Posts Tagged Jane Friedman

Memoir: how we write about ourselves – an interview with Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin

How do we write about ourselves? How do we write a memoir that will have value for others? How do we find the necessary level of truth, empathy and self-examination? How reliably are we remembering and does that even matter? What about the other people who are part of our story – how do we approach writing about them?

I’ve posted before about memoir from various perspectives and of course I’ve had own dabblings, with Not Quite Lost.

For me, the very best memoirs perform a conjuring trick with your mind. Even if the author is nothing like you, they somehow seem to be writing experiences you’ve also had or recognise.

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to such a writer – Peter Selgin, whose memoir The Inventors was one of my favourite books of last year (though it was actually published in 2016, but who cares about that?) Peter is a literary powerhouse – novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University.  He’s also an artist, and the gorgeous pictures in this post are by him. (Find more of his art here.)

Roz Your memoir The Inventors is mainly written in second person, with your older self-addressing your younger self. I found this moving and effective; it allowed you to express complex emotions about your illusions and motivations, to bring your younger self alive in all his truth and complexity, while commenting from your perspective now. This is one of the challenges we face with memoir: how to be wiser than we were but also kind to our follies. I think your style choice balances them beautifully. How did you arrive at it? Was it something you’d seen in another book or did it happen for you spontaneously?

Peter My decision to write The Inventors in second person was mostly logical. At some point it became obvious to me that the younger version of myself whose story I was trying to tell, this thirteen-year-old boy, was in many ways a different creature than the fifty-something man I had become. I realized that I couldn’t inhabit that younger self fully or authentically; I couldn’t be him again. But I still wanted to tell his story. So instead of telling a story about him, as him, I told it to him. This gave me the sense of distance and perspective that every memoirist needs.

I think the hardest thing—or one of the hardest things—about writing memoir is how to be objective, honest, and fair, while avoiding all forms of sentimentality, of unearned emotion. I was intent on not romanticizing or glorifying my own past in any way. I didn’t want my younger self to come across as in any way heroic. But I was equally determined not to portray him as a victim (I’m no great fan of victim memoirs). The second person enforces acts as a sort of prophylactic against sentimentality. “You did this; you did that.”  It has—or should have—the objective authority of an instruction manual or a cake recipe.

In the past few years the second person has become very trendy, which makes me almost wish I hadn’t used it, but it really was necessary for this book. And I think with second person that’s the key: is it necessary? if not, don’t use it.

When your agent disagrees

Roz I saw you remark in a blogpost that your agent advised against second person because it wouldn’t be as commercially appealing.  We tread a fine line with our professional advisers, don’t we? Can you talk about handling advice that may be right in some ways, but wrong for your artistic direction? Your agent suggested a major change. How did you resist and still remain on good terms?

Peter My agent Christopher Rhodes was concerned that the second person would put off editors (this was before it became as trendy as it is now). At one point I rewrote the entire manuscript in the first person, but felt that it lost something crucial in the process. It no longer had that ruthlessly objective tone that had made it not only possible to write, but fun to write. And so I switched it back into second person again.

Ultimately, Christopher arrived at a brilliant solution: break up the second-person voice with another voice, with short intervals or inter-chapters in the first person. I used those intervals as opportunities to comment on the process of writing my own memoir and on memoir in general, little glimpses into the author’s process or notebook. In fact, I raided a few notebooks of mine for reflections to include in them. I’ve long been attracted to the sort of writing where the author’s inner process is exposed to the reader, the way the plumbing, ducts, and other normally hidden features of architecture are externalized at the Centre Pompidou.

Writing about real people

Roz Inevitably when we write memoirs, we involve other people. Many of them haven’t necessarily consented to become part of a book. Even if they do consent, they might not appreciate how we will use the material about them.

