Feel Free: Becoming a Freelance Writer, Month One.


Queen – I Want to Break Free

I love to write – so much so, it seems that I now appear to be writing about writing.

The truth is, I always dreamed of being a writer. As soon as I could physically write words, I used to spend my Saturdays scribbling illustrated stories about rabbits that run away from their burrows to go on adventures, and little girls who flew into space at night and spoke to the planets.

At school, teachers encouraged me to consider a writing career. They even told me to send creative writing coursework to publishers, and start a school magazine. I never did, because I couldn’t work out why they were being so nice about me. What did I know about writing? I finished school, got a job at The Wine Society, and started attending King’s University in the hope at some point I’d feel like I knew what I was doing.

The truth is, it took a long time, and my first few paid writing gigs, to accept I must be okay at what I do. But still I stayed in my full-time job at The Wine Society for over six years.

Why? Well, why does anyone do that these days? Amazing colleagues, routine cashflow, lots of wine (duh), but most of all because this ball-ache of a recession means everyone keeps warning me how impossible it is to be a freelance writer.

I should be grateful I’m in work. I should wait until the economy recovers. Did I know that for every writing job, there are approximately twelvety million unemployed writers competing with me? They can smell my fear, and if I ever do succeed they will hunt me down and use their unused sharpened pencils to stab me in the face.
Basically, I can’t possibly try to do the thing that is the reason I spent three years and twenty grand doing an English degree. In the words of the almighty Izzard “Look, you’re British, so scale it down a bit, alright?”

I tried writing at night and at weekends, but it wasn’t enough. I tried cutting down to four days a week at the Society, but that wasn’t enough either – I had too much work, and too many opportunities to pursue.

Late last year, I plucked up the courage (and the savings) to take a two month sabbatical and wander around Europe. It took travelling a thousand miles to realise how much of the world at home I had yet to explore. So when I got back, I handed in my notice. On February 1st, I began my life as a freelancer.

Month One

It’s terrifying. Truth is, I probably picked the wrong month to leave my job. The month of my niece’s 3rd birthday, the month of my own *cough-cough*th birthday, the month The Boy decides to redecorate. So many reasons not to work when that is the very thing I desperately needed to do.

But, to be frank, a lot of this procrastination was because I suddenly felt very unsure of myself. How can I be a writer? Where do I start? Who is going to hire me?

It was at this point I remembered yet another Izzard quotation (sorry, but he is pretty splendid) from the film documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. At the start of his performance career he used to do an escape artist act, all tied up in chains in front of a crowd. One day, he couldn’t untie himself. He was utterly humiliated. And someone gave him the life-changing advice: “To escape, you have to believe you can escape.” He realised this went further. To be a stand up comic, you have to believe you can be a stand up comic.
To write, I have to believe I can write. Obv.

The procrastination-guilt built up until I decided to knuckle down properly. If you’re suffering from the same fear, my advice is to take a day to do all the little things you know you should do but don’t get around to:

Sign up to sites like JournoBiz, IdeasTap, LinkedIn * Ask around on Twitter and follow other writers * Look for jobs on these sites, and others like MediaNation, your local newspapers etc. * Get the Writers and Artists Yearbook 2013 * Look at competitions and opportunities in Writing Magazine * Set up a portfolio * Actually do some frickin’ writing, even if it’s just a blog* You have to start somewhere.

Since then, it’s been an exciting couple of weeks. But – crucially – my first few gigs have not been anything to do with me:

  • A pretty meaty copywriting gig, courtesy of The Boy’s kind and brilliant Dad.
  • My first piece of journalism published in print, courtesy of hugely encouraging ex-colleagues at The Wine Society, and two blogs about my vineyard experience last year have been posted on their blog for the same reason.
  • I’ve applied for three writing gigs, two of which I was told about by other people – which I didn’t get, but which did expand my portfolio.
  • I’ve been to an incredible writing event courtesy of IdeasTap, run by the editor of Domestic Sluttery (and my boss), Sian Meades – who also kindly took the time to encourage me to attend.

Basically, I’ve learnt one extremely important lesson: as soon as you make a leap into the unknown, you very quickly realise just how supportive and wonderful the people around you are. Never underestimate the brilliance of the people in your life.

They’ll be the ones that give you work initially. They’ll be the ones that put you in touch with good contacts. They’ll be the ones that make you believe (by telling you, lots) you’re a writer so you actually start writing.

So it turns out, I’m a writer now. Yay!

