So yesterday I was trading email with the fabulous Therese Walsh of Writer Unboxed about the guest post I was writing for them, and we were kvetching about the state of the publishing industry, and I quoted that one great line out of the otherwise completely forgettable 1980s movie, Young Guns II.
You know the line.
And she laughed so hard she said she wanted it on a T-shirt, but I didn’t have an extra T-shirt or the ability to put a quotation on one if I had it, so I wrote a guest post for her about it instead.
However, since I’d just written two draft posts for her on other topics and they’d both turned out ranty, I got off the subject of Young Guns as quickly as possible in this one. (I’m pretty ranty about bad 1980s movies.)
Instead, I wrote about what to do when you’re caught between the Self-Loathing Phase of Revision and your Delusions of Grandeur. Because, honestly, we writers do spend an awful lot of time on the pendulum between the two extremes.
Come over and join us—we’re talking about coping with this writing life today on Writer Unboxed.
I don’t really have an introduction for this. I’m just going renegade on my own blog and talking about blogging instead of fiction this month.
It’s a playground
Remember in grammar school when the bell would ring and everyone’d spill onto the playground at once and the volume of voices would be simply deafening? And you had to work your way through the crowd to find your friends—who maybe were in different classrooms—and then go off to your designated favorite spot to play?
But you first had to make those friends, and you had to discover that designated favorite spot?
That’s the blogosphere: a playground the size of the entire planet. At eternal recess.
It’s a cocktail party
I used to go to a lot of parties in my twenties, and I spent quite a few hours sitting in the corners of people’s living rooms watching everyone else visit in states of great animation. They all looked like they were having such a good time that I never really noticed the other people sitting in the other corners.
Eventually I’d figure out where the kitchen was—there’d be a stream of people going in and out like ants—and I’d go in there and get a drink. And since getting a drink is one of those social things people do with strangers, sometimes I’d bump into some other poor soul who had also come to get a drink because they didn’t know anyone.
And we’d sit down on the floor together and visit in a state of great animation.
It’s a railway station
If we stayed in the kitchen long enough, other lonely people would wander in. We’d hail them from the floor, and they’d sit down with us.
Then someone else would come in. And someone else. And the party in the kitchen would be bigger for awhile.
Then someone would leave to use the bathroom and never return. And someone else. And someone else.
This back-&-forth would go on all night.
Sometimes for days.
It has historical precedence
In the nineteenth century, bloggers were called pamphleteers and they had to pay for their own printing. Then they’d run out and distribute their pamphlets all over the city. People would read them and write angry or appreciative letters to the editors of the newspapers.
And the pamphleteers would rustle up the cash to pay for another printing. Huge, long, involved debates went on this way.
History in the making!
It is addicting
Because blogging is almost free, the one serious constraint to unlimited opinion-making is now gone. And once you develop an opinion-making voice and get involved in an on-going community of opinionators, the conversation becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
You realize blogging not only has historical precedence, it is a historical precedent.
You are part of history.
There are too many bloggers out there to follow all the ones you want
Which makes it a little sad when it turns out you can’t possibly keep up with everyone you want to keep up with, because you have a livelihood to make and a mortgage to pay, so you still wind up spending most of your time working.
But you know the conversation is going on out there, with or without you, and you rush into the kitchen every now and then just to find out whether or not they’re playing kickball.
People will swipe your stuff
Yes, as in all walks of life, there will always be someone who wants credit for being part of the conversation but doesn’t have anything interesting to contribute. So they lift material from the sites of people who do.
NOTE: I do not mean quoting a paragraph or two with a linkback, which is intended to serve as the jumping-off point for discussion or to interest readers in a blog post you just really, really like. That’s all good clean fun. I mean lifting most or all of a post without so much as a by-your-leave.
There’s no point to it. Why would you want to lift from someone when you could simply ask permission? Or, better yet, just enjoy what they have to offer where it already is?
You have protection
Some people do this because they don’t understand the blogosphere. Thousands of newbies start blogs every day. (I did it once, too.)
And some do this under the mistaken assumption that the Internet is anarchy and there’s nothing you can do about it if they behave badly toward you. I call those people “rancid peanuts.”
Fortunately, they are wrong.
My sys admin knows to contact an ISP and have a chat with them about one of their hosted sites. ISPs are usually really nice about simply removing swiped material, and they can get quite annoyed at bloggers who make a pain of themselves by swiping material repeatedly or from various bloggers. (For the record, it’s not a very good idea to get your ISP annoyed at you.)
But ISPs consider it good form for us to send the site a Cease-&-Desist letter before we get around to contacting the ISP. “Cease” means “knock it off,” and “desist” means, “I said knock it off.” *
Of course, we always send a very friendly little note before a Cease-&-Desist letter, just saying, “We notice you have posted stuff that’s copyrighted. Please cut it back to the normal one or two paragraphs with a link. Thanks a bunch!” because we realize a certain number of these people aren’t consciously trying to be rude, they just don’t know what they’re doing.
And that generally solves the whole thing. **
* Definitions taken from the Dictionary of Victoria, which is not by any stretch of the imagination a legal reference, not even in my novels. Although it might be one day.
