Commenting: A Followup

Before I say anything else, I would just like to express how honored I am to be Freshly Pressed a second time and how touched I am to receive such positive feedback from all of you. Thank you to everyone who contributed to my recent post about commenting and to everyone who now follows my blog.

I actually read every comment that was posted, and I’m still getting several streaming in. Several of you asked some very good questions regarding commenting, so here are some of the most common questions along with my responses.

You mentioned that the blogger should respond to comments to interact with his readers. Should the blogger respond to every comment?

  • The answer is an emphatic “No.” While it is important to maintain a relationship with readers, the blogger’s primary responsibility is to provide good content for his audience. The combox is a great way for the blogger to clarify points or chat with readers, but usually, it serves as a place where readers can generate their own discussion about the material. Especially on posts with hundreds of comments, it is simply impractical for the blogger to reply to every single post. It is my opinion that the blogger should only reply to comments as he sees fit, but most importantly, he ought to remember that while social interaction is a key component to a successful blog, his primary objective as a writer is to provide the main content. Too much time spent commenting detracts from that responsibility.

You encouraged us to comment even when we feel shy or when there are many comments before ours, but I’m hesitant to appear boorish by repeating what may have already been said.

  • In the case where there are several hundred comments, it is unlikely that a reader will sift through every single one to determine what has already been said, nor should he be expected to. Thus, even if what you write has already been said, perhaps in skimming the conversation, a new reader will see your post instead of a previous one and be able to keep the ball rolling from there. And besides, great minds think alike, so consider it less like appearing uncouth and more like bolstering an argument by reaffirming a common truth.

It’s difficult to track a conversation and be able to contribute meaningfully, which is why I often do not bother.

  • I agree that it can be mind-numbing to try to hold a combox argument coherently in your head while formulating a cogent response. While my previous post exhorted readers to comment whenever possible, remember that Prudence is the auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues), and that often, it is “better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and prove the fact,” as Benjamin Franklin said. If you do not want to join an ongoing conversation or are unsure of what has been said already, you can always leave a positive note of encouragement for the blogger, since those will never go to waste.
  • Additionally, if you would like to follow a certain thread of conversation in the comments section, there is often an option when you post a reply to receive alerts of followup comments via email or the hosting platform itself (Blogger, Livejournal, WordPress, etc.)

As you can see, I could not reply to every post, but because so many people were willing to leave a comment– even at the risk of sounding repetitive– I got a good sense of what the general blogging population was thinking, and in so doing, your input led to the creation of this blog post. See how even when you think no one can hear what you have to say, you are helping to build the blogosphere?

What other topics would you like to see discussed regarding writing and blogging? Are there other questions you have about how to become a better blogger? If there are other experienced bloggers reading, how do you balance the social and creative demands of being a successful blogger?

Is This the Most Productive Use of My Time?

That’s what my friend used to hang on the wall above her computer in her dorm room last year.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, a period in which Catholics and other liturgical Christians observe 40 days of penitence, fasting, increased prayer and almsgiving. Traditionally, as part of the fasting aspect, Christians will “give up” something for Lent. In the past, I have given up chocolate, sodas, and Pop-Tarts, but last year, I took a bigger plunge and abstained from Facebook. This year, I’m doing it again.

It’s important to remember that the things we give up are not always bad in and of themselves, although some people do use the time to attempt to break a vice such as smoking, swearing, or eating unhealthily. More often, though, they are perfectly acceptable good things, but the theological implications of detaching ourselves from temporal, earthly goods is to refocus our attention on our dependence on God, who is our source and end and our ultimate Good.

But there are practical implications, as well. While Facebook is an excellent way to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives as well as promote your brand or network with other writers, for me, personally, it has become something of a vice. Networking is good, but actual writing is even better, and honestly, I was spending far too much time on Facebook (not even networking, at that!) to the point where it detracted from my writing.

A writer for Al Jazeera actually recently wrote an article about how Facebook is purportedly changing the way we interact and even the way our brains function. And a Slate article from last January claims that Facebook is specifically designed to showcase only the positive aspects of our lives, which can cause us to overestimate others’ happiness and increase our own feelings of inadequacy. And I’m well aware that it’s a very small sample, but speaking from my personal experience, three of my five roommates do not use Facebook at all, and they seem less anxious or unhappy overall.

