Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Blog Break Interview with Candy Gourlay

Now we’ve entered year three of the Blog Break, I’m going to make some gentle changes to the formula. This is one of them – a monthly interview about blogging and blog techniques with one of our terrific SCBWI-BI bloggers.


I could think of no-one better to start with than Candy Gourlay. She’s a woman who needs barely any introduction, a long-time SCBWI member and constant inspiration to bloggers, writers and illustrators alike. She is also, of course, a double Crystal Kite winner for her novels Tall Story and Shine, and someone with her finger very much on the pulse of all things digital.

Candy, thanks for joining me on Words & Pictures today. I believe I’ve caught you during one of your rare free moments?

Thanks, Nick! If by free you mean sick, yes! The virus-of-never-letting-go has got a grip on me and I’m too ill to be busy … though semi-seriously, I just handed a manuscript over to my agent so I’m in that weird, non-writing void between books.


How long have you been blogging, and what made you start in the first place?

In the late 1980s I was an editor at a weekly political magazine in the Philippines and became fascinated by magazine design – how does one arrange stories, images and information to best entertain readers? In those pre-digital days, I loved watching the designers pasting up the pages of the magazine.

I was excited by the potential of the internet, which was born on the same year as my eldest son, in 1991. Broadband slowly became faster as did home PCs … and when I saw those early ugly websites, I thought, hey, I can design something better than that. I was a stay-at-home mother in 2001 when I tried to create my own online magazine. It was called ‘Mum at Work’ (because I got fed up with people asking me if I worked).

I used a programme (Serif Pageplus) that promised I would be able to design pages like on a real newspaper. But nothing worked, pictures and text kept floating around unexpectedly on the screen. I found myself learning code to make my layout stick.

Someone saw my site and said, "Hey, you’ve got a blog." "No I don’t!" I said. I had no idea what he meant.

It was only in 2003 when Blogger, the blogging platform, came into being that I realised that my friend was right. I was blogging – except I was coding each page from scratch.


What changes have you seen in the world of blogging since you began?

Almost ten years ago now, I was invited to give talks to SCBWI, both here in the UK and at the Bologna Book Fair, about the advantages of blogging. I told them it was a no-brainer – a chance to raise your profile, and it’s free. At the time the blogging world was less developed, blogging platforms were still clunky, and it was easier to be discovered because there weren’t that many bloggers out there. If you found a niche that wasn’t well served, you could go far.

Today, 2015, the blogging scene has changed dramatically. It seems that everybody’s got a blog. If they haven’t, their publishers and agents are urging them to start one. It is tough for even good bloggers to be discovered, there is too much noise. Micro-blogging (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) has exploded. EVERYBODY’s blogging. The noise is deafening.

And because everyone’s done their homework and studied all those blogs about how to create lists, how to hook people with catchy titles, etc. … everyone sounds the same.

Because everybody’s marketing and shouting at the same time, I think the only way to stand out is to not be part of the noise. Make sure your product (book) is the real draw. Make sure your blog creates real value for its readers. Even if it does not at first attract a lot of traffic, a thoughtful, USEFUL blog post has a much longer life online than any witty tweet or Facebook post.


How does your background as a journalist affect your approach to writing a blog post?

Unlike a creative writer, a journalist structures information in a particular way. The first paragraph is the hook. The second is the who, why, what, where. The third is the ‘So What?’ Because a story had to fit the space allotted to it in the newspaper, you have to arrange your info at the top in case the column is chopped at the bottom. You also write in short paragraphs, because long paragraphs on a column look impenetrable. You use subheadings as signposts to keep the eye going down the long scrolling column.

This was great training for writing for something that was read on a screen.

Web guru Seth Godin says that readers are like monkeys, if they don’t find the banana immediately, they’ll click to another page. So I make sure my bananas are there for the picking at first scan. I use subheadings when my text is long. I write in short paragraphs and I make sure my blog is the right width (too-wide columns are hard to read). I always have a minimum of one image per blog post (this was a rule at a magazine I used to work for). I fill in information blanks (like automatically writing ‘Web guru’ in front of Seth Godin)


You’re also an illustrator – do you see a distinction between blogging as an illustrator and blogging as a writer?

Thanks, but I don’t call myself an illustrator (though I love drawing).

On Notes from the Slushpile, I blog as a writer, reflecting on the things that other writers are concerned about.

On my author blog CandyGourlay.com, I blog as Candy Gourlay. The people who visit my author blog want a taste of who I am, and since drawing is one of my passions, I do post drawings up now and again.


How essential are other media such as images, sounds and video to your blogging style? Have you ever tried alternative blogging techniques such as vlogging or podcasting?

I love using images and video – I would do a LOT of vlogging if I had time, but unfortunately I don’t, so I can only post videos once in a while.

The amazing Tall Story book bench created
by Hampden Gurney C of E Primary School
My use of images has changed over time. My earlier posts on Notes from the Slushpile used lots of humorous images, like comic punctuation. But when more people began to use the technique, I stopped. I don’t blog as frequently as I used to so my posts are far more considered and serious - though I will always use an image, I don’t often use it for comic effect anymore.

Podcasting? I don’t think podcasting is effective on a blog. It’s a visual medium and if you only have sound, you would do better to post it as a soundtrack to still pictures.


