Posts Tagged editing

Q&A: Ben Lerwill, travel writer

As a sub/copy editor, it’s always a delight to edit the work of a writer who knows their craft inside out. One such person is award-winning travel journalist Ben Lerwill, who I first met more than a decade ago and whose copy never fails to conjure up vivid images of shores both near and far, and makes me want to dust off my passport.

And as for the editing, I confess that I always feel guilty if I’m at a magazine and one of his pieces comes in for me to look at, for the simple reason that I have to try to look busy, when in actual fact the feature will be practically error-free and a joy to read, from start to finish.

So while this blog tends to focus on fiction, I thought it would make a nice change to ask Ben a few general and writing-related questions. If you’re thinking of heading down the journalism route, and/or have a passion for travel, hopefully there’s something here for you.

And yes, I think I added one word and a comma.

No, scrub that, just the one word.

When did you first get the travel bug?
New places have interested me since I was tiny. I can still remember the French campsite on our first overseas family holiday. It had terrifyingly large hornets – my brother and I shed tears – but more enjoyably there was an on-site boulangerie serving up warm, doughy pains au chocolat every morning. I can still smell them now. In terms of actual wanderlust, I didn’t get the bug until I was in my early twenties. It was Australia that started it.

When you trained as a journalist, was it always with a view to specialising in travel?
I think at the time that would have seemed too pie-in-the-sky. I was more drawn to the fact that there were a thousand different paths a journalism qualification could help me follow. Getting into the travel side of things was almost more by accident than design, although as soon as I sniffed an opening I was desperate to make it work.

What aspects of your job do you most enjoy?
The variety. And I still love writing – I think that’s absolutely key. Occasionally people who are starting out seem to see the writing aspect as a distant second to the travel itself. My opinion is that it would be hard to build a career like that. On a more general note, I also love the freedom of being self-employed. It’s liberating to crank up a record and dance around in your slippers spilling tea.

And the downsides?
The constant work-life juggling, and the fact that there’s very little control over the inflow of work. Some weeks are super-relaxed, others are a blizzard of deadlines. On the work-life thing, I have two young kids, so my whole approach to going away has changed hugely. I have to think hard about which trips are the right ones to take on. Because of this I’m also doing far more UK stuff, which my 25-year-old self would have thought a little unadventurous but which excites me no end. The Lakes, the Peaks, Snowdonia, Cornwall – we live in an amazing country.

BenIs it becoming harder to secure commissions in the internet age, when so many people post online for free, including travel blogs and reviews?
Not necessarily harder, but the industry is definitely shifting. It’s pretty difficult to second-guess how things might look ten years from now. Social media isn’t my strong point, but I’m aware that there are some excellent travel bloggers out there. I don’t really think of it as them-and-us – I know some great writers who do a lot of work for magazines and newspapers but also maintain regular blogs.

What advice would you give anyone who is starting out and trying to earn commissions?
Try to come up with genuinely interesting ideas. The kind you might see flagged up on a magazine cover, or something that really draws you in. Not just “A Weekend In Dublin”, or whatever. Be prepared for lots of rejection too, and learn not to get downhearted. Once you have a commission, above all else be reliable. Write to the requested word count, meet the deadline and do your best to steer clear of the main clichés – “city of contrasts” etc.

You’ve visited destinations that, shall we say, might come with an element of tension, such as the West Bank and Iran. I imagine it must be very satisfying to have any preconceptions overthrown.
Definitely. You always try to read up as much as possible on the regions you have to visit, but sometimes you’re arriving in a place that has a day-to-day reality you know very little about. Both the places mentioned were almost overwhelming in terms of the warmth and hospitality I was shown. The West Bank was also pretty upsetting.

The flip-side to the previous question, however, is that a regular traveller is bound to find themselves in tricky situations occasionally. Any spring to mind?
Other than occasional injuries and illnesses – one spectacularly horrible bout of food poisoning in Romania comes to mind – I’ve been pretty lucky. I did once get relieved of my possessions in St Petersburg though. Vodka was involved.

There can’t be many countries left that you haven’t visited. Do you keep a running total, and where else is on your bucket list?
I don’t keep a running total, although I used to. I know it’s more than 80. There are tons of countries I’ve not visited. Central Asia is somewhere I’m very keen to explore one day – all those old Silk Road cities.    