So this Ash Wednesday, I’m logging out of Facebook until Easter, and I’m actually eagerly looking forward to the positive benefits I believe it will bring me. In the time I would be wasting on Facebook, I’ll be writing more blog posts and working on my novel. While I’ll certainly be making an effort to spend more time in meditative prayer, for me, writing is also a form of prayer— a talent and passion I have received from God, and one which I gladly offer back to him as a way to brighten my corner of the world and share his love with others.

If you made a New Year’s resolution– whether to write more, eat more healthily, become a more generous or kinder person– but it has fizzled out, even if you’re not Christian, I’d like to invite you to join thousands of other people in casting off something that might be holding you back from self-improvement and renewing a resolution to better yourself.

Have you ever thought of ditching Facebook, even for a short period? What are you giving up for Lent this year? Or, more importantly, what are you replacing it with that’s even better? If you are of a different faith tradition, how do you integrate your writing with your spiritual life? And if you don’t belong to any particular faith, how does writing help you to become a better person?

P.S. I haven’t given up on Twitter since I don’t spend much time on it as it is, but you might see my Facebook page update since it is tied to both Twitter and WordPress.

No Comments from the Peanut Gallery!

How many times have you felt the impulse to leave a comment on an article or blog but then thought better of it and moved on?

Whether the piece is sheer brilliance or more internet garbage, there is almost always a section where readers can leave comments (often referred to as a combox). I have mixed feelings about the combox, but until I read Kristin Lamb’s recent post about “improving your likability quotient”, and Bob Mayer’s thoughts on your internet presence, I must admit, I wasn’t an avid commenter.

Here’s the thing: As much as I often think I have important things to say, when I see several hundred comments, I often feel like adding my voice to the fray won’t be a worthwhile contribution.

Oh how wrong I was.

I’m not sure about you guys, but I know I have a tendency to size up the world in an “all-or-nothing” mindset far too often. Here are a few of my usual inner monologues:

“If my blog post or comment isn’t going to rock the foundations of the literary world, well, then… I may as well not comment at all!”

“Oh, look at the flame war! I thought I smelled smoke over on WordPress… This fire has clearly burned itself out. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.”

“This guy clearly doesn’t have a clue, but he’s obviously too stupid to consider anything I have to say. I think I’ll go preach to the choir where I know people will listen to me.”

Smiley from the sMirC-series. facepalm

 No, no, no.

You see, it’s called social media for a reason. Even when it appears that your thought may be lost in an ever-deepening sea of other comments, you never know who might read it. At the very least, the blog author will get another alert letting him know that you thought his post was worthwhile reading, and while busier bloggers can’t always read or reply to every individual comment, you have just given him a digital high-five of sorts and spread some internet cheer. We bloggers like being “liked.”

Secondly, whenever you leave a comment on a blog, you are leaving a virtual trail of breadcrumbs back to your own blog. As Nicola Morgan points out, Google loves it when you make its job easier. Every time you comment somewhere else, you leave a veritable trail of metadata in your wake, making your blog more likely to show up in search engines and, in a sense, casting your nets wide into the sea of the internet.

And lastly, while the internet is a big place, you are an important part of it. Sometimes, it might seem as if your contribution to the free flow of information and ideas is nothing but a drop in an ocean, but the ocean would be that much drier and shallower without your thought. As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” (an aphorism of which I am in constant need of reminding). It was, rather, each individual stone in a Roman road which comprised the network that allowed the empire to stretch across Europe. And it was each individual citizen who came to debate in the forum which allowed for the republic to flourish into the classical civilisation to which we still look today.

Ready to join the legions of intelligent, articulate blog commenters currently amassing to redeem the internet?

I thought so.

To bloggers:

  • DO enable commenting on your blogs. Most platforms have sufficient spam blockers to keep the bots at bay. If people cannot participate in your blog, then you are basically having a conversation with yourself, and we all know that writers do enough of that outside the blogosphere as it is, right? 😉
  • DO reply to comments within your own blog. This shows your adoring fans that you do, in fact, care about them and take the time to read what they say. Nothing builds rapport between a blogger and his audience better than mingling amongst the commoners conversing with his readers.
  • DO write thought-provoking posts that encourage conversation. Hell, write something controversial if its gets people talking! You might try leaving an open question at the end of your posts or inviting a guest blogger to provide a counter-post.
  • DO take the time to read and comment on other bloggers’ posts. Far from fraternising with the competition, you just paid the favor forward and brightened someone else’s corner of the internet. If anything, he might feel indebted and comment back on your blog, but at the very least, you have shown that what you consider worthy enough of your time to read is also worthy of your time to contribute to, as well.
  • DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS!

