Fortnightly Round-Up – 10th June 2017

Well, it’s been a very quiet and uneventful fortnight… just kidding, of course! I probably got too loud and obnoxious for those who are not politically inclined, including on Twitter, but I am over it now.

General Update

What fun we had with the General Election here in the UK on the 8th of June! Faced with such a bad campaign from my own MP (known as Prime Minister Theresa May to others), I was tempted to think she didn’t want the job. Except she obviously does, because she is clinging to it by the skin of her teeth, with an alarming alliance which could start up all sorts of nasty processes again in Northern Ireland. A new election before the end of this year seems likely – hugely fatiguing for everybody, especially the voters. You begin to see the attraction of military coups, don’t you, as people start muttering about how much they crave stability…

But this is not a political blog, and on a personal level it has been a fairly quiet and contented time: half-term holidays, a birthday party for my youngest, meeting up with old friends, impromptu flower arrangements. I managed to rescue a few peonies before the storm flattened them and blew away most of their petals. I am becoming most definitely middle-aged…

Book Haul and Writing Update

Aside from the small pile of books I managed to accumulate during my trip to London, I also ordered a few second-hand books from various sources, based upon the recommendations of my fellow bloggers and Tweeters. This is where I get all of my book-buying impulses nowadays!

Roberto Bolano’s quasi-crime novel was praised by one of my fellow Crime Fiction Lover reviewers Phil Rafferty as being one of the books which got him hooked on crime. Yuri Herrera has been reviewed by Tony Malone and Stu Jallen; also, it’s about migration, so that’s three favourites right there… The British Library Crime Classics often throws up interesting little gems and this particular title Family Matters was recently reviewed by Guy Savage. Finally, I succumbed to Miles Franklin’s books following Kim Forrester‘s spirited recommendations of books on Twitter, with a particular emphasis on Australian fiction, which I have read all too little.

I can now tell you about my writing prize for poetry, although I am none the wiser if it was 2nd or 3rd (I do know it wasn’t 1st). It was the Geneva Writers Group Literary Prize, now in its fifth year. This year the judges were Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books for Fiction, Nick Barlay for Non-Fiction and Naomi Shihab Nye for Poetry. And that is the reason I am so super-excited to have won anything at all, since Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favourite contemporary poets and also the person who single-handedly inspired me to go back to writing poetry in 2012, after a couple of decades of neglect.

Blogging Round-Up

I’m having great fun digging up some of the more obscure times from my bookshelves – it amuses my geekish nature and brings back fond memories. Over the past fortnight, I’ve looked at my Japanese collection and my small collection of hardcover books.

Two blog posts which I try to include on a monthly basis are my May Reading Summary and Six Degrees of Separation meme. This time the latter started with a book I hadn’t read, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, so it required some acrobatics to find suitable links.

The blog post that got the most attention this past fortnight was my personal reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent TV adaptation. I was amazed, flattered and humbled by just how many people read it, talked about it, tweeted about it, including many people who had never visited my site before.  Thank you all! It completely smashed my previously modest blogging stats. I seldom get more than just over 100 visits per day (on a good day), but the day I posted that I got 776 and the blog post was viewed nearly 1000 times.

My favourite blog post to write, however, was the simple description of my very enjoyable day out in London.

For those who prefer me when I am less loquacious, however, I also posted two poems: an autumnal one and a military-inspired caper about depression. And of course I continued with my eye candy Fridays of tiny homes and sheds.

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!

 

 

 

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 2)

Walk2This continues yesterday’s ruminations about reading: duty versus pleasure, and where blogging/reviewing fits into all of this. How can I hack/cut my own path through the jungle of publishing PR, excited recommendations and friendly requests? How can I bring quality and fun back into reading, rather than making it a race about quantity and deadlines?

I’ve got a list of New School Year Resolutions, but I’ll start with the most obvious remark. I am NOT a professional reviewer. I do not get paid to read, edit, market, hold a writer’s hand or write reviews – not even for the Crime Fiction Lover website. It’s all a labour of love. I may be a fast reader, but I am a slow reviewer. I want my review to be well-balanced, fair, taking into account that different people might find different aspects of the book appealing. I like to think about larger patterns or themes emerging from my reading. I like to compare writers or different cultures. But all of this takes time – at least a couple of hours per review (pure writing time, without counting the reading and researching).

