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Tag: People

3

Worrying Times in the Shantytown

Shantytown surrounding Dar KhalifaThese are worrying times in the shantytown within which we live. Just as the big nasty apartment building mushroomed up without any warning in the bowels of the bidonville behind us, there’s been almost no official word about what’s going on with regard to breaking down the homes.

I’ve heard it said that the people who bought apartments in the expensive building behind paid the first slice of their cash on nothing more than an artist’s impression. The second tranche is payable now as I understand it, now that the concrete super-structure is complete.

The problem for the developers is that no one that’s paid a big chunk of cold hard cash is going to slide any more their way until they can drive in and have a look at the work done so far. And those people aren’t going to pay a single dirham more until there’s a nice plush road, as there is on the plans.

Meanwhile, the larger problem with many of the shacks is that they lie in the path of the road. I have heard it said, too, that 32 families were paid off last year. But they didn’t move… of course they didn’t, because in Morocco anyone with any cash is immediately cajoled into lending it to extended family and friends.

The first houses to have been knocked down were mostly bashed down with sledge hammers… the work of men from the building site. Needless to say, there are many glum looks and plenty of bad feeling. But, as anyone reading this can I am sure imagine, a handful of impoverished people in a shantytown have little hope when pitched against what is one of the Kingdom’s most powerful building contractors.

Two of our guardians live in the bidonville, and our maid. Thankfully, they live just out of the path of the road and so, hopefully, will be saved a little longer.

I’ve resisted taking pictures while walking through because this is a sensitive time. And the last thing I’d want if my house was being knocked down was people taking snaps of it all.

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Human Interest

Whether you’re writing books or journalism, the best way to engage the reader is to write about people. In journalism it’s usually called ‘Human Interest’. It works in a way I can’t really explain, except to say that people are interested in other people. It’s what makes us who we are. If I’m given a wadge of research about a bomb attack in, say, Gambia, I search through and put aside most of the numbers and statistics. I can slot a few of them in, but they don’t tell the story. What I do is to look for a person, someone with whom my readers can identify, someone who’ll tug at the heartstrings. If you don’t believe me, read any article in the tabloid newspapers and they always lead on a person, rather than on figures. Start with the human, and spiral out, telling the story, weaving in a few facts, conflict and so on. It works every time.



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Start Small

There’s nothing wrong with starting small. Actually, it’s a fine place to begin. Before I wrote books, I wrote for airlines’ magazines and was paid in airline tickets. Most of these were on Ethiopian Airlines, working for a larger than life publisher called Mohamed Amin. I used to knock out 2000-word articles on just about anything that was politically neutral, usually from the back of my bedroom. The editors lapped the articles up and I had a way to travel, albeit to destinations on the Ethiopian destinations’ chart… most of which were off the scale amazing to someone who wanted real adventure. The other thing to do – if you’re really serious – is to get a job on a local newspaper. It’s without doubt the best way to learn your craft as a writer. You handle all sorts of stories and learn the human interest angle in ways that no other training will teach. What’s so important with any craft is to have a strong foundation, and there’s no stronger one than learning at the grass roots.



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Spec

Perhaps I ought to have written this posting before. It’s something that’s really shaped the way I work. As I think I have said previously, I work when something interests me, and never because of the money I may or not make from it. When I was breaking in and had no clips, I would send stuff to editors ‘on spec’, which means that you have already written it. And then, as I got better breaks, I used to go to the ends of the earth to do stories, and I’d pay for the travel myself, only selling the story when I got back. The reason was that there was always a danger that a hot story pitched to a national newspaper would be pinched and farmed out to one of their staffers. If you believe in it, be prepared to do the work and write on spec. In my opinion, it’s what sorts the pros out from the amateurs. I don’t even have a problem about writing books on spec, and know plenty of authors who only work this way. My advice to anyone who’s listening is to have faith in yourself. Never question it. And then others will believe in you as well.



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3

A Secret

The thing I like about writing a blog is that I feel as if I’m whispering stuff to friends, stuff that I have been able to keep under my hat for years. And as there’s trust, I’ll let you into a little secret. A while ago, when I was doing A LOT of features’ journalism for national magazines (more on that I guess soon), I used to pitch huge stories. They were usually of an international nature. Indeed, I can’t really think of anything I’ve written about the UK, where I was living at the time. The secret is that used to sometimes pretend that I was already in central Africa, or the deepest, darkest Amazon. I’d call the editorial desk (you can usually call editors collect, and I always did… by the time you are put through to the department, they have no idea where the call came from). To make it all seem a little bit more real, I’d go into the garden with one of those slightly crackly pre-digital cordless phones. I kept one specially for the purpose for years after they went out of style. And I’d crouch in the garden, in the shed, where the reception was real nice and crackly, and I’d pitch from ‘the middle of nowhere’. The reason was because if I was known to have been in London, NW2, no one would have taken me seriously at all.



