How I became a confident writer

When I first began as a writer I had no confidence whatsoever, regardless of the faith that was being shown in me by others. At least part of the reason for this was the fact that my breakthrough coincided with the beginning of the most challenging period of my life to date; a time when the once sturdy walls of opportunity began to tumble down around me.

I was only 17 when I sent off two of my less senseless ramblings over to the editors of an established but relatively obscure website called A Different League, which I had discovered through browsing on a more obscure jobs website run by the same people.

I fully expected to be knocked back, and two weeks without a response seemed to confirm that view, but eventually they got back and to my surprise, I was accepted as the latest member of their writing team.

Full of motivation and determined to make an immediately positive impression, my early articles were promising and substantial, but contained more than a hint of using me using all the writing techniques I knew. I was on the brink of achieving my English Language A-Level, yet there was still plenty more I needed to learn.

I soon moved on to writing news articles, which followed a very basic structure, albeit a very rigid one. The subject matter dictated that there was a lot of repetition involved – particularly regarding football transfers – but I was plagued by doubt; constantly worrying about possibly being told that my writing was not good enough, and receiving negative feedback from the online audience.

But the new inroads just kept on coming. Three months down the line and I was asked to write analysis pieces because my writing was deemed to be of a reasonable standard. Another two months and I was given my own project: Feature articles, where I would consult with the website’s editors themselves, and then write a whole new section of content.

The final ‘promotion’ came soon after, where I was very kindly asked to write for the Soccer 360 magazine, only one of the most popular publications of its kind in North America. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, but one which filled me with terror.

I was so inexperienced and the demands were so high. I had to write a 1,750-word article along with two sidebars within a strict timeframe. I also had to conform to strict formatting rules, suggest images and captions, and meet the unfamiliar requirements of writing for a magazine which wasn’t due to be published for two months.

The pressure I felt was unbelievable, removing all sense of happiness and fulfillment at being asked to write an article of such relative prestige. As I wrote my piece I was inwardly cursing myself frequently over my perceived inability to write anything of reasonable quality. I feared the prospect of someone else reading my work and dismissing it as a pile of uninformed garbage.

When I sent my finished article to the magazine, the feedback I received was positive, but minimal. My article was fine, although there were a couple of areas where I needed to make sure the text was ‘timeless’ – in other words relevant at the time when the issue is published rather than only applicable at the time of writing.

Did the fact that I was now a published magazine writer help boost my confidence? Sadly not. I continued writing almost robotically for A Different League before the chance arose for the next Soccer 360 article, which I regrettably turned down due to my nerves.

But I was back soon enough, and this time I had no choice. The Soccer 360 articles were now assigned to its writers without prior consultation, so I was given one of the main feature articles, which I completed to a high standard, according to those who read it.

Over the course of the following year I began to turn my hand to blogs, writing about different subject matters and finding that moving out of my comfort zone resulted in rather disjointed prose. So I realised I needed a clear focus; an objective for every piece of writing I produced in the future.

Having long developed an individual style of writing, I decided to create a more personal, conversational relationship with the reader, and test the boundaries of the style guides to which I was forced to adhere.

The more informal tone of Soccer 360 allowed me to do that, but with A Different League it was a matter of fortune. With the site having been passed over to new administrators in May 2015, I was given total creative freedom on the articles I produced.

By this time my personal circumstances had dramatically improved as a result of taking up my role as a university administrator, and that certainly helped me develop a more positive approach to my writing. But the creative freedom acted as a new lease of life, providing the opportunity to manufacture higher quality content. Although I stuck to the style guide, I could now implement many more of my own personal touches.

With around 3,000 online articles as well as a handful of magazine articles under my belt, I had naturally made great strides and was now an accomplished writer, but for the first time I began to acknowledge it. I had reached a level where only the most important articles provoked a sense of nervous tension.

Nowadays, when I look back on the vast majority of my articles, I read them with pride rather than the urge to cringe with perceived notions of ineptitude. Some of my early writing was not of the greatest standard, but I now realise that it was acceptable enough, and merely just part of the journey to being the writer I am today.

Book Review: I Let You Go

While browsing in a Swindon bookstore back in August, I came across the name Clare Mackintosh. Having been consumed by a desire to read one of the numerous psychological thrillers that seem to be appearing everywhere these days, I was soon overcome by intrigue following a quick glance at the cover.

The blurb screamed out at me. This author’s card had been marked.

Fast forward two months later and I eventually decide that it’s time to bite the bullet and buy her debut novel I Let You Go, and on the whole that proved to be a very good decision. While I’m not normally the kind of person to judge a book by its cover, there was just something in the description which told me that I just had to choose this as my latest reading foray.

Almost immediately I am hit with a dose of familiarity, as much of the story (including the tragic accident around which it is based) takes place in Bristol, my glorious hometown. The prologue sets everything up, as a excitable five-year-old boy escapes from his mother’s grasp and is struck dead by a passing car, which fails to stop.