** And you can always get a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer—I don’t have the attention-span. But we never take legal advice from anyone who swipes my stuff. That wouldn’t make sense, would it? Nobody in their right mind takes legal advice from someone antagonistic to them.
You will make friends
This is, hands-down, the best reason to blog: because the blogosphere is chock full of other kids just like you who would like to join you playing in your designated favorite spot.
I work from home, which means I don’t hang out with anybody around the water-cooler during the week (except my husband, who also works from home, and even then we wind up IMing each other from our offices next door to each other in our attic).
Social isolation is becoming a phenomenon in modern industrialized society, especially in the US, where the 60-hour work week is, unfortunately, not uncommon these days. Americans have become used to socializing at work.
Guess where they’re socializing?
That’s right. Online.
Most of your readers will be invisible angels
And this is the second-best reason to blog: because, in spite of a handful of rancid peanuts out there, by far the majority of folks in the blogosphere are innocent and good-hearted, just looking to make friends. We read blogs, we talk about them with others, we pass the word around. Often we don’t have time to comment, but still, it’s lovely that we have time to read.
I know you guys are out there. I’m out there too. We can wave to each other in passing—hi!
Blogging is a ridiculous word for something that is changing the world
It comes from the term “web-log,” which comes from a mash of the terms “World Wide Web” and “log.” A log is a kind of regularly updated record or journal. Sea captains use logs to record their progress at sea. Pilots use them to record their flights.
Bloggers use them to record everything.
It is a strange and wonderful phenomenon. What is it all about? How it is changing society?
We don’t really know yet. But when historians look back on this era, they will look back on the meta-blog that is the blogosphere.
We’re in the middle of a post that was, originally, going to “very quickly” teach you everything I know about social media, all of which I learned from Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess. This all started when I asked myself, “Is blogging over? Should blogs now be books?” and then, “But how does anyone find the time to write either?” Then my post about the Bloggess kind of got away from me, especially after I got started on how hard Jenny works on her strange and wonderful charity projects.
So just pretend this is me talking very quickly:
Write way more than you publish, and edit a lot
That’s almost a direct quote from Jenny, and although I already knew about what she was saying when she said, it’s been enormously important for me to remember in this new medium.
It’s so easy to take the freedom of the blogosphere for granted. This is all of us out here on our zillions of blogs: “La la la la la la belch la!” That’s called the first draft.
Even if you have only one reader, polish your work to its most powerful shine for that one person. And if you don’t have any readers at all, polish it for yourself.
It’s worth it.
Know a little something about SEO
It’s not complicated, but it does help readers who want to be somewhere get there. Jenny is so casual about it you really have to pay attention to what she’s doing to realize she’s been doing it all along.
She’s actually much more reliable about it than most bloggers I know. She does a number of things I know about but never get around to. And I promised myself I’d be better about that this year.
Work your butt off
Even more than practicing good SEO, though, Jenny works. And not as a marketer for herself—as a social service for others (for others!).
That’s social media.
In just the past year, she has operated three distinctly different major charities through her blog (some of them stranger than others):
The traveling red dress
Holiday gifts for poor families
Care packages for homeless children
The traveling red dress is a fancy custom-made dress she bought for herself that others longed for with such passion she sent it on a journey around the world, loaning to one follower after another, until the poor dress wore out and she had to ask for donation dresses to continue the journey—which people gave.
In December 2010 she announced that she was giving gift certificates to the first twenty needy commenters who couldn’t afford gifts for their kids. She got twenty needy commenters almost immediately and then, unexpectedly, a commenter who said, “I’ll take the twenty-first.” Jenny worked for days—eventually exhausted and sick—to handle the succeeding flood of requests and offers, pairing up the needy with the generous, until she’d funneled through her blog over $40,000 to give strangers’ children a happy holiday. (This past December she handed it off to an official charity, but it still happened again.)
And just recently her endless search for celebrities who will send her photos of themselves sporting random household objects spontaneously combusted to include not only Jeri Ryan with a spatula, but Matthew Broderick with a spoon. She turned the ensuing explosion of followers sending photos of themselves with natty cutlery into another fundraiser, raising over $1200 to send care packages of blankets, stuffed animals, and books to homeless children. And then Brian Boitano got in a bidding war with Matthew Broderick over the strangest kitchen implements they could pose with, and I do not think it is ever going to end.
Do you work that hard in social media? I don’t work that hard in social media.
Jenny’s astounding success has not exactly been an accident.
Don’t get your panties in a twist when it turns out other bloggers will always have more followers, more commenters, more awards, more stats, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera
I like to compare my stats to Jenny’s because she’s something like exponentially to the power of 100 ahead of me, so I’m never in danger of falling into the dreadful bog of competition—”Oooh, I’m sneaking up on her! Now we’ll find out who’s got the best unicorn.”
Even Jenny is not the most visible blogger out there. (Hard to believe, I know.) Celebrities drag followings of millions on Twitter, more people have seen the photo Demi Moore took of herself in her bathroom than I’ve ever met in my life, and most of the bloggers who win the Bloggies in the humor category don’t even make me laugh.
