On November 25, I was honoured by feminist theatre company Scary Little Girls with a reading of one of my stories as part of the online launch event for greenhamwomen.digital (read more about this amazing project in my previous post).
"Liberty Dock" is a piece of short fiction about a woman at a turning point in her life and wondering what to do with her newfound freedom. When I write fiction, I try to say something about the human condition and encourage readers to reflect on their own situation and attitudes. I'm sure the themes of loneliness and grief will resonate with many readers/listeners, and I hope the ending is uplifting to anyone dealing with these emotions.
I encourage you to watch the whole show, but if you're short on time, my story starts at around the 13-minute mark. Enjoy!
While Books with Spine usually focuses on the printed word, I’m not oblivious to the power of digital storytelling. Interactive environments offer us the opportunity to take control of a nonlinear narrative and experience stories in a completely different way, with music and visuals complementing the written and spoken word. When the content shares the lived experience of pioneering activists and feminists during the early era of British environmentalism – BOOM – we’ve got something that totally fits the brief of Books with Spine by the name of Greenham Women Digital. My understanding is that there is also a book to be published sometime in 2021, so watch this space.
GreenhamWomen.Digital is an online interactive exhibition which launched on November 25th to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The original plan was to create a touring exhibition until 2020 threw its corona-shaped spanner in the works. But for once, the virus did culture a favour because now we have something that will be available for environmental and peace activists and feminists the world over, in perpetuity. Cheers, Rona!
What’s the Story?
The project is a ground-breaking, interactive online exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which sprung up at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire in September 1981. The first occupiers were a Welsh group called Women for Life on Earth, and their mission was to protest the storage of cruise missiles at the base. The camp grew over the years, augmented by many other women’s groups and individuals campaigning against nuclear weapons. Amazingly, the camp was not disbanded until the year 2000!
“Our aim is to give people a flavour and feel of what life was really like at the peace camp,” explains Rebecca Mordan of Scary Little Girls, the production hub responsible for coordinating this ambitious project.
The website was developed by mixed-reality specialist Animorph. Explaining the cooperative’s involvement, Producer Geoffrey Morgan explains: “Together we set out to push what an archival website can be and do. We wanted to create a multi-modal experience.”
The resulting site contains a huge amount of music, artwork, interviews, and dramatisations, reflecting the diversity of those who were part of Greenham.
Rebecca Mordan explains: “Like any organic movement, there were different ideologies, interests and personalities. As a result, like-minded women gravitated towards each other and shared spaces in different camps at gates situated all around the site.
“Visitors to the exhibition will be able to explore the different vibes and activities at each of the gates (violet, indigo, turquoise, emerald, green, blue and yellow), finding interactive multimedia at each.”
Designed almost like a treasure hunt, visitors are encouraged to explore widely while collecting songs, stories, and first-hand accounts hidden in the 2D and 3D landscapes. By clicking on an object or scene, visitors can share everyday camp life: the protests, actions, love and loss during this pivotal period in British history.
But don’t expect a sanitised or singular view of events. Part of the joy of this experience lies in the fact that it is based on interviews with more than 100 women whose lives were deeply affected by their time at Greenham. Like witnesses to almost all dramatic events, their accounts vary. It is their unique and sometimes conflicting memories and perspectives that create such a rich tapestry.
Explore the Greenham Peace Camp today!
When you're writing for fun or catharsis, self-editing will often take your writing as far as it needs to go. But if you're a writer with an eye on publishing, working with a professional copy editor can improve your publishing prospects, providing you are fully open to the process. Working with a professional editor (either one you hire or one assigned to you by the publisher) can be a stressful situation for many writers who are accustomed to flying solo, but with the right mindset, you'll enjoy a rewarding collaboration. Here are five ways to enter the process.
Mindset 1: It's as good as I can make it ... but it ain't perfect.
You'd be surprised how often I see manuscripts that have "author fatigue" written all over them, and it's clear the author has said, "Oh, that'll do." Only seek an editor when you have self-edited the heck out of your manuscript and are satisfied that you can take it no further. Copy editors love to work with manuscripts they can take from good to great, rather than manuscripts they can turn from okay to good (or from bad to readable!). However, don't hand it over with the assumption it's flawless ... because you WILL get a shock when the edited manuscript is returned. Expect there to be edits a plenty, and remember that even Hemingway needed an editor.
Mindset 2: It's great to collaborate!
