Why We Have To Keep Writing and Carry On

Yesterday (Sunday, 28 May 2017) I had a story (‘Tomatoes and Their Part in Brexit’) published on Alfie Dog Fiction.  Don’t you just hate people who start  off blog posts like this?  I’ll move on… straightaway… although, you’ve got to admit that, in my case, this sort of thing is rare.

I don’t have much to say writing-wise.  Last week, for all of us in the UK, has been Manchester week.  My connection with the city is that I was at university in Manchester in the 1970s, about a mile from Victoria Station, (below the site of the Arena where the terrorist attack happened).  I recognise many of the placenames mentioned in the News:  Deansgate, St Ann’s Square, Didsbury, Whalley Range.  I lived in Fallowfield, where the bomber had his bomb-making factory.  I have good memories of Manchester.

Although I’m hurt and angry, I was not so poleaxed by the Manchester bombing that I was unable to do anything else last week.  I went to work.  It’s high season for exams, so I was invigilating GCSE, Functional Skills and every sort of vocational qualification.  On Tuesday, I took part in, and minuted, a PCC (Parochial Church Council) meeting.  Yesterday, on Sunday, we had an amazing day, attending my granddaughter’s Christening, with friends and family.  Today, I replanted my tomato plants and sewed more seeds – lettuce, radish, marigolds, poppies, echinacea.  The weather has been glorious, hot for the first time this year.  I got on with life, ordinary things, the insignificant things.  Or are they insignificant?

Keep Calm and Carry On Mug (attrib to Flickr)
Keep Calm and Carry On Mug (attrib to Flickr)

We’re all fed up with seeing ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ on mugs, tea towels, t-shirts and everything else, but that’s what people in Manchester are doing, with enormous dignity, showing love, bravery and solidarity.  Actually, I didn’t expect anything else.  We’ve had terrorists in the UK before.  In July 2005, on the occasion of the Seven/Seven attacks, my husband rang me at work at quarter to nine in the morning, saying, “I’m okay.”  “Yes, darling.  Why wouldn’t you be, darling,” I replied, not knowing the news.  A few minutes later,  ambulances, sirens shrieking, would charge out of Colchester, down the A12 to London.  A decade previously, we had the IRA, and before that, the Blitz.

Our hospitality has been abused.  We believe in democracy, freedom of speech and thought, fairness and supporting people who are down on their luck.  We believe that primary school girls should be allowed to go to a gig to hero-worship a big girl.  Keep calm and carry on suddenly has real meaning.  Keep calm and carry on writing what we believe in, because we live in a liberal democracy and we can.

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A Writer Has To Live

Dustpan and brush (my drawing)
Dustpan and brush (my drawing)

A writer has to live.  A writer has to write.

Many writers have other careers, often working in demanding and responsible job roles and write in the evenings and weekends, but this didn’t work for me.  I couldn’t summon up the time or energy to when I was in full-time work (about two years ago).   I was a college lecturer, so my supposedly free time, at home, was taken up with lesson preparation and marking.   I know of others, who used to write, but now don’t, because they have been subsumed into their day jobs.

So what do you do?  It’s significant that many don’t start submitting and publishing until their middle years.  Some retire early and live off their pensions.  But, what if you’re too young to retire or your pension isn’t going to keep you in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed?

You can attempt to do your career-type job part-time.  I tried, Dear Reader, I tried.  To an extent, I’m still trying, but it’s difficult.  You’ve heard of mission-creep?  There’s also job-creep, where you’re so used to a job role taking over your whole life when working full-time that it still does, even when you’re part-time or sessional.  In my case, I was spending (supposedly) writing time preparing lessons, marking them, attending meetings that were only tangentially relevant to me and also staff development (which I didn’t need).  What a writer needs is a jobby job, where you turn up, do the work, then go home and write.  Here are a few suggestions:

Learning support assistant (or teaching assistant)

Learning Support Practitioner (my drawing)
Learning Support Practitioner (my drawing)

Apply to any local school or college.  You commit to as many or as few hours as you wish.  You sit with, and support, your students in class, then go home when they do.  There may be a few meetings and your line manager may try to get you to take a qualification, but most schools and colleges are desperate for LSPs, with or without pieces of paper. I haven’t worked in this role myself, but I’ve worked closely with many LSPs who write, paint, play music and just do family life.

