Blogging 101: Do you have what it takes to start a blog?

A handful of writers have approached me recently asking for help with their blogs. Some are trying to decide whether they should start a blog and how to go about it. Others want to improve an existing blog. So this week I’m running a series that will address three questions: Should I start a blog? What makes a blog successful? And how do I get started blogging?

Part I: Should you start a blog?

This isn’t about why you should blog. I think most writers — and everyone else who wants to promote themselves or their services — realize it’s an essential tool for building a platform, networking, etc. I want to help you think through whether you’ve got what it takes to start one.

I’ve heard people suggest that new bloggers get started as soon as possible, even if they’re still figuring out their focus, format and logistics. I advise the opposite. Everything you publish on the Web is out there for the whole world to read. Forever. So you want to get it right the first time. That means having a well thought-out plan and a good-looking site before you launch. Or at least before you tell anyone about it. Sure, your focus, style and approach will morph as you get the hang of blogging. But you want to look and sound professional from the get-go.

If you’re considering starting a blog, here’s what you should ask yourself:

What do I have to offer? Blogs have a bad rap because too many people use them as personal diaries. Please, for your sake and ours, do not make this mistake. Have a clear vision of what you hope to offer your readers. Not thoughts about your annoying neighbor or ramblings on your dog’s favorite toys. What’s your focus? (More on picking your subject in Part II.)

What are my goals? You know you should have a blog to “build your platform,” but that in itself isn’t a good enough reason to start one. In fact, that term makes me want to gag, partly because it’s so vague. What exactly are you hoping to accomplish through blogging?

Maybe it’s networking — I love connecting with other writers, especially people writing memoir. Maybe you’ll stir up interest in your soon-to-be published book.

Or maybe blogging will help you think through whatever you’re blogging about, help you come up with ideas or do your job better. This is a benefit bloggers often overlook. Writing here forces me to flesh out my ideas and express them in a cogent way instead of letting them mull around in my brain. It forces me to come up with conclusions. It helps me document my writing process so I won’t make the same mistakes the next time I write a book. I’m not only sharing with you here — I’m helping myself by keeping track of what I’ve learned and improving my own process. This blog helps me brainstorm and learn.

Am I okay with my posts being in the blogosphere forever? When you write something on the Internet, it stays there forever. Even after you erase it. Google saves everything.

I think about this a lot. Even though I’m not working as a journalist now, I might in the near future, which means I can’t express my opinions about certain issues. So while I try to reveal pieces of my personality on this blog, I’m careful about every single word I write, making sure I don’t say anything that might jeopardize my career.

What are your considerations when it comes to telling the world your story? I wouldn’t worry too much about privacy — it’s your blog, so you get to decide what to share and what to keep to yourself. But if you’re the type of person who over-shares, maybe you should consider a diary instead.

On the bright side, this lives-on-forever aspect is also what makes the Internet so valuable to us. It’s what allows that popular post you wrote a year ago to remain at the top of Google’s search results, making you findable to people who care about your subject. So embrace it. Leave your permanent footprint. Just make sure it’s a good one.

Do I have time? In my mind, this is the most important consideration, and it’s what I’ve been bringing up with my (small business) clients when we talk about whether they should start a blog. None of us really have time for a blog, but lots of us make time. Are you willing to make that time? Because blogging — I’ve gotta be honest here — is super time-consuming. It’s also rewarding. But every minute spent blogging means less time for writing or building your business or whatever’s your main focus.

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Do Twitter & Facebook help or hinder your writing?

The Los Angeles Times book blog ran a post last week about a writer who went off Facebook and Twitter for the first three months of this year to focus on her project. Edan Lepucki blogged about the detox, concluding that she didn’t miss the sites as much as she thought she would.

Which begs the question: Do social-networking sites help or hinder writers?

I think the answer lies largely in how you use Facebook and Twitter. Sure, they can be fun. But they can also be incredibly useful. And I can’t help but think that people who only see them as a distraction aren’t using them in a useful way.

For me, Facebook is not a time suck. (If it is for you, maybe you should seriously consider a detox.) I use it to keep in touch with people, so much that the messages feature serves as a second e-mail. It helps me keep up with old colleagues and classmates, as well as new friends. And right now it’s helping me network for jobs.

