Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
 
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
 
> chapter 6 history of journalism
 
> 10 blog design tips
 
> what is this long tail?
 
> trackback demystified
 
> blog ethics primer
 
> glossary
 
> resource hotlinks

interviews

> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

interview with laura lemay

Lcap.gifaura Lemay is an author of no small repute. Many of us found our sea legs on the Web by relying on her informed and charmingly written how-to books. Laura graciously consented to answer some questions in email and although she protests at the end that she wrote overlong, I think you’ll find her observations on book authoring, blogging, and life in general to be well worth the read.

Dispatches: Many of us built our first web pages with your HTML books firmly in hand. Could you tell our readers a bit about how you came to write those books and why you no longer do that?

Oh man, those are two really long, complicated, self-involved questions. You couldn’t start with something easier? Let’s start with something easier (you ask a writer a simple question and she goes and takes over your interview.) Here’s a question I stole from a recent blog meme:

Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a lion tamer. And a telephone operator. And an opera singer. And a writer.

I really did want to be a writer (I really did want to be those other things too, but the writer one kept coming back over and over again). For a long time I wanted to be a novelist, and I spent a lot of time working on fiction without much hope of supporting myself. I wrote four novels by the time I was twelve. I still have them. They’re terrible.

When I discovered computers in high school I found out that I’m actually quite good at explaining technology to other people. I wrote tutorials on computer stuff all throughout college without asking. I helped all my friends with their programming homework. It was something I really enjoyed doing, and people actually came to me for help with computer stuff. But I thought of being able to explain computers to other people as a sort of party trick, like being able to put your feet behind your head or reciting pi to 100 digits. OK, so I can explain recursion to a drama major. Whoop de do.

And then my college guidance counselor explained that there was this job called “technical writer” that would let me write *and* explain computers *at the same time*. It was a job with unlimited potential! It was a job with steady income! I could do good work! I could change people’s lives! I thought this was just about the coolest idea ever. (I was misinformed).

I was a technical writer for five years. I wrote documentation for unix system administrators and multimedia programmers. Tech writing is a fine steady job. A boring, repetitive, humorless, fine, steady job, but one in which I could do good work.

What I really wanted to do was write books. But I honestly had no idea how to “break into” books. If you read any of the How to Be a Successful Writer books or magazines, they all implied that getting published was just impossible — you had to have an agent, you had to have contacts, you had to write the entire book before even THINKING about talking to anyone… I knew that computer books were different from fiction but I didn’t know how. I felt like I didn’t have any good ideas. I felt totally out of my league. So I stayed as a tech writer, doing what I knew, and hoping maybe something magical would happen.

Then in 1994 something magical happened. I had been learning about this Web thing since at my job we were considering using HTML for cross-platform help (something that was really hard to do in 1994). And I stumbled across this posting on usenet news from an acquisitions editor at a real live publishing company. He was looking for writers with ideas for books about the world wide web.

I figured the editor would get ten thousand replies from every fan-fiction writer on usenet and I would get lost in the shuffle, so I had nothing to lose. I lied shamelessly: I told him I had a proposal all together for a book about HTML. There were no books out on HTML, but I assumed that there must be a whole lot of books in process, and that I’d get a polite thanks, but no thanks.

Much to my surprise the editor sent me email back the very next day saying terrific! Let’s see your proposal. I lied again: um um um its at home, I’ll get it to you first thing on monday.

Which gave me two and a half days to learn enough HTML to write a book proposal over the weekend. Fortunately in 1994 there wasn’t a lot of HTML to learn; the web was a lot smaller back then.

I handed in the proposal on Monday and next thing I knew I had a book contract. I quit my job and started writing.

Ten years later looking back on it with the eyes of experience I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I had no money in the bank, armloads of debt, and only the assumption that I could get work again once I was done writing. The advance was miniscule. All I had to live on was hope (and a boyfriend who was willing to support me if it all fell apart — but I would only have accepted his help if I had been starving to death).

Once the book was done I did find work, and I did spend some time with my life back to normal. And then the book, “Teach Yourself Web Publishing With HTML in a Week,” came out. It was only the second book about HTML on the market in 1994 (there was one small book that beat me, although we had better distribution so my book often showed up in stores earlier). The first print run sold out in a month. My editor asked me to write another one (”Teach Yourself MORE…”) After a few months it was apparent that writing books was going to be what I was going to be doing for a long while. I was 26. I was doing exactly what I had always wanted to do with my life.

Which brings us to the second part of the question: why did I stop? Here’s another blog meme question:

Q. Would you rather be rich, famous, or happy? (pick one)

I have been famous (Internet Famous, a very small kind of famous). That totally sucked. I would like to try rich and happy for a while so I can make an informed decision.

