Wow, it’s really possible for a random tweet by a random person to go viral

Was just on Twitter for a sec and saw a mildly amusing tweet and retweeted it. And then I clicked on it and was like, “Whoah, 2.2k people have retweeted this? Who the heck wrote this?”

Then I clicked on that guy’s profile and saw that he only has about 450 followers. And he’s just a random guy in Great Britain. Like, correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like he has much social capital at all. In fact, reading his timeline was pretty amusing, because half his tweets from the last day are about him being amused, then bemused, then annoyed, then astonished that this one tweet of his is getting retweeted so many times.

I have no broader point about social media that I am trying to make here. Just something interesting. I’d always assumed that the people who create jokey viral retweets are folks like, I don’t know, Zach Galifanakis or Stephen Colbert. But not always.

Oh, here’s something interesting. Despite having so many RTs and favorites, the guy still only has 450 followers. Which makes sense. You might RT something funny, but you’re not going to follow the person who said it (unless you start seeing their name more and more).

Changed my blog’s theme

Rain-Birds-lIf I was doing this blog again, I probably wouldn’t do it on WordPress.com. I’d probably go ahead and use one of these much more flexible tools (that I only learned about last night) like Squarespace or Strikingly. However, as it currently stands I have about 500 readers who’re subscribed to my blog through WordPress’ internal reader system. And…I worked hard to get those readers. I don’t just want to abandon them. So I will stay at WordPress.com.

But this morning I decided to do something about the crowded look of my blog. Nowadays the trend in web design is towards lighter, cleaner looks. Whereas my old two-column style tried to fit way too much information into too small a space. So I went ahead and browsed WordPress.com’s premium themes and I bought one. And installed it. I have a huge black and white picture of a bird as my header. It has nothing to do with anything, but I like it.

Many of my fellow YA writers have these really striking, flashy pages that they hired someone to do. But I am torn about whether that’s the right thing for me. I feel as though my current web presence is simply, unpretentious, and content-rich. I’ve worked hard to build up Blotter Paper over the last five years, and part of the reason I’ve been able to keep up with it is because managing a site through WordPress.com (rather than hosting my own wordpress install, for instance) is simple enough that I can focus on actually writing posts.

But still, I don’t know. Maybe I do need something that looks a bit more profesh. I will ponder this question.

This is a test masquerading as a substantive post

For years I’ve been trying to figure out how to properly link my wordpress and twitter and tumblr and facebook accounts, and nothing has ever seemed quite right. But I was just talking on the phone with a friend, and he told me about this online service called IFTTT (If this, then that) which basically allows you to create all kinds of custom triggers that update all your content simultaneously and whatnot. So I set a bunch of stuff to update whenever I write a new blog post, and now I’m testing out. And that’s what this post is.

I get stressed about the self-promotion thing

acq7rzaziFrom what I can see, young adult writers tend to be extremely canny and energetic self-promoters–much more so than SF writers. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes: so much activity on the web and on social media and in terms of library visits and conferences and blog tours and book tours and all the other things. The amount of stuff that people do is pretty overwhelming. And many of these authors are people with children! I have no children and I don’t have a full-time job, so it feels like there’s no excuse for not doing everything under the sun.

And I know someone is going to chime in and say, “Oh, don’t drive yourself crazy. Just do what you’re comfortable with!”

But, umm, you don’t get points for doing less. Like, yeah, sure, writing the books is the most important thing. And there’s no percentage in putting so much time into self-promotion that you damage your health, productivity, and sanity.

But I also don’t want to be sitting around in three years and regretting all the time that I wasted because I was too lazy to wade in and endure some momentary discomfort and figure things out. Also, I’m comfortable with alot of self-promotion. I have no problem talking to strangers and generally foisting myself upon other people. The barrier here isn’t social anxiety; it’s just laziness. I keep thinking, well, whatever, I’ll sort it out soon enough.

I guess it could be worse. I do have this blog. And I’ve got a reasonable-enough presence on Twitter and Facebook. But those things are no help as to how to proceed, because I’ve been working on the blog for five years, and on my Twitter and Facebook presence for two years, and none of the three are particularly huge. And in each case it was very organic. I got blog readers one by one. I got Twitter followers one by one. And I suppose there’s some worth to that.

But I’m not sure how to move things along to the next stage, where I’m appealing reading crowds (even small crowds) of people.

Well, I’ll sort it out soon enough.

How to increase your blog traffic

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This month (January) has been my highest-ever month in terms of traffic! Since August, I’ve been hovering at around 2.2-2.7k visitors per month. But this month, I’ve had 5,063 (and that number is still increasing!)

Even before I wrote this post, this month was shaping up to be my best. But after that, traffic really spiked. I also got another boost when my sobriety post was featured on WordPress’ internal discovery portal.* It’s always surprising to me when the blog hits a new traffic milestone, because I’ve never really gotten my head around the idea that I have readers who I don’t know and have no relationship with.

