Anyone who knows anything about modern SF will have heard of Cat Rambo, the author and former President of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. What most people don’t know – indeed I didn’t until I signed up as a Patreon – is that Cat has an incredibly lively, supportive, inspiring Patreon community. There are discussions of all things writing and beyond, plus some amazing interactive sessions every week.
One of these – and you get access to this even if you’re only a Tier 1 Patreon like me, which I think is phenomenal – is a weekly writing games session. This takes the form of a Zoom session at which Cat sets three prompts, two with a 10-minute writing time and one with a 15-minute limit. Then anyone who wants to can read out what they’ve written.
As always with these things, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what everyone produces from a single prompt. It’s also a really good way to realise that it’s not at all easy to bring your story to a satisfactory end in such a short time.
I won’t be able to make the session every week, but with three prompts a time I’ve already come up with the seeds of a couple of stories that please me and I’m keen to continue the habit of weaving something from (apparently) nothing. So watch this space!
As those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while may remember, some time back I wrote a series of short pieces in response to writing prompts based on a box of Christmas tea sachets. Those stories turned out to be set on the Isle of Man, where I was born and grew up.
Together with other short stories, flash fiction and fragments, they are now available as A Manx Daisy Chain and other stories. You can buy the title as an e-book or paperback, currently on Amazon (here), and I’ll be adding it to other platforms according to demand.
So if you like fairy tales, or fancy the idea of stories about robot dinosaurs, Bake Off in space or why translators need to be really careful about the assignments they accept… you might enjoy reading it!
Or how to put yourself off copywriting (for life?) in 14 extremely tedious and not very relevant lessons
As those of you who’ve been here for a while will know, I quite enjoy writing. I’m fairly good at it. And, as a sensible freelancer, I’m always trying to think of ways that I can offer more value to my clients while also broadening my skills base, just in case they ever do manage to perfect machine translation.
So a while back I signed up for the College of Media and Publishing’s Copwriting course. And when I say “a while back”, I really do mean a long time ago. Like, years.
In fact, so many years that when I got together in 2020 with a handful of fellow translators to set up an accountability group so we could finally finish the course (all right, I hadn’t even done one assignment, but I would)… it turned out that I had to pay a supplement of £50 to restart the course again.
And everything went downhill from there, really. What follows is, I admit, a fairly harsh review. YMMV. Maybe it’s just me. You might love it. I ended up with a Distinction, so I do feel a tad ungrateful – which is one of the reasons it’s taken me almost a year to decide to write this – but on the other hand as a copywriting course retailing at anything up to £500* I just feel that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
Firstly, it’s not really a course aimed at people like me. As a freelance translator, I’m already pretty au fait with a lot of the general stuff the course covers. Grammar, online glossaries, terminology, proofreading your work? Tick. Formatting? Yup. Writing effective headings? Well, maybe not from scratch, but I often have to turn headings in French or Swedish into snappy equivalents in English. Writing press releases? Ditto.
Secondly, it’s not really a course that teaches you copywriting. Yes, I know. You’d think that, in a copywriting course, that would be pretty basic. Instead – and I can kind of see why, but there must be a better way to do it than this – it teaches you to come up with fictional briefs and then write copy to fit them.
For example, an exercise might ask you to come up with a magazine for which you’d write an article about a company’s product. All/some of which could be fictional. And to my mind, that’s just so vast an assignment that I don’t even know where to start. So each time we had to do something like this, I ended up making up the entire thing. Which just made it an exercise in creative writing, rather than copywriting.
Thirdly, it’s incredibly dull. Each lesson consists, as you’d expect, of study notes concluding with an assignment. But there are up to 44 pages of study notes (yes, FORTY-FOUR). That was for the social media assignment, which took absolutely ages because you had to do umpteen different tasks (including creating a blog if you didn’t already have one, and writing at least two posts – which seems like an inefficient way to teach someone about blogging).
Fourthly, it’s not very well written. I began to expect the recurring use of “But”, followed by a comma, at the start of sentences, but I never stopped gritting my teeth about it. Surely if you’re teaching any kind of writing, you need to get the basic grammar right?
