Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Craft of Blogging (2) … types of posts

I have written over 80 posts and read many other blogs, so I have come across many types of posts. Which form to use? Lists are very common. Have you come across titles like these?

  • 5 ways of selling yourself on-line
  • 10 things every writer needs to know
  • The 12 best book blogs
  • 6 good books about rabbit breeding
  • My 100 most successful world record attempts

This post is an example of the format: a list of types – so I shouldn’t mock. Anyway lists, in particular, have the advantage of inviting the reader in – a hook! What will be on it? Will the reader share the choice, the order?

69 ten moreLists appeal to me (I once made a list of all the lists I had on the go at that moment!) and to many bloggers and readers. But they don’t suit every theme. Form needs to match purpose! A complicated argument does not lend itself to a list. A story is best told as a story.

The form or type also needs to take account of the on-line platform: ie be immediate and accessible, interactive and connective (as discussed in the first post on the craft of blogging).

Here is my list of some possible types of posts, with mainly literary examples of how it might be used.

  1. List

Ten things you never knew about blogging

5 recommended books on blogging.

  1. Story

What happened after I read this book …

A case study81 JA Carpe d

  1. How to …

Practical advice on a writing technique eg before and after editing.

Analysis of some aspect of writing.

  1. Photo or other illustration

The star of the post is an image, as in the Write One Picture exercise, or a daily image such as the Persephone Post, or occasional and interesting images, like Desktop Retreat.

Comparison between images; such as book covers.

81 platform 9

  1. Opinion or Point of View

Your individual ‘take’ on a topic, such as an author.

A topic on which you are passionate, eg libraries.

  1. Controversy

An addition to a debate on a topic – easy if you are a feminist.

Being provocative about a contentious topic. Ditto

  1. Review/Preview

Your response to a specific topic; eg an author, fiction from one country, words as therapy.

  1. Giveaway or Competition

I have no experience of giveaways or comps. Sometimes it’s a lucky dip: we’ll pick one lucky person to receive a copy of my brilliant novel – just leave a comment. It might be something that the blogger will judge: nominate your favourite book by X and we’ll send you Y. Hmmm?

81 boots

  1. Interview or profile or guest post

The subject could be another writer, or reader, or publisher. I have co-written several posts with Eileen on the subject of writing collaboratively.

  1. Prediction

An obvious form in January but also useful to announce or raise interest in forthcoming events, such as prizes, publications.

  1. Round-up

A cross between a review and a list: a collation of articles you’ve read, people you met at an event, talks, etc on a theme.

81 woman reding

  1. Something different

A variation on your most frequently used format: eg including video if you mostly produce static posts; a very short post; a conversation with a colleague; a comment on previous content …


(This list is adapted from Robin Houghton’s (2012) Blogging for Creatives, published by ILEX: Lewes Sussex.)


And did that work? Was a list the best way to present the information in this post? My own response to my list will be to try some different forms over the next few months.


Next post in the series The Craft of Blogging will be in April and will look at a checklist for a post – another list!


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Filed under The Craft of Blogging

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson’s name will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction. She created the Moomins in 1945. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family for children. She was also  an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book.

80 TJ & moomin

The Summer Book has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972. It emerged as the most popular fiction title in ten years of sales at the London Review Bookshop in 2013. I came across it as a recommendation in a Mslexia diary and borrowed it from the library. I have since bought two copies: one for my mother and one to keep.

80 Summer Bk coverWhile The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. There was an island, and a house and a little girl called Sophia (a niece not a grandchild) who has now grown up. Tove Jansson spent five months every summer with her ‘long-term companion’ Tuulikki Pietila on an even more remote island from 1964 until 1991.

How does The Summer Book fit with the series of older women in fiction? The main characters are a grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. Their shared summer life is revealed through a series of episodes. These illuminate a vivid relationship between different generations. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.

Sophia and her grandmother, like any friends, dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, comfort, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. Both have tantrums and sulks, and fears and regrets. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.

This is no sweet, passive grandmother but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself including her physicality. The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, ”I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)

When they have retrieved the dentures the grandmother leads the way to a forbidden ravine. She tells Sophie what it feels like to dive.

“You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown and the water’s clear, lighter towards the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.” (p24)

This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. She has weaknesses and sometimes a short temper. She is playful and mostly responsible. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility.

This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie. Of all the older women considered in the novels in this series (about older women) she is the one I most want to be like.

