Writing Practise #1: 92% of a Sestina


One of the things I try to do on a regular basis to improve my writing is practise.  I count writing practise as separate from the freelance writing jobs I take on, and the work I do on personal projects.  When I set time aside to actually practise my writing, I consciously try to experiment, to play around with different styles, approaches, genres and tones.  It’s an attempt to broaden my repertoire, flex my creative muscles, and learn new ways of writing well.

For me, an important part of practising is sharing my work with other people.  When I was still trying to decide whether writing was for me or not, I wrote a lot of 140-character flash fiction on Twitter.  It was a way to work on writing more concisely (a lot more concisely), but also to test the waters, to see what others thought of my style.  Tweeting flash fiction, entering it into competitions, and sending it to Twiction journals (yes, there are journals just for Twitter fiction) gave me an early confidence boost at a time when I was still finding my feet.  Having an audience motivates me to keep writing, and to keep trying to improve the things I write.

This week, I wrote a sestina, which is something I’ve never tried before.  A sestina is a densely patterned poem that is structured not through rhyme but through the repetition of certain words.  Traditional sestinas are composed of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three line envoi.  The last words of the first six lines are taken and repeated, in a different order, at the end of each line of the next five stanzas, and again in the envoi.  If you’d like to see a really great example, my brother wrote a sestina called ‘The Apple Tree’ that was one of the winning entries in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2012.

My sestina plays a bit fast and loose with the rules on word repetition.  It also misses out the envoi (meaning that technically it’s only 92% of a sestina).  It’s about the spring equinox, so naturally it is very depressing.

It’s fitting that I’ve written 92% of a sestina, because 92% of the effort in writing is spent on the first draft.  The other 92% is spent on revising and polishing the first draft.  With that in mind, I’d love to hear your honest feedback and first impressions—it all helps!

Spring Equinox

When the light comes back on behind the sky
The snowdrops have clawed their way up through the asphalt
Desperate for air
And birds are visible through the ribs of hedgerows
In lean trees reaching out with famished fingers
Eager for the return of time

Time turns a corner, admits a pause
Patches and pieces the light
Letting it out with measured fingers
The air sheathes its claws
The laughter of birds returns to the hedgerows
All the desperate things return to life

Despair has slunk away in the night
Shaken loose by the turning of time
Has taken flight, a bird of lead
The light comes back on behind the sky
To reveal an empty bed, an indent like a claw,
And you, smoothing the sheets with tired fingers

Fingers which linger on the pills, on the telephone
Desperation has sloughed you like dead skin
And your hands curl into claws
At the wheedling of time
The insistence of the light
At the birds, which you thought had no power to move you

Your bones are birdlike, hollow but strong
Fingers that catch like branches in your hair
The light fills you (you have nothing else)
Burns away the despair, your flesh
Tells you that it will all come right, in time
Hooks you with its claw

There is always a claw
In the raucous laughter of the birds
Time always dangles a promise
From the ends of those gangrenous fingers
Your heels kick at despair
When the light comes back on behind the sky


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Freelance Fails #2 – Late Mornings and All-Nighters


Time management can be a challenge when you work from home.  Image from Pixabay.

This week, I’ve decided to focus on a problem that’s not unique to freelancers, but which you’ve almost certainly faced if you’ve ever worked from home: sorting out your work rhythms.

For me, this has been one of the hardest things about getting started as a freelancer: in the absence of a clearly defined, externally imposed schedule, it can be very difficult to work regular and consistent hours.

Working the Other 9-5

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a morning person.  Getting to work on time was a struggle even when I had an office job.  Still, back when I worked in admin, I did manage to drag myself out of bed every morning and stagger into the office at something resembling a reasonable time.

Within two days of starting to work from home, I was back to getting up at noon, sitting around the house in my dressing gown all day, and clocking off for the night at the other 5 o’clock.

Having the freedom to set your own timetable is one of the great joys of working for yourself, but it can become a curse when you’re writing blog posts at 2:44 AM*, caffeine fuelled and bleary eyed, while everyone else in the house is asleep except your night-owl boyfriend (and believe me, no one wants to be setting their watch by his sleep-wake cycle).

I was working late into the night and sleeping through the best part of the day, and it was ruining both my sleep patterns and my ability to socialise with normal, diurnal people.

To make matters worse, I was so frustrated with myself for not being able to nail my work rhythms that I would often try to force myself to get up early after a late night of work, in an attempt to jump-start a healthier working pattern.  This only ever made me sleep-deprived, cranky, and even less productive than usual.

My work rhythms weren’t working for me, and I needed to find a way to fix that.

