Friday 19 September 2014

Consistency and hobgoblins....

Consistency and hobgoblins

Here’s a thought: if, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said ,“a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines,” then how do we measure “foolish” and when does one step over the line into little-mindedness?

I’ve often argued that consistency in grammar, punctuation, capitalisation, spelling and so on makes writing of any kind more readable. (Content helps too, of course.) I think this is partly because I’ve slaved for years to dig out a clear message or two from business texts too often lacking any consistent elements except cliché and jargon.

I favour consistency in any kind of writing, not just in texts aimed at readers but for words written for speakers too. Take away punctuation, clarity, balance in sentence length, a bit of rhythm to allow ideas to make links and breaths to be taken, and you’ll find the speech is unreadable, unspeakable and generally insufferable. Hough! Hough! Clipperty clop! I’m now a little statesman on his hobbyhorse.

Am I little-minded by advocating consistency in these ways? Perhaps. But I think that Emerson was referring to consistency as a kind of beast which inhibited exploration, change, creative or even coruscating thoughts and ideas, rather than to elements of style. I, by comparison, am referring to consistency as the sort of beaky, dutiful cousin of style. You can see I'm in two minds one of which is wondering whether the other is a dullard.

Nevertheless, even when you’re trying to keep the reins on a workable narrative flow or style by being consistent, it’s good to bust out occasionally – if you can get away with it. It’s like the clown on skis. He knows his art so well that he can do astonishing acrobatics while appearing to be completely out of control.

My contention is that if you want to write really well you need to know your art first and it really helps if you know what the rules are before you  break them. 

Actually most writing, particular in my hobgoblin sphere of work, is not so much devoid of consistency making it unreadable but of content which makes it unpalatable. 

Hough, puff, clopperty clip.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Earl Littman sent me a book…

It’s his first book and he’s 87 years old. He’s American and very proud of being so; he’s a busy, happy man who loves his wife of more than 65 years (“Once I started [writing] I found the bedrock of my existence is the romance with my wife and my family”).

He’s also a patriot. To prove the point and make another, every time you download the book (which is nicely produced by Outskirts Press, in Denver, Colorado), $5.00 of the paperback and ether-sourced cover price goes towards the UK’s equivalent of Help the Heroes. In the US this is the hard-working charity called Back Our Vets. Sixty-five million vets is a lot.

I’m already looking forward to Littman’s next book but let’s deal with this one. As an opener for ten I’d say that Monsieur Littman sits easy in his skin, has vim in his vigour and vice versa, likes himself, loves other people and has written a book that not only demonstrates this but shows others how, without trying too much, they can live happily too. And contribute to make a better world.

I’m not going to tell you the name of the book because it’s going to go viral and soon you’ll know it well enough. And doubtless like it, and often pick it up again (so try for a paperback if you can get one). And you’ll wonder at the ease with which this “FRICTIONal” memoire (not non-fiction and not fiction but carrying a little of the right flick with a non-safety match to light a useful fire built of common sense, passion and a love of sharing) seems to have been written.

I know for a fact, as some ghost clients also know, that when the project is a good one and the purpose is sound, a book can almost write itself. That’s to say that as a ghostwriter I have found the voice, shaped the material and finished the job reasonably quickly; and real character springs from the pages. I think it takes a speedy eye, a stout heart, a flexible mind, plus belief in the subject.

I suspect Earl Littman’s own writing which is fluid and clever, pepped with good imagery (“clouds floated… like eagles”) comes easily enough to him, but he edits his thoughts with care. He uses long sentences sometimes but they flow with their own music. He has a natural ear which suggests he’s a good listener.

I’d like to tell you more but I’ve not finished the book yet – this is an enthusiastic outburst until I can give Earl Littman more time. Meanwhile, thank you very much, Earl, for supplying my next read. 

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Apologies to webbed feet 

I wish formally to apologise to my friend with the excellent river webcams for referring to his site (See Pea in the Banquet Hall below) and stating that he has approaching 50,000 visitors a year. The actual figure is nearer 500,000 unique visitors.

On the subject of apologies, I'd like to say sorry to all those whom I might ever have misleadingly informed that digital media is for the ducks. I've never thought that. Rather, I see it as a kind of universal brain, teaching us, as we learn to use, to remember and to think and then in turn to realise that this might be how we remember and think. I feel sure the analogy could be a help to neuroscientists trying to work out how we act, store and create as a species.

What's so interesting about this is the way the web can produce, at the touch of a button, data galore, direct and applicable information and the freedom to soar in our way of working and communicating. Fortunately the entire web doesn't amount in value to a single human life. Nor do we get near the speed and brilliance of a single mind, nor as an analogy will it be more than a fantastic and immediate tool to entertain new thinking. But that's not bad. Our big thanks once again to Tim Berners-Lee and to all those who co-devised the original systems. Radio in the head with perfect all- round sound at the push of a button is next I think. But perhaps we have that already.
How to price your work as a writer

I see this as an open letter; if other writers would like to add to the list in comments, bellow, I’d be most interested.

