As some writers may have experienced last month during challenges like NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo, writing and blogging daily takes discipline. Consider Alec Nevala-Lee, who publishes five hundred words each day across a wide range of topics, from art to writing to popular culture. As a longtime reader of Alec’s blog, I’m inspired by his daily habit and his practical approach to the craft.
Here, we chat about writing, blogging, and building a lasting home on WordPress.com.
In your inaugural post five years ago, you said your blog would focus on the process of writing, the novel, as well as art and culture. It’s great to see you’ve not strayed from this. Has this approach to your blog been successful? How has it — and how have you — evolved along the way?
It’s funny to admit this now, after I’ve been blogging on a daily basis for more than five years, but I made the decision to focus on the writing process ten minutes before I published my first post. I’d set up the site quickly, to promote the novel that was ultimately released as The Icon Thief, and it wasn’t until I was ready to launch that I happened to read a list of tips, one of which advised bloggers to concentrate on a particular subject.
Until then, I hadn’t really considered what the blog would be about, and I chose writing as my central theme because it was the only topic I could envision discussing for any length of time without repeating myself. And I don’t think this blog would have done nearly as well — in terms of finding an audience or consistently generating fresh material — if I didn’t have that thread to follow.
It’s also revealing that my introductory post doesn’t mention the issue of creativity, which emerged as a crucial aspect of this blog, mostly because the problem of coming up with new ideas is one I’ve had to confront every day. I’ve often said that every work of art is secretly about the process of its own creation, and that’s manifestly true in this case.
As an author, what have been the benefits of maintaining a blog?
To be honest, as far as purely commercial benefits are concerned, the rewards have been pretty modest. If I had to guess, I’ve sold maybe a few dozen copies of my novels based solely on the readership I’ve gained from my blog, which isn’t much of a return on investment, given the time and effort involved.
But in less tangible respects, the payoff has been enormous. Publishing five hundred words every day has forced me to master a new bag of tricks, and as a result, I’ve become more efficient in every aspect of my working life. Even something as straightforward as the Quote of the Day, which was originally intended to fill space when I didn’t feel like writing a full post, has turned into an education in itself: I publish a new quote day in and day out, even when I have a longer post waiting in the wings, and with fourteen hundred quotes and counting, I’ve had to look further afield to subjects — like coding, architecture, and theater — that offer unexpected perspectives on the creative process.
Publishing five hundred words every day has forced me to master a new bag of tricks, and as a result, I’ve become more efficient in every aspect of my working life.
On a more immediate level, outside writing opportunities sometimes arise when a post catches someone’s eye, and I’ve even had a few famous names turn up in the comments. I’ve gained a small community of regular readers whose insights I value immensely.
You write fiction and nonfiction, and across science fiction, art, popular culture, and more. Do you have a comfort zone? Or do you enjoy and excel in all genres and subjects equally?
In some ways, the fact that I work in a wide range of genres and formats is a reflection of the uncertainty of a freelance writer’s life: to survive, you need to be ready to take whatever you can get. But I do enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction at a variety of lengths, which keeps me from getting burned out on any one project.
If anything, writing novels is what pushes me the furthest out of my comfort zone, even though it’s what I nominally do for a living. Essays and reviews are comparatively easy, and short fiction falls somewhere in the middle.
In some ways, the fact that I work in a wide range of genres and formats is a reflection of the uncertainty of a freelance writer’s life
Since you’re an active blogger, does blogging ever distract you from your novel writing and long-term projects?
At the moment, whatever distraction the blog presents is minimal compared to other factors in my life — notably the fact that I have a three-year-old daughter. But it doesn’t hurt that I’ve become more disciplined: when I first started out, I’d sometimes spend two hours or more on a single post, while now it’s more like an hour from initial premise to finished draft.
Occasionally, I wonder if that hour might be put to better use, but at this point, it’s almost a matter of pride, or compulsion, to be able to crank out something readable every day. I’m also fortunate in having a huge backlog of material from the blog’s early years, which means that I can always go to reruns whenever I need a break.
New to Alec’s blog? A few more posts to consider:
What kinds of posts do well on your blog?
I wish I could tell you! I’ve often written what felt like a dynamite post that ended up going nowhere, and I’m frequently caught off guard by what gains traction. A short post I wrote years ago on Blinn’s Law, for instance, generates a new spike in page views every few months. The post that has given me the most traffic of all is a quick piece on George R.R. Martin and the word processing program WordStar, which wound up on the front page of Reddit. And I was always pleasantly surprised by which posts were chosen for Freshly Pressed, including “Ten years later: The Fellowship of the Ring“, “In praise of the cinematic baguette,” and “Rediscovering the dictionary.”
So the short answer is that I don’t know, aside from the fact that posts tend to do better when they stick to the blog’s stated themes.
What or who are you reading right now? You also blog about television a fair bit: what are you currently watching?
I’ve been watching a lot of great television recently, but I’d like to make special mention of Hannibal, which was sadly canceled this summer after spending several seasons on the brink. As a suspense novelist, I’ve written endlessly about Thomas Harris, and I was inclined to be skeptical early on, but it unexpectedly blossomed into the richest, most entertaining network drama in years. As far as my reading goes, I’m a huge fan of The A.V. Club, particularly the work of Will Harris, whose Random Roles interviews are consistently delightful.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug The Distance, with its beautifully reported podcasts about companies that have survived for a quarter of a century or more. It’s written and produced by my wife, Wailin Wong, but I really do think that it deserves to be heard by anyone with an interest in business, creativity, or the risks involved in constructing any lasting vision.
So many new users create blogs and websites on WordPress.com each day. Can you share one bit of advice for writers who want to build their blogs as platforms to promote their work?
Apart from the obvious points — which can be summarized as “be useful, be visible, and be active” — I’ve learned that it helps to keep to a relatively fixed format, which minimizes the number of decisions you need to make on any given day. If you look at my posts, you’ll see that the vast majority follow the same basic structure, which evolved naturally over the first year or so of the blog’s existence: an image, two paragraphs, another image, and two more paragraphs, all roughly the same length. It’s flexible enough to accommodate any subject I feel like discussing; it’s concise enough to be written, revised, and published in about an hour; and it means that I don’t need to spend a lot of time worrying about how a post will look or how I’ll know when I’m done. It frees me to concentrate on the writing itself, and I don’t think I’d be nearly as productive without these few practical constraints.
I’ve learned that it helps to keep to a relatively fixed format…. It frees me to concentrate on the writing itself, and I don’t think I’d be nearly as productive without these few practical constraints.
With many platforms to choose from, why have you stuck with WordPress.com?
I was originally drawn to WordPress.com because it offered a clean, straightforward, and flexible platform for the kind of site I wanted to create, and that’s still true. What really keeps me here, though, is the community. Over the years, I’ve acquired a gratifying number of readers and followers, with more arriving each day, and I owe much of that audience to the tools and opportunities that WordPress.com provides. This blog has become a more significant part of my life than I ever expected, and I hope to stick around for a long time to come.
What really keeps me here, though, is the community.
What can your readers expect next from you?
That’s a great question, and I don’t have a definitive answer. I’ve tried to make the blog as candid a portrait of my writing life as possible, so regular readers will know that I’m in something of a transitional period: the trilogy of novels that began with The Icon Thief and continued through City of Exiles concluded two years ago with the publication of Eternal Empire, and I’m currently finishing up a new nonfiction proposal that I’m hoping to shop around soon.
All I can say is that I expect to continue chronicling the process in as much detail as I think my readers can stand, and that as long as I’m writing for a living, I’ll have something to say about it here.