Hello and welcome to event number 16 in the Virtual Book Festival. Today’s event is a guest post by book blogger Mary Picken of Live and Deadly Book Blog which you can find at liveanddeadly.net On her hugely popular blog, Mary writes insightful and intriguing reviews of (mainly) crime fiction. And she’s her to tell us more about her book blogging life.
So welcome, Mary – and over to you.
Book Blogging – What is it, why do we do it and who cares?
Gentle reader, let me take you back 5 years to December 2014. My memory these days stretches back just about that far. I had taken six months off from my job due to clinical depression. Those days had passed in a blur of pretty much staring into nothingness. I did some reading, always my chosen leisure activity, but otherwise had done very little.
After the 6 months was up, it became clear to me that I no longer had the resilience to cope with the daily pressures and stresses of my job. My brain was working, but my heart wasn’t in it and my head wouldn’t let me get immersed in the mire again.
So I effectively took early retirement. That left me in something of a quandary. I didn’t feel able to work full time and I really did not want my little grey cells to go without a work out. So, I decided that I’d start to record my thoughts on the books I was reading.
At the time, I didn’t really know anything about blogging, far less book blogging, I just needed something that would stimulate my brain and keep it working.
Fast forward 5 years and my blog is still going. That first, tentative post, a glowing review of Sarah Hilary’s first book, Someone Else’s Skin, (if you haven’t read her Marnie Rome series please do, it is fantastic) has grown into a blog with more than 3,300 followers and a reach over continents (mainly though UK and US) that stretches to around a quarter of a million viewers. Many of my colleagues have blogs that are substantially bigger, and more power to them for it. Few of us are driven by our statistics; I’m certainly not.
I have discovered an activity that plays to my need for deadline driven activity without much of the stress that used to accompany my deadlines and I have been fortunate to have been sent books to review.
Not only that, but book blogging has given me my tribe. I have found like-minded friends online and in real life; have been to numerous book festivals at home and even one abroad and now have a life that I love.
So, all good for me, then. But what does it do for book sales and publishers? I often find that authors have no sense of what bloggers can do for book sales, but there is no doubt at all that publishers know and understand the value.
In a crowded marketplace, word of mouth is a very important marketing tool. Creating a buzz in advance of a book’s publication is a great way to heighten anticipation and create advance sales.
Social media is now a key component of organisations’ marketing strategies and for good reason. 74% of shoppers make buying decisions based on social media, according to the social media marketing company, Sprout Social.
The term ‘social influencers’, which I hate, has been coined to represent individuals who have a significant following on social media. With a large audience seeing these blogger’s posts each day, they’re often targeted by publishers to promote books. Their content has a significant effect on purchasing decisions. Essentially, they contribute to the “bandwagon” effect.
80% of consumers, we are told, are likely to purchase a book based on a friend’s suggestion. If you were on the fence about buying a book, who would you turn to for an unbiased opinion?
This sometimes leads, wrongly, to suggestions that bloggers are the pawns of publishers, overwhelmingly positive about every book in order to feed their free book piles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most book bloggers I know have a voracious book buying habit; some even buy several editions of the same book!
Most of us choose not to post reviews of books we have disliked on our blogs. If you are, like me, about sharing the book love, there seems little point in publishing on my blog a review of a book that just wasn’t for me. I will post those reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, with as constructive a review as I can achieve.
But I’m often critical in my reviews, pointing out my perceptions of flaws as well as good things, because otherwise how can I expect my reviews to be trusted by those who read them? If there’s no honesty, what on earth is the point of a review?
I believe that bloggers can be a real boon to smaller, independent publishers too. Those who are publishing important books but just don’t have the marketing budgets to make them stand out in a crowd. Investing in a blog tour, where the tour organiser receives a small payment for organising and bloggers remain, rightly, unpaid can achieve real results for a book that might otherwise struggle to find a place amidst the bigger publishers’ noise.
Publishers like Fahrenheit, Tramp Press, Orenda Books, Unbound and Urbane all make a decent sales impact through their use of social media and that can only be a good thing at a time when we need more than ever to broaden the diversity of ideas.