As a writer, the page is your stage ... but even a one-woman show needs a crew! Think of your editor as the guy/gal in the lighting booth who's there to ensure you're looking your best. It is not in your editor's interest to steal the limelight or make you look bad, so enjoy the rare moment of creative partnership. Keep in mind that every editor is as unique as every writer, but hopefully your styles complement each other. If you continue to collaborate, the symbiosis will become stronger and the editing process will become easier.
Mindset 3: It's not about me.
The copy editor’s only objective is to make the reading of your manuscript as easy and pleasurable as possible. As tough as it seems (especially if you're paying), the editor's first loyalty is to the reader, not you! Edits are not criticisms, so try not take it personally.
Mindset 4: Every edit is a learning opportunity.
You are always free to disagree with the editor and reject any edit, but it’s often beneficial to understand the editor’s choices or recommendations. You will also learn a lot by studying the grammar, punctuation, and usage edits, which will improve your writing craft going forward.
Mindset 5: Professional editing is an investment.
Unless it's offered as part of a publishing agreement, professional editing will cost you hard-earned cash. That reality is especially harsh because writers themselves so rarely see financial rewards for their efforts. But if you feel you must hire an editor, think of the expenditure as an investment in your development as a writer, not only in terms of craft skills but also in terms of experience with professional editing, which agents and publishers appreciate. A professional edit is also an investment in your book, increasing its chances of being picked up by an agent/publisher or a reader. Hopefully, with great editing, you will see a return on your investment down the line!
Whether you self-publish or are fortunate to get a traditional publishing deal, the chances are you will have to do a lot of your own book promo. This can be highly time-consuming and frustrating ... especially if you go at it half cocked, so to speak. But where do you begin?
I asked marketing/PR expert (and agented writer) Anna Caig for a few choice words of advice for promoting your book based on her experience as a trainer/coach of writers who want to build their brand and reach more readers. (To find out more, or to work with Anna Caig, go to https://www.annacaigcomms.co.uk). Here is what she shared.
1. Be clear on your author brand
Does thinking of yourself as a brand have you cringing or running for the hills? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But this is about pinning down what makes you stand out, and it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of the work I do with authors. Looking at where the inspiration and motivation behind your writing comes from is a good place to start thinking about how to differentiate yourself from all the other authors out there.
2. Use your storytelling skills in your marketing
It’s amazing how many awesome storytellers revert to flat, linear descriptions when they’re talking about themselves and their work in bios, on their website, or anywhere they’ve got limited space to tell potential readers what they’re all about. But by using the same skills you use in your writing to describe your books and yourself as an author, you’ll be off to a flying start.
3. Also think about what you *don’t* want to share
Your author brand is a version of you that you’re comfortable sharing with the public … it is not all of you, warts and all. For example, many people get inspiration for their writing from painful personal events. Sometimes you’ll be happy to talk about these explicitly, but sometimes you won’t, and that’s fine. It is important to establish this ahead of embarking on marketing a book.
4. Before any marketing activity, set yourself some objectives
Is it all about sales? Do you want to build your mailing list? Are you setting up a community of readers in a Facebook group? Spending a little time thinking about what exactly you want to achieve with your marketing activity is an important first step in putting together a strategy and will ensure everything you do contributes to a specific outcome.
5. Write a strategy
Snore, right? A strategy’s a dry old document that sits on a shelf and never gets used? Well, nope. A marketing strategy means you know what you want to achieve, who exactly you’re targeting and how you’re going to reach them, and what you’re going to say. Not only does spending a little time on a strategy save *a lot* of time in the long run, it also ensures your marketing is coherent.
6. Be creative when it comes to reaching potential readers
Most spaces, digital or in-person, dedicated to book promotion are crowded and competitive. I always encourage writers to think outside the box when it comes to reaching readers. Put in the simplest terms, if you’ve written a book about trains, don’t just target people who love books, target people who love trains. Think about where you can find this audience and use the channels that will reach them there.
7. Digital and social media are just channels
I hear a lot of ‘you should be doing x, y or z’ when it comes to book promotion, and never more so than with digital and social media. But the truth is, these are just channels to reach audiences. There’s no should about it, unless they will help you talk to people who are likely to love your books. And you’re much better off using two or three channels well than spreading yourself thinly across loads because you think you should be there.
