Annual Blog Report

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, the blogging stat monkeys have delivered their report on how things went here at the Notes in the Margin blog during 2015. I’ll have my own, more detailed report ready early next month, but for now I offer you the stat monkeys’ findings.

“In 2015, there were 121 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 830 posts.”

Of the five most viewed posts this year, only two of them were written in 2015:

Cover: The Girl on the Train
Cover: The Girl on the Train

(1) Review: “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins, from January

(4) “Books fall open, you fall in.” —David McCord, also from January

The other three most viewed posts were all from 2014:

(2) “The Door,” E.B. White, a Literature & Psychology post

(3) Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, a Classics Club post

(5) Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, a Literature & Psychology post

These were some of my favorite posts to write during 2015:

(1) Getting Lost in a Good Book

(2) Reading in Flow

(3) “Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York | Books | The Guardian

One midwinter in 1950s New York, Harper Lee went to stay with friends. Little did she know she was about to receive the gift of a lifetime…

Source: Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York | Books | The Guardian

3 Blogs I’ve Loved Recently

Thanks to a recent WordPress Daily Prompt for today’s post:

Give some love to three blog posts you’ve read and loved in the past week, and tell us why they’re worth reading.

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(1) SAGA SATURDAY I

This post was my introduction to AbbieLu’s site Cafe Book Bean. In this post she defines what a saga is, then lists some of her favorite ones:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • Far and Away
  • East of Eden
  • The Thorn Birds

This post made me want to turn to my TBR shelves and grab a huge book to sink into. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until after January 1st to so indulge myself.) Overall, I love AbbieLu’s enthusiasm about books.

(2) #48: The Kings of Crime – II: Jim Thompson, the King of Clubs

On The Invisible Event, an unnamed Invisible Blogger writes about classic crime fiction.

This post particularly attracted me because one of the many books on my TBR shelves is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That book, and hence this blog post as well, are good fits for my interest in Literature & Psychology.

(3) ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

I loved finding this blog post by Marilyn Armstrong because it, too, relates to Literature & Psychology. Like Marilyn, I find the concept of time travel fascinating, and I did not know about the book she discusses here, Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies.

I hope I’ll be able to find a copy of this book!

Blog a Day Challenge: August Report

Once again, travel has intervened (which is a good thing) and affected my blogging (not such a good thing). Since this report falls right in the middle of a two-week cruise, I will once again have to publish posts after I arrive back home, where I have reliable internet access.

This travel also means that my personal blog, Retreading for Retirement, has the heaviest concentration of entries.

Here are my statistics for August:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 155

Longest post: 1,360

Total words written: 19,145

Average post length: 618

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured posts:

“Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

I haven’t had enough time to write substantive book reviews lately, but the publication of Harper Lee’s much-touted second novel gave me a lot to say.

Life Stories: What They Are and How They Work

This post allowed me to pull together a lot of related ideas that I’ve discussed separately before.

“Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

Related Posts:

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

Consensus is that Go Set a Watchman is the manuscript that Harper Lee originally submitted to publisher J. B. Lippincott Company in 1957. Editor Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known as Tay Hohoff, deemed the novel not ready for publication, but she saw potential in the story. For two years Hohoff and Lee worked on revising the manuscript, which eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. (Harper & Row bought Lippincott in 1978. Harper & Row eventually became HarperCollins, the publisher of Watchman.)

A comparison of Watchman and Mockingbird as literary works provides a lesson for both writers and readers in how fiction works.

Telling, Not Showing

The most common piece of advice offered to aspiring novelists is “show, don’t tell.” This means that the work must demonstrate characters’ qualities, not simply state them. Here’s a made-up example of telling:

Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe is angry with Mabel because she told him he needed to get a job right away.

Here’s how showing works to communicate Joe’s state of mind:

Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe pounds his fist on the table as he leans in toward Mabel. “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you, is it?” he hisses. “Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I’d like to be able to count on a little support from you instead of just constant criticism.”

When a writer simply states that Joe is angry, readers are passive recipients of that information. But when a writer shows Joe acting with anger, readers participate in receiving that information by evaluating Joe’s behavior to understand it. Showing rather than telling engages readers by making them active participants in the reading experience.