80 Finnish islandOne of the most poignant episodes relates to Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent. In the night she creeps back to her grandmother, and the two get talking about sleeping rough.

“All I said was that when you are as old as I am, there are lots of things you can’t do any more …”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through. I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and its been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling that everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

Sophia helps her remember what it was like to sleep in the tent and this enables the child to return to the tent feeling safe. And the grandmother remembers better. They both fall asleep. (p93-4)

80 sm Fin islandThe episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Have you read this novel? Did you react as I have?


Older Women in Fiction: The next book to explore in the series will be Doris Lessing’s Love Again. This will be in April.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

Reading, Writing and Dementia

Dementia haunts us as we age, more than almost any other affliction. Losing the ability to be coherent, to read books, to tell the story of your life, these things make us fearful. But as we pass those milestones, 50, 60, 70 and on, which of us has not thought of what might happen? And as we experience those so-called senior moments, who has not wondered if they are increasing in frequency? At the moment I am fortunate that no one I am close to is suffering. Words, reading and writing them, have therapeutic effects I know. So I did a little research and quickly found that words can change lives for those suffering from dementia.

27 older w

Reading and dementia

Get into Reading, organised by The Reader Organisation, is a nationally acclaimed project, a positive health and social care intervention that has been adapted for dementia groups. Two key features of the intervention are the emphasis on serious, ‘classic’ literature, and reading aloud followed by open-ended discussion. I like the determination not to dumb down the material.

Short poems work well for people with dementia it has been found. This is probably because the language is more compressed and striking than prose; they are often contained on one page. Many of the participants in the groups studied were of the generation that learned poetry by heart in schools and even those with the most severe dementia could recite poems they learned at school.

The Reader Organisation has researched the effects of Get into Reading with people suffering from dementia and found

  • improved mood for 86% of readers
  • greater concentration for 87% of readers
  • increased social interaction for 73%
  • less agitation for 86% of readers

‘Isn’t it funny? We come in with nothing and go out with all these thoughts,’ said a reading group member, living with dementia, from Devon.


Writing and dementia

I came across two projects.

Dementia Authors’ website in our own words was established in 2006 but I couldn’t find out if the project is still active. The process involved Anthea McKinlay, writer-in-residence, assisting the authors to write their care home story book. The gradual approach appears to allow the dementia sufferers to build up their contributions.

A second project is Living Words, run in association with English PEN. The link takes you to a video on the website, showing how the project encourages individuals to develop their own poems. ‘There is a goldmine of words to stir something up’.

You can read a poem written by a participant on the English PEN website here called I’m not used to anything like this.

The therapeutic power of words seems to be without limits. For prisoners asylum seekers and refugees, for individuals …


An event

Dementia and the Power of Words at Free Word Centre, London EC1R 3GA on Wednesday 12th March 6.30 – 8pm. Details on the English PEN website here. I wish I could go and hear about the experiences presented on that day.



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Filed under Reading, Writing

National Libraries Day

It’s National Libraries Day on Saturday 8th February 2014. We need to say again:

  • We need libraries.
  • Libraries matter.
  • Libraries change lives.
  • Books change lives.
  • Libraries are more than the sum of the books they lend.
  • Save our libraries!
  • Celebrate our libraries!

We know that books change lives from countless accounts by writers and readers of early immersion in libraries. How many times have you read “I wouldn’t be a reader/writer if I hadn’t spent my childhood in libraries”? Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his lecture: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Library shelvesDSC00248Libraries are more than the collection of books. They provide other services: loans of DVDs, CDs, access to newspapers, journals, courses, local information, pamphlets, computer time, story-telling, spaces for poetry and writing groups … Libraries have a communitarian function.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. (Caitlin Moran, The Library Book p92)

The-Library-Book-154x250_mediumThe Library Book is published by of The Reading Agency, which works hard to support reading, including libraries. Their strap line is: ‘Because everything changes when we read’. There are 4,200 public libraries in the UK. We must not lose them. And that’s why everyday is Libraries Day.

I have been with my writing group at Totnes Library (a new library, opened less than a year ago – what a treasure!). We had live music outside our meeting room and 15 writers focusing on life writing. Where are you on National Libraries Day?

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading

The craft of blogging (1) … the medium

Do something 77 times and you expect to gain some insights in the practice. It is true of practicing the scale of C# minor (contrary motion) on the piano; of hill starts in a car; of attaching photos to tweets; how to spell imeadiately immediately; and waking up on New Year’s Day (not that I’ve actually done that 77 times, but you get the idea). I hope I have learned something about how write blog posts. I plan to write a series of posts about the craft of writing for a blog. This is my 77th blogpost!