An example from my fiction – I have friends who jovially say ‘I’d love a part in your book’. They imagine a cameo where they’re doing something jolly and typical of them, like a special guest in a movie. They think it’s all surface. Instead we might write complex responses to our time with them, responses they might be entirely unaware we had. We cast them as part of our struggle to deal with life. We must write them this way in order to be truthful for the reader, but we also are aware it might create surprising and personal questions for the real people in our orbit. How did you handle this generally?

Peter On one hand, we should always respect the feelings of other people and try not to hurt people or use the medium of memoir irresponsibly or vindictively. But then we also have a responsibility toward telling the truth, or anyway trying to be as truthful and honest as possible. I’m lucky to have been born into a family that tolerates artistic needs and temperaments. While my egocentric father was more-or-less oblivious, my mother has always been supportive of my work as an artist, even when it’s come at her expense. Which isn’t to say that nothing I’ve ever written has given her offense. She was particularly offended by a passage in The Inventors in which I describe the family home as having gone somewhat to seed in the wake of my father’s death (of all the things that could have offended my mother about The Inventors, I never imagined it would be that passage).

The thing is, you can’t predict other people’s responses. It’s probably best not to try. Try to be as fair and objective as possible. Write to understand rather than out of anger, anguish, or self-pity; and never use the medium as an instrument of revenge, judgment, condemnation. The lens of self-righteous indignation is a poor instrument, I think, through which to view one’s life—let alone the world—clearly.

Roz In your book, there are two interesting ways you acknowledge this conundrum. You describe one of the main characters by just a label, ‘the teacher’. And at the end, you invite your brother George to write an afterword and correct anything he likes. He says that several details are wildly inaccurate from his point of view – even the kind of pen he had. This creates a sense of unreliability, but somehow does not undermine the book at all. Perhaps it also resonates neatly with your title, the men who invent themselves. Perhaps it also shows the complexity of reader belief, that what matters to them is inner honesty.

Unreliable narrators?

Peter As I see it, the memoirist’s job isn’t to tell “the truth,” which isn’t always possible. In fact it’s never possible at all, since “the truth” is a moving target that alters with the slightest shift in perspective or time. The memoirist’s job is to remember. And memory is entirely constructed.

Nor is it a stable construct. It keeps amending and refining itself, until finally what we remember isn’t “the truth” or even our own experience, but a story, a fiction based on experience, that we’ve told ourselves over and over again. With each telling the story acquires its own mythic reality independent of the facts, whatever those may have been.

Memory and truth are very different things. When students ask me, “How can I write about X if I don’t remember X?” I remind them that “to remember” is a verb, that there is no such thing as a memory that exists on a shelf in a storage room somewhere in our brains. Memories are like wind; they exist through the process of remembering. Whatever the act of remembering evokes, though it may not be “the truth,” still, it will do for memoir.

Roz You wrote two memoirs and a book of memoir essays. Why did they naturally split into three books?

Peter I’ve actually published only one memoir and one “memoir in essays.” A third memoir exists. Titled Painting Stories: a Life in Words and Pictures, that focuses on my love affair with those two things, how for many years they were at odds with each other, and how I finally succeeded in reconciling them. It has yet to find a publisher, in part because it needs to be produced in full colour, which is expensive. But everything we write is autobiographical, isn’t it — or rather everything we write is a blend of memory and imagination. But while fiction is driven mainly by the imagination, memoir has memory humming under its hood. It’s a matter of priorities.

The eclectic writer

Roz You have an eclectic mix of output. First of all, you’re an artist and graphic designer as well as writer. But within books you’re also quite diverse.  You have fiction short and long, memoirs and essays, three craft books, five books for children. This is, of course, what a naturally curious, creatively inclined, expressive person does. But commercial folks would say that’s too diffuse. I have a good friend who writes award-winning non-fiction and has also written a novel that is terrifically good, but his agent doesn’t want him to enter that market and won’t attempt to sell it. Have you experienced this kind of obstacle?

