"WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?" invites experienced biographers and narrative nonfiction writers to hold forth, in an article or just in a couple of sentences, on some useful solution they've found for coping with any major challenge of the writing life. What works for you? Share it with the rest of us by posting a comment below.
Charles J. Shields on Blogging
Most publishers these days want authors to cultivate an online presence to attract readers (a "platform," in publishing jargon). Charles J. Shields decided to cultivate his by starting a blog called Writing Kurt Vonnegut~a biographer's notebook, on the subject of his forthcoming biography, AND SO IT GOES: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, to be published in November by Holt. The blog, which he began 9 months before publication, has brought his book more potential readers, perhaps many more, than it might otherwise have had. His "platform" works because he figured out how to do something he's eminently qualified to do: write about a subject he knows well.
I'm a self-taught blogger—no classes; I just watched YouTube videos and purchased a manual with a DVD inside that walked me through creating a blog. Once I got past the technical aspects of finding a server, etc., the most important piece of advice was emphasized several times in the manual: it's content that matters.
I would add to that: appearance matters, too. Content and appearance go hand-in-hand to create a positive experience for readers, which persuades them to come back.
Now, there are countless blogs (you've seen them) written by people who ramble, whine, curse, or extol the virtues of a favorite cat or grandma. You've probably noticed too that they tend to have received fewer visitors than an umbrella store in Death Valley. It's because the content is mush.
You've undoubtedly also seen blogs that look like scrapbooks: hard on the eyes, fitful in design, and cluttered. The comments on those tend to be from best friends and relatives. Convinced as I was that content and appearance are the two most important elements of blogging, I prepared to take my blog, "Writing Kurt Vonnegut" to millions of hungry readers worldwide. I went for a simple, magazine-like appearance; I started thinking about newsy topics.
But wait.... what exactly was I going to write about?
Well, about Kurt Vonnegut, obviously, the subject of my book. But how much should I write about El Kurto, how much should I allow peeks into my yet unpublished book for the sake of creating interest in it?
My publisher, Henry Holt & Co. answered both questions handily: Don't write about Kurt Vonnegut! You'll spoil everything! It's too soon!
So instead, I began writing about my behind-the-scenes experiences as a writer: my instincts, a few setbacks, stories that were cut from the book, interesting personalities, conundrums, and so on.
Readers liked these (not as much as anecdotes from the book, I must confess). But I steadily received about 75 visitors a day, still do in fact, for a total of 21,500 over seven months. Not bad!
Now that the date when the biography will be published is approaching, I've received permission from the marketing people at Henry Holt & Co. to write a series of Vonnegut-specific blogs as a way of ramping up interest in the Big Day. (Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Everyone is selling something." So: November 8th—don't forget!)
What keeps me blogging is the immediacy of it: the thought that my essay or entry will be presented as soon as I hit “Publish Now.”
What do I like least? Laying out the page, by which I mean figuring out where to put the pictures and the links. It's like choosing clothes to wear for a formal party—a necessary evil, but part of that careful attention to appearance, that, as I mentioned, keeps readers coming back.
Here's my advice in a nutshell:
• Keep the blog clean-looking. After all, you're a writer, and book readers are of a mindset that they don't want to look at kitties and babies.
• Make a list of topics that will carry you for months. Impulse blogging can lead to a lot of regrettable foolishness, like the person who drinks too much at a high school reunion.
• Blog once a week. Make a new post appear on the same day every week, so that readers come to expect it like a newspaper thumping on their doorstep.
• Begin a draft a few days in advance of posting. Let it sit overnight; then revise it and have someone read it. You're a writer: people have high expectations.
• Don't give away the store. Talk about your adventures as an author; include tantalizing tidbits about your book—remember, you can include photos you don't plan to use in print—and keep the reader on the hook, week after week.
• Get a couple of posts ahead and bank 'em. There might be an emergency, or you become unwell, for some reason. Don't miss your self-imposed deadline.
• Then, as your publication date nears, pop some real newsy posts on your blog—maybe even a little sensational—in the hope that one will go viral.
—In addition to his forthcoming biography of Vonnegut, which you can order here, Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt, 2006). He is also vice-president of Biographers International Organization (BIO), as well as an administrator of that organization's (really fun) BIO Facebook Page for members.