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Friday, March 31, 2006

What Mr Sanders Taught Me

My schooldays are a rather distant memory now, but one of the
teachers in particular sticks in my mind. Mr Sanders, otherwise
known as "Sam", was my English teacher for several years, and an
eccentric even by comparison with the other oddballs who
inhabited the institution where I spent my formative years.

Sam was especially known for the range of punishments he
inflicted on boys (it was an all-male school). Notable among
these was the tweak, where he took a length of hair above the
boy's ear and jerked upwards. Tweaking was an artform as far as
Sam was concerned, and his repertoire included the single tweak,
double tweak, reverse tweak, and even the Magic Roundabout and
Dambusters tweaks (performed to a musical accompaniment). I
mean, could you ever forget a teacher like that?!

Even so, Sam WAS a good teacher, and some of the things he
taught me about English I have found useful ever since. One of
these was his rule about where to place the apostrophe in
possessives, e.g. the boy's room.

Sam taught us to rewrite the expression using the word 'of'. The
apostrophe would then go after the final letter in the rewritten

So if you were talking about one boy, the rewritten version
would be 'The room of the boy'. The final letter is a 'y', so
the test shows that the expression should be written the boy's

But if you are talking about two or more boys, the rewritten
version is 'The room of the boys' - so in this case the
apostrophe should go after the 's' in the shortened version.

I have never seen this rule written down anywhere, but as far as
I know it works 100% of the time, even with unusual plurals such
as children (e.g. the children's hospital, women's clothes).
Anyway, I thought I'd share it with you here. Drink a toast to Sam if you find his rule useful!

Note: This article originally appeared in the very first issue of my E-Writer newsletter, but a number of people wrote and said how useful they found it then, so I thought I'd repeat it here!

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Useful Resource: The Google Toolbar

A little while ago on my forum at someone asked if there is an application that will check your spellings for you before you post an item.

Several suggestions were offered, but the favoured option was the Google Toolbar, which you can download free of charge from

This is an add-on for the Internet Explorer browser (it's also available for Firefox - see below). Once you've installed it, a green spell-check icon will appear at the top of the screen. If you've written a message on a forum or online form and want it spell-checked before posting, just click on the icon. Any spelling errors will then be highlighted in red. Click on each highlighted item, and a list of possible alternatives will appear. Just click on the one you want and it will be substituted.

The Google Toolbar also has a range of other features. Another I particularly like is Autofill. You simply load into this any information you regularly put in online forms - name, address, phone number, email address, and so on. Every time an online form opens in future, any fields the toolbar can fill in for you will be highlighted in yellow. Then you just click the Autofill icon and the relevant information will be automatically inserted. It's usually correct but occasionally enters the wrong item, so it's important to check before clicking on Submit!

Are there any drawbacks to the Google Toolbar? Well, adding any toolbar reduces the space on the rest of the screen (though you can hide it easily enough using the View menu). Also, some people have expressed concern that installing it compromises your privacy (see, for example, this article from PC Magazine). I can't say that this is a huge worry for me, but obviously some people see it differently.

Finally, as mentioned above, you can also obtain a version of the Google Toolbar for the Firefox web browser. This popular free alternative to Internet Explorer is much less vulnerable to hackers and viruses, and also has a number of extra features. You can read more about Firefox, and download a version with the Google Toolbar ready installed if you wish, by clicking on this link.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Mini-Mystery Competition Solution

Thanks to everyone who entered my mini-mystery competition. The official answer (as published in the book) is reproduced below:

Answer: The poison was in the ice cubes, which Minton had put into the punch before anyone arrived. As ice melts relatively slowly, those who had drunk the punch early in the evening survived. Those who arrived later, however, drank a deadly potion

I received some very ingenious answers, several of which identified Rebecca as the culprit. However, the story did state that Minton was the guilty party, and I wouldn't have been so unfair as to change that in the answer.