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Losing the Plot

Song: Phyllis Nelson – Move Closer “Hey baby, you go your way, and I’ll go mine… but in the meantime…

So it turns out moving house takes up more time than I imagined.

My wondrous month of November has been packed full of:

  • Lovely chats with every utilities company in the history of the world to tell them I’m cancelling. My “Thanks, you’ve been very helpful today” was followed by a stony silence more than once. I think niceness scares people in call centres.
  • Endless trips back and forth with cars full of junk. Don’t try moving house in a 1.1 Kia Picanto. It’s like typing a novel using only one finger.
  • Hiring both an end-of-tenancy cleaner and carpet cleaner. The carpet cleaner ended his visit by GIVING ME A C.D HE HAD MADE OF HIMSELF SINGING. Is that… normal?
  • Searching through all my boxes of clothes to find a dress to wear to the Domestic Sluttery Book Launch. There was free vodka, Sian’s speech made my eyes a bit soggy, and there was free vodka. I had a headache the next day.
  • Reading Good Girls Do Swallow by Rachael Oakes-Ash. It’s a very readable book about body image, eating disorders and the pressure put upon women to be slim in order to find happiness. Somehow it made me feel both utterly inspired and terrifically greedy at the same time. I think I need more time to digest that one.

Anyway, somehow another month has slipped by and I haven’t blogged. Which, bearing in mind my last blog was all about how I was going to do NaNoWriMo, probably doesn’t fill you with optimism for me reaching the 50,000 word target.

…And you’d be right. I did manage a paltry 10,000 words, but this experience was not as forgiving as I’d hoped it would be. I wish I’d dedicated my month to it, but it has filled me with more resolve for next year.

Now, onto the title of this blog. As well as time-restriction, too much wine and a whole lot of life getting in the way of completing the novel, I was also struck by a strange sensation of being bored by my own writing. I know, I know: NaNoWriMo isn’t supposed to create masterpieces, it’s supposed to create vast volumes of words to sculpt and refine over the following months, but my main issue – above and beyond the others I’ve mentioned – was I didn’t take the time to find a story before I started. It was a bit of an obstacle when you’re trying to write almost 2,000 words a day.
“Ooh, I’ve started my novel! Right! What should happen now?”
“……………………..” (for about an hour and a half) 
“Shit. I really haven’t thought this through.”

You can be as flouncy as you like, and shove a whole collection of snazzy similes, jazzy juxtaposition and witty…wit into your masterpiece, but actually most people want to open a book and step into a world, rather than bask in your creative genius. You’re aiming to be a story-teller, not an instant classic. The story, and what you’re trying to say through it, is everything. YOU NEED A STORY, LAURA, FOR GOD’S SAKE WHERE IS YOUR STORY? Ahem, anyway, you get the point.

Someone recently told me ‘You do realise people are everything, right?‘ and it made more of an impact than they intended. I tried (too hard) to create winning characters, and I think I had some potential, but to do it properly you need to test them in actual action and drama – like we are all tested in our daily life, making decisions on how to act, when to be honourable and when to lie, what to say, what not to say – otherwise they’ll remain ‘clever ideas’ rather than becoming actual people to your readers. I view my favourite characters from novels I’ve read as old friends that hold a special place in my memory  – I don’t really sit there and marvel at how succinct and innovative their dialogue is and how nicely the writer described the tree they were sitting next to.

Don’t get me wrong – some of my novel actually wasn’t entirely abhorrent to me. And the pressure to squeeze out such vast quantities in such limited time does force you to let your imagination run wild, so I’ve stumbled upon a few trinkets of possibility for future writing. It’s just, in an awful lot of it, not enough happened, and those possibilities weren’t stretched as far as they can go. It was a learning curve I’m glad I didn’t miss.

So here we are, on the very verge of the most romantic, magical and inspirational month of the year. Everywhere you look, there’s a story. It’s my job to find a good one.

Learning To Write The Story I Want To Read

Song: Shirley Bassey – This Is My Life (sing it, girl!)

I said I’d do this blog malarkey once a week, didn’t I? Oh deary me. Life seems to get busier all the time, but the nice thing about it all is it definitely seems to get better all the time too. I’m learning that ‘better’ and ‘easier’ definitely don’t mean the same thing, but I think I’ve stopped minding.