8. The rule of thirds
No more than a third of the content you share with your audiences should be explicitly promoting and selling your books. Another third is all about engaging content which doesn’t overtly sell: this is where you can give audiences a glimpse behind the curtain, share interesting information relating to your research, writing process, or just elements of your life that form part of, or complement, your author brand. The final third is where you respond to others, have conversations and comment on what other people are doing, building your relationships and communities.
9. Give video a chance
There’s no point forcing yourself to create content you really don’t enjoy, but I’ve lost count of the number of writers I’ve worked with who are reluctant to give video a go and then end up loving it. There is a lot of evidence that video is more effective than text or images in engaging audiences, and there are many different ways to try it, from a more polished, edited video to a quick Facebook or Instagram live. Try some different things out and try not to worry about ‘getting it wrong’ (whatever that means!) You don’t need to be too polished or perfect. The most engaging content often includes flaws, or even mistakes. It can be scary to put yourself ‘out there’ and be vulnerable, but you may be pleasantly surprised by how your audience responds to content which contains faults. Look at the engagement on a serious Facebook post, versus the outtakes and bloopers post from ‘behind the scenes’ (from those who are brave enough to share these) and the latter will almost invariably reach more people and elicit a more positive response.
10. Have fun
Yes, book promotion is a serious business that will find readers for your work and persuade them to part with their hard-earned cash, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it. It’s important to bear in mind that content you enjoy creating is likely to be more effective because the energy and enthusiasm will come across to your audience. So, enjoy yourself!
The book with spine I'm plugging this month is Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.
Sometimes, a book with spine reveals something new to you, but sometimes it validates something important in your life. For me, this book is of the latter variety. As a writer myself, I picked up the book of essays by writers because I was curious about how other writers came to the same decision as I did about parenthood (the decision being to remain childfree by choice, which is an important distinction from people who want kids but can't have them).
As you would expect from writers, the essays are well constructed and well argued. From a craft point of view, you get a great masterclass in how to write great personal essays. Of course, the content resonated with me, although the males' point of view, not so much. I just think that for people born women, the concept of choosing to be childfree is an issue on a far grander scale than for men. Sorry, dudes. If you are a female-identifying writer who is on the fence about having kids, this book could be incredibly powerful. It's rammed full of sound rationale for fully embracing the creative life, which may offer some readers real comfort.
However, the one thing that struck me about writers writing about this topic is how inadequate words are, and none of the essayists really tackled the lack of appropriate language for childfree-by-choice cis women, like me. So, in a move of breathtaking arrogance, I'm offering you my opinion!
Words Fail Me: Communicating My Choice
The English language was once the stooge of the British Empire, busy appropriating words from other cultures for its greedy master. Nowadays, English has atoned for its imperial past by becoming the most hospitable language on Earth. It no longer goes abroad to steal; rather, it welcomes thousands of foreign/alien words with open arms and makes them feel right at home, no questions asked.
I love English’s speedy adaptability. Even as I write, the new term “social distancing” is being entered into the OED. Though there is always controversy around certain language developments (lately in the sphere of gender identity, where vocab moves at breakneck speed), it’s critical that people take control of the language that refers to them. And it’s their inalienable right to choose their words carefully.
You might have noticed I steer clear of the word “childless”, which to me suggests something is missing, and for women who want children but are without them, this word feels especially unkind. I’m not especially keen to refer to myself as “childfree” either, reminiscent as it is of the prolific food-related intolerances of our age, as if the mere whiff of a fertilized egg in my uterus might trigger anaphylaxis.
So, if not “childfree” or “childless”, what? I would prefer to describe my persona as a “woman without children” (people-first language) and refer to my counterparts “women with children”, but I know that most of them would rather be called “mothers” because it’s a label that carries a great deal of weight in society. Even bad mothers get more respect than non-mothers, on the whole!
Sadly, women without children have no equivalent of the word “mother” that might respect their particular reproductive decision. “Non-mother” is another one of those oppositional words, like “childless”, so that won’t do. Old English would have labeled younger women without children “maidens”, which has a certain charm, but older women were called “crones”… not so nice.
We have hardly any deities from which to draw our alternative moniker, given that the ancient pantheons and most religions are simply potty about fertility. “Libertas”, the goddess of freedom, was about the closest I could get, but I do not want to be confused with libertarians, so that’s a no-go.
I guess the best we can do is 'nullipara', which is the medical term for a woman who has not given birth and encompasses those who are not fertile (too young, too elderly, and the infertile) and those who have chosen to defy their fertility. It will take some explaining, but we've seen lately how quickly new terms are adopted. So, I say it's worth a go: let's change it from an adjective to a noun, and maybe even a verb ... 'to nullipara: to choose or to embrace a childfree life'.