Watchman does a lot more telling than showing. Here, for example, is the narrator telling us about the character of Atticus Finch:

Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch… . Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. (p. 124)

Compare this characterization with the one we receive in Mockingbird by hearing Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson at trial and, later, by seeing him spend the night at the jail to protect his client from an angry mob. Those scenes make readers themselves respect Atticus Finch by demonstrating his character instead of just telling readers that other people respect him.

Narrative Structure

Narrative structure (see narrative with plot) is the order in which novelists reveal key events in relation to the times at which those events occurred. When authors need to present something that happened earlier than the novel’s present, they use flashbacks.

In the present time of Watchman, Jean Louise Finch is 26 years old. There are several times in the novel when she remembers events from her childhood, such as when she, her brother Jem, and their summer neighbor Dill used to play Tom Swift. These flashbacks engage readers by allowing them to observe the children directly, without the intrusion of a narrator telling readers what to think or believe. Because the flashbacks allow such direct observation, they are more interesting than anything that happens in the novel’s present time.

These flashbacks, which show rather than tell, contrast sharply with the predominantly plodding prose of the novel’s present. But they don’t have much to do with the rest of the novel. They do not help move the action of the present forward, and they do not resonate with other themes in the novel except, perhaps, in creating a general atmosphere of nostalgia.

Finding the Story’s Center

The flashbacks that feature the novel’s most engaging writing are the first indication of where the center of the real story lies: in Jean Louise’s childhood. This shift in time from Jean Louise’s adulthood in Watchman to Scout’s childhood in Mockingbird is the most significant—and the most effective—change from the earlier manuscript to the later novel.

Once the focus of the story changes from a 26-year-old Jean Louise to a six-year-old Scout, the moment of revelation must also change. In Watchman Jean Louise has her epiphany while spying on Atticus at a political meeting from the balcony of the county courthouse. Mockingbird retains the courthouse balcony setting but must change the nature of the revelation. Whereas the older Jean Louise observes what she considers her father’s hypocrisy, Scout and Jem realize the outstanding character of the father who had before seemed simply ordinary to them.

The Result

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdRelocating the center of the story to the children’s realization of their father’s courage and strength of character is what makes Mockingbird an essentially different book than Watchman. This is one reason why it is not necessary to reconcile the Atticus of Watchman with the Atticus of Mockingbird.

A second reason is that what we are dealing with is fiction. Watchman and Mockingbird are two different books. They are allowed to have different characters. Atticus Finch is not a real person.

Much of the discussion about Watchman has centered around whether Harper Lee was truly capable of agreeing to its publication. We may never know. But of one thing I am sure: Judged solely as works of art, To Kill a Mockingbird is a better novel than Go Set a Watchman. Looking at the two side by side provides a good picture for both writers and readers of how effective fiction works.

Blog a Day Challenge: July Report

After the chaos of my June blogging, in July my main goal was simply to get back into the habit of writing and publishing a post every day. At that I succeeded.

However, I did not work on my word for the year, story.

And I anticipate a bit more chaos in the upcoming weeks because we are taking a two-week cruise along the West Coast between Seattle and Alaska during the last week of August and the first week of September. Once again, both my internet connectivity and my free time will be limited. I am therefore not setting any specific goals other than to end up with a post for each day until the second week of September.

Here are my statistics for last month:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 210

Longest post: 1,770

Total words written: 22,340

Average post length: 721

I was happy to get my word count back up after June’s scant month. In fact, July’s total word count was the second highest of my seven months of this blogging challenge. And my average post length was the third highest; although I had seven posts of 1,000 or more words in July, I also had several shorter (500 words or fewer) posts as well.

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

Because our two-week European vacation produced an inordinate number of posts to my personal blog, Retreading for Retirement, in June, in July I tried to even up the number of posts across the three blogs.

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

The Love-Hate Challenge

I’m featuring this post for several reasons:

  1. It was my longest post of the month.
  2. The topic is one I happened upon in a visit to someone else’s blog.
  3. The topic engaged me personally and therefore helped me concentrate on voice as I was writing.

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Overall, I consider July to have been a good blogging month for me.

I’d love to hear your comments.

Compendium on “Go Set a Watchman”

I have finished reading Harper Lee’s newly released novel Go Set a Watchman and am collecting my thoughts. I read it slowly, taking copious notes. Probably like most people, I tried to read it in two mutually exclusive ways simultaneously: both with and without To Kill a Mockingbird as a touchstone. Figuring out how to evaluate it most fairly is indeed a conundrum.

