Sometimes an idea for a piece strikes after hearing about a topical event. Last week, for instance, I posted a poem I wrote on the day of the solar eclipse. Back in November, I was also inspired to write a short story prompted by the BBC’s coverage of the Ferguson riots. Since last week’s entry was posted, the world has been talking about the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps. That also inspired a poem in the same form as the eclipse one.

Neither the Ferguson nor the Germanwings pieces have been posted online as I might send them to a publisher in the future. I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for their contents, which I discuss later on.

When writing a response to current affairs soon after they happen, the details are fresh in everyone’s minds as they’re analysed in the papers and on TV. However, the danger is that specific incidents from the wider event are sometimes forgotten as soon as a week after they occur; in some cases, the entire event might not survive in people’s memories. It’s hard to tell which events might stick around and which won’t. The piece you’ve written in response might therefore contain details that need to be explained in future readings.

Regarding the three pieces in the first paragraph, my solution to this problem was not to focus on the incident itself, but the thoughts and feelings generated by it. To find the universal truth, if you will. It’s not necessary to know that the eclipse took place in March 2015, nor that anything happened in Ferguson, nor that a certain plane crashed in a certain place.

The alternative is to make the piece self-contained, giving the reader enough of an insight about the event for them to understand why you’ve responded to it in a particular way.

A good example comes from the Billy Joel hit We Didn’t Start the Fire. In the lyrics, he makes reference to around 100 world events that happened between his year of birth (1949) and the song’s release (1989).

Many of the earlier events, such as Bob Dylan’s career and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had already stayed in the public consciousness. However, a modern listener might wonder the meanings behind Hypodermics on the shore and Rock-and-roller cola wars in the late 1980s, as these haven’t been widely retained in our collective memories. There’s no way Joel could have known this, of course, nor that the Berlin wall – after having its construction noted in the song – would be knocked down just two months after its release.

The News Where You Are.

A rather short entry this week. In fact it’s a mere musing on the event that turned everyone and their dog into expert astronomers. I’ve used the form of the tanka, which starts as a haiku but has two extra lines of seven syllables apiece.

The moon ate the sun
on Friday morning in March.
We viewed it through the
office window, expected
to work through all the carnage.

Who’s Who?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that an editor had tried to reach me but didn’t know the best way to do it. I still haven’t set up an e-mail address or contact form, but I’m looking into my options.

Once the contact is made, how can you be certain the person is legit? If you spend even five minutes on Twitter or any other public platform, you soon learn to regard other users with a healthy suspicion.

To that end, I’ve put together a guide on how I approach the matter. It’s geared towards writers, but the principles apply to any field. Even after following these, you should still use your own judgement.

How much can you find out about them?

If you’re contacted via a website, the user should have some information about themselves and/or the company they represent. If it’s by e-mail, the name of the company often appears after the @ symbol in the e-mail address. In this case, the editor’s first and last names were immediately available on her Twitter profile, and I was able to find a link to the publisher’s website.

When evaluating a company’s website, be sure the address you thought you were going to is consistent with the one you eventually see. If you go to Faber and Faber’s site, for instance, the domain will always appear in the address bar. On the other hand, you can reach this blog by going to, and you’ll be redirected to It still doesn’t prove I’m Gavin Cameron, but it is consistent.

Once you’ve reached the site, read the text carefully. Does the text sound like it’s been written by someone who knows their stuff or is it generic marketing copy? Are they giving information about the product or being particularly vague and evasive?

Why me and why now?

Once you’ve checked them out, consider the message you’ve been sent and when it was sent. Is it clear you’ve been targeted because of your skills, or does it seem as though they’ve done a general search for writers and sent the same message to everyone?

As for the when, a friend of mine gave me a prime example recently. She works as a model, and showed posted up a request from an agency who claimed to work for big clients, yet it stated that the photographers could work around the model’s schedule. This is highly unlikely, as most projects in any field are time-limited and require certain actions by a certain date.

In my case, the editor had read previous work of mine and thought my style might suit the publication, and the deadline was spelt out clearly.

Are they asking for money or promising you money?

