Friday, September 26, 2008

Learn from my mistakes: how to start a blog off right

I hereby impart the wisdom of my limited experience, gathered during the five short months I've been blogging. These are things I would do-over if I could:

1. Always try to make your blog name and blog URL coincide as much as possible.
I used "" for "Writing Home" blog because I used to be "beblevins" in all my past email addresses (@aol, etc.) and thought maybe people who knew me could find my primary blog that way.

The other reason I did this is because had already been taken—though it hasn't been updated since 2005; and had also been taken, but it hasn't been updated since 2006.

That leads me to my second do-over:

2. Come up with a name for your blog that hasn't already been used.
I know that's getting to be nearly impossible since so many people are creating blogs now (and they get to keep those blog names even when they're no longer updating them...). Be willing to compromise, if necessary. When I started this blog, "Writing Home" was the name that stuck in my head and I couldn't let go of it; although I still really like the name, I wish I had come up with something that hadn't been used on Blogger before and which also isn't the name of at least one book and several other web pages, as I found out after the fact. (I also wrote about this in my April 8, 2008 posting, Writing Home—Not such a unique name after all). 

3. Create a somewhat generic email address that you can use for signing into all of your Blogger accounts.
This is really important if you're planning to do more than one blog—or if there's any possibility that you'll do more than one blog in the future.

I made the mistake of creating a unique email address for each of the blogs I started so that I had to sign in four different ways at one point—and I sometimes couldn't remember the unique sign-in for each one. Now I have added "thebethblevins -at- gmail" as an administrator to all my active blogs, which is why "B. Blevins" and "Beth Blevins" are both listed as administrators for Writing Home. I don't need B. Blevins anymore, with her unique writinghomeblog -@ -gmail address, but I haven't been able to bring myself to kill her off yet.

4. Decide what you want your blog to do or even achieve.
Do you just want an electronic refuge for your thoughts? To simply try your hand at blogging? To make a visual/photo record of your family life? Then proceed immediately to the nearest free blogging space and blog away, knowing that only your friends may read it (and you may not be able to persuade them to read it, either).

Do you want to reach readers (or even make money)? Then you'll need to think about this for awhile, preferably before even finding a name for your blog. To be a successful/popular blogger, it seems that you need to find a niche that no one else has filled or that you can fill better than anyone else even if others have attempted it.

5. If your aim is to write a popular (and/or money-making) blog, do some research first.
To find your niche you'll need to look at a lot of other blogs, or at least be aware of them. When I've begun to look at blogs, I've been overwhelmed with the variety and number. For lack of time on my part, I've been unable to sit down for hours and scroll and hyperlink through them. There are directories and lists of best blogs that I've looked at, which I found after I already started blogging. But I don't think that I would have been deterred from letting this blog evolve the way it has evolved if I had looked at and studied them first. Mine was the first impulse listed in #4—I just wanted to create something and get it out of my laptop. Now I wonder why my audience hasn't found me even though I've never really gone out looking for my audience.


It should be noted that this blog originally didn't start out as a writers' blog anyway. The original focus wasn't just on writing, but was anything I happened to be thinking of the day I wrote it. Then I went to a blogging workshop and described my then one-month-old blog to the instructor, who said it had no focus. So, I divided up what had been posted on the original blog into three different blogs, keeping Writing Home as a blog about the writing process. (I described my reaction to the workshop in the post, I'm doing this all wrong). 

The other two blogs have since fallen to neglect; in the meantime, I started two other subject-focused blogs—Cooking for Four, my food/cooking blog, and QACW, a databank/blog of quotes about creative women. It's too soon to tell which of these, including Writing Home, will survive in the next few months.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Writer Profile: Kim Dana Kupperman

(An occasional series, in which I'll talk with writers I know—or want to know—about the craft of writing.)

Kim and I met when she and I were both applying to be the Women’s (Womyn’s) Editor at City on a Hill, the college newsweekly at UC-Santa Cruz. (The former women’s editor, Kerry Anna Cobra, I think was departing to join a coven in San Francisco). We ended up sharing the position as co-editors, for a time, coming up with such features as “The Joy of Bundling.” Our section for the April Fool’s issue featured fashion makeovers: from punk to conservative, dyke to earth mother.