Exam Invigilator

Exam Room
Exam Room (My drawing)

Apply to local schools, colleges and universities.  You turn up half an hour before the exam to set up the room, and you leave about five minutes after it finishes.  End of.  Again, you commit to as much or as little as you wish.  The only drawback is that it’s seasonal work (very busy in May and June),  but not as much as you think, as there are vocational and Functional Skills exams taking place almost all year.  You will be welcomed with open arms, as more and more qualifications involve exams, so more invigilators are required.  I’m doing this now, about three days a week – at the moment.

Election Staff (Poll Clerk/ Presiding Officer/ Counting Assistant)

Voting paper (my drawing)
Voting paper (my drawing)

One of the advantages of living in a democracy! Obviously, these sort of posts only become available at election time (about once, or twice a year in the UK), but the pay is excellent and a useful top up to other sources of income.  Poll clerks and Presiding Officers have a long day (fifteen hours), often sitting doing nothing for long periods, but counting assistants could be through in two or three hours (late at night) or be still counting after twelve hours (in the event of a recount).  I’m being a Poll Clerk again, at the General Election on 8 June.

Retail

Again it’s stipulated hours, working when you’re working and otherwise out the building. I haven’t done this for a long time.

Cleaning

Dustpan and brush (my drawing)
Dustpan and brush (my drawing)

I know of at least one successful writer whose day job is cleaning.

Most of us writers, being university educated, feel entitled to a professional role, which takes time and emotional energy.  Do you want to write or have a career?  Or… have you had your career and is it now time to write?

As I’m fed up looking for photos online, I’ve done my own drawings and scanned.  I’m no artist.  I hope they will do!

Is It Safe On Our Computer?

In other words, are our computers going to be hacked, like 47 NHS Trusts?

Are we writers likely to lose everything we’ve written?  As someone who is a bit of a nerd and finds computer security fascinating, but is only an IT tutor, not a proper IT security expert, I say – oh, so cautiously – no.

(If you know more than I do about what I’m writing below, please feel free to skip this post and pop in again for the next week.)  Computers are built like a washing line.

Operating System as a Washing Line
Operating System as a Washing Line

The small bit of code that makes them go at all – the BIOS (basic input output system) – is the props.  The operating system – Windows (in its various versions), or iOS (Applemacs, iPads and iPhones), Android (phones and tablets), Linux or whatever – is the structure everything else hangs is the line.  The programs which you use on your computer (Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc)), Internet browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome etc) and anti-virus applications are installed on to the operating system (OS); these are the clothes hung on your washing line.

The largest number of computers which have been hacked, in the NHS and elsewhere, use Microsoft Windows XP operating system, which Microsoft stopped supporting in April 2014.  The reasons for retaining XP are that, often, an expensive and complex piece of equipment, like an MRI scanner, was designed for XP and so all the computers that work with it also have to use XP.    However, we are not here to solve the problems of the NHS.  Very few home computer users still use Windows XP.

The other computers that were affected ran on more up-to-date operating systems, but they were not kept properly up-to-date.  Microsoft, Apple and other technology companies send users updates to their operating systems.  These are usually security ‘patches’, which enable your computer to fight off the latest nasties (what computer professionals call malware, not viruses, which are just one sort of malware).  We should install these updates as soon as we receive the message saying they are available, but when we are using an organisation’s network (when we’re at work), the IT department should do this for us.  In 47 NHS trusts they didn’t.  I don’t know why.

So, the issues in this instance are institutionalised, and home users, like writers, are low risk, but that doesn’t mean that we can sit back and be complacent, because other – different – cyber-attacks will be around the corner.  However, computer security is actually just common-sense.

  • Use a firewall to filter all incoming internet data.  Windows Defender is installed on all Windows computers.  Unless you’re using another firewall, check that it’s enabled.  (Look up how to do this on Google).
  • Run all available updates (see above) to enable your firewall to deal with the latest nasties.
  • Install an anti-virus program (such as Norton, McAfee, Malware Bytes, Kaspersky, Avira) to mop up the nasties that the firewall misses.
  • Don’t click on dodgy links on websites, like the ones saying you’ve won a million pounds.  Don’t click on emails from people/organisations you don’t know.   Also, beware of those from people you do know, when the emails look unusual in some way, when they don’t use the sort of language your friend normally uses, contains spelling spag, or the message says something like they’re stranded in Thailand and need money.  Beware of emails supposedly from reputable organisations, especially if you see spag and the logo looks fuzzy.
  • Never give out user ids and passwords in an email; legitimate organisations, like banks, will never ask for entire passwords, only a few characters.  If you are unsure of an email, hover your mouse over the sender’s email address; often you will see that a credit card company (for instance) is masking a completely email address.

