Storyology 2017

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I revisited my journalism roots recently by attending Storyology 2017, an annual talkfest put on by Australia’s Walkley Foundation.

I won’t give a blow-by-blow account (that’s what Twitter is for), but there were some very strong themes around building/reclaiming trust in journalism, combatting Fake News, battling troll armies, Big Data and how to best work with the tech giants that are reimagining the media landscape (Google and Facebook, which also sent emissaries in the form of Aine Kerr and Irene Jay Liu).DIb0n_WVAAAItyE

In the 10 years since I left full-time journalism, the industry is still trying to make up ground when it comes to landing a workable funding model, a conversation I didn’t think we’d still be having in 2017.

Some media companies are building subscriber walls, others are relying entirely on funding and wealthy benefactors, and some are now directly appealing to readers through donation models to support their journalism. Who’s right? Who knows? Everyone’s playing the long game.

One speaker worthy of mention is Filipino journalist and editor Maria Ressa’s amazing contribution to the Storyology 2017 program, both as a standalone presenter and panellist. Her editorial vision for Rappler.com epitomises the kind of reinvention and engagement media companies are aspiring to in a Web 3.0 world. Ressa’s Rappler.com is a reason to get excited about the future of journalism.

While the focus of the conference was very much on working journalism (and making journalism work), there were some great takeaways for creatives and freelancers looking to learn and leverage the knowledge of the experts in the room.

  • Don’t stop learning. There is an enviable suite of clever and free tools online – it’s time to get acquainted. For citizen journalists in particular, Google and Facebook now offer unrivalled free training and resources. Podcasting, coding, data mining – get in there!
  • Be organised. Flex your schedule muscles, establish and maintain contacts, and stay on top of your admin paperwork with a good accountant.
  • Innovate or die. Be like Inkl. Innovation is more than just a buzz word, it’s the fresh approach/method/idea/product behind ‘the news’. Reinvent or stagnate.
  • Swim against the tide. Sometimes the best ‘aha!’ moments (like this award-winning story by Dan Box) come from the outliers. Never follow the herd.
  • Machines can’t replace humans (yet). Machine-learning can’t compete when it comes to creativity (but machines are very helpful when it comes to crunching vast amounts of data and weeding out fake accounts). You/me/we are the human experience.

You can enjoy more of the Storyology 2017 program over at The Walkley Magazine’s Medium.com pages.

Top 5 takeaways from Copycon 2017

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I recently attended the inaugural Copycon conference in Sydney run by and for copywriters and creatives. I’ve always walked between the worlds, so to speak – that would be the commercial and creative worlds – but found it difficult to be wholly focused on the business (read: invoicing/accounts) side of writing.

I earn my living working in corporate communications but spend my down time living the creative life, so I was curious about how people are blending the two, and earning a living.

There was a great line-up of speakers starting with the effervescent Kate Toon, event founder and chief cat wrangler (she said many wise things, so she’s getting her own post…Kate’s also got a new book out here – compulsory reading for copywriters). I particularly loved the sessions on Facebook Ads and SEO, so I may talk about them elsewhere.

My takeaways from the day (quite a few of which I tweeted here) were many, but I’ve decided to focus on five (because it’s much easier to remember five than 10, and actually commit to doing *or in the case of #5, thinking* them!). In no particular order…

1. Embrace the constraints on your time. Seriously. You know that old saying, give a busy person something to do and it will get done? Even though I’ve always found this to be true – after all, I’m never more productive than when I’m already busy – I often use busyness as an excuse not to do other things I need and want to do. Writer, editor, graphic designer, triathlete (?!?) Kelly Exeter believes (and knows) we all have spare slots in our diaries…so make that limited time work for you! If Kelly can fit in daily triathlon training, I’m sure I can write a novel chapter a week! (Oh, and sorry for stepping on your foot Kelly!)

2. Collaborate! The brains behind the Awards Agency, Melinda Leyshon, urged us to team up and work with big agencies (and each other), and to share in client success. Melinda has an amazing personal story of her transition into freelancing on the back of winning several business awards for her husband’s mechanics business. From there she has successfully carved out a niche helping companies write winning award entries.