Thirty years on – almost – and I still have to think extremely carefully about how to price new work. I can’t say that at this juncture I have completely come up with a solution. These are some of my thoughts:

If I have a really great client – one who has stayed with me for many years and whom I know extremely well (perhaps the CEO and owner of a large company) – he and I will both know that his loyalty deserves recompense. If I am really busy with very well paid work, I will make time to serve him with the words he needs at the best possible price. If it is a job that I can do happily and well in just an hour or two, including our conversation about what is needed, I’ll sometimes ‘forget on purpose’ to invoice. In this way, I hope I am doing him a service, giving him something back in an unstructured way because he is both a client and a professional friend.

If I have contracted (i.e. signed contracts) arrangement with a large corporation, I generally stick resolutely and clearly to the agreed price per day which is detailed in the contract. In exceptions, when we both know approximately how long a piece of work will take and there are five or more days’ work involved, I will happily discount a percentage (perhaps 10, sometimes more depending on the length of the project) with the purpose of providing value that can be measured as such by the money men, should the commissioner of the work be asked about costs.

If a former ad hoc client returns for new work, I will evaluate the cost, charges, effort, client relationship etc that we have formerly enjoyed and charge accordingly. Depending on my own needs, tax allowances, overheads, time availability, and the ‘burden’ my charges might appear to place on the client for the new project, I will offer a price. I will never buy work when I'm hungry for the next project by dropping below my market value.

Which brings me to the point in another way. How do you assess, measure, understand have insight into your value in the marketplace? This is to do with your confidence and your knowledge of how skilled and clever you are as a writer. If you rate yourself highly and have all the testimonials to prove that your clients do too, this doesn’t mean that you charge a higher price. It could well mean you charge less than your full daily rate; which ought mostly to be a yardstick for your purposes of estimation. You are after all, for the most part, a person who works, thinks, lives for much of the day at least on your own, earning your livelihood as best you can, dependent on the goodwill of others as they depend on yours. Every job, year in year out, has to be the best you can do for your client. When someone pays you, for example, £500 plus per day for your work, what you do for them has to be First Class, the agreement about expectations has to be tight and you must feel sure that the client will have a return on his investment. You do not want to leave a job done, an invoice properly paid in good time, feeling uncomfortable.

Finally, of course, we have maths. Every professional has to spend a lot of his time on new business, quotes, travel expenses, office and other overheads, accountants and much besides. This takes time out of your year. Are you going to work 365 days per year. No? Then how many are you going to work? How much reasonable time of each actual day can you properly charge to your client? Do the math. Then work out what you need as a disposable income plus profits for ill days and all the unpaid holidays you either need or have to suffer while big clients are away with the friends and families. Divide the number of days you can – with your experience – actually be productive writing by the gross income you require each year. That is a helpful indication of your daily rate. 

Bear in mind that, doing what you do for a living, professionally, takes its toll. You need some simple recovery time. Add 25% at least to your eventual figure. This analysis might help or might be nonsense. Discuss?

Monday 15 September 2014

Skill-sharing for people with talents

A slight diversion from Words' usual type of blog, but here goes:

I am starting a collective in the Ludlow area. 

By the way, I know this should be a tweet or probably sent by another channel on social media. Then thrown out to the Ludlow, in England, area, near the borders of Wales/England on the latter side, and a long way south of our beloved Scotland. But for some reason, perhaps because I am wedded to my blog rather than to my twitter (so many, so varied, so elusive and flighty, so quick and so hard to keep up with), I am trudging the ploughed field looking for places to plant my winter potatoes. Which is to say I'm writing a blog with a purpose. The hedges are marvellous at this time of the year and leave you with a bloody but sweet mouth if you're hungry.

Well, I'm hungry for a few fundamental changes. So I've decided to do a different sort of blackberry picking, naturally, by starting a collective.

I hear plaintiff cries. Boredom already. What the hell is he driving at in his stupid, virtual auto-tractor? 

Well, the thing is, I've decided that we should behave like something productive, natural, easy in its skin and ready when need be, but able to carry on life as usual and NOT WORRY ABOUT MONEY - just for one day, occasionally. Hence, the collective.

What exactly might this be? Well, the principle is sound, the organisation improbably brilliant according to the business model I am working on rather organically, just at the moment. 

What I'm interested in is a kind of self-employed, person's day-off (about once every six weeks, on average). These are called 'bank days', as a working title because they have absolutely nothing to do with banks and everything to do with productively shoring up one's finances. 