Finally, I always like to ask: read any good books lately?
I picked up Daisy Miller by Henry James recently. It’s very short but very good, and was quite controversial in its day by all accounts. And I’m a big fan of Guy Delisle’s books – they’re travelogues in cartoon form. I really enjoyed re-reading Shenzhen a couple of months ago, which is one of his earlier ones.

Many thanks to Ben for answering my questions. For more information, head over to www.benlerwill.com to check out the man and his work.

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Draft excluder: how to move your story along

I think I might have ‘Second Album Syndrome’. You know, where a band get the first album under their belt, then have to live up to expectations with the second, which makes for a certain pressure, which makes it harder to be creative, which makes for a certain pressure…

Publishing The Ground Will Catch You was, as I’ve said often, an intense period of my life due to my perfectionist tendencies. A lot of this stems not only from pride, but also from having been a proofreader for many years. Obviously we are human beings, not machines, so while perfection may not always be attainable, it is always the goal. It’s the reason I bristle when I spot more than one or two typos in a book – you wouldn’t be happy with a CD that jumped a few times, so why should a book be any different?

Steps for blogHow exactly does this relate to Second Album Syndrome? Well, I’m about 10,000 words into the new book and struggling. I don’t have writer’s block, I’ve just been feeling that I’m only part way down a very, very long road, and I can’t see the end. A few signposts, yes; one or two landmarks, but not the end. And, psychologically, that’s quite a burden to carry.

But I think I may have a solution, and I’m hoping you might find it useful.

Apparently there are two types of writers: planners and ‘seat of the pantsers’. I believe I’m somewhere in between. I have a basic outline of the plot (which I’ve laid out in Scrivener, of course), I’m doing various bits of research (again, Scrivener), but every time I write 1,000 words or so of my actual text I look back and think to myself, ‘Well, it’s all very pretty, but things haven’t moved forward that much. What if I’m wasting a lot of time heading down a dead end, without realising it?’ And then I squint into the distance, down the long, long road, and that Champagne breakfast with a copy of my new book in hand is not even a speck on the horizon. And that’s demoralising.

The solution? Adjectives, people – adjectives. Take them out. Banish them. Put them in a holding pen, or send them out to graze for a few months. Whatever. Just forget about being descriptive. Forget all about the pretty bits – that can come later, with the second draft.

Everyone knows that a novel takes more than a few drafts before it’s finished – I’m not here to point out the obvious – but what I will say is that right now my main character is simply being functional. He’s going from A to B, doing X, Y and Z on the way. I’m not adding any colour. None at all. It’s all grey, like a rough charcoal sketch. And you know what? He’s getting from A to B quicker, and therefore so am I. We’re going down that road together, and as we do, new things are occurring to me, new possibilities, which I’m adding to my notes (see Scrivener, above). If I go down a dead end, it’s not as painful any more because a minimal amount of time will have been wasted.

All of this is making the writing process much more of a rush, more fun. And, most importantly, less pressurised. I’ve started to see results, secure in the knowledge that when I get to the end, it will be equally pleasurable to go back and lay some flowers among the bones.

So there you have it: my shortcut to that far-off point in the distance. Hopefully this will have been of some use to you. Either way, enjoy the journey.

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Room temperature: Fingers In The Noise

Most of what I listen to while putting in the writing hours is instrumental or experimental, and therefore not particularly mainstream. It would be too distracting. I don’t want to hear lyrics that send me on a different train of thought, or massive choruses that get me singing along. It’s hard to find a way back from that.

This often makes finding information about an artist quite difficult. And ‘Fingers in the Noise’ is no exception – extensive internet searching threw up only scraps about his background, mainly via his Facebook page and Wikipedia.

In a nutshell, Fingers in the Noise is the recording name of Laurent Bisch, an ambient electronic producer from France. Formerly something of a party-goer, in 2009 he settled into a more peaceful life with his wife and children, devoting his free time to composing music. He is also a keen photographer. And he likes to cook.

As is so often the case, I discovered his work on LastFM, and after downloading a few free tracks, went on to buy the Smoothbox album/EP – proof, my writing friends, that freebies or samples can work. I believe he’s also just released a Best Of compilation, so no doubt I’ll be saying goodbye to a few more pennies. In a minute, probably.

