Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Craft of blogging (5) … How I write my blog slowly

We all blog in our own way I’m sure, but writing a blogpost for me is not very different from any other writing: fiction, short fiction and non-fiction. I know that I need to think about purpose, audience and my main points. And I need to draft it and revise it and revise it again several times. This post is for bloggers who want to think about the process of writing a good post.

People who know me will not be surprised to read that I plan ahead. I have a flexible schedule for my posts that currently takes me to mid-November. I have recently learned that I am a ‘slow-blogger’. This means that I only post about every 5 or 6 days, not every day. (For more on slow blogging you could read the NY Times article: Haste, Scorned: Blogging at a snail’s pace.) Apparently the normal pace is to post every day. I don’t think I have bookish things to write every day. I’m going for quality on this blog. And sometimes I need to write the damn things!

Here is my typical process to write a blogpost.

Stage 1. It starts with a bright idea.

I keep a bright ideas file. Sometimes the ideas for a topic are triggered by events: for example the centenary of World War I was the original idea behind my next post on women war poets. Or I might just get an idea when I’m out walking. Or I read a book I would like to tell people about.

114 ScheduleStage 2. Scheduling.

I usually have two or three posts on the go, the closer to scheduled publication date the more advanced the post. I try to include a book review about every three weeks or so, including one that features older women in fiction every two months. The next one of these is on the schedule for mid-August: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. Some posts are scheduled to coincide with events: such as the publication of our book. It’s mostly very flexible, so I can respond to things quickly, even if I am a slow blogger.

Stage 3. Scavenging.

As the publication date approaches I collect material: my own notes on a book, a review I have read, related articles, links, leaflets, and I often jot down notes on scraps of paper which go into the files.

Stage 4. Now comes the writing.

I usually start with a rough outline based on the main points I want to make. Then I draft the post in full, revise and revise and revise. And I decide on the tags that I will use to attract a readership to the post. If I am writing collaboratively I will often have noted the main points during a conversation. For some reason these often happen on a train. I send the draft to my collaborator and she returns it with revisions and so on.

114 ResearchStage 5. Researching.

I like this stage. It’s like scavenging but with more purpose. I often need to take photographs for the post: book covers, poppies, places associated with my topic. I look for links, other reviews, relevant articles, associated websites. This activity often runs parallel to the writing.

Stage 6. Final polish.

I read the piece aloud, check for directness, humour, opportunities to be generous where I can (this is a feature of blogging I especially like), where I need to avoid being too clever. I am looking for the hook, the call to arms. I’m using the checklist I described in a previous post in this series: my checklist for blogposts.

Stage 7. Publish and promote.

I press the PUBLISH and subscribers receive an email alert of the new post. I also use Twitter to promote the new post. Then I check on Google Analytics for number of times the page is read. It’s hard not to be addicted to those Google Analytic stats. Even harder to keep away from the real time stats.

77 laptopStage 8. Respond to comments.

Another pleasure is reading responses to the blogpost. Some are from loyal readers, others from blow-ins (That’s not intended to be a rude phrase). The thousands of spam comments are filtered out by a widget, thank goodness.

So lots of planning, outlining, researching, redrafting and revising. Just like any other writing. And to finish here’s a summary of Olivia Fine’s wise advise – Essential Blogger’s Tips from the British Library website. (You can find the link to the full version here.)

  1. Be yourself
  2. Address the reader
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Include pictures
  5. Can you skim read it?

Have any of you bloggers noticed you do things differently? Do you have any comments on my process. Any tips for me or others?

 

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Published today: what our editors did for us.

Retiring with Attitude: approaching and relishing your retirement, by Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell. Published by GuardianBooks, TODAY 24th July 2014, currently a best seller on the Guardian Bookshop list.

In the last post in the series about publishing out book called Holding our Nerve, we reflected on the difficulties we had in finding a publisher. It was a long process, nearly two years. It took another 20 months from the publisher’s expression of interest to publication, and we have learned a great deal more about writing, mostly about editing and the invaluable role of editors. Without them, if we had self-published, our book would not have been as well crafted.

