What I Learned About Blogging

What I learned most about blogging is that I may not have been entirely qualified to do it.

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Perhaps I’m being too simplistic. While it is true that I’ve enjoyed doing this blog so far, my ultimate goal when I started was to find a way to make this blog “pay” for me to write it, either in money or in audience appreciation. On that basis, I’ve succeeded: I recently got hired to write a blog for a company. Exciting, right? I finally get a chance to prove that my writing skills are good enough for somebody to pay for them. Or to be clear, I get to prove I can still do that, and on a regular basis, because I’ve been paid for my writing several times in the past, hence my desire for a blog that helped me do that again. This blog didn’t get me the gig though. Networking did, and now that I am getting paid to write a blog, I’ve discovered that I may have been going about this all wrong from the beginning.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the world of paid blogging, or blogging with a purpose:

1 – You have to know what your purpose is.  I find that if you’re blogging for a company, you have to know what product or service you’re selling for them. If you’re blogging for yourself, you have to have a “personal brand,” meaning some identity for yourself and your blog, so that your target audience is clearly identifiable. With a company it’s easy – if you sell widgets, your target audience is people who are looking to buy widgets, or people who have a problem that widgets can solve. With a personal blog like mine though, it’s more difficult to find that target unless your blog has a clearly defined purpose.

Suppose this blog was all about California tourism. My target would be obvious: people looking to visit California. Or if my purpose was how to relocate to California, my target would be people looking to move there. If it was the tourists, I would talk about all the cool stuff in California – Hollywood; the beaches, the attractions like Disneyland or Universal Studios. Writing it would be easy, as it would be if it was people looking to move there: I’d talk about moving companies, affordable places to live, California laws to be aware of, etc. My blog thus far however hasn’t really been about California at all, it’s about me. And this is why I think a personal brand is so important.

If I’m a defined person that everybody knows, like a celebrity, the fact that I’m many things – a nerd, a Muslim, a straight man, a writer, a single guy, a picky eater – is fine, because people will read it regardless because they know me and want to know more. If not, I believe I need to pick one of those labels because it makes the blog writing, and thus audience building, easier. I think I would just need to find what interests others who fit whatever label I decide the blog fits, and write about those interests. In my case however, I’m a relatively unknown individual that fits a bunch of different labels like I listed, giving us a blog that’s all over the place. I think writing a blog that’s scattershot like that without any defined personal brand to attract people to it has little to no purpose. It’s just me thinking about stuff, and unless I have that great personal brand, and there are thus a ton of people out there already interested in me and my thoughts, it’s difficult to write a blog about me. My purpose is dubious at best. That’s why I’ve learned that the blog’s purpose needs to be the blogger’s first consideration if s/he wants to monetize it or find an audience.

2 – You have to determine what your target audience is interested in. As I believe I already mentioned, once you know who your target audience is, you have to figure out what they want to read about. What you’re reading now is a product of the training I did for my new blogging job, and what I realized from it is that if you don’t know – not assume, not speculate, know – what your target audience wants to read about, it’s very difficult to build that audience. If you’re selling a product or service, I think not knowing what your audience wants is a big problem: If you’re not writing to your audience’s interests, how and why would they ever encounter you or your product or service? If they’re unaware of what your blog has to do with them, there’s no real reason to find it.

A good professional blogger, I learned, writes to what their target audience is interested in, and a shortcut I learned in determining that is to figure out what others who are into that same thing – oftentimes your competition – are blogging about. As my new employer taught me, if I read the most popular blogs about my product, I will discover what my audience is interested in, and if I can add to that discourse in a new and / or interesting way, I can get more readers for my blog. This is particularly true if those same leading bloggers share things that I wrote. According to my new bosses, getting redistributed by others is what makes something popular – this is what “going viral” is. So if I wanted to build audience for this blog, once I’d determined my purpose or personal brand I’d have to find out what the leading bloggers that cater to that audience write about, and write about the same things, only as good or better. I’d know I’d succeeded if those same leading bloggers started sharing my stuff too.

3 – You have to post regularly. This one I stuck to fairly faithfully in the past with this blog, but have not done so lately. Why? See #1.