Peter The demands of the marketplace are hostile to versatility. If an artist has a successful “product,” the market demands that they produce more of the same. For me that’s always been a problem, since I hate to repeat myself. This was driven home to me many years ago, soon after I published my first book, a children’s book. The book having done well, my editor at Simon & Schuster was eager to see more from me. I met with him several times. At each of those meetings I must have shown him half a dozen ideas I had for more children’s books, each of which was of a completely different order than the one we’d published, none of which appealed to him. It became obvious that what he wanted more of the same. But I just couldn’t get excited by that. I envy artists who, having found a successful style or method, are able to repeat it over and over again with minor variations. That’s a formula for commercial success. But I’m afraid I just don’t have it in me.

Roz Neither do I.

When we teach writing…

Roz New question. You teach a university graduate program in creative writing. What do you think we teach when we teach writers?

Peter Every teacher is different, of course. My focus has always been on craft, and especially on what makes for good storytelling. What information does the reader need, when do they need it, and how should it best be delivered?

Roz That is brilliant. I always think good writing knows exactly how it’s handling the reader. What they’re directing the reader to notice. And to feel.

Peter Of course there’s no single right answer. But those are the kinds of issues I look at when analysing and diagnosing a piece of writing. I see myself as something of a clinician. Of course, when it comes to prescribing, the first question should always be, “What is it that this author has set out to do? How can I help them to write the book that they seem to want to write?” I reject the often-heard accusation that creative writing teachers necessarily mould their students into their own image. Of course it may be true in some cases. But in my experience, the shape of the “mould” is determined by our students’ drafts, by the vision they present me with.

Aside from Roz: You might like Peter’s series on Jane Friedman’s blog, Your First Page , a spin-off of one of his writing craft books.                    

Roz I spotted on Facebook recently that you’ve been revising a novel after feedback from agents and publishers. What kinds of things did you re-examine?

Peter The novel, titled Duplicity, is nominally about twins—but the way Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. It’s really about dualities, opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes of all sorts, including a phenomenon of physics known as “quantum entanglement,” by which a single entity may exist in more than one place at a time. Having had it rejected by nearly every publisher in the country, large and small, I decided to revise it—not heavily, but to get rid of as many of what I call “speed bumps” in the narrative road —words, sentences, paragraphs, in one or two cases whole passages that slowed things down unnecessarily. I like the analogy of a story or narrative as a guided tour with a destination, but also with detours and side trips to interesting sights along the way. Some things are worth pulling over for; others less so. In revising I got rid of a few side trips.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Peter The best advice I’ve heard given to a writer is what the titular character tells (actually writes in a note) to Buddy, his fledgling author younger brother in J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. He has Buddy ask himself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would he most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Seymour then tells his brother to “sit down shamelessly and write the thing [him]self.”

Find Peter and his books here and connect with him on Twitter @PeterSelgin . Find his beautiful artwork here.

And on that note, of things we’re writing ourselves, here’s my latest news

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Writers’ manifesto for 2017 – take your imagination seriously

A lucky turn of the radio dial this week and I got a real treat: the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine interviewing Brian Eno. The whole piece is worth listening to, but this exchange particularly caught me.

Vine was trying to pin down what made some of Eno’s collaborators so special – David Bowie, David Byrne, Bryan Ferry. He said this: they all had ‘a different quality of imagination’.

And Eno replied: ‘I think everyone has much more imagination than they give themselves credit for. But the difference is that some people take their imaginations seriously.’

Yes. One thousand per cent.

Today, I’d planned another kind of post. Usually my new year kick-off is publishing options for twenty-whatever. I began to write it. I realised as I did that not much had changed. What I’d say for 2017 is much the same as I’d said in 2016. And when I wrote 2016’s post I referred heavily to 2015’s. I’d lined up some good reference posts – Mark Coker of Smashwords, who looked back at 10 years of ebooks and forward to how the publishing ecosystem will continue to evolve. And to Jane Friedman, who give some great pointers for sizing up a publishing offer from a small imprint.

But lordy, it was a slog. I felt like I was rehashing material I’d already tackled exhaustively. Planet Earth did not need another article about how to publish wisely in 2017.