Nulliparas of the world, unite!
Soon after I returned to Sheffield after a 20-year absence, I was lucky to meet Beverley Ward. Beverley is at the very heart of the city's writing community and has supported its growth for about as long as I was away! Not only is she a great resource for other writers developing their craft, she is also an enormously talented writer of prose and poetry, and in a future blog post, I will be featuring her very own Book with Spine, Dear Blacksmith, a beautiful and powerful memoir about confronting grief under extraordinary circumstances.
In this post, Beverley shares her top ten habits for becoming a writer or improving your productivity.
For more of Beverley's tips and advice, request a copy of her Free E-Book here.
Beverley Ward is a writer, facilitator and coach, with twenty years experience of supporting fellow writers on their journeys to becoming the writers that they want to be. She offers a range of writing workshops and one-to-one coaching/mentoring and owns The Writers Workshop in Sheffield. You can find out more about Beverley at www.beverleywrites.com. Or email her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of my professional aims is to enable writers to become better self-editors so that the manuscripts they present for copyediting are as good as they can possibly be. Part of this mission involves demystifying the professional editing process, so here is the skinny on what a professional copy editor does to take a manuscript from so-so to SO GOOD!
The 5 C's of Copyediting
My last post was October 2018. What explains the gap? Personal stuff, of course! Around that time, I was newly divorced and still pretty heartbroken, and trying to figure out what was next for me. In June 2019, I shipped all my stuff across the Atlantic and boarded a plane, sad so say farewell to California but excited to return to my native England to stitch the torn fabric of my life back together.
So, here we are, two years on, in October 2020 (nearly), and I'm finally coming up for air ... although, I'm now breathing mostly through a face covering. So, look out for more regular posts on all matters editorial and, specifically, books with spine -- books seeking to make this very messed up world a better place.
One of the toughest challenges in my line of work is turning down projects. Mostly, I decline only the manuscripts I don’t have time for or that don’t pay well enough. But there have been several occasions when I’ve had to turn down a project because, quite frankly, I don’t want any hand in birthing that particular book.
If that sounds judgemental to you, well, it is! I make no apology for being a woman of principle and exercising professional judgement when considering what projects to accept—after all, I’m a human being, not a robot! Don’t misunderstand me, though. I’m all for freedom of speech and the author’s right to write; all I am saying is, “Leave me out of it!” So, if a manuscript comes along that spreads nastiness in the world—such as racism, misogyny, gay hate, and religious intolerance—I simply tell the client, "I can't take the project because I would not bring the necessary objectivity to the editing task."
Given my personal opinions on ethical writing, I was therefore pleased to stumble upon the Ethical Author Campaign from UK-based ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors). It’s a writers' code of conduct comprising a list of ethical practices united by one guiding principle: “When I market my books, I put my readers first.” For this initiative, I applaud ALLi wholeheartedly because I have also written code of conduct to share with all my book coaching clients. Of course, they are not obliged to adopt the principles, but I feel it’s my duty to at least give them the option of doing the honorable thing.
Lorna's Five Commandments of Nonfiction Writing
An important rule of writing is “Honor Thy Reader.” If readers feel disrespected, at best they’ll close your book; at worst, they'll trash both you and your book online.
During the outlining process, you should have identified your target reader, their fears/anxieties, and their hopes/desires. Always keep these target readers and their needs in mind when you are creating your content: those readers are the foundation of your book, and they are counting on you to give them the information they need. But other than placing your readers’ needs at the heart of your book, how else can you honor them?
1. Thou shalt not patronize. Sometimes it can be hard to find the right way to communicate a complex idea clearly. However, be careful to avoid dumbing down your material to the point of condescension or coming off as superior.
2. Thou shalt not baffle. As experts in your field, be aware of the language you’re using to communicate, especially jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms. If you cannot write without these terms, include a glossary in your book to ensure you’re being understood. Also, try not to assume knowledge. Ask yourself before you begin writing what things your reader will already know and what they need to know, and write according to their level of knowledge (beginner, intermediate, or advanced).
3. Thou shalt not bore. You know readers are interested in your subject because they’ve picked up your book, but just because they’re keen, don’t treat them mean! Don’t be long-winded, don’t repeat yourself, don’t go off on tangents, don’t be too abstract, and don’t use bland language.
