I'm not going to recount the entire string of mails that went back and forth but it transpired that the books had been sent to my old address, which I left 4 months ago and is 40 miles away. This despite the fact that I mailed the bunny in January to give her my new contact details, and again in mid-March to remind her of my new address. So she had all this on file and still managed to send my books to my old house. Worse, she insisted I must have them as they'd been signed for. I pointed out, rather tartly, that I'd not been back to my old town since I left and that I'd paid Royal Mail a large sum to forward all my mail for a year so I still should have received them (and yes I'm going to stick a rocket under Royal Mail tomorrow - watch me light the blue touch paper and stand well clear). But the bunny could have sent them to my current address in the first place if she'd paid a bit more attention. And if she'd bothered to email me a month ago to say the books were en route, the problem would have come to light very quickly.

But I'm more hacked off with the fact that I spent several months working on the book for an unbelievably paltry advance (and basically earned only about £50 in January from other clients because of time taken to finish the manuscript), in the hope that it would sell reasonably well and I'd at least earn some royalties.

But no, it's all been left to the last minute and I ended up bleating my woes on Twitter - some colleagues rallied around with ideas and contacts, for which I'm very grateful (even though I was horribly grumpy at the time), and I've now managed to secure a slot on the local BBC radio morning magazine show. It's something at least. Fortunately, there's an "awareness week" coming up mid-month, so I may yet be able to pitch a feature or two around that, much as I hate awareness weeks.

I am so knackered that I've had to apologise to lots of colleagues today for being a foul-tempered cow lately. And I had to grovel to the parental for going off-radar for several weeks, as well. I'm not massively popular right now. On days like these, I feel like jacking it all in and stacking shelves at the supermarket instead.

Lesson learned, though. I shan't write for this publisher again. Although I shall, of course, milk the fact I have a book out because it's good for the old CV.

Do I wish I'd never signed the contract? Hell, yes. At least right now. But I hope I might still be able to salvage something out of the current mess. The Manchester media community have been the best, today, with their offers of support. The next round will definitely be on me.

24 April 2009

2 for the price of 1

I've just blogged here again, knowing I wasn't going to publish it, ever.

Why? Because it wasn't about my life as a wordsmith but I needed to say something. So it's sitting here and unless something radical happens it'll never see the light of day.

So actually, you're still only getting 1 proper blog post from me today. The work one.

Good clients, bad clients

After all the faffing earlier in the week with the headhunter, there was a resounding silence. By lunchtime, I was sufficiently irritated to fire off a politebut should have been cranky email to enquire what was happening. The headhunter hadn't heard anything either. Apparently the client is in London and not responding to emails... So, the wait continues.

On the plus side, the banking client accepted my quote to redo their web copy (despite me plucking a ridiculously high figure out the air - proof that banks are still profligate with others' cash). I'm hoping that will turn into a regular gig to edit their forex materials.

Work today was slow, largely because of a hangover resulting from a lock-in at the pub and not hitting the mattress until 3 then getting up at 7. I still managed to churn out most of my workload although I'll have to play catch-up tomorrow so my client's inboxes are filled for Monday morning.

A glance through my emails has once again showed that about 80% of enquirers who ask for a quote never respond - not even to say "thanks but no thanks". The lack of manners pisses me off. I'd be even more annoyed except I know I'm not alone - this is a common complaint among my freelance colleagues. But, honestly, I don't want clients who can't be bothered to use basic good manners.

And now, I'm off out for fish and chips..