Tala’s Story – The Judgement

The judgement on Tala’s Story came in this week. Here is my analysis of the feedback the story received

The results of the First Round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge came in this week – just before Round Two was due to start. Sadly, my fairy tale Tala’s Story was not good enough to let me advance to Round Two, but it did get an honourable mention. I also received feedback from the judges, which I want to share here.

Of course I was disappointed not to go through to the second round, but even rejection is a part of the learning process. I received the judge’s comments on Thursday and on Friday (after sleeping on them) I made the following analysis. If you’re interested to read further, you may want to re-read Tala’s Story first, so follow the link in this sentence or the previous paragraph. They’ll open in another window/tab.

The judges’ comments came in an e-mail in a rather compressed format. So, for example, the comment that the story was “flawless” was immediately followed by a list of it’s flaws! However, I think I’ve teased out the comments and see they were written by at least three different people with three different reactions to the story. Here are the comments.

The Judges’ Comments

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

  1. So many compelling and atmospheric elements: the loveless marriage, the superstitious villagers, the exiled seer, the secret conception, the feral child, the kindly step-parents, the quest! I LOVE that the Seer doesn’t see any future as carved in stone, but gives power to individual choice in the flux of possibilities
  2. That was absolutely lovely. You understand the purpose of fairytales very well and honored the genre. Superb
  3. This has all of the elements of a fairy tale, with two powerful female characters, wronged by the word. The description of the brithmark felt very isceral [sic]

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK

  1. You need to reduce that convoluted and rambling synopsis to a log-line which will entice the reader without giving too much away. My biggest problem is with the ending: that the dead father emerges alive (how?) and asks for forgiveness, especially as he frames the request in terms of “us.” Who, “us’? He was never truly bonded with the mother and surely not with the villagers who marginalized and murdered him. And since the girl doesn’t know what she’s forgiving, it lacks gravitas, any moral weight or satisfaction. This incredible and weak ending is especially unsatisfactory after all the richness that precedes it
  2. This story is flawless. It touches the heart and doesn’t condescend to either nihilism, cynicism, or sentimentality
  3. This feels like 2 stories in one short story. It lengthens the story but does not heighten the conflict in any one place. What is the conflict or even the obstacle in the story? Is it about the daughter trying to forgive a people she doesn’t remember? If so, why should she care , except for a restlessness that she feels?

My analysis

Honored the genre

Clearly this judgement comes from (at least) three different people, one of whom seems to have unreserved admiration for the story, which is very, very gratifying. I was delighted with the comments that I had “honored the genre”, and that Tala’s Story “touches the heart and doesn’t condescend to either nihilism, cynicism, or sentimentality”. Also “I LOVE that the Seer doesn’t see any future as carved in stone, but gives power to individual choice in the flux of possibilities.” These things were what I was aiming for, so to have the judges recognise an achievement here is a huge affirmation. Thank you, those judges!

Confused ending

After taking a break from the story, and after reviewing some of the criticism I received on the public forum – long before the judges’ comments – I could already see the story was flawed. In its ending especially. The judges’ criticism helps point me in the direction of the most fundamental weakness: a poorly established progression to a somewhat confused ending.

The confusion at the end is exemplified in what one of the judges had to say about Tala’s father. The girl has two fathers. These are her biological father (the seer, who is killed by the villagers and whose spirit plagues them) and her legal father (who is the person responsible for turning her mother away and ultimately for causing her mother’s death). If the judge can’t tell which father it is Tala forgives at the end of the story, then obviously the story needs work to clarify that.

(I posted this analysis on the NYCM forums yesterday and this morning received a comment from another NYCM writer saying she doesn’t find a confusion over which of the fathers receives Tala’s forgiveness, so perhaps the judge was nodding.)

Two for the price of one

The second thing I take from the feedback is the comment that “This feels like 2 stories in one short story.” As the judge doesn’t spell out what they mean I am grasping after interpretations. I see that the story falls into two halves. In the one is Tala’s conception and birth and the deaths of the seer and her mother. In the other is the story of her own growth, her return to the place of her mother’s death and the forgiveness that ends the story positively. However, I don’t think that’s what the judge is reacting to.

