Clever Content Podcast

As you perhaps know, these days I run my own freelance content studio. That means lots of writing for clients, but also a fair bit of podcasting, video making and workshop running too.

One of my current projects is for a Sheffield agency called Content OD. I’m helping them out with their own marketing and communications and, as part of that, recently helped them launch the Clever Content Podcast.

We’ve recorded three episodes so far (two are published) and as with all new podcasts, we’re still finding our feet. The format is purposely simple. We find three or four content-related news items or things of interest and talk about them on the show.

For those of you who used to listen to my Write for Your Life podcast, which ran for 150+ episodes, this is probably the nearest thing I’ve done since. Give it a listen and see what you think. I think it has potential.

How to convert a Google Doc to Markdown or HTML

There is no easy way to quickly convert a Google Doc into Markdown or HTML using Google’s built-in tools.

This reality previously made me sad on a near-daily basis. Just thinking about all those hours lost to copy and pasting into other apps, fixing formatting problems and reinserting links brings a tear to my eye. It was a terrible state of affairs, for sure.

But then I found a catchily-named Google Docs add on called GD2md-html and my life changed forever. It’s easy to install. It’s completely free. And it converts perfectly every time.

How does it work?

First of all, you need to open a Google Doc and write something brilliant.

Then you need to go back and make sure that you’ve applied your styles correctly. That means no using bold for headings. Use headings instead. That’s what headings are for. Add your links and any other formatting until you’re happy that your brilliant writing is also styled correctly.

Now go to the menu and follow Add-ons > GD2md-html > Convert. You’ll see a window slide in on the right-hand side of the screen. From there, you can choose to convert your document to Markdown or HTML using the handy buttons that say those two things on them.

Now in the space below those handy buttons, you should see the converted version of your document. You’ll probably need to scroll past the how-to advice and conversion notes first. Select your text. Copy it. And now the converted version is yours forever. Assuming you remember to paste it wherever it needs to be pasted.

What the hell is the point of all this?

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons you might want to convert a Google Doc to Markdown or HTML. In my case, Google Docs lets me share and work on documents with pals and clients. It’s fantastic for that.

But to publish those documents to the web – think blog posts, newsletters etc – I need them in HTML format. Mac apps like Ulysses, Bear and Byword are great at the converting part of the process, but they don’t have the collaboration features of Google Docs.

And so this is the problem that GD2md-HTML solves. You can use Google Docs to work with other people and still quickly convert a document into a format that you can publish on the internet.

Ever thought it might be nice to convert a Google Doc into HTML? This is how you do it. 

Ultimately, it means you don’t have to copy and paste rich text into WordPress, Squarespace or whatever CMS floats your web-boat. Because that always (always!) leads to faffing on an industrial scale and all your brilliant writing getting broken into bits.

Where do I get this magic from?

Again, this is an add-on for Google Docs. It doesn’t come built in, so you’re going to have to install it. I suggest you check out the GitHub page and then head to Google’s add-on store to install GD2md-HTML from there.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year and my goodness, it felt more pertinent and devastating this time around. It is brilliant. Beautifully written. A powerful and painful experience that I highly recommend.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale – ooh, what? – almost 20 years ago. It was one of the texts on my English degree and for two now-obvious reasons, much of it washed over me.

First, I was cramming so many novels, scripts and poetry collections into my bonce that book-fatigue made it hard to fully engage after a while. Second, let’s face it, I was a daft 19-year-old with all the privilege in the world who, at that point, had been through very little in the way of crap life things.

In some ways, The Handmaid’s Tale was just another book I had to read. That meant the seriousness and significance of the novel’s plot and premise passed me by. I suspect that goes for quite a lot of my reading when I was at university. My shelves are still full of books that I read at that time. But how many can I truly remember? Not sure.

Anyway, though my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale was pretty sketchy, I did remember how much I admired Atwood’s writing. One of her earlier novels, Cat’s Eye, which I read when I was still at school, was one of the key moments in me wanting to write fiction of my own. I just loved the way she ended chapters. The single sentences that knocked the wind out of you.

