Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Craft of Blogging (3) … my checklist for blogposts

OK! You’ve thought about what it means to write on-line, and you’ve sorted out what kind of post you are planning (this one’s another list). And if you haven’t thought about those things see my previous posts on the subjects. Now, here’s a checklist of 9 things I’ve learned to look out for in every blogpost, having now posted 94 of them. Please add your recommendation to bring it up to a big fat 10.

94 hook1. The hook

Entice the reader in, after all they have access to so many blogs. Often your hook is a question, sometimes an intriguingly presented idea. It should entice the reader and not lead to disappointment. The topic may hook readers in by itself – like this one?

2. The title

Your title may be the hook, but either way it should give the reader a clue to the content. Readers have so much choice that they may not spend time on a page, and they don’t want their surfing to be wasted by a misleading title.

3. The first paragraph

Your first paragraph is all important! It tells your reader or confirms the main theme. You can’t expect a reader to wait to the end of the post to find the rabbit in the hat. They just wont. This is true of most writing.

94.links4. Links

Hyperlinks are easy to apply and offer the reader the possibility of going somewhere they never imagined, connected to your theme. Some bloggers manage audio links as well, or links to Youtube, but I haven’t yet, and not found it necessary. I like blogs that do. ‘Links between sites are the fuel of the web*.’


94 Blog on tablet5. Visuals

I did my first writing in a world limited to typewriters and pens. Even biros were newfangled before I reached my teens. Much later I graduated to a word processor. I know almost nothing about the technology that allows such easy inclusion of images into blogs, but you’d be a fool not to take advantage of this added dimension. Watch those copyright issues however; copyright exists to protect the creative.

6. Length

I’ve seen it argued that the shorter the post the better. As Bookword focuses on books, reading and writing I think I can stretch my readers to about 1500 on occasion. Anyway I often find I have that many words to write. It depends on the content – more images may mean fewer words. I always edit to remove surplus words. The post you are reading is just short of 900 words.

94 tape

7. Lightness of touch

For a writer who spent 20 years in academic writing and publishing it comes as a great pleasure to be able to use humour and lightness of touch in blogposts. Of course, not every post lends itself to hilarity, or even a wry smile, but many do. I think that a blog is much more like conversations with friends than addressing an audience of students.

Lightness of touch means thinking about your readership. They are reading on a screen, want to quickly get a sense of what you are saying, absorb it in short paragraphs, without dumbing down, and with headings to guide them.

Here’s a list of points for making the text easy to scan on screen:

  • Be concise and to the point
  • Halve the word count of conventional writing
  • Keep your sentences short, and read aloud.
  • Make one point per sentence.
  • Use bulleted lists for quick reading
  • Emphasise keywords with bold (avoid CAPITALS, because they LOOK LIKE SHOUTING)

This list is from the University of York Writing for the Web pages which you can find here.

Wittiness needs to be without being too clever. (Most of my editing is to remove those over-worked, over-blown ideas I thought would include to show how clever I am. I am currently working on not including them in the first place!) These all help with readability. And you have probably developed your own style (that’s house-style Eileen).

8. Call to arms

Some bloggers recommend a call to arms, usually a question. I can see the point for campaigning posts (like mine on books for prisoners, which asked people to take some action about the restrictions on books for prisoners. Come to think of it, it’s as good a time as any to mention the campaign on Books for Prisoners that you can find at the Howard League for Penal Reform. At the very least you can ask your readers to subscribe to your blog. (See the couple of lines at the end of this and every recent post!)

9. A little bit of passion

A blogpost is better for a bit of passion, not necessarily splurging over the page, but readers like to know that you are enthusiastic about your topic. Enthusiasm and expertise are very attractive. The best blogs inspire one to more: links, reading, ideas, action, enthusiasm …

If you want perfection you could check out this infographic of THE PERFECT BLOG POST. Thank you Social Triggers.

69 ten_logo10 …

And here’s the cta: please add a 10th item to my checklist.

* according to Robin Houghton (2012) Blogging for Creatives, published by ILEX: Lewes Sussex. Her book is highly recommended for novices.


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Filed under The Craft of Blogging

Art made out of books?

Don’t write in books – except with a very soft pencil and then erase the marks asap! Don’t turn down the corner to mark your place! Don’t draw on the pages! Don’t break the spine! Don’t cut the pages!

I’m not sure how or where I imbibed these rules, but they are very strongly embedded. My sister says she often can’t tell if I have read a book, because I only open it a few centimetres and peer between the pages. I am still shocked by the American woman who turned back the open pages of my Tuscan guidebook, so that for ever after it fell open at San Gimignano. And by my friend who took a blockbuster to read on holiday, and tore it in half because she only wanted to reduce the weight of her hand luggage.