It’s time I cannot afford to spend anymore on blogging. Much as I love reviewing books, participating in challenges, interacting with you all, reading your thoughts and blogs, responding to comments and commenting on your posts, I just cannot sustain this pace whilst also focusing on my family and my day-job. My writing, above all, has suffered in the process. Which is ironic, because the reason I started blogging in the first place was so I could write something everyday, improve my writing skills, track my progress. Call me a wimp, a wuss, a ‘beer glass of reduced volumic capacity’ (good old Romanian saying), but I have days when I am unable to write anything else after I’ve finished a book review. And, since my mission in life is to write poetry and crime fiction (rather than becoming the most revered or feared book reviewer or the blogger with the most followers and freshly pressed articles), it is clear that things need to change.

Walk1Resolutions:

1) Thou shalt not buy, beg or borrow any more books

… until I’ve finished everything I already own. Or give away the books that do not appeal to me. That means: tie up (or otherwise disable) my trigger-happy finger which keeps clicking the ‘buy’ button on online bookshops (and it’s not just Amazon that makes it very easy to order with one click), or the ‘request/send’ button on sites such as Netgalley.

I am very grateful to publishers who send me free books – even more grateful to those who ask me first which ones appeal to me rather than just randomly selecting some of their latest releases. But I also have to be able to say ‘No’, to be clearer about my reading preferences, and not feel obliged to review everything I’ve been sent (when it’s not been requested by me). I also need to give away those ‘scattergun’ books much, much sooner, and stop hoarding them on the ‘off-chance’ that someday I may change my mind. (It can happen, but far too infrequently and I don’t have the space.)

Walk32) Thou can live without all the books you have ever liked or been interested in

I’ve had to move abroad quite a few times and many of my favourite books got left behind in the process. I still have an attic full of books in the UK – and yes, sometimes I would like to re-read a passage which I am sure I have somewhere up there, but on the whole I can live without them or look them up elsewhere. I have to be more selective about keeping only non-negotiable favourites whom I consult all the time, or rare/unusual/hard to find editions. Even if they were expensive.

And I can also learn to wait before reading the ‘latest buzzes’ – which means I am more likely to find them at the library and need not feel guilty about abandoning them half-way through if they do not meet my expectations.

3) Thou shalt have fun with your reading

… and bring serendipity back into the game. Pick up a random title, author, genre on the bookshelf, something just a little beyond your usual line of sight. I want to read lesser known authors, re-read some of my old favourites from school and university, discover little quiet gems instead of the big brash brass-bands of new releases. Not so much for the sake of standing out from the crowd, but because you get to hear all of that hype anyway, in all kinds of media. Do you really need my take on ‘Gone Girl’ when you can read hundreds of reviews elsewhere? There are so many other good books out there deserving a mention, perhaps ones which have been published a while ago but got very little exposure, or authors who have fallen out of favour.

Walk44) Thou shalt be brave and honest

I won’t like all books that I’ve been sent, that I’ve borrowed or bought. A perfectly decent cover, blurb and opening paragraph may suddenly turn into the nightmare read from hell halfway through the book. I know some reviewers who make it a policy to not review a book unless they loved it and can recommend it to others. I can understand this all too well: so much time and effort (blood, sweat, caffeine and tears) has gone into writing and publishing a book that anyone with a writer’s heart will feel uncomfortable criticising it. But if we were all to follow this rule, there would be no warning signs at all on books and we’d soon get very disappointed as a reader, feeling we’d been conned into buying books we simply cannot care about.

This is especially hard when you are reviewing books by people you consider friends (whether you’ve met them in person or only online). I have a huge sense of loyalty to anyone who’s ever been nice to me. When it’s a debut that I did not get on with, I’ve been known to email the author and say: ‘Would you rather I didn’t review it at all, because I can only give it 1-2 stars?’ Because I do believe that debut authors deserve some encouragement, a second chance. I’ve also been known to revert to what the French call the ‘wooden language’ of diplomacy. It’s useful to know perhaps that ‘fast-paced page-turner’ means ‘not much substance’, while ‘an assortment of quirky characters’ usually means ‘far too long cast list of flat stereotypes’.