The journey from then on takes us to a rural Welsh community, where protagonist Jenna Gray finds refuge and attempts to rebuild her life after what happened. Meanwhile, the police investigation continues back in Bristol and sub-plots are introduced such as the overly amicable relationship between Detective Inspector Ray Stevens and his junior officer Kate Evans.

Although some of the first part can be reasonably described as prosaic and at times predictable, it always remains captivating, and it ends with an incredible twist which will have the reader questioning every event in the novel that has previously taken place. All I will say is that there is more to Jenna’s story than bereavement.

The full police investigation takes place over a timeframe of two years, during which time DI Stevens and Kate go deeper into the case and ultimately discover truth. Meanwhile, Jenna’s past is detailed at length, as we discover the sequence of events which ultimately led to the accident.

These passages are written using both the first and second person narrative, a fine insight into the innermost feelings of the characters concerned. It is interspersed with occasional acts of violence which do not make for comfortable reading, but in the context of the story they are massively effective and reflect a painful hidden reality.

Another amazing twist takes place very late on in the novel; one which forced me to stop reading and engage in a brief period of contemplation. It leads on to a dramatic finale, while the closing epilogue is ominously ambiguous, just to compound the suspense.

Over the past year, I Let You Go has been the recipient of some literary awards, and it’s easy to see why. It is a very strong, powerful novel, as well as serving as a bold debut from Mackintosh, whose former experience as a police officer really shines through.

This is the age of the psychological thriller, as exemplified by the success of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, adapted into a film in double quick time. I Let You Go acts as a very worthwhile contemporary, and should be enjoyed by anyone partial to crime fiction too.

My final word of advice regarding I Let You Go: Never assume anything!!!

Benched

Today I was sent the commission for the January 2017 edition of the Soccer 360 magazine, the print publication to which I have happily contributed to for three years with distinction. But there was a problem. For the first time since I began, except for occasions where I had made myself unavailable, I was not assigned an article.

Let me first begin by making it clear that this has nothing to do with my writing ability, but merely a reflection of the fact that putting this particular commission together proved to be massively problematic for the magazine editors. My writing has always received strong feedback and a prominent position within the finished product.

As the magazine is published every two months, one of its most important aspects is the need to be ‘timeless’ and not to refer to current issues at the time of writing. That, along with the fact that the January/February edition is the period of the football season where talking points are at their most scarce, made sure that ideas for feature articles didn’t present themselves easily.

The commission I received today is the shortest I’ve ever seen by a long chalk, and sadly there was no space for me to be included. There are of course, numerous other writers and several others have missed out too, while perhaps it was felt that not many of the articles assigned were suited to my style of writing.

While I am obviously disappointed to have been sidelined until the New Year, I am very understanding and always appreciative of being given the opportunity to write for a magazine with such outstanding production values. My latest article will be published later this week, which will allow me to take pride in my work.

And to be truthful, the absence of a feature article provides me with an opportunity to focus on other things, such as the book (non-fiction) that I’m currently in the process of writing, as well as this blog. There is also the small matter of trying to find a new administrative job – preferably at the university where I currently work, as my current fixed term contract comes to an end in mid-March.

Striking Gold

In the past 12 months I have taken in a wide range of literature, from modern classics to Booker Prize winners; from Gothic ghost stories to play scripts. It has been a year of discovery for someone who had previously struggled to wriggle free of the grip of non-fiction and its fountain of knowledge.

But the books which have absorbed me most during this period of time are the Cormoran Strike crime novels, all three of which I received as a bumper Christmas gift. Written by the phenomenon that is J.K. Rowling under her now thinly-veiled pseudonym Robert Galbraith, they contain all the  ingredients for a superb crime story.

Opening The Cuckoo’s Calling for the first time back in May, it took just moments for me to be taken in and connect with it. The familiarity of Rowling’s vivid description of the setting, and the scene outside the luxury apartment block from which famous model Lula Landry fell to her death acted as the most fascinating prelude to a highly complex mystery.

And then we have Cormoran Strike himself, the private detective son of a well-known music star and a so-called super-groupie, who had his leg blown off while serving in the army. Just who is he? And can he outdo the police and uncover the truth behind such a meticulous crime?

Early on he employs former psychology student Robin as his temporary secretary, but there’s also much more to her than meets the eye. Her efficiency and enthusiasm for the job eventually leads her to become Strike’s assistant, and as the books progress the relationship between the two becomes more personal despite their attempts to maintain a professional distance, while Robin’s fiancee Matthew lurks in the background with no shortage of suspicion.

Even as we move into the third novel, Career Of Evil, we still don’t feel as if we really know Strike as he embarks on a personal mission to track down a serial killer who bears a vicious grudge against him. This all adds to the intrigue, and makes him stand out among the many detectives the currently exist in modern fiction.

Unsurprisingly, the three novels to date are to be adapted into a major BBC drama series, which will be separated into seven hour-long episodes. And following lengthy speculation, we have finally found out who will portray Strike and Robin, the unlikely yet captivating double act.

