Scalzi the Blog Killer

Apparently over the weekend I went from occasionally griping about blogs to actually killing one off: Journalist Bill Peschel headlined his Saturday ‘blog entry “JOHN SCALZI KILLED OFF THIS BLOG” and then credited one of my commentaries on writing online as a tipping point in his decision to can his blog and use the time it had been filling up to concentrate on novels, short stories and other brands of pay copy.

The commentary in question was actually discussing online journals, and not ‘blogs, but the comments work tolerably well when applied to blogging. The point was that while writing online can be fun and a fine way to amuse one’s self harmlessly, in terms of actual writing craft, writing on one’s own Web’s site is good for one thing only: Writing on one’s own Web site. It’s mostly useless for learning how to write professionally — which is to say, learning how to produce pay copy that editors will buy. Not everyone who writes online in a journal or a blog wants to become a professional writer, which is perfectly fine; everyone needs a hobby. But those folks who actually want to graduate to getting paid for writing should spend time trying to sell their work and figuring out how to work with and for editors. Peschel has apparently taken this to heart.

I’ve never had contact with Peschel before (I found his site by tracking backwards through referrer logs, because I’m just that sort of person), and of course I’m mildly apprehensive about providing even a contributing factor to someone’s career aspirations. If everything in Peschel’s writing life goes to Hell from here on out, I hope he won’t crystallize in his mind that it’s my fault, track me to my home and start pounding on my front door with an axe. However, speaking in a broad sense, I approve of any writer making the effort to refine his or her craft, and choosing to take the more difficult route of offering up one’s work for editorial consideration. It’s difficult to put your babies on the chopping block, especially since most everything that gets put on the chopping block gets chopped. But it’s something that just has to get done.

I’ll go a step further and suggest that writing online can become a genuine crutch both for aspiring and established writers. Speaking as a professional writer, I enjoy writing online because it offers unmediated opportunities to communicate, and often what I write here simply isn’t going to find a market elsewhere; not too many editors are going to touch an essay on “Football With Jesus,” or a tutorial on how to write hate mail. And the feedback from writing online is immense relative to what you get offline. I wrote a weekly column in the Fresno Bee that got in front of 150,000 readers (not counting syndication) and I’d be lucky to get one or two letters. The “I Hate Your Politics” screed, with a tenth the readership, has generated 100 times the mail, plus several discussion threads online. Writers like mail and discussion threads, even when (or in my case, especially when) it’s just someone telling you you’re a complete idiot.

This freedom and immediate and active feedback is emotionally much more compelling than, say, shutting the door, writing an article, picking a market and then sending it off and waiting for weeks before receiving a single binary response to it (accepted/rejected). And it’s certainly more fun than spending a few hours coming up with query ideas to pitch to an editor who has to riffle through a couple hundred other query ideas from other writers that same week, many of whom had the same idea you did (yes, it happens, the bastards).

Writers are attention hogs, and the attention we get from writing online, even if it’s to a very small audience, fills up the ego pretty quickly. The problem is that nearly all writers it’s the emotional equivalent of empty calories — it’s ultimately not healthy for one’s career, and eventually even “successful” Web writers want the legitimacy of having other people pay for their work. Sooner or later, if a Web writer wants to make that happen, he or she has to curb the desire for instant feedback, lock the door, unplug the Internet connection, and just get to work.

(There’s also the procrastination angle, of course — these little sites are total time sucks, and that takes time away from paid work.)

Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four people who write primarily on their Web sites who I think should either quit or scale back in order to start focusing on writing in other avenues: Books, articles, novels, whatever. I know at least a couple of these people want to do it but are intimidated by the prospect of “real” writing, or simply like the level of attention they get too much to cut it back. It seems sort of silly to put it this way, but it’s a problem, and in a very real sense, their Web sites are holding them down. They’re like training wheels on your bike. Sooner or later you have to pull them off and ride on two wheels — and risk the crash.

(Yes, yes, the irony of writing on a personal Web site about the perils of personal Web sites. Look — I have two books coming out later this year, three regular magazine columns and a weekly newspaper column, not to mention rich, creamy, sinful corporate work. The training wheels are off my bike, thanks. But of course even I still spend too much time doing this. I should be writing a chapter on Jupiter right now. Don’t tell my book editor.)

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know Bill Peschel at all. But I hope his decision turns out to be a good one for him; I read the first couple of chapters of his novel in progress (P is For Space — think Have Space Suit, Will Travel with a middle-aged guy in the place of a teenage boy, and the Space Shuttle instead of a smelly ol’ space suit) and I’ll be ready to read more when it comes out in book form. Given the choice between having his blog up on my computer screen, or his book on my shelf, I know which I’d prefer to have. If in some small way what I’ve written manages to help that happen, I’ll be honored. I’ll also want 10%.

I Hate Your Politics Followup

I got lots of e-mail and read lots of fun commentary on the “I Hate Your Politics” column I wrote on Friday. The e-mail I’ll keep private, but the commentary threads are available for you to read on Plastic and MetaFilter. These conversations are pretty interesting, and feature some good put-downs as well as plaudits, but if what you’re looking for is pure balls-out lunacy, you really must check out the commentary thread about the article at the FreeRepublic site, which is a hangout for conservatives.