As I said, I believe this blog is not very popular because all it’s about is me, and almost nobody knows me beyond those who have met me personally. I have no personal brand,  I’m just a real person, with all of the contradictions and complexities that entails. I can’t point to a target audience because I’m into a lot of different things, hence my blog is too. As a result, it can’t do much for me beyond allowing me to vent and clarify my own thinking for myself.

And I’ve discovered that doing all of these steps is really hard work.

If you haven’t figured it out already, I am writing this as a final blog posting for the foreseeable future, at least in this blog. I have an even more personal, but less well-maintained one that I just use as the mood strikes me. I’ve discovered that ironically, my ending this blog shows that I had already succeeded in fulfilling what I saw as its original purpose long before I began it. My goal in writing this blog really was to validate me, and I did that when my friend who referred me for the new blogging gig became my friend in the first place. He knew the part of my brand that would sell to his company: “A great writer and a reliable guy.” He knew that from personal experience. He knew the target – his company, that just lost their blogger – was looking for somebody to take over their blog. He introduced me; they liked what they saw in my writing (not from this blog no less, from elsewhere), and hired me. Since they know what their competitors blog about (which is what their audience is interested in), they know what to tell me to write, and that’s all I need. My writing won out, as I hoped it would.

So why can’t I do their blog and this one too?

4 – Blogging is hard work. Part of the reason I feel it’s important to have a purpose is because I think doing anything well is hard work. I feel that if you’re good at it, it can be even harder, because (as is the case with me) your perfectionism will kick in and force you to get every part of your blog posting exactly right, which takes effort. Writing well is not quick or easy, so without some tangible “payment” – be it monetary or in the form of some level of self-satisfaction, the whole thing can take a lot out of you. Again, I wanted to prove that I could write well enough to be compensated for my writing on a regular basis. I did that, which is satisfaction enough for me. If I feel the urge to write just to scratch an itch in the future, I can do it as needed, without worrying about adhere to #3. If I want to write for some other purpose, keeping this blog will only take time away from it. It’s run its course.

When I began this blog, I thought it would be a good way to reflect on what I learned in my 17 years in Southern California. What I learned in California more than anything else was to value what I like about myself, and to value myself generally. I had many teachers in California that got me here, and I’m not my perfect me just yet, but I’m good enough to know that I don’t need to keep doing this blog to prove myself. I am a living demonstration of what I learned in California, and if that’s good enough, it will get me back there again, regardless of whether I write about it.

If I do write about it however, you know it’ll be good. Don’t believe me? Just go back and read this blog.

 

 

 

What I Learned About Screenwriting

The classical Hollywood narrative is a clearly defined character with clearly defined goals and objectives, in a film in which everything one sees on screen is about him or her (far more often him than her) achieving or being confounded in achieving those goals and objectives.

When I got to California, I thought I was pretty hot stuff.  I had successfully networked a job that got me a credit on a TV show fresh out of Grad school – my very first job in Southern California!  Prior to that, I’d been published and won tons of writing awards.  I sold a comic book script, and even got published while I was working in Hollywood, something my bosses at the time got a real kick out of.  It felt like I could do no wrong.

When my inner demons from my past caught up to me, I fell hard.  I’m not ready to talk about that yet though.

Instead, I’m going to use this blog entry to talk about something specific I learned while I was there: how to write a screenplay.  Or well… I’m going to skip the specifics about how to write because I figure most people know whether they’re actually good writers.  If you don’t know the basics about writing, period, this blog entry isn’t for you.

If, however, you believe you’re a decent writer and want to try your hand at screenwriting, here’s what I learned about that over my seventeen years in California; hope you find it helpful —

1 – Writer’s block is the fear of writing badly.  I learned this from my first boss in Hollywood, an Emmy-award winning producer and professional television writer.  He felt that most people don’t write or get stuck because they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong.  Once he taught me this, getting started was never a problem again, because I committed to the idea that the first draft of anything I wrote would stink.  I write everything (including this blog) to this day this way – a first draft that’s little more than stream of consciousness; the actual writing occurring in the revising stage.

