Monday, 31 December 2012

Pass Me On: David Arnold

It took a while to get to David Arnold.  When I started Pass Me On it was a response, in part, to putting in requests to PRs and then them humming and hahing before deciding that because I wasn’t GQ there was no chance.  ‘Fuck you PRs’ I thought.  I’ll do it on my own by getting personal introductions to people, thus eliminating the middle man, ie you.  Without the help of a PR, it’s been so much easier.  It only took me four months to pin down David Arnold for an interview.  Sure there was this little project he had going on, something about closing ceremonies for the Olympics and Paralympics.  He had to get them out of the way first.  Oh sure, I thought, we’ve all got work to do right?  He’ll be able to find 15 minutes to talk to me.  We all say we’re busy don’t we?

I've changed the format of Pass Me On this time around.  The interviews always ended up being longer than 15 minutes and a friend advised that the Q&A format of the writing wasn't a great showcase for my feature writing skills.  Q&A was initially attractive because I liked the raw, uncensored nature of it.  When you read an interview in a magazine, to a certain extent you're being advised on what the interviewee is like because of the impression the interviewer is getting.  With Q&A the reader can make their own mind up.  The flip side of that is, although eavesdropping can be fun sometimes if the conversation is juicy enough, it can get boring if you're not interested in what those two people are talking about.  When you lay it out like a feature, you're trying to find things in the transcript that are interesting to everyone.  Make your own minds up about whether I was successful here.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Public Relations

A PR, yesterday.
Once upon a time I used to work for a lads magazine (for foreign readers - a men's lifestyle magazine mostly featuring half naked women) and there was an oft heard phrase in the office: 'PR lies'.  This meant a PR promising something that they never delivered.  Journalists are of course spoilt in many ways; invitations to free film screenings, bar openings (with free booze) and unbelievably one summer, the free use of an apartment in Ibiza for the duration of the party season.  But interviews with big name stars and press trips to exciting countries were often dangled carrots that we never got to get our teeth into.  Cue big gaping holes on the flat-plan of the magazine that needed to be filled and much gnashing of teeth.  PR lies.  Damn them for not following through on their promises.

Now I've grown up a bit, I'm much more sympathetic to their usefulness.  Travel PRs in particular endure a nerve wracking process to deliver press exposure for their clients.  They have to engage the interests of writers, writers have to pitch successfully to commissioning editors and even if that goes well, the story might get killed before it see print or web space.  For my own part, I misguidedly thought that circumnavigating PRs in order to continue Pass Me On would be a good idea.  They wouldn't think much of a blog anyway (nothing in it for them unless the blog has gazillions of readers) and particularly for certain representatives, they'd be getting requests for interviews from celebrities all the time.   Why would they bother with me? This is only partly true for Pass Me On.  Though I request direct contact details for each successive interviewee, Norman Jay came via a PR.  I can only put this down to lucking out with a lovely person (Roberta at Dusted) respecting a good idea when they see one.

Post Matt Berry, I've been chasing the next link in the chain for what feels like months now.  Person X was pretty busy all through the Olympic period and I was happy to wait, but there's been no contact for weeks now.  Fair enough if he's no longer interested, I just need to know.  Which makes me think that PRs are a good idea.  You get a straight answer and if it's in the positive, a time and a date.  Everyone knows where they stand.  So this blog is by way of a confession box asking for forgiveness for my past sin of slagging PRs.  They certainly have their uses.  Now I just have to find out who represents X.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Advice from a Successful Freelancer

Fiona Sturges

Because I'm interviewing for Pass Me On, I've been scrutinising other interviews more closely.  One that leapt out at me was Fiona Sturges encounter with Antony Hegarty.  If you know a little about him, you'd think he'd be an interviewers dream.  Trembling, fragile voice coming out of a big, androgynous man who sings 'about loving dead boys, plaintive letters from hermaphroditic children, the fear of dark lonesome purgatories, breast amputation, the fluidity of gender' (as Pitchfork described his songs).  Definitely not your average Joe, going to work 9-5, then getting home and settling down in front of the telly.  