And then, by chance, out of my radio come Messrs Eno and Vine. Take your imagination seriously.

I thought that’s IT. That’s how I want to go into 2017. While we’re figuring out whether to self-publish or look for a deal, or mix a trad indie cocktail never tasted before, we must not lose sight of this.

What we do is about creation. Listening to what interests us, moves us. Growing as artistic, communicative beings, finding things that seem to peel back something we must say about our world and our lives. This is where the joy of our work comes from, where we make our distinctive contribution.

Eno said more:

‘It’s not just having ideas, but being prepared to push them through and try to make them work. Some people get discouraged very easily, but I think successful artists don’t. They get confidence in what they’re doing and they decide “I want to see how it works; I want to see what happens when I do it”.’

At a time when  we’re all making resolutions, and resolutions to help us keep our resolutions, and tips for success, I’d like to offer this one. Who’s with me?

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Thanks for the pic with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards Rusty Sheriff on Flickr

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Yes, social media DO work for writers – here’s how

warden abbey 2010 037 (2)Social media are an inextricable part of author life these days – and for some, the value seems dubious. Writers might flog themselves to blog, tweet until they turn blue, but months in, the magic hasn’t happened. Where are the book deals, the viral quantities of fame? Is it worth all the trouble?

I am here to tell you it is. But you may be looking at the wrong things, or have mistaken expectations. Social media have been an absolute transforming force for me, and if the channels were closed tomorrow I’d be howling for their return. So I thought I’d quantify the ways I’ve found it so worthwhile.

Quick background. I’ve been on social media since 2009. My major haunts are Twitter @Roz_Morris  and Facebook. And I blog, obvs. I probably get most of my results from those platforms as they’re where I’m most consistently active, but I also have profiles in the outer reaches of Linked In, G+, Pinterest and Tumblr (see my sidebar).

Building useful contacts

Networking is, of course, the number one aim. Like all professionals, we make our luck by bumping into the right person. Unless you’re born into a clan of literati, you have to build your own black book. Before social media, that came mainly from real-time encounters – book launches, writing groups, courses, conferences. Now we can strike up relationships without being on a guest list. On the internet, a cat can look at a queen (and will probably be photographed doing so).

And it’s much easier to keep our contacts warm. Quick DMs, text messages, Facebook posts are much less effort than letters, emails or – gulp – face-to-face coffee. Indeed, as most of us perform better on the page than at a party, written encounters probably allow us to be more genuine.

But Roz, you might say. What about the numbers? We might have thousands of friends and followers, and thousands we befriend and follow. Setting aside the times we might use social media just because the contact is fun, is it working for our careers? In that clamour, is anyone actually getting anywhere?

I can only speak for myself, of course. But I know this: my career under my own byline has been entirely generated from social media (if that sentence makes no sense, here’s an explanation). Because I blog, tweet etc, I have sold enough books to make it worth writing more; been offered paying jobs, speaking gigs, editing work and spots on online courses; found supporters among influential figures in the writing and publishing world. And I’ve met fantastic people who have become more than colleagues.

annular rings

Social media work. But for most of us, the results are best measured in annular rings, not by weeks or months. But look back several years and you start to see a big change.

(Of course, much comes down to how you use it. What to blog about? This post has some ideas.)

But there are other benefits too, and you don’t have to wait for them to mature.

I'm not skiving. It's research

I’m not skiving. It’s research

Social media helps create a work environment

Non-freelances ask me how I stay motivated if I don’t go to an office. I think they imagine I’m running amok watching Breaking Bad or surfing eBay or strolling to the shops or idling away an afternoon with my horse. Personally I’m too much of an obsessive to skive, but if you are too tempted by the distractions of home, social media can create a circle of colleagues to keep you accountable. On Facebook and Twitter, if you look, there are plenty of writers sharing their milestones or their to-do lists. They just finished a draft. Got edits back. Wrote or approved a press release. Signed up for a course. It’s like mini-Nanowrimo community, except you can use it year-round, 24/7.

