How to Build a Huge Blog Following (or How I Came to Write Life from Scratch)
I was asked to write about how I came to write Life from Scratch for the blog, Riding with the Top Down. The title is a little facetious, but I think the advice is still good, if I do say so myself. And I do say so myself, because this is my blog.
The idea for Life from Scratch came to me while I was crossing a library parking lot, holding a stack of cook books I had checked out. What if a woman used the year post-divorce to teach herself how to cook? A half hour later, during my next errand to the food store, I wondered what if that woman became a blogger and that’s how she found the voice she lost during the marriage. Over the next few days, I tugged and twisted the skeleton of the story out on paper, throwing in a best friend and some siblings, an ex-husband and a new lover. And voila — I had a book.
Okay, it took more like six months or so to write it, but I had the bare bones of a book.
You’re supposed to write about what you know, but I think people take that idea in such a literal sense that it limits them creatively. I’ve always believed that if you are willing to listen — willing to do the research — that you can build off of your own experiences and slide sideways to something unrelated (please note that key point about listening to others who have lived it).
I’ve never been divorced from a marriage, but I have been divorced from a job, and that first year away from work was scary and life-changing and regretful and joyous. It wasn’t the same thing in the least, but it was a window into understanding what friends spoke about when they talked about their divorce, when I did the work and asked people about divorce. The job I left had started out as a wonderful connection and had turned into a soul-draining relationship over the years. In my case, it bordered on abusive. I completely lost my voice and was too terrified to express what I needed. Leaving was the right step, but it meant relearning a lot of things. We financially had to learn a new existence. The daily rhythm of my life changed.
I have never left a marriage, but I have left a life behind and asked myself, “what now?”
Without my career, I was free-floating for a few weeks. The excitement of the first few days (“no work today, yay!”) turned into anxiety (“holy shit, no work today… what am I going to do with myself?”). A random trip to a bookstore changed everything when I saw a cooking school textbook on sale. I couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to go to cooking school, but I could afford $49.95 for the textbook. So I started at the beginning and taught myself how to cook.
Which is not to say that like Rachel, I considered toasting an English muffin as close as I would get to baking my own bread. I was a decent cook before I started my cooking school for one. I became someone who understood how to write her own recipe, who understood how to deconstruct someone else’s food and rebuild it again. It really wasn’t about cooking at all. It was about finding my passion.
I did start a short-lived blog about my personal cooking school where I posted some recipes. My husband helped me set it up because he was in that first wave of bloggers on the Internet, and I thought that it was amazingly cool that strangers read his posts and followed our lives. He linked to my blog and some of his readers came over. It was intoxicating to get those first comments.
I stopped posting in that space because I didn’t need it. I think for a blog to be successful, you need to need it. If you don’t need it, you won’t take the time to write there regularly and then it ceases to capture your life if you are swinging by every few weeks to jot down a random idea. I needed to cook, but I didn’t need to write about cooking.
I found the space I needed a year or so later when my husband and I were trying to conceive again. We had gone through fertility treatments to conceive our twins (again, if you’ve read Life from Scratch, it connects to writing what you know… sort of), and I had become massively depressed during those years. My husband suggested that I start a blog as an outlet as we got back into trying to conceive, and I also wanted to connect with other infertile men and women for a book idea I had jumping off of an Ask Amy column. So Stirrup Queens was born.
I needed to write Stirrup Queens, and I needed to read other bloggers and talk with them via the comment section on their blog. While I loved Stirrup Queens from the beginning, it took a little time to find my rhythm and make it feel like an electronic version of myself on the Web. A written extension of myself. It was Melissa Ford, in word form. I think my voice has changed over the years. Like Rachel, I am a general diarist who happens to concentrate on a certain facet of her life. Where Rachel writes about cooking, I write about my uterus.
My blog has gotten a large following. I’ve won awards, gotten work based on my blog success, published two books due to that space, and have gotten amazing opportunities, such as going to the White House. All because I started a blog. So I am continuously asked how one goes about building a large following online. What is the secret?
Here, come close to the screen and I’ll whisper it…
Need your space.
Okay, it’s not as simple as that, but that’s where you have to start. Need your space. If you need it for yourself (not to build a platform or get a huge audience) and need to write there regardless of whether or not anyone reads it, you will build the foundation for a great blog. At first, don’t worry about what anyone else is writing or whether they’ll even want to read what you have to say. Just enjoy your space on the Web. And when you find that your mind goes to your blog when you’re away from the computer; when you jump there mentally because it’s your happy space — a comforting space — you are ready for the next step: connecting with others.
Read other blogs. Comment on them (that’s the important part — people will find you when you comment). Not just once or twice, but go back over and over again, reading every post and commenting when you can. Expand that reading circle to new blogs, and comment on those blogs. And at the same time, keep writing your content. Don’t compare yourself or feel self-conscious. Just write what you need to write; write the type of stuff that you would want to read. Get involved with online projects such as IComLeavWe or NaBloPoMo. And most of all, don’t quit. Don’t get frustrated that your audience isn’t finding you quickly enough for your taste and walk away. Finding your tribe takes time.
I write often about how to build your blog traffic or how to leave a good comment, and while there are general guidelines you can follow (and certainly things you should never do), like marriage, there is no one, clear line that leads to happiness. Though, just like novel writing, you need to start with what you know.
Which is how I came to write about someone so unlike myself (okay, so maybe I’m a bit neurotic like Rachel) — a divorcee who can’t cook and is dating a Spanish photographer — who is based so deeply in what I do know — that it is scary to leave your old life behind even if that life doesn’t work anymore; that sometimes when we can’t find our voice orally, we can find it via a written medium; and that we all need those human connections, to not feel as if we are a tiny voice shouting into the ether, but to know that we have something to say and people are hearing it.
So, now answer this: do you need your space?
Photo Credit: Mary Gardella