So what did we get from the editors?

113 Guardian passBefore our first meeting, before we even knew if GuardianBooks were going to publish, we had sent the sample chapters requested by the editor. It was a memorable meeting. It was hilarious. We were nervous as hell. We had barely sat down at a table in the first floor café of the Guardian offices when simultaneously we received our coffees and the fire alarm went off. Every person in the Kings Place building, from all nine floors, evacuated and ended up in the Pret a Manger café 200 yards down York Way. It was a damp November day, and within seconds the whole place was filled with steam and people talking.

73 KPAdding edge

Caroline had had a sneaky look at the editor’s copy of our sample chapters and noticed one word jotted at the top. EDGE. When we resumed our conversation Katie told us that they were interested in our book, but wanted to see more ‘edge’ in our writing. And she demonstrated how to do it. We learned how to make our writing more direct, stronger. She used the word manifesto, so we wrote one for ourselves, and used it to strengthen the introduction. And to our surprise the writing improved.

Addressing the reader

On our return she asked for more direct inclusion of the reader in the text. ‘Address them, use the word you more frequently.’ This went against our previous style of published writing, but again we could see how it improved the text by making it more inclusive.

Less ‘academic’

Once we had a contract, a title, an advance and an editor to take our book through to publication we had two more revisions to do. Our new editor explained that she wanted us to take away anything that got between the reader and the material. That included removing the boxes in which we had examples as well as the references, (we come from research backgrounds). Lindsay described this style as ‘less academic’, although it hadn’t seemed especially academic to us, just good practice!

More of our experiences and beliefs

Finally, she suggested that all these revisions had removed us from the text, so we should put ourselves back in. So we did.

101 RWA pileAfter that it was a question of proofreading, by which time we never wanted to see it again – until our copies of the bound book arrived, and then we were excited all over again.

 

More things we learned from the editors

Editors helped the book become better than our original text, better for the reader. They have helped us publish the book we wanted to publish. And we learned some useful writing skills in the process.

Editors helped with the title and sub-title, and ideas for the cover – all of which make the book more appealing and attractive to readers.

113 AchnowlEditors are young and female. Nearly everyone we met in relation to our book is young and female. And very, very good. Our acknowledgements are not adequate.

We met every deadline, which meant that copies were available before the publication date for people who had pre-ordered, and for advance events, such as Ways with Words.

And …

We were delighted to learn last week that our book was number one on the GuardianBooks webpage and that on Saturday in the Guardian Review it was at the top of the bestsellers list through Guardian Bookshop.

Our meeting with our editor was the subject of blogposts in January. They were Preparing to meet our editor and A Meeting with Attitude.

 

You can order Retiring with Attitude at the Guardian Bookshop or at Hive and other on-line stores. It is also now available from bookshops.

Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell

 

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Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Readers need something different from time to time. It’s the equivalent of a palate cleanser; or a short sleep in the afternoon when you had a really bad night; or a ballad when you have bombarded yourself with 19th century Austro-Germanic music. Sometimes poetry will do, or a short story. And here’s a perfect way to refresh the reading mind: a translated novella. But be warned, this is not fiction lite.

Written originally in Catalan in 1985, Stone in a Landslide was translated by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell and published by Peirene Press in 2010. It’s a gem.

112 Stone coverThe story is told in 126 pages by Conxa, looking back in her old age. At the age of 13 she leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt and uncle in a nearby village on the hillside. It is the 1920s. Conxa lives a patient and level headed life, supported by Tia and Oncle, and later married to Jaume with whom she has three children. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change. Even Barcelona is a distant place, from where cousins visit every summer. In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken away.

This is the quiet story of a woman living on the land, valuing family connections, friends, differences and respect built up by years of honouring and community interdependence. Large events shape life, as do poverty, the seasons, the demands of land and animals. And inevitably the modern world forces its changes and the family can no longer subsist in the village and by the conclusion of the novella Conxa has gone to live in her old age with her son in Barcelona.