Fifthly, some of the marking is a bit dubious. I had one assignment marked as a B because I’d failed to include notes to the fictional newspaper editor. When I pointed out that I had, in fact, included these notes, but the tutor simply hadn’t scrolled to the bottom of the assignment, my mark remained a B.
And finally, it’s not up-to-date. As I mentioned above, one of the assignments involved creating a blog. Now, you can argue that blogging is still relevant for companies in 2022. But you can’t deny that Twitter no longer has a 140 character limit. In fact it hasn’t since 2017! I did point this out in my submission, but I stuck to 140 characters anyway because I guessed that if I’d gone with the current 280 character limit I’d probably have been marked down. In any case, I’d have had to write another 140 characters of this depressing stuff, and by that point I was just desperate to get the damned thing finished.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for that accountability group I mentioned at the start of this post, I’d never have done it. (Thank you all – you know who you are!) Other members deprived themselves of chocolate when they didn’t submit assignments on time. One member notably strode through the entire course, finishing it in what felt to me like seconds but was probably a much more reasonable few months. Meanwhile, I found the entire thing so soul-grindingly awful that I needed to bring in the nuclear option on repeated occasions: I threatened myself with having to make a 50€ donation to Nigel Farage’s latest party. It never failed. Nigel, you’re a mean-minded, self-serving arsehole and you’ve single-handedly made racism acceptable in the UK again and condemned ordinary young people to suffering under the British government for their entire lives, instead of escaping as I was fortunate enough to do… but at least you helped me get through this dreary desert of a course.
I should perhaps point out here that I’m not incapable of appreciating online courses. In May I finished “Proofreading 1” from the CIEP, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, and I’m on target to finish “Proofreading 2” in the next week. And they’re wonderful. Challenging, instructive, high-level, well-written and constructed… In other words, a lot of fun, and absolutely worth the price. In fact, I have to stop myself thinking “Oh, I could just do a little bit more of the next assignment” so I can actually get some work done. I’m really looking forward to being able to announce my qualification as a full Member of the CIEP.
But the College of Media and Publishing’s copywriting course has had exactly the opposite effect. I’ve done copywriting for clients in the past. I’ll continue to do it for existing clients who ask for it. But I won’t be looking for new outlets for my copywriting skills. I’ve even left ProCopywriters, a network I joined a few years ago, and whose conference I attended and found to be extremely enjoyable. I’m not sure why the course had such an extreme negative effect on me – maybe it was having to admit over and over for a whole year, in yet another Friday accountability thread, that I still hadn’t done the next assignment?
In any case, as I’ve said above you may feel different about it. It may teach you all you ever wanted to know about copywriting and fill you with enthusiasm for the profession. Personally, I wasn’t lovin’ it.
*If you do decide to do this course, make sure you sign up during one of the CMP’s frequent special offers. You can usually get it for less than half the RRP.
A different one, this, completely out of sequence from my tea sachet challenge, but still a piece composed entirely from a (relatively) random prompt.
A couple of days ago one of my favourite bands, the wonderful 65daysofstatic, released an updated version of one of their earlier tracks. A Discord discussion earlier today about this, and the sample near the start, led to a suggestion that this should be a story. And when I read the words, I knew I had to write something.
“The roads are blocked…And we cannot get through.Twenty-fourth day, twelfth month.Tonight will be the last transmission.In a dream of ropes and steelI am a feather falling endlessly, without ever hittingthe ground.Christmas is cancelled.“
Now, as I’ve mentioned, this is an updated version. The sample in the earlier version, which I wanted to include as well, went like this:
“The children have escaped. Twenty-fourth day, twelfth month. Today will be the last transmission. Christmas is cancelled.”
And just to make things really difficult, a fellow 65kid added another, very appropriate sample, from a track by another favourite band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who I saw live in another life, when we were all humans):
“The car’s on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel.”
Put them all together, and you get this, or something very like it.
We still hear other voices, sometimes. Voices in the darkness, through the crackling static and the whine of the radio waves.