3. Keep a tax savings account. And a log book. Think about GST. Sort your Super out. Karen Goad of Goad Accountants is a very sensible woman. While this advice may seem a bit ‘Freelancing 101’, it’s so obvious (and rarely practiced)! I certainly never kept a tax savings account when I was freelancing, it might have saved a few unnecessary heart palpitations around tax time every year. Oh, and don’t forget to pay yourself Superannuation. I know, so much adulting – why can’t we just create, create, create? I guess having a roof overhead and a crust of bread to gnaw on is important.

4. Find your niche – know what you want to write about (and what you don’t want to write about, the infamous ‘anti-niche’). True North Content’s Matt Fenwick advised us to combine personal likes and interests with your client base. Love property? Focus on real estate. Live for the latest lotions, potions or pots of age-defying remedies? Then health and beauty might be a good fit for you. Loathe finance? Avoid it like the plague. Etc. You get the idea…

5. No matter what you do…it will still be better than your client’s effort. That’s why they come to you. Sage words, those, echoed by Kate Toon AND Divine Write’s Glenn Murray. People will pay for expertise and experience. Professional writers experience the jitters too – this was quite validating to hear.

I’m pleased to say Copycon was such a rip-roaring success it’s going to be held again in 2018, so keep tabs on when and where over at Kate Toon’s website.

 

 

Easter, anthologies and Amanita

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This weekend while everyone else has been looking for chocolate eggs in the tall grass, I have been busy trying to weave together stories for two anthologies I’m editing.

I have always enjoyed reading, and there’s something rather special about pulling together the work of other writers in relation to a particular theme.

Specifically, I’ve been tinkering with the adrenalin-pumping non-fiction tome Call of the Wild, and my creepy M.R. James tribute anthology of short stories, both of which have attracted some very high calibre offerings from both new and established writers.

And while my house has (rather unthinkably) been caffeine and chocolate-free, there have been bunnies aplenty – wild brown rabbits darting across in front of our car when we nipped out for a Saturday drive (no mean feat on the Easter long weekend when my neck of the woods becomes choked with cars heading east and west).

After the rabbits zipped by (egg-less, they must have already done the bidding of the Easter Bunny), I noticed we had stopped out the front of an old miner’s cottage, and the road had turned into a dirt track. In front was a magnificent old pine tree, and gathered around its roots like a colourful skirt were lots of Amanita muscaria, pretty red and white toadstools of the kind always seen decorating faerie bowers.

Sometimes the magic happens when you least expect it.

C’mon down to Indie Recon 2015!

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If you’re a writer or editor involved with self-publishing, set aside April 15-17, 2015 to attend Indie Recon online.

Indie Recon is a global conference providing the best advice and education for independent-minded authors across the world, particularly those with an interest in self-publishing.

The conference will feature a mix of online educational seminars, workshops discussions and masterclasses; culminating in a reader-centred Indie Author Fringe Fest live from The London Book Fair’s Book and Screen Week, on Friday 17th April.

Held at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross, the largest independent bookstore in London, the Fringe Fest will offer exciting ways for readers to meet indie authors and discover great reads.

This year the Alliance for Independent Authors (ALLi) has joined forces with the organisers of Indie Recon to present an even bigger and better conference experience, leveraging off its highly experienced membership.

In line with ALLi’s mission to be a global organisation for authors everywhere, the event will be live streamed, so authors and readers who can’t be in London can take part online.

That means you and I can tune in and take part.

See you there!

Working holidays, writing myths, and patrons

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Has it really been more than a month since I posted on this dear old blog? What the hell have I been up to? Well, dear reader, I’ve been enjoying a bit of a working holiday.

I spent a good three weeks undertaking some firsthand research for a long-term non-fic book project, which entailed camping out in the wilderness of Tasmania.

And I’ve been busy pulling together some anthology projects, the first of which is an M.R. James inspired collection of creepy tales authored by some very exciting (several of which are very well known) authors.

It’s going to be a cracking collection, and I’m sure old Montague, if he were about, would certainly approve!

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I’ve also engaged in a bit of crime – watching it on the box, that is – enjoying Murdoch Mysteries (S1 – there’s another 7 to watch, apparently!), and some tense, nail-biting drama in the form of Broadchurch (S2), and Fortitude. All highly recommended.

