The Blogging Workshop

So, yesterday saw me heading into town for a literary day at the college of my dear friend, Rosy Thornton. A number of talks and workshops had been organized and we were heading up a session on online writing resources, which promised to be fun. It was my first chance to discuss the business of blogging and I’d been looking forward to it. It was a mucky sort of autumn day, wet and windy and warm, and the town was clogged with traffic. For some reason my usual route to the front car park was completely congested, so I ended up arriving late and sneaking in the back of the hall for the talk that preceded our session. When faced with closed double doors, it takes a bit of nerve to open them; one never knows whether a walk of shame across the front of the discussion panel will be the only pathway to a seat. But fortunately I found myself at the top and back of a horseshoe shaped auditorium and could unobtrusively take a seat in what would have been called the ‘gods’ in a theatre.

Down below was a panel of five representatives of the publishing industry, two agents, a first time author, an independent publisher (I think) and the chairman whose role I never did discern. This was an altogether cheerier panel than the one I saw at the Cambridge wordfest back in the spring, mostly due to the resilient good nature of the chairman, and the cool sense of one of the agents. When I arrived the ebook was up for discussion, although interestingly enough, no one had very much initially to say about it. Yes, ebooks were going to be a fixture but the take up of them so far had been very small, only a tiny percentage of the market. The first time author didn’t read ebooks, didn’t know anything about them but was vaguely glad they might exist. The agent provided what I felt was the best comment. She said that the physical object that is the book was still, and would remain, perennially popular as a gift and as a possession. Ebooks were great for educational purposes or for traveling, or for people who wanted to read five crime novels a week and throw them away afterwards. But for other situations the book would remain desirable and viable and in the future she could see that design would become increasingly important (think Persephone books, for instance). Now that seemed to me to be good common sense, as I do despair of a publishing industry that can only think in terms of either/or, thus condemning itself to miss the opportunities of diversification or lose loyal consumers of print. The agent had a very good quote that she thought summed up the book trade from Gramsci, who called for ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. Gramsci saw a balance here between the spur to action and the belief in positive change, but I felt it summed up the pessimism of publishing houses, overthinking their situation in unproductive ways, coming up against the stubborn determination of the writing masses to get published regardless.

After this it was time for our session. We had about twenty attendees and they were a good crowd – quite lively and ready to speak out and contribute. A very mixed range of experience on the internet made it tricky to pitch our information – we might have been talking outer Mongolian for half of the audience whereas the other half were well versed and must have found the explanations dull. But we had a good discussion, I felt. Two things struck me particularly about the way the internet is viewed. The first was that people attribute it with far more power than I believe it yet possesses. One man asked whether I had had difficulty with my institution objecting to information I put in blog posts. Seeing as the whole idea of the blog is quite probably a complete irrelevance for the majority of lecturers and apparatchiks at my university, none of whom would be interested in what I had to say (beyond wishing maybe to dispute a point in a conceptual argument), I had to say no. One of the ex-students attending to help us out said afterwards that he had once written something truly mean about Heather Mills on one of his blog posts and wondered about it, but I said that her PR representatives were hardly likely to say, forget The Mirror, forget The News of the World, we’re suing that guy with the blog because what he wrote was well out of order. I understand that some man somewhere was sacked by his firm because of an anonymous and offensive blog post. But, for me, that’s primarily a story about the man and his relationship to his firm, the internet is just the incidental circumstance.

