ShAFF travel writing workshop

I picked up lots of great tips at this travel writing workshop.

On Saturday, I attended a travel writing workshop run by Phoebe Smith, editor of Wanderlust magazine. The workshop was one of a varied programme of events at ShAFF (Sheffield Adventure Film Festival) held in Sheffield’s Showroom cinema.
The room was full for Phoebe’s talk – obviously there are a lot of aspiring travel writers out there! I did notice, however, that very few attendees were taking notes; so either the’ve got brilliant memories or they’re not quite that serious after all.
After telling us a bit about herself, Phoebe spent an hour sharing lots of tips. As part of the workshop we looked through a travel article from the Guardian and discussed the different techniques the author had used. The workshop ended with a Q&A session.  
Throughout, Phoebe was friendly, clear and, even though it was only an hour, managed to impart an awful lot of good information. As I’ve read so much about writing over the past year and I’m currently taking part in a travel writing course with the London School of Journalism, I had been hesitant about the benefits of attending this workshop and wondered if my time might be better spent at one of the other events. By the end I was so glad I’d made my last-minute decision to go as it was definitely an hour well spent. And I know that if I ever get the chance to do a longer workshop with Phoebe, my name will be first on the list.
I took pages of notes – below I’ve included some of the main points.
Key Tips
Make people interested in what you’re writing – don’t just assume they’re going to be interested.
How do you get people interested?
  • Know who you are writing for:
    • Age
    • Sex
    • Interests
  • Write accurately:
    • Grammar, punctuation
    • Facts
  • Write with a purpose – what’s your aim?
    • Instructing?
    • Educating?
    • Entertaining?
  • Write well – get your audience to come back
  • Practise, practise, practise … 

Common Mistakes

  • Not reading your finished piece through first – print it and read it on paper as well as on screen; get someone else to read it
  • Making it too personal – do your readers care?
  • Humour – great if it works; cringeworthy if it doesn’t
  • Toilet stories – nobody wants to know about your bowels