Just two people got the correct answer, Lesley Silvester and Tam Daly. An honourable mention goes to Maria T. Zamora, who did work out that the poison was administered in the ice cubes, but thought it must have been added later in the party, after the junior partners had drunk their punch.

As there were just two correct answers, I've decided to give a prize to each of the winners, so will be in touch with them shortly about this. Thanks to everyone who had a go at this contest, and commiserations to those who didn't win this time!

As a matter of interest, the book in which this story was first published appears to be out of print now, but it is available second-hand from by clicking here.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Tips on Working With Editors

Recently my colleague and publisher Karl, of WCCL, posted an item on including some advice to authors on working with editors. In particular, he advised writers applying for work to make some effort to ensure that their initial email is well written with correct punctuation and capitalization. You can read Karl's post here.

I agree with Karl's point, but it made me think of a few other bits of advice that I could offer myself. Although I am primarily a freelance writer, I do work as a freelance editor as well.

1. Be Reliable

This is one of the most important qualities any editor needs in a writer. He (or she) wants to be confident that you will deliver your article by the agreed deadline. If the deadline arrives and your article doesn't, it can create all sorts of problems for the editor.

If you can see you're going to have problems meeting a deadline, therefore, DON'T just cross your fingers and hope for the best. Tell the editor. Given sufficient notice he may be able to make alternative arrangements, e.g. bringing another article forward and postponing yours till next month. But if you don't tell him in advance, it may be too late for this. Don't then expect him to offer you any work in future.

2. Be Available

Editors sometimes need to contact authors at short notice, e.g. to check a fact or request a partial rewrite. You don't have to be always just a phone call away (though that won't hurt), but it should be possible for an editor to contact you by some means and get a reply within 24 hours. Use a telephone answering machine or service, therefore, and check this and your email regularly, preferably at least twice a day.

And if you're going away on holiday for more than a day or two, it's a courtesy to let the editor know, especially if you have just sent them some work!

3. Don't Argue!

OK, this one is a bit controversial. If you disagree with an editor's decision, you can say so. But don't push it too far. At the end of the day, it's the editor's neck on the block, not yours, if he publishes your article and it goes down like a lead balloon with his readers.

An example from my own experience. In my capacity as a newsletter editor I was pitched an idea by a semi-regular contributor. Normally I liked his ideas, but for various reasons I couldn't use this one, so I turned it down with a polite explanation of the reasons. I then received a long, aggrieved email telling me quite forcibly that I was wrong and he was right, concluding with words to the effect, "I think I know our readership by now." As you might guess, I didn't commission many more articles from him after that...

4. Be Friendly but Professional

It's good to build good relationships with editors. Over a period of time you will inevitably get to know one another quite well, and genuine friendships often result.

However, remember that the editor is also your client and - in effect - your employer, so it's important to remain professional in all your dealings with them. Don't assume that because 'John' or 'Mary' is your buddy, they won't mind if you palm them off with inferior work or take other liberties with them.

Another example here (all names changed to protect those concerned). A few years ago one of my regular clients, a guy I'll call Phil, was looking for an additional freelance writer. I recommended a woman named Clare to him, whom I'd worked with on a couple of projects.

All seemed to go well at first, and then I heard that he had dropped Clare quite suddenly. As I knew Phil pretty well, I asked him what had happened. He was a bit reticent at first, but then he told me, "We're a family company, Nick, and we choose the people we work with very carefully."

A little more probing finally revealed that he had been on the phone to Clare one day, and she casually dropped the F-word into their conversation two or three times. Phil hadn't said anything to her at the time, but I guess he was a bit shocked by this. Anyway, he decided that he couldn't work with her any more.

I must admit, I don't know why Clare did this. Maybe she wanted to show she was "one of the lads", or maybe she'd just been watching too many Hollywood movies. In any event, it was exactly the wrong tack to take with Phil, who abhors bad language in any form. And so it cost Clare the opportunity of a continuing source of well-paid work.

That's perhaps an extreme example, but it does illustrate an important point. A good, friendly relationship between author and editor can be very rewarding for both parties, but you should never let it become an excuse for behaving unprofessionally.