The other thing I noticed was an odd relationship in people’s minds between the internet and use of time. ‘I can’t be bothered to mess about on the internet looking for what I want,’ one man roundly declared. ‘I don’t have time for that. I want to be given the information I want from a reputable authority.’ Now, this is a common stance but not a truly logical one. At the best this presupposes time spent reading a book (if not several books), which of course one may be lucky enough to have in one’s possession, but which must probably be sought from a library, at a substantial cost of time and effort. The question of reputable authority is a highly vexed one, too, but for me authority has to be earned and is not simply given by the fact that the ‘expert’ is called a journalist or an author. There are plenty of deluded ones in both camps out there. And thus trustworthy information requires thought and effort regardless of the media in which it is sought. So this is, I think, a form of resistance against the difficulty of a new learning process. The same person also wanted to know how I could build up an audience, how I got people to link to my blog, this time with the implication of requiring instant gratification. ‘I have to write a decent post,’ I said ‘I have to build up a reputation, over time, the way that any author would and I think that’s just as it should be.’ It is strange how the perceived immediacy of the internet, which IS quick in certain aspects of its functioning, should be then imagined to grant instant celebrity (see back to question of power). As increasing numbers of people get online, the internet is good at reflecting back waves of feeling generated by both real and virtual events, but at the same time it shows how fickle and transient those feelings are. Groupmind can be provoked fast (otherwise known as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’) and I think we are a little bedazzled by that process at the moment. But there is no reason to suspect that what comes out of it has the staying power of wisdom.

Anyway, after this we swapped around and Rosy was going to talk about online writing communities, only she was having all kinds of trouble with the internet reception. Someone Rosy knew from her college (I imagine she was a fellow, although I do not know) came over to try and help us out (I say ‘us’, but you may imagine how much use I could be!). While this was going on, I picked up the discussion threads again, until I realized that both women at my side were whispering ‘Move! Move!’ It turned out that my chair leg was atop the internet cable and I had been innocently but firmly cutting off the signal. And there, ladies and gentlemen, we see the true fragility of the miracle that is technology. We were reconnected and everything progressed very smoothly from that point on. Rosy gave a wonderful talk about sites like WriteWords and Litopia and I must say I had no idea that they offered such a well-organised and useful resource for aspiring writers. Litopia is particularly intriguing as it is run by a literary agent who will give you a webcam critique of your publishing submission (you have to clear a few hurdles first, including posting over 100 comments on the site). Rosy played us part of one (it was over twenty minutes in all), showing a close up of a bearded, bespectacled man (one attendee cried out, ‘It’s Shylock!’) in his messy study, being rather charmingly impudent about a fantasy YA novel, but impeded somewhat by a speech defect. Afterwards, I told Rosy that I felt oddly motivated to get a critique off this man. ‘I really want to hear him tell me I have to let my information ‘theep thwoo the text’,’ I said. ‘Poor Pete!’ Rosy replied, laughing. ‘It was only because he had his new teeth. He doesn’t normally lisp.’

And that, folks, was more or less it. Except that we went to tea after our session where I met the master of the college, a highly particular genus of late blooming academic known as the Absolute Sweetie, who presented me with a bottle of wine for having helped out, which I wasn’t expecting at all. And I chatted with a very nice man who had attended our session and was writing a novel. And I attempted to chat to the agent who had impressed me on the panel earlier, only the second I asked which agency she was at she started to make great protesting noises about how few clients she took on. Even telling her I had an agent already did not seem to dispel the impression I had obviously created of being an unpublished marauder, a kind of intellectual would-be mugger. This ruined the good impression I had originally held of her. So all in all, I had a very good day, and running the session with Rosy was just a delight, but I have yet to revise my low opinion of the publishing industry. To my mind, it’s a problem of culture – business culture. If publishers changed their attitude, sorted their aesthetics out from their accountancy, gained some common sense, became proud of their product, believed in books, stopped nitpicking with their pessimistic intellects, realistically assessed the market and sold to people who actually enjoy reading rather than some vague and vast masses, then and only then we might be getting somewhere.

