Finding Your Voice Online – Interview with Nicola Balkind

Nicola BalkindAre you a writer, or do you want to be?  Then you’ll probably want to have a listen to this in-depth interview I recently recorded with Glasgow-based Writer and Content Specialist Nicola Balkind.

Nicola is giving a workshop in Edinburgh on Finding Your Voice Online (at the Skriva Writing School on Friday 23rd October) where she will help writers create “a plan you can’t ignore” for their online writing career.

She’s very well qualified to do so, being a published author, long-time freelancer and a regular contributor to BBC Radio Scotland and The List Magazine – just to mention a few of her accomplishments!

Listen on SoundCloud

We cover a dizzying array of topics in this half hour conversation including:

  • Why finding your voice online is so important
  • How she juggles so many multi-media projects
  • How she got started in freelancing and why it’s good to have a mix of more “serious” and fun work
  • Persuading people to hire you and take your advice when you’re ahead of the curve
  • Why being a young woman can be both an advantage and a disadvantage in the media
  • Her experience writing two books (about Glasgow film locations and Hunger Games fandom)
  • What she learnt from Oliver Burkeman’s book about self-help for cynics when she was a literary guineapig for Canongate Books

As well as her impressive business blog, you can also read more from Nicola at her personal blog Robotnic.co which features “monthly reading wrap-ups, book and film reviews, and pop culture chat” or you can enjoy watching/listening to her talking about the same topics on YouTube and the podcast she co-hosts, ‘Bookish Blether.’

Oh, and a final reminder that if you live locally you can book a place on her Edinburgh workshop over at Eventbrite.

Mule guitar

Journalist, Podcaster and “Philosopher” Steven Kearney

Ok, so to get back into the swing of things with the interviews, here’s one with Mr Steven Kearney, a writer for The Scotsman’s music website Radar, who I first met because we both did a radio show at Edinburgh’s student radio station Fresh Air.

Alas, Stevie has killed off the truly excellent ‘Dylan and the Mule’ podcasts which I shamefully only started listening to around the time he stopped doing them. And I miss them now. Sob.

I’m told though that he has plenty more web projects up his sleeve for the future. For the time being he’s busy enough with a certain charity challenge – read on for more info.

I wanted to interview Stevie in particular for his perspective as someone who has recently trained to be a journalist and who has intimate knowledge of the current (difficult) situation for that profession. He’s also kindly given me permission to make his dissertation Could the Professional Music Journalist Vanish available for free download – see the end of the post for more details.

Hi Stevie! Please can you describe who you are and what you are up to at the moment?

We all know the scene – you are sitting in a bar with friends and you are introduced to someone new. They ask “what do you do then?” I always struggle with this particular question. If I’m feeling playful, I tend to answer “philosopher”, although this is in no way the truth. It has led to some of my most wonderful lies though.

My university studies were in Corporate Communications and then Journalism, so I tend to be very communication centred. By day I run a wine and whisky shop, which I enjoy immensely. In terms of the creative side of things, I have been writing for the Scotsman’s Radar blog for around two years, I have been Fresh Air Radio’s Best Male Presenter on two occasions, I previously ran the Dylan and the Mule new music podcast and I’m currently in the planning stage of organising an all day charity music festival in Aberdeen during July (possibly entitled Aural Pleasure, if I can get away with it).

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I’m working with my friend Colin Austin to put on a series of acts in two venues, somewhere around Belmont Street to raise money for youth projects in the creative arts sector. There’s still a hell of a lot of work to be done to get things moving though! We also have plans afoot to start up a new Aberdeen-based new music website in the next few months, with regular reviews, interviews and podcasts featuring session tracks by local musicians.

I have previously tried my hand at music, but lack any modicum of talent. I have written a lot of short stories and am currently battling my way through writing my first novel – which is about an alcoholic television news journalist who commits a terrible act of violence late one night, then arrives at work the next morning to find out that he is covering the story. It is, I stress, not an autobiography!

Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?

I still lack focus to be honest. This time last year I was moving to Manchester to be a kick-ass news journalist. That was what I’d studied for and that was what I was going to be. I did well at university and had no doubt I would be successful. Five months later I had quit, having absolutely hated my job. I had to source and write 25 articles a day and I couldn’t keep up. It was a sobering time. Two months after that I was moving back home to Aberdeen and working back in the wine trade. However, you can’t put a price on looking forward to going to work in the morning rather than dreading it. So yeah, plans change. Mine change regularly.

In terms of creativity, I am still unsure if I am a properly creative person myself – I see my role more as a facilitator for creativity in others. In terms of music writing, I am the guy who arranges the quotes in a certain order and adds a bit of background detail. The creative people are the ones making the wonderful music. With the festival we are planning for the summer, we are giving a platform to others.

I guess in many ways it has taken me a long time to find a role for myself within the music scene, which effectively makes me a frustrated musician doesn’t it? I still have to try very hard not to behave like a total gimp when I’m around people whose music I love. Every time I see Dan Willson from Withered Hand I manage to speak absolute shit to him because I think the guy is phenomenal. I reckon he thinks I’m a proper mental case, but he’s much too polite to say anything.

Looking forwards, I want to keep the music writing as a hobby as that allows me to pick and choose my projects more carefully. Journalism is not half the fun it is cracked up to be and you need to be really focused on one particular goal, otherwise you’ll end up doing what I did, which was sitting in a tower block in Manchester at 8am every morning writing about property investment in the Middle East. And that is a pile of shit.

Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?

I’ve not made huge sacrifices, because I am doing what I want to do. I work on projects which interest me and have a job I enjoy which is flexible enough to allow me to do other things outside of work time. I don’t make much money, but I am not in a place where that bothers me right now. It bothers my bank, but I’m fine with that. I’m waiting for my government bail out.

How do you define success?

Success for me has to be measured by a yardstick of my own making. If you look around at others too much you create two problems. Firstly, any success you identify will only be comparative success, compared to your peers, which is fairly hollow. Secondly, there will always be someone doing better than you, so you’ll never be satisfied. Success is getting up each day and looking forward to whatever shit might be thrown at you, safe in the knowledge that none of it really matters at all.

What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?

Stevie interviews Comedian Marcus Brigstocke

The positive side for any writer is that the barriers to entry have been steamrollered by the internet – and the rise of blogging in particular. My university thesis was on this very subject – looking at how technology has changed the role of the music writer. The general outcome was that it is wonderful that anyone can now write a blog and have their work accessible to such a global audience, but it makes it much harder to make a living from music writing.

With my journalist’s hat on, the biggest problem is that so many journalism graduates are being pumped out each year into an industry in terminal decline as technology replaces people, perpetuated by a recession where advertising revenues are at an all time low. There are no paid positions to take up. Subsequently, talented young journalists are working for free, even for some of the big publications. In some cases recently, people are paying to do work placements.

Thus, the publications see no need to pay anyone, because there is a massive queue of people willing to work for nothing. It is a vicious cycle for music writers just now and it isn’t going to get any better. Incidentally, when I left my job as a news journalist, I was apparently replace by an endless stream of two-week unpaid work placement students, all giving up their time in the hope of landing a paid position which didn’t actually exist.

While we discuss the upside and downside of technology, it is useful to consider that blogging does present another problem. Too many people think their opinion matters when it comes to music. I am a music journalist because I research bands, I interview them and I report what I learn. I am trained to ask the right questions and get the required information to create an informative and entertaining article. I don’t judge music and I am certainly not a music critic.

My opinion on a band is no more valid than that of any other person at the gig I’m attending. I am careful to keep my opinion of the music out of what I do because, essentially, I have no basis on which to be a taste-maker. Blogging causes a din of unqualified opinion and I personally try to keep out of this. With my podcasts, it is a bit different, because it is obvious that I will play things I like because it is my podcast. When writing for a site like Radar though, it carries more weight, so I’ll stick to the facts. It would be nice to know that people realise that starting a blog doesn’t make you a music critic.

Stevie with Neil from the super awesome Edinburgh band Meursault

Working with others certainly leads to a much better creative process. With the music festival we are plotting, it only really came to life when I sat in the Brew Dog pub in Aberdeen with Colin one night and we threw ideas around for about 3 hours. John – who runs The Kiosque – joined us and helped take some of the rough edges off our more elaborate plans. We had two dreamers and one guy thinking practically. It was so much more productive than being sat at home, trying to figure it out on my own.

In contrast, my fiction writing is a resolutely solitary process, where I have to switch off the internet, block out the world and find a quiet room, where I will sit for at least 3 hours at a time without budging. Occasionally it gets to a stage where I am prepared to send it to a select few people who are my trusted proof-readers. Even then, I find it brutal having someone pore over your work looking for ways to improve it. It undoubtedly helps to have a good community of writers who can help each other out, but I still find it much too difficult to let go.

I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – is this something you’ve mastered and do you have any advice on how to maintain this?