But for Jenny, you know, what she’s got going is just right.
And when I look around, there’s that epiphany I keep coming back for:
I just got back from a week in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge and a very long drive between Washington State and my home in Northern California by way of Powell’s Books in Portland. I’m wiped out. I left you pondering whether blogs are dead or just evolving into books, plus that pesky question of how to find time to write either one. Now this week I’m going to very quickly teach you absolutely everything I know about social media, all of which I learned from Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess.
Some of you might remember Jenny. I interviewed her a long time ago, eschewing the normal questions that interviewers were asking her, like, “When did you start blogging?” “How long did it take to build your incredibly faithful following?” “Why did you name your dead warthog after the 20th US president?” “How do you get your cat to sit on your head like that?” and, “Why does Victor only wear a thong and a flip-flop?”
I asked her which famous comedian she would eat first if she were trapped on a desert island.
And because this is a writing blog, I asked her about the book she was writing, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), which she said she’d been writing for about ten years then. Two weeks later her agent sold it to Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam.
Anyway, I’m always really busy, so Jenny is pretty much the only person I ever look up on Twitter just to see what bizarre commentary she’s been sharing with the world in sentences of 140 characters or less. She’s out there every week, just like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, stirring up the members of her tribe into a frenzy.
So here are my cardinal rules of social media, every single one of them stolen from her:
Talk to your readers as though you were all real people, not marketers and target markets
Social media is really only a glorified version of millions of little kids holding tin cans at opposite ends of an incredibly long and convoluted piece of string.
A background like mine in journalism and writing books is kind of strange for a blogger, because those types of writing don’t have readers attached to the other ends as you’re writing. You hope readers are going to materialize. But they haven’t done it yet.
Which means even if you say something funny and it makes the reader think of something even funnier, you will never be laughing on different parts of the planet together at exactly the same time. And if you say something sad and it makes them tear up, you will never be feeling that bond of grief in the same moment. And if you say something meaningful that makes the top of their head blow right off, you will never, ever see the fireworks in the distance in your own sky.
But when we’re out here on the intertubes together, we sometimes do cross paths in the same moment, and the serendipity of that can blossom into a spontaneous gang all over the place, all of us sharing an impossibly thrilling instant in the history of the human race.
Show your real sense of humor, with perhaps slightly less profanity
I know. Jenny has said many of the people who’ve known her in her life don’t know about her profanity. But everyone who’s ever known me sure knows about mine.
I think of it as Monopoly money, and I figure I spent the vast majority of my little paper bucks in my adolescence and twenties. So now that I’m kind of elderly you guys are spared the worst of it.
Still, I grew up in an enormous extended family of California Gothic wiseacres, where tough talk was always about the punchlines, and opinions were worth a whole lot but getting a laugh out of someone was worth more. I married my husband partly because he makes me laugh harder than anyone I’ve ever known.
And I’ve found the blogoshere to be an extraordinarily liberating world, where I can stop wondering whether or not anyone else is laughing and just assume that if you don’t have the same sense of humor I do you’ll quietly wander away, and if you do we’ll wind up laughing together.
Have the courage to carry on nonsense monologues with yourself
This is the biggest thing I’ve learned from Jenny about Twitter: a lot more people are reading it at any given time than it seems, and those people love to be entertained. Not only that, some percentage of them love to jump in and entertain back.
This doesn’t mean anyone wants to know what I had for lunch. Even I don’t care what I had for lunch.
But when I did impromptu #editingchats last year, people came out of the woodwork to join in, even calling to each other like kids on a playground, “Whoo-hoo! They’ve started a game over there. Let’s go!”
And every time I’ve just gotten silly, I’ve received instant responses from people who love silliness—people who love that moment when we can all see the fireworks going off in the distance in the same shared sky.
Trust your readers & express sincere gratitude for them
This is something the writers of books and periodicals don’t train themselves to do, and it’s something marketers often think they’re doing but—so long as the dollar signs are still lurking there in the backs of their eyes—are not.
Jenny trusts her readers. She doesn’t respond to every comment on her blog or even every tweet directed at her. Holy cow. She’d never have time to go to the bathroom. But sometimes, you know, that’s a nice feeling as a commenter, that she’s not necessarily waiting to leap out of her chair and rush across the room to yank off my shoes and pull over a seat for me. Sometimes it’s more fun to just join the crowd and chat amongst ourselves. We have things to say, conversations to have with each other. It’s a gang rather than a greeting line. It’s like the time I drove with friends from San Luis Obispo to Santa Cruz in my old flannel pajamas because I knew that at the party we were going to that would be okay.
In fact, Jenny doesn’t even have that most-common of marketing commodities, a newsletter. Readers can’t make funny comments on a newsletter.
The truth is now that my business is doing well and I have a three-year backlog of posts to recycle, I don’t have to keep blogging. I could quit. I really could. I don’t inhale. . .
But every time someone comments, “I read you all the time, so I just want to say hi,” I realize I’ve had a friend out there I never knew about. And it makes my life deeper and richer.
Have I said it yet today? I love you guys.
Continued next week in Everything Else I Know about Social Media I Also Learned from the Bloggess
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.