It was something of a thrill to experience books as the medium of the artists’ works on display in the exhibition: Beyond the Book: an exhibition of artists who use books as their medium. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was moved by the first exhibit, called The Book Shop.

93 bookshopThis little scene was created by Su Blackwell, who also co-curated the show. It is about 15” X 10” ( 36cm X 22cm) and is made from ‘Deconstructed second-hand book in wood box with light’. In the booklet to accompany the exhibition she says

Using a scalpel, I carefully cut and fold book pages to craft intricate scenes evoking both childhood and possibility. New and unexpected histories and realities emerge through my alterations of the physical form and structure of the book. By producing books which combine a sense of loss and longing with playful humour and innovation, I simultaneously question and assert the importance of the weight, texture and design of the book in the digital age.

A scalpel, used on a book? On my! But I love the wit, the detail, the idea of making a book shop from a book.

And what about Ellen Bell’s creation, called On Reading?

93 On Reading

I love the red shoes. It’s made from ‘Child’s desk and two chairs with Penguin Book butterflies and tap shoes’. Looking closely you could see the familiar orange covers of old fashioned Penguin Books cut into the shapes of the escaping butterflies. Like the book shop I am transported back to childhood, to that sense of books being the path to other worlds, escape, sample the mysteries of adult life. (For me it was ballet shoes, but I understand the red tap shoes.)

93 Sew circleHere is an embroidery hoop made by Yvette Hawkins, entitled Sewing Circle. Many needlewomen will recognise the embroidery hoop at its structural core.






And another creation that explores language, written text and human responses is Drifting Attention by Jonathan Mathew Boyd.

93 drifting

I saw the exhibition at the Devon Guild of Crafsmen Gallery at Bovey Tracey, where it is on show until 8th June 2014. It then moves to London to Long and Ryle, in John Isip Street from 12th June – 17th July 2014.

If you are interested in books as objects of beauty you might also want to visit the website and blog of the Library of Lost Books. It reports on a project to rescue old library books, salvaging beautiful, old and unwanted books and sending them out to artists. ‘They come back re-made into things of beauty and wonder…’

Or if you can’t afford the price of the originals, you can buy made-from-books stuff at The Literary Gift Company. Among other things they have a page of ‘books made into things’.

Or you could buy a book about making art from books – if that’s not too self referring.

Update: having seen Norah’s earrings on twitter I add my Dutch Tintin brooch as a wiity little follow on for this blogpost.

93 Tintin br back 93 Tintin brooch

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Filed under Books

Love, Again by Doris Lessing

Falling in love is what young women do in novels. Doris Lessing, always a radical, asks ‘how is it when an older woman falls in love?’ Written when she was in her seventies, Love, Again explores this question through the experiences of a 65-year old, Sarah Dunham. I did not enjoy reading this novel very much.

92 Love ASarah’s story is contrasted with the history of a much younger French woman, Julie Vairon, who lived in the nineteenth century in rural France. Julie was an outsider, being from Martinique, mixed race and very independent. She was also attractive to young men. They fell for her, as any young man may for an attractive young woman. This first love was followed by a more mature, deeper love. Neither passion could be regularised into marriage because of Julie’s unsuitability. This story is re-enacted in a stage play written and produced by the older woman.

Sarah falls for the young actor, Bill, playing Julie’s first love. It is painful, especially as the young man wants to be the centre of everyone’s attentions, the cast as well as the production team. He courts Sarah, as he courts everyone. They are all powerless to resist his attractions, although he is a sulky boy. Sarah then falls for the director of the play. Her interest in Henry is reciprocated, but never consummated. He is half her age.

Sarah experiences these two longings, for Bill and for Henry, as a kind of sickness. She had assumed that she was over the desire for a man. She had been widowed many years before and had many lovers thereafter but for the last 15 years has been single and celibate. Very early in the novel we find Sarah reading about growing old gracefully, and grateful that she does not have to endure the emotional tumults of love any more. Love, inevitably, comes to her again. And why should it not?

The headlong fall into love is vividly described as extremely uncomfortable, accompanied by all the irrational emotions associated with a younger woman. Doris Lessing is making a claim for the sexuality of the older woman, which is a good thing. But Sarah Dunham is profoundly unsettled by her feelings, associated as they are with her younger self. Being in love is a distraction from the business of being older, it seems.

And in Love, Again Doris Lessing seems to be saying that age disbars women from the practice of sexual love but not the distraction of its feelings. In some ways, of course, love in old age is much the same as at any time of love. Here are Sarah’s musings as she tries to avoid her eyes being drawn to the young actor, Bill:

There seems to be a general agreement that being in love is a condition unimportant, and even comic. Yet there are few more painful for the body, heart, and – worse – the mind, which observes the person it (the mind) is supposed to be governing behaving in a foolish and even shameful way. … For people are often in love, and they are usually not in love equally. They fall in love with people not in love with them as if there were a law about it, and this leads to … if the condition she was in were not tagged with the innocuous ‘in love’, then her symptoms would be those of a real illness. (p136)

A few pages later she is consumed with love and jealousy.