From now on, I will be honest. Still fair and balanced, still bearing in mind that we are all different and like a huge variety of things, but no more beating around the bush if a book did not appeal to me. Although I may let any author friend know in private rather than posting a scathing review without informing them. And there will be no sarcasm for the sake of showing off my superior critical abilities – when I haven’t even finished writing my first novel!

Walk55) Thou shalt be guided by mood, the colour of the sky and the call of the wild

… but it will not be all aimless wandering. When you reach a certain age, it’s all too easy to turn into a curmudgeon and say ‘I know what I want and like, so that’s what I’ll read’. I want to continue to broaden my reading tastes, in a gentle rather than a forced way. I want to explore new countries, new authors.

So here are some concrete changes you will notice on my blog:

  • I won’t review everything I read, just the books which stand out for me, or which fit into a theme, and probably not more frequently than 1-2 review per week. And that includes the 1-2 books a month which I will be reviewing for other sites.
  • I won’t boast anymore about my latest bookhauls. Although I love hearing what other people are getting and reading, in far too many cases it turns out to be a sort of free book promotion for publishers and authors. I’d rather tweet about that, rather than dedicate a blog post to it.
  • I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon anymore with the latest releases. You may find I review things a couple of years later, after the hoopla has died down. Or talk about authors you’ve only vaguely heard of. Or introduce you to authors I’d like to see translated into English. But rules are made to be broken, so I can’t promise that I won’t fall for a bit of hype from time to time!
  • Post less frequently but more substantially (although I may still succumb to the temptation of pictures of libraries, bookshelves, writers’ studies and interior design). Write more poetry, prose and other posts about writing in general. And sorry, but I cannot stick to a set weekly routine of posts… It will be haphazard as ever, following the call of the wild…

 

Thank you all for your kind tweets and comments on Part 1 of this post yesterday, and for your patience for my long, self-indulgent rant today. It seems that this conundrum resonates with many of you, so please share your own strategies and coping mechanisms.

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dear Bloggy!

Rainbow Cake from www.migros.ch
Rainbow Cake from http://www.migros.ch

Today my blog turns two – so toddler tantrums are probably on the cards now. So far, it’s been an utter joy and delight, if somewhat demanding of love and attention. Above all, it’s been malleable, unformed one might say. A little bit of everything I happened to fancy or think or want to post.

I started it for purely utilitarian purposes: it would act as an accountability instrument. Force me to gather my thoughts, force me to write (not necessarily post) daily, force me to share with others instead of hiding. In 2 years I’ve posted 310 blog posts, which is on average one new one every 2 1/2 days.

And it’s been successful as an accountability tool. Modest internautic success, but more than enough for me, an unknown name (pseudonym) with no novel yet to my name and just rekindling my passion for poetry after a hiatus of a couple of decades. I didn’t expect many people to find me, read me, let alone comment or follow. Yet around 350 people do – thank you so much! I get an average of 30-35 views per day, although that wonderful dVerse Poets community does bump up my numbers every time I link one of my poems to their site. My most successful month ever was August 2013, when I was writing solidly (at my novel, at my poetry and at my blog, triple whammy) for at least 8 hours a day. So quantity and practice does make a difference. Building tribes and platforms? Pah! I leave that to those writers who have actual published books to sell. At the moment, I’m just too excited exploring.

I love the international reach of the blog. The vast majority of views do come from the US (more than 9000 – so much for claims that Americans do not read!), with the UK limping in second place with only 5000, followed by France, Greece and Canada. I do wonder what the lone person from Mauritius and Syria thought when they came across my blog… I wish them well, in their very different, probably much more difficult worlds.

www.designscapeuk.com
http://www.designscapeuk.com

The most popular topics on my blog are roughly what I expected: poems, poetry and book reviews, but I am very much amused by the search terms most used for finding me. David Foster Wallace, Tawara Machi and Poetry Workshop are all rather surprising entrants into the Top 5, but the one in the top spot will have all those who know me snorting with laughter. Are you ready for it? It’s Country gardens. Now, although I love beautiful houses and gardens, I am a very inexperienced and clumsy gardener. In fact, I have the opposite of green thumbs and manage to cheerfully kill off any plant that I buy or receive as a present. So it’s rather ironic! I hope those who are diverted to my website via this term are not too horrified by what they find here instead!