I don’t expect next month to be nearly this good. Generally what happens with every new milestone is that it takes four or five months before monthly traffic works its way back up to the previous peak. And then we’re ready for the next spike!

Whenever a blog blows up, the author always says that they have no idea how it happened: everything was just word of mouth. I think that’s true to some extent, but I have to say that it really helps to know some wordy mouths. Before I became Facebook and Twitter friends with a bunch of SF writers and started participating in that online conversation, it was much harder for any of my posts to catch fire. And insinuating myself into the online SF conversation was not an organic process. It definitely felt like something of an insertion: there’s something unbearably presumptuous about commenting on a near-stranger’s blog or Facebook wall or replying to someone’s tweet.

Anyways, I am not saying that this blog has blown up, but it’s definitely not completely unknown. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I hope to someday reap the rewards of that. The thing about networking and publicity is that it’s not like writing. In order to get anywhere as a writer, you need to be excellent. But in terms of networking, even mediocre goes a long way. Most of my blog readers aren’t going to buy my books (and most of my book readers won’t read the blog), but there is somewhat of a synergistic effect there. Because of the (minor) amount of name recognition engendered by this blog, my books will get more notice and my stories will get more awards buzz. It’ll help, at least a little bit.

On a sidenote, I always feel  embarrassed whenever I am in the real world and one of my friends mentions my blog to a third person. ‘Blogger’ feels like such a shameful identity: it’s such a naked form of attention-seeking–you can’t pass it off as just a way that you communicate with your friends (like Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr), and you can’t spin it as some sort of entertainment (like a Youtube channel or a webcomic). Nope, you’re pretty much just saying that your thoughts about stuff are so valuable that strangers oughta read them.

*The number of hits that I got through this post wasn’t huge, but the number of comments was amazing. Even looking at them was exhausting. I have no idea how someone like Scalzi does it: replying to comments must be like a part-time job for him.

[Wrap-up 2013] This year, Blotter Paper got 2.5x as many pageviews, visitors as it did in 2012

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Unfortunately, Google Analytics was breaking the blog, so my statistics on this aren’t as good as I’d want them to be. Anyway, my impression was that the Blotter Paper’s growth wasn’t nearly as aggressive in 2013 as it was in previous years. But upon viewing the final stats, I see that I was wrong. In 2012, I got 2.8x as many pageviews as I did in 2011. In 2013, the year-to-date total is 2.45x what it was in 2011. My statistics on total visitors are less good (since WordPress didn’t start giving those to me until December of last year), but it’s looking like that has increased by a similar proportion as well. Right now, my monthly pageview count hovers between 4,000 and 5,000. And the blog gets between 2,100 and 2,800 monthly unique visitors. Since I don’t have Google Analytics, I have no idea who y’all are and where you came from, but I am pleased to have you.

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Not exactly taking the internet by storm, but I am happier to have more readers. It takes exactly as much effort to write for three readers as it does to write for three thousand readers (although I guess it is possible for a blog to reach a size where comment-moderation becomes a headache).

Anyway, the focus of the blog is too diffuse for it to ever become one of those really huge hit blogs (like Raptitude or Captain Awkward or something), but I would like to continue to grow and to eventually become (in my wildest dreams) one of the world’s more heavily-trafficked author blogs. Of course, that seems a lot more likely to happen if I ever actually publish a book.

This year has contained a number of blogging milestones. It was the first year where I started writing about more personal topics, like my recovery from alcoholism and my recent weight loss. And it was the first year to have a post catch on and attract a number of hits that was far in excess of what I normally get. And I also switched to posting every day.

Keeping this thing up is not easy. It’s definitely something I have to force myself to do. And, like most things in my life, it took an absurdly long time to get going. The blog is more than five years old and I’ve been posting in it at least three times a week for the past two years. But I also derive a lot of satisfaction from it. I’ve always wanted to be in a position where I could communicate my thoughts to a large number of people, and this seems like my easiest way of doing that. And the blog does provide me with concrete personal gain. It allows me to maintain friendships with less effort and to rekindle friendships with people I haven’t spoken to in years. It’s raised my profile in the literary world and it’s provided me with a few financial opportunities. It also gives me a chance to win arguments against people who aren’t present and able to argue back. So, all in all, it’s been pretty worthwhile.

My goal is to write the book that your kid has to read in 8th grade English

This funny-looking dude wrote several books that children are forced to read
This funny-looking dude wrote several books that children are forced to read

Everyone wants to become a better writer. But it’s a little gauche to say that you want to become a great writer. It’s an admission that puts too much on the record. Becoming a better writer is a task at which it’s almost impossible to fail. Becoming a great writer is a task at which it’s almost impossible to succeed.

But when I was at an impressionable age, I was struck by the passage in Samuel Delany’s About Writing where he goes on for about a page and a half listing various writers (half of whom I’d never heard of) and then says:

When you have read widely among these indubitably good writers, you must make an average image for yourself of their inarguably talented work–and realize that is what your own work must be better than. And you must realize as well, one way or another, that is what they are all (or were all)–living and dead–doing.

