Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections

Two recent blog posts which talked very candidly about blogging got me thinking about the ‘cookie-cutter’ blogging advice out there. These posts are by people who put their writing first, above ‘content creation’. Most of the blogging advice seems to come from social media gurus who want to make money out of their blogs: attract millions of subscribers and therefore feature big advertisers on their sites.

AnneRAllenThe first post is by Anne R. Allen: she openly acknowledges how following advice very nearly destroyed her blog, her credibility as an author (and her health).

People will subscribe and come back if you are engaging and fun. It’s much more important to be friendly and have something interesting to offer than it is to have the right keywords, post frequency, or wordcount.

Networking with other bloggers will probably be your number one source of traffic when you’re starting out. That means making friends, not tricking people.

  • A blog shouldn’t become more important than your WIP
  • Blog to make friends, not sales.
  • For a writer, good writing is more important than SEO.
  • Manipulating people may get short-term results, but it’s a bad idea in the long run.

lucyAs for those who are confused by the contradictory blogging advice which they hear: ‘blog as frequently as possible’ vs. ‘don’t blog everyday, you will only overwhelm people’, here are some lessons learnt by Lucy (aka Blonde Write More), who challenged herself to blog every single day for a year on her blog . Lucy was successful with this strategy and won ‘Funniest Blog Award’ for two consecutive years, but she embarked upon this challenge predominantly for herself. To find her own writing mojo, as it were. Aside from the focus and discipline that the daily blogging required, it also helped her find her creative direction – the kind of writing she most enjoyed doing, find out what she was best at and what she was happiest sharing with others.

Oh, and she doesn’t intend to keep up the daily habit… She will now cut it down to 4 days a week (which still feels like a LOT), in order to spend more time on her creative writing. Daily blogging is not sustainable in the long run.

So this got me thinking about my own blogging. It’s no mystery that I started it for accounting and accountability purposes: to force myself to write something every day (not necessarily post something every day). But it achieved that goal within the first year of its existence. I have now returned to writing with a vengeance. I dream, eat, sleep, breath writing (and reading) – although, sadly, not always actual writing on my novel.

So why continue with it?

Pictureportrait
Portrait of me drawn by a charming, kind fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group during one of our workshops.

My blog is quite a shambles from the POV of ‘blogging gurus’. It has no clear focus or purpose. It doesn’t bark, but nor does it meow and pur and rub against you. It is neither a pure book reviewing blog, nor an author’s blog. It sometimes gets political and at other times embarrassingly personal. I have no intention of ever monetizing my blog, or using it to obtain freebies such as clothes, make-up, concert tickets or holidays. [Although, if you know anyone who is willing to trade a writing retreat for a write-up, please pass them on to me…] I don’t really believe that it will increase the sales of my book considerably when I (finally!) publish it. I never expected to have so much content, so I should probably tidy it up a bit and make it easier to find older posts by topic. It’s incredibly bushy looking at the moment!

However, it gives me two wonderful benefits:

  • A community of articulate, book-loving people with whom I can debate the finer points of a character’s unreliability without being regarded as a freak. I was going to say ‘like-minded’ people, but we are not clones, we all think and feel differently about things (in spite of some general commonality of spirit). The main point is we can debate them in a respectful and supportive way, without name-calling, and are always open to learn from one another. This is far, far less common nowadays than one might think.
  • It gives me an outlet to practise different types of writing, experiment, get some feedback. It’s an online writing group to a certain extent – especially valuable when I am in the process of moving and not sure that I will find a writing group in the Thames Valley area which will be as active and friendly as the Geneva Writers Group.

Above all, it’s poison and antidote in one. It may occasionally stand in the way of my freshest, best writing on my WIP, but it also assuaged my guilt on those days when the words refused to make their appearance. Or appeared in disguise, the rogues! Surely any writing, even if it’s dressed up as a pirate, a one-eyed cowboy, a serpent in the grass, is better than none at all…

***

So, here are my resolutions. After a break at the end of July and perhaps most of August this year, I will return to the blog with a more manageable schedule (perhaps 3 posts a week, so I can focus on my writing). I will continue to blog about whatever takes my fancy, but will make more of an effort to group them into categories such as: original work; book reviews and bookish thoughts; random rants. Fear not, escapism will continue to feature heavily in here!

