A writer’s blog… in numbers

wordpress-265132_1280I’ve been blogging here since August 2011 and it got me thinking – how do the numbers stack up?

The Numbers Game:

200         Weeks since first posting

1,400      Days since first posting

176         Number of Posts

0.8          Posts per week

13           Other bloggers’ posts, reblogged

86,000    Word count (excluding reblogs)

528         Average word count per post (excluding reblogs)

2,444      Comments

16,909    Views

2             Features on Freshly Pressed

1,400      Views on best ever day for views (thanks Freshly Pressed)

2,470      Email followers/subscribers

 

Top Ten Posts for Views:

4,293      Home page / Archives

3,204      One Word at a Time

1,636      Marmite Moments: Writing Good Sex

745         About Julie

423         Singled Out

231         Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing

210         How to Hook an Agent: Part One – My Top Five Takeaways

159         I’ve Got it Covered

120         Cliches: Avoid them like… …

115         How to Hook An Agent: Part Two – My Speed-Date with Destiny

 

 

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Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can food reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

A big thank-you to Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog

Every time my blog goes bonkers, it’s because Chris Graham over at The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, has re-blogged one of my posts. I thought it was time I said thank you.

I’d been at it all daytsra-white-bg on Sunday, essentially trying to write a blog post but in reality, procrastinating like mad. Eventually the post emerged, a quirky list of… yes… what I’d been doing instead of writing a blog post. I uploaded said musings, shut down my PC and came down to the kitchen to make my tea.

As I messed around with ingredients – salmon baked in a tinfoil parcel, watercress sauce, broccoli and rice, since you ask – I could hear in the next room, my iPad dinging merrily away as my WordPress App announced a succession of readers liking or commenting on my blog. That’s nice, I thought. I have to say, it was above averagely active – a veritable melody of dings – especially for a Sunday evening. And especially for, if I’m honest, an inconsequential, albeit mildly amusing post.

Salmon baked, watercress sauce warmed through (I know, I should have made it from scratch), broccoli blobbed with butter (don’t say it… don’t), I repaired to the lounge to take a snoop at who was liking my Peevish Procrastination Post.

What greeted me was unexpected, but wholly delightful.

It turns out that round about the same moment that I’d uploaded my list of procrastinations, the lovely Chris Graham over at Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog had re-blogged a post of mine from a couple of weeks ago – Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing. The surge in hits and that concerto of dings was all down to the readers which Chris had so very kindly pointed in my direction.

If you haven’t come across Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog before, I recommend you take a look. It is a veritable cornucopia of writerly musings, humour, advice and great material about books, authors, the world at large and reading in general. Chris scours the blogosphere seeking out posts he thinks his rapidly expanding readership will enjoy, and he’s a great supporter of indie authors.

When he picks a post of yours, stand by for a busy few hours! I like to respond to every comment on my blog and that’s not usually a particularly demanding commitment. But when you get a re-blog from Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, things go a bit crazy – in a good way. I had fun, responding to comments from new readers, and it was wonderful to see new subscribers sign on too. I had to cut the sound on my iPad and go dark for an hour for Poldark (as any warm-blooded woman would, you understand, don’t you?) – but I was back later and again this morning, to enjoy the blogging conversation with more visitors from Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog.

Apart from the two occasions when I’ve been fortunate enough to be Freshly Pressed courtesy of the team at WordPress (another post on editing, strangely enough, and one on Marmite and sex – oh, just check it out, you know you want to), The Story Reading Ape’s blog has been responsible for the biggest surges in hits and subscribers to A Writer’s Notepad, since I began blogging.

So, this post is the least I can do, in offering a big thank-you to Chris, and an urging that you check out The Story Reading Ape’s most diverse and engaging Blog for yourself.

Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing

pencil-sharpener-390609_1280 - 2A ‘Happy Sunday’ quickie – and a chance to catch some old posts too. A few ideas on sharpening up your writing – great tips and snippets of advice I’ve received over the last four years.

  1. Learn how apostrophes work; and semi-colons.
  2. Well, it’s really rather important that you just do this. Run search and delete on every instance of the following words: really, just, quite, rather, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. Check out my post ‘One Word At A Time’ for this and other editing tips.
  3. Practise Show vs Tell the Anton Chekhov way: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  4. Take a chunk of back-story or exposition and rewrite it into a dialogue. Then repeat. Then repeat again. Dialogue is much more engaging than flat-text exposition and a page of conversation is easier to read than a thumping boulder of a paragraph.
  5. Focus on sensory detail. Not just sight, but sound, taste, touch and smell. It will enrich your reader’s experience. I blogged here about using all the senses.
  6. Every time you see two clever, descriptive adjectives side-by-side, delete at least one of them. Yes, every time. Writers can publish with excess of adjectives, but only once they’ve sold a gazillion books and are unassailable. (If you doubt me, check out J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith – but then go and delete half your adjectives, because you won’t so easily get away with it.)
  7. Review your work for any not-so-perfect tenses (past perfect, past continuous and past perfect continuous) and opt for something more immediate. I blogged about how this works here.
  8. Delete the first paragraph of every chapter. There’s no need for foreplay, dive straight to the action. Hmmm, personally, I appreciate literary foreplay, so I’m not sold on this tip – but better writers than me will endorse it.
  9. Delete the last paragraph of every chapter. Don’t hang about after the action. Get out, fast. This, I can vouch for.
  10. Clichés – avoid them like the plague… Yes, you guessed it, I blogged! This one might actually hit the mark (doh!)

