May. 22, 2009

The Way We Write Now: Novelists and Their Blogs

I once heard John Updike say in an interview that he could not imagine a day going by in which he did not produce “text.” The word jumps out of the sentence — “text,” so like the “content” the web feeds on. Updike was frighteningly prolific. Like the great Victorians, he seemed to pour out words: thirty novels, plus countless poems, essays, reviews and, best of all, short stories. Had he been born later, he would have been a natural blogger. He would never have been so enthralled by the magic of seeing his words printed on dead trees.

I’m no Updike. I can easily imagine a day in which I produce no text. Happens all the time. The enemy of the possible is the perfect, and, alas, often the enemy of writing is perfectionism. Managing my perfectionism is probably my biggest struggle as a writer. But blogging demands constant output — content. So how will blogging affect my day job, writing novels?

I have always avoided writing for the web because I was afraid it would suck away some of the creative energy I need for my novels. Novel-writing is grueling. It demands long periods of quiet and concentration. The web, an endless stream of flashing, hyperlinked calls for your attention, is lethal to that sort of sustained focus. It is a stimulation machine. The novelist Neal Stephenson shut himself off from the web entirely because, he said (via), “I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don’t wish to retire at this time.” I have always felt the same way.

But, after The Crash in publishing, midlist (or downlist) writers like me simply cannot afford to ignore the web. Toxic as it is to book-writing, the web is essential to book-selling.

And we writers simply have to become better marketers. We cannot just leave it to publishers to sell our books anymore. They don’t know how. I recently asked my agent, What would be a realistic sales goal for my upcoming third novel? Fifty thousand copies? “The question is naive,” she answered, “because nobody has any way of knowing how many it will sell.” In no other business would it be naive to think about how many widgets you might actually sell when you try to figure out whether it is profitable to produce them. But that is the industry wisdom. So we writers have to turn to the web as a way to circumvent the publisher-bookstore complex and market directly to our readers — that is, if we can find our readers.

Or maybe it is better to say, if our readers can find us in the vast, raucous environment of the internet. It is a long, hard job to make yourself visible on the web, to find your audience. The bloggers who do it best, like two of my favorites, Andrew Sullivan and Sarah Weinman, have been at it a very long time.

But we novelists can do it, too, I hope. As business writers like Seth Godin have proved, authors can learn to pitch their own books cheaply and effectively. What choice do we have? A lucky few will be buoyed up to the surface by huge marketing campaigns by their publishers. Most won’t. We writers are all independent booksellers now. So increasingly, sometimes reluctantly, we establish ourselves on the web with blogs like this one.

I do not mean to turn this into a blog about blogging, but I suspect I will have more to say on the subject in the future. For now, suffice it to say that blogging and novel-writing are uneasy partners. I’ll post here as often as I can without it interfering with writing my novels. Like Neal Stephenson, I don’t wish to retire as a novelist at this time.

Setting my fears aside for a moment, I wonder if blogging will actually help my novel-writing by teaching me to write fast, without self-editing. It may just loosen my fingers. Imagine, loose fingers! You keep yours crossed for me. I’ll use mine for typing.

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