The folks there thought the article was amusing until they decided that I had to be a liberal (I was judged to have been less insulting to the liberals than to the conservatives), at which point they sharpened up their pointy little heads and did their best to poke me to death. The line-by-line exegesis of message #50 in the thread is by far my personal favorite. The author of that one starts off by labeling me a “socialist-communist”; since I read that as I was writing up one of my weekly personal finance newsletters, I thought that was pretty funny. I also find it interesting to note that FreeRepublic posted my entire column; conservative though the folks there may be, they apparently don’t know much about copyright or the limitations of “fair use.” Oh, well. To them, I’m only a liberal. It’s not like I deserve to have rights.

There’s no reason to respond to specific comments on any of these threads, or from the e-mail, but I’d like to chat about three common complaints folks had about the rant, since I think they touch on a couple larger issues (at least in terms of writing).

The first of these complaints is simply that I wrote the piece to get attention. As a writer, I never know what to make of this complaint. Of course I write to get attention; if I didn’t want attention for what I wrote, I would write it in a locked diary, shove it in a safe between entries and then demand the executors of my estate burn the journal after I died. I think it’s pretty self-evident that anything I post on a publicly accessible Web site is meant to be read by others.

Additionally, after I’m done writing, I’ll frequently drop an e-mail to a blog whose author might find the article interesting enough to link to. It’s nice when people link spontaneously (as happened in the case of Plastic and VodkaPundit), but sometimes I like to make the case for a link. In the case of the “Politics” piece, I dropped an e-mail to InstaPundit and Libertarian Samizdata. The latter linked; the former did not. When I write media-related pieces, I’ll frequently shoot an e-mail over Jim Romenesko. I don’t know if this sort of occasional self-promotion regarding blogs is the usual thing but clearly I don’t have an issue doing it. Blogs need links to comment on; I want to be read by readers. It seems a good arrangement.

Now, I didn’t write the piece just to get attention — i.e., wrote it only because I knew it would be an attention-grabber. Doing that never works anyway, since you never know what people are going to like or dislike. Fact is, I felt like ranting, I did it. It felt good, which has its own value. Inasmuch people link to my stuff of their own accord whether I solicit a link or not, it’s entirely conceivable no one would have bothered to link, and the thing would only have been seen by those who generally stop by the site on a day-to-day basis. That would have been just fine. I like people who visit on their own accord. But once the piece was done, sure, I let the appropriate folks know I’d written something their readerships might find interesting. In the world of online writing, that’s how you do it.

The second complaint I saw, primarily on the Plastic and MetaFilter boards, was that the rant didn’t say anything constructive about politics; it was just a litany of complaints. The idea here being that if you’re going to bitch about something, then you should offer an alternative. Otherwise, I guess, you’re just part of the problem.

I think this is a pretty stupid argument, myself. Not every piece of writing needs to be fair and balanced and nice and constructive and useful. Having everything fair and balanced and nice and constructive and useful is boring. People who demand everything is fair and balanced and nice and constructive and useful are boring. I wrote a rant; the purpose of a rant is to spew angrily for several paragraphs. We could have a sit-in here discussing the value of catharsis as a literary device, but since the idea of doing so fills me with an almost crushing sense of ennui, let’s not.

I don’t mind people reading the piece and saying “it’s not funny,” since funny is one of those subjective things, as amply evidenced by the continued persistence of Martin Lawrence’s career. Even saying “it’s not good,” is fine — you can’t make everyone happy all the time. But complaining that the piece isn’t fair or meaningful is really missing the point. You have to be spectacularly beef-witted not to realize that any piece of writing that starts with a declaration that the author hates your politics even though he doesn’t know what they are is going to be a generally unfair and unconstructive read. Let a rant be a rant, for God’s sake; there’s more than enough time for a seminar on political affiliations some other time.

The final complaint I want to comment on is the one that suggests that by venting about political affiliations, I was promoting the cause of political apathy — although in the Plastic thread, there were people who saw this as a positive and a negative, so I suppose that “complaint” might not be the most accurate word where.

Whatever it is, it’s incorrect. I don’t see how bitching about conservatives, liberals and libertarians equates with being politically apathetic. That’s like saying just because I think your car is a flaming piece of crap, I can’t have a set of wheels of my own. Anyone who crawls through this site will determine pretty quickly that I do have political beliefs, and since I make it a point to vote every chance I get, I feel perfectly justified in commenting on any damn thing I feel like, when it comes to politics.

I’m many things, to be sure, but politically apathetic is not one of them. Anyone who equates not identifying with the conservatives, liberals or libertarians as apathy should work on their math. In the meantime, of course, I’ll just keep voting. That’ll really piss ’em off.

A number of people were wondering what it was that set me off on the rant in the first place. The answer to this, I’m afraid, is wholly apolitical: A vomiting 3-year-old at 1:30 am, followed by a bout of insomnia. It’s enough to make anyone cranky, I suspect.