Monday, March 13, 2006


I don't often post my fiction on my blog or forum, but I thought it might be fun to include here one of my mini-mystery stories from a book called Five Minute Crimes, published by Lagoon Books.

As you'll see, you have to work out how a murder (well, several, actually) was committed. I'll post the answer next Monday, 20 March. If you'd like to have a guess, e-mail your answer to me at (change the -at- for an @ sign). All correct answers will be put in a draw, with the winner receiving either a copy of my short story writing tutorial Short Story Acumen or one of my trivia quiz books (your choice). If you've already got a copy of this book, you are on your honour not to cheat!

Good luck!



Lieutenant Jake Strogani stifled a yawn. He stared at the station clock, which told him it was two a.m. His shift had officially ended two hours ago, but Jake wasn't going anywhere till he had cracked this case.

Call it cop's intuition, call it what you will, but Jake knew that somehow Raph Minton was behind these four deaths. He stretched his arms above his head, took a deep breath, then began poring over his notes once more. Somewhere in those notes, there just had to be the clue he needed to put Minton back behind bars.

* * *

Prior to that fateful 911 call, it had been a quiet shift for Jake: a couple of drunk-and-disorderlies; a domestic in Lowtown which young Sally Barton had sorted out; a child with a lost dog; and the usual slew of traffic violations - hardly the stuff of docu-dramas.

Then the call came in. There had been an incident at a drinks party in Park Vale. Four deaths, possible homicides. Sergeant Walters had taken the call. Jake overheard him recording the details: "So that's Ralph Minton? Oh, R-A-P-H, Raph. The Green House, Park Vale. Yes, I have that."

The name rang bells in Jake's head, and after a moment he remembered why. It was one of the earliest cases he had worked on. Thirty years ago, Raph Minton had been tried for the murder of his wife, Clara, and her lover. Minton appeared to have a watertight alibi. Somehow, however, the state prosecutors had broken it. Minton had gone down for second degree murder, lucky in the end to get away with that.

Minton always maintained his innocence, but in jail he was a model prisoner and got maximum remission. After fifteen years he was released. He stayed in the area, and Jake had followed reports of his progress with mild interest. A couple of years after his release, the local paper ran a story on how Raph had been named salesman of the year by insurance company Eternal Life. A few years later he set up his own financial planning company, Minton Associates; and now, ten years on, he was a multi-millionaire and a pillar of the local community.

And now this - four deaths, all senior partners in the law firm Smith, Knight, Winter. There was something familiar about those names, too. Jake decided to go along with his officers, Hall and O'Grady, to see what had happened for himself.

As they drove between the gates of Minton's luxury home, they passed an ambulance which was preparing to leave. The paramedic glanced out at them and shook his head. Hall parked in the drive, and the three made their way down the path towards the house. Distraught guests were spilling into the gardens. They passed a young man comforting a blonde woman who was in tears. Another young woman, with shoulder-length auburn hair, looked on grim-faced.

Jake paused. "You go on ahead," he said to the officers. "I've got one or two things to check here."

"Don't you want to see the bodies, lieutenant?" O'Grady asked.

Jake shook his head. "I've seen enough dead bodies," he said shortly. He turned to the young woman with the red hair.

"Lieutenant Strogani, ma'am. Can you tell me what happened?"

"Oh, yeah, sure." The young woman managed the thinnest of smiles. "I'm Rebecca Graham, junior partner in Smith, Knight, Winter. Mr Minton invited all the partners here tonight, to celebrate the agreement for our firm to represent Minton Associates in its future dealings."

"Uh, huh," Jake said. "I assume we're talking big bucks here?"

Rebecca nodded. "Minton Associates is the biggest financial planning company in this state and five others, and moving into new areas like property development. We estimated the contract could be worth as much as five million dollars."

"The partners must have been pleased to get a contract that size."

"Well, yeah. And a bit surprised, too. I mean, I suppose you know that before they set up in practice, the senior partners here worked in the state prosecutor's office. They were the people who got Mr Minton sent down all those years ago. I guess it shows he doesn't bear grudges though."