If you know how to set up lists on Twitter and Facebook, you can assemble a posse of virtual team-mates whose work ethic will spur you to achieve. (And then make a separate list of people to hobnob with in downtime.)

Social media are a tool for book research

Somewhere, one of your contacts (or perhaps more than one) can verify a snippet of research or point you to a trustworthy source. Of course, you might also get misinformed nonsense, but hopefully you’ll have enough contacts for a reality check.

Social media are a resource for reliable advice on publishing, whether traditional or indie

Thanks to social media, the author corps 2016 is a savvy beast. We’re more clued up about fair book deals. We have our eyes open about the pitfalls and pleasures of the many publishing routes. We have access to fantastic watchdogs like Victoria Strauss, the Alliance of Independent Authors. Other terrific places for advice are Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer and Jane Friedman – generous, knowledgeable professionals who are raising the general level of publishing knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

But there are so many platforms…

Well you don’t have to do all of them. Which platforms should you choose? I only know what works for me, so put these questions to social media expert Adam Waters in this edition of my radio show.

Although social media might seem ephemeral, they are actually permanent. Years on, you might feel a twitch on a thread, and hook a new person.

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Over to you. What social media platforms do you like? How do you use them? What works for you and what doesn’t? If you look back over the long term, what have social media helped you accomplish? Any questions? Let’s consult the hive mind.

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How to become a ghost-writer – post at Jane Friedman

ghost - janeSo here’s the final part of the ghost-writing blogfest – and perhaps the most important. If you’re interested in becoming a ghost-writer, what’s involved?

In this post at Jane Friedman’s blog, I outline the mindset and skills needed, some of the challenges you might encounter …. and most of all, why ghost-writing is an attractive option.

Step this way for the insider track.

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All aboard the ghost(writing) train… and get an early bird deal for my course

For the next few days, this blog will have a ghost-writing flavour. The reason? I’m launching my online course.

It looks something like this:

Become a ghost-writer Roz MorrisNow, if ghost-writing is not your thing, rest assured that this focus is temporary. So if you’re new here, or you’re worrying that the blog has taken an unwanted diversion, sit back and the posts on writing, writing life and publishing will be restored in a few days. There’s an Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday as well. But I’m hoping that you’ll find a few interesting snippets in the launch posts for my course, even if you’ve got your hands totally full with your own writing.

Jane-Friedman-1And if the idea of ghost-writing DOES tickle your fancy, let me also mention that the course is supported and hosted by publishing industry legend Jane Friedman, co-founder of The Hot Sheet newsletter for authors and former publisher of Writer’s Digest.

You should also know there’s an early-bird discount. From now until 17 May, you can register at US$149. On that date, the course goes up to its regular price of US$199. Step this way

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Lessons learned from making a contemporary fiction box set – guest post at Jane Friedman

janefboxsetWomen-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlHow do you organise seven time-strapped authors to collaborate on a project? Who does what, especially the tedious jobs like proof reading? How do you decide on an image, a price,  a name, a thrust for the publicity campaign, how much to spend on advertising?

Indeed, how do you get seven individuals to agree on anything?

How do you get the attention of the press – and is that worthwhile? What’s the difference between a proper promotion strategy and flinging the book into the market to fend for itself?

As you know, I’ve been taking part in a box set release with six other authors. We started work, in secret, back in November. Now, Jane Friedman has grilled us about the lessons learned in making a nice notion into an actual live product. Do come over.

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Is back story sabotaging your novel? Guest spot at Jane Friedman

friedmanI’m at Jane Friedman’s blog today, where she’s showcasing a section of the plot book that deals with back story.

Misusing back story is one of the most common problems I see as an editor. Writers bury their best events in the back story, and then struggle to think up enough spectacular ideas for the main narrative. Or they rely on secret, past wounds instead of character development. Or they set up secret traumas that are never used in the forward action. Lastly, they heap all the back story into the beginning of the book, stalling the action – the famous back story dump.