77 laptop

Writing to be read on-line

Understanding the medium is the place to start. The writer has to pay attention to being on-line, on pcs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and probably some other things I haven’t heard of yet. Writing on-line means you have to catch the readers’ attention, and keep it. As a writer you can take advantage of the connectivity. And while a post has a short life it can be archived and amended. This makes it different to writing for printed formats.

Catching the attention of readers is a matter of a hook and appearance. The hook can be an outlandish statement, provocative or questioning. For example: How to get readers to look at your blog in 5 steps. Or Preparing to meet our editor. It can also be very straightforward. As I write a blog about things literary, especially books, the title and author are often enough. The title/hook should give just enough information for a reader to know the topic of the post, but entice them to read further.

77 iphoneThe appearance is important too. Your text will acquire an edge from being back-lit  on the screen and enhanced by the addition of relevant images. I use frequently use book covers (which led to a post on book covers and how much I like them). Additionally the page will be scrolled so the screen must not be too crowded. I like clear uncluttered page format, which includes lots of white space. In fact the 30-30-30 principle works well: 30% text, 30% image, 30% white space. Luckily there are some great ready-to-go formats. I use Word Press.

While appearance will bring in readers and keep them there, the content has to be good. To keep readers returning it needs to be reliably good. It pays to work on content (see future blogposts). Some bloggers suggest that 600 words is the maximum length for keeping readers. I find it hard to say what I want to write in less than 1000 usually. I have no idea whether readers give up before they get to the end. You could tell me in the comments box.

Being on-line means you can connect your post to other websites. The roots of blogging were in making connections, the original blogs were simply reports of other sites visited by the blogger. Links to other sites relevant to the content have become an important feature of my posts. I link to other reviews and to relevant on-line material, such as speeches, newspaper articles. Here are a couple of blogs about blogging that have lots to say, set out to be helpful, by including tips, tutorials, or plain advice. ProBlogger has been going since 2004. Successful Blog focuses on building community through blogging. While both sites include stuff about earning money through the blog, they are nevertheless relevant to a not-for-profit blog like mine. And here’s Annie Daylon’s advice to novice bloggers.

Connecting works in the other direction too. You can also get readers from other sites, from their links and blogrolls, which list the blogs they favour. Search engines help with this, key words being the means to do this. One could go for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) if visitor numbers were the key thing (eg for a site selling stuff, or pushing a political message). I’ve done without so far. And then there is twitter, facebook and other social media to promote your blog.

Communication with your readers through the comments facility also sets this writing apart from conventional publishing. I used to write articles for publication in academic journals. The Director of the Institute where I worked said that only 5 people read articles in academic journals. (NB for people who work in HE in the UK: this was pre-RAE and REF.) I loved reading articles and wondered where the other four people were. I never knew what the three people thought who read my article about using photography in educational research. But I do get feedback on my blog posts. People make suggestions, take issue, tell me off, thank me for suggesting a good read, comment on what has been said … A term I have come across for inviting these comments is the call to arms. I think questions do the job very well. How about you?

They can also be edited after publication. You can correct errors, update information and add newly discovered links.

77 ipadI have learned that blog posts have a short life. I have also learned that some posts have shorter lives than others. The two longest running and most popular posts of mine are the review of The Stone Angel by Marguerite Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. These two reviews don’t attract much comment, but they have been in the top ten most read posts since I set up the analytical programme (Google Analytics). Blogposts about writing (like this one) often attract a good readership in the first two weeks of posting but then fall away. They may have short lives, but a blog has its own archive and a search function.

Your blog will be made up of regular readers (often subscribers) and flitters. (Mine is about 30/70 and I have no idea whether this is healthy or not.)

But blogging is no different from other kinds of non-fiction writing – purpose is key. Every blogpost has to have a point, a reason to be written and posted. On this blog I share tips for writers, or survey of a writer’s work, indulge in quirky interest like how people organise their books, or make a political point about how writing and books help people.

A book that I highly recommend: 77 Blogging-coverBlogging for Creatives, by Robin Houghton (Ilex Press).

Here’s the call to arms bit: Bloggers – what have I left out? Tell me what I’ve got wrong! Anyone – please tell me what you think about how well I’m doing. Add a comment in the box below.

The second post in this series will consider selecting the appropriate format.

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Filed under Books, The Craft of Blogging, Writing