That would explain why the names of the partners seemed familiar, Jake thought. "So what happened when you arrived?" he asked.

"The junior partners got here first. That's expected, of course. Mr Minton welcomed us in, and insisted we have a glass of his home-made punch." Rebecca made a sour face. "I don't know what was in it, but it was icy cold and tasted strong. After that, he took us to the lounge, where the caterers had set up the buffet. We chatted to Mr Minton, ate and drank, admired his paintings - all the things you do at a party."

"And Mr Minton was with you the whole time?"

"Oh yes. I was talking to him."

Jake scratched his head. "So when did the senior partners arrive?"

"An hour or so later. First of all Mr and Mrs Smith, then Mrs Winter, then Mr Knight."

"And Mr Minton was pleased to see them too?"

"Certainly. He made them try his punch - it was all gone by the end - then they came up here and joined in with the party."

"What about the food. Did they have anything special?"

"You mean, did Mr Minton set aside special canapes for the senior partners?" Rebecca gave a short laugh. "Seniority doesn't extend that far, lieutenant. They had sandwiches, dips, vol-au-vents - just like the rest of us."

"And when did you first realise anything was wrong?"

Rebecca bit her lip. "It must have been about half an hour after the senior partners got here. Mr Smith just doubled over. At first I thought he'd choked on a sandwich or something. Mrs Smith rushed over, and the next thing I knew both of them fell to the floor. Mrs Winter said she'd call an ambulance, but before she could do anything, she collapsed as well."

"And Mr Knight?"

Rebecca nodded. "He'd gone to the rest room, so we didn't realise at first. By the time the ambulance arrived, all four were dead."

Jake asked Rebecca a few more questions, but there was little more she could add. He thanked her, then continued to the lounge where the bodies were awaiting forensic examination. Someone had covered them with sheets, and that was fine by Jake. He had no wish to confirm how dead they were.

Raph Minton himself was in the lounge, his long face a study in anguish. "Lieutenant Strogani, what a terrible business. I've told your officers everything I know, but if I can be of any further assistance..."

Jake took one look at Raph Minton and knew he was lying. Beyond a doubt, he had murdered all four senior partners. But how had he done it? That was the question a jury would need answered.

* * *

In his office, Jake studied his notes again. Minton had a motive, all right - revenge on the team of lawyers who, thirty years ago, put him away for murder. But what was the method? Somehow, he felt sure, the answer was in the punch; but there had been only enough for one glass per guest; and by the time everyone had been served, the bowl was empty.

And anyway - Jake scratched his head - all the guests that night had drunk the punch, and the junior partners experienced no ill effects. Neither could Minton have tipped poison into the bowl during the evening. Rebecca was adamant that Minton was with her in the lounge the whole time.

Then, suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Jake hit the side of his head with his fist. Of course! That was how Minton had done it. He picked up the phone. Tomorrow, his own face would be on the front page of every newspaper in town, while Minton's ugly mug would be where it belonged - back behind bars!


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

How to be an Expert...

If you want to make decent money from freelance writing, it helps a lot if you're an expert on something.

It's obvious really when you think about it. There are lots of people around who want to write and are reasonably good at it. But the number of such people who are also experts on any given topic is much, much smaller.

Publishers and editors, however, love experts. They know what they're talking about (usually). They give their pages extra credibility. And readers love to read what they have to say. Consequently, if you're a writer and an expert, you can expect to make a lot more money than if you try to sell yourself solely on your writing talents. It's really just a simple matter of supply and demand.

OK, I hear you say, but what if you're not an expert on anything in particular but you still want to make a good living as a non-fiction writer? Then you will need to MAKE yourself an expert in one or (preferably) more fields.

Of course, you have to be realistic here. You're not going to become an expert in brain surgery or nuclear physics without many years of study and practice. But there are lots of topics you CAN become reasonably expert in with just a bit of research. You can then "leverage" this until you really do become a fully-fledged expert in the field concerned.

