I recently came across a snippet of a quote from Letters to a Young Poet. It struck a chord, so I went looking for the original and found that, in the first of the letters, the author advises his reader to

Find out the reason that commands you to write… ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And… if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity…

I take this to mean that if expressing your thoughts and imagination as the written word is a compulsion that’s with you at all times… then you’re a writer and need to incorporate this fact into your life. Perhaps, like me, you fill up journal after journal with thoughts and observations. Perhaps you write for your own pleasure and self-expression… perhaps you have book contracts to fill (or aspire to). Maybe you’re a freelancer and have targets to achieve or a blogger with weekly blogpost deadlines you’ve committed to. Whatever your style or medium, if you write because, like me, you must – then you’re a writer.journals

There’s another part to the equation, of course, and that’s the reader. Having someone (or many some ones) read your work adds another dimension to it. They provide feedback that, whilst fraught with possible dangers, enriches the writing experience. This requires finding and developing an audience (other than your nearest-and-dearest).

So, for those of us who don’t have a commercial publisher behind us, how do we do this? Two very scary – although hyphenated – words: Self-promotion.

Many writers (including me) find that we stall out at this ‘look at me’ stage, feeling self-conscious at the thought of big-noting ourselves. Certainly, my social/family background impressed upon me that this simply isn’t something that one does. (It’s not nice to boast, dear.)

But, unless there’s a marketing team behind you doing all the hard work, how do you get people to read your blog/book/work if you’re not going to promote it? Short answer: you won’t.

I pondered on this  at great length – both before and after publishing Girdle of Bones – and concluded that blogging is a very useful tool in this arena. It allows for a level of self-promotion that can initially feel almost anonymous. But, as time goes by – and my audience grows, I feel increasingly connected – and surprised.

Anyhow, this is the short list of self-promotion tips I came up with, garnered from a combination of experience and research:

  • If you don’t have a blog, start one. If you do, then provide a social media sharing option to encourage your readers to share. I use the social media feather plugin on WordPress – it’s free and it works well.
  • Write good stuff. Or, more precisely, always strive to write better stuff – ideally, the very best content you can.
  • It’s a good idea to try to get your readers/audience to react to your blogposts – and to be interactive with those who do. Ideally, this generates chatter on a topic, which makes it more visible, which generates chatter, which…
  • Don’t push your barrow to hard – it puts people off. Instead, keep your content interesting and be responsive to reader/audience comments.
  • Social media. Yup, it’s here to stay so just hop on board for the ride. Base your choice of platform/s on your mythical/actual audience. If they’re into Facebook, use that. Choose one or two others (e.g. Twitter and Instagram) and update reasonably frequently – this helps to keep you in the public eye.
  • And then there’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – this is something I’m new to, but it’s doesn’t appear very labour intensive. I’ve installed the All in One SEO Pack to see how that goes.https://wordpress.org/plugins/all-in-one-seo-pack/
  • Use a free keyword tool  to see what comes up when you enter key words or phrases relating to your blogpost topics. Some combinations of words get more hits – so try to use variations of those in your posts and title if you can. This will make it easier for a potential reader to hunt you down and join your community – or, as I think of it, my pack 🙂

Simples, right? 😛

My parents read to me when I was little – which is probably where I learned to love stories. More than that, I learned to love the spoken word. I find a beautifully narrated story the most fabulous entertainment imaginable. The combination of a well modulated voice and a rousing tale is right there at the top of my ‘best things ever’ list 🙂

Fast forward to when I was at uni. There I noticed that academic prose tends to be littered with the sort of language that professors and tutors require – but which doesn’t make for easy narration. I chose to avoid that as far as possible, reading my essays and assignments out loud after writing them so that I could get a sense of how they sounded.  My goal? To achieve words that scan well and can be read out loud without awkward pauses. This often required cutting out unnecessary words and/or complex language in order to express my thoughts more efficiently.

I’d type and scribble – then read it all out loud – then tweak what I’d written until it sounds right. Then I’d do it all again. It made me think about what I’d written differently. Hearing the words gave them different meaning, helped me to understand my research differently and make linkages I might otherwise have missed.

My postgrad supervisors enjoyed this aspect of my monthly reporting. We’d all sit down and get the social niceties out of the way, then I’d ask them ‘Are you sitting comfortably…? Then let’s begin’.  Flipping open my journal, I’d read my report to them as a story – a compilation of my research activities, thoughts and analysis over the past month. And they’d sit back and enjoy it. Afterwards we’d have a discussion about the research, but no session was complete without story time. It was enormous fun and we all remembered a great deal more about the project from month to month than we might otherwise have done.

This way of being flowed through into how I structured my thesis and, later, my memoir. It’s how I choose to write (for fun and profit).  The dogs have never been much of an audience, really, but they’re very patient with my ramblings… Perhaps they know that as my own first audience I will also always be my harshest critic?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Write honestly… It sounds like a no-brainer, really, doesn’t it? After all, why would anyone write any other way? And yet many people do. I wonder if the experience, for them as writers, is as unsatisfying as it is for me as a reader?