Getting the Introduction Right

  • Grab the reader in the first paragraph
  • Make it suit the tone of the article
  • Try a couple of intros to see which is best – you can make your final decision later
  • Look at how other people begin their articles – read the work of others analytically
  • You can start with a strong quote, but it has to be good
  • Write straight away – don’t worry about what you write, you can change it – just get started
  • Go back to the intro at the end – do you need to change it?
Story Structure
  • Beginning – grab your reader with the introduction
  • Explain and elaborate – explain why you’re doing the trip or activity – each paragraph has to move the story forward – don’t lose sight of the purpose/reason for your article
  • Ending – don’t suddenly end because you’ve got to your destination or the activity has finished – bring it slowly to a conclusion – slow it down over the last few paragraphs before concluding it
Getting Started
  • You can write about anywhere at all – it doesn’t matter if you’re not travelling – where you are now is a destination for someone else
  • Notice everything – e.g. people’s habits – what are they doing with their hands? Are they chewing, fidgeting, limping?
  • Record everything – always have a pen and paper – you will forget details if you leave it till later
  • Speak to people – get local knowledge
  • Start writing
Writing the Perfect Journal
  • Who is your journal for? – Is it just for you? Is it online for friends and family to read?
  • When writing your journal think about potential beginnings and endings for articles – circle or highlight them so you can easily find them when you look back
  • If it’s a public journal, leaving out things can be as important as what you include – don’t woffle or include every minute detail to the point of boring your readers
  • It doesn’t have to be chronological
  • Use your senses – what can you smell, taste, etc
  • Dialogue – have a ‘cast list’ at the back of your notebook – people’s names and notes about their personality, etc – assign a symbol or number to each so you can quickly refer to them in your main text, especially when making a note about what they have said
  • Avoid listing everything
  • Get out a pencil and sketch
  • Scrapbook it – stick tickets, receipts, etc in your journal
  • Do use a date
  • Do leave gaps so you can make notes on your notes
  • Stick to what interests you
  • Get it down on paper while it’s fresh
  • Enjoy it!
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep e.g. don’t say you’ll write every day if you can’t
  • Be unique
  • Write about what you know
  • Let the passion show
  • Be accurate
  • Use photos
  • Get to grips with some of the techy stuff e.g. SEO, plugins, etc
  • Social media is your best friend
  • Do try to get some revenue, but don’t do it for the money!
  • Your blog is a great shop window – it’s the portfolio of the modern day
  • Think about your local papers as well as the national press
  • Try digital magazines as well as print magazines
  • Write for other people’s blogs – guest blogging
  • Other websites
  • Guidebooks and advice books have more need for writers – you need to be very disciplined and write within a strict structure – much more so than a personal travel-writing book
What Editors Want / How to Pitch
Phoebe used an interesting scenario to explain this –  
Imagine a bar full of editors and writers – editors are needy and promiscuous, but getting a lot of offers – as a writer you’re trying to catch an editor’s eye – build some trust – let them see who you are and that you’re serious and dependable – it can take a long time to get noticed as you have some pretty stiff competition – it took Phoebe two years of trying before she got a freelance article published in Wanderlust even though she was an established writer.
Continuing the allegory, Phoebe advised us to start by asking the editor for a drink and not proffering a marriage proposal straight away, no matter what your long-term intentions are. In other words, start by pitching a short article, not a full-blown series.
Getting that first date is the hardest – once you’ve got it, make it a success, then you’ll find the second date much easier to get.
Phoebe gets around 100 pitches a day and although she reads every one you’re going to have to stand out from the crowd to have any chance of being successful – make sure you have a good subject line and introduction.
As for how to pitch, most magazines will have guidelines on their website. The guidelines for Wanderlust can be found on the ‘about us’ tab.
Your pitch should include:
  • Paragraph about the article/pitch
  • Intro of the article
  • A bit about you
Other tips when pitching include:
  • Photos are not usually essential, but if you have them it’s better to include a link rather than clogging up the editor’s email box up with attachments.
  • There are many reasons why you might not be commissioned – the magazine might already have enough articles; they might have already covered the topic or already commissioned it.
  • Magazines plan 6 months/issues ahead   – bear this in mind when pitching, especially if your article is topical
  • Newspaper features/articles are usually 700-1000 words
  • Magazine features/articles are usually 2000-2500 words
  • Multi-pitching – make it different for each pitch – if multi-pitching the same or a similar article and an editor accepts after another one already has, tell the second editor the article is no longer available

Sheffield Adventure Film Festival

I managed to have a great day at film festival without actually seeing any films.

Is it possible to go to a film festival and not see any films? Well, on Saturday I did just that. I spent the day in Sheffield at the Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF). The festival lasted the whole weekend, but Saturday was the only day I could be there as on Sunday I was supposed to be in a hot air balloon floating above Bakewell. It didn’t happen AGAIN, but that’s another story. Back to ShAFF.

ShAFF has been an annual event for a few years now and is a brilliant showcase for the (usually short) films made by (usually young male, but not necessarily short) people who are making their lives all about adventure. I was really interested to see some of these films and get myself a good dose of inspiration, but was far too distracted by all the great workshops, forums and talks that were on offer.

First up was a travel writing workshop run by Phoebe Smith, editor of Wanderlust magazine. I made lots of notes and was really pleased to hear a lot of what she said tallying with what I’ve found out from all the research and reading I’ve been doing over the past year. It’s so good to know I’m on the right track!

Rushing back to the ‘lecture theatre’ (aka the bar area) after a quick lunch of rather tasty fennel and potato soup, I found it already filling up for the cycle touring forum. The only seats left were on the front row, right in front of the panel. As one of my personal mottoes is ‘live life on the front row’, this was definitely not a problem. 

Leon McCarron (young, male, not particularly short) led the panel which included another solo male cyclist and a couple of couples (half of each couple was female. YES!). The six had done very different tours and had different views on speed with Ed Shoote being the most zoomy. They each spoke a bit about their cycle tours and then answered questions from the audience. Cycle touring is on my list of things to do so it was quite interesting to hear what they had to say. Though I’m not planning on cycling round the world as Laura and Tim Moss did or even cycling 2,500 miles along the Great Divide from New Mexico to Banff in Canada as Hannah Maia did for her megamoon (a longer, more adventurous version of a honeymoon) with new husband Patrick. A week in the Netherlands might be quite enough for me. 