23 thoughts on “The Blogging Workshop

  1. Fab post. I especially agree with that last bit about what the publishing industry needs to get working on. There are lots of encouraging enterprises (Snowbooks for one) but I still think we see the ‘and this is what the public wants’ attitude thrown at us, even as tons of people on and offline try to explain that they are part of the elusive group called readers and they don’t really want that at all. I think the publishing industry is currently trying to market to those outside the group of readers (nothing wrong with that, expanding your market is a good idea) but they’re doing this at the expense of their existing cutomers, because they know that books are an emotional product and feel sure that people who want to read will persevere despite feeling alienated by companies. But of course there is this new invention, called the library, which if marketed and funded correctly could severely decrease what their current customers buy.

    Oh and Erika Wagner’s Saturday column talks about the ereader and how useful it is, like her mobile phone, but how humans don’t love what’s useful, as much as they may appreciate devices like the phone, the ereader etc. She also says she’d have to give up reading in the bath for fear of dropping it and where would we be if we couldn’t read ina bubble bath occassionally.

    Congratulations on a successful panel! Why is it that technology can never just be broken, instead of insisting on being broken by someone, very inconvenient.

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed the day – and I love your account of proceedings! There was certainly something rather ironic about trying to run a session about writers and the internet with defunct WiFi and a failing cable connection. (The irony, in fact was compounded by the fact that the original intention had been to generate discussion beforehand among participants about the content of the workshop on the college students’ union website discussion forum. My post on the subject had received precisely one reply, when the site crashed, never to revive.)

    Your talk about blogging was fascinating. You were inspiring on the subject of finding one’s voice, and you provided an education on the workings of blogworld even for me, a comparative internet adept (even if I can’t make the thing work on my laptop in a new room to save my life). For a few of those present, I suspect they were hearing about a world they never knew existed – rather like (as we were saying earlier) being told there is a colony of leprechauns living in their flowerbed.

    I have forwarded the link to the Master – or the Absolute Sweetie, as I think he should henceforth be known in college.

    Thank you so much for coming along to do the session with me – you were great, and it was a joy.

  3. Jodie – thank you and I agree with you completely! I do feel that it’s a question of selling to an audience that likes technology, which has only a degree of overlap with the audience that likes reading. What you say about libraries, combined with the terrible things I’ve been reading in American blogs particularly about wholly insufficient funding does make me wonder about the connections between government and big business. But I promised myself I would never ever endorse a conspiracy theory because I don’t believe anyone is that organised. Let’s just call it a worrying shift in perspective. I think Snowbooks is a great company, and I do believe that the future lies in the small, clever, independent publisher.

    Rosy! – oh thank you for such a lovely comment! I had such a good time! I’m so glad you told the story about the website because I couldn’t remember enough details to tell it accurately and it is a wonderful anecdote. My sitting on the cable was the biggest factor in our internet travails (although that, too, just tickles me) and I am still laughing at your comment about the leprechauns. I do so hope the Master enjoys the post and let me know if the alternative naming sticks.😉

  4. Sounds like an interesting day, and thanks for the tips on writers’ websites. I have given up on Authonomy for its tendency to be a beauty contest, but Litopia sounds like a good place to visit.

  5. Hello – “Shylock” here!

    First, my teeth. That’s the really important bit. Having just spent upwards of £3k on one, single toothy implant (and it’s not even gold, so there’s no chance of investment income) I do feel I have to set the record straight about my molars.

    The impediment you mentioned was not due to wisdoms (I’ve only got one of the damn things left – more info than you wanted, possibly, but you did ask). It was actually due to excessive sibilance suppressing (try saying that without your false teeth in – and no, I don’t have any. Apart from the aforementioned implant).

    If you “de-ess” an audio signal beyond normal limits, you end up with an impossibly lispy sound. That’s what happened.

    The rest of your review is very good.

    Peter / Litopia

  6. Very fun! I had a lovely Saturday attending the Boston Book Festival; chatting about books, listening to hilarious authors talk about most everything and it was just a swell day! I would have loved to have been to YOUR event. 🙂
    This whole post seems to offer a hope that “The voice of reason will prevail.” and I hope that hope, too. About publishing, library funding, dare I say healthcare, etc.
    Thank you.