The latter two series do a good trade in red herrings – more potential suspects than you can poke a stick at, but at least the plots keep you coming back for more.

Of course there have been other casualties during this fallow writing period – most tellingly the garden and the housework. It’s hard to get your work ethic back after several weeks of communing with nature, but one does have to pay the bills.

Speaking of the bills (of which there are many, I think they were breeding under the fridge!) I stumbled across a series of interesting posts about how writers *really* financially support themselves. There is a prevailing belief that most writers just write all day, miraculously making ends meet while churning out moderate to excellent prose.

Well, some do. While others can, largely thanks to inheritances or wealthy patrons (read: spouses or family trusts), plod along and write whenever they please. But most of us work other jobs. I’d urge you to read the many comments and links, and enjoy the honest revelations.

Here’s the post that kicked it all off, Ann Bauer’s “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. It’s refreshing, and it’s raw. And we’re all green with envy, Ann! Your bloke sounds like he needs cloning 🙂

Today, I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.

As for me – yes I do work full-time as a writer, but not for myself. My own writing is largely done on the train each day early in the morning or evening, or on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes it’s churned out during fits of insomnia. But it’s rarely if ever penned between the hours of 9-5. That time, friends, belongs to The Day Job, without which I would not be able to fund much of what I do, including living and eating.

At the moment my independently-published books break even and pay for themselves production-wise with a bit more besides, and I have a trade-published book that presents me with a nice combined ELR-PLR payment each June, equating to slightly less than a week’s pay. Icing on the passive income that is the book royalty.

I write for pleasure, and for interest.

I don’t write for profit – yet – but I’m getting there.

Why I work – so I can read and write!

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My love affair with books started as a child. In fact I still have several of those early tomes close at hand that gripped my fledgling imagination, including two dear favourites from when I was a mere eight years old: The World of Myth and Legend, and Tales ofMagic and Enchantment (both by Brimax Books, 1980).

Those two books in particular sparked my fascination with all things mythical, magic and Fortean. The fact I still have them on my bookcase after all these years and countless house moves as a child and adult is a testament to how precious they are to me, and how fond I am generally of books.

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As well as haunting libraries, I have long been a fan of garage sales, post-Christmas book chain store sales, mail-order books clubs (remember those?), independent bookshops, and now online book shopping via the likes of Amazon.com and its contemporaries.

As a result of this passion, I now have books on true crime, myth and legend, war, health and fitness, biographies, psychology, archaeology, rare and extinct animals, as well as thrillers, romances, ‘cosies’, fantasies, mysteries – and too many other genres and categories to mention.

My fascination with storytelling evolved over my school years, and I eventually started writing my own stories – non-fiction and fiction – and for some years pursued the craft of journalism. I love writing, meeting people and learning new things. For a time it was the perfect job for me – days spent writing and being paid for it. Evenings spent reading the books my writing had paid for. Win!

In fact this lifestyle was pretty damn good for a long while, keeping me comfortably in books and hot chocolate, pet food and the odd new item of clothing for some time. Basically, as long as my primary survival needs were met, my career was doing its job – keeping me in books!

But as happens with many professional scribes, after some time I longed to write under my own ‘masthead’. I had my own stories to tell – true and fantastical, made-up and mythical. I wanted to take that next step as a storyteller. I wanted to be an author of books, not just of newspaper articles (or fish and chip wrappers, as my Nan used to say).

And so it was that 10 years ago I started working on my first non-fiction book, which was eventually independently published in 2010. Sadly it was too late for Nan to see, but I included a picture of her and I in the dedication. That connection was important to me.

The bug bit me, and since then I have independently published two more non-fiction tomes, and this year will (fingers crossed) be publishing some fiction.

So yes, while it’s true I work to read (wage = books), I also work to write these days.

And as a complementary passion to reading, it’s working out just fine.

(PS my dear thanks to Weezie for the inspiration for this post…and www.Grammarly.com)

Confucius says read!

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Did Confucius, China’s most famous teacher, philosopher, and political theorist (551-479 BC) really say this?

Was this position on reading one of his analects (teachings)?

I don’t know, but the sentiments certainly ring true. Read, read and read some more. Today there really is no excuse for ignorance with so much information at our fingertips.

Confucius apparently did say ‘True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know’. Or something like that.

