I wish someone had warned me that some people would automatically assume I’m an authority on the craft of writing just because I’ve written a book. Several people have shoved manuscripts into my hands and asked for my advice. I’m not qualified to talk about writing. I’ve written exactly one book. I’ve never taken a creative writing class. The last time anyone ran a red pen through what I had written was in college. The only book I ever read about being a writer was Stephen King’s excellent On Writing. If you dropped me into an MFA program I’d probably freak. No, you won’t read me waxing philosophically about the joys and pains of writerdom. There are authors with far more experience and books under their belts that can do a much better job than I. What I can discuss with a smidgen of authority, however, is that writing a book is quite different from writing a blog.
A blog is defined by the hive mind over at Wikipedia as “a website usually maintained by an individual, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse chronological order.” I have to admit, however, that the definition Urban Dictionary cooked up is often more apropos. “A meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life. Consists of such riveting entries as ‘homework sucks’ and ‘I slept until noon today’.”
But whatever topic a blogger wishes to discuss, whether stories about retail hell, trivial everyday occurrences, or exhibitionistic tales about one’s love life, the key to attracting readers is to regularly update one’s site. Some über bloggers will throw ten or twenty posts up on their website every hour. Most online diarists thankfully content themselves with updating only once or twice a day. I’m an anomaly in the blogging world. Over the past four and a half years I’ve written 450 short stories about life in and outside of the restaurant business. That works out to one post every three and a half days — a snail’s pace in the blogsphere. Despite that low output, however, I’ve been very fortunate to have a legion of faithful, some would say fanatical, readers that click over every day, hoping to find a new post. I am very grateful to them. I am also very grateful to blogging.
You see, blogging forced me to write. I had a fan base demanding updates so I tried my best to post at least twice a week. This kind of expectation from the readers forced me to sit down and bang away at my keyboard even when I didn’t want to. And, like anything else, you always get better at something the more you practice it. (I hope!) Blogging also satisfied my instant gratification jones. I would take an hour or so to write something, post it, and within minutes people would start leaving feedback in the comment section. Eighty percent of the time, the feedback would be favorable — but the other 20% would make your hair curl. Lovely comments like, “You’re a loser,” or “Your writing’s execrable,” and “You’re a waste of oxygen” helped to toughen me up. While I hope my book gets favorable reviews from mainstream media, I doubt professional book reviewers will employ such abusive language if they don’t like it. The process is similar to my previous experience working in a psychiatric hospital and how it prepared me for waiting tables. No matter how bad a crazed customer got, no matter how abusive the chef, at least no one was throwing the contents of their bedpan at me.
The comments I received also helped me in two very important ways. First off, there were times that I worried that my blog was indeed a “meandering” effort to justify a “stupid, pathetic life.” We all get down on ourselves from time to time. I’m no exception. But when millions of people visit your website every year and thousands of people tell you they like your writing, well, that’s a great confidence builder. Secondly, I received many comments and emails from readers who would offer constructive criticism, tell me when I had spelled something wrong, chide me when I had written something lame, and encourage me to dream and work harder. For that I’ll always be grateful.
But I discovered early that blogging is nothing like writing a book. Writing a blog is like being the head guru in a commune of hippies. Writing a book, however, is like being a hermit in the desert. It’s an isolating experience. And when you’re an instant gratification junkie like me, losing the instantaneous feedback I had gotten used to while blogging was the hardest thing to deal with. Instead of writing something in an hour and putting it up for worldwide consumption, I was toiling at the keyboard for hours a day to satisfy an audience of one — my editor. My editor didn’t get daily updates on what I had written and, while her periodic feedback was insightful and invaluable, the paucity of feedback compared to what I had gotten online caused me to go into approval withdrawal. “What happens if my editor doesn’t like what I’ve been writing the past three months?” I wondered during one particularly crazed detox period. “What happens if she discovers I’ve been unconsciously typing ‘All work and no play make jack a dull boy,’ ten thousand times?”
It was within this crucible that I began to understand why the protagonist suffering from writer’s block in Stephen King’s The Shining transformed into a Shelly Duvall-chasing, hallucinating, axe wielding psycho. Writing a book is hard work. The longest it ever took me to write a blog post was five hours. A book takes months. The job never seems to end and what I was writing often threatened to morph into gibberish. Whenever I did something other than writing, like go to the movies, I suffered from feelings of guilt. Listening as it hummed with malevolent energy, I began to suspect my computer was possessed by evil sprits poised to taunt me every time I took a break. Quite simply, blogging didn’t prepare me for the emotional ferocity of writing a book. It didn’t prepare me for the claustrophobia and fear, the exhausting concentration coupled with tedium, and the isolation compounded by occasionally crying like a little girl. (How embarrassing!) Psychologically speaking, writing a book is like getting into a knife fight with yourself in a phone booth.
I also discovered another truism — you can’t write a book and maintain a blog at the same time. If you try, one or the other is going to suffer — usually both. That was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. When I started my book I used the mornings to write about being a waiter, worked nights as a server in a restaurant, then spent the wee hours blogging about what happened during my shift. That would drive anybody nuts. Eventually, I got so sick and tired of writing about restaurants, that whenever my roommate would flip the channel over to the Food Network, I had to resist the compulsion to shut off the television with a .45 caliber remote control. Since I didn’t want to go to jail and pay for a new television set, I came to the conclusion that something had to give. So I cut back writing on my blog. It was a painful but necessary decision. I love my blog. I love writing for that immediate worldwide audience. But, deep down, I knew I had to temporarily turn my back on the very thing that gave me the opportunity to write Waiter Rant in the first place. Now that the book is completed I hope to return to blogging on a more regular basis. While the marketing wags will tell you that maintaining an online presence is vital, it’s also important never to forget the online readers who helped get you noticed in the first place.
Several days ago the UPS guy delivered 50 copies of my book to my house. When I opened the box and saw the hard cover copies for the first time, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Now I’m the second person in my family to write a book. My father penned a murder mystery titled Rude Promenade a short while ago. Now my book can go next to his on the bookshelf. (Proud of you Dad! Now I’m waiting for your next book!) For me, writing my book was an amazing experience that pushed my limits and showed me what I was capable of. And while blogging is a very different animal, I’ll always keep doing it. Writing for an instant internet audience is a laboratory of sorts. You can write humor one day, tragedy the next, and get some real world opinions on what works and what doesn’t. It’ll be good homework for me as I try and write my second book.
I know what you’re thinking. I said I wouldn’t wax philosophical about writing but I did.
Must be an occupational hazard.
This entry originally appeared as a guest blog post at Powells.com.