• Chris OBrien

A Blog is your Whiskey Distillery

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

Writing a book is more like distilling whiskey than microwaving a plate of pizza rolls.

So while I love things like the National Novel Writing Month, a contest that pushes writers to complete a 50,000-word manuscript by the end of the month, I think a one or two-year window is a little more realistic. Or when I hear stories of a writer like Stephen King going on one epic binge-write, knocking out a book in three days, it's the same thing - I wish I could make that happen, but I don't think I ever will.

Instead, I want to paint a different picture about the writing process from my own experience. It's an alternative that may take some more time, but it's an easier starting point and a far more reasonable pace.

It just kinda happened

At the end of June, I'll be publishing my next book called Here or There. When I started this project over four years ago, I didn't realize I had started a new book project at all. I was just writing a blog post about how to avoid playing on the work league softball team. Few weeks later, there was one about why I always cheered for Wile E. Coyote. And another on how to handle the "Escalator Dictator" at the North and Clybourn stop.

The material for a book slowly built over time. Which is why my advice on writing a book would be to first start with a blog. One post a week. Doesn't matter which day it goes up, but probably try and keep it as the same day for the sake of a routine.

The blog becomes your whiskey distillery. Each post serves as the raw material. I published a little over 200 posts in the last four years on ChicagoNow. Of that, there were 30-35 posts that worked well together as a book and that became the Here or There whiskey barrel. This was stored next to a few other barrels on the shelves. Ones that might turn into future books or different projects altogether.

Once you view the blog as a distillery, then you don't need to pay attention to the stats

The temptation with starting a blog is that it's a tool to "build your brand" "build an audience" "go viral." And Google Analytics makes it really easy to see just how many visitors and pageviews your posts are getting.

But this analytics pursuit is, at best, a distraction and at worst it turns you into a crotchety old sailor drinking an entire barrel of whiskey. I remember seeing some of my posts that I thought were really good end up receiving 50 views. And of course on that same day there will always be someone in the LinkedIn newsfeed humblebragging about their most recent 250,000 view post. Or when I post a link on Facebook, it gets like seven charitable Likes followed by someone else with a new baby picture clocking in at 685.

Not going viral, not having thousands of daily views (or hundreds) took its toll on me. I'm guessing it does on a lot of writers. But what changed things for me were two things, first was this moment, but second was when I realized just how many posts didn't make the eventual cut for Here or There. The selecting/narrowing-down process for the book made me think, "Wow, it's probably a good thing I didn't have a bigger audience. There was a lot of junk in there."

The junk is part of the process, just like not everything makes it into the final bottle of whiskey. I think the only things that matter for your whiskey distillery is doing a weekly post, putting in the time, and building a bunch of material. If you write fiction or poetry and feel like a blog is more for essays or commentary on current events, my challenge to that would be why not just do your own thing? No one will email you and say, "Hey now, this isn't a blog." And if somebody does that, you probably don't want them as a subscriber anyways.

The best part about running a weekly blog is it starts to rewire your brain in two ways. One you become an idea factory. You don't dwell over one individual post, fine-tuning it for months. You move on. If there's a grammar mistake, eh, so be it. On to the next one. Next day on the train to work, something catches your eye. "Oh, that would be a good post."Jot it down. Start again.

The second way things change is that this practice slowly chips away at the fear of publishing. One of the eventual challenges of publishing or self-publishing a book is the vulnerability of having your work out there for people to read. It feels a whole lot safer as a Word doc on my computer. But the blog gives you practice in this exercise, making the eventual book easier to ship.

In terms of visitors to the blog, all that matters are the subscribers. The people that have been with my blog for the last two, three, four years, those people mean the world to me. I'm trying to turn my focus away from, "How do I land more visitors" to "How do I write more stuff for the people already here."

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