The easiest way to remedy ignorance is to read. And the easiest way to read is to buy or borrow reading material. In doing so, you’re supporting storytelling and those that ply its trade.

In a roundabout way, Confucius said so!

Why I love my library

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John Lubbock really knew what he was on about. Isn’t this a great quote? I love it. I want it tattooed on the wall of my next house, in the room that will be my very own private library.

I was a wee little thing when I visited my first library. I remember it well. It was in the hallowed halls of St Joseph’s primary school in O’Connor in Canberra, Australia. It was the late 1970s, so the children’s reading corner was very traditional – lots of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Herge’s Tin Tin, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix, Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley – and featured an enormous tube cushion in the shape of a giant snake. I loved that library, and I remember the competition was fierce for the good books, particularly the ones featuring Julian, Dick, Anne and George (and Timmy the dog!). The boys in particular were quick to swoop on any Tin-Tin and Asterix books. For my money, mysteries were  the way to go. I was green with envy over my friend Jo’s collection of original hardcover Famous Five books, which she had inherited from her mother. It was hard going trying to find all of the books and read them in order through the library, and yet the library offered me something I’d never had before: reading choices.

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My next most memorable library was on the other side of the world at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston, Virginia, USA. You wouldn’t get a more different collection of children’s books, which isn’t surprising given how culturally different the two countries were in the 1980s, a time when you couldn’t even watch American ads on Australian TV. It was here I discovered the likes of Joan Aitken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, and Louise Fitzhugh’s charming Harriet the Spy (which inspired me to carry around a similar notebook of frank and fearless observations for a while – to my detriment).

I also discovered Judy Blume, a then (and probably still) controversial author. She was your go-to girl for all the gory details about periods, first bras and kissing boys. Reading ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ was a rite of passage.

When I wasn’t at school, I begged my father to take me to the Reston Regional Library, where I would walk out with armfuls of books. The school holidays were heavenly. A keen reader, I’d churn through most of them in a week and insist on another trip. It was cheap entertainment, considering a few years earlier I’d been badgering my father to buy me endless copies of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden books at around $6 a pop (big money then, and when you read them as quickly as I did).

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There have been other libraries since then. Other books. Many other books. But those three libraries and their contents shine in my memory as havens for the young me, a bookish child, and opened up a world of joy, adventure and knowledge.

These days I tend to buy my books instead of borrow them. Some books I read straight away, others I shelf for a rainy day. I buy new, I buy old. I buy mass market books, and I hunt down rare and unusual tomes. I buy locally, interstate and internationally. I buy in shops and I buy online.

I almost never give away books and, after a few bad experiences, I absolutely never lend them. My collection gives me great joy. I still have books that I owned as a child – adventure stories, fairytales and compendiums of myths and legends – precious touchstones that still evoke feelings of delight and wonder. Books have proven to be constant friends to me, and even in my darkest hours (and I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had too many of those) they have been my crutch, my confidante. To live without books in my life would be akin to giving up food or water.

My fondest wish as a child was to have my own library. My very own shelfed sanctuary heaving with every kind of topic or genre that has ever grabbed my fancy, well kept and respected tomes, gently loved and, post-read, occasionally caressed. The air thick with the scent of ageing pages. I have that now – a few thousand books that line the walls of my old 1940s cottage, roughly ordered by subject, spines rebelling against anyone’s attempts to colour coordinate to any interior decor whim. This isn’t a show-pony library, it’s a reader’s library.

Books taught me about the importance of storytelling. It’s a love affair that has defined my career choices and hobbies – first as reader, then as journalist, book reviewer, editor, and writer – so it’s little wonder that I share my house with so many stories. I’m not a hoarder, and I’m not a collector. I’m merely in tune with my true nature (and yours), the primal need we all have for sharing and finding meaning in the human experience.

For telling stories.

Reynolds Price said: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.”

‘Hey lady!’ I hear you say, ‘haven’t you heard of ebooks?’

Well yes, yes I have. But if someone pulls the plug on the Internet tomorrow or Amazon.com crashes, or your e-reader runs out of juice, your ebooks will be floating in the ether. My books will be on the shelf, ready to read.

In my library.