  7. Oh Litlove, how I did laugh when I came to the part about you sitting on the internet cable! What a fascinating description of your workshop and the people who attended. The responses of people who don’t know much about the internet and blogging always intrigue me. I was flabbergasted a number of years ago when I mentioned in a writing workshop I attended that I had a blog. The man sitting next to me pratically sneered, “I thought only teenagers and high school teachers had blogs.” No doubt he has his own blog these days and has conveniently forgotten his contempt!

  8. I love your final assessment. Succinct and acute. I laughed over the cable under your chair. It reminded me of when I was taking physics and had to use an oscilloscope to figure out what was inside a box. From various other indicators,I had an idea, but the wave was wrong, which I told the teacher. He said, “Oh, I see,” and banged the top of the oscilloscope. Voila–the right wave asserted itself.

  9. I’m still chuckling at the info theeping thwoo the text. The talk sounded very interesting and informative. And I also realised that I’ll have to get a copy of Hearts and Minds so I can read the voice of your friend Rosy.

  10. I was one of the attendees on Saturday and was at your session. Thanks so much, it was especially interesting to me as I write a fashion and lifestyle blog (http://shopcurious.blogspot.com) and I learned quite a bit about specialist literary areas (and blogs) – an area totally new to me. By the way, the lady of technical wizardry, who extricated the cable from under your chair, was Sarah Bendall, who is indeed a fellow of the college, as well as being the Development Director. Thanks again – I would love to have stayed for a chat afterwards, but had to rush off to get back to London for a dinner.

  11. What a fun day that must have been! I find it fun to talk about my blogging experience with people who aren’t familiar with the blog world at all, but it’s also hard, because there’s so much to try to describe, it would take a long time and a lot of words. Your points about time and the internet are interesting — we really haven’t come close to understanding this thing we spend so much time with, have we?

  12. Charlotte – general feeling was not much in sympathy with authonomy! But Litopia looks like being a very good thing. Would love to know how you get on with them if you do join the colony.

    Peter – I can quite see that a tooth worth so much money is, by definition, bound to be perfect and certainly NOT an obstacle to speech. Whereas the picture quality had clearly already ruined your saturnine good looks, and it is only to be supposed that it would also disturb the quality of your voice. However, the idea of your critiquing members’ work came over loud and clear and generated much interest and admiration in the group.🙂

    Care – I think cool heads AND voices of reason can prevail and I would be delighted to see either in evidence!🙂 I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the Boston festival – I’ll come and visit shortly and see whether you’ve posted an account of it. How lovely it would have been to have you with us – one day we should have a virtual bloggers’ conference. That would be a lot of fun.

    Stefanie – oh I am so glad that part appealed to you! It makes me laugh still to think of it. As for that remark about only teenagers blogging – well! It is astonishing how rude people can be when their ignorance is engaged. I imagine my response would have been very haughty indeed!🙂

    Lilian – lol! love that story. My husband is an engineer and he tells me the first rule of engineering is ‘give it a good thump’. It sort of works, although in all honesty, we have fried several computers that way too. And thank you for the kind words. Sometimes I feel the desire to become a publisher – but if I hang on for long enough it goes away!🙂

    Pete – oh you must read Rosy! She is a delight, and Hearts and Minds is wonderful and gives just the most perfect representation of Cambridge. We had a lot of fun that afternoon, it must be said!

    Susan – I’m so glad to have the address of your blog! I would have asked for it if I’d seen you at tea. I’m so glad (and relieved!) that you enjoyed the session and thank you for revealing the identity of our computer wizard. She was a complete star!

    Rosy – and it made such a better tale than the truth! Writing this post has made me recall Janet Malcolm’s words about biography: only in fiction writing can we ever know the truth, she says, as it’s only there that we are given all the information that exists. Non-fiction is condemned to endless speculation. So true!!!!🙂

    Dorothy – it was fun and it was also much harder than I expected. I launched cheerily into an explanation of what I did and had to back up two or three times! The internet is SO new – we forget that, I think, in our recent familiarity with it. What it does and how it will change things is just a mystery still. But one it’s certainly fun to speculate on!