  • When doing money transactions, or entering other confidential information, check for https:// and/or a padlock in the address bar.
    Halifax Bank url
    Halifax Bank url

    This web address (for Halifax Bank) displays https and a padlock.

  • Back up (copy) your writing, on any device other than your computer.  Use a memory stick or a portable hard drive.

The price of keeping your computer safe is not expensive or complicated.  We just need to be eternally vigilant.

Writing Competitions and Why We Should Enter Them

I don’t have  a winning recipe for winning writing competitions, even though I’m the Competitions Manager for the Association of Christian Writers (ACW).  I do have a bit of insider knowledge, though.

Most comps set out strict rules regarding a deadline, formatting and how a story must be submitted.  Try and get these right, but, if, after you’ve sent it, you realise you’ve done it slightly wrong, don’t lose any sleep over it.  The number of times I, as competition manager, have hunted out someone’s contact details, for instance.  Maybe I wouldn’t be saying that if I were running the Bath Fiction Award or the Brighton Prize, but most comps are smaller scale.  Broadly speaking, there are three absolutes:

  • You must keep within the stipulated word count (maximum and minimum)
  • You must not put your name in the header or footer of your story (if you are asked not to, which is most of the time)
  • You must pay the entry fee (if there is one)
  • You must submit before the deadline (but then, if you’re a few minutes late, sub anyway and see what happens).

How entries are presented is very important.  Don’t look like an amateur, by, for instance, indenting paragraphs using the spacebar or trying to centre a heading using the spacebar.  Even so, if a story is good enough, some (but not all) judges will overlook bad formatting.  Run a spell check and proofread; few judges will excuse bad English.

Don’t be afraid to enter prestigious comps, like the Bath and the Brighton.  Newcomers have been known to win the biggies.  The only thing that may make we writers pause for thought is the entry fees, which can mount up – although there are many free comps.

Now, this is the shocking bit.  In my opinion, whether my or your story wins a comp, or not, depends on opinion – judge’s (or judges’) opinions.  Where there have been two judges, frequently they don’t agree on a winner – initially – until they’ve had many more discussions and probably assessed the stories on a marking scheme.  They get there eventually, and I don’t find this shocking at all, actually.

Still, statistically, we are unlikely to win.  So what’s the point?

  • It’s the taking part, getting your story into the sort of state where it can be entered for a comp, tidying up loose ends ,laying it out in the format required, and submitting it to the required deadline.  The required kick up the back side!
  • Even if we don’t win first prize, getting a mention is a massive boost to one’s writing confidence.  I’ve been short-listed and long-listed in a few comps, with Words With Jam, Alfie Dog Fiction and WordsMag.  In 2015, Julie O’Neill  (of Julie Wow or Wittering blog) and I were long-listed, then short-listed, for the Alfie Dog International Short Story comp.  For about a week, we were comparing notes on email.  In the end I came fourth and she fifth.  For days afterwards, I was walking on air and I expect she was too (although she doesn’t live near me).
  • In many comps, you are allowed, for a modest fee, to request a critique – a professional opinion.  Well worth it, in most cases.
  • Your name gets known.   In your critique, you may get comments along the lines of ‘We remember you entered last year… This year’s story shows progress.’
Cup of tea
My favourite cup.

And it’s not a big deal when it doesn’t work out, when the long-list appears with nothing resembling our names on it.  (Am I the only one who scans lists for names that look a bit like mine, the names beginning with R, for instance?)  We move on, have a cup of tea and enter the next comp.

By the way, can you write funny stuff? Good.  Right.  You’ll want to know about the Association of Christian Writers’ Comedy Writing comp. All you need to do is to write a comedy script (1000 words) or a humorous poem (24 lines), on the theme Bringing a Little Sunshine.   It’s not being launched officially for about a month, but there’s nothing to stop you starting writing now.