by Amy Julia Becker
About ten years ago I mentioned to someone “the list of books I want to write when I retire.” She looked at me and said, “You know, don’t you, that most people don’t have a list of books they want to write when they retire?” It was news to me.
Her comment came as a part of a growing realization that I wanted to write, and I wanted to write non-fiction books in particular. So I got started. The first book was an attempt to explain Christianity. I typed about 50 pages in and then abandoned it. The second was a memoir about getting to know my mother-in-law as she faced a cancer diagnosis. I finished that one, but never looked for a publisher. (That’s another, long, story, but the self-published book that resulted from it is Penelope Ayers.) The third, A Good and Perfect Gift, was a memoir about coming to receive our daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome, as a gift. With the third, I finally had an agent, a proposal, and a lot of interest from editors at publishing houses. And yet, over the course of the spring and summer of 2009, I received no after no after no. We couldn’t find a publisher because I didn’t have a platform. I was a no-name author with a hard-to-market story.
And so I started a blog. At first, it seemed like eating my spinach, something I had to do in order to achieve the long-term goal of writing books. I worried I would run out of things to write about. I worried no one would read it. I worried about exposing my family to the netherworld of cyberspace. But I couldn’t think of any other way to prove to the marketing teams at publishing houses that I would indeed have an audience for a book.
In the beginning, I only posted twice a week, and I had a handful of people who read what I wrote. Within a few months, I had started to write more frequently, in part because I had been told that successful bloggers post every day, but in part because I started to have more ideas. And I had started to enjoy it. Blogging forced me to sit down and write, and to write for an audience. Moreover, blogging forced me to expose my ideas to comment and critique on a daily basis, which meant that I got better and better at learning how to construct sentences and arguments. In time, I was invited to move my blog to beliefnet and then to Patheos, a multifaith religion website that connected me to other bloggers and offered a wider audience and greater writing support.
Blogging also gave me a place to try out ideas and figure out what stuck. I thought I was great at writing about passages from the Bible, for instance, and I had a series of book ideas based upon themes running through Scripture. I tried to write some of those ideas as series on my blog, and they got very little response. Few comments. Few people sharing them with others. And yet when I wrote about our family and linked the story of our lives to Scripture, my page views went up and people responded. It wasn’t that I shouldn’t be writing about Scripture, but I learned that I needed to do so in the role of storyteller rather than teacher.
Blogging helped me define, for myself and for my readers, what my writing was all about. I write about faith, family, and disability, and my blog has enabled me to cultivate an audience of people interested in at least one of those things, and often the places in which they intersect.
Finally, blogging opened up small but significant opportunities to write for other online publications. I was invited to write regularly for her.meneutics, the Christianity Today women’s blog, which eventually led to other invitations to write for the Christianity Today magazine. I submitted an essay about prenatal testing to Motherlode, the parenting blog of the New York Times, and after it was published an editor from parents.com reached out to me. Over the course of a few years, that initial contact has led to my current gig for parents.com in which I am writing personal essays about the upcoming presidential election.
As I started to blog more frequently and with a greater sense of direction and purpose, people started to notice my writing outside of the blogging world too. About a year after my book proposal fell flat, I received two emails from editors at small Christian publishing houses. Both said, “I’ve been reading your blog and was wondering if you had any book ideas?” I signed a contract for A Good and Perfect Gift with Bethany House two months later. By that time, I was a better writer with a better sense of my potential audience and how to communicate with them.
So—you want to write a non-fiction book? My best advice: start a blog.