And of course, that’s all there in The Handmaid’s Tale too. The TV series and current political climate has brought the novel to a much wider audience and a new generation of readers. It is very much an important book. But it was always an important book. I just wasn’t paying enough attention.

Weeds

It was National Flash Fiction Day over the weekend. Apparently. I don’t really know what that means, but it does give me an excuse to publish this piece of tiny fiction that I wrote a while ago.

It was brought to life by my designer-pal, drawer-friend and all-round maker of things, Rich Wells. He tricked me into sending him the words and then produced the artwork as a surprise Secret Santa gift for me.

I really rather like the end result.

My dad made me a pen

Like many 70-year-old men from the north of England, my dad isn’t one for emotions. I don’t recall him ever telling me that he loves me. Compliments are always thin on the ground.

So like many children of 70-year-old men from the north of England, I have to assume that a) he does, and b) he thinks I’m doing all right.

A couple of years ago, my dad bought a woodturning lathe. He started out by making small wooden pots, coat hooks and vases, that type of thing. Being long-retired, he’s had plenty of time to practise and now, his shed looks like a fully-fledged joiner’s workshop. He bloody loves it.

And he’s made me a pen. Out of wood. A lump of cherry that he found lying about in the garden. At my childhood home.

This is about as close as I’m ever going to get to an emotional outpouring. I know that he’s been quietly impressed that I’ve been able to turn a pretty shitty situation into a rather better one.

I run my own writing business. So he made me a pen. Pretty cool.

Some habits for 2018

Last year, the title of this new year post was ‘Some goals for 2017’. This year I’ve replaced the word goals with habits as they are far more meaningful. If I form certain habits, I will achieve certain goals. It makes far more sense.

I’ll use the same categories though. Here we go.

Work

When I wrote last year’s post, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Reading it back I am amazed at how calm I sound. I was not calm at all.

I was about to lose my job and had nothing else lined up. There were no suitable jobs on the market and I had no freelance clients. I’d warned my parents we may need help with the mortgage. Honestly, I was terrified.

What a difference a year makes.

Shortly after writing that post, I managed to bag my first freelance client. As I type this now, I have worked with 10 other companies in the last 12 months and currently have a thriving copywriting and content production business.

It has not been easy. I have said yes to every opportunity and worked most days and evenings, especially in the last six months. This has been all around increased childcare duties too.

But I love it. The independence. The responsibility. The challenge. I’ve met and worked with some great people and put myself out there more than ever before. So far, it’s worked out well and I hope it continues.

I don’t have many changes for 2018. I’d just like to organise my workload in a way that frees up my evenings again. Well, as many evenings as possible.

Writing

Through necessity, I’ve thrown everything into my business, which means that my fiction has suffered. Last year, I said I hoped to have a first draft of a second novel finished by December. I am nowhere near, sadly.

But I am still confident and I do really like what I’m working on. I have a couple of habits that I would like to form that will hopefully get things moving.

First, I aim to work on my fiction for an hour a day. I’ve never been good with daily word counts, no matter how low I’ve set the number. I’m not the sort of writer who bangs out 2000 words regardless of quality. I often wish I was.

But so much of writing is not about the writing. The habit I need to form is not about the number of words I write, it’s committing to and protecting a time slot. If I ‘write’ for an hour, t will be time well spent, whatever the outcome. I know that eventually, the words will come, one way or another.

The second habit is around planning and outlining. I did not have an outline when I wrote A is for Angelica and it’s never felt like a very useful exercise. But I think the problem is with me. I think I need to loosen up and accept the help that having an outline would provide.

That said, I’m not really sure how to do it. If you have any outlining tips or advice, please do get in touch and share your wisdom.

Internetting

As the freelance work mounted up last year, I decided to put the Shelflife newsletter on hiatus before starting it up again in December. People like it and I think I’ve found a way to streamline the process of putting it together. So a habit for 2018 is to publish Shelflife consistently over the year.

Also, I have so many podcast ideas and I am desperate to act on one of them. I really miss doing the Write for Your Life podcast and having produced three shows for clients in 2017, I’ve rather got the bug back.

I’d like to do something that’s very much my own thing. It would need to fit into a busy schedule and not negatively affect my work and writing. Ideally, it would complement those things. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

There are two other things that I can’t stop thinking about.