How does it work? Not telling. But I'll do a little pointer: For example, I write and edit professionally, do basic building and carpentry reasonably, know how to entertain and play the piano, occasionally. What do you do? 

Should you wish ten helpers, who will bring most of their own food, to come and raise you a barn, in the Ludlow area, we (not the royal we, nor me and my tapeworm) might just help you do this on one of the allotted bank days. I need a few other people who like the sound of this. 

You, as a putative bank day man or woman doing the barn-raising,  have a sociable but hard-working and hopefully fulfilling day devoted to helping someone else who cannot afford the outgoings of skill and labour, to achieve something marvellously and quickly. There will always be a master overseer (of any gender). 

Or, if, you want some help building a new website, one or two bankers will join you and achieve this with you and you are likely to finish before, or about when, the children return from school. 

If you are a taker, you'll do really well out of this arrangement. If you are a giver you'll do even better. Remember, it's all about fun, a bit of easygoing hard work, occasionally, and getting to know other people in a productive way.

Does it sound interesting? Did you notice my occasional use of the word 'occasionally'? This is not about commitment, swapping, bartering, repaying, being beholden. It's just about getting the work done, making friends, and enjoying yourself. 

Well, I'm piloting in Ludlow soon and the nationwide roll-out starts on....(to be decided)....horizontally soon enough. If you like this idea, please retweet the post. Thanks muchly. If twitter is not for you, you can pass by WoM, or wibbit (which is a particularly sharp and relevant snippet of gossip, in these 'ere parts). 

Monday 8 September 2014

How to listen: manner, matter, moment

Listening is the greatest of all creative arts. Particularly when listening to yourself and trying to develop an idea or interpret one that you've picked up through other channels. 

To start the ball, I shall fetch one from the cupboard.

For example, when you are having to listen to an interlocutor in an argument and, as the emotive outpourings spill around you, you wish to interject your version of events, it is best but hardest to keep your mouth shut and ears open. If you interject at the wrong time you might as well be riding a bicycle that only has eleven spokes in each wheel. You won’t get far nor do yourself much justice.

Perhaps it's a question of the three Ms: Manner, Matter and Moment.

First you need to see what the manner of presentation of your spouse, partner, best friend or other is. If they are seething with indignation and you are feeling righteous about your version of events, be careful to work on taking their manner of presentation seriously. Hear what they have to say until they truly ask you to speak. 

Second – and it will often come a second or eight seconds later than spotting the manner of the argument – think gently about the overall importance of the subject. What exactly is the matter? It might be a detail but it might equally be the straw that is breaking the camel’s back in front of you. You will not necessarily know but normally you might suspect something is, as it were, up. Listen to yourself, to your quickening heartbeat and see if you can roughly calculate the importance of the matter in hand either in the history of the world or in a domestic dispute. Bear in mind that as you are assessing the matter, you are being jumped on by the manner. But you still need to find out what the matter is - not necessarily by asking or throwing out spittoons of indignation. 

And as part of the matter, from your experience of the other person at this point, you must assess the degree of importance you assume the argument bears – in the context of your life, working day, leisure moment in the garden, beer-fetching in the kitchen, or the awakening prod in the Cabinet Office, when it's your turn to speak.

Shakespeare, by the way, is totally brilliant at unwrapping, linking and relinking the thought processes of his personae to show us the plot, the character and he also throws in some fabulous insights into the human predicament. In the middle of a long soliloquy in Twelfth Night, Viola, listening and talking to herself comes out with the wonderful question: “How will this fadge?” – i.e what will come of this situation. It is a question, indeed, which shows that she has absolutely no control, or very little, of the events that will unfold. Returning to my text, you may or may not know – in an argument – what the real subject is unless you listen with real care, in all senses of the word.

Moment is the most difficult. If you generate the argument and have decided to get something of importance off your chest it is down to you to choose your moment carefully – if you know that the subject is a can of worms or an elephant in the room, or if it is just stiff curtains on the day too-long closed, you need to decide the pitch, venue and time to have this discussion.

Another great tip is to listen and when you are prodded to speak and have a half reasonable thing to say, say it in a way that will not too much awake the feline working of cats in the ratatat alley behind the house. Always best to leave a momentous silence of your own before you say anything.

Thursday 4 September 2014

The pea in the banquet hall

I was chatting with a favourite client yesterday about the state of play with his nationwide website – one that he is keen to convert from a popular destination for everyone who is vaguely interested in the state of Britain’s rivers for fishing, boating, assessing rainfall and whatever else, to a site that does all this and also earns him money. He’s keen to turn a few of his almost 500,000 visitors each year into a means of income to support his very generous website for all visitors. We’re not talking about subscription here but ‘monetisation’.  