What was interesting about this interview however, was the challenge set up at the beginning. To quote Fiona's piece '
Enraged by a recent newspaper interview which he felt was "degrading", he now wishes to redraw the lines of how interviews are done.'  Hegarty makes it plain it's not just going to be the regular run through his career and a discussion on the themes of the new songs in order to shift the product.  He realises he has a platform from which to be heard.  So: you're hooked.  The interview looks like it's going to be tricky and as a reader, you're already wondering what's going to happen next.  

Once I’d finished reading, I flagged it up on Twitter and Fiona replied, thanking me for the praise. I love the way that Twitter gives you instant access to people you’re interested in; imagine trying to do that even a couple of years back. I Googled her, found her blog with links to other features and then figured she’d be able to offer some insight on writing for a living. Turns out she did.  

'It's harder than ever to make a decent living doing this since, unless you're Julie Burchill or Charlie Brooker or a similar 'name', you tend to get paid peanuts. This wasn't always the case. Five or six years ago the rates were decent enough but they have since plummeted due to the fact that most publications are struggling to stay financially afloat. It's the lie of the land I'm afraid - a result of the combination of the internet (ie free "content") and the economy. I have no complaints about the work itself. Although sometimes frustrating, it is mostly rewarding and never, ever dull.'

'In order to make a living out of it some compromises will have to be made. Be prepared to take on less glittering tasks such as listings, preview pieces, advertorials, first-person interviews or sidebars. Think very hard before saying no to a job on the basis that it's not interesting or glamourous. If an Editor deems you reliable, it's likely that more interesting work will come your way. As a freelancer I began writing television and radio previews and built up my portfolio from there. It took a couple of years to build up to writing lengthy magazine interviews, which, along with reviewing, is ultimately what I always wanted to do.'

'By all means specialise - it's good to be seen as knowledgable in a particular field - but beware of your specialism being too obscure. An expert in, say, Scandinavian death metal or dermatology does not a successful freelancer make. I broadly call myself an arts journalist, which covers music, telly, radio, film, books and more, though I have also dipped my toes into the waters of health and travel journalism. The greatest thing you can do as a freelancer is to be seen as a reliable writer - someone who listens to the brief, writes well and to length and is never late filing copy. If you can do that then you can probably turn your hand to just about anything.'

'Also: always keep your pitches brief (no more than three sentences) and put a link to your last published work underneath. If an Editor wants to know more, they will ask, but don't bore them to death before you've even started.'

I took Fiona’s advice on this and magically, got commissioned to write a piece on Matt Berry for the Independent.  No happy ending on this one unfortunately - I got an email later in the week to say that they couldn’t run it in the newspaper due to the earlier transmission date of Matt’s programme.  It did end up online though.  I went on to ask Fiona advice about getting a staff job under an Editor I could learn from.

'Staff writing jobs are very few and far between these days. Also, no Editor wants to be teaching someone on the job - they've got enough to do already. Sign up for Gorkana alerts ( and you'll see what's available work-wise. My advice is not to give up on the photo desk work, as the main problem with freelancing is the very inconsistent and generally low level of pay. In your spare time keep on sending out pitches, though make sure they fit in well with the publication.’

'Most writers I know now do other things to keep themselves financially afloat, whether its copywriting, proofreading, working in broadcasting or doing a bit of PR in the side. I do a small bit of media consultation work (last job was advising Woman's Hour on their editorial content) plus talking on the odd radio programme about arts nonsense. I also give lectures to University students about journalism and feature-writing. I'm not saying you can't make a living as a full-time writer (I did it exclusively for twelve-ish years) but it's much harder now than it ever was as the pay has plummeted. So keep your options open at all times.'

Sunday, 22 July 2012

What Happens Next?

I've just finished reading Peter Preston (@PJPrest) in the Observer giving an overview of the direction in which newspapers seem to be going.  For those of us that work in the industry, the figures make for depressing reading.  To crib from his feature (which you can read here) the Times and Sunday Times is losing somewhere between £11m and £60m, Lebedev's Independent and Standard company is losing £27.4m and the Guardian and Observer are losing £44m.  Those figures, surely,  are unsustainable.  How much longer will the titles will be allowed to exist?  If they were a football team, they'd already be finished.