I often return to Smoothbox when I want something that is quietly melodic, but also with percussive elements, rather than simply atmospheric/ambient. It’s uplifting, it’s catchy, and has got me out of a writing rut on more than one occasion. A bit like a classy bottle of French wine, if you’ll excuse the very obvious metaphor.

And that’s all I have. If anyone can provide more info, send it my way.

In the meantime, check out Fingers in the Noise on SoundCloud, MySpace and LastFM, or at his own website, www.fingersinthenoise.com

Recommended tracks: Noctambulatoire; Vent du Nord; Today It’s Raining Noise

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Q&A: Guido Henkel (part 1)

As I’ve mentioned before, on more than one occasion, when it came to the finished product (ie my novel) I dug my heels in, got real fussy. Not just the words themselves, but also the cover – my designer didn’t just lob over a PDF and say ‘Take it or leave it, pencil boy’. We had to think about what would work and what wouldn’t. It involved trial and error, until we arrived at something we could both be proud of.

Formatting the interior of your ebook requires the same care and attention. Most readers, I would say, will spot one or two spelling mistakes in a book (I know I do, but then again, that’s what I do for a living). They might even forgive this. However, if you present people with text that doesn’t flow properly, which has breaks in all the wrong places, the game is up. Technology is great when it works, when it behaves itself, but if it refuses there are few experiences more frustrating. And the last thing you want is to interrupt the flow of the reading experience, to remind people that they haven’t been transported to the lands of your imagination, but are in fact struggling with an ebook that thinks it’s okay to break lines everywhere and to have the occasional blank page for no particular reason.

When the time came I knew I couldn’t mess about – I had to think big. I did my research and quickly found someone whose CV speaks for itself – Guido Henkel. His website informed me that he had formatted more than 200 ebooks for a range of clients, which was a major box ticked. I checked out his prices (very reasonable) and dropped him an email, thinking that he would be either too busy or wouldn’t want to deal with little people like me. Wrong – busy he might be, but he was keen to help. Tick. And I couldn’t be happier with the finished product – the text flows perfectly, the pages behave exactly as they should, and Guido even corrected a few more typos that I spotted. Tick, tick and tick.

Now that my perfectly formatted novel is out in the world, I thought that fellow writers – especially those about to publish – might be interested to hear some of Guido’s thoughts on ebook preparation. And just so you know, he was very generous with his responses, so I’ve decided to split the post into two parts.

Everyone, I give you formatting expert and all-round good guy, Mr Guido Henkel.

GuidoHenkel_BW smallHi Guido, welcome. Can you start by telling me a bit about your background and what brought you to ebook formatting?

I am a game developer originally – a designer of computer games and a programmer who had his start in the earliest days of home computing on the Apple II. I’ve been a programmer ever since and have always enjoyed the technical aspects of game development.

A few years ago I wrote and published a series of supernatural mysteries taking place in Victorian England called Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter and began looking into publishing opportunities. It was at the time when ebooks were on the cusp of existence. Amazon had just released the Kindle and made it possible for authors to self-publish their books. I instantly jumped at the opportunity, of course, and fully embraced it, but as I mingled with other authors at the time I also realised that virtually none of them had the technical wherewithal necessary to actually create quality ebooks. Most used a word processor and exported the ebook from there, flooding the market with books that had no proper formatting, didn’t follow common typography and were brimming with technical errors and bugs.

Because of my technical background all of that was second nature to me. Also, in another life I was actually a trained typesetter. That made it easy for me to tackle the challenges and problems from a very different angle than most other authors, creating solutions that were more stable and cross-device compatible.

Eventually I turned that experience into a blog series, and subsequently into the book Zen of eBook Formatting, while also offering ebook formatting as a paid service to fellow authors and publishers.

What, in your opinion, are the main problems that cause ebooks to display poorly, and how can they be overcome?

The main problem is two-fold: not only do you have enormous fragmentation in the market, but, in addition, most authors/publishers do not know how to deal with the problems this creates. Many are not even aware that problems exist.

With ebooks going mainstream, suddenly people are reading books on a wide range of devices, from tiny cell phones to hyper-resolution tablets and desktop computers – and anything in between. Ebook formats were never created with this in mind, and have serious limitations that means it is hard to actually make books look good on such a wide variety of device capabilities and display sizes.

In addition, every device manufacturer uses a different approach to handle certain features. They support entirely different feature sets or code implementations and have firmware bugs in every device, many of which are never addressed.

It takes a lot of technical know-how to understand these differences and to write ebook code that handles all these circumstances and eventualities properly. It is not an easy task and it’s getting harder every day.

To make the problem even worse, distributors such as Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble do not allow you to target specific devices. Therefore it is imperative that you create ebooks that will display properly on every single Kindle implementation, from the very first Kindle to the latest Kindle Fire HD, to the Android cell phone implementation and all the way to the Mac OSX desktop version of the Kindle software reader. Things would be a lot easier if we could make specific builds for specific devices, so that features could be implemented in the best possible way for each device, but alas it’s not possible. So we constantly have to juggle smallest common denominators instead of actually pushing the technology forward.

Now, when you create an ebook you are expected to know and understand all of this, and have the means in your repertoire to safely handle all these differences. Simply hitting an ‘export’ button in a word processor or InDesign will not do the job. They will create an epub file for you, but only in theory, because the resulting file is going to be incompatible with half the devices on the market.

So, in the end, the biggest mistake people make is assuming that it is easy, that the ‘export’ function will do all the work for them. They think it’s straightforward. It is not, and the waters get murkier with every new device and firmware upgrade. For many, the subject quickly becomes too overwhelming and technical, which is fine. You’re a writer, not a tech expert. That’s where professionals like myself come into play, because we are actively working on solutions that we can then use in our client projects.

I think that publishing a book on formatting is a great idea because it puts more control in authors’ hands. It means that whenever they spot any errors or need to make other changes, this can be done quickly and with minimum fuss. What has the reaction to your book been like?

Zen of eBook Formatting has been an extension of the blog tutorial I wrote a number of years ago. I was surprised by the tremendous feedback the series received and how it quickly became the de-facto standard for countless self-published authors to format their books. However, technology had evolved, so it was time to cover the new aspects of ebook formatting and to dive into certain areas in more detail – ebooks have become a lot fancier than they first were, and I wanted to cater to that.

Just like with the blog series, the response to Zen has been tremendous and it always fills me with joy to hear that my instructions have empowered authors and enabled them to create their own ebooks. And not only create them, but fashion them in a professional manner to get a product they can be truly proud of, instead of having to apologise to readers for the countless issues and formatting errors.

Even if they read the book and feel it’s way over their head, it helps them understand some of the intricacies of ebook formatting, as well as the most common pitfalls.

(Part two to follow.)

You can find out more about Guido and his work at guidohenkel.com

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Room temperature: what’s playing in the nest

Some people like silence when they create. Others prefer music that stimulates them, perhaps forming an aural backdrop to the piece they’re working on. I’m somewhere in between: often I need the nest to be quiet; sometimes I need gentle caressing; at other times I will have cobwebs that need to be blown away – at volume. So, in the first of a new series, here’s what’s been filling my writing room this week.

Louigi Verona

Mr Verona (whose given name is Kirill Alferov, and, at the time of posting, is living in Moscow) does it for me in a big way. His tracks are mostly long, almost textural, and never fail to settle my often-tetchy writing temperament. They are perfect for those times when you need something going on in the background, but don’t want to be distracted. Something that helps you to focus.

Alternatively, if you’re in need of a break, stick on the headphones and lie down on the floor for a bit. Get inside it. This is relaxing, contemplative stuff, like a flotation tank for the brain.

As the man himself says of Life in the Troposphere (playing time 46:09), “The composition is a lot about hovering, visualizing sound and observation.” I’m not arguing with that.

I don’t have a great deal of info about the artist, which sort of adds to the appeal, but apparently he is also part of an organisation called the Skeptic Society in Russia that promotes science and critical thinking. He also has an interesting take on copyright, saying, “I do not believe I have any right to tell people what to do with my works, once they are published.” A fluid approach, it seems, to the creative process – which seems perfectly in line with this kind of music.