Men’s voices, mostly. There don’t seem to be so many women – and I look around our small group which is mostly women now and I wonder, does that mean our group is different to have so many? Or do the women in those other camps out there, those audio sparks in the dark night… do they just save their energy for more practical things than keeping in touch with what’s left of the human race?
I know some of the voices now as I didn’t when I was younger. The Tingler, from somewhere in central Europe. Sanna, from Norway, who just sings and cries now although I remember when she used to speak. Omar, who speaks Arabic so all we can understand is his name. Years ago it seemed normal to me that there were people talking, singing or swearing from the radio set in the corner of the big house. And there seemed to be so many of them, overlapping and competing with each other, sharing their news. Some of them even having conversations, lucky in being able to transmit and receive, where we have only ever been able to listen.
Now there are fewer voices, and they’ve settled into a routine, I suppose a bit like the radio programmes Mara told us kids about during our school time. That was when we still had school time. When there were enough children to make it worth an adult spending time on teaching us about how the world used to be.
I was sick when the other kids left, a year ago. I’d been sick for a few days, so I didn’t even hear them talking about it, but I can guess who started it. Lee was always the leader of our little gang, always the one urging us to do things we shouldn’t or that we didn’t really know how to do. Like trying to blow up the rusting car in the corner of the top field – which didn’t explode but did make a huge cloud of thick black nasty smelling smoke – or mixing magic potions out of the bright coloured liquids on the top shelf of the workshop cupboard, which put Anna in the sickbay for a week and the rest of us on hard chores for a whole month.
So when the other children escaped… I knew it was because of Lee. Recently he’d been saying he thought the leaders were just keeping us in the compound because they were stupid, or mad, or sick or something. His reasons seemed to change every day, with each new kid he explained his theory to.
“It’s because most of them are girls”, he’d said to me scornfully. “Girls are always scared of everything. The leaders have been out and seen the world and all the big machines and roads and other people out there and they’re scared and they don’t want us to go out because then they’ll have to as well, and we’ll see the world is just like it always was. There’s just us stuck in here, in this stupid compound.”
“But the radio…” I protested.
“Fake!” he screeched. “All fake, made up by the government to keep us in our place.”
“But…” In the face of such certainty I was beginning to doubt what Mara had taught us, the books we’d read. “But…we’ve been out”, I finally stammered. “We’ve seen what it’s like out there, the roads all smashed and the broken cars everywhere and all the towns burned or in ruins.”
Last winter Lee and I were both 11 and the oldest of the kids. And so we were allowed to start going out on patrols with the adults, trying to salvage anything useful that hadn’t already been looted ages before. One time we walked for five days away from the compound and still didn’t see another living human. There must’ve been some around, because we came across a car that was still burning, but there was no driver at the wheel and no sign of where one might have gone.
But even so, I couldn’t see how Lee could possibly think this was all some kind of hoax. What would be the point? We weren’t that important. Why would anyone ruin so much of the country just to keep the 40 of us in our little compound?
Lee was stubborn, though, and the other kids were in awe of how he stood up to the adults, and so when it turned out one December morning that all the kids were gone – at least all of them older than four-year-old Fiona – well, I hadn’t exactly been expecting them to do something so stupid or I’d have warned Samira or Joanna. But I wasn’t entirely astonished either. I was surprised we never got them back, though. I expected them to be gone for a few hours at most. But we’d all been taught how to operate the motorbike, and they’d taken it and the bike trailer too, so they had a good head start. And it began snowing that morning, heavy fat flakes drifting down like feathers, the thickest snow any of us had ever seen, even Joanna, and she’s ancient. So by the time we worked out they’d headed east, towards what was once a big city called Birmingham (I can’t really imagine a city, but Mara used to tell us about them, and there’s a picture of a place called Cardiff in one of our books)… Well, anyway, the roads were blocked and the search party couldn’t get through. And Samira just said she’d never send more of our people there, not after… And then she looked at me and Fiona and stopped speaking and the adults went and argued in the workshop for a long time. In the end, Louise and Diane went after their three kids, and Brendan went with them – still insisting Lee couldn’t have been involved and that it was all a government conspiracy. And Eddie and Richard went as well, but they left their wives behind. Only after a week Marie and Sara went away one night too. So now there are only 24 of us.