The title’s significance becomes apparent in the third section as external events intrude increasingly upon her life. Taken to a prison with her children because of Jaume’s Republican connection, she likens herself to a stone.

They take us to Montsent prison. I didn’t even know where it was. The worst is not knowing anything. Elvira [her daughter] moves around and talks to everyone, even the jailers. She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days … (p89)

A stone is lost among others in a landslide, but the landslide depends on the individual stones. Each stone is affected by those around it; a landslide is dangerous and changes the landscape. The stone is an image that reappears in later pages. For example: moved to a camp the family endure a long period of waiting. She says, ‘The days weighed on my heart like flagstones.’ (p99)

Reflecting on the disappearance of Jaume, she employs another image that stings when you read, and lingers in the memory:

I knew he was dead and I would never again have him at my side because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.’ (p95-6)

The imagery arises from the harsh rural landscape into which she was born, and where she worked and raised her family. You can see from these short extracts that Stone in a Landslide is written in simple, short sentences and in language relevant to the rural community.

There are moments of exquisite pleasure, as when Conxa and her friend Delina go picking mushrooms.

We left at daybreak and at the beginning we were as excited as little girls because finally we had enough time to talk to each other properly. When the going got steep, though, we held our tongues to save our breath.

I liked this outing. I was in the meadows, following the darker grass of the tracks thinking about nothing except finding a big patch of mushrooms and filling my basket. The walk was hard but, after going up so far, it was easy enough to walk down again. From where we were we could see all the villages as if they were close by, with the black slates of the roofs and the occasional plume of smoke revealing signs of life. We stopped at the top to eat, red-faced and with a light wind on our necks, before we started the painstaking search for mushrooms. (p66-7)

But you do not get the feeling that her life has ended as she wanted. The landslide has brought her, as so many others, to the city. In this case to Barcelona. Conxa is estranged from the urban life, emphasised by paragraphs that begin ‘Barcelona is … ‘

Barcelona is having the sky far away and the stars trembling. It is a damp sky and very grey rain.

Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes, hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sounds of the animals at home as you look at dogs chained at dusk.

Barcelona is a small loaf of bread which is finished every day and milk from a bottle, very white, with no cream and a thin taste.

Barcelona is wordless noise and a thick silence full of memories. (p124-5)

Maria Barbal

Maria Barbal

Once again, congratulations to Peirene Press for the innovative approach to publishing and bringing to English readers such a wealth of translated novellas. You will find reviews of The Mussel Feast by Birgit Venderbeke, and Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, both published by Peirene Press, on this blog.

Another blog review of Stone in a Landslide, in the context of translations, can be found on Book Snob.

 

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Holding Our Nerve and Finding a Publisher

It’s hard to remember – now that publication is upon us – how long it took to find a publisher for our book about retirement: Retiring with Attitude. It was frustrating, emotional and hard work. One of the blessings of writing collaboratively is that when one of us is ready to give up the other stays optimistic and we both go on having ideas about who to approach next.

photo by Robert Taylor

photo by Robert Taylor

Our first contact with a publisher was informal, asking for advice. She was very encouraging, even considered the book for publication, but decided it didn’t quite fit her list.

Another publisher advised us to find an agent. Using personal connections and the listings in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, we began to send out our proposal and chapter examples. BUT agents either did not reply – so rude – or said they didn’t want to represent us although they said it was a good book and worth pursuing. Then one told us, ‘you have a strong proposal for this book and you are published writers. I advise you to approach publishers directly. ‘ So we did.

The publishers were not as enthusiastic as we were. One problem was that there are plenty of books about retiring already on the market. Some publishers who had these in their lists did not want to publish a book that they saw as competition. They could not see how different our book was from the rest. And other publishers told us they didn’t take that sort of book. ‘Not for us,’ they said.

One publisher suggested a tie-in with a national newspaper. So our final idea for a publisher was the Guardian. If this approach failed, we decided, we would rethink our strategy. In anticipation we attended workshops on e-publishing and self-publishing. However, we did not need to go down this route. We heard from an editor at GuardianBooks:

I’m really interested to see more, as it looks like a really strong idea. It’s great to see an intelligent book about retirement; it would resonate really well with our readership.

