WOW have I been reading a lot of blogs lately. My Google Reader list almost doubled after reading through all your recommendations. Combine that with my awesome tablet and newfound free time for reading, and I’ve been a blog-post-consuming machine these days.
I don’t know whether this is a curse or a blessing, but my web marketing and development background means that it’s impossible for me to read blogs without at least a little bit of analysis. I look up how many readers the author has, think about how that compares to the readership of other, similar writers, and notice which posts seem to get the most traffic among his or her readership. I also follow a handful of mega-bloggers (folks who have millions of pageviews per month); not all of their writing is to my taste, but I read them out of curiosity to observe what it is they do that seems to touch a nerve with such vast numbers of people.
I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and in that time I’ve accumulated a lot of data. And for a long time I thought that it was mostly useless, because there simply didn’t seem to be any clear set of rules that would apply to all top-notch blogs. For every tip that was commonly accepted as a best practice, there were plenty of blogs that had great readership yet did the opposite. “Include lots of pictures,” “have a good design,” “write concisely,” “do numbered list posts,” were all good ideas, yet didn’t seem to be implemented consistently among blogs that actually gained traction.
Even the disreputable traffic-baiting techniques didn’t seem to work all that well. I’ve heard the lament that it’s impossible to have a widely read blog unless you trash other people or share graphic details about your intimate life or swear like a pirate or pen divisive political tirades, yet (to my relief) that’s not what I found when I looked at the data. Folks like the Pioneer Woman, Leo Babauta, Design Mom, Glennon Melton, and Sarah Mae all built sites that attract tens of thousands of loyal readers without resorting to any of those tactics.
So for years I just shrugged my shoulders, the analyst in me annoyed and perplexed that I could not seem to find a single thing that all the big personal bloggers had in common.
And then, on this latest reading kick, something finally clicked. It’s embarrassing how excited I was when I realized that I actually did see one — and only one — thing that every single person with a widely read personal blog has in common. It’s something the Glamourai and BooMama, Donald Miller and Alice Bradley, Michael Hyatt and Kelle Hampton share. Yes, even Ann Voskamp and the Bloggess have it in common. And it’s this:
They are all wholly, unapologetically themselves.
Kelle Hampton, for example, is passionate about taking pictures to share the beauty in her daily life. So is Ann Voskamp. And you can tell from the energy that exudes from the pages of their blogs that they don’t post these photos because they read in some tips list that it’s good for traffic; it’s the natural outpouring of a genuine, white-hot passion in this area.
I’m guessing that BooMama doesn’t write her laugh-out-loud funny posts because she read somewhere that quirky Southern humor helps build a readership, just like Donald Miller probably didn’t decide to focus on spiritually-based life improvement tips due to a market potential analysis. Instead, they were both honest about what they most enjoy writing, and followed where their energy naturally flowed.
Some people are very open and just can’t hold back on all the details of their personal lives; others are more formal and reserved. Some absolutely love creating beauty and couldn’t imagine a blog that wasn’t filled with big, beautiful pictures and a lovely design; others would be happy with a bare bones style where the beauty is in the words alone. Some people feel most passionate when they can write long, wandering posts that release all their thoughts on a subject; others naturally lean towards sharing their ideas quickly and concisely. Some find that they’re never more in the zone than when they express themselves through visuals; others prefer words alone. Some have lifestyles that allow them to update frequently and predictably; others don’t — and their readers still love them.
It doesn’t matter which category you fall into, or whether your own passions are in line with what the experts say you need to do to have a big blog. The only thing that’s really important is that you know who you are, what you love, and which unique charisms God has give you, and you express that on the page.
This idea is summed up beautifully in one of my favorite quotes, from Howard Thurman:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Especially in this disconnected society where there’s so much loneliness, I think that we all naturally gravitate toward people who strike us as deeply human. In the age of digital living and on-screen personas, we’re desperate for that unmistakable sense of connectedness you can only find when you’re around people who are honest with you about who they are. We’ll even listen to the ideas of someone whom we otherwise wouldn’t agree with, just to be in the presence of a person who is passionately comfortable in her own skin.
And so, if I were to write a “tips for bloggers” list based on my 10 years of analysis and as many years of having my own blogs, I think it would only have one item on it. I would simply say:
BE YOURSELF. Be wholly, unapologetically yourself.
This doesn’t mean rationalizing bad behavior or navel gazing or wallowing in self-indulgence; instead, it means digging deep to find that unique combination of interests and talents that only you can offer the world, and sharing them with as much energy as you can muster. To paraphrase St. Catherine of Siena, be who God meant for you to be, and you’ll set the blog world on fire.
Quite a few folks have asked if I’ve heard back from my agent about the book yet. I have! He got back to me last week, actually. I didn’t want to write about it during Lent since it would involve venting some frustration, but now it’s Easter so I am free to wallow in the depths of despair! (Wait. Am I doing this wrong?)