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

While still working on my own discussion of the book, I offer you a compendium of articles that I began assembling a day or two before the publication date of Watchman, July 14. I have not read most of these pieces because I want to come to my own conclusions first.

I’m sure that there are spoilers galore in many of these articles, so I leave it up to you to decide whether to tackle these pieces before you read the novel for yourself or to wait until later.

I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive. I’m sure there are many other articles out there, but these are the ones that I’ve come across.

Early Reviews Hype ‘Watchman’ Interest

Publishers Weekly comments on early reviews of Go Set a Watchman, including those in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. Includes links.

‘Watchman’ Anticipation, in Photos

From Publishers Weekly:

From midnight release parties, to film screenings, to daylong read-a-thons, check out our photos of how bookstores around the country rang in the on-sale date of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the biggest publishing event of the year.

While Some Are Shocked by ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ Others Find Nuance in a Bigoted Atticus Finch

The revelation will probably alter readers’ views of “Mockingbird,” a beloved book that has sold more than 40 million copies globally and has become a staple of high school curriculums. It could also reshape Ms. Lee’s legacy, which until now has hinged entirely on the outsize success of her only novel, published 55 years ago.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee: EW Review

Entertainment Weekly gives the novel a grade of D+. And most of the commenters seem to agree.

A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origin and Hints of a Third Book

Tonja B. Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney, is changing her story.

Harper Lee may have written a third novel, lawyer suggests

More as the plot continues to thicken:

Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter, the woman at the centre of the mysteries surrounding Go Set a Watchman’s publication this week, has broken her silence. In a lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal, she intimates that there may be a third novel by Lee residing in a safe-deposit box in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama.

The lawyer, the lock box and the lost novel: Harper Lee book mystery widens

Harper Lee’s lawyer, who negotiated the deal over this week’s controversial launch of Go Set a Watchman, was allegedly far more intricately involved in searching for the manuscript years ago than previously disclosed, the Guardian has been told.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

The story of how Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — guided Harper Lee through a two-year revision process that eventually turned Lee’s original manuscript into To Kill a Mockingbird.

As ‘Watchman’ Hits Stands, Authors Reflect on ’To Kill a Mockingbird’

Several writers reflect for Publishers Weekly on how To Kill a Mockingbird “affected everything from their ideas about race and humanity to their choice of profession.”

The Suspicious Story Behind Harper Lee’s ’Go Set a Watchman’

From the New Republic:

This piece is the first in a three-part series we’ll be publishing this week on Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Why I’ll Wait to Read GO SET A WATCHMAN

This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman.

On this page you’ll find a link to other entries in this series on Bookriot.

In this piece Jessica Tripler describes her hesitancy to jump into the new book because “I personally question whether Lee is capable of consenting to or understanding what is going on.”

What Critics Are Saying About Go Set a Watchman

This article itself is a compendium, with excerpts from major reactions to the novel from sources including the New York Times, The Guardian, and NPR.

6 Fascinating Facts About the Life & Literature of Harper Lee

From biography.com

Teachers’ New Homework: a ‘Watchman’ Plan

From the Wall Street Journal, a consideration of how teachers must revamp their lesson plans about To Kill a Mockingbird in light of Go Set a Watchman.

How Should Schools Deal With the New ‘Atticus Finch’?

From the New York Times, a good companion piece to the Wall Street Journal article:

Fans of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a book widely read by students in the United States — are reeling from the revelations that a beloved character, Atticus Finch, is portrayed as a racist in Lee’s recently released second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

For many teachers, this presents a conundrum in how the fictional character is taught in classrooms. How will the new book affect or change the way “To Kill a Mockingbird” is taught in middle and high school English classes?

This is the introductory page that links to discussions written by several people.

‘My Atticus’

Megan Garber for The Atlantic:

Go Set a Watchman is a threat not just to readers’ heroic idea of Atticus Finch, but also to the many, many children who have been named in his honor.

Could Harper Lee have written four books?

In an op-ed this week in The Wall Street Journal, Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, hinted at a third, as-yet-unpublished novel. And a friend of the author, who is also a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, spoke to CNN about a possible fourth book.

This possible fourth book is supposedly a nonfiction study of Rev. Willie Maxwell, who was suspected in the deaths of various relatives.