Working Smarter

Everyone’s attitude to their working patterns is different, so what has helped me may not be what works for you.  Some people (the aforementioned night-owl boyfriend, for example), love being able to ditch the 9-5 entirely.  Others, like my dad (also a freelance author) thrive on a rigid morning-evening work schedule.

For myself, the most important step to sorting out my work rhythms was to accept that, at first, I would sometimes (read: most of the time) get them wrong.  I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to work solidly from 9 until 5, and feeling guilty when I failed.  Instead, I began trying to figure out the times of day when I was at my most productive, and the working patterns which helped me get more done.

For example, I tend to work very effectively in short bursts.  For this reason, I’ll often set aside small, time-sensitive tasks to complete while I’m on the train or the bus, since I know I’ll have half an hour free then to work on them exclusively.  When I’m at home, I set timers for short tasks to keep myself focused.

Figuring out working patterns that actually, well, work, is a time-consuming process.  It took me months of erratic working days and unproductive faffing around before I began to settle into a rhythm that was comfortable for me, and I’m still not completely there yet.

The simple act of forgiving myself when I do mess up, though, has already helped me bounce back from late nights faster, and get more done.

Lessons Learned

1. Recognise sunk costs, and move on from them: if you’ve accidentally spent the morning playing Final Fantasy rather than working on your portfolio, that’s a shame. It would be an even bigger shame if you spent the afternoon beating yourself up about it.  It’s hard to work productively when you’re wallowing in guilt, so resist the urge.  Forgive yourself and move on.

2. Give yourself permission to take breaks: sometimes, and despite your best efforts, work just isn’t going to happen.  It might be because you’re sick.  It might be because you pulled an all-nighter last night and your brain hasn’t recovered yet.  Sitting listlessly at your desk reading the same sentence over and over again isn’t going to do you or your career any favours.  When you’re not getting anything done, it’s OK to take some time off.  Giving yourself permission to take a proper break will help you to recharge and be more productive when you’re feeling better, while soldiering on will lead only to diminishing returns.

3. Figure out what works for you: the greatest advantage of freelancing is that you can set your own schedule.  This means that if the 9-5 doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to work 9-5!  Take the time to figure out when, where and how you get your best work done—it will be worth the effort.

* Like, say, this blog post, for example.

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Freelance Fails #1 – Working for an IOU


#FreelanceFail.  Image from Pixabay.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” 

– Otto Van Bismarck*

It’s been just over three months since I gave up pretending to look for a real job, and decided to devote myself to freelancing full time.  Those three months have been exciting, scary and, like all new endeavours, full of mistakes.  Fellow freelancers: don’t make the same ones I did!  (It would be a shame to copy my pitfalls, you know, when there are so many other, more original pits to be fallen into).  Take a leaf from Otto van Bismarck’s book, and read on to learn (and laugh) at my freelance fails.

Freelance Fail #1- Working for an IOU

The other day on LinkedIn, I saw a post from freelance copywriter and social media manager Robyn Edwards that really resonated with me:

“I am really, really tired of working with people who don’t want to pay when the project is completed.”

It resonated, of course, because I experienced exactly this unwillingness to pay in one of my first ever gigs as a freelance proofreader and copy-editor.  My client, who we’ll call Sidney, was a student who wanted help editing an essay for his masters course.  I am not an expert in Sidney’s course subject, and I told him this.  I am, however, an expert in writing and editing great academic English.  And so, with that caveat, I expressed my willingness to help and accepted the job.

I talked with Sidney to go over his requirements, and asked him if he had any budgetary restrictions within which he’d like me to work.  His reply was that money was not important- he just wanted me to do the best job I could- so I went away and did just that, then sent Sidney an invoice for the work I’d done.  This was where the problems began.  Sidney dropped out of contact for a few days, then resurfaced to ask me for an extension on paying the invoice.  Now, I had had a very positive working relationship with Sidney up until this point, so I was happy to give him some more time: I trusted him to pay me what he owed me when he could.

Turns out, this was a mistake.  The extended payment date rolled around, and the money did not appear.  What did appear was an angry email in my inbox.  While Sidney had delayed paying me, his essay had been graded, and he wasn’t happy with the result.  It transpired that the essay had contained a number of inaccuracies about Sidney’s own subject, and that it had not met the tutor’s brief.  Sidney blamed me for this turn of events, and wanted to cut my fee almost in half as a result.  I replied to him as calmly as I could, pointing out that I had never claimed to be an expert in his subject, or to be able to advise him on the best way to get a good grade.  That is not an academic proofreader and copy-editor’s job.

