Would Jane Austen Write A Blog? (and other things writers probably shouldn't do)

Twitter, NaNoWriMo and blogging are activities writers now take for granted. But spin back two decades and blogging would have been easily confused with something people did behind the steamy windshields of cars. It's hard to imagine how we spent our time in the dark days before Wordpress; it's even harder to work out whether the time and effort spent on some of the activities we take for granted is justified. In the spirit of 'what would Jesus have done?' I'm going to pierce this fog of confusion by using three authors as a prism through which the torch of truth may be concentrated.

Would Jane Austen write a blog?

Given that the internet became conscious around 1990, it’s surprising that it took a good four years for people to recognize its potential as a vehicle for telling the world about every single thing they ever did. Archaeologists date the earliest blogs to around 1994, but from these one or two, the number has expanded at the rate of bacteria on a discarded pizza box to the extent that there are now ten times more blogs than there are different species on the planet.

There are now ten times more blogs than there are different species on the planet.

Given that those figures suggest that your chances of distinguishing your blog from all the other blogs on the planet is about as great as my distinguishing two dust particles from the big heap under my bed, is blogging a good way to spend your precious time? It’s notable that famous authors alive today do not blog very much - perhaps they are too busy writing books - but writers of the past have indulged in the pastime of recording their daily life and one of these was (of course) Jane Austen. In the course of her quite short life, Austen wrote an estimated 3,000 letters, mostly to her sister Cassandra, but also to her niece Fanny Knight and other members of her family. Austen describes her day to day activities, passes observations on the local milieu and offers (probably unwanted) advice on love: pretty much exactly what you would expect from the average romance author. Combine them, chuck in a few comments in the form of the replies from her correspondents et voila! You have, in effect, a blog.

But would Austen blog today? Let’s remember that back in 1800 Austen had no other way to communicate with her nearest and dearest. Now she would have email and text at her disposal, and given the personal nature of the material and the fact she never showed the slightest interest in becoming the female version of Samuel Pepys, it seems to me she would have kept her views private.

What does that tell us? Blogging is a public activity. Whether it’s about food, shoes or the best way to breed Persian cats, blogging is an exercise in ‘listen to me’. And even though it’s tempting to believe that because everyone else does it, that means we should do it too, blogging is only worthwhile if you have something to say that justifies the activity in itself. If you blog out of a sense of duty, or because you think it’s going to sell your books, or because it makes you feel like you’re writing even though you’re not really, then stop right now. Austen didn’t write her letters for any of those reasons. None of them justify the effort of blogging. But if you do have something unique to impart, whether it’s about the beauty of your big toe or the exact way to capture a sunset with an SLR camera, then blog like the wind mon brave.

Would Oscar Wilde tweet?

On March 21 2006, the first ever tweet hit the airwaves. Twitter has grown a bit since Jack Dorsey first told the world he was ‘just setting up my twttr’. If today is an average day on Twitter, by the end of it, 340 million examples of 140 character wisdom will have been launched into the world. Twitter has overtaken the public consciousness as a method of communication and it’s now commonplace to speak of massive followings as if these were synonymous with IQ points, or charisma ratings, or of one’s ability to run a small country.

Along with a Facebook account and a blog (see above), a Twitter account is generally considered to be part of an author’s basic self-promotional toolkit. But before you spend hours creating tiny, perfect bon mots, the way Japanese master carvers chisel pandas out of toothpicks, it’s worth asking if the premium wits of the 20th century would have gone to a similar effort.

It’s now commonplace to speak of massive followings as if these were synonymous with IQ points

Oscar Wilde is the case in point. Wilde belongs to a small but select group of writers who are more famous for their quips than their prose. Gore Vidal and Dorothy Parker also belong to this coterie (what a shame they weren’t all contemporaries – imagine the parties!). Wilde spent his productive life shaping mediocre fiction (with the honorable exception of The Importance of Being Earnest) in-between constructing remarks so memorable we all…er…remember them. A lot.

Here are some Wildisms: ‘The pure and simple truth is never pure and rarely simple’. ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken’. ‘You can never be overdressed or overeducated’. And so on. You can bet your best silk underwear that if Wilde tweeted today, he would have a following which included the populations of other worlds and more retweets than there are carbon atoms in the universe. He would rule Twitter.