 

 

 

Twenty Years After in Cecile’s Writers’ Magazine

I don’t usually celebrate my publications on my blog [And why exactly don’t I? That is a subject for another day.], but I do want to share this one with you. I am very pleased that Cecile’s Writers’ Magazine has just published one of the poems which has meant the most to me, Twenty Years After.

This is a poem I wrote three years ago in a sudden fit of inspiration on a business trip to London. The first draft of it is here. It’s about the person I fell in love with during my first year as a student in the UK, someone who broke my heart. I’d forgotten or buried the memory for many years, and have never seen that person again, but revisiting the Barbican brought it all back. On a frozen winter day, we’d practised our ballroom dancing on its empty terraces, just before going to a theatre performance. As the snowflakes started to fall around us, I thought I’d met the love of my life. Now, older and wiser, I know that life is constant flow. And so is love.

I’m really pleased it’s this particular magazine, which I’ve been reading online for a few years now, because I really admire its mission of interculturalism, more important than ever in today’s world. So, if you want to hear some international voices, all united by a love of the English language, do join me there.

Barbican Centre, from euron.co.uk
Barbican Centre, from euron.co.uk

Remembering Villeferry

Villeferry is the name of the tiny village where we had our writing retreat last week. L’Atelier Writers is the brainchild of writers Michelle Bailat-Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, who did their MFA together in the US ten years ago. Now all of them are busy working mothers as well as writers, so they know just how difficult it is to find the right physical and mental space to dedicate yourself to writing, especially long forms of writing such as novels. They found a quiet place in the Bourgogne, a grouping of restored village houses set on a slope, and offer the perfect mix of quirkiness, tranquility, emotional support and bookish discussion.

We had mornings and afternoons dedicated to the lonely pursuit of word count and polishing of drafts, lively lunchtime discussions of craft and goal-setting, plus readings and literary parlour games in the evening. I rediscovered the joy of writing and of community. It was just what I needed at this difficult period of transition in my life and has made me more determined than ever.

I am tempted to keep it all a secret, so that it maintains its cosy, intimate feel in years to come. Here are some pictures to show you what ‘appalling’ conditions I had to work in…

Our lounge for evening readings
Our lounge for evening readings
The golden bridge to more books above the lounge
The golden bridge to more books above the lounge
Lots of space to work outside in the orchard
Lots of space to work outside in the orchard
Dining room and coffee area, more to delight booklovers...
Dining room and coffee area, more to delight booklovers…
Breakfast terrace, one of the few spots with WiFi access.
Breakfast terrace, one of the few spots with WiFi access.
Inside the breakfast room
Inside the breakfast room
Gentle landscape filled with Charolais cows
Gentle landscape filled with Charolais cows (not visible in this picture)
My magical Sleeping Beauty (Writing Average-Looker) Room.
My magical Sleeping Beauty (Writing Average-Looker) Room.
A Room of One's Own
A Room of One’s Own
View from my window
View from my window
Lots of these visitors, a falsh of white bobtail making me want to shout 'Peter Rabbit' after them
Lots of these visitors, a flash of white bobtail making me want to shout ‘Peter Rabbit’ after them
One last view of our reading and discussion room, with magnificent terrace and books to suit every taste (in all languages)
One last view of our reading and discussion room, with magnificent terrace and books to suit every taste (in all languages)
Couldn't resist the obvious metaphor: this opened doors in my mind
Couldn’t resist the obvious metaphor: this opened doors in my mind

When Things Fall Off Your Plate…

Are you one of life’s gourmands when it comes to a buffet dinner? Do you eat too much simply because it is displayed there in front of you?