Mockingbirds, watchmen, and novelists: on Harper Lee and novel-writing

Amy Weldon, a native of Alabama, a fiction writer, and a professor of English at Luther College in Iowa, discusses the writing process by looking at Watchman as an early draft of Mockingbird.

Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus

An opinion piece by Osamudia R. James, professor of law at the University of Miami, where she writes and teaches about education, race and the law, and identity.

The literary crimes of Go Set a Watchman

This [Atticus Finch] is a perfectly acceptable hero, living and breathing in the kind of fictional world that many people, including myself, prefer. The problem is that Lee can’t have it both ways. Mockingbird is on a different literary plane than Watchman, and the two can only meet awkwardly, which is precisely what HarperCollins has demonstrated by grafting Watchman onto Mockingbird. They cannot work together in any meaningful sense; one cannot cast a new light on the other, except in the way an apple sheds light on an orange by being, well, different.

Blog a Day Challenge: June Report

I anticipated that June would be a challenge for me because for the first two weeks of the month we were on vacation in Europe. I knew that both internet connectivity and time to write and post would be limited.

The reality turned out to be even worse than I had expected. Internet connectivity was very limited (see last month’s featured post, linked below). In addition, both my husband and I caught the cold that we shipmates so generously shared amongst ourselves. I spent a lot of my free time sleeping in an attempt to recover. These two factors combined meant that I didn’t publish any posts and wrote only outlines and bare-bones notes for each day’s entry.

I have therefore spent the last two weeks of June frantically trying to catch up on travel posts at the same time I was writing new daily posts. I just made it.

I knew that there would be nowhere near an equitable distribution of posts across my three blogs because all the travel posts belonged on my personal blog, Retreading for Retirement.

For all these reasons I’m not at all concerned with this month’s statistics, although I include them here for uniformity in reporting and for contributing to my end-of-year summary.

Here are my statistics for last month:

Number of posts written: 30

Shortest post: 110 words

Longest post: 800 words

Total words written: 13,840

Average post length: 461 words

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

4 Out of 5 Stars to Viking River Cruises

Blog a Day Challenge: May Report

What I Learned in May

In March and April I concentrated on trying to keep my total word count up by writing a number of long posts (1,000 words or more). However, I changed my focus in May: I tried to go short by focusing on topics that I could develop adequately in the 500–750 word range. I still consider that to be the sweet spot for me in blogging. As a result, my total word count was down almost 5,000 words from April, but my average post length was 573 words, which is in the range (albeit at the lower end) that I was aiming for.

Sometimes life interferes with writing a blog post every day. Last month I learned to keep a couple of short post ideas in the hopper to be completed on days when time is short. This means having research done and photos planned and uploaded ahead of time..

I’ve been getting better at incorporating some personal element into posts, usually how I came upon this topic or why it interests me. But I’m still short on storytelling, or building a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s something I’ll have to continue to work on.

May’s Research on Blogging

Want to Make Blog Posts More Engaging? Apply These 15 Tricks

Working from the premise that online readers scan content rather than carefully reading it, Pam Neely offers:

two primary approaches to improving reader engagement. The first is to make your content scannable. Ie, to work with readers’ existing online reading habits. Second, create content so good that at least some users will actually slow down and take the time to read it word for word.

Approach #1: Make your content scannable

  1. Use the inverted pyramid structure.
  2. Use short paragraphs.
  3. Use subheaders.
  4. Highlight keywords.
  5. Use scannable lists.
  6. Add images or video.
  7. Use short copy elements like photo captions, call outs, and tweetables.
  8. Write simply and clearly.

Approach #2: Create content so good that readers will slow down and engage with it

  1. Write a killer headline that draws people in from the start.
  2. Write for a specific audience.
  3. Show a contrary point of view.
  4. Show an unusual point of view: “Try borrowing ideas, frameworks or approaches from other industries.”
  5. Offer new information
  6. Use quizzes, polls, or other interactive tools.
  7. Ask for comments.

Neely’s first set of suggestions is straightforward. In addition to just plain writing well (suggestions 1 and 8), using structural elements such as subheads and lists is easy with WordPress. I even installed a plugin on my two self-hosted blogs that allows me to highlight tweetable content, and I’ll experiment with that next month.