After a coffee and cake break, it was time for a film making workshop. In the first half Paul Diffley showed techniques for interviewing people on camera and explained how to set shots up. The second part of the session focussed on sound with Chris Prescott making us aware that good sound engineering is just as much about the sounds you remove as those you leave in. This is all really useful as I’ve used video a lot in my teaching and at some point I do want to make a short film of my own – this being another item on my list of things of do.

The final session of the day was a series of Shed Talks. These were modelled on the slightly better known TED Talks, but as we were at ShAFF in Sheffield the moniker ‘Shed’ sounded more appropriate. The talks were all motivational with the most moving speaker being a climber with terminal cancer who, after diagnosis, set up the charity ‘Climbers Against Cancer (CAC)’. The charity has raised thousands of pounds internationally and I felt privileged to hear founder John Ellison tell his story in his brief ten minute slot. When diagnosed he was given two years to live. That was three years and four months ago.

I thought of how much he’s achieved and how important it is to never waste a second of the life we’re given. With that sobering thought we repaired to the bar to sample Abbeydale Brewery’s special ShAFF IPA (no, not Indian Pale Ale, but Intrepid Pale Ale of course).

ShAFF is held at the Showroom Cinemas and Workstation close to Sheffield train station. As well as films, workshops and talks, there are stalls advertising or selling adventure related products and a second-hand kit stall where you can sell your old kit and use the proceeds to buy someone else’s old kit.

The website for ShAFF can be found here.

First Feedback

I’m very happy with my first feedback.

Last week I wrote about how I’d finally got round to starting my Freelance and Travel Writing Course with the London School of Journalism. Yesterday I received the first feedback from my tutor. There wasn’t a lot (it would have been a HUGE blow to my confidence if he’d obliterated my assignments with red pen!), but what there was, was really positive. He even said my English skills were exemplary. Exemplary! Such a nice word; sort of rolls off the tongue. Hopefully, I’ll be hearing it a lot more over the coming months.

He has provided me with a list of recommended reading. I got straight onto Amazon and, as some of the books were extremely cheap, I have them winging their way to me as we speak.

I’ve downloaded my second lesson and have already started working on it. If I keep up this level of enthusiasm, I’ll have to re-assess my previous estimate of 45 years being the amount of time I’ll need to complete the course!

Writing course

I’ve finally completed the first lesson on my writing course. It only took me 3 years!

About 3 years ago I signed up for a online course with the London School of Journalism. I’d been recommended the course by a friend and also noted that other writers I follow had mentioned doing courses with them. 

The course I signed up for is Freelance and Travel Writing. Each unit has a chunk of reading and then a series of writing tasks that I complete at my own pace, emailing the finished tasks to my assigned tutor when I’m ready.

The reading for lesson one is basically background on journalism: history of journalism and printing, types of journalism, types of publication. The first of the four assignment tasks was to write a personal statement including prescribed criteria and with a strict wordcount. For the second task, I had to detail the journalistic equipment and resources I have (computer, camera, books, etc) and my relevant abilities e.g. my computer skills, level of English and knowledge of other languages. Thirdly, I had to provide written advice for someone who wants to be a freelance writer, and finally I had to submit a ‘character study’ of a magazine of my choice and a ‘pen portrait’ of the type reader it is marketed to. Each of the assignments has a maximum number of words allowed. 

On several occasions over the last few years, I’ve sat down and attempted these tasks. I’ve ummed and ahhed, written a bit, scribbled it out, written it again, scribbled it out again, given up. This isn’t because the tasks are difficult, but, I realise now, because my head wasn’t in the right place. It was far too full of lesson planning, marking, meetings, extra-curricular activities, union work, Duke of Edinburgh Award training, finding time for family, finding time to go to the dentist or renew my car insurance. There was no room in my head for something that seemed frivolous, a mere hobby. Even though it was something I really wanted to do. Fortunately, when I enrolled for the course I ensured it was one with no deadlines as, even then, I knew I’d struggle with time constraints. I just didn’t realise how much I’d struggle.

