Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

 
Wizard Oil
  by Carol Pinchefsky
March 2006

Big on the Internet:
SF writers who blog

The word "blog" entered our lexicon with a vengeance: a techie buzz-word that appeared in 1999, the word "blog" was voted the most popular word in the year in 2004 [1]. This gave rise to the phrase, "Haven't you read my blog," seconded by, "You'd know what I was doing, if only you had read my blog."

Friends I have known for years began suggesting that, rather than have a conversation, I should first read their blog. This is the kind of logic that made Kafka famous.

Of course, this desire to turn people not into cockroaches but into mere eyeballs is understandable after reading an article in New York magazine [2]. According to author Clive Thompson, bloggers can sell advertising space for $10 per 1,000 views; one interviewee postulated that Gawker.com generates almost $2 million a year in revenue. Blogging -- web-based journal writing with regularly updated entries -- has become more than a simple method of mass communication, of updating friends and family (and strangers) as to your current news and state of mind. It's big business.

For the science fiction writer, the reasons to blog are perhaps a little more humble but no less important to those who do: it's a simple yet successful tool for writers to promote their work.

Author Robert Sawyer says, "[Blogging] lets me get word out in a timely fashion about new publications, public appearances, and so on. Many a time I've done a bookstore event in some distant city, and almost all the people who have shown up have come because of my online postings about the event rather than anything the store has done."

Other authors I interviewed concur -- but that's not the only reason why they blog. In fact the motives for blogging are as diverse as the blogs themselves.

Sawyer says he blogs, "because it motivates me -- having daily interaction with readers reminds me that there is an audience out there interested in what I'm doing."

"Daily interaction" for Sawyer means a commitment longer than some marriages: "It's widely held that I was the first SF writer to have a website; I've had one since June 1995, meaning I've been on the web longer than Amazon.comů. Even before that, though, I was keeping an online diary on CompuServe," he says. If Sawyer has written one post per day, he may have written thousands of entries.

Author John Scalzi began blogging "to stay sharp for writing columns; I had been a newspaper columnist in the early 90s and was hoping to be so again, so writing a column-like thing on a daily basis seemed like good practice."

Author and editor Keith R.A. DeCandido says "I started blogging because lots of other people were doing it, and it seemed like a cool thing to do." Author Syne Mitchell -- who does not blog but employs a newer technology, podcasting -- said she started listening to podcasts and found herself "sucked in" by the humorous and informative tone.

And author and editor Kathryn Cramer says, "I started the blog when I was home with an infant. It allowed me to communicate with my friends while existing in relative social isolation."

However, their reasons for blogging evolved along with their sites. DeCandido, who frequently caps his entries with a daily word count, says, "Lots of people have commented that they appreciate the insights into the life of a writer (not to mention the life of an editor) that I provide."

Cramer says, "After a year or so, I began to understand that by blogging, I was actually receiving a lot more info than I was putting out. By this point, I regard my blog as rather like my tongue. Sure I can use it to talk with, but more fundamentally it is a sensory organ." If blogs could talk, this one would shout. Go to Google, and type in the word "Kathryn." Cramer's website is the top hit. "Google loves me," she has said.

Although many writers blog about their experiences as writers and personal anecdotes, Cramer's website is subtitled "Overt Intelligence Operations & Wildcat Cartography," based on two of her preferred blog topics (more on that later). Mitchell's podcast is not based on her profession but her hobby: weaving.

Mitchell believes that science fiction and weaving are not incongruous passions. "A wonderful spinning instructor's advice on how to spin lace yarn was to pay very close attention to what you're doing and the way you do something effects the output. That applies exactly to science fiction writing." Mitchell is currently looking into podcasting to create audio versions of her books.

Although no hard data exists, science fiction writers, perhaps more than other writers, have taken to blogging. Sawyer says, "We SF writers, being techie types, were early adopters of computers, and of being online, back when those things weren't very user friendly." DeCandido furthers this line of thinking: "More to the point, SF fans tend to embrace [new technology]. The readers are likely to seek out their favorite writers' blogs."

Scalzi says that "genre" writers are more likely to blog than literary fiction writers. "I know quite a few crime writers, horror writers and romance writers who blog but not very many lit fic writers. I would suggest it might be because genre authors understand the value of communicating with their fans and readers more than lit fic authors do, and because genre authors also have a stronger sense of their own specific literary community -- and both of these can be addressed through blogging."

Sawyer suspects that blogging has become so easy for writers, even the least technically adept can blog. "Whatever head start SF writers had doesn't matter anymore -- and, of course, that's the way it should be; the web is the great leveler, making everyone equal."

