Should I start a writing blog?

The other day, a friend, whom we shall name Q so as not to cause embarrassment, asked me whether or not it was a good time to get started on a writing blog.

For various normal life-related reasons (stuff like education, job, mortgage and family), Q hadn’t written a while, let alone tried to sell something. Should Q start blogging now, or later, after a sale or two? OK, I shall say something embarrassing anyway: there will be sales quite quickly, because Q is a very good writer, whose style I admire.

As for blogging, I believe that there are a few things going on here:

In the first place, publishers seem to rely more and more on authors to bring their own publicity, especially small press.

Secondly, if for some reason, you break with your publisher (like—they go bust), would you really want to have all information about who your readers are in their hands? Certainly not!

Thirdly, I’ve heard it said on the internet that you need to start building an online following at least three years before selling a novel. I have no idea where that figure came from, but I strongly believe that the sooner you start building a community of online contacts, the better. I feel that sometimes people under-estimate just how much time it takes to build up a following of 1000 reliable followers on Facebook or Twitter, especially if you start as a total unknown. Online social networks are like a drop of ink on a sheet of blotting paper. They’re capable of growth at the edges, but you have to keep feeding the growing spot from the middle. Sometimes the spread will hit a particularly permeable strand of paper, and will expand irregularly, like when you hit a relationship with a superblogger, who has a high percentage of active readers.

Finding who these superbloggers are for your type of fiction and your interests takes a lot of time. Convincing these people that your work is worth their promoting effort takes even more. There are no shortcuts. A reputation as an engaging blogger takes years to build. But then: a blog is like a continuous con panel, where you build the brand that you hope to sell: you as a writer.

Then Q asked: how would you go about starting a blog?

I think that the most important reason these mysterious superbloggers exist is because they provide interesting content. What is interesting content, though? This will be different for each person. I’d advocate that besides writing, and a bit of promotion for your own work, such as when you’ll be at which cons, and which stories of yours will be published where, you concentrate on a particular interest that is related to your writing. If you write historical fantasy, you might blog about mythology, Chinese history or medieval recipes, to name a few odd choices. I write science fiction and blog about science and astronomy in terms I hope everyone can understand. Or maybe you can blog about something that’s close to you personally, such as the care and treatment of the elderly (since you may work in this field or have parents who are in this situation), or services for the blind, or children with autism. Or you might be a scuba diver or a polo player. Anything really, but I think you do need that second interest to make your blog special.

How do you start? Well, that’s easy. You pick a blog provider, choose a decent design (please, people, no grey on black, or anything on black, really), personalise it (as I have done with the image above) and you just start posting. But what about publicity, Q asked, I mean—outside Facebook.

And I went: Ha! Because if you are a blogger, the social networking sites, and I mean any and all social networking and microblogging sites, are your best friends. When you’ve posted on your blog, Twitter and Facebook is where you announce it. Use as many networks as you can and link them all up so you don’t need to post to each individually. Keep in mind that people live in different time zones and have different schedules. Repeat your announcement at a different time of day.

But, you say, I use the RSS feature, and people can subscribe to my blog. The truth is: many people don’t. Don’t be offended about this, and don’t whine about feeling left out, that people don’t love you and blah blah blah. The onus is on you to provide the people with a reason to visit your blog, and to remind them of that fact regularly. Building up a blog following is a lot of work. Repeat: Building up a blog following is a lot of work. Oh, right, I believe I said this elsewhere in this post. It takes a lot of time, and commitment, and religious, regular posting. So that’s why you start now, rather than when you’ve hit the big time. At the moment, the situation is such that you may never hit the big time without it, because unless you strike the really, really big time, no one is going to publicise your book and your brand as author as well as you. Your audience-building plan should span years, not one or two, but five or ten. It is about a constant, regular presence, and two-way interaction.

In short it comes down to a few basics: the sooner you start the better, and the more you keep the networking aspect in your hands, the more freedom you will have later. You may think these people on Facebook and Twitter are your friends, and in many cases, they are, but they are also your audience.

One more thing: Sometimes people talk about the magical ‘readers’, as if they’re totally separate from writers, but I don’t think they are. The other writers are passionate about fiction and read a lot. The writing community is your audience, or at least makes up a large part of it. Not only that, they’re the ones who will carry your publicity for you if they like your work, because they’re passionate about the writing they enjoy.