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The Deep End

When you’re getting started, you do too much work, and not the right kind of work, because you’re all over the place. You have good intentions, but it’s only by gradual evolution that you hone your methods, and you see what’s of value and what’s not. I actually believe in this progression of the learning curve, but I also believe that learning curves shouldn’t be too whimsical and easy. I think they should be as steep as hell. As I have written before, a life without steep learning curves is no life at all. Go ahead: dive into the deep end. Grit your teeth and jump. Take no prisoners while you’re at it. That means, set your goals high. It’s much easier to pitch something that’s got bells and whistles, a holy grail… so long as you have a chance at bringing it in. There’s something important to mention here… and it was the bane of my life for a long, long while. It’s that if you pitch something to ANYONE, except something like the Blandford Forum Gazette, they are going to ask you who you’ve written for before. And of course the truth is that you’ve never written for anyone, except your Cub Scout Magazine when you were nine. In the days of old, you could promise clippings which never quite made it because of the mail system. But these days editors expect hot links to web pages. You can send them blog links, but they’re still a bit haughty when it comes to blogs. So you can try and get some articles, small pieces, up on the web, or at least a page for yourself on Wikipedia. It means that when you’re googled, you’ve got a presence. So… yes, it’s a fabulous steep learning curve to try riding the metaphorical bucking bronco on day one. It means that on day two you’re going to be far less raw, even if you’ve been knocked around a bit. But you’ll be on your way.



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The Story

Bear this in mind. Get it tattooed on your back in mirror writing if you can stand to: ‘It’s all about telling the story’. Writing and journalism are about telling the story in such a way that people will listen. It’s about making an impression, and that means it’s about telling the story in a way that will keep them hooked. Sometimes before I write the story or the anecdote down, I’ll tell it verbally to a few friends. I’ll tell it in various ways, keeping the facts the same, and see which telling gets the most dramatic response. When you call an editor, or email one as we now tend to do, you have to deliver the knockout blow. Journalism 101 teaches you that news is not DOG BITES MAN, but ‘MAN BITES DOG’.  And remember that. If there’s any space left on your back, get it tattooed on there too. In the next few days I’ll probably talk about some of the feature work I did. I used to specialise on stuff that got editors flushed with excitement… and I used to promise the articles that were near impossible to bring in. But somehow I’d always manage. So what I’m saying here is to plan the story you’re going to pitch with care. If it’s some tired old has-been story, then revamp it… package it in a new way. Put a spin on it. Tell it with a kick. And remember, editors get hundreds, or thousands, of pitches all the time. They are looking for ideas that deliver the knockout punch.



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Getting Started

So, you take the ‘Tahir Shah crash course to writing’, which is essentially getting published as a journalist with a target of hitting a mainstream newspaper or magazine… and here you are, wondering how to start. The first mistake that everyone makes is that they think ‘OK I’ll give those bloody editors something fabulous and they’re thickos if they don’t take it’. You get my drift. It’s a mistake because editors know what they want. They know it so well that they will only take material (unless it’s a scoop description of Michael Jackson naked covered in honey and feathers standing alone on the Bay Bridge), if it’s in their format. Over the next few days I’ll talk more about formats and how to get an article planned. But the important thing here — and really the key point — is to buy yourself a copy of the newspaper or magazine you want to write for, and analyse five articles. Really look at them, and make notes on where there’s description, raw information, characters, themes and all that. Because writing’s all about packaging. And if I want to sell an editor something, I need to package it in a way that they will find appealing… in a way in which they’ll be ready to receive it.



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Journalism

A fantastic way of staying primed and getting published is writing journalism. Over the next few days I’m going to write some postings on what I have come to see as the most powerful way to learn your craft. I often meet people who tell me that they are taking creative writing courses. I usually smile politely but inside I’m cringing. There’s only one positive thing about such courses, and that’s that they give employment to writers who would otherwise be starving… and in that way they’re a great little wheeze. By far the best way to learn the art of writing is to sell your work, and the finest way of starting, and learning, is to be forced to write to the spec of a particular newspaper or magazine. I’ll give some tips in the next few days. But a great thing to know is that by writing for editors (and even by getting work thrown back at you), you are giving yourself a mini crash course… and you’re getting published and paid at the same time.




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Mentors

One of the problems about writing is that you are shut away a lot of the time and you can get the feeling that you’re detached. A bit of being detached is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. But once in a while it’s even better to get a sense of where you are… whether you’re on the right rails. And a way of doing this is, over time, to get to know (preferably personally) a writer who influences you. I have had several great influences, and they have affected me in different ways. Some have touched the way I think, my outlook, and other the way I work. For the kind of life I want to live, Wilfred Thesiger was an enormous influence. I adored his clear reasoning, and the way he never ever ever altered his views depending on the audience. He was consistently politically incorrect, which was so refreshing. He said what he believed and didn’t live a life couched in fear. It was Wilfred who encouraged me to go to Ethiopia, and to go for a walk in the Upper Amazon, where he hinted I would probably meet ‘some interesting fellows’.  Hugh Carless has been another great inspiration to me. He was with Newby on ‘The Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ (the journey was actually his idea). Carless has the finest conversational delivery I have ever heard, and is quite the most impeccable man I have known. As for writing, my father was an enormous influence. He used to tell me ‘we are basket weavers, Tahir jan, that’s what we do… we weave baskets’. My one memory of childhood is the clicking of a manual typewriter from morning till night. And, as I mentioned the other day, Doris Lessing, who is a writer’s writer. But even more importantly, is her plain-speak. Like Thesiger, she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.



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