Twitter is a different story. It offers so much information that I could easily spend my entire day refreshing my stream. But while it has the potential to be more distracting than Facebook, it also has the potential to be more useful. My stream serves as a sort of classroom, offering links to stories and blog posts, tutorials, you name it.

Then there are the people I’ve met: writers who’ve helped me with my manuscript, journalists who’ve been instrumental in my job search, and more. Twitter is not just about tweeting at these people online; it’s about bringing those connections off-line. (Credit Penelope Trunk for that insight.)

I could go on and on about how great Twitter can be when it’s used properly. But the truth is, sometimes Twitter is a distraction. Particularly for those of us who write at home all day. It takes a lot of self-discipline to focus on writing.

Unless, of course, you don’t have a connection. I was forced to experiment with this for five weeks this fall, when I was a resident at an artist’s colony in Georgia. My studio was not wired with Internet. It also didn’t have a television, cell phone service or even a phone we could use to call home. (There was a land-line for emergencies — and thank God for that, since I was in the middle of the woods by myself.) Every distraction I might’ve had at home was removed for me in this setting. In the evenings, the artists met for dinner in a common building that was about half a mile from my studio, and there we had access to Internet, so I could check my e-mail, Facebook page and whatever else was begging for my attention.

At the end of my time there, I was asked to fill out an evaluation form. (Hambidge got all high marks from me.) The board that oversaw the place was thinking of installing Internet in the studios. Did I think that was a good idea?

Before arriving at Hambidge, I was terrified of going without Internet and cell-phone service. So what I suggested on that evaluation form was unexpected: I wrote that they should leave the cabins without a connection. Not having those distractions created a silence, both around me and inside my head. It made room to think about things I didn’t have space for before, like, well, my manuscript. Without the Internet muddling my thoughts, my story arc became clearer. And perhaps more importantly, my life became clearer, too.

What I’m saying here is this: social networking has a place in my world. It’s not just fun; it’s essential to my growth personally and professionally. But I see the value in detoxing for a period of time, in stepping away not only from Twitter and Facebook but from other distractions in life that keep me from producing my best work.

What do you think? Would you consider a long-term social-media detox? Or a break from all Internet? Or is that online connection too vital to what you do every day?

How do writers support themselves?

A reader found my blog this weekend by typing into Google: How do writers support themselves?

I often wonder about this myself. I know there are authors out there who make a living off their books. (In fact, I met some this weekend at the fabulous Woodstock Writers Festival. You should go next year.) And I know how to make a living as a journalist because I’ve done it. What I don’t know is how people who don’t fall into those categories manage to pay their rent, afford car insurance and go out to eat once in a while.

How can I afford to write this book full time? I live with my parents. That’s right: I’m 29, and after nearly a decade on my own, I moved back home. I’m so lucky my parents are willing to have me. Living at home allows me to write instead of working a paying job. (I also have had savings from my job with the Houston Chronicle and I freelance occasionally.)

There are as many ways to support the writing life as there are writers. And I think we can all learn from one another by sharing how we do it. So…

How do you support yourself and your family? Do you hold down a non-writing full-time job and carve out time to write on weekends? Are you one of the coveted authors who makes enough money through books and speaking gigs? Are you putting most of your energy into a writing project and working a part-time job on the side to make ends meet? How would you like to support yourself financially?

All I want for Christmas…

… is to finish revising!

Between now and the New Year, I’ve got a lot going on. Not only will I be spending time with family and friends, next week also is the last week before my self-imposed revision deadline. That’s right: by January 1, I’m hoping to finish revising my book.

So rather than blog during the last week of December — when few of you will read blogs anyhow — I’m going to focus on my book. That means no posts until 2010.

See you then! And for now… HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Becoming part of Hambidge’s history

One of the coolest parts of being at The Hambidge Center is learning about its history. Mary Hambidge (fascinating character) moved to these 600 acres in 1934 with a vision: to establish a place where artists could reflect, create and return to a way of living that was sustainable, good for the land and for us.

I feel that vision whenever I walk through the woods here, and not just because I often come upon stone ruins, old spring houses and other remnants of past life. I can think so clearly when I walk these trails alone. That’s what Mary wanted.