To readers:

  • DO read articles and posts carefully and analytically. Take the time to craft a thoughtful, genuine post that shows the author you have heard what he has to say and want to collaborate with him via a shared experience or constructive criticism.
  • DO forward links from other relevant blogs in your comments if you think they will contribute to the conversation. Just be careful about appearing… spammy.
  • DO click the “Like” button if you don’t have time to write a whole comment. This will at least let the author know that you read and enjoyed his work.
  • I repeat DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS!

So, was this a cleverly-designed trap to lure readers into commenting on my blog and boosting my ego?

Perhaps.

But really, it’s not about me (although notifications are gratifying most of the time). It’s about making the internet a better place for everyone. If you have been shy about joining the fracas, there’s no time like the present! So, please, take up that seat in the peanut gallery and fire away!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on your commenting in the blogosphere and what ideas you have to improve the experience. It seems to me that one of the huge problems confronting us is the general lack of civility in the comboxes. Thoughts? Opinions? Reactions? Criticism? Viewpoints? Convictions?

I’m all ears.

Theme and Vocation: The Heart of Your Story

It’s funny how life often tends to resemble some sort of serendipitous collision. I’m always amazed by how so many seemingly disparate elements of my day to day reality will suddenly coalesce, or how something I’ve read recently will reflect in a conversation I have with someone completely unrelated to that topic.

For example, I just got off the phone with my brother, who is studying as a seminarian, and we were talking about our respective vocations. Ordinarily, this would not seem to relate to my writing, but my conversation with him sparked a couple of thoughts about the concept of vocation and how important it is to writing.

Firstly, I was explaining to him how I am certain that I am called to be a writer since it has been with me from my infancy. I began reading earlier than most children, I have always possessed a verbose streak, and I even began making attempts at storytelling as soon as I was able to make some marks on a page. Throughout my childhood, I reveled in the fantasy worlds of the books I read, whether it was The Hardy Boys, Jules Verne’s classics 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days, Brian Jacques’ beloved Redwall series, or The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings when I was older. To put it simply, I have always wanted to share with other people the joy I experienced from reading.

As an extension of that desire, I admitted to my brother that even when I have gone for long stretches (even months at a time) where I do no creative writing, the nagging itch to write has always remained with me. In fact, I actually feel out-of-sorts and “off” when I don’t write, yet when I do make some progress on any WIP I have going, I feel more balanced and peaceful overall. You’d think that after such experiences, I would strive harder to actually live up to my vocation by making writing a higher priority, but unfortunately, writing countless term papers for school often leaves my brain devoid of any desire to write further. However, this realisation has inspired me to firm my resolution to make time regularly to write just for me, whether it’s blogging or working on a WIP.

Actually, today I was fortunate to have some time to myself, and I made some significant progress on The Shards– not by adding more prose to the draft, but by tackling a fundamental issue I had neglected: nailing my themes.

Theme is crucial to good storytelling. Ultimately, we tell stories to convey deeper truths about our own reality. Yes, we read books and watch movies to be entertained, but as a species, we humans have always told stories to inspire and encourage each other in the midst of a difficult existence. We don’t know how our own stories will end because we have not yet reached that point, but we draw courage and hope from the tales of heroes like ourselves whose endings we do know.

While no one likes a preachy tale, we reject stories that have no point, who serve no greater good than to pass a few of our already fleeting moments in this life. Rather, we hunger for stories that reassure our deeply held beliefs and confirm our own experiences. Theme is what you, as a writer have to say to your readers.

When you examine your themes, you can’t help but notice how they are tied to your characters’ own vocations. To be real and really resonate with your audience, your characters themselves must have their own vocations. For us to relate to them, they, too, must be inexorably drawn to a particular fulfillment or goal. When you know what your characters’ callings are, then you’re really getting to the heart of your story.

