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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Great Advice on Being More Productive

Just wanted to share with you an article I read on this subject by Collis Ta'eed. It's a guest post on Leo Babauta's Zenhabits blog.

Collis's post is titled How to Get a Lot Done - Seven Tips to Achieve More. In fact, there are really more than seven tips, as several of the items have 'sub-tips' listed under them.

Here's one tip I found particularly interesting:

2. Plan, plan, plan!

If you want to make the most effective use of your time, you need a plan. Without one, trying to do a lot will give you a major stress attack. Whether it's daily to-do lists, business plans, or a productivity system, choose your weapons and put them to use.

Personally I have two planning tools that I use constantly. Next to me I keep a notepad with daily to-do lists. They usually span two A4 pages because I like to do some serious multi-tasking.

I also carry a Moleskine notebook with me literally everywhere I go. I spend a couple of hours a week writing ideas, goals, plans, and lists in it. What's coming up next, how to increase income on a website, lists of actionables to launch a new project, the chapters for a book, points to write in an article. You name it, it's in there, combined with enough squiggles and doodles to impress the most idle mind.

All this planning means that my time in front of a computer is spent purely executing. There's less wondering 'what next?' or 'what should I write?' and more getting things done.

I can really relate to this. When you're a busy working freelance writer with a number of regular clients, it's easy to spend all your time working to other people's agendas, and not focusing enough on your own goals and priorities.

Anyway, having read Collis's article, I'm determined to spend a bit more time on planning my own schedule in future. And I'll be doing my best to apply his other productivity advice as well!

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bad Grammar in a Holiday Brochure

Here's a sentence from the current 'Manos' Greek holidays brochure. Can you spot the mistake?

Unwind amongst the tranquil setting of the Anaxos Hotel

And yes, as you may have noticed, this happens to describe the place where Jayne and I recently enjoyed a week's holiday!

Anyway, full marks if you noticed that the problem word is 'amongst'.

'Amongst' (or 'among') is normally used to introduce countable, plural nouns. So it would be fine to write:

He knew that he was among friends.
They reached an agreement among themselves.

He delved among the dusty papers for his father's letter.

But 'among' cannot, in standard English, be used for uncountable mass nouns, such as 'the tranquil setting' in the holiday brochure. An alternative is the word 'amid', as in the examples below...

Amid the confusion, she heard Jim calling her name.
The rescuers searched frantically amid the wreckage.

The hotel is located amid unspoiled countryside.

and, of course,

Unwind amid the tranquil setting of the Anaxos Hotel.

Or, as Jayne suggested when I mentioned this to her, you could simply say 'in'. But I must admit to liking the word 'amid', even if it does have a slightly literary ring to it!

Incidentally, 'among' can also be used with singular collective nouns such as 'herd' and 'audience' which consist of countable individuals.

There was panic among the herd.
A murmur arose among the audience.

Although where there are just two items, 'between' is normally preferred to 'among'.

She divided the pie between [not among] Robert and Philip.

'Amongst' and 'amidst' mean exactly the same as 'among' and 'amid'. They are, however, less concise, and also rather old-fashioned (especially 'amidst', which could also be seen as a bit pretentious). In most cases, therefore, I think it's better to use the shorter versions. Here's an example from What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn, an otherwise excellent book which I reviewed recently in this post.
Her home was in the only Victorian block of houses left in the area, a red-brick three-storey outcrop which looked uncomfortable amidst the grey and white council cuboids.
'Amidst' isn't actually ungrammatical here - amidst (or amid) can be used with plural nouns, as it simply means 'in the middle of'. In modern usage, however, 'amongst' (or among) is normally preferred in this context. I would therefore change the word in the sentence above to 'among' (also losing the archaic -st ending), so it reads:
Her home was in the only Victorian block of houses left in the area, a red-brick three-storey outcrop which looked uncomfortable among the grey and white council cuboids.
Just my opinion, of course, but I think that reads much better!

* If you need advice on bringing your writing up to a publishable standard, check out my new course from WCCL, Essential English for Authors.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

My Holiday Reading

Before it becomes too much of a distant memory, I wanted to mention a couple of books I read on my recent Greek holiday.

The first of these was What Was Lost, a novel by Catherine O'Flynn. This is actually quite a short novel, but I highly recommend it. So far as the content is concerned, I can't really do better than quote the review by Jenny Colgan on the back cover:
"It's quite extraordinary. There's an amazing insight into the mind of a young girl, a very funny account of working in a high street record store, an entirely sympathetic hero in the form of a security guard, a cracking mystery, a brilliant sense of place in the form of a modern shopping centre, and a ghost story to boot. I adored every page of it and recommend it to everyone."
I agree with every word of that. I suppose it helped for me that it's set in Birmingham (England), a city I lived in for 20 years and am still close to now in Staffordshire. Even so, I thought it was a brilliant book, both funny (don't miss the description of a butcher's shop window on page 10, which had me chuckling for days after) and also poignant. If you're looking for something to pack for reading on the beach or beside the pool, I reckon it would be an excellent choice.