I wrote a lot of books from 1994 to 2000. Both my HTML and Java books did really well, and I had a series that I didn’t write that nonetheless had my name on it. It felt like I was riding this wave of popularity, I would probably never be this successful again, and I felt that I had to milk it, to push it as far as it would go. My publisher was all too happy to accommodate me in this goal. They reworked my writing over and over again, customizing it, repackaging it, reselling it under different titles and for different purposes. I cheerfully and naively agreed to a lot of this repurposing, but a lot of it happened without my knowing it under the terms of existing contracts. I would go into bookstores and find books there with my name on them that I had never seen or agreed to or had any idea they existed.

With this much writing being produced not all of it had to be great. Towards the end not much of it was. By the end I didn’t feel like I had much control over my own work — even with the writing I was actually doing I was so stretched and overworked that the quality wasn’t there. Eventually I felt I didn’t even have any control over my own identity. Who is this Laura Lemay person who has her name all over all these books? Me, I think I’m an OK writer, I’m good at explaining stuff to people. Laura Lemay just produces huge numbers of not very good books. I felt really overwhelmed and disassociated from my own work and from my own name.

Writing books had been the one thing I really wanted to do with my life… and I there I was so unhappy doing it. I made a lot of mistakes. I lost all perspective. I didn’t know how to fix the situation I was in, to get control over my own work, to stop the machine from running over me again and again. So I just walked away from the whole thing. I stopped writing books, I stopped promoting anything, I just stopped.

I have a bunch of regrets about the whole thing, but I will not (further) bore you enumerating them. Mine is a cautionary tale, the stereotypical story of a writer ruined by success. I went back to tech writing for companies, and that’s what I’ve done since I left books. Its quiet, and boring, and easy. I can just do good work in tech writing. I can just explain stuff to people. That’s all I want.

Wow, seriously downbeat ending to that story. Sorry about that.

(Quite the contrary. Excellent recap of the woes so many traditional print authors face. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us. SS)

Dispatches: You maintain an engaging blog that offers a very personal and charming window onto your life. What inspired you to begin blogging? What have you found rewarding in maintaining the blog? What has been most annoying?

I’ve had a web site for a zillion years where I post personal essays and humor stuff, and I had tried on and off over the years to do some kind of online journalling. Mostly I had tried working with my own hand-written blog software, and usually I would get so sidetracked with the software that I would never get around to actually writing anything. It just never took.

I can’t remember exactly what started me blogging this last time, other that a feeling that everyone else was doing it (I’m 38 and still have not been able to outgrow peer pressure). But this time I didn’t have to write my own software; this time I could just concentrate on writing. And that made the difference.

My blog is very quiet — I don’t have a big audience at all. Initially that really concerned me; there’s a feeling you get in the blogosphere that if you’re not A-list you’re NOTHING. I worried that I should be somehow aggressively promoting myself or finding a way to change my blog to be more popular. But I found that the more I tried to be popular the less fun I had actually writing. And as my husband pointed out when I was complaining about it one morning: “I thought you were doing this blogging thing for fun.” So I cheerfully accept my Z-list status, I write what I want to, I even post cat pictures (but IRONICALLY, they are IRONIC cat pictures), and it makes me happy. I have a small intense group of readers and I luv them. (readers: I LUV you!)

Also I’ve found that I like being able to write on my blog because its so different from technical writing. Tech writing is very structured, very regimented, very linear. I spend all day structuring information and formatting tables and then I come home and post complete random silliness on my blog. It’s like mentally flopping down on the couch with a nice big bottle of beer. I need to write in my blog to unstructure my head.

Blogging annoyances? I still fuss with the software. I have redesigned my blog four times and the changes have never made it out to my production site. I have a lot of trouble with managing comment and trackback spam. I sometimes struggle with how personal to be in my blog, how much to talk about personal stuff. I find it awkward to talk about my personal life on my blog unless I’m trying to be funny about it. And I feel even weirder talking about work. But as long as I continue to run into funny things during the day with my camera phone, injure myself in amusing ways, and find oddities elsewhere on the net to post about, I’ll be OK.

Dispatches: Do you read any other blogs regularly? If so, what is it about these blogs that keeps you coming back?

Oh hell yes. I read lots of blogs regularly. I read too many blogs regularly; My name is Laura and I have a Blog Problem. The greatest web invention of the 00’s is the feed reader. Feed readers let me get through dozens of blogs and news sites in next to no time at all. Which means I can add more completely pointless blogs to my reading list to fill up the time I would otherwise spend doing other useful things like having a life.

I read a bunch of news-related feeds and many of the popular tech newsy blogs (boingboing, digg, metafilter, slashdot, techmeme). I’m big into the lifestyle and gadget blogs like engadget and lifehacker. I am nuts for cute overload. I am ashamed to admit I relentlessly devour valleywag.