The obvious solution should be online.   Advertising on the web accounts for £1 of every £4 spent, so why aren't the websites of these papers bringing money in?   The only figure cited by Mr Preston is the £14.7m the Guardian makes, but if they're still losing as much as stated above, it's not the financial salve they're probably hoping for.  All the papers are looking at the Times experiment, being the only title charging to access their content and journalists should all be hoping that it's a success as it will keep them in jobs.  Surfers will be reluctant as they've evolved expecting to get everything for free.  Really the papers should have collaborated; my guess is that even the most devoted reader of the Times might have gone elsewhere when the paywall was introduced.  Particularly given the short amount of time they spend reading online - Peter cites 15 minutes, compared to the 40 they would spend with a newspaper.

Peter's answer is niche sites (his example being Politico) and I think he might have a point.  If you're particularly interested in one type of content, it makes sense.  I will often browse the online Arts & Ents or Life & Style sections of the papers, skipping between three titles.  If they were all in one place, I'd hit that site more frequently.  The other solution has to be 'freemium' titles.  If the London institution (and now free newspaper) Evening Standard is losing money, how come free papers Shortlist and Stylist can prosper?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Disillusioned? Work Harder!

I'm having a mid life crisis.  Phew, just getting it out there feels better.  I blame marriage (and lack of exercise).  To explain, I've just been through one of the happiest periods of my life.  Our wedding day, purposely not the big ball of stress that they can sometimes turn into, had been in the making for about nine months.  The nearer you get to the date, the more exciting it gets, which meant a couple of mornings waking at 5am, my mind whirring with how it all might feel.  On the day, it all went mostly swimmingly and even the little hiccups made everyone laugh.  Weddings are simple: fill a nice room full of everyone you know and love, add some booze, funky music and delicious food and you'll have a lot of fun.  We did, though as we had been warned, it was a bit of a whirlwind.  The smiles didn't leave our faces for the next two weeks when we flew off to Madagascar, tracked lemurs through forests, snorkelled beautiful coral reefs, felt the sun on our backs and didn't think about our nine to fives at all.
The problem AND the solution.

But here's the thing.  I'm married now and I feel the need to be the provider.  I'm doing the same job that I did four years ago and earning less now than I did then.  I need to spend 40 hours a week doing something that I really love AND making the kind of money required to live in London.  I love the city, but she's high maintenance.  She'll offer a wealth of distractions to stop you from ever getting bored, but you'll need some serious wedge in order to sample all of her many temptations.  If you want to live here, you better be pulling in some serious dough unless you want to remain an expert in cat swinging for the rest of your life.

And writing pays shit.  Magazines and newspapers are dying as online is increasingly the place to read and websites want their content for next to nothing.  I got approached from a guy recently who wanted me to write some travel guides for his site, but it paid £50 ($77) per feature.  I'd need to write about 10,000 words for him in order to make the same as I do in my nine to five.  Hence my disillusionment.  How can I write, be the provider and stay living where I love?

The answer is work harder.  Want it more.  Remember your motivation.  There are people out there who write for a living.  They're successful because they really wanted to do it.  And do some exercise.  There's nothing like endorphins to keep the mind focused and the spirit buoyant.  Sitting on my backside on the beach was certainly nice, but it's instilled indolence.  It's time to get back in the gym.  More important than that, it's time to get the fingers on the keys more often.

Sunday, 29 April 2012


At the end of a long week, I met some colleagues from the magazine I used to work for in the local pub.  One of them, Rob, is working for the most visited newspaper website in the world (Mail Online).  He's also just about to become a father and, tired of the 12 hour days he's required to put in, has handed in his notice.  His wife has had to endure most of her pregnancy without him because of his workload and he doesn't want her to have to raise the child in the same way.  Rob's going freelance and won't be wanting for work.  He's got a brain the size of a planet and a steadfast memory, but most importantly, he writes about things he's really interested in: the web, gadgets, games and science.  Plus he's a really good writer.  Mail Online don't just employ any old idiot you know.  Incidentally, for a brilliant insight into the Daily Mail, the second most popular (and often very controversial) newspaper in the UK, the New Yorker ran a brilliant article on it here.
An Expert, yesterday.