But back story is also important. It lets you write with authority. And there are moments when you can play it out and deeply enrich your readers’ experience. So how can you wield back story with panache?

Hop along to Jane’s blog to find out.

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How not to bore the reader with trivial details – book excerpt at Jane Friedman

friedTrivia is the stuff of life but you can easily have too much. There’s a fine line between sketching a realistic amount and boring the reader with shoals of baffling blather.

Today, Jane Friedman has showcased an excerpt from the characters book on her blog, and she chose the tutorial where I explain this tricky balancing act. If you’re curious about the book – or if you simply want to know how much of your carefully crafted background to include – come on over and see.

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Blogging for authors – should you be self-hosted? Part 2: two bloggers who favour self-hosting

Yesterday I discussed why an author might not want to self-host their blog and how to make the best of platform-hosted blogging. But many authors strongly advocate self-hosting – so today I’m going to ask two of them why.

First up is author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna has built a formidable following among writers who want to take charge of their publishing careers and make the best of what the internet can offer. She also develops multimedia courses and she’s hit the bestseller lists with her two thrillers.

Joanna, why did you chose self-hosting?
I have control over everything – including affiliate sales and plugins that you can’t use on free blogs. Google takes you more seriously so you get better SEO results and rank better on Google.

You use a paid-for theme, don’t you? Why?
I use Thesis, which has SEO design in the back end and is very easy to customise so it looks professional. I model success and all the top blogs are self-hosted and use premium or custom design themes. Why look like a second-rate blog?

Is self-hosting and/or using a paid-for theme more hassle? Do you need to be more tech literate?
I have Joel the Blog Tech guy as help but once the site is set up, the back end is the same as WordPress. So no, you don’t have to be tech literate.

How much does this all cost you?
My hosting is less than USD $10 per month, my premium theme was USD $70.

How much do novel-writers need to worry about search engine optimisation (SEO) and what key things should they do?
You need basic SEO – good site design, so that spiders can crawl you. Free themes have a particular SEO rating and my first blog was really crappy for this until I learned about it. Then you should use an SEO plugin. I use All-in-One SEO. Also you should use consistent keywords for your niche and have a lot of relevant content.

My second self-hosted blogger is Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Jane is a former publisher at Writer’s Digest and a prolific and respected speaker on writing, publishing, and the future of media. Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, and Mr. Media. She has consulted with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Jane, prevailing wisdom seems to be that self-hosted is always better. Why is this?
Because not self-hosting means:

  • You’ll have a weaker functioning site overall (customisation is usually quite limited)
  • You rarely have access to advanced analytics unless you’re allowed to install Google Analytics (which can be important, see below)
  • You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.

Are these considerations relevant to novelists?
If you’re planning to be a novelist for life, yes. You should be concerned about the long-term potential, growth, and stability of your site.

Whether self-hosted or not, why might authors use a paid-for or upgraded theme – apart from being able to look distinctive? How much does it generally cost?
The cost is very little (generally less than USD $100), given that a premium theme offers robust or improved functionality, as well as better looks (and often better readability). Also, premium themes generally have better SEO tools.

How much do novelists need to worry about SEO? Do readers really find them through Google searches?
If readers buy your book, or hear about your book through any medium, they might be likely to google your name – in which case, your site should be easily found. Often, you don’t have to ‘worry’ about SEO for this to happen as long as your site meets basic standards (usually the case with any premium-theme sites) and you don’t have an exceptionally common name.

I like to say that if no one can find you through Google, it’s like you don’t exist.

Is Google all there is to SEO? What key things should writers do to increase visibility?
Not exactly, but Google is 70% of the search market. The best thing to do is to use a premium theme that focuses on SEO, which will help ensure your site is looking its best when search engine crawlers visit.