None of them came back. Nobody who ever goes east ever comes back. Sometimes, when I was little, walkers would come to the compound, in ones and twos – dirty, tired-looking people. We’d swap food for information, and one of them was James and he stayed, but none of the rest of them seemed to be much use and so we didn’t let them in and after a day or two they’d move on. And we’d never see them again.
So I listen to the voices on the radio, at night – always at night, they’re strongest then – and I dream of where those voices are coming from. And I’ve been thinking. We’d get a better signal if we had a bigger antenna. I reckon I could climb out of the attic window of the big house at night, onto the roof, where the antenna’s attached to the chimney. And I could fasten it to a scaffolding pole instead – I know where there is one in the long grass behind the workshop – and then I could attach the pole to the chimney and that would make the antenna loads taller. And that would be a great Christmas present for everyone and cheer them up from thinking about last year. I’ll be careful though – I’m going to tie myself to one of the steel brackets. I’ve got lots of rope.
She looked again at the brightly coloured objects in front
of her on the desk. Some kind of aeroplane with excitingly swept-back wings,
cockpit and long-since lost pilot – she vaguely remembered a small blue figure
with tentacles – and a chunky-wheeled tractor.
She sighed and lowered her head slowly to the desk, shoving
her keyboard away with her forehead.
The problem with design briefs, she’d always found, was that
they’d seem perfectly clear when the client explained them to her, but as soon
as she sat down at her desk and tried to bring them to life she seemed to lose
every bit of inspiration she’d ever had. And this was the most demanding client
she’d ever worked for.
Still, she’d always managed to come up with something sooner
or later, and her clients kept coming back. So she assumed she must be doing
Which was just as well, because there was an enormous amount
riding on this job. Far too much, really. Was this a challenge too far?
Then she remembered what her husband Ian had said to her
when she’d once tried to explain this to him. “Inspiration can only get you so
far, Moll. After that it’s training and years of experience and sheer bloody
determination that gets you through it. It’s not the time you actually spend on
the work that your clients are paying you for. It’s all those years learning
how to put in that time and produce something they’ll love.”
She sat up and smiled to herself. Ian had always known what
to say. Exactly the right words. Her eyes went back to the toys. Yes, the
stakes were definitely worth the effort.
She drew a piece of paper towards her. This job had to be absolutely
secret. She wasn’t going to risk committing anything to digital media for
prying eyes to find. She’d do this the old-fashioned way.
It was the kids’ toys that had given her the idea from the
start. No matter how much she tidied up there were always hard bits of plastic
littering the house, ready to trip or stab the unwary.
Her mother-in-law, Elaine, had badly sprained her ankle at
one point following a run in with an errant Moshi Monster truck. And of course
Elaine had then repeatedly pointed out how dangerous it was to let the kids
leave their toys about. Not that she ever lifted a hand to help on her
infrequent visits. She’d rather sit in the kitchen being snide about Molly and
indulgent with Ian.
And that was another thing that was going to change if she
got this right.
Quickly and with confident strokes she began to draw the
object she needed.
The blade-like wings, supported by the solid bulk of the
tractor – that was what she was trying to replicate. They needed to be a
perfect match for the real objects, so that afterwards she could replace them
with the real toys, discard the weaponised version – she hadn’t quite worked
how yet, but she would – and then call the police.
“It’s my husband”, she’d say. “He’s… he fell, slipped on
the stairs, on the kids’ toys. Please come quickly. I think…” she’d sob, “I
think he’s dead.”
And even that bitch Elaine would back her up. And Ian – her
lying, cheating bastard of a husband – wouldn’t be able to walk out on them as
she now knew he was planning to.
She’d get to keep the house, and the kids… and that lovely
big life insurance policy.
And all she had to do was create the perfect accident. Now that really was a Grand Design.
Another one word, 15-minute writing prompt. I actually do know where this one’s going after the abrupt stop that represents the end of the writing time, but I’ve never got around to extracting it from my head!