Finally, my head is clearing. I’m feeling like I’m getting to the top of the mountainous mess of my life and the view is good. I can see where I’ve been, where I am and where I want to go next. It was with this clear head I finally sat down to look at the assignments again and this time I could see exactly how I wanted to complete them. I had to spend a lot of time re-writing to get the wordcounts down to the required maximums and this meant corrupting some sentences I’d really like to have kept as they were, but at no point did I feel as though I was floundering. I knew I could do it. I even enjoyed doing it. 

This morning I checked the submission info, attached my work to an email and hit send. It felt good. As well as adhering to the set criteria for the tasks, I’ve tried to write in a way that demonstrates my writing style and is ‘journalistic’ rather than just a list of information. I’ll know if this was the right thing to do when I get my feedback.

As there are a total of 15 units and it’s taken me 3 years to complete the first one, if I continue at this pace it will take me 45 years to finish the course. By then I’ll be aged, erm, er … well, I hope I’ll still be alive. 

Self-publishing Conference

Self-publishing is now so popular there’s even a conference dedicated to it.

The full page advert in Writing magazine could hardly be missed. A conference with a choice of workshops on many different aspects of self-publishing is to be held in May. As I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with my book, the timing is perfect. I checked out the website and found lots of free resources from the last two years’ conferences. No writing was done for several hours as I instead spent my time reading up on the importance of metadata (something I’d never heard of before) and how to get libraries and booksellers to stock my book. I was convinced and handed sixty quid over to secure myself a place. I’m hoping for some good networking opportunities as well as useful workshops. It’s also a good incentive to get on with my book. It’ll need to be finished sharpish after the conference otherwise everything I’ll have learnt will be out-of-date; things really do seem to move on that quickly these days.

The conference is taking place in Leicester, a city I haven’t been to before and know very little about. So I’m going to make a weekend of it, meet a friend and do some exploring.

The website for the conference is here.

Software for Authors

I’m so happy with my new software.

Word was getting completely unwieldy. 

In the past I’ve written essays, reports, letters and manuals using Microsoft Word. I even used it to write my Master’s dissertation. I’ve always been happy with it. Then I started trying to write a book. I’ve never written anything this long before and it was soon getting out of hand. 

My book on the Kungsleden is gathering pace and the word count is creeping up and although this is good, I was beginning to feel very chaotic; scrolling through reams of pages whenever I needed to add or check anything was not leading to a state of authorly tranquility. I knew I needed to find a solution before I went any further.

I asked the Google gods and found that there are generally two choices of software for authors out there. I’m sure there are more, but as I have no knowledge of writing books and so don’t really know what I need until I need it, I wanted to choose something mainstream and with good reviews.

Of the two software choices – Scrivener and yWriter5 – the first is pay and the second is free. I didn’t particularly want to pay for something until I knew what I really needed and fortunately the freebie yWriter5 seemed to have everything I wanted and I only found good reviews. So without further ado, I decided to give it a go.

It was really easy to install and just as easy to figure out how everything works. I’ve copy and pasted my book from Word and been able to set each chapter up in its own folder which can then be sub-divided into different scenes. The chapters are listed in a left-hand column and by clicking on a chapter I can bring up a list of scenes. I had briefly considered setting something like this up in Word but soon realised that as every chapter would be a separate document, this would probably be even more unwieldy to use than just one long document. With yWriter5 each chapter is always easily to hand.

Once I’ve clicked on a chapter, I then have options for adding planning notes, character profiles, locations, goals and a description of the chapter as well as the actual content. Clicking on different lists reveals exactly how many, and in which, chapters each character and location has been mentioned.

I’ve been using yWriter5 for a couple of weeks now and I’m finding it very intuitive and really user-friendly. As the work on my computer becomes more organised and less chaotic I feel as though the same is happening to my brain. I’m thinking more clearly, noticing errors and repetitions, knowing where more detail is needed, fixing omissions and generally starting to feel like a real writer.

From pictures I’ve seen of Scrivener, it looks to be a lot fancier and to have even more functions to play around with. As with yWriter5 I’ve only read good reviews of Scrivener and so would like to have a test run with it to see how the two compare. For now though, I’m very happy with yWriter5 and the way it’s working for me.