Cutting board in Son's Studio

Cutting board in Son's Studio

But my five weeks here are almost over. So I’ve taken part in a Hambidge tradition, one that allows me to become part of The Center’s history. On the mantle in my studio are several cutting boards, each covered with the names of creative thinkers and artists who’ve spent time here. Each of Hambidge’s cottages has them. I’ve scoured the ones here in Son’s Studio, reading the names and the dates, which go back only as far as 1988.

One guy wrote “first novel” next to his entry. A sculptor noted, “I almost burned the place down.” But most residents just write what they are, what they worked on while they were here. Poet. Visual artist. Novelista. Photographer. Painter. Writer.

What I love about this place is you can be whoever you want to be, create whatever you want to create.

Under my name, I think I’ll write “journalist.” After five weeks here, my identity has blurred – got a little “artist” and “writer” in me now. But journalism is still at my core.

Wonder what I’ll call myself next time I come to Hambidge.

Mantle above the fireplace in Son's Studio at Hambidge

Mantle above the fireplace in Son's Studio at Hambidge

Photos from Hambidge’s creative residency program

I’m still working on my book at The Hambidge Center. Only nine more days left of my residency! You requested more photos, so I’m sharing them today.

Rabun Gap, home of Hambidge, in the north Georgia mountains

Rabun Gap, home of Hambidge, in the north Georgia mountains.

Taking a break to play with clay.

Artists take a break to play with clay.

Visit to Hambidge's grist mill

Visit to Hambidge's grist mill. Grits, anyone?

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Artist’s Residency, Week Three

I expected to write a lot at this residency. I’ve already had several breakthroughs on that front, including producing a new first chapter that I shared with the other artists here. They say it works. I think so, too.

What I didn’t expect from this experience — because I knew it would include many hours of alone time — was to meet such fascinating people. In three short weeks, they’ve affected how I think about my writing, how I see my work, and the importance of combining the two in a way that makes me happy.

Porch at the Hambidge Rock House, where we eat dinner.

Porch at the Hambidge Rock House, where we eat dinner.

I’m going to try to tell you about a few of them without invading their privacy, since Hambidge feels like one of those what-happens-here-stays-here kind of places.

One of my favorites is a writer from San Francisco, a 58-year-old, queer, Jewish, skinny guy with a mustache who I probably would not have picked from a line-up as someone I’d bond with. But he is a fabulous storyteller. The two of us explored a few of Hambidge’s trails a few days ago, and I knew that every time this man opened his mouth he would have something interesting to share about his early career as a glass-blower or years living in Jerusalem or time working in the publishing industry. It wasn’t until we had talked like this for a week and a half that another artist, during dinner, happened to ask him how many books he’s published. He answered modestly, “Umm, eight or nine. Yeah, I believe this will be my ninth.”

When I told this guy about my idea for my next book (I’m not ready yet to share the idea here), he literally stopped in his tracks. “You should be working on that now,” he said. That was the kind of support, the kind of fire I needed to get started on the project.

Then there’s a music composer from Tennessee who must study botany in his spare time. When we go hiking on the weekends, he identifies every flower and plant on the path.

“When I look out into this beautiful green scene,” I admitted to him last Sunday, as we walked to a trickle of a waterfall, “all I see are weeds.”

Last night after dinner, a writer from Montana (who seems to spend more time here writing awesome blue-grass music than her literary nonfiction piece) pulled out her guitar and sang for us some of her music. Then she strummed a few tunes we knew so we could all sing along. The composer slash botanist got a drum-beat going on a piece of Tupperware, and the Jewish storyteller made a racket on a fan with a fork. The rest of us played bowls from the kitchen.

And somehow, it made me a better writer this morning.

Writing in the woods: My artist residency begins

“You’ve got the cabin in the woods,” said the woman who showed me to my writer’s studio.

She wasn’t kidding. I had followed her in my car about half a mile away from the main Hambidge facilities to a small cottage surrounded by trees. This was where I would spend the next five weeks as an artist in residency, working on my travel memoir.