Needless to say, we were not universally liked in the university’s and town’s feminist communities. Some wrote the paper complaining of our frivolity in light of such pressing issues as clitorectomy in Africa and the ongoing, chronic subjugation of women in all parts of the world. But we both agreed, without needing to talk about it much, that feminism needed to lighten up sometimes and not always take itself so seriously.

Kim went on to live in Los Angeles, France, NYC (her hometown) and Maine. She taught English by phone to French people, taught English as a Foreign Language, French, and creative writing stateside, worked as a journalist and as a writer and community educator for nonprofit organizations before earning her MFA in creative writing (nonfiction) from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She is the founder of Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit independent publisher whose mission is to publish and celebrate the essay, in all its forms. For her day job, she works as managing editor of The Gettysburg Review.

Through the years and our various addresses, we’ve always managed to keep in touch, sometimes reconnecting after a silence of several years. That’s 25 years of correspondence, longer than I have kept up with most people, though in recent years, admittedly, most of it has been by e-mail. I miss our pages-long, handwritten and typed missives, where we used to plan out our futures and analyze our presents. Hard to imagine anymore putting so much intent into something that only one person will read, gone forever into that sealed envelope. When I write a letter now, on my laptop, I can just as easily send it to a thousand as I can send it to one, and I can archive it in a variety of ways, where it might sit silent but searchable for many years.

Kim has published extensively in the last several years. Her essays have appeared in Agni online, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her essay “Relief” (Hotel Amerika, Spring 2005) was chosen for the anthology Best American Essays, 2006. For more, see Kim Dana Kupperman.

WH: Why do you write? And, why did you choose writing instead of some other form of creativity?

About ten years ago, someone told me that writers weren’t listened to as children. While I’m sure this assessment is not universal to all writers, for me it made sense. One of my mother’s favorite admonishments was “children should be seen and not heard,” and while my parents certainly paid attention to me and did listen to me in many ways, in many other ways they didn’t. I’m sure everyone could claim their parents didn’t listen to them in some fashion. The point is that writing is all about finding a voice, not necessarily the one with which you speak to your family, loved ones, friends, co-workers, or acquaintances, but a voice that expresses what is really happening in the interior self. That’s the first part of my answer: I started writing to satisfy the need to speak out and up, to raise my voice with the authority I didn’t necessarily have as a child.

The second part of the answer is that crafting language into art seemed to fit me as a form of creativity (I’m thinking of Rumi’s delightful line, “Wine gets drunk on us, not the other way around”). I did dabble with visual and performing arts as a young person, but writing complemented my sensibility in deeper ways. I have half brothers, but because they had a different mother and were quite a bit older, in essence I grew up as an only child. My mother, when I lived with her, left me alone to the point of neglect. And so I learned to amuse myself, seeking refuge in my imagination, which was a territory of unending possibility and joy. It was also a place where I resolved my fears and this is very much akin to what writing is all about, especially writing personal essays that seek to examine the unexamined life.

The third part of the answer is that I am both a storyteller and a very visual/aural person. Writing allows me to use all those capacities. Plus, when I was in my twenties, I thought it important to learn everything associated with writing, even the act of writing. I became a calligrapher. I tried my hand at translation, journalism, grant writing, and, as you know, I was a great fan of the epistolary tradition. For many years, my best writing happened in letters I wrote. Later, I learned to make books, which satisfies my desire to fashion things with my hands. I still like making books. I like it so much that I founded a press that will incorporate letterpress printing and traditional book arts into many of its projects.

WH: What was the first piece of writing you ever had published?

An article called “Journey out of Silence,” about women artists and the indecent lack of exposure for women who paint or sculpt. It was published in 1980, in Matrix, A Women’s Newsmagazine, a monthly tabloid produced by a collective in Santa Cruz. It was a very exciting experience to publish that article, especially because it combined my love of visual arts with my proficiency as a young writer (not to mention the hope it gave me to be able to voice my opinion in a public forum about inequity in the arts). I even made the collage that was published on the cover.

WH: What are you working on now?

A second collection of essays. I’m hesitant to say what it’s about because I don’t want to jinx the project.

WH: What are you reading now?