Researching and writing

I’m working hard on my book at the moment. Even to the extent of inventing my own language! (Dutlish anyone?)

After a lot of research into travel books (good excuse to do lots of reading) I’ve come to the conclusion that most books have around 200 pages and 100,000 words. Give or take 10-20%. This is reassuring because this is what I’m aiming for with the book I’m trying to write at the moment. I’m not looking at bestselling travel writers as they tend to have much longer books, but more the sort of writers you only discover when researching books on a particular region or way of travelling.

At the moment I’m about a third of the way there with around 32,000 words. I’ve divided the writing of my first draft into three phases:

Phase one was typing up my diary notes. I kept quite a detailed diary as I was walking, but as I was hand-writing and, more importantly, not wanting to add a huge notebook to my load, it was in note form. My typing up in phase one involved writing it up into proper sentences and paragraphs rather than just copying up notes. As I’m a fairly fast typist this was completed quite quickly.

I’m now working on phase two, which is much slower going. Phase two involves the factual side of my walk and means lots of research. One of my USPs (unique selling points) is that the book will be useful for anyone planning, or thinking about, a walk along the Kungsleden. Although it’s not intended as a guidebook, I do want to get quite a lot of solid information into it. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because so few people in the English speaking world are aware of this walk and there is very little written on it in English. The very reason I want to write the book is also the reason my research is going quite slowly – there’s very little written on it in English.

I’m finding quite a lot on the internet, but it tends to be in Swedish. Although I picked up a few Swedish words, my language skills are definitely not of the proficiency needed for reading Swedish websites. I’m ploughing through, picking out the words I know and finding myself doing a complicated process of translating into English via Dutch. Yes, Dutch. When I was in Scandinavia in February I noticed how a lot of the words in both Danish and Swedish seemed to share a similar root to Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch, but my Dutch vocabulary is far more extensive than my Swedish vocabulary and whilst I was travelling over the summer I found this came in very useful. I’m finding it just as useful now. When I’ve read through a page and got the gist of it in Dutch and English (Dutlish?), I’ll put any relevant bits into Google translate to double-check. Although it comes up with a few strange translations and the word order is sometimes rather jumbled, I’m quite impressed with it. I wouldn’t use it to translate anything of importance, say a legal document, but for my purpose it’s fine.

Once I’ve done some research and made my own notes, I’m then inserting this into whichever part of my draft I think it’ll best fit. This is all taking quite a long time. I’m aiming to have roughly 50,000 words by the end of the phase two. That’ll be half the book dedicated to my first USP. Only 18,000 words to go then …

Phase three will be dedicated to my second USP which is something along the lines of stressed, middle-aged woman/teacher gives up job and goes for a long walk in the Arctic wilderness. I think I’m going to enjoy writing this part. Not that I’m not enjoying what I’m doing at the moment, but I’m conscious of time and want to get as much done as possible before the need to pay bills means I have to go back to work. 

Of course, once it’s all done, that’s only really the start of it. My first draft will be a collection of disorganised ramblings and will be in need of some serious editing. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I’ve returned … what next?

After a summer spent walking in the Arctic wilderness I’ve come home to no job, but lots of ideas.

I’ve been home for about 10 days now and I’m slowly getting myself sorted out. As planned, I’ve spent the summer on a long walk in a long country. I aimed to walk the Kungsleden trail in the far north of Sweden and managed to complete just under half of it before my knees gave out. Although it’s disappointing not to have finished the whole thing, I really enjoyed what I did and developed a whole new mindset towards walking. I’ll write more about that in another post. I’ve also got an excuse to go back next year.

Before I went to Sweden, I left my job. Drastic but sometimes these things have to be done. I was getting less and less time to do the things I want to do with my life and to spend time with the people I want to spend time with. Work was, quite literally, taking over my life. I feel a lot calmer and more in control of my life since finishing work. Unfortunately, as I’m not a rich heiress or lottery winner, and I don’t have a sugar-daddy to hand, I’ll have to find some other means of earning a living. But this time I want it to be on my terms. In the meantime I want to spend some time focussing on things I want to achieve personally.