You can read about Louigi Verona and his work here

And free tracks to download and get you started can be found at LastFM

What have you been listening to as you get creative? I’m always on the lookout for new sounds, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, doesn’t actually make sense.

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Q&A: Steven Baird

I always check out the ‘likes’ on my blog and, recently, one of them led me to a first-time novelist from Canada, now living in Virginia – Steven Baird. I say first-time novelist, but that isn’t exactly true. In fact, it’s not even remotely true. Steven has been writing since the age of ten, and has so far written in the region of 12 novels. What I meant to say is that he’s tried the traditional route to publishing, and even came close once or twice, but is now trying his hand at self-publishing with the release of Ordinary Handsome, which he describes as a ghost story … sort of.

I was intrigued, and thought it would be great to hook up with Steven and ask him a few questions. The internet is awash with invaluable information from successful indie publishers, which is fantastic, but being a newbie myself, I wanted to hear what’s it like from someone else just starting out. So, make yourselves comfortable…

You started Ordinary Handsome 30 years ago, then revisited it three years ago. It must have been exciting when you realised that there was still a strong idea to work with.
I approached with a clean slate. It’s a completely different novel. I very much liked the idea of a man steeped in guilt and how he handles it. That was the core of the first version. In Handsome, Jimmy Wheat, who was the original protagonist, has become the catalyst. And he doesn’t handle the guilt so much as the guilt handles him. He’s not even the main character. And, now that I’m older, I approached the writing with a quieter voice. The younger me tended to shout.

Tell me a little about the book.
Fifty-seven years ago, a boy named Euart Monroe Wasson was killed in a hit-and-run. The driver – Jimmy Wheat – was a small-time thief shaking off pursuit. Except … fifty-seven years later, the boy shows up at the nursing home where Wheat resides, carrying a shotgun and hobo mattress and blows a hole in the old man’s guts. Did Euart survive? Is the old man dreaming, or hallucinating as his life wraps up? What really happened on the night of the accident?

The town of Handsome, Oklahoma is on the edge of becoming a ghost town, with desperate men who bury their mistakes. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters and their unrelated deeds, threading a tragic tapestry of loss and grief.

I’d call Ordinary Handsome a ghost story, but not in the traditional sense. There are a couple of lines near the end that really stood out for me: “Grief is the impetus of ghosts, not death. Death is silent; grief roars.” Each of the characters has lost something and is in the process of grieving, though they’re not aware of it.

SteveBairdIn the past you have found revising and editing your work a bit of a chore – what’s different about Ordinary Handsome that has kept you focused?
The story. It kept surprising me. I had four or five different ways to end it, but used none of them. It’s one of the greatest thrills of writing, when things connect in ways you weren’t even aware of, never mind planned. I let the characters do their thing. I knew them well enough to trust that I was on the right path. I really like the idea of using unreliable narrators, having them tell their side of the story, the story they want you to hear. The deeper you get into these characters, the more you start seeing their flaws and contradictions. For me, that’s the pure joy of writing.

How are you finding the self-publishing process?
It’s very new to me – I’m both excited and nervous as hell about it. Setting up a blog, a Twitter account etc. is an entirely new experience. Self-promotion is a necessity, and, to be honest, very stressful, but I’m slowly learning my way around. Once I get comfortable with it, I’m sure it will be fun. I guess. Right now, though, I’ve got a new novel in mind and it’s hard to find the time to put things to paper. I know things will settle down in time, but right now it’s hard to focus on anything other than seeing Ordinary Handsome finally published.

You say have a new novel that you want to get cracking with, but will you be going through any more of your previous efforts? There may be further treasure hidden away…
My wife keeps mentioning a book I wrote shortly after we were married. It’s pretty intense and violent, about a young serial killer. I listened to a lot of Springsteen while I wrote it – Nebraska, The River, The Ghost of Tom Joad – so it’s got a pretty desperate tone. I know I’ll pick it up again, but not just yet.

Will your next work be in the same genre?
I don’t think so. I really want to write something noir. It’s a very different direction, but I’ve always wanted to try it. It’s a genre that’s easy to parody, so it will be a real challenge. And I think I’ve got a different way to approach it. We’ll see. I think it’ll be fun.

What inspires you to write?
I really don’t know. A thought will come into my head and I’ll examine it for a while, see if it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t. A lot of my process is just thinking it through before I even start physically writing. It’s not planning, it’s just figuring it out.