One, setting up a Patreon account for my short fiction. I’m a strong advocate of the patronage model and would love to make this a reality. It would take an awful lot of work, but if I could make money earned from writing fiction part of my regular income, I’d be literally living the dream.

Two, I wasn’t joking in my last post when I said I was tempted to set up a social network for writers. I think it’s totally doable. But it’s also hard to justify the time I’d need to put in if it didn’t pay its way. How many platforms and apps have disappeared because they weren’t financially sustainable? Loads of them.

Would writers pay a small monthly fee to join a social network that was just for them? I don’t know. If I could find the courage, I’d love to take the risk of finding out.

Reading

There’s not much to say here. I need to read more. I want to read more.

I’ve always read last thing at night, but since having kids that’s proved a particularly terrible tactic. I can’t keep my eyes open and I usually fall asleep within minutes. It’s really annoying, actually.

In 2017, I said I was going to try and read 25 pages a day. That went well for a while. But then I struggled with a couple of books that I didn’t like very much and the freelance work started to pile up. I let things slip. And of course, I got nowhere near my target of 30 books for the year.

I’m not setting a target number of books this year. But I am going to try the 25-pages-a-day tactic again. I’m also going to try and get into the habit of reading more shorter books. Oh, and I aim to keep track of them better too.

Anything else?

Two more things to make a note of here.

Last year I said I wanted to reduce the amount of noise I let into my brain. After Brexit and Trump, I said I would use technology less to read the news. My goodness, it’s been difficult. And I don’t think I’ve done a very good job.

Here is the reality. I run a full-time, one-person company and I put a lot of time and effort into it. But whenever I stop working, the first thing I do – almost always – is use my phone or laptop to see what latest nonsense is in the news. And rest assured, there is always nonsense.

I don’t expect that I’ll be able to shut myself away from what’s happening in the world. But that trigger – to check the news when I get the chance – is not healthy and all those seconds and minutes build up. I could be doing something more useful instead. Like everything I’ve mentioned in this post.

So my new habit for 2018? Break that habit.

Lastly, this year I want to relax a little. For so long, if I’ve not been with family, I’ve been working or writing (or thinking about working and writing). In 2018, I would like to give myself permission to do more sitting on the sofa. Watching films. Reading books. Playing video games.

And that’s it.

It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

All the time and often

I ran a workshop last week where I asked participants to choose words that they felt summed up their attitude towards technology. The words they chose were overwhelmingly negative. I was a bit surprised.

In the follow-up activity, I asked the same people to say how often they used technology. They had a scale with five options on it. All but one person chose the option at the very end of the scale, which was all the time. The other person chose the next one down, often.

It was really a interesting outcome in the context of the workshop. But it’s had me thinking more widely since, in no small part because I could entirely understand where the participants were coming from.

How come those of us who are most tech-savvy seem to be so frustrated by and critical of technology? Why do we use technology all the time if we feel so negatively about what it is and does to us?

There are obvious answers. Obligation. Compulsion. Addiction. And of course, it brings benefits along with its problems.

I’ve been thinking about how I use social media. There is a disconnect between how I’d like to use social media and how I actually use it.

I’d like to connect with writers, readers and publishing folk. I’d like to find interesting news, articles and videos about the things I’m into. I’d like to share those things and show my work.

It’s true that I do those things a little. I used to do them a lot more.

Instead I get lost in and angry about petty politics. I go down rabbit holes that seem interesting and important, but lead absolutely nowhere. And I spend time – far too much time – scrolling and searching for golden nuggets in an endless stream of crap and cruft.

Of course, I can choose what I read and who I follow on Twitter. I could make changes so that the people and content that fills my feed is far more tailored and narrow. Lists, mute filters and hashtags.

But Twitter is Twitter. There is no agreed subject matter. We’re free to say what we want about whatever we want. I could narrow my feed, but unless everyone else does the same, little would change.

So I can’t help wondering if niche networks might be the future.

For example, what if there was a social network just for writers, where people could talk shop, share stuff and learn from one another? I’d find that far more useful and meaningful than any platform I currently know about.

