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!

 

 

 

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

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

 

Impossible Choices and Alternative Endings

quaispolar16Only a few more days to go before the Quais du Polar (Crime Festival) kicks off in Lyon and I am trying to create an events schedule. Really tough choices, as so many events I’m interested in are taking place at the same time in entirely different locations. So, let me ask you, what would you choose between:

  1. An Hour with Jo Nesbo       vs.     Women in Crime Fiction (with Sara Gran, Jax Miller, Dolores Redondo, LS Hilton, Philippe Jaenada)
  2. Urban Locations in Crime Fiction (with Donato Carrisi, Walter Lucius, Carlos Zanon, Richard Price and Michele Rowe)      vs.    New Wave Brits (JJ Connolly, Jessica Cornwell, SJ Watson, James Oswald, LS Hilton)
  3. An Hour with David Peace     vs.    Crime Fiction from Quebec
  4. An Hour with Arnaldur Indridason        vs.    New World/Old Continents (with Parker Bilal, Colin Niel, Caryl Ferey, Olivier Truc, Nairi Nahapetian)

The other topic which has preoccupied me this Easter weekend was alternative endings to much-loved classics. My younger son had to write a new ending to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which his class are going to be performing next week). He had Puck taking mercy on Titania and being punished for that by Oberon. Then Titania has a sword fight with Oberon and kills him for his cruelty, but the mortals rush away just in time for the Duke’s wedding. So he’s made a tragedy out of a comedy and left Titania to rule single-handedly over the fairy realm. Which shows he’s either a budding feminist or future crime writer, I suppose!

That had me wondering what endings I would like to see in some other favourites. An alternative Great Gatsby ending is too easy: just look at Tender Is the Night for what would have happened if Gatsby had married Daisy…

Most of the time, I have to admit that the writers of great classics did judge the endings perfectly and the books would have lost of some of their power if they had any different resolutions. However, there are a few exceptions (some of which will raise your hackles, no doubt):

  1. Jane Eyre:  I’d have run away from Mr. Rochester no matter what. Not realistic, perhaps, in those days.
  2. Rebecca: A civilised separation and a settlement to enable the second Mrs. de Winter to live somewhere quietly in a place of her choosing, with equally beautiful rhododendrons and a view of the sea.
  3. Anna Karenina: I’m not for a minute suggesting a happy ending here, but I do think that poor Anna suffers the punishment for adultery, while the men get off scot-free for the most part. I’d like both her husband and Vronsky to suffer, and for her son to grow up in a more loving environment, perhaps with Kitty and Levin.
The ultimate Anna in my eyes: Tatian Samoilova in the Russian version of the film.
The ultimate Anna in my eyes: Tatiana Samoilova in the 1967 Russian version of the film.

 

Search for a Title

My WIP is saved in a folder on my laptop under the fetching title ‘Something’. That’s because I couldn’t think of a title (unlike with my first novel, where the title came first), but I didn’t want to faff around searching for temporary solutions.

Now it’s time to start thinking about a title. It’s crime fiction, it’s reasonably dark (not cosy), it’s about revenge gone badly wrong and a sense of waste of youth and not caring enough for other people. So here are some possibilities I brainstormed:

Beyond Revenge
Nobody’s Child         – these two I had to rule out, as there are too many identical book titles out there

Stop for Nobody
Nobody’s Son
No Revenge Too Bitter
Bitter Ever After

Then I mined the expat angle:

The Cosmopolitans (misleading, sounds like cocktails)
The Expat Circle (tame)
The Internationalists (sounds like non-fiction)

Perhaps I should go for proven successes:

The Girl with the Lover, the Coke and the Secret

So, do you have any favourites from those mentioned above? Or any better suggestions? Here is a little beginning of a synopsis if you want to help me brainstorm.

Synopsis Alive, Alive-Oh!

Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult? I’ve written book reviews of other people’s books (and one of an imaginary book when I was in Primary 3 and hadn’t bothered to read anything suitable during the Easter holidays). I’ve written blurb-like teasers under the misguided impression that this was what an editor or agent would expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph that I slaved over for hours yesterday:

Melinda is a 40-year-old trailing spouse to a banker husband, Graham, and is finding it difficult to adapt to the expat community in Geneva. A dreamy mathematician of Romanian origin who turned accountant to accommodate the family, she does not have the right background or social skills to blend in well with the snobbish environment she encounters.

Yawn! See what I mean? Too much back story and it sounds vaguely like an autobiography (except I’m neither mathematician nor accountant, nor is my husband a banker). Besides, the book doesn’t really start there. It starts with a death. Of course it does, it’s crime fiction after all. So my question is: when you start at a certain crisis point in the novel, then move backwards to show how they got to that point, should your synopsis follow the chronological story or the way you’re revealing things gradually on the page?

I spent all day yesterday producing about 300 words of synopsis, which I then deleted in its entirety. [Or at least the part of the day that I wasn’t spending on phoning doctors and researching hospitals for my husband’s stiff shoulder, which he assured me was a serious emergency, until he actually went to see the nurse at his workplace and was told it could wait until the appointment I had already made for him for next week.]

So back to the drawing board today, in-between bouts of picking up a sick child from school and nursing him. Let me try with the ‘following the storyline’ approach. I found a step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis which I think might work for me. The author suggests the following stages:

  1. List your scenes (so you are following the order that you lay them out in the book)
  2. Condense them into a summary (this is where you can lose a lot of the back story)
  3. Enrich it to give a flavour of your style (this is a part which I found missing in most synopsis advice, which is why most examples I read sounded terribly dull)
  4. Check for sense (is it an accurate and honest representation of your novel?)
  5. Reflection (this is where you can test for plotholes or clichés, unrealistic motivation or other flaws)

I can see this is going to take much longer than I’d expected, so I’m glad I’m allowing myself time to do this properly (at least until the end of next week). Here is a first intuitive stab at that opening paragraph again:

Melinda and Rob, two bored expats in Geneva, are attempting a drug-fuelled tryst with a charismatic young gigolo, Max. To their horror, Max has a seizure and dies. Desperate to conceal their affair from their respective partners and afraid that the police will accuse them of manslaughter, they decide to hide the body in nearby woodland. What they don’t know is that Max was also the protegé of Adnan, the king of cocaine in the area, and Rob’s drug supplier.

That’s still not quite right, but a bit more likely to capture my interest. What do you think? For comparison purposes, here is an example of a synopsis of the original Star Wars.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated. Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help.

By the way, if you are looking for a step-by-step critique of synopsis examples, there is a no-nonsense blog called Miss Snark who does just that. Anyone else willing to share their synopsis frustrations or examples?