I’m sick, she said to herself. ‘You’re sick.’ I’m sick with love, and that’s all there is to it. How could such a thing have happened? What does Nature think it is up to? (Eyeball to eyeball with Nature, elderly people often accuse it – her? – of ineptitude, of sheer incompetence.) I simply can’t wait to go back to my cool elderly self, all passion spent. I suppose I’m not trapped in this hell for ever? (p180).

So Sarah experiences the emotion of love as a sickness, one from nature, but not quite natural. The business of age is rather to have moved beyond passion. But there is a suggestion that this is a terrible fate, not to be loved or desired as an older woman. As Lynne Segal suggests in Out of Time, the sickness derives from Lessing’s belief that a woman’s essence is to be found in her young body. Love is a kind of narcissistic action, and the older body is an abomination.

Doris Lessing has visited this theme at different times: women only have presence for others, especially for men, when they are sexually attractive. For example, in The Summer Before the Dark there is an arresting scene in which the heroine walks before some men on the street. When she arranges herself as an available woman they notice her, whistle at her. When she presents herself as older, less provocative she becomes invisible. The dark of the title is middle to old age. Love, Again revisits this darkness.

There are other kinds of love explored in this novel and these are more rewarding for the older woman: Sarah’s friendship with Stephen (who is about 50) who suffers from extreme and deep depression; her own history of love including marriage; lesbian love experienced by Stephen’s wife and housekeeper; family love (her brother and his wife and daughters, one of whom is especially difficult).

My unease about Sarah Dunham is that for Doris Lessing she seemed only to be vibrantly alive when she was sexually alert, desiring and desired. She also seems to say that older women can be in love but have little chance of mutual sexual love. In old age they are destined to grieve for the loss of their physical attractiveness and sexual fulfilment. Must women must expect dissatisfaction?

There must be some novels that consider an alternative outcome for an older woman in love? What are they? I don’t want to accept Lessing’s version the only possible one.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

Hammering out reports, dispatching bulletins

I could have called this blogpost ‘keeping going’ because that’s what it’s about. Keeping going when you have come to an impasse. Some people find it hard to get started, others to keep going. There may be some who find it hard to do either, but there may be no hope for them. Writers, as well as everyone else I imagine, seem to have the capacity to find unlimited displacement activities, strategies to avoid what they intend to do.

91 writing-life

Annie Dillard writes with sharp wisdom about the writing process in her short but very acute book, The Writing Life.  She uses a strong image of the writer carving out a path that may lead to a box canyon.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon.

I had to look up the meaning of the phrase ‘box canyon’, which is American. It’s a good image: a canyon with three sides, in which you can coral your cattle overnight. We might say cul-de-sac or dead end.

But it is her next observation that seemed particularly familiar: while stuck in the box canyon

You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.

So I wrestle with the revisions of my novel and my failure to do what I planned, and from that place I hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. They appear in this blog, in replies to enquiries from my friends, in my Morning Pages. It gives the impression of activity. Well, it is activity. And I am writing. But …

Annie Dillard opened The Writing Life with these lines:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located a real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

91. The-Old-Ways-A-Journey-on-FoI find this a powerful image, digging out one’s meaning, carving it laboriously into a path, making your mark. I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book The Old Ways in which he muses on the similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. But the metaphor of the writer’s path contains a danger as Annie Dillard warns us.  It is not the path, not the route that is important.

Process is nothing: erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

Children, an English teacher told our writing group, often believe that writers simply write and create their finished product in one continuous process, stopping, perhaps, for lunch. I sometimes feel that a first splurge of writing is important, holds an essence, should be preserved, but I have come to see that sometimes I need to face another way, start in a different place, take a different route, and preserving the path is not the answer. It is good to notice that essence, however, and try to include an echo in the next draft.

So step one?

To keep going, stop tidying up the path, sweeping off the leaves and rubbish, no more reports and dispatches. Toss it all and don’t look back.

And step two?

Well I go back to an activity I recommended by writer Kathryn Heyman in a previous blogpost: Ten things to do when you don’t know what to write. Ask yourself why you are not getting on with it. What’s getting in the way? And go on asking until you get an answer and a solution.

  • In December I tried this and here are some answers to my question – why have you not been getting on with the novel?
  • I have been too busy sorting out my new house.
  • I must meet the deadline to complete my Income Tax Return.
  • I’m still revising Retiring with Attitude for the editor (the book is scheduled for publication in July)
  • I want to enjoy the revisions of the novel and I’m not sure I will.
  • I’m afraid the revisions wont be as good as I want them to be if I do start them.
  • Because I am lazy and pathetic.