Anyway, here is the update for those of you who are interested. I realize that that is probably only a small percentage of readers, most of them who fall into the categories of:
- Fellow writing nerds
- People who enjoy watching train wrecks
- PZ Myers fans who are still mad about that one post and are now following this book project closely so that they can be the first to give it a one-star review on Amazon
- Saintly folks whose souls are so filled with love and generosity that they care about the follies of hapless internet people whom they’ve never met
(If you are not in any of those categories and have already begun to feel your eyes glaze over in mortal boredom at having read this far down the page, here is the charming blog of a teen girl who is discerning whether she is called to be a Carmelite nun, which you will find far more edifying.)
So I got the long-awaited email last Tuesday while I was stopped in a long line of traffic at a red light. Normally I don’t check email while my vehicle is running, but since I’d been waiting for this one for, oh, about four years, I gave myself a pass for a little in-transit inbox glancing. The response was long. But it looked good. Definitely good. There were lots of positive statements in the first two sentences, even words like “touching” and “interesting.” The light turned green so I had to put my smartphone down, and as I searched for a place to pull over I imagined what the rest of the email might say. I had noticed that there was a very long bulleted list at the end of it. That concerned me. But maybe I was being too negative! Maybe the list was all stuff like:
- How did you write something so amazing?
- You’re brilliant.
- Would there be copyright issues if I had the first paragraph from p. 162 calligraphied onto finest parchment and hung in a golden frame in the center of my living room?
- I’ve already hired a skywriting plane to proclaim that last sentence in Chapter 4 across the heavens.
- Two acquisitions editors at Big-6 publishing houses just got in a knife fight over who gets to buy this masterpiece.
I had somehow managed to find myself in the one part of the city where there is not a single place to stop your vehicle, and finally just turned into the first drive I saw. Which ended up being a “BUSES ONLY” road behind a local school. That was One Way. And I was going the wrong way. I pulled the car onto the grass of the surrounding field to get out of the way of any buses that my be barreling down the road, and read the rest of the email. (I note that the moment I started reading, The Decemberists’ post-apocalyptic ditty Calamity Song came on the radio.)
Alas, that very long bulleted list did not consist of superlatives about the manuscript’s perfection, but was, as I had feared, a list of problems he’d encountered. After I got myself out of the restricted bus road and safely back to my house, I gave my agent a call, and he shared yet more constructive criticism. And I have to say, it was fantastic. I mean, his ability to spot where a manuscript is weak borders on being less of a talent and more of a superpower. Also, many of the changes he suggested were relatively minor (stuff like “I was confused about how much time passed between the end of Chapter 6 and the beginning of Chapter 7″) — so, no more rewriting. All great news. And yet I still found myself sinking into a PIT O’ DESPAIR after the phone call.
My husband was baffled that I wasn’t excited about this latest step, and asked me what was wrong. (When I sighed dramatically and just stared into the distance, he made a comment that whatever literary agents get paid, it isn’t enough. Let’s just say that my husband was not called to go into a line of work that involves dealing with writer angst.) For almost a week, I didn’t even know what the problem was. It’s taken me days to be able to articulate why I’ve found this latest round of feedback so dispiriting, and a couple more to be able to admit that I’m really this lame. But here it is:
I think the root of this latest round of writer-despair is that these edits go beyond making this book “decent.” I could do a lot less work, and I feel confident that it would be good enough to begin pitching it to publishers. I see now, with more clarity than ever before, that “good enough” is not an option here. And, umm, after four years, three full drafts, and countless revisions in between…I think I was ready to go ahead and settle for good enough.
The part of me that wants to create something high quality is excited about this realization; the lazy part of me that was thinking I was mostly done with the writing process, and would have happily accepted an “A for effort,” is not quite as thrilled to hear that there’s a lot of hard work left to do.
Anyway, I know what I must do now:
Feel endlessly sorry for myself. Call my friends and complain. Blog about it. Post passive-aggressive tweets on Twitter. Read one-star reviews of classic works of literature on Amazon and be all like “See! It’s not like this book is all that good either!” Actually, I’m not going to do anything for a few days. At some point I will probably adopt a prayerful attitude and dutifully tackle the work that is ahead of me, but I think I might just take a break for a few weeks and pretend that I never got myself onto the Sisyphean Wheel of Book Writing in the first place.
I suppose there is a plus side. I’ve been almost sorry (almost) that we have not spotted any scorpions inside ever since I begged our exterminator friend to hook up a fire hose to the most poisonous chemicals he has access to and just spray it all over the house. As nice as it’s been not to be confronted by stinging arachnids at every turn, I am at my most prolific when it comes to writing about scorpions. Every time I think about my house being overrun by these creatures, it turns me into a writer’s-block-smashing, blog-post-writing machine. And when you think about it, all those same conditions are there for book edits!: the uncertainty of when they will show up in my house, the scary look of them, the potential they have to deliver intense doses of hideous pain, and the fact that I have little control over when said intense doses of hideous pain might take place and how long they will last.
So, if anyone was worried that my poor Caps Lock key was being neglected because of my friendship with a local exterminator, never fear: the book editing process has evidently just begun, and should inspire me to at least as much mental anguish as a house overrun with poisonous arachnids. (Though I should warn you that there is always a chance that the scorpions could find their way back into the house during the book editing process. Classy readers may want to unsubscribe now.)