Here's an example from my own experience. A few years ago I received a mailshot for a "win the lottery" system. I was quite intrigued by the promises this made (trap all six winning numbers from 20 and you're guaranteed at least one £10 winning line, or some such), and set about devising a similar system of my own.

Having done this, I offered it to a mail-order publisher in the gambling field. He liked it, and asked if I could provide more. This led to a regular monthly commission in the newsletter concerned.

I was now seen as a gambling-for-profit expert in some quarters, so I decided to offer my services to other newsletter publishers in this field. I ended up writing regularly for four different gambling newsletters, plus occasional jobs for others as well. And because of all this regular work, modesty aside I have become something approaching a "real" expert on at least some aspects of gambling for profit.

Of course, this is just one example. As readers of my "Write Any Book in Under 28 Days" will know, one of my other areas of "expertise" is writing about careers. I got into this on the very flimsy basis that my first-ever job after leaving uni was a year spent working for Birmingham Careers Service as an information officer. That certainly didn't make me an expert on careers, but it was enough to give me a chance to get started in this field, and once again one thing led to another...

So I'd say, if you want to make more money as a writer, start selling yourself not just as a writer, but as a writer/expert. And if you're not an expert on anything right now, don't worry. Use whatever knowledge you have as a starting point, and develop it into real expertise. Or just pick a topic you're interested in, and make it your business to learn as much about it as possible. Almost anything will do - from programming server-side scripts to model boat building, salsa dancing to folding table napkins. Once you're an expert - or at least, once you can persuade an editor you're one - you'll find that those better-paid jobs suddenly become far more achievable.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Places to find writing jobs

One question I get asked a lot is where can I find writing jobs advertised? Well, here are some great sites to start you off.

Freelancers in the UK

Launched last year, this British site has a growing range of writing and other freelance jobs advertised on it. You can browse the jobs and apply for them free of charge. For a small fee, you can have your own details hosted on the site's directory of freelances.

Freelance Work Exchange

This popular US site covers all types of freelance work, but writing and editorial are particularly popular, with over 1,500 assignments currently listed. On FWE, potential clients post details of projects for which they need freelance help, and freelances can apply for these jobs via the site. Many of the clients are US-based, but in most cases the work can be done electronically from anywhere in the world.

The standard fee for membership of FWE is $29.95 a month, but it's possible to take out a seven-day trial membership for just $2.95 to see whether joining might be beneficial to you. Trial membership gives you access to all the jobs currently in the database and lets you apply for them. Jobs on offer include copy-editing, ghost-writing, script-writing, article writing, and more.


Another US-based site, Writerlance publishes details of writing jobs available, and registered members of the site can then bid for them. Unlike some similar job sites, there are no up-front fees for writers. If you succeed in getting a job, you simply pay a small proportion of your agreed fee to Writerlance.

There are some interesting jobs on offer, including one to write three original love poems and another to write an e-book on how to live with diabetes. You have to state the price you would charge and the amount of time you would require.

As a registered member (which is free) you get the opportunity to put your profile on the website, which could be a good way of promoting yourself even if you never bid on any projects.

Write This Moment

Write This Moment is a UK-based site with a focus on non-fiction writing. Access to their Writing Jobs and Opportunities Board costs 8 UK pounds for 3 months or 20 UK pounds for the year. The most recent opportunities posted to the board are as follows:

Call for Cake Craft Articles 25/02/06
Title Seeks Articles on Knitting 25/02/06
Living Abroad Articles Welcome 25/02/06
Readers Letters Market 25/02/06
Magazine Seeks Golf Profiles 25/02/06

There is also a free e-mail newsletter you can subscribe to via the site.

My Writers Circle

You didn't think I was going to end this list without mentioning my own forum, did you?! My Writers Circle lists many jobs and opportunities in the Writers Wanted section. Not only that, members often leave feedback on the opportunity concerned, so you get additional perspectives on it. Free, and highly recommended!