But does that mean you should try and do the same? Probably not. Or at least not with the expectation of doing any more than having a moderately good time. Twitter doesn’t sell books. It’s a communication stream. Even if you spend the weeks and months and years required to build up that big following and have them hanging on your every tweet, unless your book is a work of genius (and how can it be since you’ve spent all your time on Twitter?), your eager followers will not only announce news of its release to the world, they will just as swiftly tell the world about its crapness.

You think I’m kidding? Last year, Pippa Middleton (sister of Kate who married Prince William and is therefore in PR terms as sellable as Brad Pitt buck naked) was given a £400,000 advance for her book on party planning. Pippa then spent months and months writing and perfecting Celebrate, which was then launched on the world with a massive publicity campaign. Pippa’s PR crew then expected the Twittosphere to obediently trumpet news of this to the far corners of the globe (note to self: can a globe have corners?). And the Twittoverse did. Except not in the way Pippa’s cloud of assorted biting flies hoped. Pippa’s book was an epic of mediocre advice, containing such gems of wisdom as ‘Flowers are a traditional Valentine's token,’ goading Tweeters to set up a spoof account to which those conned out of their money offer Pippa Tips of similar uselessness: ‘Many of you have asked me for tips for a hangover, for which you should simply drink lots of alcohol the night before’, ‘Fashionable or stylish clothes are a great way of dressing nicely.’

Oh dear. The moral is, unless you are Oscar Wilde, or are totally confident you have just produced War and Peace, treat Twitter with the caution you would reserve for an easily angered rattlesnake.

Would Charles Dickens join NaNoWriMo?

November is the month of moustaches. November is the month of peanut butter.

For writers, November is important for another reason. November is the month of NaNoWriMo. Hard drives are filling up with words the way yards fill with fallen leaves. According to the official website (when I checked), 1,350,412,330 of them, and we’re not even halfway through. If you could harness all that effort, all the energy expended pressing keys and firing up neurons, it could send hamsters to the moon.

Writing a novel in a month may seem like an impossible task, but plenty of well known writers have form for producing what are now regarded as classics on tight deadlines. The case in point here is Dickens, who wrote all his novels as serializations, from Sketches by Boz to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to be published in installments, and bought by the reader for a shilling a pop. Most of Dickens' novels were delivered in monthly doses, but some (A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations) were weekly page turners.

So you could do it too – right? If Dickens could churn out a chapter of a literary blockbuster in the space of a few days, you could write a bestseller in four weeks, or so the argument runs. Except the books we read now aren’t the ones Dickens wrote. The full length versions were edited - plot holes and inconsistencies were inevitable because of the way Dickens worked – but even so some oddities slipped through (for example the scene in Oliver Twist where Fagin unexpectedly appears at a window then melts away without explanation). Dickens also had the opportunity, which he frequently used, to change his plots according to feedback. Nano-writers can edit (although if you’re trying to bang out 2000 words a day, it’s hard to see how you’d find the time), but working in decent crits simultaneously just isn’t going to work.

If Dickens isn’t the best comparison, there are other authors who shot out novels with the regularity with which Michelle Duggar produces babies, and not all of them are grim content farm factories posing as real people. Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist, wrote 722 books over a lifetime at the typewriter (although some claim she actually dictated her books to her secretary), and holds the world record for the greatest number of books published in a single year, which at 23, means that the redoubtable Ms Cartland did NaNoWriMo twice over for every single month of the year.

There you have it. NaNoWriMo can be done. If you want to write stuff like The Unpredictable Bride or The Coin of Love, then I seriously advise you crack your knuckles and add to the pile of leaves. If not, bear in mind that Donna Tartt took ten years to produce The Little Friend and Don DeLillo six to write Underworld. Sometimes (usually) quality takes longer than a month.

Photo from 'Becoming Jane.'

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ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig November 16, 2012 - 2:48pm

Ah but a first draft is just that. Not even the people behind NaNo are sending the message that you will have a good, polished novel in a month. They are sending the message that MANY writers need to let go and allow themselves to produce a first draft--then work the kinks out later. In fact, Water for Elephants was a NaNo novel and when they featured the author on the site they spent a fair amount of time discussing the long period of prep work she did before NaNo, and the long period of editing and tweaking she did after NaNo.