I used to shudder a little when I first heard the ‘m’ word. But it is very apt word. An analogy flicked into my mind as my client and I talked. I said to my client, “It’s as easy to monetise one’s doings on the internet as it is to find just the right pea in a banquet hall.”

I’ve long since realised that the internet creates masses of work but the return of one’s investment, costly in time and money, is difficult to measure and for everyone who makes money this way, thousands surely don’t, however hard they try.  

To monetise a new business idea is as likely to be as successful as it is to sell one’s ideas as they pop out and flow from one’s head in conversation. But the great thing about the internet is that it is as active as a million spiders with unmonetised ideas that spur forward the really good one or two catching webs per week or year.  Most new business ideas are like flies caught in the web: easy prey, easy born, easy gone. It is probably therefore better to have a successful or secure ‘physical’ business, from shop to service to factory, and then to use the internet as another selling channel via e-commerce and other routes.

There is no marketing possible on the internet until there is critical mass, and no critical mass unless there is a generous, non-moneyed approach by the website creator which forcefully generates organic and sometimes very gradual growth of interest, with some bits of viral coruscation to take the idea further.

Yet there cannot be organic growth without belief in what one’s doing and dedicated, unbelievable hard work to sustain the transmission of your great business idea. In the end though, if you know your market and keep your budget tight and really focus properly on selling something you know people will want because you’ve found a niche, you might well monetise. If you can bear my analogy, you need to shrink the plate before you grow the food so you can handle real growth.

I’m playing with this idea a bit. It is only a blog I’m doing and I certainly don’t make money from it at least I don’t know that to be the case.

Eventually the internet will be as fluid and all-encompassing as water, with as many channels to flow in. What then for monetising? At that point the pea shrinks as the banqueting hall grows unless we truly mean business. So let’s stop mucking about in the fountain and do something with purpose and energy in business; lay tracks, put in stations, build the train, take on the passengers. Focus on one direction, find the right plate, choose the pea; flick it out the window. 

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Books versus screens

Recently I reassembled the library after completely redecorating and carpeting that room. There is now a substantial piano and a guitar, some well-loved paintings, a table and chairs, a ‘whatnot’ showing off shiny things, a carpet and an old but fine rug.

But what first hits the eye when you enter the room is the books.

If you’re like me, it is always a pleasing sight because your books somehow become you. They represent a lifetime’s collection, a resource. And a shrine. These books have exploded your imagination at times, made you ponder, opened windows in the mind, and substantially influenced your thinking and outlook. Some of them have given you your very language. They are the references and moments that have peopled your life. Like memories they are arranged haphazardly, colourfully. A wall or two of books is a generous monopoly of space: it allows paintings to breathe on other walls but has an aura of its own.

Your eye draws to titles you’ve read and which still beckon to you like easy mistresses: Hardy, Steinbeck, Fowles, Gladwell, Hare, EE Nesbit, Sisman, Susman, Shakespeare, Woolfe, WH Auden, Shakespeare, Browning, Eliot, Thoreau, Gide, Shakespeare, DA Mackenzie (Who? Where did I get this fine 1910-vintage book from, The Myths of China and Japan?).  

Then there’s the smell: an intricate dust carrying insight, memory, nostalgia – and possibility: it’s as universal as the Internet but it’s yours to hand and far more special.

So I’ve not, yet, taken to reading from iPads, Tablets, Kindles and their many cousins. True, it might be compulsive, convenient, even a bit magical; and surely it could have its disciplined place on trains or holidays or on the move. Except I am not disciplined enough to apportion that kind of reading time to its useful place: I only read on my phone when I need to.

And what if we carry on this way for a lifetime, holding this poorly reflecting mirror and its future easy-wrap equivalents? Where does that unbeautiful hard disk go, or where that ephemeral substance of your work and life which represents you, and makes such a decorous picture of your living surfaces? It becomes like the patient etherised upon a table.

Having thirty years of RAM storage as a writer is already enough to frighten me into a separate collection of six or more old computers – mostly in the attic, mostly with the ability to restart and even to print out former work. That hording instinct is a professional as much as personal requirement, though only once have I been asked to update a twenty-year-old publication for a client.

So a portable electronic library, easily tossed into another pile or sloshed mistakenly in the washing machine, is low on the priorities. I have enough desktops, plus a decent laptop and masses on them that help me daily but which are prey to a massive power cut. But I will have books and some papers of my own that I keep and which I can return to, on foot, at any time.

I wonder. Might I return to this in a year or five, and have to update it, saying “I’m a convert to electronic reading, and I’m hooked”? If I do, I’ll bet it will just be one more gradual step in techno easy (lazy/convenient/duping/soul-destroying?) living, a kind of irrelevance, a bodiless thing. And I’ll know my library is still there and welcoming.