Over our third pint, he gave me some advice.  Choose a subject that you're really into anyway or that you want to learn a lot about and then become the expert in that field.  In other words, corner the market.  If commissioning editors know that you're the go-to guy (or girl) on a particular subject, you'll always get work.  Up until now I've tried all kinds of writing and it's been really enjoyable - I like getting given a subject I know nothing about, like the MFI's I wrote about, researching it and bringing it to a wider audience.  But I think Rob might be right.   All I've got to work out now is which subject I really have a passion for.  So if you want to take some advice from Rob, a writer who does write for a living, it's specialise. 

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Reasons to Write Part 2: Press Trips

'I'm eating your tree - you cool with that?'
So what do you want to gain out of this writing gig then?  Money, fame, adulation?  We may not all get to be Hunter S Thompson, JK Rowling or Stephen King but if there is one thing that writing is near guaranteed to give you, it's new experiences.   I hadn't thought much about Victoria Falls before I went there last week.  Sure I liked travelling and getting to do some travel writing was one of the reasons I started hassling everyone I could for writing work a couple of years back.  But one of the many privileges of being a writer is that you can experience the world in a way that someone who chose a profession other than journalism would.  You can live like a King.  This was the thought that struck me as I sat on a small island of a bed looking down the lawn to the Zambezi in Zambia, just after I had been introduced to the butler I had been told to call on whenever I needed to.  I would think it again in a small gazebo as a masseur kneaded and pummelled relaxation into my body as the gurgles of the river tickled my ears.  A giraffe outside my room certainly made a nice change from pigeons scavenging discarded takeaways back home in London too.

Press trips can be good for more than boasting opportunities, they're pretty good for networking too.  I discussed one of the other titles that I write for with the PR that was with us in Africa and it's likely we'll be working together again later this year.  The more I meet other journalists, the more I find out how they can write for a living.  I discovered that working for a news organisation in the North West of England means you can afford a house with a garden; the guy who works for one down here is sharing a house with three of his mates in an area where it's increasingly likely he'll get mugged.

Lastly, press trips are good for getting some perspective.  While we were in Zambia, we visited an AIDS hospice, an orphanage and most inspiring of all, a farm worked by blind people.  However frustrated and stressed you might get with your own life, there will always be someone out there in the world who's having a much tougher time of it than you.   There's no way of saying this without sounding like a schmaltzy soundbite from an overly sentimental movie but I'm going with it: we all need reminding of that sometimes.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


By way of the writers group that I go to, I discovered Authonomy recently and thought it was worth a punt.  I've had the bones of a book written (100,000 words) for some time now and have been sporadically redrafting, which I find a bit of a chore (though I'm sure that it's absolutely essential).  I'm just at the point of sending off the first three chapters and a query letter to literary agents so Authonomy seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water although I've had problems figuring out what genre it might fit into.  'Can't Be Sure' (the book what I wrote, as Eric and Ernie might have it) is the male version of chick lit, whatever that is ('dick lit' has been one friend's suggestion).  Fifteen years ago it would have been the same kind of thing that Hornby, Parsons et all were writing.  I've googled a bit and the closest genre description I've found is 'new lad lit'.  Unfortunately for me it's the genre the Telegraph were proclaiming the death of about ten years ago.  Authonomy suggests genres, so I've had to go with 'Fiction' 'Humour' 'Chick Lit' and 'Popular Culture'.  Not ideal, but that categorisation is bringing different types of readers to it, which is at least good for feedback.