2 – Just because you’re a good writer (or film geek) doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good screenwriter.  When I first went out to California, I assumed that because I’m a film geek with a minor in Cinema Studies who graduated with high distinction in English and has forgotten more films and TV shows than most people have ever seen, I would intuitively know how to write a film.  What I discovered is that while I know the parts of a film when I see them and have a general sense of what goes where, generating a film whole cloth from zero is not easy.  I discovered that writing a screenplay of 80-120 pages (the rule of thumb in screenwriting is that a page is approximately a minute of screen time) was far more than I’d ever written of anything, having won awards for writing essays or short stories.  A screenplay is inherently a huge piece of writing, with many moving parts, almost a novel in miniature.  But not really that either, because…

3 – A screenplay must follow the classical Hollywood narrative.  In this respect I had a slight advantage because I knew what that was, but from my experience in California I found that the average person, no matter how talented or brilliant, really wasn’t familiar with it despite watching movies with it their whole lives.  I myself didn’t know until my Cinema Studies professor in college taught me that the classical Hollywood narrative is a clearly defined character with clearly defined goals and objectives, in a film in which everything one sees on screen is about him or her (far more often him than her)  achieving or being confounded in achieving those goals and objectives.  From what a screenwriter friend told me, screenwriting books commonly refer to this as “through line,”  yet most new screenwriters I’ve found think of great scenes, characters, and even worlds, but take those and just start writing.  What I think they need to figure out first is who their protagonist is, what s/he wants, and then start telling their story, which hopefully will lead to those great scenes or take place in those great worlds.  Without the classical Hollywood narrative, I find that screenplays turn out aimless, boring, and often confusing too.

4 – In screenwriting, you get your scenes and your dialogue, and that’s it.  It took me forever to learn this point, which I find odd because I am a published comic book writer.  Nonetheless and going back to point #2, what I found in California is that many screenwriters, myself included, write screenplays like we would write novels or essays, where we explain in parenthetical what characters are thinking or in long action lines why they’re doing what they’re doing.  As a friend pointed out to me though, “how do you shoot that?”

What his question made clear to me was that a screenplay really is just a road map for a director more than anything else.  It instructs them in what to shoot, not necessarily why.  The why needs to come from what the characters do or what they say.  Parentheticals are there to help actors do that, but even then I think they’re best used sparingly, not as a way to direct the film on paper.  Comic book scripts are similar: I learned that a good comic book writer just tells the artist what to draw a picture of in each panel.  For years people would tell me “show, don’t tell,” but I never got what that meant.  Now I understand that it means you write what the director should be showing the audience in the action lines, and tell the actors what to say in the dialogue.  That means no long bricks of text either in action or parenthetical.  Just a sparse description of what the director needs to shoot and how an actor delivers his / her line.

5 – It is easier to edit than to write.  Writing is time-consuming, no matter how fast you type, and I believe that if you think about what you’re going to write as you’re doing it, it gets harder still.  This is one of the reasons why I think most screenwriters use outlines or scene cards – they give you some structure that you can rewrite into your script.  I feel that editing being easier than writing is also what gives many the false sense that they can easily write a screenplay – if you see a film and can think of things that might’ve made it better that’s all well and good, but I think that’s a form of editing, not writing.  I believe that screenwriting, or any kind of writing really – is about taking nothing and making it into something, not just editing what’s already there.  Want to make things easier for yourself?  Remember point #1 and write anything, and then edit it from there.  I find that it’s a lot easier that way.

Had I learned to write screenplays sooner, I might have been able to get further in Hollywood, but realistically, the trick is getting somebody that can do something to help you professionally to actually read your stuff.  Most screenwriters I know say that even getting friends to read your material is hard, let alone somebody with the power to produce it in some way.  Nonetheless screenwriting is a challenge and a skill I find intrinsically rewarding, and my hope is that now that I’m not in California I can get even better at doing it to the point of winning contests and awards once again.  I always regretted that I never did anything with my then-nascent screenwriting ability, and now without the stress of just surviving in California, I hope that I can.  Who knows?  Maybe that will be the skill that ultimately gets me back there.