This is my SEO strategy – how does it look to you? I write attention-grabbing headlines with key words, and use plenty of tags, including my name, my book titles and keywords for my subject area (in this case ‘writing a novel’).
This looks fine! There are other steps, such as making sure your site’s meta title, meta description, and meta tags are appropriate for the type of reader you’re trying to attract. These things are also adjustable on a post-by-post basis if you’re blogging. When you get a premium theme focused on SEO, generally these fields are available for you to adjust as needed. It helps you customise what exactly appears when your single posts (or when your site) comes up in Google search (site title, site description, brief description of post, etc).

How can writers check how well their measures are working?
You can tell whether your efforts are working if you improve your search ranking for your name or book titles (how high in the listings you appear), and/or if you see your organic search results increase—something you can watch, over time, in Google Analytics.

……

Thanks Joanna and Jane – and thanks also to Catherine Ryan Howard for helping me argue for platform-hosted blogs yesterday.

Anything to add? Cautionary tales, theories…. has your mind been changed by anything you’ve read here? I’m sticking with WordPress hosting for now, but Jane’s suggestions have sent me back to my site descriptions to make them work harder at grabbing readers. If you’re going to do anything new, tell me in the comments!

If you’re new to blogging and want some basics, you might find this post of mine helpful – How I get time to blog as well as write  and Your new writing blog: avoid these faux-pas.

If you are thinking of upgrading to a bespoke theme, you might like this by Dan Blank – How I redesigned my website.

Joanna has scores of helpful posts about blogging – starting here. (And we’ve joined forces to create a multimedia course How To Write A Novel. More than 4 hours of video and audio with 86-page transcription and slides)


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Blogging – should authors go self-hosted or not? Part 1: two bloggers who don’t

You must self-host. You mustn’t use an off-the-peg theme. You mustn’t, on pain of ethernal damnation, have links in blue Times Roman.

There’s a lot of strident advice about blogging. Even that remark about blue Times Roman came from serious advice on a high-profile site trying to tell quivering newbies what they should do. Perhaps blue links matter in some quarters, but what matters to an author who wants to connect with readers? Should you be spending money on hosting, and on customised, SEO-friendly blog themes?

Today and tomorrow I’m going to examine both sides of the electric fence. Four bloggers, evenly split between self-hosted and not. On the ‘not’ side are me and Catherine Ryan Howard. On the self-hosting side are writer and author entrepreneur Joanna Penn and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman.

In a way I speak from both sides. I started with a self-hosted blog, when a friend insisted I camp out in a corner of his webspace (because he felt it was infra dig to be anything but self-hosted). And it didn’t go well. More about that in a moment.

You’ve lost me already. What does all this mean?

Quick tutorial – your blog is kept on a server so anyone in the world can read it and lots of people can access it at the same time. With self-hosting, you pay for disk space (also known as a domain) and you can put whatever you like on it – blog software of your choice, websites, pay buttons, video, anything. With platform-hosted, like WordPress.com and Blogger, your files are kept by WordPress and Blogger, you can’t customise the design or have pay buttons or video – although paid upgrades will allow some features. It’s like the difference between renting a house – with landlord’s furniture and rules – and owning the whole space outright.

Just to confuse you, there’s a version of WordPress for use on self-hosted blogs – WordPress.org.

With freedom comes responsibility

The biggest difference between the two is, obviously, freedom. This can go rather wrong. When I was self-hosted, I imported a cool plugin that broke my entire blog. I would never have got up again if not for (another) expert friend who was prepared to poke around the upper, scary database levels and unravel the damage. (Note to self: self-hosting is not for the insanely curious.)

The other problem is security. Most blogging systems are open source – which means the code is available for anyone to read, and hackers can find the loopholes easily. WordPress.com and Blogger don’t let you change anything that threatens security, but on self-hosted blogs there are no padlocks. My self-hosted blog got hacked – which might or might not have been because I was sharing with a friend of less secure habits. But after the stress of that I decided I was out of my depth and didn’t have time to sort out software and security headaches. I rebooted on WordPress.com, which has been able to do everything I need.