How do you drive readers to your blogs? And do you think it’s necessary to blog regularly to maintain an audience?

In 2001, I decided to become serious about getting published. I joined SCBWI in 2002 and threw myself into learning about the children’s book industry. It seemed such a shame to waste all the information I was gathering, so in 2004 I started Notes from the Slushpile.



In those days, there were no gurus advising you to blog every day. Whenever I attended a Professional Series talk, I blogged about it. I blogged about the conferences (in those days we had a Writers’ Day and an Illustrators’ Day). I blogged about Children’s Book Circle talks. I blogged about author events. This was not regular blogging; sometimes I would blog once or twice a week; sometimes weeks would pass.

But people began to notice it and because there was no Facebook or Twitter to share links on, they would list Notes from the Slushpile on their blog rolls.

The blog rolls led to a lot of traffic. And the people liked what they saw and subscribed. By 2008, each blog post was getting thousands of hits. It helped that there was really no competition from other forms like Twitter and Facebook.

I had two major setbacks. In 2010, Blogger upgraded its architecture and (without boring you with the geeky details) older blogs like mine that used a custom domain had to restart with a new domain name. This meant that all the blogs on the internet linking to Notes from the Slushpile were now broken.

Then Google Reader was phased out losing NFTSP a huge number of subscribers.

It was terrible luck. 2010 was the year my debut novel Tall Story was published. What a time to start building a new platform!

Soon after my book came out, I recruited SCBWI friends Teri Terry, Addy Farmer, Maureen Lynas and Jo Wyton to help me turn NFTSP into a group blog. It helped that Notes from the Slushpile had a good Google ranking. We were able to built the traffic back up, though not yet to the thousands of the early days. It always astonishes me when I blog and watch the numbers of readers clicking in. Where do they come from? Who are they? The most popular blog posts are revisited again and again, clocking up thousands of hits.



Today though, our group blog goes into long periods of slumber. We are all terribly, terribly busy. But I am not worried. I really believe that if you post something worth reading (and sharing), the blog readers will come.


Where do you see blogging going over the next five years? Is it a fad or here to stay?

Blogging formats continue to evolve – see all those people subscribing to celebrities on Snapchat, the image-sharing on Instagram, the fandom culture of Tumblr. Some of these evolutions certainly are faddy.

But one thing is for sure. The Internet culture has created a burning desire in the most ordinary individuals to share their stories. Luckily, this is matched by a public that is insatiable for stories, as long as they are well told. Yup. Blogging is here to stay.


Do you have any advice for someone just starting out in the world of blogging?

  • Blog for the right reasons. Blog because you have something to say, blog because you have information that you know the world needs, blog because your thoughts and ideas are burning you up and you’ve got to share them with the world.
  • Finding your blogging voice is just as tough as finding the voice of your character. It involves offering your reader something of who you are. Do you know who that is?
  • If you’re an author or illustrator, remember that it’s the work that matters. You can get sucked into the numbers game of search engine optimisation and driving traffic to your blog by hook or by crook … and forget that what drives your blog is your work.
  • Learn basic HTML. It’s not hard – what a difference it makes to be able to look under the hood when unexpected things happen on the screen. If you can write a novel, you can learn a bit of code.
  • Read up on how Google searches and ranks the Internet. Being found is not a complicated science. Combine Search Engine Optimisation techniques with using Twitter and Facebook to drive readers to your blog.
  • Look after your real life. Real life friends who really care about you are the pillars of any platform.
  • Be generous. The blogging world is a community and supporting your fellow bloggers with comments, likes and tweets will make you friends.

Amen to that! Thank you, Candy, for being so generous with your time and wisdom.

The Ten-Minute Blog Break will be back next week, so in the meantime, what are you waiting for? Get blogging!

Nick.



A SCBWI member since 2009, Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner, occasional blogger, ex-zombie and part-time superhero for two hours every Wednesday evening (but only after putting the bins out).

Nick's most recent blog post invites you to enter the world of Salzburg's Spielzeugmuseum and feel The Power of Play.

11 comments:

  1. Good interview, Nick. Interesting and good advice, Candy. When I first joined SCBWI years ago (and my kids were young) I became aware of your blog/s and loved your strapline 'Let's do it. Let's do it all. We're already tired anyway.' It felt like that shared experience/empathy thing, which good blogs have. Thank you.

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    1. Catriona, I've revised my motto. I can't do it all anymore because I am now REALLY tired. So my new motto is: 'Do it all. But one thing at a time.' Thank you for being a part of my blogging life!

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  2. Thanks, both. Been reading NFTSP since 2011, and no matter how long it slumbers, always worth reading when it wakes.

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    1. Aw thanks, Rowena! I remember your early comments - I was so happy that SOMEONE was commenting!

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  3. Fantastic Candy! What a great post and so much food for thought. Thanks :-)

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  4. I remember reading NFTSP and having the same kind of thrill when I first realised you could borrow books form a library for free. You inspired me to blog.

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    1. And everyone should discover your wonderful, witty blog! So everybody, go visit Mrs Bung and give her a bit of comment love!

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  5. Gosh, thanks, everyone! I was off social media yesterday and missed this. I will never live down that banana pic. Thanks, Nick.

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  6. I stumbled across NFTSP at a low writing point and loved it - was too shy to comment though. You are a great pioneer!

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