This week I was idly perusing over my blog posts from this time last year. Not just because I’m some sort of narcissist (granted – debatable): this week it is a whole year since I moved into my cottage (more to come on that later this week) and it’s also almost two years since this blog began. I’ll do an ‘anniversary’ post next week (‘Oh, GOODY!’ I hear you cry…silently) but something really stood out to me that I felt I should talk about.

I’ve almost totally lost my fierceness. Not the ‘danger to poor little woodland creatures’ fierceness, I mean the Tyra Banks “Girl, you are fiiiiierce!” fierceness. I used to have it in abundance, to the point that it’s become a catchphrase amongst my closest friends who have perfected saying it in the absurdest way possible, but I think I might have hidden all mine away under my bed or mistakenly packed it away in the loft with the Christmas tree.

This time last year I had ferocious ambition, infinitely firmer self-control and – to be honest – I got more stuff done, and wrote better blogs. I enjoyed reading some of them this week because they reminded me I could be a good writer. No one has called me that in ages, not even me, and that can’t be too smashing. If you’re not writing something that you, at the very least, want to read, then you’re failing epically somewhere along the line.

I’ve replaced ambition, self-discipline and a sense of achievement with washing up, wasting hours in bed and ‘muddling along’. This time last year, my blogs were full of the former, but recently my head has been so full of the latter that I’ve not even bothered blogging. Who wants to read about that stuff? Not even my Mama would bother tuning in for that, and she thinks buttons are exciting (true story).

It stops now.

Reading the blogs from this time last year filled me with such potent senses and memories that it felt like I was back there, and I remembered how it felt to be that together. I was so on track, and I didn’t even realise. Now I’m going to stop just accepting stuff, and I’m going to start to take risks again, and doing what I want to do rather than just what is easy. As I said at the beginning of this post, sometimes you have to choose between life getting easier and life getting better.

All this spiel applies to my writing more than anything. I have a confession to make: I haven’t written anything of merit since MAY THIS YEAR! All my short stories and novel ideas have belly-flopped at the first hurdle, crumpled by a lack of self-belief, and more firmly stamped on by a ridiculous amount of distraction. This is how it goes:

“Ooh, now that would be a great idea for a story! Okay, I’m going to write it. Wait, this first paragraph isn’t as good as it should be… I’ll rewrite it. And again. And again. And ag-OOH SOMEONE POSTED A SHINY GARDEN CENTRE CATALOGUE THROUGH THE DOOR!
… Wow, I can’t believe it took me an hour to read that catalogue from cover to cover before I remembered I don’t even have a garden. Where was I? Oh yeah, this story. No, it’s not working, I’ll have lunch and then start again. Ooh, Scrubs is on. Ooh, they’re showing eight episodes I’ve already seen back to back!
…Oh no, now it’s dark and I’m hungry again. Ooh, I have a text. YES SOMEONE WANTS TO GO TO THE PUB! Well, the wine will inspire me
…zzzzzzzzzzz.”

And that, my friends, is how every single one of my novels has died over the past few months. I have a little novel graveyard in a box in my room, most of which consist of less than a thousand words, and I don’t believe in any of them enough to try and revive them.

I read a quotation around Christmas last year that reached out and slapped me across the chops, and I keep forgetting about it:

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

Toni Morrison

I’ve got to stop giving up on stories because I’m scared no one else wants to read them. If I want to read them, then TALLY HO. And I just have to take risks and wrestle the story into what I want it to be. I’m presuming by now you’ve worked out that this also works as a relatively cheesy metaphor for my life. Let’s just say I’m picking up my pen with a firmer grip from now on.

Be Someone, Be Someone, Be Someone

Song – Tracy Chapman – Fast Car

Nieces are awesome. There are many reasons for this, not least because they give you a valid reason to do the hokey kokey in your living room first thing in the morning, and allow you to dig out your favourite toys from your childhood “so Summer can play with them”, leading to hours upon hours of fun, all validated by the simple phrase “Oh, I’m just showing her how to play with the Noah’s Ark.” It’s genius.

Summer Lily is fifteen months old now, and yet every time I see her I feel like she teaches me more than I teach her – from working out that the Light Saber app on my iPhone NOT ONLY lets you swipe the phone around the room and make the whooshy noise, but also plays the awesome Star Wars soundtrack while you do it (I don’t even like Star Wars, but OMG FUN), to managing to make my Macbook type in Greek and I have NO IDEA HOW. Or even that Cupasoup boxes make awesome maracas. She’s a girl of many talents.

