Last weekend Ian and I visited the nearby city of Rotterdam for a 24-hour break. The weather was glorious and so we decided to take advantage of our host nation’s efficiency and hire bicycles direct from the train station. It was cheaper than taking our own bikes on the train – our usual train cards could simply be swiped and we’d be on our way.
Only, it was not that simple.
The Dutch are tall and can cycle straight from the womb. They pootle around the country’s cycle lanes with their arms folded. Their bikes don’t mess about with handlebar brakes. Oh no, they just back pedal a bit while keeping those long old arms folded.
No one would describe me as a robust driver. I find it very hard to look over my shoulder and not turn the bike (or steering wheel) in the same direction as my eyes. Even when I do manage it, my varifocals present me with a useless blur.
I am short. Even with the saddle set to child height my feet could not touch the floor. Stopping the darn thing meant I had to back pedal and then jump. I soon realised that I was used to slowing down (using handbrakes) before looking over my shoulder to check for overtakers before coming to a total halt. How on earth was I supposed to brake before I needed to brake, then? So, I didn’t, I fell off.
This is just the start of a gorgeous weekend somewhat blighted by bruised elbows and egos. It was a shame because I love cycling so much I quote it as the best thing about this country.
Could you spot ten ideas in two days?
The day before our trip I had set some of my students the task of noticing things that happened to them in the context of living abroad and making a note. It is these seemingly mundane experiences that can be the catalyst to an insight or a parallel that could become a blog post or article. I had asked my students to spot 10 things over the course of two days and so in good humour I decided that it was only fair that I did the exercise too. Indeed, I gleaned at least 10 ideas from the bicycle fiasco alone.
Let me give you three examples of how the writer’s mind should work, taking a fragment of what happened that weekend and using it to create a larger piece:
On a Writing Me-Treat I encourage students to pay attention and notice where ideas are lurking. If you want to be a real writer and want to get published and paid for it then you need to be able to come up with ideas all the time.
Talking with Olga Mecking was a bit like chatting with myself 25 years ago when I was just a few years into my fledgling career as a freelance journalist. Olga is a polyglot, Polish by birth and living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three young children. She is totally dedicated to making it as a freelancer and her drive and passion make her the ideal role model for other new writers.
We meet in the coffee shop of The Hague’s Filmhuis and I almost miss her. I find her with her back to me, head bowed, reading a book on her iPad, sitting behind a pillar. But that’s typical of Olga I guess, for, despite living in the same city I have never bumped into her in the flesh so to speak. Online however, it is another story. That’s where I find her all the time.
I mentor new writers and have done so for more than ten years. Mostly they start by taking my Definite Articles course either online or in a live workshop and then I do my best to help them get a career off the ground, first with blogging, then writing articles for free and then moving to source hidden paid-for markets. I suggest my mentees and students write for six different places.
“I had been published in fewer than six, I think,” she tells me before taking a sip of her ginger tea. “Maybe six places but some of those were guest posts on other blogs.”
It is gratifying to find that the ‘rules’ I have been bashing my students over the head with for years still hold true and more gratifying still to discover that she, like me a few years ago, is pretty good at finding paying markets. Like me, she recognised that getting published, albeit for free, for a reputable publication would really give her career a leg up. My launchpad publication back in the 1980s was the Weekly Telegraph.
“I wanted to write for Huffington Post,” she explains. “They pay now by the way.”
Being able to say you have been published by a big name does wonders for the ego as well as the portfolio. Of course, Olga maintains her portfolio, over at OlgaMecking.contently.com and an impressive sight it is too. She began by blogging as EuropeanMama for seven years. She then moved up to being paid as a freelance and has three years under her belt.
“You need to read and write a lot,” she advises. “And to pitch and pitch. I have about three successes for every ten I send out and I try to pitch most days. Oh, and you need to think of yourself as a writer too.”
Now that is dedication, motivation and being serious about what she wants.
“It’s not just about pitching, though,” she continues. “You have to follow up once or twice too. I follow up first after a week. Many pieces were only picked up after my second follow-up call.”
We both agree that it’s vital a writer can ‘see where the stories are’. I believe that a writer can spot a paying market too. This is why Olga spends so much time online.
Like me, Olga gets bored quickly. She has found it hard to stay within one niche and finds the expat issue niche to be too limited. She rarely writes for EuropeanMama now. But one thing that never bores us is writing in any form or genre. Olga has produced an anthology of posts by bloggers in the Netherlands, called Dutched Up and has just translated her grandfather’s holocaust memoir into English. One Chance in a Thousand is now available on Amazon.
Every year, in The Hague, a Feel at Home in The Hague fair is held in the stadthuis. It’s a fun event, with food stalls, lots of clubs, a busy programme of performances and a bunch of workshops. I signed up for one called Writing For Love and Money, led by Lisa Friedman of Amsterdam Writers Workshops.
I expect you wonder why I bothered to attend a workshop I could have easily run myself. Well, let me tell you…
The room was packed to overflowing and I did feel a little guilty to have taken a place from someone who maybe needed it more. But, that didn’t last.
It was such fun to watch one of my peers lead a class and see how her teaching and mine overlap and contrast. I found many similarities unsurprisingly and thoroughly enjoyed picking up a few gems along the way.
When I attend a workshop I like to go ‘quote-spotting’. By this I mean that I write down, verbatim, the best, most useful and wisest things that the teacher or speaker says. And you know, I learned a LOT!
Ten Gems from a Writing Workshop
Here, in a nutshell, are the ten, yes, TEN things I heard that I thought were worth sharing with you now. Ready?
I recommend that you all grab opportunities to attend workshops whenever you can. Thank you Lisa Friedman.
It was not until I was over 40 that I decided to try my hand at fiction again. I wrote endless synopses, character outlines and first three chapters, hired the services of the wonderful Hilary Johnson, and she would tear them apart. If June had said I was not a fiction writer then I wasn’t going to write a whole novel only for it to have no chance of publication. Ultimately I wrote two full-length novels and I loved every second of the process. One still lingers on a memory stick. The other, Sunshine Soup, was a joy to write and has been well-reviewed, but it was a long old process getting it right.
I love poetry and have always written it. I love blogging and writing features articles and particularly enjoy writing short personal pieces, a bit like this one, that share something of my life and offer something useful (I hope) to the reader.
But this blog is about finding your writer’s voice. Well, I believe there is only one way to find your voice and that is try have a go at all the genres: feature articles, reviews, travel, short fiction, junior fiction, full-length novels, plays, poetry, news, food, fantasy, historical fiction, tweets, blogs, columns, essays and so on. Try them all and be mindful of the following:
On my Writing Me-Treats I purposely encourage students to explore other genres and in doing so, they quickly discover what they like and what they don’t and, perhaps more importantly, what most impresses their fellow students.
So start exploring today. You may find that, unlike me, you are a novelist at heart.
author, journalist, teacher and poet
'Sharing what I know to help others to grow.'
Jo Parfitt has published 31 books, helped more than 100 authors get into print and more than 1,000 to begin writing. She's an inspiring, compassionate and encouraging teacher.
Jo has run Summertime Publishing since 1997. She has lived abroad for almost 30 years – in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia. She specialises in inspiring others who write about expatriate issues.
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