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Tag: Teaching

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Experience

I like watching myself doing things now, and imagining how I did them years or even decades ago; perceiving the effect of gradual experience. The best way to see how far you’ve come is by looking at a child’s progression. Although, as I wrote yesterday, children have something far more precious than we do… the default setting of humanity. As I write this, my little son Timur is sitting beside me. He’s copying words out of his big gruesome book on Mummies. Each word takes him a while, as he does it with attention, and care, forming the letters, and making sure he is getting the spellings right. From time to time, Ariane comes in and laughs at him for doing work that she thinks is easy. She’s only two years older, but in that time she’s grasped it, and has become quite experienced. The same is true with writing, especially journalism. I remember when I wrote my first articles, I didn’t know where to start. I did masses and masses of research, most of which was never needed. I followed leads that were dead ends, and was like Timur writing his words out. I meant very well and was driven by the same enthusiasm as him… but my vision was clouded by a kind of veil. Work at something, really work at it, and the veil lifts. And what’s so wonderful is that you never realise it’s lifting until it’s no longer there. Watch yourself from a distance as you progress, as you become adept, and marvel at it all. Again, I see that with Ariane and Timur, and remind them as often as I can how far they’ve come, and how fast the journey’s been.



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Magic Dust

When I was at school, I remember my teachers always harping on about how wise they were and how young and foolish we were.  I would always roll my eyes and think how dead they had become, trading natural innovation for a learned system. I still believe this, and think we are all born with an amazing ability to think. It’s something that can be re-learned and used in writing, and just about anything. Look at children and you see it right away. They solve problems and use their minds in the most innovative and creative ways. Yet most of the time adults — who have had this default setting knocked out of them — tend to deride it. They don’t understand it because it was removed early in the education system. I find myself wondering how the world would be if we thought as communities using this default setting. Imagine it. Yes, there’d be less of the technological breakthroughs we are used to, but there would a form of genius that we’ve lost. The greatest thing would be, of course, to have a blend of the two systems… using one to fuel advances in the other. This imagination is something that’s like magic dust, an element that, when sprinkled into a writer’s work (whether it’s in a book or magazine),  has the ability to touch a part of us that’s often not stimulated at all. Learn to sprinkle the dust, and you will succeed in the most original ways.



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Pegs

I used to spend all my time dreaming up ideas for articles which I planned to sell. The ideas got better and better. Editors even told me they were great. But no one bought them. Why? Because there wasn’t a reason for publishing. Remember that most magazines and newspapers have limited space. For this reason, they need to be able to qualify why a certain story is going to run. The editor will often have to be ready to defend his choice to his own boss. So enter the idea of the ‘Peg’. It’s simple: If you write an article about London’s Tower Bridge, you may find it hard to sell. Editors will ask ‘Great, but, er, so what?’ But if you work out that it’s the 300th anniversary since the bridge was built and, better still, that there’s going to be an anniversary parade, you have a sure fire seller. Other pegs include political or military acts and anniversaries of any kind. You can get the Media Guide (in the UK) which gives details of up-coming anniversaries. But remember to pitch early. A magazine may work five months in advance, and a newspaper features’ section five or six weeks.



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Rights

 The difference between making $1000 for a story and making $25,000 for the same story is in the rights, and how you sell them. I’ve written already about how I started an agency to sell my books. Well, I used it for selling magazine features as well. The beauty was that, whereas editors will offer what they want to a writer, when they are dealing with an agency, they’re a lot more respectful. As the agent, it’s you who decides the price. And it’s you who chops the world into territories and sells a story again and again, as First British Rights, First Australian Rights and so on. You assign the rights in a contractual letter or a form that the magazine sends. And if you’re a journalist starting out be very careful they the magazine doesn’t assume they are buying all rights. You may have to fight them, but the truth is that they probably don’t even want world rights because they don’t have an active sales’ department. I’ve sold the same article dozens of times, and if you own the photos, you make twice the money again.



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One Man Band

With journalism there’s always a budget for the story… and if you’re smart you’ll try and get as much of that budget for yourself. The best thing you can do is to take the photographs as well, and limit the amount of work others have to do. I have always taken my own pictures, although I sometimes like working with a photographer, to have a travel companion. These days cameras are so amazingly good that you can pretty much point and shoot. I’ll make sure to give some photo notes soon though, as there’s a specific way to take pictures, especially for magazines. It also pays to cut out assistants, fixers, researchers, and all the hangers-on who will take a piece of the pie. The more you can do, the more self-contained you are, and the more money you’ll make.



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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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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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