As blogging takes very little time and money to produce, in essence, it's free advertising. But are the rewards simply increased book sales? Cory Doctorow, on the success of both his book sales and the revenue generated from his co-edited blog, BoingBoing, recently quit his day job as a spokesperson to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to devote himself to his writing. Are other SF writers getting a taste of these very real blogging dollars?

Scalzi is paid to blog, through a job with AOL Journals. Plus, his blog became material for his books. "I've written about a dozen books since 2000; most of those can be directly or indirectly traced back to [his site,] the Whatever." Mitchell says her weaving podcast may generate money through an arts grant. Cramer, on the other hand, has yet to see financial reward from her blog. But there is no doubt that her accomplishments are professional:

"I became the popularizer of using Google Earth and other digital cartography tools to assess damage following Hurricane Katrina. First, a group of us organized around my blog, determined that there were multiple serious levee breaks when the media were still referring to "the" break. Then we created and distributed instructions on how to check whether your house was under water. This got me in Forbes, the New York Times, on the BBC etc., etc," says Cramer.

Almost as important, Cramer "assembled a collaboration group for getting good map info and satellite imagery for use by NGOs in relief of the Pakistan Earthquake. This was the subject of my first scientific publication as part of the et al in Illah Nourbash et al in the 2/16 issue of Nature."

In terms of fiction, Cramer sold a short story about blogging to Nature magazine in 2005. "But more importantly, blogging gives me a whole different sense of what is possible out there in the world."

And as fiction writers know, not every world is perfect. William Gibson famously eschewed blogging [3] over the time it took away from his writing. Mitchell agrees. "The last couple of weeks have put a kink in my writing because I've been learning the new technology."

Cramer says, "The phrase 'pissing away your life on the Internet' has certainly been uttered in our household. Whether I'm blogging or not, the Internet is an ever-present attractive nuisance that can derail me from more concentrated work."

"I've seen people write massive, massive blogs that are read by practically no one," says Sawyer. "There's an illusion that if you're online, or if searching for your name on Google turns up a hit, that everybody is looking at what you're posting; in fact, that's rarely the reality. It's important to keep blogging in perspective. The trick is to find the balance."

DeCandido sums it up: "If it negatively affected [my writing], I wouldn't do it."

In fact, blogging seems to have the opposite effect on some writers. Rather than siphoning off creativity better used for fiction, blogging and podcasting inspires creativity. Mitchell says, "[Podcasting] has got me excited about life, about learning new technology, and connecting with people."

Scalzi also finds blogging a positive force for his fiction. "A blog allows me . . . to convert some of the folks who know me solely through my blog writing into readers of my book work. This is not insignificant to publishers; if I or any blogger comes into their offices with what amounts to a pre-installed base. Essentially, I've found that having the blog has made it easier to write for a living, not more difficult."

And yet despite their obviously positive aspects, yours truly seldom reads blogs. For me, it comes down to this: why read the blog of my friend when I can always call them (if they'll speak to me, that is)? Why read the writer's blog when I can read the writer's book? And when I've finished one book, there's always another to read.

I agree with Scalzi when he says, "There are a few SF writers out there whose blogs are nothing but me me me me me me me me, and not only is it boring to read, it's also off-putting. I break up my ego posts with other things that are of interest to me and hopefully to my readers." At its worst, blogging is an exercise in self-indulgence.

However, my research for this article has altered my perspective somewhat, because at it's best, I've learned that blogging can become rallying points for like-minded people, create inexpensive publicity, and in the case of Kathryn Cramer, provide a valuable contribution to society and bestow a credibility typically found only in Columbia University journalism graduates.

Still, not all writers blog, as John Ordover, writer and publisher of Phobos Books, can attest. He finds that blogging, while immensely fun, takes too much time away from his other writing work and from time spent with his family. "I don't know where the other writers get the time to do it," he says. "Perhaps they've found that missing 25th hour in the day."

For more information, see the blogs of my interviewees:
Kathryn Cramer (www.kathryncramer.com)
Keith R.A. DeCandido (kradical.livejournal.com)
Syne Mitchell (www.weavecast.com)
Robert Sawyer (www.sfwriter.com)
John Scalzi (www.scalzi.com/whatever)

References:
1. http://www.m-w.com/info/04words.htm

2. Thompson, Clive. "Blogs to Riches," New York magazine. Feb 20, 2006, pp. 26-35, 126.

3. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2003/04/25/william_gibson_gives_up_blogging


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