I blog for my own satisfaction and to keep my brain functioning. But I have to admit; there is no better feeling than knowing that someone has bought a book based on my review. It is, for me, the pinnacle of success. If I can help contribute to book sales in however small a way, I will feel that I have made a beneficial impact on the world. And that’s more than enough for me.
Anne: Thank you so much for that fascinating insight into what book blogging means to you – and to authors and readers too. And thank you for being part of the festival.
More about Mary and her blog:
Mary Picken reviews mainly crime novels on her blog, though she also enjoys contemporary and literary fiction with the occasional dose of historical and urban fantasy thrown in. She has been blogging at Live and Deadly for 5 years and loves to visit book festivals. Particular favourites include Bute Noir, Iceland Noir and, of course, Bloody Scotland and this month’s Edinburgh Book Festival.
Hello and welcome to the seventh event in the Virtual Book Festival. Today’s guest is writer Trish Nicholson. Trish has travelled the world for work and pleasure and as well as working as a social anthropologist she also writes narrative non-fiction and short stories. For her event here today she has written a fascinating article on the importance of stories to all of us as human beings – on where they come from and why they are important for our survival. Much of what she says is particularly topical today. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Trish to the festival and hand over to her.
Stories and the Art of Living by Trish Nicholson
Where do stories come from? Why have some stories stayed with us for thousands of years?
We’ve been asking questions since we possessed language to speak. From how to fulfil basic needs for food and safety, to a deeper curiosity: the ‘why’ of all things. And the question beloved equally by scientists and storytellers: What if? Both search for meaning in better stories.
Each of us in our own way longs for meaning, for resolution to our inner conflicts and those that surround us, for a pathway to the art of living, and for hope. We strive to achieve these through our inner narrative fed by the stories of others: “Each of us … constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and is defined by this narrative.” (Oliver Sacks) We are all storytellers.
Sharing stories is what defines us as human beings. In the first light of their humanity, our ancient forebears created names for things and for each other, so they could think and talk about them. Objects, places and persons once named acquire a relationship to us, a character, a past, a present and a possible future – they begin to inhabit their own story. Storytelling shared this knowledge in ways that it would be remembered and passed on through generations.
Vital to the survival of early humans was recognition of their dependence on the natural environment: the elements that offered succour even as they threatened; the challenging landscapes through which they travelled; the plants and animals they foraged and hunted. In ancient tales of Indigenous peoples, animals play important roles: the Sanema-Yanomami peoples of Venezuela were given fire by the humming bird, who darted into the mouth of the fearsome caiman to capture burning embers and place them in the sacred Puloi tree – whose twigs the Sanema-Yanomami rub together to make a fire spark.
Storytellers passed on accumulated knowledge that encouraged early hunters and gatherers to co-operate with each other; those who did flourished despite the hardships and trials of raw nature. These stories contained the wisdom for survival – an understanding that most of us have lost along with the words but now desperately need.
Accounts of great floods are among the oldest stories and they may be universal. This would not be surprising since the geological record supports widespread flooding in earth’s recent history from receding ice sheets, or from massive volcanic action that disrupted the landscape of an entire continent. Australian Aboriginal stories of inundations have been traced back to rising sea levels 10,000 years ago. In Indonesia, the Moken, the Sea People of Aceh, held on to their myth of the ‘seventh wave’; the wisdom it held saved their lives and enabled them to rescue others during the terrible tsunami on Christmas Day in 2004.
But stories, myths, epics, fairytales and legends have multiple roles. A seemingly simple tale is multi-layered, multi-dimensional. Stories define our identity; establish a past and the hope of a future; provide models of behaviour through the actions of their heroes, heroines and villains; reassure us of our humanity; inform and expand our inner lives, our emotions and empathy; and, of course, they must enthral and entertain to ensure their own survival.
In other ancient Indigenous stories the characteristics of specific animals – brave, skittish, cunning, clever, dangerous – are related to human behaviour, encouraged or cautioned against as the plots unfold. Our inheritance is the ‘beast fable’ found in most cultures. We are, perhaps, more familiar with Aesop’s fables, but his inspiration marked a high point in a tradition reaching back millennia and still existing in various forms throughout the world. As a source of essential truths, their appeal touched all levels of society: Socrates enlivened his time in confinement by creating verse forms of the fables he remembered.
