Interviewing Experts for your Novel

‘They wouldn’t be sweating once they were in cardiac arrest, even if it was a cocaine overdose,’ the lady across from me said. She stopped to think. ‘With a heroin overdose they might be sweaty once they’ve been resuscitated and trying to get back to normal, but it would be unlikely that two people in the same group would take such different drugs, one is such an upper and the other a downer. On coke, they’d be excitable and energetic, and if their heart was racing too fast they might end up in cardiac arrest.’

I thought for a moment. ‘So if I delete the bit about being sweaty once he’s unconscious and on the floor, and add in a line about the man being loud and obnoxious before he ends up collapsing?’

‘Perfect.’

Admittedly, it wasn’t a typical conversation to be having over breakfast. Our waitress gave us raised eyebrows as she overheard snippets about drug overdoses and drowning. Not me – I was fascinated and kept asking more questions, madly writing notes as we went.

I was interviewing Writing WA Literati Tammie Bullard, who is both a paramedic and a writer, and who had kindly agreed to help me with some of the technical questions I had for my current work in progress. My story has six main characters and most of them have careers in fields that I know precisely nothing about. It’s fine to depend upon Google and a fertile imagination for a first draft, but now I’m working on my second draft I knew I really needed some authentic detail.

I love the solitude of being a writer, of needing to rely on no one except myself. It’s probably one of the reasons I have pursued writing for so long, rather than seek more traditional work. I like people – they fascinate me. I like to study them and write about them. But I like to stay a step back.

There are some times though, when you need to step forward and ask for help, and this was one of those times. My paramedic character has a number of key scenes in the story, and it’s imperative I get them right. Initially I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook, asking fellow writers how I would go about finding a paramedic willing to help me. It wasn’t long before I had lots of great offers of help, but when I reached out to Tammie, I knew instantly I had made the right decision.

Over Eggs Benedict we discussed everything from terminology to staffing to career progression and medical events. She taught me how a call would come through to the depot, and the fact that it was called a ‘depot’ and not ‘station’ as I had written 23 times and subsequently needed to change.

Tammie isn’t the first expert I’ve interviewed for this book. I had the good fortune of speaking with chef Stephen Clarke last month about what it is like to run a fine dining restaurant and also Dr Kelly Shepherd on life as a botanist and being a PhD scholar. I am incredibly grateful to each of them for giving their time and expertise to add detail to what must seem like a rather eclectic group of characters.

Here are some lessons I have learned about interviewing experts for your novel:

  1. Be prepared. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge so make sure you have your questions ready to go. If you are cold-calling them, they might be ready to chat then and there, if you email them, they might be willing to meet the following day.
  2. Only ask about what you can’t find online. Do your research in advance both on your interviewee and the topic in general. Gather as much information as you can and then frame your questions around the gaps in your knowledge – or to confirm with them what you have discovered online. Don’t walk in saying ‘tell me everything’ – it wastes everyone’s time.
  3. Know your non-negotiables. What specific information must you get? Do you have a particular scene you need advice on, or do you need background information before you start writing. Make sure you get the main pieces of information you need before you hang up/leave.
  4. Let them talk. Apart from getting your non-negotiables, let your expert talk, don’t interrupt with too many questions or your own stories. You will learn all sorts of details that will add colour and authenticity to your story. Even if you have a list of specific questions, make sure you ask ‘is there anything else you think I should know?’ Don’t feel obliged to fill silences with more questions – sometimes people just need a moment to think.
  5. As they talk, listen for emotive words that describe the environment they work in. Jot down lingo and jargon (ask them later what it means), how they label and describe things. For example, when interviewing Stephen, I noticed everyone called him ‘Chef’ and not his actual name. It’s a sign of respect and something I now use to effect in my novel.
  6. If possible, visit them at work. When interviewing Dr Shepherd we wandered around the UWA campus and she pointed out the buildings where my character would work. She also showed me things like the glasshouses and taxonomic garden hidden in the middle of campus, which will add authentic detail, and in the case of the garden, a clue to the dramatic end of the story.
  7. Get permission for follow-up. If things go well, you might want to contact them again with follow-up questions or to read over a specific scene. Make sure they have your full name, phone and email in case they need to get in contact later.
  8. Get it down quickly. Make a decision if you want to record the interviews or just take notes (ask permission either way) and block out a period of time immediately after the interview so you can type up your notes straight away. Even if your notes are little more than dot points, you will find you remember a lot more than what you have written down, but keep in mind that will fade the longer you leave it.
  9. Keep a spreadsheet with the names and dates of interviews you have conducted, along with their contact details. Add to this anyone else who has assisted in any way during your writing. This makes it easier when it comes time to writing your acknowledgements.