But where I most need to concentrate is on her second area, creating content that readers will slow down and actually read. By the end of each month I usually have a bunch of open browser tabs featuring articles that I meant to engage with myself. Here, for example, are a couple that have been open for at least two weeks:

Both of these articles deal with topics with which I have personal experience and on which I have strong opinions, and I kept meaning to write a blog post about my reactions to each one. In the future I will undertake such posts when I come across the opportunity instead of waiting until some later time (that never seems to arrive).

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice that Neely posted this article on the Scoop.it blog on May 18, 2015, and as of May 30 there were no comments. Maybe other people were, like me, too busy thinking about their own content to engage with hers.

My Statistics for May

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 250

Longest post: 1,300

Total words written: 17,775 (down about 5,000 from April)

Average post length: 573 (down about 150 from April)

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

What a Single Sea Gull Taught Me About Life

Blog a Day Challenge: April Report

In April I continued to look for information about blogging. I found this article: 16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners. I’m not interested in ways to increase branding, marketing, building an email list, or SEO (search engine optimization). My focus is on writing for personal discovery, so I chose only a few of these tips to work on:

3. Write for yourself first.

8. Be consistent (that is, publish more than once a week).

10. Be true to your voice. “People don’t care to follow sites so much as they care to follow people.”

11. Give it time. “Plan to invest in blogging for a long time before you see a return.”

14. Be yourself. “Emotion and storytelling have been part of how we communicate with each other and inspire action for thousands of years.”

15. Keep it short. “You generally need about 300 words minimum to get indexed by search engines.” But the expert quoted here suggests presenting a single idea in a post and keeping the required reading time to a couple of minutes.

16. Make it worth referencing. “When writing a post, I get into a mindset to answer just this 1 question with a Yes: ‘Would anyone email this article to a friend?’”

I’m certainly hitting #8, since I publish every day. I’m also acing #11, since I’m putting in a whole year of blogging every day.

I also took #15 to heart. At the end of February I decided not to worry about post length in March, and I continued that approach throughout April. I didn’t aim for long posts but wrote as many words as I needed to cover the day’s topic. But I did concentrate on focusing my topics to keep each post to a single idea. I appreciated the permission #15 gave me to choose well-defined topics that didn’t require long development.

However, I also started writing longer posts that I often couldn’t finish for posting in a single day . I know one general way to handle this problem is to break the topic into two posts and publish Part 1 on one day and Part 2 on the next. But when I started using writing as a method of discovery, I needed to finish the entire piece, then edit and polish it before publishing. I couldn’t just write, then stop and publish what I’d written so far that day, and pick up again the next day where I’d left off.

Many days I found myself part way through a longer think piece and realized that I wasn’t going to finish. Then I’d have to scramble to find something short and sweet that I could whip up and publish to fulfill my challenge of writing a blog post a day. The challenge had made me trip over my own writing feet. The result was more lists and link round-ups than I’d like, but they fulfilled the challenge and allowed me to work the next day on finishing a longer, more complex post.

In April I also tried to take #3, #10, and #14 to heart by incorporating more personal storytelling into posts. (In fact, the use of personal stories is what produced those longer posts that I kept tripping over.) I continue to search for the elusive characteristic of voice. Breaking out of academia-speak is hard, and I’m glad I have eight more months to work at it.

Here are my statistics for last month:

Number of posts written: 30

Shortest post: 135

Longest post: 1,600

Total words written: 22,090

Average post length: 736

My total word count was down from March, but only by about 450 words, which I attribute to April having one less day (therefore one less post) than March. The average post length in April was about 20 fewer words than in March. The number of long posts (1,000 words or more) decreased by one. I find it informative that I ended up with such similar statistics in two months (March and April) when I stopped stressing out over word count.

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

When I undertook this challenge, I thought I would publish the bulk of my work on Change of Perspective and Notes in the Margin, with fewer on Retreading for Retirement. However, that focus has changed radically as Retirement became the repository for my more personal writing. And since I’ve tried to include personal storytelling, I’ve ended up with many more personal posts than I had expected. This trend will probably continue.

Last month’s featured posts:

The 2 Lessons I’ve Learned So Far from My Blog Challenge

This post is the result of trying to write deeper.

Writing in Flow

Here I’ve told the story of my experience to explain and illustrate a psychological topic.

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I’d love to see your comments.