And practically every culture tells a migration story. It may be expressed in the movement of heavenly bodies; the arrival of strangers who brought some precious benefit; the wanderings of adventurous individuals; or in a tribe’s search for new lands. In a Celtic myth describing the peopling of Ireland (in Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Conquests), families of Nemeds landed on the western shore after migrating from Scythia – around the Caspian Sea in the centre of Eurasia – a history that genome research has since proven to have taken place around 3,000 BCE.
Norse mythology recalls the long journey of Odin and his family, also from the Caspian, sailing north up the Volga River – the same route along which Vikings later traded and raided in the opposite direction. Māori culture, too, is rich in tales of exploration in their peopling of the Pacific. We are a migratory species. A moment’s reflection will reveal how often journeys, real and metaphorical, flow in and out of our favourite stories,
Interwoven through all of these ancient tales are stories of coming of age, of opportunity, bravery and cowardice, of risks and riches, of growing old, of battles won and lost, and of love. Oral storytellers still enrich our tales with their unique voices and gestures, enchanting each audience anew.
But whether stories in all their immense variety are told orally, in texts, on stage, or on screen, and however old or new they are, they all have a common core: conflict. Challenges faced or failed, and the transformations that result. Struggle is the human condition.
Apart from the struggle for survival between the bounties and threats of our natural environment, the greatest source of conflict has always been that between ourselves and others because we are social beings: conflict between the needs of the individual and the group; competition between and within generations, not only for resources but for recognition, power, love; opposing forces of different groups; and the inner conflicts of each of us balancing sometimes incompatible desires. Through stories we live many lives, inhabit new places. Such is the power of story.
Beginning writers are often advised that ‘where there is no conflict there is no story.’ Tension must be felt and ultimately resolved. Of all the multiple roles that stories perform, the recognition and resolution of conflict is arguably the most significant to us and to the nourishment of our inner narrative.
Although the implications of conflict may have been different for our ancient ancestors – expulsion of a person from their foraging group, for example, was virtually a death sentence – we still face those same sources of conflict. The same act of ‘naming’ allows us to think and speak of our darkest fears, to address the unknown and the unknowable.
As humans, our needs are complex, our desires even more so. We still need stories to provide meaning, resolution and hope. That is why elements of so many ancient tales are still with us in some form after thousands of years. Today’s stories bear the ‘genes’ of all our stories past. Chinua Achebe understood this, “The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”
It may not be true that ‘everyone has a book in them’, but each of us has our own story to tell, to share, to add to the pool of human wisdom upon which we draw to learn the art of living. Our future survival depends on it.
Anne: Wow! Thank you, Trish. I certainly learned things I didn’t know before from reading your article. It’s clear from what you say above that stories are about so much more than just our entertainment. They pass on not only our history, but also important warnings and advice and they get us to see how vital the connections that stories highlight and share things that remain are vital for our survival as a species. And I loved that practically every culture has a migration story – something we should all be aware of in these sometimes difficult times.
Trish has written several books ( see below) but the one that relates particularly to her article is the wonderful A Biography of Story – A Brief History of Humanity which is available here in paperback and hardback from The Book Depository (free freight worldwide) and we have an extract from it below:
From the backcover:
A Biography of Story, a Brief History of Humanity is our own human epic, thoroughly researched and referenced and told with the imaginative flair of an accomplished storyteller.
In this highly original take on the power of stories past and present, Trish Nicholson brings us a unique interweaving of literature and history seen through the eyes of storytellers. From tales of the Bedouin, to Homer, Aesop and Valmiki, and from Celtic bards and Icelandic skalds to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Scott and Chekhov, some of the many storytellers featured may be familiar to you; others from Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific may be fresh discoveries.
Beginning with oral tales of our foraging ancestors, the emergence of writing, the great migrations, the age of exploration and the invention of printing through to the industrial revolution and the digital age, Nicholson brings us voices from all over the world to reveals their story-power in the comedy and tragedy of human affairs. And what of Story’s future…?