Here are my usual links to the book's pages on and As ever, if you are receiving this post by email, you will need to visit my blog to see these.

Unfortunately I didn't enjoy the other title I took with me as much. This was The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I've put links to this below, although the book isn't officially published yet.

This was actually my first free book I got as an Amazon Vine reviewer, and I had high hopes for it. As it turned out, I admired the quality of much of the writing, but thought that as a novel it was fatally flawed. I've copied my review below...
Well written, but lacks narrative drive

Good things first: The Gone-Away World is beautifully written. At times I was blown away by the almost musical quality of Nick Harkaway's writing. And the basic concept of the book - that most of the Earth has become uninhabitable after a nuclear disaster, save for a narrow band of land surrounding the mysterious Jorgmund Pipe - is unusual and intriguing.

On the minus side, though, I felt at times the author was so in love with his prose, the actual story almost became secondary. None of the characters really engaged me, although there are some nice cameos (notably the narrator's mentor, Master Wu). Neither do I share the author's fascination with martial arts and (believe it or not) Tupperware, though I can appreciate that others may find these aspects of the book quirky and amusing.

The Gone-Away World does include some quite funny (and caustic) observations about the nature of business, bureaucracy, international relations, and so on. They reminded me a little of the asides in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, although they lacked Pratchett's warmth and sly humour.

The most serious problem with this book, in my view, is the lack of narrative drive - a compelling storyline, in other words. This is partly down to its structure. The opening chapter sets up an intriguing scenario, and I wanted to know what happened next. But then the story goes back in time to the narrator's childhood and on through his adolescence and early adulthood; and this rambling narrative takes up most of the rest of the book. I didn't find the 'coming of age' stuff particularly interesting, and completing the book - to find out how the action in the opening chapter was resolved - ultimately became a bit of an endurance test for me.

There are things to enjoy in this novel, but overall I was rather disappointed by it. Nick Harkaway is clearly a talented writer, but in my view he needs to take a few lessons from his father (spy novelist John Le Carre) on how to create a compelling plot, and try to reign back his obsession for style over substance. I'll await his second novel with interest, but I doubt if I'll be reading this particular one again.
As you'll see if you check out the link in particular, other Amazon Vine reviewers weren't exactly bowled over by this book either. At the time of writing it has an average rating of 3 stars out of 5, which I think is about right (it's what I gave it). I'm afraid that if the publishers had hoped to whip up anticipation by getting an avalanche of glowing reviews pre-publication, they'll be disappointed. Obviously, I can't recommend this book myself, though some reviewers have liked it.

Fingers crossed, I'll enjoy my next Amazon Vine selection a bit more!

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Contest

There is still just time to enter the 2008 Poetry and Short Story Competition run by my old friends at The Writers Bureau.

For those who don't know, The Writers Bureau is the UK's leading distance learning college for writers. In days gone by I was a freelance tutor and assessor for them, and I also wrote some of their course material.

The competition is for short stories no longer than 2000 words and poems of up to 40 lines. There is an entry fee of 5 UKP or 9 USD per entry, unless you also happen to subscribe to their newsletter Freelance Market News, in which case reduced fees of 4 UKP/7 USD apply. Work may be on any subject or theme, but should not have been previously published.

The top prize in each category is 1,000 UKP (almost 2,000 USD). There are also nine further prizes in each category, comprising 400, 200, 100 and six prizes of 50 UKP.

The judge for the poetry competition is Alison Chisholm, while for short stories it is Iain Pattison. I know Iain in particular quite well (buyers of my Quick Cash Writing course can read one his excellent stories in the Short Stories module), and you might perhaps be interested to check out this old issue of my E-Writer newsletter, where I set out some of Iain's own advice to people entering short story contests. It's always useful to know what the judge of a writing competition is looking for!

Finally, the closing date is 30 June 2008, so you'll need to get your entry in pretty soon. Here's another link to the full competition details.

Good luck!

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Monday, June 16, 2008

The Top US Market Guide for Writers

In this post last week I reviewed the three top UK market guides for writers.

Well, as promised, in this post I'm doing the same thing for the US market. But this will be a much shorter post, because there is actually only one major annual guide to the US marketplace for writers. That's the blockbusting Writer's Market, from Writer's Digest Books.

Like the UK guides I mentioned last week, Writer's Market is published annually. The 2008 edition - the most recent currently available - weighs in at a massive 1176 pages, and claims to include over 4000 listings for book publishers, consumer magazines, trade journals, literary agents, and so on.

The current (2008) edition was published on 1 July 2007, so I would expect the 2009 edition to come out very soon. Till then, here are links to the book's pages at and As ever, if you are receiving this post by email, you will need to visit my blog to see these.

Although I am UK-based I do a lot of work for US publishers, and until recently I bought Writer's Market every year. This year, however, I decided to subscribe to their online version at instead. This is reasonably priced at $29.99 a year (around 16 UKP), for which you get everything in the printed version and more, plus the market listings are continuously updated. I might still buy the printed book occasionally in the future, but actually I find the online version meets my day-to-day needs very well, and it takes up less space on my bookshelf ;-)

Finally, I should mention that although it is primarily a guide to the US marketplace, Writer's Market also lists publishers and magazines in other countries, notably Canada, Australia and the UK. It also has an excellent selection of articles about all aspects of freelance writing. If you write for the huge US market, or hope to, either the printed or online version of Writer's Market is probably going to be an essential for you.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

New Writing Tuition Service

I thought some of you might be interested to know that stalwart John Craggs, aka Gyppo, has just launched his own online writing tuition service at As he says on the site:

Let me ask you three questions, so you can decide if you're interested in becoming one of my students.

Would you like to see the world differently?

To see it with a Writer's Eye?

Write copy which makes the reader sit up and take notice?

If so then you're already in the right place. My main aim in the early stages is to help you discover your abilities as a writer before getting too hung up on the finer details. To help find your own niche as a writer, your strengths and weaknesses. I'll help you develop the essential Writer's Eye, and Writer's Ears, a major boost for fiction writers. It will also help the writer of non-fiction.

Members of will already know John well in his Gyppo guise. He regularly provides feedback and constructive criticism to forum members, a number of whom have already signed up for his one-to-one tuition service.

Even if you're not looking for personal tuition, however, it's still well worth visiting John's new site, as he has a range of useful resources for writers on it, and is constantly adding more. One of his latest additions is an article on guns and how they are used, from a writer's perspective.

John has a varied and colourful history, having worked at various times as a baker/confectioner, writing and crafts tutor, postman, storyteller, and arena showman. He is an expert knife-thrower, axe-thrower and quarterstaff fighter. And he's also a prolific writer. You can read all about him in his own words in a fascinating article on Linda Jones's Freelance Writing Tips blog. Check it out!

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Best UK Market Directories for Writers

We may not even be half-way through 2008, but already the 2009 market directories are coming out.

So I thought in this post I would take a look at the three main UK directories. I'll save the US market guides for another post.

As a UK-based freelance, I buy at least one of these guides every year. The content varies between them, but they all include comprehensive lists of UK publishers, agents, magazines, newspapers, and so on. Nowadays, as well, they include a growing range of articles and ancillary information. If you're serious about making a living from your writing, and UK-based or want to write for UK markets, having a current edition of one of these guides on your bookshelf is, in my view, essential.

The best known, and longest-established, guide to the UK market is The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, published by A&C Black. I've posted a link to the 2009 book's page at below. As ever, if you're receiving this post by email, you will need to visit my blog to see this.

The 2009 WAYB is published on 15 June 2008, and has a foreword by Kate Mosse. It weighs in at 832 pages and is available for 9.89 UK pounds from Amazon.

The WAYB is still the favourite UK market guide of many writers. It has a good range of publishers and markets, and unlike the other guides includes information specifically aimed at freelance artists and photographers as well. It has a website at, which includes a free search facility (although the only info given for a magazine or publisher is its website and email address). You won't go far wrong with the WAYB, but its two main competitors are ahead in some respects.

The WAYB's longest-standing rival is The Writer's Handbook, published by Macmillan. You'll have a little longer to wait for this one - the 2009 edition is due out on 25 July 2008. Here's a link to its Amazon page...

The 2009 Writer's Handbook also has 832 pages and costs 9.89 UKP on Amazon (what a coincidence!). It is edited, as usual, by Barry Turner. The Writer's Handbook has been my favourite market guide for a few years now. There's more information on writing for newspapers and magazines, and more on radio, TV, small presses and theatre companies. The new 2009 edition also apparently includes free online access to The Writer's Handbook website, offering a directory of markets and some additional resources and advice for writers. I don't have a URL for this, however, and assume the site is not operational yet (unless you know otherwise?). The obvious URL at seems to be owned by someone else and is currently up for offers. I assume some frantic behind-the-scenes negotiation is going on!

The last of the three UK directories is the 'new kid on the block'. Writer's Market UK comes from David & Charles and is edited by Caroline Taggart. The 2009 edition was published back in April this year at a slightly cheaper price of 8.99 UKP on It weighs in at an impressive 976 pages.

I bought Writer's Market UK for the first time this year, and was impressed by what I found. The presentation is more attractive than either of the two rival guides, who will have to start looking to their laurels. There are nearly 100 pages of articles on most aspects of writing, as well as a particularly wide range of publishing houses. There is a also a good selection of writing websites.

One thing I found a little bit confusing was that some magazines were listed under Publishers - so having looked for, and failed to find, the details for Readers Digest under Magazines, I fortuitously discovered them later under Readers Digest Association in the Publishers section. To be fair, I could have looked up Readers Digest in the index at the back of the book and found it there, but at the time I assumed it just wasn't listed.

Buyers of Writers Market UK also get a one-month free trial of their online service at After that, I assume you have to pay, but despite my best efforts I haven't been able to find out what they charge.

These are all excellent guides, but my overall recommendation goes to Writer's Market UK at the moment. When The Writer's Handbook 2009 comes out, with its promised free website, that may also be worth considering. The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook is slightly behind the other two in my view, but if your interests also extend to photography and art, it may nevertheless be your best choice.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Guest Post: Stop Making Excuses!

Today I'm pleased to welcome a new guest author to my blog, Ruth Barringham.

Ruth is a prolific and successful author and publisher, and I'm also very pleased to count her as a friend and collaborator. Here she offers some good advice for everyone - which includes me on occasion - who claims that they don't have time to write.

Stop Making Excuses! - by Ruth Barringham

The biggest complaint of most would-be freelance writers and authors is that they don't have time to write.


Everyone has time to write. We all have the same 24 hours in every day. The difference between us all is how we spend our time.

Some people do actually manage to squeeze in a couple of hours to write during their busy day. But instead of focusing on their work, they waste their time reading unimportant emails or online articles that are irrelevant to what they should be doing.

Does this sound like you?

Well, don't worry, you're not alone.

Most writers are the same. We all say we love to write and will even spend all day thinking about it. Yet when it comes to actually sitting down and beginning to write, we'll look for other things to distract us.

But to be a successful writer you need to be able to write quickly and be as productive as possible, and you won't be able to do this if you constantly allow your attention to be diverted when you should be writing.

So here's a word that is the most important to anyone who wants to be successful in anything and everything they do. Knowing this word and having a complete understanding of its meaning can change you from a reluctant writer into a hard working and profitable writer.

And that word is - FOCUS.

When you know you should be writing, focus on it. Force yourself to apply bum-to-chair. Once you're sitting comfortably, begin the task of writing immediately. Don't check your emails or surf the net. Just sit down and begin working.

It will help you stay focused if you know exactly what you have to do. So at the end of every day make a list of the writing tasks you have to do tomorrow. That way, when you sit down you just have to check your list and you'll know where to begin.

If you find you work better in the mornings, then get up early and write. If you work better in the evening, work late when the house is quiet and the rest of the family is asleep.

Just make sure you allocate a portion of every day to write. Then focus, and don't let your mind be distracted by anything else.

Once you get into a routine of writing regularly, you'll find that focusing and writing becomes extremely easy, and will be a habit you never want to break.

Ruth Barringham is a freelance writer, author and publisher. She has two websites to help writers at and Her publishing company website is at

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

My Holiday in Lesvos

At the end of May Jayne and I enjoyed a week's holiday on the Greek island of Lesvos (also known as Lesbos). I thought I'd tell you a little bit about it, and also share a few photographs.

It was the first time we had ever been to Lesvos, although regular readers will know that Jayne and I love Greece and go there as often as we can.

Lesvos is the third largest of the Greek islands, after Crete and Evia. It's in the north-eastern Aegean, very close to Turkey. We stayed in Anaxos, a quiet resort on the north of the island, at a place called the Anaxos Hotel (which I highly recommend, by the way). The nearest town to Anaxos is Petra, which we went to on the local bus one day.

It was sunny every day during our holiday, and it got steadily hotter. Consequently we didn't do anything too strenuous, though we did spend plenty of time swimming in the sea and in the hotel pool. The picture below was taken from the balcony of our room and shows the pool and the hotel entrance.

We spent a lot of time on the beach, making good use of the free sunbeds at a beach bar called Hippocampus ('Seahorse'), which quickly became our favourite. Here's Jayne taking it easy with a new friend...

As mentioned, one day we went to Petra on the local bus and enjoyed lunch at the Women's Co-operative, which we'd seen recommended on the Internet. Here's a photo of the outdoor dining terrace. As you'll see, we had the place pretty much to ourselves...

And here's the delicious mixed plate we shared that day. I can almost taste it now!

The sunsets at Anaxos were all beautiful, but the one on the last day was particularly stunning. Here's a photo I'm currently using as the desktop on my PC!

You can see more photographs I took, including some of the impressively preserved interior of an 18th century merchant's house in Petra, on this Picasaweb page.

We definitely plan to return to Anaxos before too long!

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