I actually wrote three responses to the prompts (see here), abandoning the first two as I realised they were too long or too complicated. The final story inherited some elements from the earlier versions. The most obvious example is Tala’s relations with the wolves. Some true fairy tales do contain elements of other stories, hinting at longer, more involved versions with sub-plots that have been lost over the years. I thought the surviving elements from the earlier versions helped make Tala’s Story more believable as a fairy tale. I choose to assume this is what the judge picked up on and was uncomfortable with.

In retrospect I could have smoothed the story out by losing the extraneous inherited elements and perhaps given myself more room to focus the story better.

One inherited element that isn’t perhaps intrusive but would have been good to change is Tala’s own name. It would have been better to have given her a name that suggests the ability to heal. She got called Tala when she was one of three sisters with different magical/inherited powers. Her ability to speak with animals was, in the end, not very relevant.

Forgiveness

Two of the judges picked on a third problem. One judge writes: “…since the girl doesn’t know what she’s forgiving, it lacks gravitas, any moral weight or satisfaction.” Another writes: “What is the conflict or even the obstacle in the story? Is it about the daughter trying to forgive a people she doesn’t remember? If so, why should she care…”

These go to the story’s fundamental problem. I see now that I have not satisfactorily anchored the conclusion – Tala’s act of forgiveness – earlier in the story. Just at the moment I don’t see how I might have done this, but it’s a challenge to take away and think about.

Synopsis

All NYC Midnight stories had to have a synopsis. This was the one I wrote for Tala’s Story:

Couched as a fairy story, this tells the story of Tala, a child born with a birthmark whose mother, desperate to save her marriage, enlists the help of a seer – a psychic, but the seer is murdered, the mother and child turned out and the village cursed as a consequence. Tala grows up in ignorance of her origins but eventually returns to the village, she may perhaps raise the curse if she can find it in her heart to forgive the villagers.

My first reaction to the criticism I received over the synopsis was dismissive. I know it was poor, and part of the reason was that I didn’t understand its purpose when I wrote it. I thought I was supposed to be identifying the prompts in the story I’d written and summarising the story as an aide-memoire for the judges. Once I realised the synopsis is actually intended as a baited hook to get a reader into the story, I knew I could have made a better job of it. But by that time I’d uploaded the story and though I had some time in hand, I didn’t think it was possible to make a change.

In conclusion

Overall, it seems as though I have achieved a positive and persuasive effect with my writing. None of the judges criticised my language and at least two praised me. (“Superb”, “richness”.) So my ability to write is not an issue. The problem lies in my ability to construct the story. Looking from the side, as it were, with the judges’ comments to hand, I think that if I can lay the ground earlier to establish why Tala would forgive her (legal) father – and what she thinks she is forgiving – then I will also be able to overcome the confusion and strengthen the ending. I think that would probably give me the material I need for a decent synopsis too. I hope eventually to re-write the story to make something more satisfactory out of it and submit it elsewhere.

Watch this space!

Tala's Judgement featured image

Cut to the Chase – Scriptwriting course

To cut to the chase, this is all about a scriptwriting course with Janet van Eeden that I’ve been following since last November

When the path you’re walking on doesn’t seem to be getting where you want it to, it seems sensible to try different path. Last October, I started looking for something to do that involved creative writing but was not my historical novel. By chance I saw an advertisement on Twitter that one of my Twitter friends, Janet van Eeden, had posted – “Master the art of screenwriting: Cut to the Chase: Scriptwriting for Beginners”, it said. Why not? I thought.

Janet is a scriptwriter and playwright, journalist and lecturer in Durban in South Africa. Among other things, she is the author of A Shot at the Big Time, an award-winning short film that she produced after a successful crowdfunding campaign. She is currently involved in another campaign to finance and produce a feature length film version. Janet teaches at AFDA Durban, but the online course is a very reasonably priced one-to-one interest course. It doesn’t lead to any qualifications, but gives a practical introduction to scriptwriting for complete beginners – as it says on the label.