For a long time in my own life, I have focused on the logical progression of my actions. I am always holding myself above life, weighing my options, paralysed with incertitude, unsure of what I was truly called to and what I wanted to say.

Similarly, in my writing, I have focused far too much on plotting logically progressive events, hovering above the story instead of taking a chance and entering into it (including emotionally) which— more often than not— ended with me throwing up my hands in frustration and becoming stuck.

The key is to stop overanalysing life and to actually live it, including taking a calculated risk and staking yourself on a concrete claim.

Amor omnia vincit.

Hard work pays off.

“Even the smallest of us can change the course of the future.”

Suffering, far from destroying us, has the power to redeem us.

Etc.

So what if you’re wrong? There is no point to perpetually sizing up your options unless you eventually choose one of them. Why even tell a story unless you have something to say? And you’ll know what you want to say and how you want to say it when you realise your own vocation and those of your characters. Instead of a merely episodic series of events, now, you will have a story with heart and one which will, hopefully, resonate with the hearts of your audience, as well.

Breaking the Block

There are so many days when I wake up full of intentions to “make some progress” on the novel or the blog or whatever, but all too often, after my shower and breakfast (and too much procrastinating online), I will open up the project only to find all of my ambition gone.

If I’m lucky, I’ll push through the block, but there are many times when I don’t do much more than just waste a lot of time doing trivial things (like mindlessly checking Facebook or my school emails, even though I just did half an hour earlier), and before I know it, the day is gone and I feel even worse because I didn’t “get anything done.”

Being a writer, it’s easy to feel this pressure to show something for yourself. Writing of any sort– especially writing novels– is a slow, arduous process, and many times, it can be difficult for our peers to take us seriously if it seems like we don’t produce any results:

“So, when can I read the book?”
“How long have you been writing your novel, now? Four– five years?

Our fast-paced, utilitarian society places a premium on results, which has led to a constant pressure to produce. But part of being creative entails periods of rest, where ideas are allowed to germinate and the strata of our subconscious mind can settle. Often, I find that if I try too hard to write, it just makes me freeze up even more. I am beginning to be convinced that simply turning on the creative tap is not something that I can always do at will. However, there are some things that can help free up the flow. It’s all about learning how to get into the right state of mind (no pun intended).

*crickets*

As opposed to the left side…?

Moving on.

The next time you do feel a burst of inspiration, pay attention to what you are doing. It’s likely not when you are consciously trying to write. Personally, I’ve had ideas strike anytime from when I’m watching sporting events (yeah, I’m weird) to when I’m folding laundry. Often, I will realise that I’m zoning out, and not really thinking consciously when this happens.

Other times, if I feel like I just have to make use of my free time to write, but the well of inspiration is dry, I like to use the technique called mindmapping. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and almost always helps me get “unblocked.” Just take a blank piece of printer paper, write the question you’re struggling with in the middle of the page, and surround it with a circle. Then for the next five to ten minutes, just start branching off of that idea with every thought that comes to mind, no matter how seemingly irrelevant. In this way, your subconscious mind can draw relationships between everything bouncing around in there.

Another variation of this exercise is something called freewriting wherein I’ll open up a blank document (or just open a cheap spiral notebook to a blank page) and begin writing a stream of consciousness– basically, every thought that crosses my mind. It often takes the form of “talking to myself,” like this:

Ok, so right now I need to figure out how character X finds out the secret which will lead him to location B. What do I know about the character right now? And what do I know about the character with the secret? In a world like theirs, what are all the ways they could meet, and how many of those have a good potential for conflict?

Get it? Good.

Lastly, instead of staring at my project or a blank document in the vain hope that I will write something– anything, it is often more useful to just go do something else entirely unrelated to writing. I’ll play a video game, cook dinner, read a book, go visit a friend. Incidentally, if I visit the right friend, I can also talk out my problem with her. Just having another listening ear– even if the person is not a writer– can sometimes make a difference if you can just verbalise what’s giving you trouble.

Of course, make sure you don’t take too long of a break from writing, but hopefully, something will shake loose and you’ll be back in the creative flow before you know it.

What techniques or activities do you use when you’re feeling blocked? Are there times when you notice that you are blocked more than others (mornings, stressful real life, vacations)?