That, to me, seems exactly right. It’s why I don’t make distinctions like so-and-so is a better writer than so-and-so. For me, there’s one distinction. You’re either doing something worthwhile or interesting, and you’re not.

And I place the bar for “worthwhile and interesting” fairly high. The other day, my book club was talking about what book they wanted to read, and they suggested reading the latest Booker Prize winner. And I said that merely winning the Booker is not enough to make me interested in the book–it also needs either the personal recommendation of a friend (The White Tiger) or such an accretion of literary reputation that it rises above the average Booker winner (e.g. Wolf Hall or Midnight’s Children). And they looked at me like I was saying something snobbish, but, honestly, that’s true for everyone, isn’t it? Who reads all the Pulitzer winners? Who reads all the Booker winners? Who reads all the Nobel laureates? Even many extremely well-known and successful and talented writers feel, to me, like they’re not really doing something worthwhile.

To me, that’s where the bar has to be. And that’s how I can simultaneously think that I am a fairly good writer, but also not good enough.

However, what makes this uncomfortable is that I know many, many writers who produce objectively better work than me, even though their goal is not to be great. And even those writers are pretty far from being great. But if one of them said that their goal was to be great, it’d be very reasonable and respectable. Coming from me, it’s less so.

Nonetheless, the secret history of the last four years of my life is that of a conscious effort to do the things that I think will lead to the production of worthwhile and interesting work. If you knew me all through high school and college, you know that I never read anything particularly high-brow. And now I’m reading The Magic Mountain and shit? What’s that about?

The truth is that I made a conscious effort to broaden my tastes: I realized that if I was really going to be a writer, then I couldn’t just nod along when someone talked about Tolstoy or Proust. Four years ago, I hadn’t read anything. I mean, forget about Proust, I’d never read Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens or Hemingway or Faulkner. I’d read basically nothing aside from science fiction / fantasy, some F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a few literary non-realists (Marquez, Calvino, Kafka, and Borges). So I bought Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and went through, checking off each of the great books in turn. I’m less wedded to that particular tome, but I still have vast sections of the canon that I intend to someday get to.

And then there’s everything else: the elaborate productivity systems, the leaving my job at the World Bank, the traveling back and forth across the country, the increasing attempts to try and become better socialized. I won’t say it’s all some master plan, but there is a connection here that I don’t like to talk about.

The reason I am bringing all this up right now is that I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog. Last year, I opened it up and started talking about more personal topics. The results have, I think, been good, but there was something of a loss of focus–previously, it’d mostly been about writing and books. For the last day or two, I’ve been trying to think about what ties it all together, and I realized that’s what it was. The blog isn’t just about someone who’s trying to become a better writer…it’s about someone who’s doing everything and aiming as high as possible.

What you’re reading is the account of my attempt to become the kind of writer who’s capable of writing a certain sort of book. Not a high classic like To The Lighthouse or Madame Bovary, but something that manages a slithery, low-down, democratic sort of greatness: a Fahrenheit 451 or a To Kill A Mockingbird–the sort of book that’s warm and lovely and true. The kind of book that parents give to their twelve-year-old children. I have no idea how someone goes about writing a book like that. But I figure that if I do everything I can think of, eventually something will happen.

Getting way too much comment spam, so I made a few changes

From now on, comments will be closed on article older than 14 days and all comments by people who’ve never commented before will be held for moderation. It’s weird, for five years WordPress’ comment system flagged almost all the spam that I got. Maybe one or two spam comments slipped through every month. But now stuff gets through all the time (although maybe 95% of it still gets successfully flagged). I don’t know. Perhaps the sheer volume of spam comments has simply gone up. In any case, it’s odd to realize that spam is still a think. Gmail is so successful at flagging spam that in my personal inbox that I’d forgotten how ubiquitous and overwhelming it can be.

Recent appearances by ME elsewhere on the internet

My MFA application story, “A House, Drifting Sideways” was just published by GigaNotoSaurus. So if you’ve ever wondered what it takes to get into Hopkins and NC State, just drift over there and see for yourself. Actually, you can’t see–you’ll never see–because what was published was a significantly revised version of what I sent in to MFA programs. I owe many thanks to Ann Leckie for giving me a rewrite request. The open word limits of her magazine gave me the room I needed to give the story a proper ending.

Fellow Bay Area SF writer, Amy Sundberg has recently been mining me for some good blog posts. She wrote a few weeks ago about my practice of disposing of books that I no longer read (and let me tell you, that was a real tempest in a teapot!) and then she wrote a later blog post about one of my many pearls of wisdom.

Finally, I was asked to contribute a post to author Emily Anderson’s blog for National Short Story Month. And I did. I think it’s a preeeetty good one. I wrote about how short stories need that extra thing in order to succeed. I always thought that the “extra thing” requirement was common knowledge, but I think that most people don’t know about it, because whenever I mention it (usually in a very complimentary way, i.e. “This story really has that extra thing!), I get these blank looks.

 

God. Word Clouds are _so_ 2005.
God. Word Clouds are _so_ 2005.