What I especially like are well-written blogs on any topic or on a variety of topics. I don’t particularly care if a blog has razor-sharp focus or talks about all kinds of stuff as long as its interesting. Good, interesting writing, and funny helps. Examples? Dooce (everyone reads dooce but there’s a reason for that — she’s terrific). Waiter Rant. Fat Cyclist. Dilbert. Creating Passionate Users. Joel On Software. Daring Fireball. Eric.Weblog(). I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing.

Interesting. Funny. Good writing. I would read a blog about sidewalk moss if it was well-written and funny.

Dispatches: What advice would you offer new bloggers or those contemplating launching a blog?

Blog because you want to. Blog because its fun. Blog because you have something to say. Chances are darn good it won’t make you rich or famous so there has to be a reason to do it all on your own.

Don’t get all hung up on the software. Blogging is still all about the writing (or the pictures if that’s what you do). Pick some software. Make sure its easy for you to post and to work with it. The goal is to write and to post. If the software gets in your way its going to make you not want to post. No software is “better” than any other if you’re just starting out; there’s just software that doesn’t stand in your way.

Don’t worry too much about finding your voice. When I started blogging I got all tense about the form my blog was going to take. Was it going to be primarily links and commentary? Longer essays? Was I going to write about tech or personal stuff or post cat pictures? I spent a lot of time being tense and not a lot of time writing.

Write. Your blog will evolve. You will find out what kind of blog you’re going to write once you’ve written a bunch of it. Write. Post. Write. Stop thinking so much. Write more. Go. Write. Go.

Dispatches: One of the primary dilemmas within blogging is discovery. Finding blog content of interest and getting found if publishing our own blogs is a challenge. Any observations or advice you’d like to share?

Yes I know all about blog discovery, that’s why 864,453 blogs are more popular than mine is (). But I’ll offer some bullet points because as a blogger I can be an authority on everything:

  • Be interesting. Good writers get noticed. Tell stories. People love stories (well, OK, I love stories, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone).
  • Be useful. Give away your knowledge, your tips, things you’ve discovered. Explain how do stuff so that others can learn from you.
  • Link out. Links are blog currency; be free with your cash. If you find a cool link through someone else’s blog, credit them for the find. Its only polite.
  • Comment. Blogs are not themselves community. They are individuals standing on corners and yelling. Comments are community. Comment on other people’s blogs and spread your words and stories around the net.

As to where to find other interesting blogs: I’ve found most of the interesting blogs I read through links in blogs I already read. I don’t like top 100 lists and I don’t like blogrolls; they tend to be populated with the same old blowhards and bloggers blogging about about blogs and blogging and blogging blogged by other bloggers (Zzzzzzzz). I like technorati tags and searches; I sometimes punch some random word into technorati and see what comes up. But mostly slow discovery works best for me.

Dispatches: Some claim that blogs serve as a democratizing force with the potential for profound impact on social and political spheres. Is this bunk?

(…) Hey! Look over there! OMG Kittens!

Oh poop I am so unqualified to talk about this. You asked Cory and Jamais about this, right? I could explain recursion to you instead if you’d like.

(Click the links to read the interviews with both Cory and Jamais who do, indeed, address the issue. SS)

I will say that I think that the web itself as a medium for publishing — not just blogging, but wikis and journals and podcasting and myspace and youtube etc etc etc — continues to frighten and confuse traditional media and publishing. But that’s nothing new — the web has been changing media since it started ten years ago and I wrote about “web publishing” and I meant hand-coding HTML. The more the web evolves it only continues to get easier for people to put creative work on the web, and the meaning of creative work continues to change and become more complex the easier it gets.

A lot of this new web media is ugly and dumb and readable or unwatchable. But so much of it is fantastic and funny and brilliant and wild and would never, ever have seen the light of day under traditional publishing models. Blogging, as a part of the web as a whole, and as a medium for creative expression, clearly has an important role to play there, in changing how we express ourselves and in creating new forms of media. But I don’t think that blogging per se is the catalyst.

Dispatches: What advice, if any, would you offer those designing blog software and services?

Blogs have come a long way in making basic design and posting easy, in making it so that writers don’t have to fuss with software and that they can just dive right in and create. That’s the most important step and there’s a ton of great work being done there. Kudos for the work done so far. It needs to go farther. If the number one core of the blog is the writing and the posting, number two is the look and the customization, and that’s still too hard. I’m talking about design themes, about adding modules (blogrolls, moblogs, linkrolls, recent comments, whatever), as well as managing back end plugins for things like spam or backup or notification or whatever. Right now there’s so much coding involved and the vast majority of blog authors are not going to be able to understand that or aren’t going to bother with it. Customization needs to be easier. It should be as easy as dragging and dropping elements and plugins from a panel to configure the look and feel and behavior of a blog. Ever seen My Yahoo? That’s what I want in a blog configurator.