When your creative outlets happen outside of your work hours, it is hard to be disciplined enough to achieve consistency. This is certainly something I struggle with. Also, I was afraid to say no to anything for a long time, because I hoped to make a career out of journalism. It is so incredibly tough to find a decent job that I felt compelled to agree to everything to keep my CV looking good, but in the end I spread myself too thin and did a half-arsed job on everything.

In terms of advice, I’d say pick one or two things and do them really well, rather than trying to do everything and thus doing it all badly. I have a much better balance now than this time last year, but I still take on far too much.

Incidentally, I have also decided to take on a bit of an insane challenge to raise money for a very worthwhile project in Tanzania, so when I’m not working or writing, I’m out on my bike or in the gym, preparing to cycle 270km over mountains, while stopping off to run up Ben Nevis and Ben Lomond along the way – all in just 4 days. I have actually lost the plot, so feel free to sponsor this madness at http://www.justgiving.com/Stevie-Kearney.

Cheers Stevie! So do you agree or disagree with his outspoken opinions on blogging, or demand that Stevie start podcasting again right away? Let him know in the comments.

That free dissertation – the full details.

Given that Mr Kearney is also giving away his entire dissertation to readers of this blog, why not  say thanks by sponsoring the man and helping charity at the same time? I’m off to do it now.

The dissertation looks at how things like blogging have affected music journalism and  out of the people he interviewed there are quite a few different opinions on the topic.  I was delighted to be asked to contribute, along with the following Scottish music scene movers and shakers:

Vic Galloway, Jim Gellatly, Matthew Young, Jason Cranwell, Nick Mitchell, Billy Hamilton, Peter Kelly and Dan Willson.

Download Could the Professional Music Journalist Vanish by Steven A Kearney

Lisa-Marie Paris train

Journalist, Blogger & Photographer Lisa-Marie Ferla

Lisa-Marie Ferla on the Outbound Train

This week’s interview is with one of my Scottish blogging buddies, Lisa-Marie Ferla, aka Last Year’s Girl. She’s a massive supporter of Scottish music both on her own blog and on The Scotsman’s Radar blog to which she regularly contributes.

In addition Lis writes about travel, cinema and everything in-between, always with a personal and heartfelt touch, and is an accomplished photographer (though she modestly claims not to be!)

Let’s hear what she’s got to say for herself.

Please can you describe who you are and what you are up to at the moment?

I’m a redundant legal journalist and editor, currently working in retail. I’ve been blogging since before the word was even invented – according to Wikipedia – and have been famous on the internet since 1999 (but not quite as famous as Neil Gaiman).

I take photographs with little skill and lots of enthusiasm, and write about bands with a bit more skill and even more enthusiasm for anybody who’ll have me. Seriously. I go on like a hyperactive five-year-old. Don’t ask me about The Hold Steady.

My main website is http://pixlet.net, but you’re going to find more regular/actually updated content on my world famous, quoted-in-the-Guardian-that-one-time blog, http://lastyearsgirl.pixlet.net.

Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?

It’s probably fair to say “trial and error”. I mean, I always wanted to be a writer of some description; whether I was scribbling down stories in recycled school jotter in the bathroom when I should have been asleep, or stirring up my little brother and sister into a frenzy so they’d make some contributions to the magazine I put together on my teeny toy typewriter when my mum went away for the weekend.

Even at an early age I knew this was never going to be as lucrative an ambition as becoming a teacher like the rest of my family, which I suppose is where “journalist” entered into the mix, but in the late 1980s none of us could have foreseen the ways in which technology would change that particular profession, rendering it almost unrecognisable and increasingly difficult to make a living from.

I guess I’ve stumbled into many of the opportunities I’ve been given. I don’t mean to belittle my achievements, because I have worked incredibly hard, but there has certainly been an element of “right place, right time” to many of my adventures.

From a professional perspective, although my MSc in Journalism continues to impress I would never have been given the opportunity to edit and grow The Specialist Paralegal magazine had it not been for my law degree. The vast majority of my extracurricular activities have come about through my reputation as a blogger.

Honestly? I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up.

Lisa-Marie Ferla taken by Neil Thomas Douglas for the Eclectic Peel exhibition.

Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?

Not really. The unfortunate fact of it is, and it’s particularly true of life these days, is that one still has to pay the bills.

I have a terrible habit of saying “yes” to absolutely everything I can despite a history of mental health problems, which tends to result in burnout and periods when I get home from work and would rather stare at the ceiling than turn on my computer.

It’s something I’m working on. I know what inspires me. I need space, good music in my life and long train trips staring out of the window. It’s not always possible to make that kind of time.

What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?