Not so Singled Out after all: A lesson learned

How many books share the same title as mine? What, HOW many?

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxWay back, perhaps three years ago, when I began thinking about a title for Singled Out, I did a search on Amazon. At the time, Amazon determined there was just one other book with the same title. It was a non-fiction account of the two million single women left to fend for themselves after the First World War. I figured since this was so different from my own book, I could stand to share the name.

In retrospect (what a wonderful thing is hindsight), I should have checked once or twice more in the intervening months. If I had, I might have reconsidered.

I actually love my title and I believe it works for the book as it references the story in more than one way. I’ve been wedded to it since I first thought of it. Up until that point, Singled Out operated under the working title of SHN (that stood for Singles Holiday Novel – a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin private reference destined only for my MSWord folder and file structure).

But I wasn’t the only author to fall upon this simple, easily remembered moniker in the last three years. For now, as I look around Amazon and Goodreads, I find there are somewhere between six and twelve books in the English language under the same title (plus subtitle or part number in some cases). I haven’t been through them to see what they’re all about, but they seem to be a mix of fiction and non-fiction (mainly relationship and religious advice). Common sense tells me more will follow.

The self-publishing universe has exploded in the last three years – I’ve only fully acknowledged this in recent months myself. I confess, I have not once considered the possibility that my chosen title might have been quite so liberally deployed by other writers in the intervening months.

I’m not kicking myself for choosing this title, as I do feel it’s right for my story. I’m kicking myself for not appreciating in time, the pace at which the landscape has changed.

The fact is, short, snappy titles are unlikely to be original these days. Even the more creative and imaginative titles may eventually be taken up by others. So the challenge for the author – it’s one I’m happy to accept – is to distinguish themselves in other ways; through visual branding (a well-designed cover), their author profile, web site and blogging, wider social media presence and so on – so that no potential reader accidentally buys the ‘wrong’ book.

Writing courses: A different perspective

Nina MishkinFellow blogger Nina Mishkin had something important to say about my last post.

I love that people comment on my blog posts. I particularly like it when they either disagree with me, or have insights which open up the debate. I’ve received an especially interesting response to my previous post on courses, seminars and other learning opportunities open to novice writers. It’s worth sharing beyond the smaller community that might read comments on posts, so I thought I’d publish it as a post in its own right. It’s from a blogger I greatly admire, Nina Mishkin, who blogs at The Getting Old Blog. Here’s what she said:

In my view, it’s valuable to attend a seminar or two that features agents and publishers describing the process — and hurdles — confronting the would-be published author. It’s also valuable to learn something about self-publishing before setting a foot on that path. But as someone who has taught writing courses — both at the community college and university level — and has written professionally in many commercial genres, I am extremely cynical about the value to the quality of one’s writing of spending time in how-to courses, seminars, workshops and retreats. They may be enjoyable while you’re attending them, but you rarely come away with something you couldn’t find in a how-to book from the library. They consume time and distract you from spending your time actually writing.

The way to write well is to read well… all your life. Read extensively and intensively, with an eye to structure, dialogue, pacing. Note what’s omitted as well as what’s included. If you really enjoy something you’ve read, read it again. More than once. Take it apart in your mind (or in a notebook) to see how it was done. Then try to do it yourself. At first you will be a copy cat. And then you will internalize what you’ve learned; it will become second nature — in the self-editing if not in the first draft. There are many parasitic industries out there, feeding off perceived markets for learning “how.” With writing, the primary “how” is “do.” Sit down every day and do it. And keep reading.

Other people’s blogs are also helpful, principally for the encouragement they offer that you’re not slogging away alone. Blogs by would-be writers who are clearly bad writers are also instructive, in another way. (“That’s awful. Have I been doing something like that? I’d better stop it, right now!”)

Sorry if I’ve stirred up a nest of worms here. I do understand that it may be extremely gratifying to spend, spend, spend on the “products” Julie has so well described. But the spenders should be entirely clear that they are only toeing the sand, not writing.

And, in case you’re interested, here’s my reply:

Nina, this is such an interesting – and well informed – perspective, thank you! I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve participated in – three one-week courses in total. But the value for me has come in many different ways. I have learned, or reinforced, certain technical skills, but that’s perhaps the least of the experience. I’ve also been made to think differently about character and structure. Thence to the wider benefits: I’ve met authors and learned from their insights and experience; I’ve met other people with ambitions to write – and made very special friendships; I’ve built the confidence to try writing in the first place, and keep going when I thought I was losing my way, and I’ve tapped into an imagination I never realised I had. Those are the real benefits. Technique, as you rightly observe, can come from books – both ‘how to’ books, and the simple act of devouring and analysing as much good fiction as you can.

I wasn’t encouraging people to spend, spend, spend on writerly learning – only throwing light on the many available ‘products’. They do help you to think like a writer, but quality is variable and one must tread carefully to obtain good value. It’s easy to take refuge in the excuse that one still has more to learn, rather than to just get on and write, and learn by experience.

I hope you don’t mind, but I think so much of your comment, that I’d like to copy it into a full post – it deserves not to be missed.

Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.