Wednesday, March 7, 2012

    Earplugs and a Donkey Named Clippity

    or What Readers Really Want Writers to Talk About on Their Blogs

    I just love this social media thang. 

    Last week, the talented sports pro (dressage) and writer, Debby Lush, contacted me via email to ask about a comment I made on writer KD Rush's blog. My comment was basically that I'm surprised so many writers keep blogs that seem to be intended for other writers, and not for current or potential readers.

    This is what I mean: Most of the blogs I see writers promoting via Twitter are filled with posts about the craft of writing, or the publishing industry, or other general ruminations on writing. There's nothing wrong with this. Unless, of course, writers hope to build a readership through keeping a blog. Then, they have a problem.

    Because here's the thing: The majority of readers are not aspiring writers. Readers are no more interested in the top ten rules for building suspense than football fans are interested in the top ten practice drills for improving a player's footwork. If you write stories that keep us up until 3 AM because we could not go to sleep without reading what happens next, then we're as happy as a Patriots fan after Brady throws a touchdown pass. But posts about how to keep us turning the page? Bo-ring.

    Readers are interested in the product, or in the specific experiences, thoughts, or beliefs that led to its creation.

    As a reader, I will read a writer's blog to gain insights into what makes her writing speak to me. Think of a different type of artist to whom you are drawn--a particular painter, or an elite athlete, or a culinary artisan. What would you want to know about him? You would want to know what makes his work or performance so beautiful, because in learning about what goes into his work, you will learn about yourself because his work speaks to you. You probably wouldn't want him to repackage the same sort of information you can get anywhere about his craft in general--cooking rules, how to paint with oil, how to train for the Olympics. I know I wouldn't.

    So, blogging writers, listen up! This is what we readers hope to find when browsing your blog or website. 

    Your writing. 
     This is particularly important if we haven't yet read your writing—Readers want a link right in the top navigation bar that will bring us to a short sample of what you believe to be your very best work. We'll start there, and if your words speak to us, we'll dig around the rest of the site.

    Your bio. 
     When we click on the “about” link, we're going to be ecstatic to find information about the books that you read and loved in childhood, young adulthood, and now. We will relish little stories about the first time you mustered up the courage to write for someone else, or how you started out by writing love letters to boys in elementary school. In other words, we want to know you as a writer. (Not your ideas about writing, but you.) We want an idea of how certain experiences shaped you into the writer that you are today.

    Your favorites. 
     We readers often decide to check out a new author's books after learning that we share a common love for a particular book, movie, or quote. We love it when authors divulge details about the specific titles or lines that they cherish. If the same piece speaks to both of us, then we're willing to guess that your writing will speak to us. You can list these in your About page, or better yet, write separate blog posts--about your favorite lines you've collected and saved from books over the years, your favorite books, your favorite authors, etc. When you write about them, share where you were when you read it, what it made you think about, how it changed you. These are the details that might win over a new reader.

    Your stories. 
     This is a really big one, and you could get countless blog posts out of it. Tell us about your stories! I wish blogging writers would write more posts about the worlds and characters they've created. Write a post about where you were when the first tiny little seed of an idea for a character or setting or scene crept into your mind. Tell me what you remember from that moment, the way the air smelled, what you were eating, whom you were with, how your skin pricked because you knew you had just met a new character whose story you had to tell.

    Your mind.  
    We'd love to read about what it's like living with these people and places in your head. I imagine every writer has a different experience, and we want to know about yours. Do you see the characters as real people who have, for whatever reason, taken up space in your mind and asked you to tell their story? If so, tell us about this—do you talk to your characters? What is the last conversation you had? Have you ever experienced something in your normal life and unexpectedly seen it through a character's eyes? If so, tell us! What were you doing, how did your character's perspective change what you took away from that moment? We want details! We relish in the details about your characters and your stories and how they come to you in the same way a teenage girl relishes in the details about her current crush's favorite band, color, t-shirt, etc.

    Your Zone.  
    Where do you write? What does it look like? What totems or pictures or quotes do you keep in your writing zone? Where did they come from, and how do they help you. We want the deets!

    Your reading habits. 
    We want to know what you're reading, and what you think about it. Post reviews of the books you read on your blog, or share a list of the latest titles you've bought and why you bought them. And, if you have a Goodreads or Shelfari account, make sure you populate your bookshelves with titles. Readers who are serious enough to be on Goodreads are not going to be interested in reading your work if we see that you don't really read much, yourself. We know that means your writing could probably use a lot of improvement. So, if you aren't interested in filling those shelves, don't join Goodreads, it will turn-off potential readers if we think that you aren't an active reader.

    In other words, let us into your world.  
    Your mind. readers want your website to tell us a story about you and what you've created. We want to feel like we know you. And you want us to feel like, if given the chance, we would jump at the opportunity to chat with you over a cup of tea. Because as a reader, that's what we do—we spend hours with you, reading your words, seeing a slice of the world through your eyes. A website is the perfect place to start that conversation, if only more authors would let us in!

    There are some great books about writers that do these very things. 
    How I Write, The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe, is a beautiful collection of anecdotes and photos from published writers and the details that fill their worlds.  In it, author Nicholson Baker shares about his reliance on earplugs to get to work. Writer Lionel Shriver shares a picture of a strange little donkey figurine named Clippity, who sits on her desk to remind her to "eschew fancy-schmancy character names groaning from overloads of symbolism, and to sometimes prefer the obvious." Earplugs and a donkey named Clippity. These are the details we readers relish.

    Or, there's Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It's a guide to writing, so she wrote it to appeal to writers. But the thing about it is that I wanted to read her work after reading this book because she shared so many little insights into what she puts into her stories, that I finished the book absolutely certain that I would love her writing. 

    This is in stark contrast to a blog post that lists out rules for writers without divulging any information about the person who actually wrote the post. Or worse, a blog post about the publishing industry in general. Readers just aren't interested in any of that. If readers are reading writers' blogs, it's to find writers who leave a part of themselves on the page. Do that in your blog, and we'll have faith that you do that in your books. And then you've just won yourself a new reader.

    So, writers, there you have it. If you're blogging to develop a readership, consider sharing a bit of yourself in your posts. What are your earplugs? Who is your donkey named Clippity? 
    And, if you don't share these things on your blog, what's holding you back?
    And, fellow readers--What things do YOU wish writers would share on their blogs?

    Your readers are waiting. Won't you let us in?


    Emma said...

    This is great Lori. I've gone back to my About Me page today to include some of my favourite books and authors.

    Melissa Craig Erotic Author said...

    I like this post. It's good to know. If you want to listen to some more about my writing and the characters etc I co -host on a podcast the Melissa Craig & Charity Parkerson show on iTunes. We are both authors and we discuss the things you say you would like to hear. Beware though we are Erotica Writers so it will have explicit content throughout.

    Lori Oster said...

    Thank you for stopping by, Emma and Melissa!

    Emma--I love your blog. You share so much about reading that really appeals to readers, especially your excellent book reviews!

    Melissa--Ooh, a podcast? Sounds great! I will definitely check it out.

    And of course, thanks for writing, ladies!

    Emma said...

    Aw thanks Lori!

    Julia Tomiak said...

    I might have to add a new page to my blog that addresses some of the items you listed! Or, at the very least, I'll expand the "About Me". Thanks for giving me great ideas for future blog posts...

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