Enabler or Gatekeeper? Choosing a Good Writing Course

Sometimes it seems that people who run writing courses are more like bouncers than ushers, taking your money and keeping you out of the club whilst claiming to ‘show you the way in’*. Some courses seem to promise much but leave you with little more than an overwhelming impression of how hard it all is.

(*this reminds me of an idea I once had. I used to suffer a lot from spam emails so I devised a special place in hell for spammers where every day someone comes along claiming to show them the way out of hell. They are compelled to believe these people but every one of them is a scammer.)

I don’t entirely blame them; it’s hard to make money from writing alone and you gotta do something. On the other hand if all you’re doing is taking people’s money and telling them how impossible it is to get where you are, that’s called ‘pulling the ladder up behind you’ and you’re doing them a disservice.

I do run the odd poetry workshop in which I try to help people release their creativity; however I don’t offer workshops oriented at success. This is for two reasons – 1, not having been ‘successful’ to any great degree myself, why would anyone take me seriously? and 2, it’s not what I’m good at (see point 1). What I’d like to do is offer more workshops on releasing and exploring creativity. But do people want that? I have a horrible suspicion that I’d give them my best stuff and then a voice would pipe up saying plaintively ‘this is all very well, but can you tell us how to get published?’ Such is the society we live in.

So here’s my advice when choosing writing courses:

1.Look for as many free courses as you can find. Free doesn’t necessarily mean worthless and you may pick up some valuable stuff as well as making contacts.

2. If you’re being asked to shell out money, check out the profile of the person organising it. If they’re offering a route to success but haven’t achieved much themselves, does that add up?

3. Does the course seem to offer a lot? Might it be offering too much? Check out user reviews from previous courses.

4. Is this what you really need right now? Call me arrogant but in terms of finding my voice I’ve always thought I was my own best teacher. There’s no substitute for reading as widely as possible and just writing as much as you can. No amount of courses can compensate for the lack of a writing habit. Equally, if you’re not at the publishing stage yet you don’t need a course on how to get an agent.

If you’re unsure what’s out there I recommend signing up to writers’ groups and websites. The Insecure Writers Support Group has a presence on Facebook and Writers Write gives daily writing prompts as well as running courses. You can also subscribe to the email lists of publishers and magazines without having to buy anything (I subscribe to the newsletters of Room magazine, the Royal Society of Literature – which produces the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – and other local literary fora.) These will tell you of upcoming competitions and submission opportunities. And if you’re a woman there’s no better magazine to subscribe to than Mslexia: as well as offering opportunities within the magazine there are comprehensive listings in the back. I’m also subscribed to Granta magazine, if it ever arrives…but that’s more for reading than submitting to.

It’s amazing what you can get for free, but whatever course you go on there’s no substitute for a good writing habit.

Now, apropos of which, here’s my upcoming course on ‘Developing a Good Writing Habit.’

LOL. Though actually I could totally do that…

Kirk out

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When Will I Be Back on Facebook?

I’ve been off the endless blue pages for three weeks now, and I can honestly say I’m not missing it.  On the contrary, nowadays there is so little of what I like ie sharing with genuine friends, swapping ideas, gathering information – and so much of what I thoroughly dislike, that I’m feeling more than ever happy to be free of it.  This morning I happened to look over OH’s shoulder at his Facebook profile and saw a big post saying:

Make Penelope the biggest C*** of 2018

What?  What the actual?  This is like playground graffitti but so much worse.  I feel awful when I see something like that, and I don’t want to be feeling awful first thing in the morning – or indeed at any time of day.  There’s very little you can do about those posts: reporting you to Facebook doesn’t seem to achieve anything (they’re far more concerned about removing pictures of breastfeeding and selling your data) and attempting to remonstrate with the person who posted it will only garner you a whole heap of abuse.  No thank you.  There’s nothing Facebook has to offer which could possibly compensate me for all the crap on there.

So now that I’ve conquered my social media addiction, what next?  I managed to buy a book fairly cheaply today without going on Amazon, which was great.  I’m making efforts to shop more ethically (not that I do shop, much) so I checked out other retailers – Goodreads gives you a list – and found Alibris:

https://www.alibris.co.uk

which has a list of independent stockists.  I managed to order a second-hand hardback copy reportedly in good condition for £3.50 including shipping.

Not bad eh?

And our Xmas tree is up too…

Could I BE more virtuous?

 

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Kirk out

Face Trumps Book

I have spent the last couple of weeks not being on Facebook.  At first it was hard getting out of the habit of checking my updates every half-hour, but after a couple of days it stopped figuring in my consciousness: my mind was clearer and more importantly my emotions were calmer.  No more anger, no more upset, no more reading posts and not knowing whether to laugh or scream, no more having to ignore insults when I express the mildest disagreement, no more gloomy world-view, no more angry echo-chamber.  I shan’t yet delete my account but I will keep it in a coma until I decide what to do with it.