Sometimes, though, she does wonderful things that I can’t even explain. Like yesterday – I was taking care of her at my Mama’s house while they finished sorting out their new garage. Papa started drilling some shelves and she got spooked and ran to me with her arms outstretched, so I scooped her up and started dancing to the radio to calm her down. She seemed happier as the song finished, and the drilling had stopped, so I put her down. But as I did, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car started playing, and she asked to be picked up again. She nuzzled into my neck and I danced slowly around the room singing it to her. The lyrics suddenly resonated with me in a truer form than they ever had before:

And I had a feeling that I belonged,
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.’

I don’t think it was a coincidence that yesterday was the day I started tackling one of the many Scary Tasks I’ve been burying for months: I started writing my second novel. Sometimes you need reminding that you can do something even if it’s scary.

That’s why nieces are awesome: there was something about dancing with Sums, and feeling that she really trusted me, that made me feel like an actual grownup, and that I was capable of pretty much anything. Well, anything except typing in Greek.

Day 70: Je veux gagner ce coeur à coeur

Song: Moi je joue – Brigitte Bardot

The lyrics in the title translate to ‘I want to win this heart-to-heart’. I chose these lyrics because I do always seem to be trying to win a battle these days. Mostly it’s against time, which is why I will keep this blog short. Today, I’m really just writing to prove I still can.
(Also, the end of that song is so random and sounds just a little bit filthy, so I felt it deserved a place here.)

The good news is the lack of internet and TV at my new place is still very much keeping me from time-wasting, and I’m finding more and more time to write in the evenings.

As a result, the good news: despite my six-day week, I’ve written nearly 5,000 words this week. The bad news: it really needed to be 8,000 words.

But :
working 6 days a week
+ preparing for Christmas
+ running a house when Housemate C is very poorly indeed
+ everyone deciding they want to come and see my new house (alright, replace ‘my new house’ with ‘the pub next to my new house’)
+ everyone else deciding want to take me away from my new house to do random stuff like get my eyebrows threaded (thanks, Sunita, but also: OUCHOUCHOUCH)
+ the constant energy it is taking me and the rest of the nation to hate Katie Waissel off the X Factor with every fibre of our beings

= the time left over for writing me novel essentially comprises whatever I can get done in the bit between putting the teabag in the water, and taking the teabag out again when the water has turned into tea. Basically, time is a bit short, and I have no idea what to prioritise.

This week is even more manic, with at least four nights already taken up with various plans (a wine tasting, a work night out, a trip to see my sister and something or other than Housemate C has got planned for Friday night). I think the only way I’m going to get this novel finished is if I have really, really, REALLY strong cups of tea from now on.

Better go. My tea is ready.

EDIT: Many thanks to the eagle-eyed, french-tongued Ewan for pointing out that I’d spelt ‘coeur’ wrong! I’ve only been speaking French for 11 years, you’d think I’d get that right. Ah well, that’s what you get for writing a blog whilst trying to catch up on the bloody X-Factor.  I blame Katie Waissel entirely for this error. BITCH.

Day 64: I Got Lots And Lots of What I Need Right Here

Song: Eliza Doolittle – Moneybox (I first heard it at the tearooms last week, and the lyrics in the title of this post seemed pretty apt. Plus, it’s lovely.)

Last Thursday, I think I just about had the perfect day.

I awoke at 7am feeling wide awake without even trying (horribly rare with me – I’m far more likely to want to kill someone than get out of bed in the morning), although I have a feeling I was so awake because I was excited at the prospect of the first set of four days off in a row I’ve had since May. MAY, I TELL YOU. I’m sure there’s a health and safety issue right there. It must contravene some basic human rights law at least.

Anyway, after cleaning the entire house (you can pick yourselves up again, now), I drove to the nearby Church Farm tearooms for a few hours in the morning and wrote a good 1500 words over a pot of Rooibos Vanilla tea. It was so tasty, I didn’t even realise it had anti-ageing properties and antioxidants – double trouble. That will definitely cancel out the scones and clotted cream I had with it, right?

Returning to my village, I decided I would finally try and find the mysterious tearoom I’d been hearing about. It turns out that my idea of heaven is a five minute walk away:

Brewery Tearooms in Walkern is super-pretty, super-friendly and super-super.

They serve you gorgeous tea in little cups like this:

With a little milk jug and sugar tongs and everything.

I was so comfy, I wrote another 1500 words. And went back the day after. And the day after. And probably scared everyone with my over-enthusiasm.