Get  customising

Obviously you don’t want your blog to look like everyone else’s, but there are only a limited number of visual templates (themes). However, there’s a lot you can do to customise. My blogs all use the same template, Fusion, which I’ve tweaked with my own headers and logos. You can buy upgrades to let you customise even more, but everything I’ve done is free.

Fusion tweaked for my main author site

…and for my novel’s blog

But themes aren’t just about the blog’s appearance. Themes also allow you to draw in new readers through the hocus-pocus of SEO – search engine optimisation.

SEO

Here, the paid-for themes have an advantage as they are designed to worm their way more effectively into search pathways. Tomorrow I’ll discuss this in more detail with Jane and Joanna, but there are ways you can optimise your free non-self-hosted blog:

  • use attention-grabbing headlines with key words
  • optimise post URLs – Google looks at post URLs, so I make sure mine show the headline, not the post date or number. Your blog will probably have an option for changing this
  • use plenty of tags – you’ll see my posts all have shoals of tags, including my name, my book titles, and general tags like ‘write a novel’. Those tags are not for you, reading this page – you already know every post is related to writing novels. Those tags are for Google. Make sure each post contains the keywords for the specific post and the keywords for your blog in general.

Buy a URL

I also bought my own general blog URL and pointed it to the free one. The rationale is that when someone hears about you they search for you.com or yourbook.com. (It’s usually .com they plump for first, even if you’re as English as Earl Grey tea). So the actual web address of this blog is nailyournovel.wordpress.com but for a few dollars I bought nailyournovel.com and through a very easy process, pointed it at this blog. I did it for My Memories of a Future Life too.

Over to Catherine

Anyway, I promised you a second opinion on platform-hosted blogs, so here’s Catherine Ryan Howard, of the indefatigable and unfatiguable Catherine, Caffeinated…

How did you start?

‘I started off with Blogger.com, but I always felt there was something about Blogger templates that said ‘amateur’. This was back in late 2009 so chances are they’ve improved since then but when I went to WordPress, it felt like a whole new level of professionalism and the choice of themes was just fantastic. I think it’s a credit to WordPress that I’ve had enquiries about who designed my blog – people think it’s been done professionally but it’s a free WordPress theme (Bueno) I love how easy WordPress.com blogs are to use, how easy it is to integrate them with the rest of your online activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc) And my all-time fave WP feature is their custom menu, which enables you to link to external sites (or wherever you like) from the menu at the top. For example, on top of my blog I have a ‘newsletter’ tab, and when you click it on it, you’re brought to the MailChimp sign up form.’

Is there anything you pay for?

‘The only thing I pay for is the domain upgrade, i.e. www.catherineryanhoward.com instead of www.catherineryanhoward.wordpress.com.’

What limitations are there on a WordPress-hosted blog?

‘Paypal buttons is the big thing – you can’t sell anything on your WP blog although you can have a donate button.’ (editor’s ahem!… it’s possible to fudge it – see the How To Write A Novel course in my sidebar…)

‘Also a lot of external widgets don’t work. BUT I think this is a tiny price to pay for such a great, easy service that lets me have a professional home online for very little cost.’

What about SEO?

‘I don’t worry about SEO at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe I should, but I’m quite happy with the way things are for me and my blog at the moment. The only thing I want – and I have it – is for my blog to be the first result when people google my name. I think if your blog is the core of your business, you should worry about things like that. But for a writer, their books are the core – or should be, anyway.’

Roz again… I couldn’t agree more. So here are my tips for making the most of a non-self-hosted blog, if we can use such a horrible term…

  1.  Tag your posts with an eye on SEO
  2. Get your own URL
  3. Check your URLs show your post headline, not just a date or a post number
  4. Find a theme that you can shape to look distinctive (so people really feel it’s your online home)
  5. Remember your online presence isn’t just a blog – you reach much further if you use social media as well.

If you blog, what platform do you use and why? Do you have any thoughts on self-hosted versus platform hosted? Share in the comments…. and come back tomorrow when Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn give their reasons for self-hosting.

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here and you can add your name to the mailing list here.

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