  13. it sounds like a fascinating day…too bad about the agent, though – it sometimes seems this business creates a whole lot of oversensitivity. I would have loved to attend and learn from you and Rosy!

  14. I always love your recaps, they are so witty! My BFF the bookseller would agree completely with the sensible agent you mentioned, though she is considering stocking ereaders. Not “groupmind,” but practicality: the technology is here; if folks are going to invest in the product, why not do it through her? While they’re at it they can browse the shelves and find something solid and wonderful, too. Yes, and well designed.
    As for this blogging thing we’re involved in, by the time I figure out the intricacies of code & searches & so forth, something else will have come along to replace this. And the person who stumbled loudly through the double doors and had to cross the panel mid-discussion to find her seat? That would be me😉

  15. First of all, it sounds like a lovely day, and how great that you got to share it with Ms. Thornton, whose books I have so enjoyed! Also, hope the bottle of wine is good. Interesting how people have such wildly differing (and erratic?) views of the internet and its usefulness, and blogging. I’m happy to hear about the sites for writers–they sound worth investigating! Lol about the internet cable…

  16. Oh, Litlove, this was splendid. Although I can find my way around the Internet – sort of – deep inside I feel as though I’m one of those folks Stefanie mentioned – a little befuddled by it all. Anyhow, this workshop sounds wonderful. I’d love to attend something like it here.

  17. I was so happy to hear what the agent had to say about books and ebooks. I don’t understand the either or mentality either. You’d think they’d want to capitalize on both formats as they have different uses and sometimes different audiences. I read somewhere that (can’t remember which company–must find the link again) someone wants to start making print on demand copies of scanned books–so now we are going in reverse. First it was go digital, which is great for those OOP books, but now they want to put them back into paper format. Things usually come full circle if you wait long enough. Sounds like it was an interesting afternoon!

  18. Courtney – it would have been such fun to have you there! Except of course you know every bit as much as I do and would have had to just enjoy the atmosphere! The agent was a disappointment in a personal way, but I am glad she talked such good sense when she was on the panel. You are quite right about the oversensitivity.

    ds – I am all for diversification in the book market – by all means bring in ereaders and bring back parchment scrolls if they’ll sell, but not in exchange for the book. It seems so unnecessary. I have given up completely any attempt to keep up with technology and just shout for help when I want to do something unusual on the blog (which is rare!). And I did laugh at your comment about sneaking in!

    Gentle Reader – it was a fun day and I was very glad to do it. Blogging is still so new it provokes all kinds of reactions and I had to think quite hard about what I wanted to say (forgot loads of basic information that needed mentioning, however, what with thinking so hard about what it meant to me!). And do check out the writers’ sites – they were most interesting.

    Grad – I’m right there with the befuddled folk! I have no idea how anything works beyond pressing letters on a keyboard that come up on the screen (and not that that always works perfectly!). But it was a fun day and how nice it would have been to have you with us!

    Danielle – I was most happy to hear what she said – after so much pressing and hustling for the ereader to be a replacement (or at least that’s central to the articles and posts I’ve read). And it does seem unreasonable. What you say about print on demand shows that people still really like to have the physical object in their hands. If it’s a question of waiting, I’m ready to sit it out!🙂

  19. Emily – I’m so sorry about that! I don’t know what can have happened – I have checked the spam filter but you are not there. I suppose there must have been a fold in cyberspace, these things happen. I will look out for it because it may still reappear.

  20. Sooo nice to be home if only to be able to catch up on all the blogging I’ve missed. As usual, Litlove, you’ve been busy. I love these college accounts of yours, basically anytime you go anywhere to do anything, it’s a riot of interest and humour. Love it.

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