Further--we can talk about Jane Austen, Dickens, or even Hemingway, but that gives no real insight into what authors should do now. The world was a different place and people expected different things from authors then. I doubt Hemingway or Austen were asked what their "platform" was, and if they were, it surely didn't mean what it means now.

I think with all things--NaNo, blogging, social networking--priorities, balance, and realistic expectations are the important things. 

Joan Defers's picture
Joan Defers from United States November 16, 2012 - 3:15pm

About Cartland: one of the "some" who say she dictated books was Cartland herself. I have an interview around here somewhere, where she talks about it.

I doubt she started that way, but she absolutely dictated to a secretary after a certain point. She wasn't hiding it.

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter November 16, 2012 - 3:36pm

I think people can do what they want, and should. I've been told as a writer, a novelist, that I should keep a blog and keep it up. I hate it, I have very little interest in it at all. I kinda feel that a writer should be writing and blogger should be blogging. they're not the same thing, there is a difference.

I follow a few, good ones, full of informative stuff about publishing and what not, and those bloggers are very good at it and engage the readers. I don't care about your daily commute, the cute shit your kid does, so I don't get far on those.

Keeping a blog is not for me. I try, but get very little out of it, simply because I'm not a blogger. I don't care and therefore, not good at it.

I was watching a movie recently, can't remember the one, but a line struck me as funny between Elliot Gould and Jude Law, Judes ' character had professed to be being a writer. Gould characters response was, "you're nota writer, blogging is not writing, it's graffiti with punctuation."

I laughed my ass off.

I have nothing against blogs, blogging or bloggers, just not my preferred medium of expression.

DaveShepherd's picture
DaveShepherd from Calgary is reading No Country for Old Men November 16, 2012 - 3:48pm

Would any of the writers mentioned have careers today?

Neil Gaiman blogs.

A ton of successful authors tweet. 

Stephen King writes (or at least used to) 2000 words a day -- assuming he works everyday in November, he puts out the first draft of a NaNoWriMo novel at 60 000 words.

Whether blogs/tweets sell books is debatable. Personally, if I enjoy someone's writing -- I'll check out their blog/twitter, which means I'm more likely to purchase future books simply because I'll know about them. 

The best publicity is a good novel; but if you're only putting out one novel a year, that's a lot of downtime where someone who liked your novel could easily forget about it (as I did with the "Ashes" trilogy). A blog/twitter minimizes that loss, in my opinion.

FWIW -- I bought Rob Hart's "The Last Safe Place" because I read a tweet that sent me to a Litreactor column that sent me to Amazon...

(Edit: I say this all as a writer who has a difficult time keeping a blog.)

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast November 17, 2012 - 3:30am

About Cartland: one of the "some" who say she dictated books was Cartland herself. I have an interview around here somewhere, where she talks about it.

Oh that is interesting Joan - I didn't know that factoid was actually true!

Saving it for a future Blagger's Guide....

Rob Blair Young's picture
Rob Blair Young from Utah is reading Driven November 17, 2012 - 10:25am

For me, blogging and Twitter are about building a platform. The platform has to offer something substantial, and it's not a one-dimensional solution. You have to invest in the platform over time, but it then serves as a vehicle for your name. It becomes central to networking opportunities. While only a small percent of those you Tweet with or who visit your blog will actually respond (by buying, re-tweeting, etc.), that's still noteworthy. It's a lot more response than you'll get by just shouting at the internet at large.

In short: A platform is a megaphone. It doesn't mean you can ignore the content's message, but it does help the message spread.

I view NaNo differently. Plenty of published novels started as NaNos, but they went through substantial edits first. The important thing about November for me is it provides an opportunity to experiment. To write a novel I wouldn't otherwise write, and just let the work go in whatever direction it wants to go in. After all, whatever I start with on November 1st, I assume I'll probably trash the entire thing as soon as I've finished.

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster January 14, 2013 - 6:39pm

I look at NaNo as "practice." As in, the practice of writing... not like I'm practicing writing but I'm doing writing as practice.... oh dear.

Anyway, there are, I suppose, people who think that banging out a novel in 30 days and having it be publish-worthy at the end is likely. These people are sadly misguided and it's not at all what NaNo is about. It's about getting words on paper. I KNOW I'm not the only writer who struggles to get words on paper.