It’s a nine module course which rolls on at a speed to suit the participants. I started in November last year and have just received the material for Module Four. The course gives four things. An introduction to scriptwriting theory (which includes story creation and character creation – things which are useful to anybody trying to write creatively in any field of fiction). An opportunity to view (again) some great films and analyse them to see how they work. Encouragement to write a film script from the initial concept to (what I hope will be) a satisfactory completed version that can be submitted to a film production company or a film director.

The fourth thing, of course, is that it gives a personal contact with Janet who is not only very competent, but also comes across as a very nice person.

Module Three, just completed, took me into the three act structure that films follow or bend to their own ends. Analysing Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (which very strictly follows the three act structure), Batman Begins and Pulp Fiction (which both follow the structure quite faithfully despite not appearing to do so) and American Beauty, which turns out to play fast and loose with the structure (though it is there if you look).

My own script now has a fairly decent structure for Act One but the bulk of it is still vague. I decided I need to get away from historical fiction and so chose to write a contemporary story. Janet’s initial exercise was to write a monologue as spoken by a newly invented character and find a story in that. I enjoyed the exercise so much that I may have gone a little overboard – I’ve now written four other monologues for four other characters in the same story. (One ran to 5000+ words.) They each have different perspectives on the events that the first character described.

The story – script – is set in my imaginary island archipelago, the Aeylands, which occupy a space in the North Sea roughly where the Dogger Bank lies the real world. I created the Aeylands about four years ago, but the story I’m writing now is new and most of the characters also. It’s a lot of fun, and Janet seems pleased with my progress. (Though she does occasionally wonder if I’m really writing a novel rather than a film script, which makes me think that I’m probably overdoing things.) But it doesn’t matter; if at the end of everything I have a film script and a novel, I won’t complain. (I also seem to have a spin-off short story in the works as well.)

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a month or more, but other considerations – Christmas, the New Year, private life and the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, (not to mention all the time spent analysing films for the course) – have got in the way. Anyway, here we are at last. And having written this, it will feel easier to write updates as the course continues.

Featured image for cut to the chase scriptwriting course


The illustration shows cut to the chase sequences from silent movies (from various places on-line). Top left is the Keystone Cops, top right is Buster Keaton, bottom is (I think) Harold Lloyd.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

The last week I have been very taken up with the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I came across it for the first time last year and decided to give it a try. I haven’t participated in a writing competition since – well, a very long time. Probably not since I was a teenager.

If you are also in the same state of ignorance as I was before I stumbled on it, the competition is organised as follows. First you register to take part and pay an entrance fee ($55, or $45 for early registrants). Then you wait till the contest starts – at midnight on a certain day, New York time. (This year, for me, that was 6 o’clock in the morning on 23rd January.) You receive an e-mail placing you in a “heat” (group) with 34 other competitors. The “heat” is assigned a genre, a subject and a character and you have 8 days to write a 2500 word story that fits the genre and includes the subject and character assigned.

My “heat” was number 21, the genre was “fairy tale”, the subject was “a birthmark” and the character was “a psychic”.

I wanted to ask what “a psychic” was doing in a fairy tale, but after checking in a dictionary and on Wikipedia I reasoned that I could probably get away with having a fortune-teller, oracle or seer. The first story I came up with felt quite good, but after sleeping on it I decided it was a fantasy (or even a satire) rather than a fairy story, so I ditched it, sat down and thought again.

My second idea I wrote very nearly 3000 words for, before realising that:

  • not only was it way over the limit, but that
  • it was too complicated
  • and I really didn’t know where I was going with it

So tossed that one out, slept on it again and toyed around with different ideas before coming up with something I thought might work. By now we had passed the half-way mark. On Thursday and Friday (28th and 29th) I wrote and re-wrote, counted words and shaved, and eventually had a story finished by Friday evening.

Mrs SC read it and approved, so I slept on it again and on Saturday morning I finished it off (2495 words), uploaded it 19 hours before the deadline, and heaved a sigh of relief.

Now, the story as submitted, although it is couched (stylistically) as a fairy tale, doesn’t begin “Once upon a time”, doesn’t end “happily ever after”, isn’t really suitable for children and doesn’t have much in the way of magic. (It does have some, though.) Beyond that it doesn’t actually use the word “birthmark”, and my “psychic” is a seer who refuses to tell the future because the future is still undecided. I’m not at all sure how the competition judges will react, but I’m really satisfied with the story. Obviously, I’d very much like to be one of the five competitors whose story is judged of sufficient quality for us to move on to the second round. But even if I don’t get that, it will have been worthwhile taking part for the story I wrote – and for the experience of course.