In fact, if I knew that 100 people felt the same way, I’d probably have a go at setting one up myself. I mean, how hard could it be?

CreativeMornings Sheffield

CreativeMornings is a monthly event that tales place in cities all over the world. Creative folk get up early and gather at a lovely venue to drink coffee, eat too much pastry and hear a talk by someone marvellous.

CreativeMornings comes to Sheffield

Sheffield, my home city, now has its own CreativeMornings. Set up by the ace Penny Lee, it’s only been going for a few months and already folks snaffle tickets up sharpish.

You can look out for a CreativeMornings Sheffield podcast that I’m working on and plan to launch later this month. For now, check out the video above, which I hastily put together following a last-minute decision to take some footage on my phone at the last event.

It’s rough around the edges, but was good fun to do. Lesson for next time: take more footage!

Printed By Us

To give you a little more information about the talk, the speaker was Mark Musgrave, who with the help of my old pals at Yoomee, has created a great project called Printed By Us.

Here’s what it’s all about:

We run screen printing workshops for people in Sheffield who may have experienced homelessness and other complex issues. We collaborate with local artists to create unique artwork, then: We hand screen print artwork. We sell the prints. We run more workshops.

It’s a smashing idea and so far, it seems to be working.

It was amazing to hear from James, who has previously been homeless and said that his life had improved significantly because of Printed By Us. James even did a live screen print on the day – everyone got to take home a ‘Just Take The Next Step’ print, designed by Rich Wells.

Take a look at the Printed By Us website and consider buying a print, if you can afford it.

Fact or fiction: autobiographical novels with Édouard Louis

This episode of the Guardian Books podcast featuring Édouard Louis had me absolutely hooked.

I hadn’t heard anything about Édouard Louis before, but two things struck me about his interview. First, the eloquence and clarity with which he talks about his childhood and the impact it had. Second, the way he was able to separate his own story from the writing. Such a difficult thing to do.

Here’s more information about Louis and the context of the interview:

Édouard Louis received huge acclaim in France at the age of 21 for his debut book, The End of Eddy, an autobiographical novel about a gay child who grows up surrounded by poverty and homophobia in a post-industrial French town. Despite France’s long history of autofiction, Louis’s book sparked a hunt for the truth, with French media descending on his home town in Picardy to talk with locals and try to determine what was real.

I highly recommend you give the episode a listen. It’s not often I hear an author talk about their work and feel compelled to go and buy it. This morning, I bought The End of Eddy and can’t wait to get stuck in.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders

George Saunders is one of those authors I’ve heard other people rave about for years but never read myself. After rewatching his brilliant advice on storytelling, I decided to give him a go.

Drawn in by the amazing cover and title, I chose a single short story aimed at both young readers and adults: The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.

I loved this book. It’s a kind of fable or morality story about a three-house village besieged by gappers – ball-like creatures that have a serious thing for goats.

This is the opening. It’s a brilliant opening.

Ever had a burr in your sock? A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes on a potato. and gappers love goats. When a gapper gets near a goat it gives off a continual high-pitched happy shriek of pleasure that makes it impossible for the goat to sleep, and the goats get skinny and stop giving milk. And in towns that survive by selling goat milk, if there’s no goat milk, there’s no money, and if there’s no money, there’s no food or housing or clothing, and so, in gapper-infested towns, since nobody likes the idea of starving naked outdoors, it is necessary at all costs to keep the gappers off the goats. Such a town was Frip.

What a set up, right?

The story revolves around the three families of Frip who need to get rid of the gappers. That job falls to their respective children, who must brush the goats each night then throw the gappers into the sea. The gappers just come back though, which makes the children’s lives a misery.

It’s weird and haunting and also sort of beautiful.

When the gappers decide it’s more efficient to visit just one of the houses, the other two families rejoice and refuse to help. What results is a tale of kindness and community, but also a look at how humans treat each other in times of need. Which is, quite often, rather badly.

I should say that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is brilliantly illustrated by Lane Smith, who also worked with Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss. The illustrations really work well and bring the story to life.

I read it through in about half an hour and can’t recommend it enough. I’m looking forward to a little more George Saunders later in the year.