Intro to extract from Trish:
When we discover the ancient storytelling heritage that gave rise to these tales, we better appreciate their enormous popularity in the East and later in the West, which still continues. Though not intended as children’s stories, for many, Christmas is incomplete without Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin’s magic lamp, or Ali Baba with his gang of forty thieves transported, as if by a mischievous jinni, from the medieval caravans and caravels of Arabia onto the stage of the local Palladium. Our journey is a long one, starting with those caravans raising dust along the Silk Road.
The extract is from Chapter Six –1001 Days and as Many Knights –
The power of Scheherazade’s storytelling saves her life. The characters, too, often gain redemption through telling their own stories. Even Schahriar, the sultan who holds Scheherazade’s life in the balance each day, is freed from his self-defeating obsession against women by listening to her stories.
On the ‘one hundred and twenty third night’, Scheherazade begins the humorous tale of little Hunchback, the favourite buffoon or court-jester and storyteller of the sultan of Casgar.
Hunchback’s sudden and mysterious death implicates the tailor, a Jewish doctor, a Mussulman (Muslim), and a Christian merchant, each of whom believes he inadvertently caused the death, and secretly offloads the corpse to the unsuspecting other. The sultan, fond of his little jester and eager to whip off the head of his murderer, is so enthralled by the extraordinary account from each of the ‘accused’ that he exonerates them. But the story is extended for sixty-two nights by frames within frames, as a barber and each of his six brothers take up aspects of the event and continue convoluted tales of their own. This is all deemed to take place around the corpse of the unfortunate Hunchback. Eventually, the ancient barber rubs vigorously at Hunchback’s neck with a special balm and he is revived, coughing up a fish bone that had lodged in his throat as a consequence of arriving at the tailor’s house drunk and accepting the hospitality of a fish dinner – Arabian audiences of the Middle Ages preferred happy endings to their tales of uncertain fortune and rolling heads.
And so, Scheherazade’s life is saved for another day, but in the outer frame of the stories we learn that her storytelling arises from a far more heroic motive than self-preservation in a tight spot. We are told in the prologue that she was renowned not only for her beauty and virtue, but also as a scholar of philosophy and literature and one of the best poets of her day. Being the eldest daughter of the sultan’s grand vizier and chief administrator, Scheherazade was aware of the disaster that had befallen the kingdom, leading its citizens to despair.
Trish Nicholson, narrative non-fiction and short-story author, former columnist and features writer and a social anthropologist, has travelled and worked worldwide. Born in the Isle of Man, she describes herself as half Celt, half Viking and blames both for her passionate love of stories. Her recent books include: Passionate Travellers:Around the World on 21 Incredible Journeys in History; A Biography of Story, a Brief History of Humanity;Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals; Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon; and Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author. Trish lives in New Zealand.
Hello everyone and welcome to the third event in the Put it in Writing Virtual Book Festival. Today it’s a pleasure to welcome writer Kate Blackadder. Kate writes serial fiction for a woman’s magazine as well as being a novelist. And here in a fascinating feature she explains how she got into serial writing and how it has developed for her since. So over to Kate …
One serial writer – 400,000 readers
by Kate Blackadder
I’d had a few short stories published in The People’s Friend and elsewhere when I entered the First Instalment of a Serial competition that the magazine sponsored in 2008. As a member of Edinburgh Writers’ Club www.edinburghwritersclub.org.uk
I was automatically a member of the Scottish Association of Writers and this competition was part of their annual conference that year.
I’d never written ‘long’ before but nothing ventured … I remembered something I’d written when having a writing session with friends. We were handed paperbacks at random, asked to turn to a particular page and a particular line number and to start our own story from there.
The book assigned to me was in the horror genre and the line involved a stone which had some supernatural significance, seen through torrential rain. I wrote a page or so but knew I wouldn’t continue because I’d stuck with the genre and it’s not one I like.
But something of the atmosphere of the piece came back to me as I pondered the serial. Cathryn, recently dumped by her boyfriend, could be driving through the rain on her way north to spend the summer on an archaeological dig. Staying in the same lodgings is Magnus, a Canadian film-maker, investigating Viking history and sites – and also researching a mystery in his family tree.