Stacy Andrews stood in front of the travel agents in the
high street, daydreaming. She wasn’t on her lunch break in a miserable grey
northern town, having stuffed in a greasy pork pie and two sickly chocolate doughnuts
and about to go back to her soul-destroying job for an insurance company. No,
she was Stacy Andrews, millionairess – or at least very-comfortably-off-ess –
and she was just about to round off her lunchtime, spent mainly over a
wonderfully healthy yet tasty salad at that expensive Raw Food place up the
road, by booking a three-week trip to a fantastic resort in the Seychelles.
‘One of those places where you live in a little straw hut on a coral reef but there’s a jacuzzi in your bathroom’, she’d confide to her equally wealthy colleagues at the office where she’d go three days a week ‘just to stop me vegetating’ and from which would periodically issue gorgeously produced cookery books of the “cottage garden but with wonderfully styled photography” genre.
She’d go away, have a fabulous time, meet a rich, handsome
and interesting man who’d fall instantly in love with her and propose – but
she’d say no because she valued her independence so much and when she went home
he’d write her intense letters every other day and they’d meet now and then and
have passionate yet tender sex in equally exotic locations.
‘Spare some change, love?’ came a voice from beside her,
instantly accompanied by a waft of unwashed body.
‘Ugh…er…’ she turned her first response into a kind of
cough and rummaged in her handbag. After all, it wasn’t the… she peered at the
grimy figure before her with its hand out. Woman? Yes, definitely female,
despite the baggy layers of clothes and bobble hat. It wasn’t the woman’s fault
she was homeless. Probably.
Stacy had seen that documentary about the homeless – the one proving that only 5% of those living on Britain’s streets had actually chosen in any way to be there. So she always gave money to help them when she could. Or at least when she couldn’t avoid not giving, anyway. It was her own fault for standing still. Usually if you maintained a sufficiently high speed you could be past even a persistent beggar before they got more than a few words into their spiel.
Since I posted the other day, I’ve received several comments to the extent that I should write more. Which, of course, I know. And when I started looking through the notebook I’ve been using for Tim Clare’s Weekly Writing Workout, it turned out that I’ve actually done more of the prompts than I thought.
So my first intention was to post the results, to try to encourage myself to do more. And I’m still going to do that. But it turns out that I never posted the results of the last writing prompt thing I did, which was a prompt a day for a month (no link to this one because it no longer exists!).
These are all 15 minute things, written longhand – and, as always, I’m amazed at the stuff that comes, fully formed, from my head when I just sit down and actually write. Where does it all come from? Years of life experience, I suppose. Although in this case a lot of them turned out rather macabre. I’ve noticed before that the shorter my fiction, the more likely it is that somebody’s about to die messily. Personally I blame reading too many Misty comics when I was a kid.
There are also a few that link up, using recurring characters or settings. And I guess that in itself is a reason for writing more of these short pieces.
Anyway, I’m going to post these as and when I remember, over the next month or so.
My colleague and prolific writer Allison was kind enough this week to call me a fellow blogger, so I thought it was about time I actually, you know, blogged.
It’s not entirely my fault that I haven’t written anything here recently. I’ve totally run out of inspiration for comments on the lunacy that is Brexit, and have taken to only getting my political news from the wonderful Ian Dunt on Twitter. If he hasn’t said something, or knows someone who’s said it, the chances are I don’t want to hear it. After all, I can’t do anything about the whole insane mess, and because both I and my partner are now – thank you Sweden! – safely out of the danger zone, I’m trying hard to see only the comical aspects, of which there are many. Manymanymanymany.
I’ve also been really busy professionally, translating two books, umpteen thousand words of mindfulness meditation voice-overs and vast quantities of technical specifications for major Stockholm infrastructure projects (once again, thank you Sweden!)
One thing I haven’t done much of is writing, despite the fact that I’m meant to be doing a bit every week, with the invaluable Tim Clare. Here’s a link to his free Couchto80K writing course; the speed he talks during the 123 second pitch alone would have convinced me to sign up for this if I wasn’t already (ostensibly) doing the weekly writing workout.