From examiner.com
From examiner.com

In the buffet of life and activities, I certainly tend to be greedy (for fear of missing out on something) and pile my plate up high. I commit to far too many activities, help far too many people, combine things in spectacular fashion (things which are perhaps best left uncombined)…

Not all of it is my own free choice, of course. Some of the things on my plate are the boring administrative details which simply need to be dealt with: the napkins, cutlery and cups of the buffet, perhaps. (Yes, I’m determined to extend this metaphor like a rubber band!) And before people tell me that the housework can wait and cake-baking for the end of year school fair is not compulsory… I’ve given up on those things long ago!

Other goodies on my plate benefit my children – because they too have the right to a happy life and a supportive mother when they are doing exciting things for the first time, such as participating in a professional theatre production (opening night tonight, break a leg!) or doing a fundraising run for charity. If I were to compare it to meat and two vegetables for dinner, I would say the meat is my writing, the potato is my day job and the more exciting vegetable is my family (perhaps asparagus, as they are tall and skinny?). Of course, being both a gourmet (fan of quality) and a gourmand (fan of quantity), I also add liberal lashings of cheese, additional vegetables, fruit, desserts, wine and so much more: blogging, tweeting, voluntary work for Geneva Writers’ Group, keeping up with friends and visiting all the places I know I will miss once I leave this area…

From amazingcircusworkshops.com
From amazingcircusworkshops.com

Most of the time, it just about works and I can carefully balance the plate all the way back to the table, sit down and enjoy it with gusto. However, if just one element of this precarious edifice fails or is missing… if the internet and phone don’t work, if a babysitter cancels, if a child falls ill, if a scheduled workshop date gets postponed… it just takes one minor, tiny, apparently insignificant detail to go wrong, then this happens…

Scarred on the battlefield with internet service providers, your dedicated war correspondent is signing off here before using language which may be too colourful for the time of day you are reading this!

What Does Your Ideal Creation Look Like?

This was a fun exercise at Isabel Huggan’s writing workshop (or playtime, as she called it) last Saturday. What would the perfect work of literature (which you aspire to write) look like? We had a wonderful variety of answers in the room (some referring to poetry, others to memoir, others to short stories, still others to novels): a flower to be appreciated with all your senses; a cryptic crossword puzzle to tease, intrigue and engage the reader; climbing a pole; inviting a guest for tea in your house, they can only know what you choose to show them, they cannot rifle through your drawers…

Here is my answer – which probably explains why I write crime fiction.

skiing

My Ideal Novel

It’s an exhilarating run down the perfect piste. When you forget about rules, about bending your knees and the aches in your joints, you just become rhythm and flow, natural as breathing. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s cloudy, snow may obscure your view… But you are free, you stay away from the crowds and there is no fear in being alone.

The thrill of no limits waxes you, the comfort of the familiar swooshing sound weans you, high speed and sense of danger pumps up your adrenaline, yet you always feel just within your control.

All you know is you want to reach the bottom in one piece, but you’re happy to let twists, turns, bumps and snow conditions surprise you. No matter how dark or despairing you feel to start out with, some inner joy grabs you as you hurtle and gather speed, until you cannot deny the gravitational pull anymore.

 

Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com

 

Where to Bury the Dead

At the weekend, I did a little field trip to check the accuracy of my chosen ‘body dumping’ site in my WIP. I took plenty of pictures to share with you and am already starting to feel a little homesick for these landscapes, even though I haven’t left them yet… Tentative quotes from relevant passages precede each picture.

They’d left the motorway and were climbing higher and higher into the Jura.

WIP6

 

The road was a tangle of crazed twists, and Melinda was glad she wasn’t the one driving.

WIP3

 

In spring and summer the road would be teeming with motorcyclists who believed they were training for vertical Moto GP…

WIPbikes

 

There was no barrier to protect you from the sheer drop below, only those pathetic red sticks to mark the road in case of snowfall.

WIP5

 

They thought this might be the forest path they’d taken the previous day…

WIP2

 

‘We’ll have to leave the car and head there on foot…’

WIP4

 

They found a ditch between two long bushes, the perfect place to leave their burden.

WIP1