I looked at current PF serials with a writer’s eye. I read the guidelines www.thepeoplesfriend.co.uk/guidelines/ to find out about instalments and chapters and word counts. I had fun bringing in more characters and placing them in a part of the world I used to live, the north-west coast of Sutherland (although I made up place names, and the local big house I transplanted from somewhere else entirely – the superpower of a writer!).
And of course I ended the instalment with a cliffhanger!
Then came the conference and the judging …
The adjudicator, one of The People’s Friend fiction team, began to describe the first-placed entry. My heart raced … Was that mine?
Competition entrants choose a pseudonym and mine was ‘Belle’, the name of a late great-aunt, in whose house I first encountered The People’s Friend although my interest then was only in the children’s pages.
I hope she was listening as her name was read out as the winner.
One of the points the adjudicator made was not about the story itself but the fact that apparently I was the only entrant who had adhered to all the rules, so my homework was worth it, the difference perhaps between winning and not winning.
The prize (of which more anon) was a year’s subscription to the magazine, and the chance to have the serial published – which was a problem. I’d never expected to win so after I’d posted my entry I forgot about it. Now, because I hadn’t written a serial before, they wanted a full synopsis before giving me the go-ahead. Full as in full … what would happen in each and every chapter?
Reader, I hadn’t a clue. Obviously the archaeologist and the film-maker were going to get together but that couldn’t happen until the last instalment. What was the puzzle in Magnus’ background? Why was Sara going to Inverness every week? What caused JD’s accident? I’d set up these and a dozen other questions in the first instalment and now I had to answer them.
It was agony! I had to give myself many a severe talking to when I felt like giving up. I asked a well-published novelist friend for advice and one thing in particular was really helpful – include scenes involving different permutations of your characters so that you don’t forget about any of them.
Eventually – eventually – I wrote a paragraph for each chapter, all thirty-seven of them, and submitted it. Green light! And then it was, almost, like joining the dots.
The serial was published as The Family at Farrshore and it was a real thrill to see it in print over seven weeks with a lovely illustration at the head of each instalment.
The People’s Friend celebrates its 150th birthday this year; a copy is sold somewhere in the world every 3.44 seconds. The readers are not all elderly ladies as is the perception … and, besides, the ‘elderly’ today are not like those of a generation ago as regards fitness and outlook. Sadly, The PF is almost the last (wo)man standing in terms of magazines that take stories. It seems strange in an era when we’re all supposed to be so short of time/concentration that magazines have dispensed with bite-sized fiction.
Back in the day The People’s Friend weekly sales headed for a million (220,000 sales today, 400,000 readers) and their payment to writers reflected that. In the 1880s they ran a serial competition with a first prize of £100, around £8500 in today’s money. Ah well …
Since The Family at Farrshore I’ve had two more serials published, The Ferryboat and A Time to Reap. I had to send long synopses for these but not with the detail required the first time. I’m halfway through a fourth.
The way it works is that you send an instalment and wait for feedback before continuing. You are paid as each instalment is accepted. As the main events in the synopsis have been approved you can’t veer from them and (unless you’ve discovered a glaring error) you can’t go back and change earlier instalments. Unlike those of Charles Dickens or Alexander McCall Smith, who produced instalments every day after the previous ones were already in print (now that would be scary!), PF serials are not published until they’re finished.
As copyright remains with me I’ve sold the serials to a large-print-for-libraries publisher plus I have put them on Kindle myself.
Knowing that I could plot and finish longer stories gave me the confidence to tackle a novel, Stella’s Christmas Wish available here (published by Black & White). So it’s true: something ventured, something gained.
Anne: Thank you, Kate, for this interesting insight into how writing magazine fiction works and it’s good that copyright remains with you and you’ve been able to produce your stories for Kindle and paperback. I’ve read them all on my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Kate Blackadder was born in the Scottish Highlands but now lives in Edinburgh. If you don’t count adolescent poetry (and best not to) she came late to writing but is trying to catch up. She’s had over sixty short stories published in magazines and has been successful in various competitions, winning the Muriel Spark Short Story Award (judged by Maggie O’Farrell) and being shortlisted for the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award and long-listed for the Jane Austen Short Story Award. She has also written three magazine serials and a novel, Stella’s Christmas Wish, published by Black & White.