Both actors have made their name in period drama. Tom Burke starred in the recent BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and he certainly has the right kind of physique for Strike, who is described in the books as a huge – and hairy – imposing figure. Meanwhile, the role of Robin will go to the talented Holliday Grainger, who has featured in dramatisations of many a classic novel including Great ExpectationsJane Eyre, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

While it may disappoint fanciful fans who yearned for Emma Watson to portray Robin, for me Burke and Grainger are excellent choices as they seem to fit the profile of their characters. The announcement of Grainger rather played second fiddle to talk of Johnny Depp appearing in the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them series of films, but it really adds to the anticipation ahead of what should be seven weeks of unmissable television.

The novels may contain some unsavoury moments – some of the crimes are horrifyingly gruesome, some of the language is coarse, but where the Cormoran Strike series succeeds is the complexity of the crime. Among avid readers of fiction there will always be an appetite for a thought-provoking mystery, and Rowling had me – and many others I’m sure – on tenterhooks trying to piece together the subtle clues that point to the solution.

A Week To Go

It is now just a week until we will find out who will become the next president of the United States of America. Following an exhausting  yet highly eventful campaign, the result that emerges will ensure one of the most momentous days in electoral history, whichever way it goes.

There is plenty to admire about Hillary Clinton. She is leading the two-horse race to assume office, and should she be successful it will be the culmination of a distinguished and spirited political career. But is her integrity intact?

The revelations surrounding her email accounts while she was Secretary of State have weakened her standing, while opponents have also deemed her guilty by association with regards to husband and former president Bill Clinton, whose 1998 impeachment still resonates, and about whom allegations still exist.

The latest investigation into her emails by the blundering FBI have also led to serious question marks over her suitability for the job, and there are many within the USA who feel that Clinton simply cannot be trusted. In most election campaigns, she would have been down and out, but this is no ordinary election.

For the alternative is Donald Trump, the most bombastic, discriminatory, hateful and misogynistic presidential candidate the country has ever seen. A man who wishes to bar all members of a particular faith from entering the USA; a man who describes taking advantage of women as something as trivial as ‘locker room banter’; a man who promises to build a wall on the border with Mexico in a bid to curb immigration. Contrary to popular myth, it won’t be visible from space.

Despite his multitude of objectionable characteristics, Trump retains a loyal army of supporters; groups of guerilla mercenaries who will defend him come hell or high water. His divisive remarks have struck a chord with millions who feel disillusioned with life, whose backing he has gained at the expense of political correctness.

Clinton is clearly the lesser of two evils and should (if nothing significant comes of this current FBI probe) emerge victorious, but the uncertainty will remain over her ethical record. A Trump success would be a disaster not just for the state of American politics, but it could have a serious effect on foreign relations. Diplomacy, and the equal opportunities of all American citizens are at stake, and could suffer dramatically should the former Apprentice USA host land the top job.

Sadly, in a year which has seen the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, it seems as though anything is possible. The year 2016 has seen the world take a backwards step and the landscape for discrimination appears to have widened as distasteful attitudes have come to the fore; poisonous rhetoric driven by those in positions of power.

As a final thought, the realisation that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will become president just goes to show how big a shame it is that Barack Obama’s time is nearing its end. Obama may have had his critics in the USA during his eight years in power, the unlike his potential successors he has shown himself to be honest, reassuring and dignified from beginning to end. The shining example of the personal qualities required to hold such a position.

Brexit: My War on a Word

It sounds like the kind of thing you would expect to see lying between the Weetabix and the Shredded Wheat at your local supermarket, but the word ‘Brexit’ has become synonymous with life in the United Kingdom during 2016; a triumph for those media personnel who just love to amalgamate two innocent words and create the next evil neologism.

I have written before about the concepts of prescriptivism and descriptivism, and while I will always stress the importance of language evolution, words like ‘Brexit’ should have no place in our everyday speech. But sadly, we have long since reached the point of no return.

The regrettable outcome of the EU referendum back in June, and the subsequent news that the UK’s process of leaving the so-called common market will be gradual and long-term, has only increased its usage. From now until the moment Theresa May triggers article 50, we’ll only be fed with constant speculation over when that moment might be, or the progress of the complex negotiations that seem to be ever ongoing.

Does the UK deserve the best possible deal after making such a catastrophic decision to leave? That is a different article altogether, but top of the news billing almost every single night without fail, is more ‘Brexit’ coverage. And even when the breakaway from the EU is complete, the official date of ‘Brexit’ will become a fixed reference point in the distant future.

Every time I hear the word ‘Brexit’ uttered by young and old; well respected television news anchors and reporters who frankly should know better, I have an urge to silence them. It is tabloid nonsense, which has filtered its way into prominence.

Back in the 1990’s the channel tunnel was sometimes referred to as the ‘chunnel’, which thankfully never caught on. But ‘Brexit’ only goes to show how much of a grip those ghastly, trouble-stirring red tops have on our society, almost to the extent that we can’t think for ourselves anymore.

‘Brexit’ is now a nationwide phenomenon, but its sheer ubiquity amounts to a betrayal of our linguistic customs. This truly is the mangling and manipulation of the English language.