Lissie Does Dixie

Well it’s blogging that I’m known for, so without technology my work wouldn’t exist! Or, at least, not in the same form that it does now, and certainly without the same audience… if you are the sort of person who finds the urge to create, you will find a way to do that regardless of the resources that are available to you.

The truth is that I am never happier than – and I feel I do my best writing – when I am scribbling my travel journals down in some notebook or other. And, without the distractions of Twitter and Facebook, I’m far more likely to get things done.

Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?

At the risk of sounding like a bit of an arse, the personal nature of my writing – even when it isn’t supposed to be personal, see every music-themed blog post I’ve ever written – means I prefer to work alone.

Saying that, I take much of my inspiration from others -snippets of overheard conversations, debates with my friends…

Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?

Definitely. Perhaps because I’ve been doing this for so long, or maybe because of the nature of my work, I find it difficult to make a distinction between the two. Over the last year, particularly, there has been an incredible “online into offline” crossover between the Scottish music blogging, photography and performance community. It makes all the difference in the world – and gives you so much motivation not to quit – when you know you’re not alone.

Couldn’t agree more.  As well as checking out Lis’s blog and website, go say hello to her on Twitter (where she is so popular her wedding last year was a trending topic) or leave a comment.

Large Finbarr Group

Journalist & Blogger Finbarr Bermingham

This week’s interview is with journalist and blogger Finbarr Bermingham, who as well as having a highly memorable name, is also a great writer as can be seen from his blog.  Finbarr is a fellow contributor to The Skinny, a Scottish culture and listings magazine which we have both written for many times in the past.

Below he talks about setting a creative routine and sticking to it, how exercise helps with clarity, taking risks to get yourself out of a rut, and how progress is a great indicator of success.

Hi Finbarr! Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re up to?

 I am a freelance journalist and occasional blogger from Northern Ireland, masquerading as a teacher in South Korea. I’ve been writing since my schooldays but started to take it seriously when living in Edinburgh, doing pieces for The Skinny about five years ago.

I then spent some time in Brighton, where I gained NCTJ accreditation. Having huffed and puffed in the UK, trying in vain to earn a crust, I decided a new strategy was required and set off for South Korea about a year ago. At the moment, I spend my evenings as an ESL teacher and as much time as possible is devoted to writing. I also have a weekly radio slot here in Gwangju (English speaking, of course!).

Until a couple of years ago, all the writing I did was music based. Some of it still is, but it is (and I fear always will be) a labour of love. I’ve made a conscious effort to branch out into travel writing, current affairs, sport and wider cultural issues, to varying degrees of success. I’ve had work published in Asia Times, Irish News, Q, Restaurant Magazine and a fair number of arts publications.

Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?

I always had a nebulous notion of being a writer, but I never challenged myself as to what that actually meant until I was in my twenties. I always liked the idea of journalism and I suppose I thought I would just fall into that line of work… as long as I said I wanted to do it, it would happen.

I drifted through university, fell into an office job and woke up one day realizing I was no closer to becoming a writer than I had been at school.I eventually gave myself a kick up the arse and got the ball rolling, but my strategies have always been short term and my objectives are constantly changing.

Finbarr conducting an interview with one of the world’s leading geologists, Professor Min Huh. Photo by Gyonggu Shin

I’m not a great planner and my actions tend to be based more on circumstance than foresight.I haven’t ever felt like I was working towards one incandescent Holy Grail on the horizon. It’s more getting from A-B, and once I get there, I decide where to go next.

For the past few years, though, I’ve been surer on the general direction in which I’ve been headed, even if the exact route has remained a bit woolly.

Finbarr’s poetically titled blog, Scrawls and Bawls

I think my time here has helped me become more focused, too. I’ve come to realize what I do well and what I don’t. I have always tended to write about what interests me in the hope that it interests others, too. I have been lucky that Korea has given me a whole raft of fresh subject matter that fascinates me and that I’ve landed in the country at a time in which other people are intrigued by it, too. I know this won’t always be the case and that sometimes, I may need to be more accommodating in my writing if I am to make it a career.

Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?

Despite what I said previously, I have consciously made a couple of huge decisions in my life in order to progress my writing. I left a reasonably well paid job and a comfortable life in Edinburgh to return to education in Brighton at a time when steady work seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule. Whilst there were other factors in my coming to Korea, there was a large part of me that viewed it as a creative opportunity. I have certainly become a more creative person as a result.

Recently, I’ve indirectly cut down on things that are counter productive to me being creative and productive. Over the past six months, I’ve gotten into long distance running, a pastime that doesn’t marry too well with steady drinking. I’ve since discovered a kind of structured creativity I never had before. I feel more clear-headed and imaginative… a charge that could never have been pinned on me during my hazy early months here. I formulate a lot of my ideas whilst running now and often have the skeleton of a piece in my head by the time I get to the shower.