A I-SOLEMNLY-PROMISE-TO-YOU-I-AM-NOT-MAKING-THIS-UP UPDATE: My son was just stung IN THE FACE by a scorpion while sitting on the couch. FACE! SCORPION! COUCH! This is the EXACT part of the couch that I always sit on to feed the baby! Nevermind all this book stuff. Book? What book? I will be too busy moving. Then setting the house on fire once everyone is out safely. More on this later.
When I sat down to write this final draft of my book, I felt like I knew a lot about story. My three bookshelves jammed with tomes about the craft of storytelling were a testament to how much I’d learned about the subject over the past few years. And so as I set out to tell my tale, I was confident that I had all the necessary pieces in place. Protagonist? That one’s easy. Check. Central conflict? Check. Initiating incident? Check. Theme? That one took forever to figure out, but I finally realized what it was. So, check.
I started writing. Then, a couple chapters in, something dawned on me:
What about the antagonist?
Every story has an antagonist. It can be as obvious as a supervillian or as subtle as personality quirk, but there is always a force that opposes the protagonist. In fact, if you don’t have an antagonist, you don’t have a story. So I figured that there must be one, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
I didn’t come up with anything. Eventually I just figured it must be the devil, broadly defined. The story I was writing was ultimately a story about me finding God, and evil always tries to stop us from doing that sort of thing, so it seemed like a good enough answer. I didn’t see many incidences where I encountered evil face-to-face in a way that would make one think, “Hey, that’s the devil!”; I couldn’t imagine how I’d highlight encounters with this antagonist, if at all, but I proceeded under this assumption.
Then one Saturday morning I sat down to work on the book. I checked my writing schedule to see that I was about 25 percent of the way into the story, and it was time to start talking about those first stirrings of desire for God. I’d already recounted why I came to believe in some kind of Creator on an intellectual level, and now it was time to explain how my heart got into it. Before I started writing, I asked myself a question that would change the course of the book; it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that it changed the course of my life. I simply wondered:
Was there anything I wanted more than God at this point?
Based on that prompt, I started writing. The memories came like a downpour. I could hardly type fast enough to keep up with the thoughts. I wrote and wrote, churning out an almost inhuman words-per-minute output as I told the story of a time I encountered something that I was so attached to, that I desired so deeply that I wanted it more than I wanted God. I’ve rarely had an easier writing assignment than describing the ways in which this thing lured me, what I found so wonderful about it, the reasons I thought it would make my life complete.
When I was done, I took my hands away from the keyboard, looked back at what I had just written. And with a chill I realized that I had just encountered my antagonist.
Yes, it was the devil, in the sense that it was probably him who put this thing in my path and encouraged my attachment to it. But I didn’t understand my own story until I understood that my antagonist was something more than the general workings of evil. It was something very specific that I wanted out of life, a goal that I desired to achieve with everything in my being. Not that there’s anything wrong with setting goals and aiming to accomplish them; but what made this particular goal the antagonist was that I wanted it more than I wanted anything else — even God.
I’ve been thinking about this all through Lent. I remembered that I’m still living a story, even if I’m not putting it down on paper. Which made me realize: That means that there is still an antagonist. And if I’m ever going to live a great story, I must identify what it is.
It’s been a fruitful exercise, one that I recommend everyone undertake. As we approach the end of Lent, take a moment to ask:
What do you want the story of your life to be? What would a beautiful, God-glorifying ending look like? And now: What is your Antagonist?
On Saturday night at around 2:18 AM, I sent the final draft of the book to my agent. Even though there are many more steps to go in the process, I have a feeling that I might finally be out of the Sisyphean Wheel of Book Writing, and that at least there will be forward progress from here. (Though I’ve been mistaken before. If at any point you see a post pop up titled PLEASE KILL ME NOW, you’ll know I was wrong.)
I wanted to invite each one of you over to share a glass of champagne with me, but since I didn’t think you’d appreciate getting a call in the middle of the night where the person on the other line begins by saying, “Hi. I’m Jen. You read my blog. I Googled your name and found your number…” I took a screenshot instead.
Also, in a moment I will remember all my life, I was finishing up the last of the my husband’s major edits on Friday when I happened to check New Advent. There was a link there to a site where you could track the Pope’s flight to Mexico in real time. I clicked on it, and my thought process was something like:
Oh, cool, the Pope is over the south central United States right now…over Texas, actually…central Texas…[zooming in more]…OH MY GOSH THE POPE’S PLANE IS RIGHT OVER MY HOUSE RIGHT NOW!!!
I rushed outside. There was only one plane in that part of the sky, headed in exactly the right direction, exactly where the map said it would be. It was so weird to think that Benedict XVI, the Pope, the successor of Peter, the man who was so influential in my conversion was here in my area; that if he looked down, one of the dots he saw below would be my house.
And in a moment that shows you just how much I need a break from this writing process, I thought: If I’m ever audacious enough to write a memoir about writing a memoir, I just got an AWESOME closing scene.