Truth in Nonfiction, essays edited by David Lazar; The Unequal Hours, essays by Linda Underhill; Walking the Wrack Line. On Tidal Shifts and What Remains, essays by Barbara Hurd. I also read the New Yorker and the Sun. I just recently finished reading the entire February 2008 issue of the Sun, which has some remarkable essays in it, most notably the one by Derrick Jensen on zoos (he compares zoos to pornography, a brilliant and all-too-true notion).

WH: Are you exclusively writing nonfiction or do you work in other genres as well?

I have been writing nonfiction pretty exclusively for the past four years, but I’ve also written quite a bit of (bad) poetry and some fiction (one piece was published some years ago). I’ve been working on a project for some time that uses all three genres.

WH: What does a managing editor at a literary journal do?

The primary and most pressing task consists of shepherding the journal through production. This involves readying manuscripts for the typesetter; copyediting, proofreading, and communicating and/or negotiating with authors about edits; coordinating and communicating with the designer, typesetter and printer; ensuring that graphics (we run an eight-page art feature and ads from other journals or presses) meet our print-quality specifications; and basically making sure everyone involved in the process meets deadlines in the production schedule (which I also set in advance of each publishing cycle). Other responsibilities include supervising student interns, writing grant proposals and managing grant contracts, processing contributor and vendor payments, overseeing the annual budget, managing single-issue distribution, dealing with distributors, and attending conferences and book fairs. I used to also be in charge of marketing, but because of my responsibilities as coordinator of our summer writing conference, I no longer coordinate marketing activities. Managing editors at other journals have assorted other responsibilities, including setting editorial policy and selecting work. I’m lucky as I get to work with authors once they’re accepted (i.e., I never reject anyone!)

As coordinator of the Review’s summer conference for writers, I make sure everything that needs to be in place—i.e., advertising, publicity, contracts, scheduling, housing, transportation, catering, etc.—is in place. I make sure people will have the information they need to get from one event to another; it’s a details job. Once faculty and students arrive, I spend a great deal of time solving problems and making sure everyone feels welcome and satisfied. It’s a customer-service job more than anything. When the conference ends, I supervise the compilation of evaluations.

WH: What do you hope to write (or accomplish) in the next five years?

I hope to get my first collection of essays published, a scary proposition considering how essay-phobic the publishing world is (the other reason I founded Welcome Table Press was to address the need for a publisher to focus on the essay). I’m working now to get the press up and running, and to bring the idea of the essay to the fore in terms of contemporary letters. And I want to finish more reading! Always more reading, including rereading. In prose, Woolf, Sontag, Pamuk, Didion, Baldwin, Jeff Porter, bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, June Jordan, and that’s just for starters; the list is endless actually. In poetry, everything!

--Interviewed (and introduction written) by Beth Blevins.

Friday, September 12, 2008

WH's first call-out to writers: How do you deal with rejection?

(This is a question for writers who have successfully published at least two pieces of writing in any type of publication.)

How do you deal with rejection? Do you have any special rituals, drinks or treats that help numb the pain of reading a rejection slip (especially one that goes into detail about why your piece didn't work)?

Or, does rejection not bother you anymore? If so, how do you think you've managed to make peace with it—do you see it as constructive criticism?

If you have any other words of wisdom to share about the response stage of the submissions process, please do so. 

Please send a short response (less than 300 words) to this blog c/o thebethblevins by Sept. 30th. Also include a short biographical paragraph and/or link to your web site. 

Confessions of a writer who is afraid to submit her writing elsewhere

Writing short pieces for this blog was supposed to be a warm-up for me to write longer or more eloquent pieces that I would submit to online and print journals.  Instead, I've been writing postings for this blog (usually on Fridays), for my food blog (usually on Mondays) and spending a small amount of time each week tracking down quotes for my online databank/blog of quotes on creative women. In addition, this week I spent some of my free time watching The Colbert Report (on the tiny TV in the kitchen while washing dishes), looking at YouTube political videos and being hysterical about Sarah Palin. I also did some volunteer work, some editing for money, got acupuncture, had my annual physical and finished reading "Little House on the Prairie" to my daughter.

