I’m a published novelist. So what do I blog about?
Confession: I’ve been asking that question for ten years.
Since 2007, I’ve been trying to figure out the purpose of my author blog, what it was about, and whom it was for. In other words, I’ve been trying to figure out the rhetorical situation.
In the early days, before I published my first novel, countless articles about publishing told me I needed a blog—more specifically, I needed a “platform.” In the dating world, it’s known as “putting yourself out there.”
Yeah, I hated that expression with a passion when I was single.
In the world of authors, it meant building a following of readers so that when you submitted your manuscript to literary agents or editors, you could assure them that your books would sell, that you already had a tribe who loved your words and would read anything you published. And if you self-published, you already had a prime selling location: your blog.
It was way easier to do this if you were a nonfiction author with a specific product or idea you were writing about, such as dating or how to self-publish a book. If you wrote novels in a specific genre, such as science fiction or chick lit, you could possibly draw on related topics, such as Star Wars or the five best date outfits. But for most people who wrote fiction, they were kind of adrift.
In a way, blogging as a novelist is much like rhetoric in that it’s a subject that encompasses all other subjects.
And something happened. The Internet became saturated with blogs. And social networking took over. Suddenly everyone was way more interested in the photos of your snickerdoodles than in the ramblings of your mind. Digital publishing was the other game-changer. Your success as an author relied on the perfect synchronization of writing a good novel, digitally publishing it, selling it cheaply, and social media spreading the word for you. That’s certainly how it happened for me.
The blog became irrelevant. Or so it seemed.
My blog went through several incarnations. First, I thought it was for writing teachers. Then I thought it was for writing students. Then I decided to make it for novel readers—specifically, my novel readers. But I still got stuck. Who were my readers? Why would they want to read my blog? What did I have to say that was of value to them? What topics would I discuss? My writing life? My Duranie life? My single life, and now married life? And even if yes to all of the above, why?
My blog floundered. I wrote inconsistently. Scatteredly. When I felt like it or had something to say that was longer than 140 characters or a Facebook post.
Late last year, as book sales plummeted, I panicked. I needed to win back my readership and, more desperately, my royalties. So I started reading everything I could about content and social media marketing. And what kept coming up? Blogging.
And yet, when I asked my author friends about it, they were all in the same boat I was. Having already established their readership through book sales, they either no longer had the time or saw the point of blogging, except maybe a guest post around the time of a book launch. Even the blog tour lost its appeal. As my friend and fellow author Tyler Dilts said, “It seems very 2007 to me.”
Nevertheless, I tried to resuscitate my blog. I tried to establish multiple series: A Year With Nora Ephron. Ask the Author. 7 Things.
Some of my most popular posts had been about my relationship with my husband, back when we were doing all the really romantic stuff like falling in love and long distance dating and getting engaged. So I tried writing about those things again.
Crickets. Now that I was married, it was anti-climactic, like when your two favorite characters in your favorite TV show finally get together, and the ratings drop.
Something was missing from all this blogging: joy. And, to an extent, authenticity.
And here’s the irony about trying to build a following: you have to do it without making it your primary goal. It’s kind of like when writing your first draft, you have to ignore your audience.
I was trying so hard to win readers with gimmicks that I didn’t think about what they really needed or what was of value to them. I may have had a purpose in terms of gaining more readers and, eventually, more book sales, but the blog itself still had no clear purpose. It had no theme. It had no rhetorical situation. And I had no fun with any of it. I saw it as time-consuming, directionless, and ineffective. And I gave up on it yet again.
When I took Jeff Goins’s webinar (which persuaded me to sign up for his Intentional Blog course), a lot of participants had the same question: I’m a fiction writer. What do I blog about? It’s still a tough question to answer. But after taking the course and thinking closely about rhetorical situation, here are the five things I think you need to do in order to answer it.
- Get very clear about why or if you really want a blog.
Do you want one because someone influential said you need one? Will it somehow supplement your novels? Would it support or showcase your worldview? Is it a way to connect with your novel readers? If so, in what way?
If the answer is I don’t know, then I recommend you not start or continue with a blog. Ditto and especially if the answer is because I’m supposed to. That’s never been a good answer to anything.
- Create value.
If you’re certain you want and need an author blog, then the next thing to determine is whether your blog has value. Are your readers learning something? Are they being entertained? Motivated? Inspired? Are they getting something for free, like a new short story every week? Or maybe they’re sharing one of your passions, like books or music, something that is a staple of the novels you write. Whatever it is, your readers need a reason for visiting your blog post after post, week after week, especially given that they’re bombarded every minute with news feeds, articles, images, videos, ads, and more. Something has to be in it for them. They need to feel appreciated. Validated. Thought of. They need to be treated like a guest in your home or a customer in your store. For so long I had failed to do that. I had thought of them as means to an end. So, so wrong.
- Narrow and clarify your focus.
In order to give your readers something of value, you need to think of what you want to say and to whom. In other words, you need to focus on a particular theme or worldview. Here’s what especially tripped me up when it came to identifying myself as a novelist and my blog for readers of my novels. What the heck did I have to say? Hadn’t my novels already said it? Isn’t that why I wrote novels in the first place?
Here’s an example. The theme that most often occurs in my novels is authenticity. Yet, I wasn’t sure how to express that as a worldview, or how to approach it in terms of subject matter or posts. Moreover, I didn’t know if I wanted to. (Funny, as I write this, I’m getting ideas now. However, it’s still not exciting enough to officially take my author blog in this direction. Yet.)
- Love it.
And while we’re on the subject of authenticity, no matter what you write about or why or for whom, you need to love it. Love your subject. Love the act of writing. Love your readers. Love the connections you’re making. Love the message. Love the meaning. Love the purpose. Otherwise your readers will see right through you.
I had no love or desire for my author blog anymore. And when I came to that realization, I knew for sure it was time to let it go indefinitely. It wasn’t easy to do so, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
- Focus on one reader.
Finally, when it comes to determining your audience. Rather focusing on the hundreds of thousands of readers you want to attract, instead, take a page out of Mr. Rogers’s playbook and concentrate on one reader. When I watch Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, I feel like he’s speaking to me and me alone. Even now, as an adult! That’s because when he looked into the camera, he didn’t imagine himself talking to scores of children; he focused only on one child. I take this same approach when writing my novels. First and foremost, I always write for me. But I also envision one intended reader, usually someone I know. Even now, as I write this post, I have a reader in mind.
Bottom line: It’s OK to come to the conclusion and make the decision to be a novelist without a blog. I understand the fear of doing so, especially when everyone is telling you this is what you’re supposed to be doing. But here’s the thing: if it can’t serve your readers, then it can’t serve you. Moreover, to quote Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream fame, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” But if you become clear on your rhetorical situation: your purpose, audience, topic, and approach, and you love just about every aspect of it, then blog away.
Activity/Discussion: Do you have a favorite novelist who blogs regularly? If so, what does s/he blog about? What keeps you coming back to it? Can you identify their rhetorical situation? If so, in what ways are they achieving it? I invite you to share your answers in the Comments.