Housemate Claire got back at a reasonable hour for once, and we ate burnt risotto, sang the entire Wicked and Avenue Q soundtracks, (we harmonised and told ourselves this was cool and not even slightly ridiculously sad), and went for a slightly drunken walk which ended, inevitably, in the pub.

I feel like I’ve really found the perfect place to live.

The best thing about the cottage at the moment, however, is the fact that we don’t have the internet. For over a week now I’ve not had the opportunity to faff about, spending hours obsessively trying to find the perfect dress, watching old episodes America’s Next Top Model and having a ‘cheeky facebook stalk’.

And, as a result, I’ve actually had a life. Amazing. Who knew?

Oh, and by the way – Brewery Tearooms are on Twitter and Facebook, (that’s where I half-inched the pretty photos from), and are having a Christmas Gifts day and evening on 16th November. Be there or be un-stuffed with mince pies and un-tipsy on mulled wine. I know which I’d rather.

Day 46: Forever Always Wishing

Rox – Forever Always Wishing

Continuing the song/lyrics theme, I’m going to blog about the pursuit of contentment. That thing we are forever always wishing for. SEE WHAT I DID THERE?! Ahem. Yes.

[I was going to say the pursuit of happiness, but then I thought you’d all think I was reviewing the film. And then you’d all hate me for spelling it ‘happiness’ not ‘happyness’, and then be even more disappointed when you realised I’m actually blogging about something far less specific and Will-Smith-infused than the film (i.e the actual pursuit of whatever happiness is) and then you’d resent me forever or something. Erm, anyway. It’s possible I over-thought that.]

So… contentment. Happiness. Seems to be that thing you work all week for – spending days trying to get the boring/scary bits of life done – that just seems to end up being the bits of the weekend that aren’t spent mowing the lawn or doing the Big Shop. Then Monday swings around and we start the big search again, because what we found first time around didn’t feel quite as cool as we thought the whole happiness thing would. “Surely there must be something else out there that would make me truly happy?” etc.

Then we get goals that we feel will be the key to finding that elusive feeling of total contentment. That job. That pair of shoes. That figure. That man. David Tennant. OMG DAVID TENN-sorry, where was I? Ahem. Anyway, you get the point I’m illustrating.

The fact is – if you get that job, or go on that holiday you’ve been planning all year, or buy whatever puppy/car/David Tennant calendar you’ve had your eye on for ages… sorry to break it to you, but you don’t find that total contentment. There will always be something else you decide you want – something else you suddenly realise you simply can’t be happy without.

That’s because the happiness is in the striving. I’ve been reading an amazing book recently – Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard To Be Happy – and it’s packed full of the views of philosophers throughout the ages on what it is to be happy, and how modern society seems to have made us into a bunch of self-important twats with a ridiculous sense of an entitlement which doesn’t exist. ‘Oh, I deserve to be happy – I shouldn’t have to try. My Mummy told me and everything, and if you say otherwise I will sue you and win all your money. And your face. Because I’m worth it.’ Obviously, the first thing I thought of was that I’d be much happier if I had permission to round up all the people that actually behave like that and kill them til they’re dead – but on a serious note, Foley points us to a much more profound solution to the search for happiness: happiness IS the searching. Foley writes:

Echoing many earlier thinkers, psychologist Daniel Nettle posits the theory that the struggle is the meaning: ‘The purpose of the happiness programme in the human mind is not to increase human happiness; it is to keep us striving’. The human creature is designed for striving. Buddha, Spinoza and Schopenhauer, among many others, agreed. Schopenhauer put it with typical clarity: ‘We take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something.’

Foley, p. 63

 

There will always be something else you want – so enjoy working towards it. That’s what I’m trying to bear in mind with my writing (see, you knew I’d get a mention of the book in there somewhere) – I need to enjoy writing it rather than fixating on what the outcome will be, or the end product is going to be a total disappointment. I also need to stop ranting about the fact my moving date has been put back, and how I’d quite like to be moved into this bloody cottage some time soon – you know, like before I start the frickin’ menopause – because moving in will not suddenly make me happy. I should just enjoy each day as it comes.

So the striving is where all the fun is, and if you don’t realise that then you will spend your life ignoring the fun part because you’re waiting for the even funner part. Epic fail.
Or, as Agatha Christie would say “The thrill is in the chase, never in the capture.” I learned that off Doctor Who. See? David Tennant does have his uses in the pursuit of happiness after all…