Anyway, to my shame I haven’t done many of these workouts so far, but in a rare spare 10 minutes a couple of weeks back, I scribbled out something not entirely unpleasing that kind of captures my whole Brexit/exile attitude.
Here it is. And I’ll try to post more often in the future (sorry Allison).
It’s Sunday, and she’s sipping Earl Grey tea on a blocky, utilitarian balcony in a blocky, utilitarian town in a blocky, utilitarian country and wondering how she got here… and where she goes next. The balcony is not her own. The country is, now, by a kind of forced adoption.
When she left her own country she never intended not to go back, much in the same way that she never intended not to go home again when she set off to go to university at the age of 18. But she’s discovered over time that the goalposts shift when you aren’t looking. So her parents split up and sold the house and sent her belongings to her university digs, and the country she was born in effectively did the same, suddenly deciding it didn’t want to be European any more. And she – who’d always thought of herself as European first and foremost – was faced with making herself a country of one, renegotiating her treaties, setting up her own defence budget, adopting environmental targets… creating a unique new member state.
So here she is, watching the seagulls fly past and wondering how so many people can live squeezed together into such a small area and whether one day she’ll ever want to become one of them – or whether that decision too will be forced on her by outside circumstances.
And that makes her feel, momentarily, like a victim – which she never wanted to be and dislikes as a role adopted by others. But it is just a role, she reminds herself, and one she can refuse or find a path around – or through, if necessary. She knows she can do that. She’s done it before. And after a while it’s not even all that scary any more.
She picks up her tea cup again and smiles. On the whole, life isn’t too bad at all.
Sometimes things just fall into your lap. Sometimes you have to struggle to make stuff work.
And sometimes the two combine to give you an opportunity to do something mad and exciting and all-but impossible, something that leaves you feeling exhilarated and alive and glad you did it.
It’s only been just over a fortnight since SF author Christie Yant asked who her Twitter followers recommended for proofreading, and I semi-flippantly answered “Well… me”.
But today, when the Resist anthology is exclusively released as part of the “Get the Vote Out” Humble Bundle and starts raising funds for the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, it’ll in part be because I threw caution – and my fee – to the winds and agreed to proofread 350+ pages in PDF format in an insanely short period of time, even though I knew that I’d also be spending a week in the UK, including a full day at a conference, during that fortnight.
Because sometimes, when the time’s right, when the cause is good – in fact, even when the time is wrong, if the cause is a good one – you have to act.
In today’s world, you may think that your actions can’t possibly achieve anything. You may think “Oh, I can’t contribute. I can’t stop global warming or help prevent human rights abuses, or stop the Saudis killing journalists and getting away with it”.
And maybe your contribution can’t be very big. My contribution to this anthology is a small one. But I made it all the same, and it’s helped a bit, and I’m proud that I did it.*
This week I’m also launching a new website for my business (or will be if I can get it to behave). On it, I explain my philosophy in life, which sounds grand, but it’s quite simple:
“If we all helped other people and made their lives easier, the world would be a much better place for all of us”
It’s that simple. Just do that. If you do nothing else today, this week, this year, just do that. As well as complaining about the state of the world and sending cat gifs to your friends to cheer them up, do something small and positive to make the world a better place.
You can do something local and important to you, like teaching elderly people a new language (good for keeping brains active – both theirs and yours), visiting people who live alone, or helping out in an animal sanctuary.
If you’re in the US, you can vote (if you haven’t been removed from the electoral list, that is). And you know which way to vote, don’t you?
*I’ve got to say too, that seeing emails whizzing into my inbox from people like Christie Yant, Hugh Howey and Gary Whitta has been a blast. I’ve also discovered a truly excellent book designer in the person of Matt Bright, who had the unenviable task of converting my proofreading notes into reality in the finished layout.
I’ve been so caught up in another project (news of which later) over the last week or so that I’d completely forgotten a flash fiction piece of mine was being published today by the lovely people at Spelk Fiction. Nor did I remember to take a photo of my rather nice edition of Thomas Hardy’s poems to illustrate it.