What is your experience of interviewing experts for your novels and writing? What other tips can you share?

 

author and Stephen Clarke

With chef Stephen Clarke

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

How to Pitch Your Book (and Yourself)

Winning a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program as part of the 2020 cohort, gave me a sneak peak over the weekend into some of the more hidden aspects of being a published author.

Granted entry to the Fremantle Press Breakfast, we were flies on the wall as recently published authors gave their pitch to an assembled room of event planners, booksellers, school reps and librarians.

Given that the ASA recommends a rate of $325 for a 60 minute school visit and $350+ for a public appearance, this fee might be the equivalent of selling 100 or more books. It’s clear why authors are keenly interested in pitching their books – and themselves.

These are some of the lessons I took away:

 

Be funny.

There is no better way to get people on your side than to make them laugh. Not only does it tell people you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, it also tells potential bookings that you won’t bore them silly.

If you can’t be funny, be memorable

Sometimes the subject matter of your book means it’s not appropriate to tell gags, but you can still grab people in other ways. Tell highly emotive or personal stories about yourself and how your book came into being. Make them remember you, even if they can’t remember your specific book.

Pitch yourself as well as your book

The most successful pitches were those where I learned more about the author than the book. It’s possible you will have another book next year, but you as the author are still the same. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is, if you haven’t sold yourself as an interesting speaker.

Talk in themes

If you only have two minutes to grab someone’s attention, you don’t have time to explain the plot in detail. A number of authors took the approach of talking about the book’s themes rather than its plot – ‘it’s a story of love, it’s a story of societal expectation, it’s a story of challenging authority…’.

Go beyond the book

Some of the more established authors took the approach of mentioning the bigger topics they liked to discuss, not tied specifically to their latest book, but perhaps topics they had been researching and involved with over their writing career. The pitch then became a verbal CV of talents and skills, and was particularly aimed at festivals directors who might engage authors to moderate or be involved in panel discussions.

Make your book relevant

Some of the best pitches did not just focus on the book as a finite product, but placed it into the larger context of current affairs such gender diversity, environmental concerns and humanitarian matters. Broadening your book’s appeal by placing it into a larger context would automatically increase the range of events you might be asked to speak at.

Weddings, Parties, Anything

As obvious as it sounds, some of the authors made very clear the range of events they were available to speak at. It certainly highlighted to me that there is more than just school and library talks. Some mentioned business and motivational events, book clubs, running writing or illustrator workshops and more.

Tell a story about your story

Personally, my favourite pitches were those that started with the story behind the story, where the author launched into a personal account of how the idea came about, how the book came to be. I was immediately captured. It’s one thing to say what your book is about, an entirely different thing to explain why it is the way it is.

Locate your book’s audience

One small thing I notice lacking from some pitches, was explaining exactly who the book’s audience was. I could see from the cover it was a children/YA book, but could not tell exactly what age group the book was for. For someone interested in booking a school talk, I imagine this piece of information would be very relevant.

Appeal to writers

Some of the authors specifically pitched to writerly audiences, barely mentioning their books but instead talking about some of the topics they would be happy to discuss at workshops and writing events. Some of these might be researching specific topics, writing for particular audiences or writing in a distinctive style.

Practice practice practice

Two minutes is not a long time, but you can squeeze a lot of information in. Even if you don’t want to be seen reading from notes, it’s wise to compose your spiel and then practice until it sounds unrehearsed.

 

Many thanks to Fremantle Press and the Copyright Agency for including us in this event.

Hearing the Voice of the Writer

A million years ago (back at the turn of the century) when I was working as a research assistant at the University of New South Wales, one of my jobs was to write up the project findings into reports.

I was sent with a tape recorder and notebook up the road to the Sydney Children’s Hospital, where I would sit in meetings and observe the way the multi-disciplinary teams worked together. Then I would walk back down the road, spend countless hours transcribing tapes and attempt to make some sense of them.

After I had been there a year or so, my boss pulled me aside.

‘I can hear your voice, Shannon,’ he told me.

As I had been sitting there silently, terrified that I had been pulled into his office, I thought that a strange comment.

‘In your writing,’ he continued clearly seeing the dumb look on my face. ‘I can hear your voice as I read.’

He motioned to the weighty tomes around the office. ‘In academic writing,’ he continued, ‘the writer must not be present in the text. Your voice, however, is strong and comes through in your report. It’s as though you’re sitting next to me, talking.’

Chastened, I went back to my office where I spent the next few years trying to remove myself from my writing.

Some years later, in the throes of new motherhood I decided to take up blogging as a way of capturing the fleeting yet precious moments of parenthood.

After the first few clunky efforts, I quickly found that blogging suited my writing style. I had a clear voice and I was finally allowed to use it.

Meg Rosoff writes:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

A writer’s voice is their literary fingerprint. You should be able to distinguish between Hemingway and Rowling, between Austen and King, not just by the words the chose, but the voice the write with.

My writing goal, is that when you read my words, you hear my voice. When you are hearing words through your ears rather than seeing them with your eyes, you know that the voice is authentic.

Why writing a first draft is like having a baby

Writing the first draft of a novel is a bit like having a baby. Hidden from view, the most amazing creation is being formed inside of you, and then one day, a small slimy, mass emerges – and you instantly fall in love with it.

Who doesn’t love a beautiful pink, chubby, smiling baby? Even though your baby doesn’t quite look like that yet, you also know babies grow. You have faith in your baby, and can already imagine what it will look like in your head.

So you assume that everyone else will love your wrinkly, red newborn, which cries incessantly and smells strange – because that’s not what you see. You are already looking at your baby with the benefit of birth hormones and nitrous oxide. You know it is the most beautiful baby in the world and everyone will agree with you.

In short, you are deluded.

Writing a first draft, I have discovered, is a bit like that. Growing a book inside you is like being pregnant. So much is going on inside your head that it can begin to take over your entire life, you live and breathe it, think about it during the day, dream about it at night. But it’s all going on inside you – so no one can really understand what’s happening, or appreciate the magnitude of what is taking place.

Then one day you announce you have written a book. Plop.

Some friends will immediately ask to read it. They’re either ignorant of all of the slime and blood still covering your creation, or they just love books (or you) so much, they want to read it, even if it means having the literary equivalent of meconium dribbling onto their laps and never being able to get the smell of sour milk (and poorly formed, clichéd characters) out of their noses.

You can give your stinky newborn book to your best friend or sister or partner or mum to read, but beyond this circle, it’s best to at least wash and dress the baby book before passing it on to the next visitor. After all, you’d like your visitor to come back again and not slink away in embarrassment, wiping vomit from their shoulder, never to look you in the eye again.

And while you may be convinced your book will grow up to be as handsome as Orlando Bloom, this does not give you permission to thrust your infant novel, still in nappies, at the nearest publisher demanding they agree ‘how good (looking) it is.’

And so as writers we must allow our newborn books to grow, to develop. We must wait for them to move through the stages at their own pace, and never be impatient for them to run before they can walk, or indeed, before they can even crawl.

Personally, I am hoping it won’t take 18 years for my freshly delivered, still mewling newborn book to develop to the stage where it’s ready to take on its own life, but I am fascinated to see what happens from here, and how it will grow and change.

paper-1100254_1280

A character by any other name

While my novel has been inspired by real-life people, it is ultimately fiction and so all my characters needed new names when I began to write.

A character’s name is so important, it is worn like an item of clothing that one cannot remove. It distinguishes you and discloses things about you, more than we realise. Choosing a name for my characters was an exercise in finding monikers which were historically accurate, and for some, a fun way to recognise family and friends.

My character Charles is loosely based on Walter Blair, a student who attended Claremont Training College at the same time as Doris and who sadly died in WW1. Although Walter died at the age of 21, there are a number of images of him that survive – his role in the College football and cricket teams meant there were plenty of team photos from his time at the College. This meant that I was able to use some of his physical characteristics when writing the character.

Walter needed a different name when he became a character in my book. Very little of Walter Blair’s life actually informed the character, and besides, Walter was the name I was using for my protagonist’s father. Charles was an easy decision as it was a common name of the time, and to choose his new surname I chose that of a friend whose first name was actually Blair, a moment of quick word association. This was how the character became Charles Morgan, a name that I felt was strong and somewhat refined, and could easily represent a man born into a family of well-bred lawyers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Today, while researching the second convoy of ships to leave Western Australia for the front, I discovered that there was a real-life Charles Morgan from Perth, who also was a Corporal, and who also served with the 11th Battalion, just the same as my fictional character. Real-life Charles Morgan was killed in action in France in July 1916. I also found Private Charles Morgan, a farmhand who served with the 10th Light Horse, the same Battalion as my character John.

I admit I am devastated, and disappointed with myself that I hadn’t thought to check sooner. It was a good name and will be difficult to think of my character by another, but out of respect for the real-life Charles Morgan’s who enlisted in WW1 from Perth, I now need to find a new one (or at least a new surname) for my character.

Immediately after my discovery about Charles, I had a moment of panic when I thought about my other main male character, John O’Meara. This character was loosely based on the real-life John Regan, and even though I kept the same first name, I chose another surname to represent his Irish heritage.

A quick search on the National Archives turned up dozens of John O’Meara’s who served in WW1 as well as the record of a John O’Meara who was a patient in a Queensland mental asylum. However none of them enlisted from West Australia, and so I am content to keep the name.

So now I am on the lookout for a new surname for my character – and I welcome any suggestions.

pexels-photo-261510.jpeg

Reference:

http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-conflicts-periods/ww1/1aif/1div/03bde/11th_battalion_aif.htm

Snubbed by a Plumber

Things have been falling apart in our house lately. First the kitchen sink started leaking. Then the toilet started leaking. Then another toilet decided to stop flushing altogether, which instantly brings you back into the middle-ages and reaffirms your love affair with modern plumbing and disappearing bodily waste.

So over the past few weeks I have been establishing a first-name basis relationship with the local plumber. Let’s call him Bob.

Bob is an older fellow, knowledgeable far beyond the physics of plumbing. Over his three recent visits we have talked about my writing, the perils of working from home, and the frustrations of parenting.

Yesterday in between plunging the precariously full bowl of my upstairs toilet and a gentle lecture on P bends and air flow in pipes, he asked me how my writing was going.

‘Oh well, I am pretty busy with the kids at the moment…’

‘I am struggling with my novel because I am more used to writing short-form articles…’

‘The school holidays are almost here…’

‘It’s hard to get adequate paid work…’

Bob straightened up and pointed the plunger at me.

‘You know what it sounds like to me, if you don’t mind me saying…’ he started to say.

I leaned forward – would he have the solution to my problems?

‘It sounds like a discipline problem to me.’ And he flushed the toilet and everything went away.

I was floored, but only because it was the simple truth. I have no obstacles to my writing, except myself. I have the same number of hours in my day as everyone else, and I probably have significantly fewer constraints than many others.

On the weekend I went to a Writers’ Convention and my first session was Overcoming Obstacles to Writing by the amazing Annabel Smith. She too (in a more roundabout way and with significantly less raw sewage) came to the same conclusion.

And so I am breathing life back into this blog, not (only) as a way to procrastinate, but I find that any form of creative writing is like mental exercise for me, a way to start jogging before the marathon of the novel.

And even though Bob farewelled me with the comment ‘Well I hope I don’t have to see you again anytime soon’ (and I am sure he meant that in the nicest possible way), I am hoping that the next time our paths (or plungers) cross, I will have a much better response when he asks me how my writing is going – with no more excuses.

Starting a New Blog – Mistakes I am Not Making This Time

Today marks the launch of my fourth blog: Fundraising Mums. Actually, if I’m being honest there was that other anonymous blog I started a couple of years ago and then freaked out and stopped publishing. It’s still out there in the virtual world, gathering dust and confusing people.

But Fundraising Mums is the first blog I have set up with an actual business plan. It is not just a place to collate memories like Relentless, nor a way to improve my clicks at WeekendNotes like Perth Food Reviews, and it is not all about me like shannonmeyerkort.com

Fundraising Mums was created because I identified an actual gap in the market and I wanted to fill it. I did my research, engaged professionals to help, I marketed, I sought advertisers, I spent three months working on it before I hit publish.

I am pretty happy with it today – but I cannot wait to see it in six month’s time when it really hits it stride.

Mistakes I made with Relentless

The biggest mistake I made with my first blog was not really thinking about the name I gave it. I was at a blogging workshop with the inspiring Amanda Kendle and even though I should have realised we would be expected to make (and name) a blog, I did not prepare. So gave it the first name I thought of: From Mum to Me.

Did you just wince? Or screw your face up? Because you don’t know what that means?

In my head it meant: I am starting this blog at a time when I am so heavily involved in being a mum to my (then) two daughters that I no longer remember who I am, or what else I am other than being a mum.’ The blog was meant to represent my journey from being ‘just a mum’ to being ‘me’.

But apparently that wasn’t immediately clear to others. You can read more about my ridiculous decision here.

After a year or so and the arrival of Baby Number Three suddenly it dawned on me that the blog should be named Relentless. Because that was what my life with three kids was like.

But it is not that easy to change the name of your blog – there is all this technical stuff with URLs and the like – not to mention the fact that you just confuse people.

Lesson 1: choose a name that not only suits your blog now, but will stay relevant as the blog grows and changes. You must LOVE it and it must make sense to others immediately.

Some might argue that Fundraising Mums is a sexist title that excludes not only Dads but teachers, coaches, grandparents and anyone without kids. I totally get that and I will wear the criticism, but it struck me as being a catchy title that was inclusive of about 90% of potential readers.

Mistakes I made with Perth Food Reviews

There were a few mistakes I made with Perth Food Reviews.

The first was that I was trying to break into an extremely full market already brimming with some top-notch and well established bloggers. Perth simply did not need one more food blog, especially when it was blatantly clear that my primary intention was to send traffic to WeekendNotes.

I am proud of my restaurant and cafe reviews on WeekendNotes and I think they are really useful, but I was constantly being asked by friends ‘where can I go in xxx to find yyy type of food’ or ‘where is the best xxx in Perth?’.

WeekendNotes doesn’t have the ability to search on questions such as this, so my thought was to create a new blog where people could search for particular types of food (Asian versus pub grub), certain styles of restaurant (fine dining versus share plates) or on particular requirements (child friendly versus views).

It was all rather noble, but apart from the cent per view I would receive if people actually clicked through to the WeekendNotes article, there was nothing in it for me. So I lost interest.

Which is a pity because I put in a lot of time setting it up, but it hasn’t been updated in ages and with the rapid rate restaurants go out of business here in Perth and new ones spring up, it is probably already outdated.

Lesson 2: don’t start a new blog unless you are really invested in it. Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and be prepared to commit both time and energy in the long term.

I see Fundraising Mums as a long term project, and it utilises all my talents and interests from writing, reviewing, researching, storytelling and project managing. I have hundreds of story ideas – my problem is going to be finding the time to write them all. The other point of difference is that this will be the first of my blogs that I monetise and offer advertising for. I have always been reluctant to put adverts on my other sites thinking it will annoy readers, but when people come to FRM they will WANT to see adverts for innovative fundraising companies. Win win.

Mistakes I made with shannonmeyerkort.com

I’d like to say this is a perfect site considering this is the one you are currently reading, but I acknowledge it is a small group of you who visit (thank you) and the content – while hopefully relevant and interesting to writers – is highly specific and also very personal. Readers often want broader information with no obvious author.

They don’t want to hear my voice, because frankly, they don’t care.

And I respect that.

I am the first to admit that I tend to spend more time on blogs that are less personal. Why? Because I make the (perhaps incorrect) assumption that the information is more universal and therefore, perhaps more relevant to me and my situation.

Lesson 3: personal blogs will attract like-minded followers who will engage and support you, but chances are you will have far fewer readers than a blog which is more universal and objective. Decide on your tone and style as well as your content, as this will influence people as to whether they want to feel involved personally, or more remotely.

Fundraising for schools is relevant to me (next year all three of my children will be at school) but it isn’t personal. I can invest more of my time in FRM without necessarily investing more of myself and my family. There is already plenty of that here and on Relentless. FRM is more business-like and while I really enjoy sharing great products and ideas, it’s not all about me, and frankly, that’s a good thing.

What are the main lessons you have learned from starting your own blog? What mistake won’t you be repeating?

PS. I have actually released my first book on Amazon: The Brutal Truth About the Third Child. You can buy it here. It will actually be FREE for July 1 and 2.

But that’s a story for another day.

Why You Should Never Google Yourself

Faced with a list of tiresome chores and no writing mojo to be found anywhere, I decided to indulge in a little private time this morning. I did something we all do, but rarely admit to.

I Googled myself.

The first page was pretty much what I expected. My blogs shannonmeyerkort.com and Relentless came up, as did my profile on WeekendNotes. There was my LinkedIn profile, gathering cobwebs and dust, various reviews and old academic papers, plus lots of mentions of my Brutal Truth About the Third Child.

I was chuffed to see my Master thesis get a mention on Google Books. Zero reviews and zero stars… probably because the only copy is sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.

I had really begun to enjoy myself. No nude photos. No websites dedicated to destroying me. No embarrassing Facebook shots that someone else had posted.

But then a site came up that I didn’t recognise, and I got a little squeezy sensation in my stomach. Had someone stolen my words or had they written someone awful about me?

This is precisely why they say don’t Google yourself. Sometimes it’s better not to know what others are writing about you.

But I had to find out. Besides, it was in Italian.

There was a picture of me and my family (a picture they don’t have permission to use, but we’ll ignore that) and my name. I could guess at a few of the words: ironia, testimonianza, blogger Americana.

Uh, hang on.

I went back and hit the Google translate button for the page. Then, in a fabulous mash of Italian and English, appeared an article that was designed to look like I had been interviewed, but really was just a bit of a cut and paste of my Brutal Truth article.

The translations are even better than my original article: “You can doze and sleep all day and as a priestess stroll touching your belly waiting for a football.”

Some of it is pretty funny because it still makes sense:

“Are you happy of nausea and vomiting because it means you can have five minutes to get you in the bathroom?”

And other parts are completely mystifying:

“Rilavi reluctantly the vestititi used with a normal detergent, throw some broken play, refreshments sheets cradle. Your son has already managed to dismantle all sure that you put in the house and survived, so it is not necessary to reposition the newcomer.”

I liked how the Italians automatically assumed I had sons.

The French version of my ‘Letter of Apology to my Middle Child’ described it as “a mother issu[ing] an apology letter to his middle child”. And I thought I had difficulty with French pronouns.

“Shannon notes that this has forged the character of its small second. She teases threats, disputes, compromises. All you seem to want, and that is so hard to give is my complete attention. It’s hard because I have three children, a house to manage and my writing.”

I particularly liked being referred to as an ‘its’. Thanks French people.

The Portuguese translation of The Brutal Truth was possibly my favourite, especially how they introduced me:

“Shannon Meyerkort is a writer, blogger and mother of three girls under seven years. His love for writing is not simple, because it implies that you are sitting to do so.”

I love how they aren’t beholden to gender assumptions about mothers being women. How refreshing.

The translation seems to make things worse than they really are:

“It seems that is six months pregnant by the time we hit the second quarter. Sit persecuted and cries a lot.”

And then go a little hard-core with the language:

“People who have just given birth, begin to upset her with all the talk bullshit about babies.”

Then they go hard-core with the parenting:

“Push your child out of the crib, take them cuddly and dispose of them in a weekend.”

That’s a bit rough, even for me.

I haven’t yet ploughed deeper into the world of Google to see if the Chinese have their own translations of The Brutal Truth, but if it’s ever found, please let me know.

1,000,000 Clicks and Counting: How to write a viral blog post

On Monday the 13th of February in 2012 I sat down at the kitchen table and bashed out a post for my blog Relentless. I was about a week short of giving birth to my third child, and it was a tongue in cheek comparison between the first, second and third pregnancies. Much of it was based on experience, some of it was – shall we say – writer’s liberties.

It took me a bit longer than usual because of how I structured it, but when I was done I was pretty happy with it. I gave it a title and hit publish. Then I forgot about it. For about four hours…

‘The Brutal Truth About the Third Child’ quickly become my most popular post. By mid afternoon it had been read 4,500 times, by bedtime on Tuesday it reached 10,000 views. Within a month it had been read around 25,000 times. Two years on it has been read on my blog a quarter of a million times. But these numbers are relatively small, and it was only when other websites asked to republish the post (and I allowed only three other sites to do so) that the numbers went viral.

When the post was republished on ScaryMommy, a hugely popular and very funny site in the US, it was shared over a million times in the first five days. ScaryMommy founder Jill Smokler said she’d never seen anything like it.

I’d like to think I could match its success, but in the years since I have tried and failed. But something resonated with readers, so today I am going to pick apart the anatomy of ‘The Brutal Truth’ and list the seven key essentials for writing a viral blog post.

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1. Sharable Headline

Unless they’re your mum, most people won’t read a blog post simply because you’ve written it. You’ve got to give them a reason to click, and by this I mean a killer title.

For some reason, negative headlines seem to be more popular than positive ones. Therefore while my choice of the word ‘brutal’ was dumb luck at the time, I realise now it was inspired dumb luck. Everyone wants to read horrifying things, they want to be shocked. If I had called it ‘The Exciting Truth About the Third Child’ or ‘The Inspiring Truth About the Third Child’ no one would have bothered reading.

I’m bored already.

2. Killer content

A great headline might make people click, but unless what you have written is gripping and well paced, people won’t read to the end, and they sure as hell won’t share. Shares are what makes a post go viral, and it also makes it almost impossible to track.

A few months after I published ‘The Brutal Truth’ a friend sent me an email she said had been making the rounds. It was really funny and she thought I’d like it, since I now had three kids. I scrolled down and sure enough, there was my post. It had been cut and paste into the body of an email and was being forwarded. Unfortunately there was no link to my blog nor any mention of who wrote it.

3. A Little Bit Longer

When you think about all the blog posts your friends have been sharing and reposting and saying ‘you have to read this’, they probably all tend to be a bit longer than the average blog post, which runs between 500-800 words. The Brutal Truth was a whopping 1,900 words, which breaks a number of blogging rules, but it didn’t seem to make a difference to readers. Perhaps people are more likely to share something they have invested more time in, and short crappy posts can make people feel ripped off. ‘I wasted my click!’

4. People love lists

So many viral posts are lists of some form, and this is apparent in the title. Seven Reasons Why Cat People are Better than Dog People. Nine Things You Can Learn from Your Fetus. Five Things Only a Pregnant Woman Will Understand. (Feel free to use any of those titles and write your own viral post, by the way).

Lists are popular for a number of reasons. We are all lazy readers these days and the way we read text on a screen is different to how we read hard copy, and we are much more like to scan and skim read. Lists make it easy to do this. It increases the amount of white space on the screen, making it easier on the eye.

And for some reason, odd numbers have a bigger impact than even numbers. It’s true – have a look at the next ‘list’ post that comes your way.

5. Make it urgent

The blog has to be written, titled and marketed in a way that makes readers feel that if they don’t read it, they will be missing out. No one likes being the person who hasn’t heard of the hottest new trend, so you need to create the desire for people to click. Sometimes this is by writing about a controversial topic, or giving an ordinary topic a controversial spin. You should never tell a reader what to think in the title (eg don’t say ‘ten things you must know about packing school lunches’ but say ‘ten things you should know about packing school lunches’). It should make them desperate to read it.

Like you all now want to read about school lunches.

6. The curtains should match the carpet

It should be obvious, but if you’re going to use a really dramatic, negative, punchy and urgent headline, make sure the blog post is actually about that topic. Don’t use controversy to attract readers and then waffle on about your cat. That really pisses people off.

7. Be different and specific

Everyone is a writer these days. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, and away you go. There is a lot of great content out there, but also a lot of crap, and it makes it a lot harder to be noticed when there is something like half a billion blogs in existence and more being published every day.

How can you stand out in such a noisy crowd, when we are all shrieking ‘look at me, look at me’?

You need to find your niche and you should work with what you have. I am a mother of three now. 90% of the random traffic to Relentless are people who have googled topics to do with having three kids. Should they have three kids? How to tell their husband they’re pregnant with number three. How to cope with three kids. That’s what people want to read, and I’m fine with that. Sob.

The brutal truth though, is that you can’t actually write a viral post. There are no ‘rules’ or guarantees, otherwise we’d all be doing it, all the time. And I’d be very rich because I would put advertising on my site and cash in on my own success. Readers are a fickle lot, one day they want to read about grumpy cats and the next day they want awkward pictures.

My advice: keep writing if that’s what you love. And maybe one day, you’ll get lucky.