If I’ve understood things correctly, the story will be available for general public appraisal on Tuesday 2nd February (72 hours after the first round closed), and if so I’ll post a link to it here and on Facebook and Twitter. The results (winners, runners up, honourable mentions) will be announced at midnight NY time on 10th March.

Assuming the story passes, then Round 2 will run for just three days between 18th and 20th March. (That will be a maximum 2000 word story.) Round 3 takes place over 24 hours on 30th April when the challenge will be to write a story of max 1500 words. Round 3 clearly drifts into the world of flash fiction – but why not? There are prizes also (see here), but really the experience is the big payoff.

4th February. “Tala’s Story” is now posted on my Articlations website. Here’s the link.

Books read 2015

Below is a list of all the books I managed to read (or at least partly read) in 2015. Thirty titles. Not nearly on a par with the days of my boyhood and youth when I could get through five or more in a week, but not too bad. Better than last year (I suspect). One of my New Year Resolutions is to read 50 books in 2016. I wonder how that will go.

Ayres, You Made Me Late Again
Banks, Consider Phlebas
Banks, The State of the Art
Bohem-Duchen, Chagall
Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People
Brayfield and Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction
Christopher, The Tripods Trilogy
Cleese, So, Anyway
Gaiman, Neverwhere
Humes, Belgium: Long united, Long Divided
Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water
Kimselius, Back to Pompeii
Kimselius, Att Skriver med Glädje
Langley and Jones, The Search for Richard III
Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road
Lispector, The Hour of the Star
Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Miéville, The City and the City
Miéville, Embassytown
Mosse, The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales
Mullan, How Novels Work
Newman and Mittelmark, How not to Write a Novel
Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens
Reynolds, The Oslo Tram
Sacks, On The Move
Schalansky, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands
Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound
Tegeborg Falkdalen, Vasa Döttrarna
Williams, Tailchaser's Song

Some of the books read 2015

So, Anyway – the Autobiography of John Cleese

So, anyway, John Cleese has written this autobiography and it’s called So, Anyway. With the exception of the final chapter, which is a sort of post-Python Reunion extra track, the story cleverly focuses on Cleese’s childhood and formative years as an author and performer and finishes during the television recording of the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As anyone who has read multiple autobiographies will know, the best part is always the author’s description of his or her childhood and growing pains. All the business of public life after the author has achieved success, fame and fortune tends to be largely namedropping and ego boosts. And then so many of the Monty Python sketches (and the Fawlty Towers episodes – and many of their backgrounds) are so well-known that regurgitating them here, while it would be, I’m sure, lapped up by the fan base (now that’s a disgusting image) would be pretty boring for the rest of us.

So it’s clever that the book dispenses with (most of) that, but it’s clever also because of the structure of the story as it is told.

The autobiography follows the conventional chronological route of childhood, youth, life as a student and the first hesitant years in which our hero discovers his talents, his professional life and the friends who will sustain him. At the same time, Cleese bakes into this mix flash-forward references to his future career with the Pythons and after, and to his philosophical, psychological and sociological interests, giving a new and different slant on the origins of some of the classic sketches. (Oh, and he’s still in love with Connie Booth – that’s what I see anyway.)

For a wider audience, I guess, Cleese is so identified with the Monty Python gang that many people are under the impression that Monty Python was where his career started. Even if you know something about his history in the Cambridge Footlights – the student revue club at the University of Cambridge – you may not know of his involvement in so many of the stage, television and radio shows that preceded Python. It was good to be reminded of these, and given a more rounded picture of John Cleese before he became a household name.

He comes across in the book as a very intelligent and generally a very kind, rather modest man. A loyal friend and who is always prepared to give credit where it’s due. There are moments though where his sharp intellect and the wicked side of his humour shine through and you get the feeling that you would not want to cross swords with him. (He has some cutting things to say about theatre and television critics, for example. You can understand why the Daily Mail is not among his more enthusiastic supporters.)