Along with this disengagement from Facebook I have stopped watching or listening to any news.  I do think it’s important to keep up with what’s happening, but whether hourly bulletins and a constant drip-drip of articles on social media actually help you to do this is debatable.  Instead I look at online news sites and a couple of times a week we get a newspaper: it may be a generational thing but I find I don’t concentrate at all well reading from a screen.  All of this means I can engage with the news when I’m ready rather than having it come at me willy-nilly; it means I can follow up whichever stories I want and leave the rest.  It also frees me from the obligation to check out stories on Facebook to see whether they’re fake or not – or, most irritatingly, whether they are outdated.

I am calmer and happier now; the world seems less threatening, and those things I thought I’d miss out on – like contact with friends and keeping up with events – well, they haven’t materialised.  I keep in touch via messenger, text and email and, the most old-fashioned way of all, by face-to-face communication.  You can’t beat it…

Kirk out

Time Spent Poorly?

Lately I’ve been back and forth with Facebook a lot.  On the one hand it’s my major way of keeping up with things; socialising with friends, finding out what’s going on and checking out news stories.  On the other hand it doesn’t take long for me to become either angry or depressed or both, and that’s not good.  As soon as I notice that reaction I close the tab, only to go back on there an hour or two later for the human interaction I barely otherwise get, due to writing being such a solitary occupation.  It’s very difficult when the reaction to your work from the wider word is silence (though I did have a rather nice rejection today, of which more anon) so I crave comments from other writers and thoughts like my daughter’s this morning (‘I’m still reading your novella and it’s really good.’)  I can’t get enough of that stuff.

So today I thought I’d try an experiment.  I’ll set a timer on my phone and see how long it takes me to get unacceptably depressed or angry.  But as many people have spotted, observing a phenomenon changes that phenomenon: the very act of timing it meant that I was more detached from what I was reading and able to observe both it and myself from a distance, as it were.  The result was that I lasted five minutes.  If that doesn’t sound very long, my usual time limit is (I would guess) less than two.  Unless I’m chatting on messenger it’s not long before several horrible news stories hit me and I can’t take any more.

Maybe I should set a stopwatch every time?

The rejection email I had this morning was not too bad: it said they’d passed my story ‘Heart 2 Heart’ onto the editors (ie effectively shortlisting it) but that it didn’t fit with the rest of the issue.  Since they have different editors each time I am by no means downhearted – appropriately enough, given the title (if you’re interested the story is about a woman who has a heart transplant which ends up changing her personality in drastic ways.)

I may be a little downheaded though…

Two more stories going off to The Fiction Desk today.

Kirk out

PS  Good luck to everyone doing NaNo

My Seven Tips for Better Blogging

One of my recent followers is The Art of Blogging:

https://artofblogging.net

where you can find tips on how to make your blog better; all of which set me thinking, what are my tips on blogging?  Do I even have any?  Is the way I blog personal to me and not relevant to anyone else?  Well, let’s find out.

I began blogging because as a writer I wanted readers – and blogging is an instant way to get them.  In theory.  In theory, you just hit ‘publish’ and your words are out there in the world for all to read.  But blogging is like a miniature version of self-publishing; the publishing’s the easy part: in order to get readers you have to do the marketing.  Which presents me with a problem: I’ve always eschewed self-publishing because frankly the thought of doing all that self-promotion makes me feel a bit faint and then I have to go and have a lie-down.  Nowadays we’re all supposed to be self-promoting, self-starting, self-aggrandising little market forces, and that’s just not me.  And what’s the point of writing if you have to be someone else in order to succeed?  So I guess my first tip is this:

Tip No. 1 – Be Yourself. 

If you don’t know what that is, you’ll find out in the process of doing this stuff, but don’t assume you have to be like others in order to succeed.  You are unique and you have unique and individual things to say.  So whilst you can learn from others, don’t try to be them.  Be you.

Tip No. 2 – Communicate. 

It sounds obvious, but make sure others can understand what you’re saying.  If you’re blogging on a specialist topic don’t use words a lay person wouldn’t know: people have very limited tolerance for looking up words.  As I’m continually telling OH whose main blog can be found at:

https://zerothly.wordpress.com

try to look at it from the reader’s point of view.  Are you being too technical?  Too abstruse?  Too long-winded?  This brings us on to:

Tip No. 3 – Don’t Go On And On.

OH maintains that a post of 2000 words is ‘not too long’: I disagree and aim for around 500.  There’s no set limit but I tend to think that more than 1500 words puts a strain on the reader’s time and attention span.  Remember, you’re competing with 1001 other things on the internet, all demanding time and attention.  Which brings me to:

Tip No. 4 – Make It Worth Their While.

Just because you’re interested in something, doesn’t mean your readers will be.  If you’re describing an experience, make them feel it; if you’re giving instructions make them clear and doable, so they’ve really learnt something.  Nothing is more frustrating than a ‘how-to’ blog which skips important sections or assumes knowledge you don’t have: nothing is more dull than a description of someone else’s holiday which doesn’t take you there.