In publishing, money traditionally flows one way: from the publishing house to the author. Writers were always advised to think twice before giving any money to have their book published. But with the rise in self-publishing, the lines are a little more hazy as the writer has to foot and recoup many of the expenses. So how can you tell who to pay?

Firstly, let’s exclude competitions from this. There is often an entry fee of around £5 per story to cover administrative costs, contribute to the prize fund, and sometimes to make a charity donation. This is perfectly normal.

So, self publishing. The main factor to watch out for is the type of interest the company takes in your book. A place that praises the manuscript to high heaven, or takes no interest in the artistic content, should be treated with suspicion. Even the best books go through several rewrites before they ever see a shelf. A reputable self publisher is more likely to be honest about the manuscript and perhaps offer editorial services. Again, always use your judgement.

The other phrase that should ring alarm bells is to the effect of, “We can’t afford to pay you, but we can give you great exposure.” Often these requests come from well-meaning people who mistakenly believe writing is nothing more than a hobby to you, but sometimes from sources that could afford to pay and choose not to. If it’s for a cause you believe in, or you really do need the exposure, then that’s fair game. Otherwise, my advice is to ignore them or decline the offer. Whether you decline politely is up to you.

Different Trains.

About four years ago, I started attending a creative writing group I’m still in today. The tutor gives a prompt and the job of the class members is to write a passage inspired by it. In one of the early sessions, we had a member who often wouldn’t write anything, but would instead describe what she would’ve written. I had a similar experience at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews on Saturday.

I’d been meaning to attend this for some time, and this year I finally bought a ticket for Clive Russell (Coronation Street, Game of Thrones). My plan was to arrive around midday and buy tickets for other shows on an ad hoc basis. I queued at the Byre Theatre box office for a show about Alexander Pushkin and Russians in Paris, to be told that the tickets were now available only at the venue door. When I reached the, they had just sold out.

I decided instead to have lunch quickly, then see a 12pm show by a artist and a poet who had written a Ladybird-style book about St Andrews. An enjoyable 40 minutes as they described the challenges of being in two different cities but having to collaborate, but only the audience members attended.

After tea and a scone with one of my classmates who was working at the event, I headed to Musings@MUSA, which encouraged visitors to use the objects on display as inspiration for their own poetry. The first exhibit I saw was marked Seal of Approval and that phrase stayed with me. The 17-line poem I wrote was definitely inspired by elements in the exhibition, but ended up not being about the place.

Finally, time for Clive Russell. I queued up at the auditorium to be told it was, “At the top of the building.” I wasn’t sure how she knew this from looking at my ticket, as there were no obvious markings, but I moved upstairs to the top entrance and took my seat. We were treated to a duet poem written by Rock McKenzie, then the experimental Veridian String Quartet performing Different Trains by Steve Reich.

I made some notes in advance of the main event. The photograph below shows some of these.


When the house lights came up and there was no Clive Russell, I was puzzled. The man beside me said that venues for these two events had been swapped around. I slowly worked out that the first ticket checker had meant a completely different venue, while the second one should have paid attention to the show name on my ticket and not let me in. However, I was indeed in the venue printed on the ticket.

To compound the matter, I’d offered to review the events for Dundee University Review of the Arts, or DURA. If I were writing for The Guardian or suchlike, or I’d’ve been sacked on the spot. Fortunately, DURA’s contributors are volunteers, so I explained the situation to the editor in question and it was no big deal. She even gave my classmate and me a lift home in the evening.

I still enjoyed the day, and I’m tempted to go back next year. I’ve learnt nothing is a waste of time if you can take from it a good anecdote or a free pen.

Keeping In Touch.

Last week, an editor wanted to make unsolicited contact with me, but was unsure of the best way to approach it. She settled for asking me via Twitter to e-mail her. This started me thinking.

There are several ways to reach me publicly: leave a comment below, send a Twitter message to @LadyGavGav, or post to me on Google+. Yet I hadn’t previously thought about how people could contact me privately. In the case of the editor, it meant putting her e-mail address in the public domain, which I’m keen to avoid thanks to the risk of spam.

So I’m interested in how you manage to maintain contact with others? A ‘disposable’ address that forwards to your real one? A website form? Or some other method I haven’t thought about?