I do try to structure my day in order to make the most of it. I’ve learned that I work best when I first wake up. My job starts at 3pm, which gives me ample time to get what I need done in the mornings and early afternoon. Sometimes, I’ll avoid writing emails or speaking to people before I’ve gotten something written… usually something that needs doing, but anything will do. Generally, your thoughts are more interesting at that stage. It took me a while to realize that such a schedule could work for me, but now it’s a routine I treasure.

Finbarr’s interview with The National made The Skinny’s cover in May 2010

How do you define success?

There are different levels of success. I do think that to be paid for doing something creative should be considered success and an achievement, particularly if it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. But that’s not the be all and end all; otherwise most of us would be pretty miserable.

Progression is an indicator of success. At the end of a week, or month, or year; if I can look back on that time and see that I’m further along the line than I was at the start, then it’s a success.

If I get published somewhere new, I’m pleased. If someone independently compliments me on what I’ve done, I’m delighted. It sounds conceited, but unfortunately kind words are too often the currency writers deal in. If something I write provokes discussion, then that too is rewarding.

On a personal level, all of these represent small successes. In the grand scheme of things, success (or my own perception of it) is an evolving entity. Not having an explicit goal means there’s always room for improvement.

What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?

I think technology is essential. I am an irregular blogger, but I think the platform is absolutely vital to any writer. I view my blog as a blank canvas. It’s a space for trialing concepts and ideas – many of them fleeting and inconsistent. Whilst that may not make for a coherent and cognizant body of work, it allows me to articulate thoughts I may not be confident of getting published.

If I want to write something on a whim, at least I know there will always be a home for it. I’ve been told that a blog can act as a real-time résumé for potential publishers and employees, so occasionally, I will direct such folks towards it as well.

I was a latecomer to Twitter, but I use it regularly now too. Not only is it useful as a promotional tool, it’s also an excellent research facility. There is a wealth of information on there waiting to be tapped and it makes me laugh when people are skeptical about it. Sure, it is littered with insignificant platitudes (which anyone who follows me will testify), but if you are selective with who you follow then it is a wonderful resource for journalists.

Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?

The act of writing, itself, is a solitary one. Whilst I have collaborated on a couple of pieces in the past, they’ve always been independently written and magically coalesced by the hand of a higher power! I do, however, enjoy trialing ideas through with others.

I like polling opinions on issues and non-issues alike… sometimes conversations that are months old can come flooding back when I’m writing something. If I’m writing an article that requires primary research, I will obviously speak to a lot of people in the planning stages; but besides that, general, untargeted conversations help me greatly.

Teaching is particularly useful in that regard. Everyday I speak to my students about what’s happening in Korea, be it news, entertainment or sport. Most of them will echo the views they’ve heard over breakfast at home. More often than not, the mood of the people is reflected in their young. When my language skills are basic at best, I’ve found that this rejigging of ‘collaborative learning’ has proven very insightful and mutually beneficial.

Koreanosaurus Boseongensis: front cover of Gwangju News, Dec 2010

Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?

I think it has become increasingly important to me. Gwangju has a few thousand ex-pats, in a city of 1.5million. The community here is close-knit and it’s one of my favourite things about the place. The flipside of it is that it’s very easy to get involved in whatever is happening: the local press, radio and blogs. Amongst the expats, not so many are interested in extra-curricular activities and the ones that are, are thrust together closer still.

Online, I guess it’s useful to have a presence in certain communities, although I would say I am peripheral at most. Monitoring the blogging community in Scotland from afar, I can see that it is growing alongside the arts community exponentially and creating a real online buzz. It’s exciting just to observe and I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – is this something you’ve mastered and do you have any advice on how to maintain this?

I think I have attained some level of consistency, in that I could probably rustle up a decent piece on just about anything given some time. I agree that regular practice is crucial. It’s very easy to get rusty. I have by no means mastered anything, though. I’m not sure that would ever be possible.

I also find that maintaining other areas of your life can have a positive effect on your creativity (writing, for sure). Reading is of paramount importance. I notice that when I haven’t been reading a lot, it comes across in my writing and as such, sometimes have to make a conscious effort to read more. So whilst yes, application can improve consistency, I feel it’s important to make room for other valuable and complimentary pursuits.

As well as really enjoying his work I’m very impressed with the decisions Finbarr has made in order to progress his writing and expand his experiences.

What do you think? Share your thoughts/say hello in the comments!