Do you have a writing routine, or do you just grab the opportunity when you can?
I probably break all the rules for a writing routine. I know I should have one, but I write when I have the time and I’m completely focused. I take notes and think about a project. One of the first things I did when I started Ordinary Handsome was draw a map of the town. It was important. And very useful because I knew the geography was going to play a role. Sometimes I wish I did have a routine, but I’ve never found one that works for me. Or maybe I’m just lazy and undisciplined.

You’re a graphic designer by trade – will you be tempted to add interactive elements in future novels?
Probably not. My writing is a separate thing for me. I want it to stand on its own. I’m an amateur photographer, so I can see some of my photos sneaking in.

Finally, I always like to ask – read any good books lately?
I just finished The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. I love the tone, the language. Impeccable writing. Before that, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Beautifully crafted and heartbreaking. Next, probably some Stephen King. Maybe Pet Sematary … I have a weakness for King.

Many thanks to Steven for answering my questions, and I wish him the very best with all his future writing endeavours. Ordinary Handsome is scheduled for release on 1 November.

Steven can be found blogging – and showing off some of his photography skills – at www.ordinaryhandsome.wordpress.com
 

 

 

 

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Train of thought

Last night we had the final of the Great British Bake Off. For those of you not of these shores, it’s another ‘reality’ show, in this case a baking competition. The clue is in the title. And I gather the franchise is going international, so be prepared. Anyway, the winner was a nice lady from Hull, the dark horse of the show, I guess, in the sense that most people seemed to think one of the other two finalists would win.

So, well done, Nancy. We love an underdog.

Now for the link to writing. On the packed commuter train into London this morning I was squeezed in next to a young couple who, I immediately found out, worked together in a sales centre. I know this because the girl’s face was so close to mine that I was effectively part of the conversation. And I can’t be sure, but we might even have started dating.

They seemed a pleasant enough couple, chit-chatting away, leaning in for some harmless early-morning intimacy that might have been a ruse on her part to make me jealous, because technically she was also my girlfriend now as well (this is how novels start). But then she said something that really, really got under my skin. And I’m British, remember – we tend to cut offensive behaviour quite a bit of slack.

“Nancy is so old,” she said. “What’s the point of giving her the title – what’s she going to do with it?”

Holy smoke. I dumped the girl on the spot. We are no longer an item.

SpongeBackground: Nancy is 60, a grandmother. Been baking all her life, a worthy competition winner. What’s she going to do with it? Damn well enjoy the moment, and whatever comes after, one would hope.

Now I’m not 60, but I ain’t 25 either. I left writing this novel late because I was busy doing other things – you know, life etc – but imagine if someone had tapped their watch on my thirtieth birthday and said, “Five more years, maybe ten, then we’re giving the chance to publish to someone else. Look lively.”

Amazon is getting plenty of flack at the moment for being a huge, publishing industry-gobbling monster that will destroy authors’ careers and decimate the cultural landscape. You may or may not agree with that statement. Personally, I don’t. Indie publishing has opened doors to so many people – young and old – who would never have had a chance to see their efforts in print. I’m one of them. Now I’m delighted that the reaction to my book has been really positive, but even if that were not the case, being able to get it out there is a source of immense pride. Not smugness, just simple, personal satisfaction. It took a lot of hard work and now I’ve started the whole process again. Because I can. Because we all can.

Hopefully the novel will be out before I’m collecting my pension. But if it were to take another two decades, so what? It might turn out to be a Tolstoyesque classic of deep worth and with a mind-boggling word count. Unlikely, but not impossible. Finding out along the way will be part of the pleasure. And when it comes out I’ll be older, probably not much wiser, but still in the game. Still being creative, and that’s the most important part.

So, my ex-girlfriend on the train, remember this: you will not be in your early twenties forever. Hopefully your life will blossom and you will find fulfilment in whatever it is that you choose to do. With any luck your achievements will make you and your loved ones proud. But let’s hope that if you finally decide a life in sales doesn’t make you complete and that you want to test yourself by creating something (a work of art, a business, a family), you don’t come up against someone tapping their watch and barring your way, saying, “Sorry, too late.”

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