4. Thou shalt not exclude. Beware of language bias (unconscious sexism, racism, etc.) and ensure your language is respectful and inclusive. If you are someone who prides yourself on being politically incorrect, so be it, but be prepared for a backlash from readers/reviewers. However, using strong language can be fine, if it’s appropriate to the audience, but you should establish this use of vocabulary in your introduction so that there are no surprises if you drop the occasional “shit” … so to speak!
5. Thou shalt not deceive. This is not suggesting you would do this deliberately, but sometimes we can mislead without intending to. Your readers trust you, so make doubly sure that you never pass off someone else’s ideas (or writing) as your own; never misrepresent the facts to illustrate a point; never overstate your skills, experience, or influence; never make a statement of fact without backing it up with evidence.
In our current social and political climate, in which civility and respect seem to have gone the way of the rotary telephone and the horse-drawn buggy, it’s more important than ever to act with integrity. Therefore, I encourage any book-with-spine authors among you to adopt ALLi’s advice, or mine, or devise your own code so that you can be open with your potential readers … and sleep well at night.
We know that writers threaten the social order because censorship is as old as the printing press. Every culture has a problem with censorship, even in the West where democracy has supposedly given citizens the inalienable right to free speech. But although people can write what they like (providing that privacy and libel laws aren’t broken), are they as free to read what they like?
According to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), there are plenty of people who wish to curtail our freedom to read by attempting to ban materials from public, school, and university libraries. During Banned Books Week (launched 1982) each September, the OIF releases a list of the books/materials that were the most “challenged” in the previous year to raise awareness of what is bothering people and why, and highlight the importance of free and open access to information.
In 2018, the theme of Banned Books Week (www.bannedbooksweek.org) was “Banning Books Silence Stories,” and the aim was to remind everyone that they need to speak out against the growing problem of censorship: our very way of life depends on it. According to the ALA, calls for books to be banned came from many quarters, including teachers, religious and special interest groups, and even librarians themselves!
So, what was on the ALA OIF’s list for 2017? In total, there were 416 books that were challenged or banned last year, but here’s the run down of the top 10, complete with the reasons why the books were so frequently challenged.
Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017
1. Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher. New York Times-bestselling YA fiction. Published in 2007, but recently serialized by Netflix, hence its appearance at number one in this list. Challenged and banned in multiple school districts because it addresses the issue of suicide.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie. YA nonfiction. National Book Award winner. Challenged constantly since its publication in 2007 because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.
3. Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Graphic novel from an acclaimed cartoonist. Stonewall Honor Award winner. Published in 2012. Challenged and banned in school libraries for featuring LGBT characters and for being “confusing.”
4. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. Challenged and banned for featuring sexual violence. Complainants also claimed it “lead to terrorism” and “promotes Islam.”
5. George, Alex Gino. A book written for elementary school kids. Challenged and banned for featuring a transgender child.
6. Sex is a Funny Word, Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Written by a certified sex educator, this children’s book, published in 2015, was challenged for “encouraging” children to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Incredibly, this widely acknowledged American classic was challenged and banned for depicting violence and using the N-word.
8. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas. “Pervasively vulgar” and featuring drug use and offensive language, this enormously popular YA novel (now a film) was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums.
9. And Tango Makes Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole. Another children’s book! This 2005 title returned to the Top Ten Most Challenged list after a short absence to be, once again, challenged for featuring a same-sex relationship.
10. I Am Jazz, Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. An autobiographical picture book, co-written by the 13-year-old protagonist, was challenged for addressing gender identity.
What’s clear from this list is that plenty of people think that children and young people are at special risk. Too many people, it seems want to restrict children’s democratic right to read under the pretence of “protecting” them from . . . what? Moral "corruption" mostly. But as we all know, society’s definition of what is morally wrong is ever-changing. Only 100 years ago, it was considered entirely unacceptable for women to vote. Therefore, I hope that in significantly fewer than 100 more years, everyone will wonder why the hell, in 2018, everyone was so bothered about people’s sexual preference or gender identity.
Thankfully, the ongoing ethically bankrupt crusade by an anti-democratic minority does not appear to have dampened authors’ desire to address the important emotional, sexual, and social issues of our time by writing books with spine. And seeing the 2017 list makes me proud that literature continues to lead the way for social progress. So, tyrants and bigots be afraid: the pen is—and forever will be—mightier than the sword!
(And in the spirit of this post, any comments you make below will not require my approval before publishing!)
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith