On Getting Your Name Out There: Author Blogging

There is a great deal of pressure for writers to blog, for themselves and for others. Typically, whoever’s asking you has the presence of mind to be a little ashamed: “We can’t really pay you for this, but you’ll get your name out there.” This of course is disheartening for people like myself. I worked as a waiter while finishing my first novel, and being paid nothing for what I write is only going to send me back there.

Still, I’ve been blogging for six years now and during that time have watched while many writers who were print stars see their fortunes decline for not having at least a site, much less a blog presence, while blog stars get signed to books and given preference in the surviving print mags. I’ve even been paid for online content (!). I’ve also seen many badly done blogs, people who, it was clear, were blogging because someone told them to do it, and not because they wanted to, and that is, of course, the wrong kind of getting your name out there.

I began blogging to get over burnout after the publication of my first novel. I had debut author fatigue and had lost a sense of writing as being fun in any possible way, and this was alienating to me. Also, I had many former students and was tired of answering their questions via email one by one, and the blog seemed like a good place to put the answers to the FAQ.  I shut down that first blog and opened this one a few years ago, and what I have learned is that keeping a blog has helped me more than it has hurt me. It’s helped me get teaching jobs, kept me in touch with people and introduced me to new people I would never have met, people I wanted to meet. Also, it’s helped me drive traffic to online sites posting my work. All the same, there were many times I thought of just shutting it down in exasperation, like when I printed my first blog after closing it and discovered it was 723 pages long (one friend even said it had a narrative arc).

The first and most basic lesson I’ve learned is that in the current market, you can take some control over your fortunes via a well-made blog and website. Jennifer Egan is getting a lot of attention this week for her excellent website, for example. Tayari Jones’ site is warm and brings you in to the variety of interests she has, and her readers have come to feel like she’s their friend. The love is mutual. In the case of a writer like Tayari (she’s a friend, I can call her that) one thing her blog does is give her a way to give back to her fans, in appreciation for their support. As Emily Gould has said, the internet is basically what you think it is, whatever you think it is. It can be amazing or horrible, depending on how you treat it.

The basic thing you need to keep in mind is that a site should take a moment’s interest in you—whatever it is that made them google you or click a link with your name—and quicken it into a lasting interest. And it should make it easy to do so. Here are what I think of as the basic 8 things to keep in mind.

  1. Be sincere. If you are designing a blog right now at the bidding of a publicist who thought it would be a good idea, pause. Take a look around. Do something you would really want to do past the launch of your book, too. Scott Heim, for example, has been music blogging. In some other life, he might have been a musician, or a music critic, but for now he’s doing it because he loves it and his fans love it too. Miranda July’s site for herself and for her debut collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is a great example of how to be an author, have a site and not compromise yourself as an artist. It’s funny, informative and the bland professionalism I see everywhere is absent.
  2. It is not a diary. In the early giddy days of the internet, people would anonymously write diaries and put them online and sometimes they might get a book deal. If you are an author already, this is not your future and typically not your past. And all of them had to learn the hard way that employers do not like you to publish your complaints about them, and loved ones do not like it either—the lesson of any of the ages for writers. Also: it is boring. DO NOT blog your daily life unless it is attached to a moment of insight. However, writers journals have a long literary tradition, as has the commonplace book.
  3. Set limits. If you are asked to write for free for someone else on a blog or online mag that is not yours, go to Alexa. Check the traffic of the site. If it is unrated, this is not a good sign, say no. Also: Only write for free for others a few times a year or you will become rageful and bitter about the internet, and this is not the point of any of this.
  4. Set even more limits. One thing that is hard for me about all of this is that I am known for some carefully crafted prose. This is hard to pull off on a blog. And yet I will be judged by any number of people in any number of capacities for the content here. Yes, dilemma. I can’t spend all day on blog posts. So I set a time limit: I can spend no more than an hour per day on the blog. Once the hour is up, if the post is not finished, it waits for the next day to be done. Also, I try to post once a week.
  5. Blog your process. Write posts related to reading you might be doing or research on your novel, and tease future work appearing before you announce it fully, and when you do this, link to previous related posts—so, if working on a story. This gives your readers a deeper sense of connection to you without making you feel overexposed to them.
  6. Don’t be afraid to be a traffic whore. Yes, I said that. For example, my deeply cynical post on the Lost finale, entitled “In Which I Explain the Lost Finale” also won me a lot of traffic, plus I enjoyed writing it. But also, if asked to write for free, make sure your post at that high-traffic site you choose has a link to your blog. There are several reasons for this: 1.) a live link at the bottom of the post is an invitation for them to click through, 2.) You want that reader who found you there to then find you everywhere—to click through to your blog, to find your page of links to your work elsewhere, and to come back to your blog so that when you do publish something next you can drive traffic to the place you are publishing. This is of value to your potential publishers. It is part of what they mean when they say “platform”. Weirdly, they are not talking about a place where you get a medal, a sash and a bouquet.
  7. Take posts and turn them into longer pieces you then sell for money. If the post is just getting longer, keep in mind that on the average, you don’t want to write something longer than 800 words for a blog post. And if you’ve devoted that much time to it, it’s time to get paid. Also, periodically take down your archives and go through them. Is there something that is the germ of a longer essay or story? That is the best possible outcome.
  8. Don’t be afraid to take a break. Maud Newton, for example, who’s literally made an art of blogging, recently did a beautiful post to explain that she’s working on her novel and grieving the death of her father-in-law, and thus won’t be posting as regularly. Her fans will wait for her because a.) they want that book and b.) at this point, they love her, and will respect the silence. When she returns, she’ll be more popular than ever. And the book will be even more beloved by them.

And now we’re way past 800 words and the hour is up. Good luck with your blog!

Up now, the author/site thing, examined…also, in the comments, please leave links to any author sites you admire.

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27 comments

  1. erikamarks

    A great post, Alexander. As a debuting author, I have been overwhelmed at the general goodwill and interest that is available for those who wish to blog. Your tips for blog-building are great ones, most particularly the one that advises making the blog about something that you can sustain even after the book release or while you work at the next one. Not only will it possibly broaden your audience, but it will ensure YOUR interest in keeping it up and keeping it fresh.

  2. Marie

    Oh, I loved this post for so many reasons. It was what I needed to read just about now. ;-) And I’m sure you know all the reasons why already . . .

  3. Stephanie Baffone

    This was SO helpful. As an emerging writer, learning to balance time spent writing blog posts and pursuing publication feels like a Zen koan.

    Thanks for so much detail. I loved all the links!

  4. David Abrams

    Sincere applause coming from this corner of the internet, too. Great advice for new and seasoned bloggers! I wish I’d read your excellent blog post five months ago.

    I started my blog earlier this summer as a way to promote my novel (which is still a work in progress). I might have started too early–like a thoroughbred plunging out of the gate, then halfway down the track saying, “Uh-oh.” But now the blog is a part of my life and, frankly, I enjoy it. When it becomes a chore for more than three days in a row, then I’ll quit. Or, like Maud Newton (and Rebecca Barry at her blog), I’ll go on hiatus–maybe take a trip down to Antarctica to think things through, and come back refreshed, ready to take on Steps 1-7.

  5. Nora Weston

    This is fantastic advice for anyone interested in blogging. I especially like the tip on writing your blog about the research that is being done for the next writing project. That makes perfect sense, and it will keep the blogger passionate about his/her blog.

    • koreanish

      Thanks, Nora. I should mention: Don’t blog your research prior to selling or publishing the work you’re supporting with your posts. Instead, once the work has been accepted somewhere and is about to go up, blog succinct and interesting stories about the work itself, something that will prick the interest of the reader enough for them to click through. The wrong kind of blogging will take all the air out of a reader’s interest in you and your work. And by “wrong kind” I mean diaristic, wandering posts that fail to excite. I think some people imagine blogging is when someone pays attention to them, and they abuse it in some emotionally needy way they won’t own, turning into the web equivalent of the microphone criminal who just blathers once the mike gets into his hands. That would be the “wrong kind”.

  6. irreverently

    I really enjoy Phoebe Gloeckner’s blog: http://www.wordpress.ravenblond.com/ it’s as wonderfully strange, intense and sarcastic as she seems to be (unapologetic, too).

    Belying your suggestion to avoid diary blogging: Robin McKinley http://robinmckinleysblog.com/. I don’t read everything she posts but I do enjoy the way she comes across as warm, idiosyncratic and smart. She posts about dogs and novel-writing and bell-ringing, and also days when her car won’t start. I enjoy her exuberance.

    • koreanish

      To be clear, I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t do diaries if that is what they want to do—see above under “Be Sincere”—but also, you’re saying you enjoy them as a reader—that’s great. But have you written and published them? For myself, I found diaristic blogging—from the writing side of it— to take too much out of me. The people in my life felt over-exposed, even by what I thought of as casuals, where I described conversations at dinner that I found interesting. Soon, they began to avoid telling me things because they feared I’d blog them, and I have no idea if they began avoiding having me over because they worried I’d write about it. When they joked about it—”Oh, are you going to blog this?”—I felt like I’d turned into the worst, most shallow sort of creep. So I stopped. The people in my intimate life were more important to me.

      Now, I do them occasionally, as “letters to anyone”, and in them if I describe people they are often strangers with behavior I found interesting. I check with people as to whether it is okay if I describe them if I am writing about friends—this is just good nonfiction practice—and this tells them they can trust that I won’t just randomly betray a confidence.

      When I advise against it, it isn’t just that I find most of them boring—and many, many diaristic blogs are—but also, the writer needs to be more or less fine with these impacts to the personal life, and then…great, do it. For writers, I think diaries are best published after one’s death if at all—the author can be as honest as they need to be during their lifetime. Which is the real purpose of the diary, as I see it—to tell yourself the truth first, whether you tell anyone else at all. As such, its value is entirely personal first. My diaries then are in my apartment, and not on the web.

      • irreverently

        I do hear (well, read) what you’re saying. I think “belying” was too harsh a word.

        Aside: I was chuffed when I saw your post on Battle Angel Alita. That manga doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s brilliant!

  7. Pingback: On Getting Your Name Out There, Part 2: The Story That Sells the Story « Koreanish
  8. Leanne

    Excellent post. I started an author blog earlier this year when my first book came out, but have moved it to various designs and wiped out the posts. Your post has encouraged me to get started again.

  9. Pingback: So you want to be a writer | kikugirl
  10. Pingback: Carrie Fisher Outs John (Travolta) and … | Tomas Mournian Books OnLine

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