Dispatches: And finally, of course, what didn’t I ask that you’d like to share?

I started out this interview with blog memes. I’ll end with one more (This is originally from The Tuesday Ten, but I have shortened it to five):

Q: List five pieces of evidence of your own insanity.

1. I am a morning person. I wake up naturally between 5 and 6AM, pretty much regardless of when I go to bed. I like it. I get a lot of work done in the mornings.

2. I must obsessively rate every song I import from CD in iTunes. It can take between 4 and 8 listens of a song before I decide how to rate it. This goes a long way toward explaining why after two years I am still only up to the Cs in my CD collection.

3. Most of the time, I drink decaf.

4. I need to have post-it notes available to me at all times. Next to velcro and feed readers (ok, and wifi, and single-packaged string cheese), the post-it note is the greatest invention of the last 100 years. I like post-it flags, as bookmarks, and the little post-its, for margin notes, and the normal square post-its, for general notes to myself, and big ruled post-its for all kinds of lists. I am an old-school post-it purist, I like yellow. Purple is OK for contrast.

5. This interview was supposed to be short. D’oh!

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  1. 06.21.06 @ 07:58:40 pacific

    This was a really fun read!

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    1. 06.21.06 @ 08:16:39 pacific

      i agree! we’re lucky laura still writes for blogs.

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      1. 06.22.06 @ 08:21:50 pacific

        Agree with the others – this is a page-turner. Well, it would be if it were a book with pages. It’s certainly long enough to be one. :-) But I didn’t mind at all. Kudos!

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        1. Dan
          06.29.06 @ 08:25:15 pacific

          Thanxs for the bio there Laura. I “grew up” on your books and I’m glad the story’s out. Funny coincidence, I’ve actually turned down offers to write articles for magazines, because paper publishing is a sure-fire way to destroy a perfectly good article. Goes something like this: it gets published, becomes copyright of the magazine publisher, and then ends up in shoeboxes and attics everywhere, never to see the light of day again.

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          1. SB2
            06.29.06 @ 10:50:41 pacific

            I really appreciated the ‘cautionary tale’ part of this blog. This tops all cautionary tales I have read to-date!

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            1. 08.9.07 @ 01:42:25 pacific

              Today was the 1st day I’d heard of Laura Lemay, as another tech writer called out of the blue w/ a video inquiry. I was told that I could even learn to adjust my own site with the help of “HTML 4″.

              So I googled her (please, excuse me….). And this was my first stop. Great for getting a sense of the person ( & the catz). So now I’m off to learn some code finally….and hopefully buy a book that she really wrote.

              Here’s to her finding that big bottle of beer…and continuing on with her cheer…..

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              1. 11.17.07 @ 11:11:23 pacific

                There are a very small number of books which have made up a very large part of the reason why I love programming and computers to this day.

                One was a book on BasicA when my family got our first computer.

                Another was Laura’s HTML book. It’s great to read about it from the author’s perspective, and of course her charming and funny writing style which helped make the book so enjoyable helps here too!

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              1. SB says:

                This was a really fun read!

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              3. suzanne says:

                i agree! we’re lucky laura still writes for blogs.

              4. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

              5. Agree with the others – this is a page-turner. Well, it would be if it were a book with pages. It’s certainly long enough to be one. :-) But I didn’t mind at all. Kudos!

              6. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
              7. Dan says:

                Thanxs for the bio there Laura. I “grew up” on your books and I’m glad the story’s out. Funny coincidence, I’ve actually turned down offers to write articles for magazines, because paper publishing is a sure-fire way to destroy a perfectly good article. Goes something like this: it gets published, becomes copyright of the magazine publisher, and then ends up in shoeboxes and attics everywhere, never to see the light of day again.

              8. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
              9. SB2 says:

                I really appreciated the ‘cautionary tale’ part of this blog. This tops all cautionary tales I have read to-date!

              10. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
              11. scott d says:

                Today was the 1st day I’d heard of Laura Lemay, as another tech writer called out of the blue w/ a video inquiry. I was told that I could even learn to adjust my own site with the help of “HTML 4″.

                So I googled her (please, excuse me….). And this was my first stop. Great for getting a sense of the person ( & the catz). So now I’m off to learn some code finally….and hopefully buy a book that she really wrote.

                Here’s to her finding that big bottle of beer…and continuing on with her cheer…..

              12. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

              13. There are a very small number of books which have made up a very large part of the reason why I love programming and computers to this day.

                One was a book on BasicA when my family got our first computer.

                Another was Laura’s HTML book. It’s great to read about it from the author’s perspective, and of course her charming and funny writing style which helped make the book so enjoyable helps here too!

              14. } ?>
              // End Comments ?>

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