When I read, I immerse myself in the stories as they unfold. The richer and more beautiful the language, the more it compels me. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean that I’m necessarily drawn to great literature. But I am drawn to well told stories – ones that have depth and character, language that means something to me and images that stay with me after I put the book down.

When I started to write for fun rather than work, that’s what I hoped to achieve. I joined a writing group and the thing I remember most clearly from the first session is being told to ‘write from the heart’. I wasn’t too clear on what that meant at the time, but I’ve since figured out that it means to write authentically, to use words and language that resonate with me as a writer – and as a reader. In essence, to write honestly.

dr seuss quote 1990

So when I write I use language  – and vernacular – I’m comfortable with. As a result, my writing sounds like me. It’s a risky thing to do and I often feel vulnerable because of it – but that’s what writing honestly means for me – and it’s taught me a lot about myself.

I tend not to write reviews, but I wrote this in my journal in response to a couple of books I read:

These books became my constant companions, in my head when not in my hands, the characters wandering through my days with me. I felt so rich and full and satisfied when I turned the last page – and yet lonely and sad as well, which was unexpected… Sometimes words are so beautiful, so rich and plump with meaning and shape that I want to scoop them up with both hands and devour them. At the same time I want to enfold myself in them, savor the taste of individual vowels and consonants that make up each word, each sentence. I yearn to be able to write like that – to create collections of words as stories that capture and enrapture a reader so completely.

Since that’s the sort of response I’d like to get from a reader, it was  both a delight and a surprise to receive feedback last night from someone who’s just read my memoir. She rang up to tell me that she’d spent the whole day reading Girdle of Bones, hadn’t been able to put it down (other than for obligatory pitstops), and had read it from cover to cover in one sitting.  “It was amazing, thank you,” she said.

To say this feedback made me feel warm all over (and very writerly) is an understatement 🙂

Do you keep a journal? It might be an actual diary in which you record daily events, or a notebook you keep in your bag to record things you see, or even a collection of scrap paper than you’ve scrawled ideas onto and then collated or stuck into a book.

Joyce Carol Oates once commented that memory is our domestic form of time travel. I like that idea. It occurs to me that if I were to pack for such a journey, it might be helpful to have a memory-map to guide me. A journal can be such a map.

I’ve found that keeping a journal allows me to be honest with myself about my life, to capture thoughts and experiences and provide clarity. These words and phrases – the various things that occur to me in odd places at random times – might otherwise be forgotten or lost sight of in the hurly burly of living.

Finding the snippets later on provides me with reference points to establish or confirm events, to compare my past thoughts and actions to those in my current situation. These are the strands that, as I get older, form the basis of the map back to my past.

Effectively, my journal is my personal external hard-drive in many volumes. As it’s also an invaluable tool for me as a writer. I sometimes spend time paging through one of my notebooks and usually find a key phrase or idea, something that can kickstart my writing – or at least make me smile.

One such was a note I made after seeing the film Lady in the Van. Miss Shepherd (the van lady) makes a comment that captured my imagination. It made me smile then and I’m glad I made a note of it so that I could smile over it again on my time travels: Onions can only take you so far, medically speaking.

Beautiful, yes? Not only that, it turns out that onions actually do have a bunch of medicinal properties, so Miss Shepherd did actually know her onions – even if they couldn’t cure her in the end 🙂

So, do you keep a journal and, if so, what format does yours take?

Sometimes it’s really easy to write. Words almost seem to tumble over themselves in their haste to exit my brain and leap onto the page/screen. Those are the productive days – and even if the subject matter is sometimes a little sombre, the joy of self-expression wins out.

Then there are the other days – the days when the blank screen (or journal) looks at me… and I stare right back. It’s frustrating. That’s when social media or Internet browsing seems a LOT more productive than passively sitting and waiting for words to emerge.

And sometimes it is. Sometimes something I read or see sparks some little flame that spurs me on to getting moving again. By and large though, the thing that works best for me is to go outside and wander around in the garden (any garden, really) for a while. So much the better if the sun’s shining, but it’s not a requirement.

The act of acknowledging the block and then getting up and walking away from it for a while is a healing action in its own right. Going outdoors, spending a few minutes (or more, if time allows) in my happy place – a garden – energises me. It also engages a different part of my brain, giving the writing-me some time out to swim around in the sea of ideas in my head without having to do anything about them.

By the time I come back indoors I’m usually smiling. Settling back at my desk with a cup of tea, I feel refreshed and am usually ready to get back to whatever it was that I abandoned. If not, I take my journal, a pen and my tea back outside with me – and write about something else instead to break the cycle.

I’ve written some very odd things in these tea-in-the-sun moments, and have incorporated most of them into a larger narrative at some point. Mission accomplished, I reckon.

My winter garden 2016