Cleese IlloI want to take a quick look in particular at what Cleese has to say about writing, and of course writing comedy.

After graduating from university John Cleese was recruited as a writer to the BBC’s Light Entertainment Department. Now, aged about 25, he had a job that involved writing comedy sketches on a regular basis.

I would start the morning with a blank sheet of paper, and I might well finish the day with a blank sheet of paper (and an overflowing waste-paper basket). There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours, and the uncertainty that produces is very scary. You never hear of accountant’s block or bricklayer’s block; but when you try to do something creative there can be no guarantee anything will happen…

But the man who had recruited him, Peter Titheradge, once a writer himself

…was able to calm my incipient panics when fruitless hours were passing. He got me to understand that, if you kept at it, material would always emerge: a bad day would be followed by a decent one, and somehow an acceptable average would be forthcoming. I took a leap of faith and my experience started to confirm this mysterious principle. (p185)

Writers – especially writers who are writing to a deadline – all struggle with the anxiety of wondering whether they will manage. It’s not just getting the words down on paper, it’s also a matter of producing something which is interesting, exciting or in John Cleese’s case funny. Cleese takes up the ambiguous nature of fear – on the one hand how it can block you, on the other hand how it may stimulate you.

Anxiety, he says, is the enemy of creativity.

The more anxious you feel, the less creative you are. Your mind ceases to play and be expansive. Fear causes your thinking to contract, to play safe, and this forces you into stereotypical thinking. And in comedy you must have innovation because an old joke isn’t funny…

Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.

On the other hand you should try to [g]et your panic in early because

Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy. (p316)

(I think it’s a comfort that, despite this insight, the young John Cleese seems to have had exactly the same problems getting started as me. I’m encouraged to think this is a rather general problem. It was always quite difficult for us [Cleese is writing with Graham Chapman] to get down to work in the morning, and we developed many strategies to postpone doing so… (p368))

Assuming you manage to get going and actually write something, however, you must be open to the prospect that you will not be able to produce something brilliant every day that you work. Cleese credits Peter Titheradge again with teaching him the importance of finding the thing that is “good enough” (this is specifically in relation to punchlines, but in my experience it applies generally).

Later in the book, once Cleese and Chapman have established a working rhythm:

Our average rate was about four minutes of screen time a day, which may not sound much, but if sustained would theoretically have given us a movie script every six weeks… (pp368-369)

Theoretically.

John Cleese also has interesting things to say about the differences between writing sketches – even half-hour TV episodes – and whole films.

The need to keep the plot moving all the time is a hugely demanding one – the slightest moment of stagnation and a cinema audience is immediately bored (although a lot of explosions do help to sustain their attention). Add to that the following difficulty in comedy: you cannot make an audience laugh continuously for 100 minutes – human psychology and physiology will not allow it – so you have to plan a sequence of alternating peaks and troughs in the laughter while ensuring that you engage the audience’s attention fully during the passages that are not trying to be funny…

You will now understand why I have managed to write only one really good film script in 50 years (though I contributed to Life of Brian, too). (p382)

The good film script is, of course, A Fish Called Wanda.

So, anyway, I very much enjoyed reading this book, and giggling or even laughing out loud in places. The passages quoted above by no means exhaust what Cleese has to say about writing, and there is a great deal more on many other subjects too. If you know Cleese and his work (and you haven’t yet read the book) you have a treat in store. But even if you know nothing about the man and his career yet still have an interest in the writing process, the history of light entertainment or the British class system (for example) it is well worth a look.

There are also some great tips on keeping control of a primary school class when you are an untrained young teacher. Take it from me, they also work at secondary school level.


Do also pay a visit to John Cleese’s official website.

The illustration shows my copy of So, Anyway, with slips of paper in all the pages where Cleese says something funny or pithy about writing, comedy or teaching. I hate to write in books or stick things in them, but slips of paper are OK. I think it is a bit Pythonesque that they seem to be coming out of his mouth.

This review is also published on Goodreads

In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?


The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times

A New Blogging Policy

Earlier this year I completed 52 weeks of blogging At the Quill as part of a year-long blogging challenge (#Blogg52). It was a good exercise and a good discipline, and I have transferred the effort to my new blog about travel, Stops and Stories. However, although it is possible – just about – to blog once a week without much forward planning, there is always the stress of trying to find a topic and writing about it in time and the results are not always satisfactory. Clearly I need to be better organised.