My Blogging Anniversary

anniversary-1xWordPress wished me Happy Birthday today.  Yes, it’s been exactly one year since I created this blog, although (ironically, given its title) I did not find time to post anything until the 7th of February, 2012.

I was not new to blogging.  I had been writing a blog on my professional website for 2-3 years.  But it was professional, neutral, business-like… bar an occasional foray into the vicissitudes of expat life.  It was a blog I was very keen to promote and market, as it was a way to let prospective clients know what I was doing.

This writing blog was something I was very reluctant to share with anybody else.  I started it mainly as a personal challenge.  A means of holding myself accountable for giving pride of place to the thing that means so much to me in my life. Namely, writing.  That thing which I have, nevertheless, always placed last in my list of priorities.  Perhaps because I love it so much (even when it is painful and difficult), that it feels like sheer self-indulgence to be dedicating so much time to it.  How could I possibly be selfish enough to write, when there are so many other claims on my time: money-making, laundry, children, husband, parents, friends, acquaintances, schools, society, the wider world?

Antarctica So this blog was my little stake of selfishness that I drove into the permafrost of obligation and strict scheduling that my life had become.  And I have been selfish in the way I present this blog: whatever comes into my mind, with no rhyme or reason, posting whenever I can and feel like it, following no rules.

Anything else – being read, receiving comments, making friends – has been a surprising and wonderful bonus.

For those who like facts and figures, here are some of the stats which delighted or dismayed me this past year:

  • I have had 10,500 views over the past year.  Many, many more than I ever expected.
  • I have received 1,477 comments (well, OK, probably most of them are mine, replying to your comments) – but it is humbling to find that people take the time not only to read and ‘like’ something, but also to provide such insightful andor supportive comments.
  • I have had visitors from 106 countries – so exciting for a global nomad such as myself! – with the most visitors from the US, then UK, France, Canada, Greece and Germany.
  • My most popular post was certainly not what I expected – the rather snarky, opinionated post entitled Most Overrated Books.  Meanwhile, my poor little anti-Valentine’s Day poem only got one view.  So, should I understand that my readers are hard-nosed realists and critics, with a hidden romantic tremor?

But what these statistics do not show is my gratitude to all of you, who have given me such a wonderful sense of community, who have put up with far too frequent postings followed by long periods of silence, who have stayed with me despite a lack of consistent theme.  It’s been a wonderful first year of blogging, and thank you for making it just that!

ThankYou

 

 

Thank You

Thank you all for your encouragement and warm comments and hugs.  I can’t answer each one individually (this ancient desktop is far too slow for that, every time I refresh something, it starts churning with alarming sound effects), but do know that I really appreciate your support.

The info loss is worse than I expected. While all my professional work has been systematically saved and filed, my creative writing output has suffered a more haphazard fate.  (What does that tell you about my priorities? Sadly.) My novel is mostly there, but all I can say is: thank goodness I have posted most of my poems (or some version of them) here on the blog…

Gone fishing…

… for pesky adverbs, overemphatic descriptions and stilted dialogues, that is.  I am going away on holiday and will not have access to email, Twitter, Facebook or WordPress.  In short, none of the comforts and distractions of present-day life.  So I can dedicate myself whole-heartedly to the children, the beach and editing my first draft.

Or so I thought.  Then, slowly, slowly, other (professional) obligations started creeping up on me, including a few things that I had promised to do before the holidays but never got around to doing.  And some enjoyable tasks, such as reading my friend Cristian Mihai’s first novel Jazz, and then preparing to grill him in an interview.

So now it looks like I’ll be lucky to get any rest over the next few weeks…

However, you will get a rest.  From me.  And my very prolific (and no, I do not mean proficient) blogging.

Should you be suffering from withdrawal symptoms, however, here are a few that I made earlier:

1) Book review – the one that started it all

‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

2) Poetry – two of my personal favourites

Things I Have Lost

Then and Now

3) Flash fiction

Harness

4) Random musing and waffling

Developing the Creative Habit

The Angel and Edna (Part 1)

And if it’s popularity that you are after, this seems to be my most popular blog post of all time.

Thank you for bringing so much joy and understanding to my life, my dear readers. Have a wonderful holiday if you can and hear/read you all again in three weeks’ time!

Gone fishing in the sea…