Would you be able to send me some sample chapters? 

We did and although it was not all plain sailing after that, it was the start of the publication story. (More about the later stages in a subsequent blogpost.)

During the long period – two years – when we had to hold our nerve, believe in our project, write the chapters and keep on sending out the proposals, these were the things that helped us:

  • That initial favourable response from a publisher,
  • The advice from the agent to go direct to publishers,
  • Our belief in the book,
  • Our experience as published writers,
  • Our mutual support, courage and humour,
  • The response of people in our circle with whom we discussed ideas,
  • Encouraging responses from publishers even when they declined the book,
  • Redrafting the proposal for each submission in the light of comments received,
  • Publishing articles in niche magazines on the way,
  • Feedback and encouragement from our reader, Marianne,
  • Having an alternative strategy for publication in case we needed it, and
  • Repeating our Mantra: Hold Your Nerve! (Caroline had been to an Arvon fiction course, and this had been the advice from the agent to the aspiring writers who attended. He had reminded us that the publishing business needs our books!)

That agent was right. We needed to hold our nerve. On the eve of publication of this book, we are beginning again with another book. We’ll have to say Hold Your Nerve! again to ourselves. Marianne, our reader, has joined us as a co-author, by the way. It’s great!

101 RWA cover

You can pre-order Retiring with Attitude at the Guardian Bookshop or at Hive and other on-line stores. It will be available from bookshops from 24th July.

Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell

Do you have advice for writers seeking a publisher for their book? Or useful experience to share?

 

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The Squire by Enid Bagnold

Enid Bagnold wrote National Velvet, right? That quintessential book of adolescent horse-mad girl, and young Elizabeth Taylor. She also wrote The Squire, first published in 1938 and republished in 2013 by Persephone Books in their trademark grey covers. The glorious endpapers for this book are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

110 endpaperThe Squire is curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (p11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the days preceding, during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband. The Squire manages all of this with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men, but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two offers the strongest aspect of the novel.

The Midwife and the Squire are more in tune. However, the firm ideas of the midwife about how birth should be organised inevitably produce difficulties. She would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son are integrated into the teeming household.

110 EBagnoldEnid Bagnold challenges the idea that the marriage is a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. She suggests that maternity is just as much a satisfaction and a domain for women, but she is not suggesting that this is the fulfilment of women either. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death. The women are competent at managing complex situations and supporting each other.

A particular charm of this book are the portraits of two children; little odd-ball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.

‘Nothing.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’

‘Nothing.’

They smiled at each other. (p168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world.

110 Squire cover

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

 

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Ways with Words – part 2

Just to recap: Ways with Words is a ten-day ‘Festival of Words and Ideas’; the setting, a beautiful estate in Devon, Dartington Hall. And on Monday 7th July we featured in a session, the first public outing of our book Retiring with Attitude: approaching and relishing your retirement, published by the GuardianBooks on 24th July. (See previous post.)

109 WWW platform

We shared a session called Growing Older with Angela Neustatter who has recently published The Year I Turn … a quirky a-z of ageing. The chair was Lorna Bradbury, Deputy Literary Editor at The Telegraph.

It was stimulating to be part of a programme with so many eminent people, and where the audience are so lively. Angela Neustatter is an accomplished journalist, and able to speak with fluency, and at great speed, whether introducing her book or in response to questions.

About 200 people attended, and we sold 30 copies that evening and signed others for the bookshop.

What we noticed:

There was a reaction to four women sharing the platform. ‘Where are the men?’ someone asked, and so for a while men were picked out to ask questions and make comments. I shared the view of the woman who said it was refreshing to see four of us on the platform when a token woman is the norm. But the comment rather missed the point that we were introducing our books, not representing ageing and retiring.

The audience was lively, challenging even. Some of them wanted to take us to task for not writing a different book. This might have been avoided if the book at been made available in advance.