Anyway, if you're reading this and you're interested, you can read it here.  I've found it useful having to write a 25 word description of it and having changed it a couple of times, I've gone with 'If you like chick lit, this is the book for you. But only if you're ready for the man's side of the story.' The longer version is '29 year old Andrew Winters is ready to settle down. He's moved in with his ambitious girlfriend Rachel, his best friend Paul is always up for a beer and he's got a steady job. The only problem is that he fancies his colleague Kate. Worse, she seems to like him too. People say you know when you've found the right person. But how can you be sure? 'Can't Be Sure' is a male take on the confusing business of finding 'the one'.  It's a lot about love, the choices we make and temptation.  There's quite a bit that should make you laugh and quite a bit of sex in it too.  Maybe it's a sex comedy - Woody Allen gets away with that doesn't he?  Hope you like it and your support, by way of comments, or backing me on the site, would be much appreciated.

Friday, 27 January 2012


I'm making one of these for myself this weekend.
The subject writers most commonly write about is probably procrastination.  There are a million reasons not to write.  Some of mine currently are; the 40 hour a week job that I need to pay for the wedding, the wedding (organising invites, sorting hotels for the family, blah, blah), not spending so much time in front of the laptop and more with my goes on. 

I often ask my partner 'What's the difference between a reason and an excuse?' (this pops up a lot when we argue, funnily enough).  No one would say, I'm guessing, that I shouldn't spend more quality time with her rather than watching the telly or fannying about on Twitter.   The point is, my only real reason to write is in the hope of freedom.  I spend so much time in front of the laptop now in the hope that, in the future, all that time invested will have left me with a life where I can write a few hours a day and then have all the rest of the day to do what the hell I like.  All too often though, I forget that and occasionally I need to be reminded.  It's at times like these that I need a kick up the arse.

My wife to be is good at this.  God knows I don't like hearing it (I feel ashamed, like when I used to get told off by the teachers at school).  We're getting married, we live in a one bedroom flat that is struggling to contain all our shit and we're both hitting 40 this year.  I need to be a provider, both for her and, should we be lucky enough at our age, for a child that comes along.  And that child will need to be inspired by the choices that I made - it won't want a father that too regularly comes home frustrated and embittered because he was too scared to try and get the things that he wanted.  Scared to fail mostly.  A worry that, in the light of a short existence of 80 years give or take, seems ridiculous.

As a footnote on failure, I would also like to say thanks to an old friend who spotted that I had failed to keep to the resolution in my last post.  Like I said, sometimes I need the kick up the arse.  Thanks Sam.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Practice, Practice, Practice

This man has been hitting the keys HARD
If you read sites about or devoted to writing, they all say that you've got to practice.  As I've been scratching around for a new years resolution, practice is mine.  There's been a month between this blog post and the last.  That doesn't feel good enough, especially when I know that people are returning again and again to read the blog (Blogger stats back this up).  So from now on Sunday night is blog night.    If you're thinking of writing for a living, it's a good idea to practice.  I once wrote the first six chapters of a book by making sure I had an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening in front of a laptop.  Rules were, it didn't matter how many words I got down (but weirdly, there is something about sitting in front of a keyboard that will eventually produce something) and I could only eat something once the hour's work was done.  The carrot was literally being dangled. 

I need to practice because, to 'fess up, I've got little interest in writing presently.  I'm too comfortable.  The day job I took on the picture desk at the Mail, justifying to myself that it would only be for a year or so as I had a wedding to pay for, has come to be a regular 9-5.  I'm still freelance so there's zero job security but I have to admit, the regular paychecks make things easier for me.  It is stressful to be in debt and it's certainly nice to be able to pay for a wedding.  Not to mention going to the pub on a Friday, standing a few rounds and getting some grub because there's naff all in the fridge and you can't be arsed to cook after a long week.  In the current climate you feel lucky to even have a regular job.  Despite the money, the routine of the work makes life feel a bit dull.  I do the same walk to work every day, into the same office, with the same people and every week we put together a magazine that is more or less the same.

Which should, hopefully, prove motivation enough to get back to the writing.  There are not many jobs where you can work on a different subject every day, but journalism is one.   There is a plan of sorts and I'm going through the motions of that.  Even though I don't consider myself superstitious, I don't want to write it down here out of FEAR.  My fear is that if it doesn't work out, I'll look like a mug.  But equally, what is the point in caring what other people think?  And should we be afraid to fail anyway?  I think I've just given myself some subjects for the next blog post.  See, the practice is proving productive already.  See you next week.