Now, one of my fellow Blogg52-ers, Anna Hellqvist, is using her blog to present aspects of good practice for other bloggers. She has written some very good articles over the weeks. I don’t always agree with her as I feel her perspective on blogging is rather skewed towards the commercial, and for me that tends to devalue what she writes. Also, as someone who has been blogging on and off for about 14 years I have a residual feeling that I know it all – even though I patently do not.

I know that I don’t know it all not only because I get into such a sweat when I haven’t planned ahead, not only because I am disappointed more often than satisfied with the blog entries that I write, but also because a number of Anna’s tips have been valuable reminders of things I’d forgotten. And occasionally she has taught me things that were quite new to me.

So, I decided to swallow my pride and smother my resistance to being told what to do and try to follow some of her advice. My hope is that it will help me blog more frequently, both here and on Stops and Stories, and perhaps improve the consistency of my blog entries.

To begin with I have been looking at Anna’s blog entries for Blogg52 from June this year. As Anna’s blog is in Swedish (Blogg52 is a Swedish challenge and at present I’m the only person following it who’s writing in English), I thought I could give a summary of the steps I’ve taken so far to organise myself better. Below is my plan for Stops and Stories.

I can say that while most of the points in the plan come from Anna’s suggestions I have added one or two of my own.

Depending on how successfully I can follow the plan for the next couple of months I may post an adaptation of this on the Stops and Stories website. Just at the moment though, because Stops and Stories is about travel while At the Quill is about writing, it seems appropriate to discuss this here rather than there. If you’re interested, I’ll be revisiting this in future articles here At the Quill.

What is the purpose of Stops and Stories?

  • A record of my travels now I am based in Brussels.
  • An exploration and expansion of my ability to write about travel.
  • Foundations for (a) future travel book(s).
  • A cross-platform link with Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, (Freesound), (YouTube), TripAdvisor, (GoodReads), Ello…
  • Development of a network of readers (and listeners).
  • An archive that future readers will be able to explore.

Who is your target audience? Who are you writing for?

  • Myself and…
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel who either travel themselves or are armchair travellers.
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel writing – in (fictional/semi-fictional) stories about, and (“true”) accounts of, travels both contemporary and historical.

Who is your inspiration?
Patrick Leigh Fermor (http://patrickleighfermor.org/)
Jonathan Raban (http://jonathanraban.com/)

(I expect to be extending this list.)

What are your goals?

  • To write an illustrated text – if possible including a sound recording of the same – once a week for at least a year.
  • To attract readers and returning readers/listeners. The initial target is to build up from the handful each week who read my texts at present to 100+/week.
  • To enter into a conversation with readers/listeners either in the comments section of the blog or on social media.

What are you going to write about?

  • Places visited
  • Stories heard and overheard
  • writing (reviews)
  • The urban and rural landscapes
  • Seascapes
  • Soundscapes
  • Scents and smells
  • Photography
  • Modes of transport
  • Maps and guidebooks
  • Art and architecture
  • Food and drink
  • History and future visions
  • Museums and exhibitions
  • Events and celebrations
  • Action and adventure
  • Poetry and literature related to travel
  • Memory and memoires
  • Philosophy and meditation
  • Humour

How often and when will you publish?

  • I aim to publish at least one article a least once a week, hopefully including a sound recording published on Soundcloud.
  • The day of publication will be Wednesday.

In order to publish on Wednesday I need to organise myself as follows:

  • On Thursday or Friday brainstorm articles for Stops and Stories – choose one or two. (By choosing a couple of articles each week I hope to build up a bank of articles so that, as time goes by, the process I’m describing here will not be quite so hand to mouth.)
  • Over the weekend carry out research for the articles, take photos, record ambient sound and make notes.
  • On Monday choose one article for publication.
  • On Tuesday draft the article.
  • On Wednesday, edit the article, illustrate it, record it, publish it.
  • If it wasn’t possible on Wednesday, on Thursday publish the recording on Soundcloud.
  • Begin again