Once my kids went back to school this month, I thought I would have no excuses for not sitting down and polishing up pieces I've intended to send out for years, and working on new pieces that have been written in my head for months. What is the hold-up here? I finally asked myself. And the answer came, loud and clear: I hate rejection—I hate to read rejection letters. I hate looking for markets for things once I've written them, and I don't like writing for intended markets (unless they are of my own making, like blogs and little magazines).

The pathetic conceit is that all my writing sitting stale in a filing cabinet is "brilliant" unless proven otherwise. I do not know how to prod myself to start up what for me is the painful process of stuffing SASEs and hopeful query letters into envelopes again and again. If I had some feel for what people wanted instead of blindly sending things out, it would help.

One thing I hope will help me get through this is that I am going to yield parts of this blog to outside experts. In a separate post, which I'll also post today, I want to send a call-out to other writers to tell me how you deal with rejection.  I hope to have similar call-outs to writers in the future, on a range of topics, at least once a month. I also hope to interview and talk with other writers on how they are able to maintain productivity and why they write in the first place. I am hoping to learn from their examples, yes. But I'm also hoping that letting other people occasionally talk through this blog will free me up a little and get me back to my other writing, especially the short story I've always wanted to finish.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Not so a-Twitter: Do writers need to know about all the Internet's gizmos?

Maybe it’s my age (I went to college with a Remington manual typewriter), but I don’t see the usefulness of a lot of the gizmos on the Internet. Last year I managed to make a Facebook page and start a Facebook page group—admittedly with the help of my teenage son. And I’ve started a few blogs and web pages, though I’ve yet to figure out how to publicize them or help other people find them.

This is painful to me as someone, long ago, who considered herself to be part of the latest technology trends. Instead of an engagement ring, I asked my fiancé for a Mac Plus—cutting edge at the time, it allowed me to lay out the pages of my little magazine, section-by-section (the screen not big enough to see even a whole, small-scale page). And as a librarian, I used to search online databases for a federal agency, cranking out mega-searches sometimes worth hundreds of dollars.

But now I’m confronted with little icons for Digg and RSS feeds and bookmarking tools when I go to other web sites and I don’t know why I should care. At a blogging workshop I attended, the instructor told us we needed to know about such things, but as she mentioned them it was like she was talking to me from a distant tunnel—I just couldn’t hear her. Such things are not part of the Internet landscape I have grown to be comfortable with—Daily Show videos, Yahoo email, the Washington Post online, my Facebook page, the county public library online catalog.

There are two particular things I don’t understand that I’ll mention today: Twitter and Technorati. (I suppose this could be a series—“Cranky Middle-Aged Woman Complains About All the Technology That’s Passing Her By”—should I choose to look at other Internet features in the future).

1. I don’t understand the usefulness of Twitter, except to stalkers and people engaging in affairs who are trying to let their paramours know where they might be able to hook up.

Twitter entries I found just now:
  • Eating chocolates right out the box.
  • is thinking of eating out tonight, but would love some company
  • Figuring out what we're going to do today. Oh, wait, now I remember: NOTHING.
[Found quickly by searching “eating” and “going.” I don’t know anyone on Twitter to search for.]

I assumed that Twitter was mostly for high school and college students (and, as I said, people who might want to be stalked or have love affairs), but when I was looking through the search results just now I saw some pretty middle-aged looking people doing pretty typical (boring) things.

As a writer, I worry that this is what people are reading now instead of reading books, that things like Twitter are contributing to our already short-attention-span culture. It seems an outgrowth of the ability to click on endless TV channels and Internet hyperlinks. The other worry is that the people who write these Twitters might fancy themselves writers, so they feel compelled to flood cyber-space with all their interior thoughts, which turn out to be superficial and limited. This will make it harder to find (and justify placing) good writing on the Internet.

2. I don’t know what Technorati is exactly, but I saw it on someone else’s blog last week and when I clicked on the icon, it somehow led me to a place where I could put the icon on my own blog. So I did, totally not knowing what Technorati could do for me, or why I would need it. It was an experiment from which I’m not sure I’ll be able to interpret the results or even recognize any results if they are there.

If any other writers are using Twitter or Technorati to good effect, feel free to share them in the Comments line below. I can't say that it will help me understand them better, or make me want to use them, but maybe if enough people try to tell me about this stuff, the voice(s) coming from the tunnel will be loud enough for me to almost hear them.