I started blogging because my publisher told me to. All authors have to blog these days, she said, just as all authors need a social media presence. Readers want to feel a personal connection to an author.
But I know plenty of authors who refuse to blog. They warned me. It’s too much work. It will distract you from your real writing. You’ll run out of topics. You’ll get bored.
As it turned out, I didn’t. I’ve been blogging once a week now for almost two years. Blog post #100 is coming up soon. Sure, I’ve taken breaks for holidays and travel but so far I’ve never considered stopping. So what’s in it for me?
blogging is writing, too
I write every day, 7 days a week. Usually, I start with my journal. It’s my morning workout. Some days, all I can manage is a list of the things I need to do that day or what I ate the night before. But more often than not, I’ll get a brainwave. A new plot twist or scene that I can add to my novel. A sudden flash of insight into a character’s back story that sheds a new light on her actions. This is fodder for my novel and I carefully catalogue these ideas, first in my journal and later in my change notes.
Some of those brainwaves are ideas for this blog. A newspaper article, a tweet, a random conversation on the street, a silly rom-com.
Of course, you can’t compare blogging to writing a novel. The scope and depth involved, not to mention the headspace required to write one versus the other. But blogging exercises a muscle that can come in handy in all forms of writing.
For example, I try to keep my blog posts to 1,000 words each. That’s not a ridiculously small amount of space but it’s not infinitely huge either. Along the way, I have to introduce my topic, develop an argument or theme and reach a conclusion. My thinking is: if I need more than 1,000 words to get to my point, I don’t really know what I want to say. And if I’m done and dusted before I hit 1,000 words, then the idea wasn’t worth writing about in the first place.
Blogging teaches me to make my point, quickly and clearly.
Blogs that ramble or rant are not for me. I also dislike blogs that are naked self-promotion. If I’m going to blog, it’ll be on a topic that I think is interesting enough to share.
If you look at my track record so far, you’ll see that my blog posts gravitate around two topics: writing and China. It’s not a red line. I do make forays into street art or politics. But I am a writer of Shanghai noir so my universe of topics is lit by these twin suns.
Those gravitational forces make it easier for me to come up with blog topics. I’m constantly looking for material to feed into my novels, but not all of it lends itself to wholesale import into a work of fiction. For example, my search for literature written during the same period when my novel-in-progress Peace Court is set led me to Socialist Realism. While prepping for a master class on my debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle got me thinking about how we depict violence in fiction.
So to those aspiring bloggers who worry about the work involved I say: choose your marks. Don’t make the box so small you can’t move or so open-ended that the universe of ideas comes crashing down on your head. Take it one blog post at a time.
I have to admit, though, blogging takes time. For me, it usually costs a full day to write a blog post from initial idea to final published text. Because my readers are now used to being fed every Wednesday, I feel duty-bound to deliver on time. That pressure sometimes pushes my novel-writing to the back burner with all the guilt and anger that implies.
At the same time, I’m not willing to put up a blog post just for the sake of hitting a deadline. I’m going for quality here, not quantity. So whenever I run into a tweet, article or Facebook post that sparks my imagination, I clip it. Or, if the idea presents itself in the form of an experience, I jot it down in my journal and put a sticker on the page. Then I let it germinate in the back of my mind until the day I realize that I have enough of these tidbits to put together a decent blog post.
What I’m looking for in blogging is the same thing I look for in my fiction writing: a sense of wonder. To realize, for example, that a visit to Japan, my father’s old war stories and a decision by Chinese president Xi Jinping to change the history books are all tied together in a never-ending war we call the Second Sino-Japanese War.
the business of blogging
Does that sound like a lot of work? Maybe so but it also serves my purpose. Writing is a craft and like any craft, practice makes perfect. At the same time, what feeds my novels also feeds my blog posts. So, blogging is good for my writing but it delivers in other ways, too.
One of my most popular blog posts (as measured by numbers of views) is Prisoner #42816. It’s an essay about the Chinese penal system that has attracted viewers from all over the world including inside China. How cool is that?
We Are Not Labels was a guest blog post published by Books by Women. Dieuwke van Turenhout, founder of the short story platform, Not Just Hemingway, read that essay and invited me for a podcast interview. Now I’m on tenterhooks waiting for that interview to go live.
Wanderlust was another guest post, this time for Authors Electric, which eventually led to me becoming a monthly contributor. I’ve been invited to speak at book clubs, Chinese historical societies and a local university on the strength of my blog. All this has given me the confidence to pitch article ideas to paying journals. It’s one tiny step toward making a living as a professional writer.
These are all rationally-sound reasons to blog. But the truth of the matter is, if you hate blogging, your blog will suck. No one wants to read something written under duress. You’ll chase away your blog readers and the audience for your novel as well.
Blog if you enjoy it. And if you do, blogging will eventually help you become a better writer. Just try it and see.