Tip No. 5  How Often?

When I started blogging I made it a rule to blog every day.  My posts were a lot shorter then; but the every day rule was a daily discipline for me, so that I’d get into the habit.  Nowadays I’m more relaxed and several days can go by without a post.  There’s no hard and fast rule but I think that too much content can weary the reader: you don’t want your followers to be getting too many emails.  On the other hand, if I’ve been absent for more than a week, I tend to find my readers drifting away, so I post something to let them know I’m still here.  There’s no point in posting just for the sake of it, but you don’t want people to forget you – so find a balance which works for you.

Tip No. 6 – Don’t Be Ordinary.

Avoid cliches and everyday phrases; without being contrived, try to think of different ways to describe things.  Depending on the topic, use humour; and if you’re writing about something serious like death or depression or suicide, be helpful.  Don’t leave your reader on a total downer – nobody likes that.

Tip No. 7 – Edit.  Then Edit.  Then Edit.

Don’t just write, finish and hit ‘publish’.  Your readers deserve better; hit the ‘preview’ button and check it through.  Then click on ‘edit’ (I usually bring this up in a new tab so I can check back and forth) and look for errors: it’s amazing how many typos slip past even in a few hundred words.  Then look at how you’ve expressed yourself.  Is it clear?  Does it flow?  Could you substitute a colon or semi-colon for that full-stop?  Are your sentences too long, too short, just right?  Could the vocab be sharpened up?  Does the title hook you in?  What about the first sentence?  Think of it like a newspaper article – you need an attention-grabbing headline and then a really good first paragraph (though as with tags, make it relevant to the article).  None of this means the rest of it doesn’t matter, but hooking people in is half the battle.

Tip No. 8 – Categories, Tags and Sharing

These are the kinds of things you usually get tips on and I’m not an expert on these so I’ll just say this: categories are a means for you and others to understand the areas the blog covers and search it accordingly so think about how to divide up your content in the best way.  As for tags, don’t misrepresent the post.  If there’s nothing about Johnny Depp, don’t put him in a tag just to get more readers: if people want Johnny Depp they can go to other blogs.  Make your tags short, punchy and above all relevant.  For example, when I’ve finished this post I’ll probably put tags like ‘top tips for blogging’ or ‘how to perfect your blog’.  Tags are picked up by search engines and are a really good way of getting accidental readers, so make them count.  As for sharing, social media is a great way to reach more people; I connected my blog to Facebook years ago and got a sharp spike in views.  I’m not on Twitter but if you are, use it: I recommend connecting to any social media platforms you’re on.  You may find readers comment on those sites rather than on the blog itself, which some find annoying; but I tend to think all comments are worthwhile and a basis for engagement.  Which brings us to:

Tip No. 9 – Respond!

When readers take the time and trouble to comment, respond.  If you’re in the fortunate position of having too many comments to reply to, make some general response.  Always thank people for commenting: not every time as that becomes a bit wearisome, but make sure commenters feel listened to and appreciated.  One of the most enjoyable aspects for me is engaging in conversation with readers.

So, turns out I do have some tips for blogging – so please comment below and let me know what you think.  If you like the blog, please click the ‘follow’ button on the bottom right, so you’ll get an email whenever I post.  I cherish my followers – and I will ALWAYS look at your blog when you follow me.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

I Have Been Paged – or Rather, I Have Paged Myself

I had another little notification from WordPress yesterday.  They’re always changing things around here and for some reason they have seen fit to discontinue connections to people’s Facebook profiles.  Wait, now that I read the email it’s actually Facebook who are doing this, not WordPress, so let’s not blame them.  Whoever it is, it came as a bit of a blow because I get lots of readers via Facebook, and although it’s annoying when people don’t comment on here because they’ve done it on there, it does at least mean that you get dialogue; and dialogue is one of the main reasons for getting a blog in the first place.  Writing can be quite isolating, especially if you’re not yet at the stage where you get to do lots of performances, book signings, festivals and so on; so a blog is one of the main ways you can have dialogue with readers.  When I first set fingers to keyboard I was scared of getting negative comments, but I’ve had very few of those.  I’ve dealt with persistent offenders by blocking them, and I once got rid of a troll by asking him to send me some of his own poetry as it was obviously so much better than mine.  I’ve had radio silence ever since.

No, most comments are lovely.  They are interesting, stimulating and, if not always appreciative, at least never hostile.  I have come across points of view which I would never have encountered otherwise, and had conversations with people I would never have met.

But one of the main reasons for writing a blog is what OH calls a ‘brain dump’.  You have thoughts going round and round in your head and you want to do something with them, so you forge them into a blog post.  In so doing you are able to examine these thoughts and see where they lead.  You can evaluate them and judge whether they are worthwhile.  You can hone and refine them – and in so doing, hone and refine your own thought processes.

What’s not to like?

So please, if you’re on Facebook, check out my page and ‘like’ it:

https://www.facebook.com/saradagray/

Kirk out