Eventually, Sidney paid me two thirds of my agreed price.  Given that I had put a full-priced job’s worth of work into his essay, this was not a lot of comfort.  Nor was the money worth the stress, lost sleep and self doubt which had resulted from having my professional conduct questioned.  It took me a long time after my encounter with Sidney to recover my confidence when dealing with new clients, but in a way, I am glad that I ran into him so early in my career.  It taught me to be a little more cautious in the future, and to never, ever, work for an IOU.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Unless you’re working with a client you know and trust, always ask for a deposit up front.  You can also use an escrow service to provide you with extra security, if you feel it’s needed.
  2. Be clear about your invoice payment deadline, and stick to it. You wouldn’t ask for an extension on paying for a meal out or a grocery shop- and your clients shouldn’t put off paying for your work, either.
  3. Hammer out your payment expectations before you begin a job– statements like ‘money is no object’ or ‘any reasonable price is fine’ are vague and unhelpful. Establish what your price is, and make sure that it’s in line with your client’s expectations, before you proceed. That way, there will be no nasty surprises on either side.

To respect the privacy of my clients, I have not used any names- either of companies or of individuals- or any other identifying details, in this post.

* I totally thought that this quote was from Fullmetal Alchemist until about half an hour ago, and I am really, really glad that I googled it before writing this post.

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It’s OK to have a crappy Christmas


Not everyone’s Christmas is merry.  Image from Pixabay.

Christmas is upon us once again, that most wonderful time of the year when merriness seems all but mandatory.  Yet in spite of- or perhaps because of- the widespread insistence that Christmas is a happy time, there’s an awful lot of misery about.  In a 2015 Samaritans survey of 1600 adults, 1 in 6 respondents said that Christmas was the loneliest time of the year, and 23.6% believed that problems felt worse over the festive period.

One of the hardest things about feeling low can be the sneaking, guilty sense that you ought to be happier than you are.  This feeling is surely never more pervasive than during the annual joy offensive that is Christmas.  Every year around the beginning of December, we’re bombarded with schmaltzy songs, corny TV specials and heart-warming supermarket adverts, all screaming the message that Christmas is about happiness, love and togetherness.  That’s a hard message to bear for people who are suffering from depression or anxiety, for those spending Christmas alone, or feeling isolated and unwanted.

In a way, Christmas is just an accentuation of an unhealthy attitude towards negative emotions that plagues society all year round.  Entire industries- advertising, plastic surgery, self-help literature- are built on the premise that happiness is an attainable (read: purchasable) goal, and unhappiness an obstacle that is easy to avoid, if you only have the right tools.  If you follow my advice/ buy this product/ adopt this diet, the argument goes, you will finally be happy, and your troubles will just melt away.

This mentality is toxic and harmful, and not just at Christmas.  The idea that unhappiness can be entirely avoided through the right kind of attitude or exercise regime only serves to make us feel like failures when, time and again, those feelings of anxiety and sadness come creeping back.  Misery is compounded by guilt, and the treacherous thought that we are responsible for our own low moods.

The best advice I was ever given about taking care of my mental health was that it’s OK to feel crappy: sometimes people just do.  There are things you can try to make yourself feel less crappy, less often, but they don’t work for everyone, or all of the time.  Like most things that are really true, this advice didn’t come with an easy-to-implement, commercially viable solution.  It didn’t change my life overnight.  But it helped.  Like many people, I have long had a tendency to punish myself for feeling low, getting into a meta-spiral of beating myself up for sadness and anxiety.  Now I do that less, and I feel like that’s an improvement.

It’s this idea of trying to accept bad feelings rather than fabricate good ones that underpins the Samaritans’ #RealChristmas campaign.  It counters the message of all those songs, adverts and TV specials by pointing out that in reality, Christmas is rarely the perfectly joyful affair they depict.

So I won’t be ending this post by wishing you all a merry Christmas.  What I will wish for is a festive season in which we can all let ourselves off the hook, and have whatever Christmas we feel like having.  Be kind to yourself, if you can.  Be kind to others: even if you’re feeling merry, remember that they may not be.  And who knows, maybe a crappy Christmas will be followed by an OK boxing day, even a pretty good New Year.

If you are feeling crappy this Christmas, you don’t have to bear it by yourself.  The Samaritans is open throughout the festive period, including on Christmas day.  Their free phone number is 116 123, and their email is jo@samaritans.org.  You can find your local branch using the branch finder on their website: http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us.  Samaritans is for everyone, whether or not you are feeling suicidal.

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New Site!

Hello and welcome to my new website!  It’s designed to showcase my work, and as a handy place to contact me with commissions and other work.  Check out my Portfolio and Hire Me! pages for more information, or read my latest blog post on my home page!

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