And on and on, including a lot more self-flagellating, until at last I came to the conclusion – I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t know what to do.

Step three?

91 jsb revisionGet help and take some action. In my case I bought a book to help, called Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and, following his advice, began to work on improving characterisation. I wrote an autobiography in the words of the protagonist, Lorna, and tried to understand more about her relationships with the other people in the novel and … I’m away.

And then I stop and find myself in another box canyon. And so it goes on.

I throw away my plan, and ask myself Kathryn Heyman’s questions and take action again. And again. And soon I hope I will be ‘deep in new territory’.

This is, I suppose, a continuation of my previous post, about how one learns creative writing. And this post is my salute to Annie Dillard, Robert Macfarlane, Kathryn Heyman, James Scott Bell and all the other writers who tell us about their experiences. We learn slowly from them.


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Filed under Writing

Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing?

You’ve heard this question before I’m sure: Can creative writing be taught? Eminent writers periodically get involved in spats on this issue. Recently one was set off by Hanif Kureishi (who teaches creative writing at the University of Kingston).  He appears to despise his students, suggesting that the vast majority of them ‘are talentless’. Lucy Ellman, novelist and ex-creative writing teacher, joined in and called creative writing courses ‘the biggest con-job in academia’.

Teaching creative writing courses has its defenders: Jeanette Winterton (at Manchester University) and bloggers Emma Darwin and Shelley Harris. Tales from the Reading Room has an excellent post about learning on a writing course.

Let’s remember that writers need to earn enough to live on. Where would they be without us amateurs to add to their income? According to The Independent, Kureishi said that having three sons means that he has to earn money from writing in any way he can.

90 First NovelAnd some write creatively about it: the blurb for First Novel by Nicholas Royle says it’s a ‘darkly funny examination of the relative attractions of creative writing courses and suburban dogging sites …’ Hmmmm.

What success criteria do the doubters have in mind? I suspect that they judge a course by the publication rate. Kureishi however suggests he is offering therapy. Really?

I am concerned for those people who attend courses to improve their writing, and whose primary objective is not publication, or therapy. Moving the focus away from publication means emphasising improvements that the writer him/herself wants to make and this leads me to ask a different question about creative writing courses: can writers learn from them, and if so what and how? I’ve spent my career in education, and found that focusing on learning (rather than teaching) opens up many possibilities for thinking in new ways.

Learning on creative writing courses.

The best learning has four characteristics:

  1. It connects with the learners’ intentions,
  2. is active,
  3. collaborative and
  4. concerned with learning about the learning.

How does this apply to creative writing classes?

Learners’ intentions

Most participants (maybe all) come to classes and workshops wanting to improve their writing. Listen to those writers in that introductory round: I want learn to end my short stories, I have lots of bits but I don’t know what to do with them, I have some great ideas but I don’t know where to start, I write lots of poems but I don’t know if they are any good …

Active learning

Most writing classes are active and not just in the sense of the pen moving across the page, the fingers moving on the keyboard. I mean active in the sense that participants have to process the topic being explored, do something with it, exercise imagination, draw together some unlikely words and images.

Here’s an example of a 30 minute activity from RAM museum workshop last month: in 5 minutes, find an object; write three words about it and note the desire/want/need that a character associated with the object is pursuing; write for 15 minutes; take ten minutes to go over what you have done.

90 teapotI found this teapot. It stretched me to put it in a brief piece of writing, but the time pressure and the constraints of the activity worked for me. (I’m not going to share the outcome of the teapot focus, but the activity was helpful for thinking about objects, and some of it will be echoed in my novel revisions.)

Collaborative learning

This for me is the most productive aspect of learning on courses – working with other writers works. We are all writers, we can say. We can encourage each other, and provide responses and feedback. Our fellow participants can provide stimulating examples, innovative ideas. And from time to time you write something you wouldn’t have written without the presence of another writer. It might have been their example, a comment they made, an idea they sparked, an image they provided, a word they used.

Learning about learning

The best classes provide opportunities for reflecting on how different people learn, for being mindful about their learning: what are the effects of pressure, of a new approach and so on. It is a skill to reflect on process and be mindful of the activities that were helpful. It’s a skill that can be learned.

Now it is quite possible to experience all these four characteristics of learning in other contexts. This means, of course, that creative writing courses are not essential to writers’ development. There are books, magazines, blogs, and mentoring and editorial services. But none of these are quite as much fun, I suspect, as those Saturday morning assemblies of ten or so people (mainly women) who rack up in some poky room in a cold community hall and gaze in anticipation at the tutor.

Do you have anything to add to the debate about teaching and learning creative writing?


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Filed under Writing