Saturday, January 3, 2015

Confessions of a First-Year Blogger

After earning my living as a writer for more than 35 years, I figured that becoming a blogger wouldn't be such a big deal. It turns out that I was partly right -- and partly very wrong.

First, a bit of backstory: while I've been an avid blog reader for a number of years, I never thought that I would end up starting my own blog. The reason was simple: the weekly column that I wrote on children's and teen books for Scripps Howard News Service from 1990 through 2013 was behind a "pay wall," ensuring that it could only be accessed by newspapers who were paying clients of the news service. Once those newspapers published my column, of course, then it could more readily be accessed by anyone, but the pay wall meant that I couldn't blog about it in any other forum.

That all changed -- suddenly -- in November 2013, when Scripps announced that, after 96 years, it was closing down the wire service and thus ending my 23-year tenure as the children's and teen book reviewer. But I wasn't ready to give up my writing about children's and teen literature, and decided I could now jump into the world of blogs. With some technical help from my library colleague, Patti Mallin, I created this blog (Scripps had given me the "rights" to the name "The Children's Corner;" since that was the name by which publishers, librarians, authors, illustrators and others knew me, I decided to stick with it).

While Patti focused on the technical aspects of creating the blog, I worked like crazy, writing several pieces so that I could have lots of blog posts ready to go. Besides wanting the blog to start with a bang, I had another very good reason: Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly had contacted me when she heard that Scripps Howard News Service was closing and asked if I would do a piece for PW about the changes that I've witnessed in the world of children's and teen literature over 23 years as a reviewer. I knew that when the PW piece ran that it would be a golden opportunity to promote my new blog, and I wanted my blog to be as "content rich" as possible.

And so I started my new career as a blogger. Over the past year, I've learned quite a bit, which I'll distill here:

1. Blogging is NOT the same as journalism. This may be obvious to everyone but me, but I haven't found it easy to just blog instead of trying to be a journalist. This isn't surprising; in addition to being a columnist on children's & teen books for 23 years, I also was a newspaper reporter, on all kinds of different subjects, from 1978-2006 before earning my master's in library science and becoming a children's librarian. Old habits definitely die hard. Here is an example of one of my earliest blog posts -- it reads just like the kind of column I wrote for Scripps for so many years. Writing the column required a specific kind of style, one in which my own "voice" was not supposed to really play much part. I was highly discouraged by my editors from using first-person, even as a columnist. This rule may seem odd to the "here's what I think " world in which we now live, but it was a rule that was exceptionally important -- at the time -- to my editors (as well as the editors of many newspapers who ran my column).

As a result, I've spent much of this year trying to unleash my "voice," and while I've definitely made progress, I still have a ways to go. I aspire to the standards of "voice" set by bloggers I particularly admire, including Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, Travis Jonker, John Schumacher, and Roger Sutton, among others.

I do miss my editors, however, especially the indefatigable Bob Jones, who would go over my Scripps column each week to fix grammatical mistakes, query me about anything that seemed unclear, smooth out my transitions, and just generally make my work the best that it could be. I miss him personally, and I miss having an editor bring out the best in my writing. 

One thing I do love about blogging, however,  is the fact that I don't have to *know* everything before writing a blog post. As a reporter, and even as a columnist, I would spend hours and days tracking down facts, talking to sources, and generally trying to make sure that I knew everything that could be known about an author, illustrator, subject, etc. My editors expected me to become an instant expert on whatever I was writing about, whether it was how to motivate reluctant readers, or why Dr. Seuss' books hit such a nerve, or what was the backstory for classics like Make Way for Ducklings or Harriet the Spy.

As a blogger, however, I can just dive in and tackle a piece of a subject, and not worry about being an overall expert. It's an amazing feeling of freedom, and one that's really taken me time to enjoy. In fact, I still feel guilty about not knowing everything there is to know about a particular subject before writing a blog post. But I'm getting better at just realizing that I can write about something without knowing every last thing about it. I'm not a reporter or columnist anymore, I'm a blogger.  Most importantly, I'm getting better -- slowly - at learning to keep it short and snappy.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that blogging takes less time than traditional journalism. That's because....

2. Blogging is all about linking -- to book trailers, publishers' websites, Facebook Twitter, etc.. Again, here is Captain Obvious speaking. But this whole new world of social media, at least as far as it concerns my writing, has taken me a while to learn since it wasn't part of my Scripps column. Through trial and error, I've learned to link whenever I can link -- to a book trailer, the website of an author or illustrator, a publisher's Facebook page, etc. And all of this linking can take a tremendous amount of time. My blogging software, like most, makes it as easy as possible to do all this, and it is so wonderful to be able to post a piece filled with interactive links that readers can enjoy, and know that I've helped make some real connections between books and readers.

Still, it does take a whole lot of time, and that leads to the fact that...

3. Blogging can take over your life -- if you let it. As someone who has written a column just as an adjunct to my "real" jobs (first newspaper reporter, now children's librarian), I thought that I knew how hard it could be to fit in all the reading and writing that's needed to produce regular pieces on children's and teen literature. But blogging can be even more demanding. While I had a weekly deadline to meet at Scripps, for example, I now set my own deadlines. This isn't necessarily a good thing ; I need an external deadline! Over this first year, I've gotten better at setting my own deadlines, mainly because I love writing this blog. I really want to regularly post on this blog-- it's both fun and fulfilling.

Even more demanding than posting regularly is the fact that I could spend hours every day trying to boost the stats of my blog posts. I could be using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and who knows what else to really ensure that ever more people read what I've written. I do put out an initial tweet about each blogpost (find me @MacHardin on Twitter) and I also post it on my Facebook page (Karen MacPherson), but that's about it. I know I'm missing opportunities to "get my name out there" and "do some branding," as some friends have scoldingly told me. But I'm just not willing to spend so much of my time on the computer (or phone or iPad or whatever). I'd rather be reading, so I can write more blog posts!

Overall, I'm thrilled to be a blogger because....

4. Blogging is a lot of fun. It's a way of being an interactive connection between children's & teen books and their readers, an interactive connection that I never could make in all those years of writing a syndicated column for Scripps because of then-staid nature of the newspaper business.

I'm also a lucky blogger; not only do I regularly get review copies from publishers who have gotten to know me over the years, but I also get to meet some of the best authors and illustrators in the business because of my library's amazing partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore. I work with Kerri Poore, the P&P Children's Department staffer who books children's authors and illustrators for programs at Politics & Prose, and it's been a great connection for my library. In the last year, for example, I've gotten to introduce -- and then write about-- programs at my library starring major authors and illustrators. Here, for example, are links to my blog posts about programs with Kate DiCamillo, Jon Klassen, Jon Scieszka, Tom Angleberger, Mac Barnett, Cece Bell, Maira Kalman, Peter Brown, Marla Frazee, Shannon Hale, George O'Connor, Ben Hatke. Already in this new year, we'll be hosting, in partnership with Politics & Prose, Bad Kitty author/illustrator Nick Bruel, graphic novelists Gareth Hinds and George O'Connor, and best-selling middle-grade author Gordon Korman.

So stay tuned for some great new blog posts in 2015, and thanks for reading!

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