One of the items on my list is to write a book. I’ve had ideas roaming around inside my head for years, but they’ve never seemed quite right when I’ve come to put them down on paper. My time walking in the wilderness gave me lots of thinking time and I now feel I have the right ideas for a book. I had thought about writing up the walk even when I was at the planning stages. There is very little written on it in English so I’d hope it would be helpful to others wanting to do something similar. This would be one of my USPs. Yes, I’ve been reading up on what helps a piece of writing to sell and found out all about the need for a USP (Unique Selling Point). I have two USPs. Is that a good thing? The first, as mentioned, concerns the lack of writing about this trail that is currently available in English. The second goes something along the lines of ‘stressed, middle-aged woman gives up job and goes off alone for a wander round the Arctic’.

I kept quite detailed diaries whilst I was away and I’m now in the process of writing them up and adding to them. As I read back over them and think about fleshing them out, the book is almost writing itself in my mind. I have so many ideas. I think I’m almost glad I only completed half the walk as I definitely have enough material for one book already!


Can I write 50,000 words in a month?

I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo. So from the 1st November, for a month, I will be typing furiously trying to write 50,000 words for a novel I have no idea about yet. I’m consciously trying to not think about it till then as I just want to write whatever comes into my head and not worry about quality or if it even makes sense.

This may sound like a crazy way of doing things and the usual advice is to have a plan, write a draft, check the plan, blah, blah, blah. But I’ve always found when I start with plans I over think and struggle to actually get any words down. When I was studying, once I’d finished researching an essay I’d just sit and write for an hour. I found that not only was this good exam practice, it was the only thing that worked to actually get me started. And once I had an hour’s worth of words, I’d read over it and then make my plan and do the next draft and all the rest of the blah, blah, blah stuff.

NaNoWriMo actually encourages my way of writing. (Though I think I’m maybe supposed to have an idea of what I’m going to write about). It’s a month of quantity and not quality. So I’m just going to go for it and see what happens. It’ll be a test of my patience and dedication to actually sit down each night and write. If I can’t do this and write when I don’t have to care about the quality then I’m really going to struggle to write anything in the future where quality is important.


Thinking about NaNoWriMo

I’m not disciplined enough to write a book. But I would like to have a go. If I ever do write one I don’t think it will be fiction as I’m not imaginative enough. It’ll probably be more like a fictionalised account based on a true story. Because I think this will be very hard for me to achieve I’ve included ‘writing a book’ as a separate challenge to actually being a writer on my list. If I write a book but never write anything else, I’ll only tick off the book task. If I write and get published regularly, but don’t write a book, then I’ll only tick off the writer challenge.

I heard of NaNoWriMo recently on another blog. I had no idea what it was about but a bit of googling soon sorted that out. It stands for National Novel Writing Month and takes place each November. It started as an American thing, hence the ‘national’, but is now global.

Basically you register, and then spend November trying to write a 50,000 word novel. By the end of the month you have to upload your novel to their site and their special counting machines do a word count. If you’ve achieved the magical 50,000 you get to copy and paste an online certificate. So no big prizes, but then it is free. And it gets people writing. The best reward of course is that by the end of the month you have 50,000 more words than you had at the start and so have something to play around with and try to turn into an actual novel.

When I was a student and had to write essays I always struggled with the traditional ‘make a plan first’ approach. I agree, this is a very sensible and practical approach and I can’t fault it. But I couldn’t do it. I would write my plan and then stare at the page not knowing how to turn it into an essay. So I came up with my own technique. After doing some research around the subject area, so I at least had a bit of a clue about what I was doing, I would sit down and time myself for one hour. In that hour I had to write my essay. This killed two birds with one stone. It was great exam practice and it meant I had something on paper that I could then edit and turn into an acceptable essay. After reading it through I’d have a good idea of what I could actually do with the essay, what changes needed to be made, what needed to be added (or left out), and so on. Then I’d make my plan and write my essay in the conventional way.

With NaNoWriMo I’ll have to use this technique. There’ll be no time for edits, drafts, research, plans, or any of the other stuff that you’re supposed to do first. Sounds perfect for me!

So depending on my workload, and how my college courses are going, I’ll be giving this go. Hopefully this November, but if not, then the one after.