Zoella, Girl Online and the reality of ghostwriting

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First up, an admission – I’d never heard of Zoella until today courtesy of an article published in Salon.com, and tweeted by Porter Anderson, about the furore that has erupted around the authenticity of her new book Girl Online.

I’ve immediately remedied this gaping hole in my general knowledge by watching 10 of her Youtube videos back-to-back, and browsing her website, www.zoella.co.uk. And can I say, sometimes research can be fun! I now know how to halo braid (in fact, I now also know how to do it milkmaid style – oohhh errr, missus! – and replicate the hairdo of Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games fame), make melted snowmen biscuits, and shop for the latest seasonal rags.

Zoella’s sweet and cute and, not surprisingly, crazily popular with her young female fanbase. Her Youtube channel focuses on beauty and fashion and she recently published her first book. Only, according to some fans, she didn’t.

Zoella aka Zoe Sugg used a ghostwriter, apparently, to co-create Girl Online.

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And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. It happens all the time in the non-fiction world, and when there is a great story to tell and the person at the centre of it is unable to put pen to paper – whether for reasons of time or skill – it’s the best option available.

This is not an unusual state of affairs in publishing, and it can be a lucrative path for good writers. I’ve ghostwritten extensive swathes of text for many clients, as have author colleagues of mine.

Zoella’s book Girl Online is a boy-meets-girl novel. A book she didn’t write – or at least didn’t write alone.

Let me tell you, Zoella fans, about my own shock and deep disappointment when I discovered Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon didn’t personally pen all those Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Shattered, I was, even a teeny bit betrayed – possibly more shocked to learn Carolyn and Franklin didn’t even exist! They were just pen names invented by a publisher, and supported by a team of busy writers. I understand all about when you’re a fan betrayed – the fall to earth can be pretty jarring. (By the way, I’m still a fan.)

Apparently Zoella is copping it hard from her fans right now. From my newly educated viewpoint, I think unfairly so. Ghostwriters are part of the fabric of publishing – in fact, if you believe the great Shakespeare conspiracy, even the Bard had some help in the verbage dept.

Glamour model Katie Price certainly reaped big rewards with her ghostwriter, the late Rebecca Farnworth, and no one batted an eyelid – in fact, the writing partnership was something of an open secret. Farnworth authored 14 books in all under Katie Price’s name – no mean feat!

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It’s so easy for nastiness to go viral thanks to social media (thanks social media!), and obliterate all of the things you might have liked or found redeeming about a person or situation when they fall short of the sort of strict moral code you’d never enforce upon yourself.

In Australia we call it Tall Poppy Syndrome (and before the Internet – yes, I was alive then – I would have believed the cutting down of celebrities and anyone else who stuck their heads above the social ramparts was only an Australian past-time. Alas, it’s not.).

I say give Zoella a break. Cut her some slack. Leave off…

As an entertainer she’s just doing her job – baring every little piece of herself to satisfy her hungry audience of fans. By having her novel ghostwritten, she’s given a great job to someone else. That someone being Siobhan Curham, who has found herself in the rather unenviable position of defending her work on Girl Online. Give her a break too, she was just doing her job as a ghostwriter.

Zoella’s still the same charming self-made vlogger you all fell in love with.

Final words must go to Siobhan Curham via The Guardian, who puts the whole storm-in-a-teacup beautifully in perspective: Curham noted that she “did have some issues with how the project was managed”, and that it would be “really healthy to have a broader debate about transparency in celebrity publishing”. “But please don’t blame Zoe personally for a practice that has been going on for years,” she wrote, pointing out that the huge sales of the novel, which is 2014’s fastest-selling book and which is sitting on top of the UK Official Top 50 for the second straight week, meant that “bookstores such as Waterstones are ending the year on healthy profits”, and that “Penguin, and many other publishers around the world, are now able to afford to offer more unknown writers book deals”.

Postscript
Porter Anderson made this important observation about Zoella-gate that touches upon what may be a generational schism in how ghostwriting is viewed: “The public has a new, digitally closer relationship with its glam girls and boys. Community and networking mean interaction with one’s pop-video icons. That interaction is expected to be authentic.”

Fair point, however I don’t believe Zoe and Siobhan should be the scapegoats for an industry practise that is, clearly on this occasion at least, out of step with its youthful, social target audience.