We learned a thing or two as well about literary events and presenting our book.

  • In future we might start with the purpose of the book.
  • You can’t please everyone. And there will always be someone who has their point to make.
  • The audience liked the interactivity – for example, what I call a Cosmo quiz. This revealed that the majority of the audience identified themselves as veteran retirees.
  • We could have planned to use more stories from the book because they provide good detail about retiring issues (that’s why we included them in the book!)
  • We could have read an extract. Angela did this and it was good to hear it.
  • People are interested in the Retiring Women’s Group, eight women who came together 9 years ago and has been meeting ever since.

Some of the audience have been kind enough to contact us, one saying people like all of us ‘are worth gold bars’! It was a very stimulating evening, and we admire people who can do it so well. We have more promotional events, so will have opportunities to explore different approaches and different audiences.

101 RWA pile

You can pre-order our book from Hive here, or from other on-line book sellers. Or buy it in bookshops after Thursday 24th July.

 

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Ways with Words

Ways with Words is a ten-day ‘Festival of Words and Ideas’; the setting, a beautiful estate in Devon, Dartington Hall. 108 Courtyard

And on Monday 7th July all these are on the programme:

  • Noah and the flood
  • Rod Liddle
  • HRH Princess Michael of Kent
  • Angela Neustatter
  • Jill Dawson
  • The Wordsworths
  • Bloomsbury Group foodies
  • Dylan Thomas
  • And us, Eileen and me … promoting our about-to-be-published book.

It’s the first public outing of our book Retiring with Attitude: approaching and relishing your retirement, published by the GuardianBooks on 24th July. A public outing and also an opportunity to promote it.

101 RWA coverWe are in the Great Hall at 7.30 for a session with Angela Neustatter who has recently published The Year I Turn … a quirky a-z of ageing. We have been put together in a session called Growing Older.

Growing older is just that – a time to grow. It is possible to become more active, read that novel, learn to dance and mainly to keep changing. (from the programme)

I am very familiar with being in the audience at Dartington. I have been to previous Ways with Words Festivals and sung in the choir of the Summer School, as well as attending concerts there throughout the year. The Great Hall is a beautiful setting, especially on a summer evening when the windows are open. Inside the high ceiling, the baronial banners, the huge fireplace, the wooden floors and stone walls make an imposing setting for any performance.

108 Great HallI used the Great Hall in an unfinished short story, as the setting for a renown author’s reading and Q&A. He has been asked about a book he referred to, which no one in the audience knew of. It’s the moment before the denouement of the story.

The lecture room was quite still. Sounds from the outside drifted in through the open widows, calls of young people playing with a Frisbee on the grass quadrangle, a bird singing in the creeper under the window, footsteps on the flagstones, greetings, a distant dog. A breeze brought a hint of newly mown hay from the fields beyond. A member of the audience coughed.

I am a little in awe of the setting as well as the company. But I’m confident that we have something to say. I have been working out my contribution today. You could join us and see how we do.

You can pre-order our book from Hive here, or from other on-line book sellers. Or buy a copy at the Ways with Words Bookshop.

 

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Duck Dives Down Deep

Grandmothers are allowed to have pride at the achievements of their grandchildren and to tell the world about them. This is my boast about a book that my 5-year old grandson, Oli, wrote with me.

107 Cover 1

It began with some painting some months ago, which turned into a story (see below) and which has now developed into a series. Here are the first pages drying on the light fitting in my kitchen.

107 duck drying 2

I wrote the text to Oli’s dictation, he added the page numbers.

107 page numbers 4

Just as I thought we were done he said ‘the blurb!’ More dictation.

107 blurb 5

And here, in the style of Bob Dylan, is Oli’s book.

107 Reading 6

107 reading 7

107 reading 8

107 Reading 9

107 Reading 10

107 Reading 11

107 Reading 12

107 Reading 13

107 Reading tog 14Later he read his book to his mother. Later still he wrote Duck Dives Down even Deeper. And since then there have been two more in the series.

Where will it end?

 

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