Son Studio, my writing space at The Hambidge Center

Son Studio, my writing space at The Hambidge Center

The loudest noise in my new workspace is the chorus of crickets outside. It is so perfectly quiet here. And I will never be interrupted. One of the few rules at The Hambidge Center is that no one is allowed to come to my studio unless I invite them (not that they could find it). I could write nude all day – hey, we all have our writing vices – and no one would know or care. This space is all mine.

Inside my writing studio.

Inside my writing studio.

The other rule is that fellows are required to eat dinner together Tuesday through Friday. I doubt this rule is ever broken. After spending all day by myself, I’m pretty much dying for some human interaction. And The Center provides a chef who cooks evening meal for us. Her all-vegetarian creations are magnificent, not to mention her tasty deserts like apple pie and orange-chocolate brownie. (I’m responsible for the rest of my meals.)

During these suppers, I’ve gotten to know the other seven residents here. Our ages range from 26 – 58, we hail from around the country, and we work in various disciplines. Four of us are writers — there’s a poet, two novelists and me. Then there’s a photographer, a potter and a musical composer. Each is staying for a different amount of time, so during my five weeks, some will leave and be replaced by new faces. They’re such smart, contentious people, each with their own take on the world.

So what do I do during the day? I write. Then I take a break to run or hike on Hambidge’s many trails. Then I write some more. Without the Internet in my studio, cell phone access, a television or even a radio, my distractions here are limited, and I’ve already gotten a lot done.

There’s something about being surrounded by nature that makes me feel incredibly creative. I’ve thought a lot about it during the last week, as I walked by myself through the woods, and I still don’t know how to explain it. But whatever that energy is, I’ll take it. I feel lucky to be here.

Off to Hambidge to write, write, write

Tomorrow begins my writer’s residency at The Hambidge Center!

I’ll be there for five weeks, returning to upstate New York in early October. My goal? To finish as much of my manuscript as possible.

I doubt I’ll complete it like I expected months ago, when I was accepted to Hambidge. I’m a bit behind schedule. (Doesn’t that happen with all big projects?) But if I’m super productive, I should come close.

I’ll start by writing the last eight or so chapters (about 80 pages), which I put aside for this residency. Then, provided I still have time, I’ll loop around to the start of the book to fill a few holes, including the first chapter. I also plan to tighten my theme, take a hard look at my story arc and cut scenes I really don’t need.

What can you expect from the blog this month?

I’m scaling back on blogging, partly because my Internet access will be limited, and partly because I want to focus on writing my book. I’ll post occasionally about my experience at the Center, hopefully with pictures. I’ve also got an awesome series of author Q&As planned, which will run on Mondays (except for next week, when it will post on Tuesday because of Labor Day). The Friday Writers’ Roundup won’t appear again until October.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be in the mountains of northern Georgia!

Supporting the writing habit

I’m not exactly racking in the dough writing this book full time. Hopefully I’ll make a little cash when it’s finally published, but for now my annual income is, well, nada.

This is the first time since graduate school that I don’t have a salary. For the last few years, I worked my dream job reporting for a daily newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, getting paid to write, ask questions and stick my nose where it otherwise might not belong.

I even managed to make some money last year as I backpacked through Africa, freelancing for several newspapers. (Read my favorite of those pieces: A story about why polygamy is declining in Cameroon.)

But now I’ve given up a paycheck to create a manuscript. How can I afford to do that? For one, I’ve got no one to support except myself: no hubby, no children, not even a pet to worry about. Secondly, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I moved back in with my parents (who are cool enough to have me). Without rent and all the bills that come along with an apartment, life is pretty cheap. And lastly, I saved money while working at the Chronicle that I can now fall back on.

I am working a part-time job, coaching a high school softball team, which helps cover expenses like health insurance and my new laptop. But as my savings dwindle and my parents solicit my help for chores like this weekend’s garage sale, increasingly I wonder: How do writers support themselves?

Some authors work full-time in non-writing jobs and write on the side. (Now that I understand how time-consuming it is to write a book, I’m super impressed by these people.) Others maintain writing as their first priority and make a living with a side career. And a few lucky and hard-working writers manage to support themselves solely off their word creations.

I still haven’t found the perfect solution. And so I ask you, writer readers of this blog: How do you fund your writing pursuits?