How I Started Blogging And Built a Readership
I’ve always kept diaries. Well, I say “always“: I obviously didn’t come out of the womb shouting, “Quick, someone, get me a laptop: I’m SO blogging this!“, although I expect one day that will totally happen to some poor blogger, and it will serve her right. But back to me…
I was given my first diary when I was ten years old. It was a green velvet number, and it was so incredibly awesome that I would only write in it with a fountain pen. I was kind of pretentious as a ten year old, to be honest. I kept that diary diligently, though, and I’ve basically been documenting my life ever since, in one way or another. (I actually published that diary in its entirety here. Before you click on that link, though, you should probably be aware that my 10-year-old self placed a powerful curse on anyone who read her diary. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…)
The paper journals eventually gave way to computer documents, but however I’ve done it, I’ve always had this compulsion to write everything down. When I was a child, I told myself I was doing this for the benefit of future generations, so that they could understand the uniqueness that was ME, spechul me. (Because yes, I expect one day many years from now, some future person will totally say, “Gosh, I wish we knew what it was like to be a moody teenager living a completely unremarkable life in the late 20th century. If only someone had written it all down!”) Then I told myself I was doing it so I wouldn’t ever forget all of these incredibly important, and yet not even remotely interesting, experiences I was having. Teenage angst is a terrible thing, isn’t it?
Ultimately, though, I think it was just something that became ingrained in me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like things haven’t really happened to me until I’ve written about them in some way. And so I wrote: first in a succession of ever-more-elaborate paper journals, and then in a series of password-protected Word documents which I have long-since forgotten the passwords to. (I don’t want to remember…) And because journaling was something I had always done, I was always fascinated to find out about other people who did it, too. I felt I had something in common with these other journalers: we all knew what it was like to pour our hearts out to a blank page that couldn’t talk back, and we were all probably just filled to the BRIM with angst, and imagination, and lots of profound thoughts that were just dying to be let out.
(I wasn’t, obviously. I was mostly just filled to the brim with emo song lyrics. Still am.)
Anyway, because I had this interest in diaries and diarists, one day I was aimlessly surfing the internet, and I decided to type “diary” or “journal” or something like that into the search engine. I don’t really know what I was looking for. I think I maybe expected to find sites about famous diarists, or something like that. Instead, I found an ACTUAL diary: or an “online journal” as they were called in those days. My mind was blown. I was so used to thinking of journaling as something secret, something to be hidden from prying eyes at all costs (This was why all of my childhood diaries had things like “KEEP OUT!” and, “If you read this, I will know, and I will totally track you down and kill you, I MEAN IT,” scrawled over their covers and title pages.) that I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that here was someone actually publishing their diary on the internet. I mean, CAN YOU EVEN?!
This alone would probably have been enough to suck me in, but as it happened, that first online journal I found had much more than that to make me want to read it. Its author, you see, was just like me. Yes, she lived in America and I lived in the UK, but we were the same age, and seemed to be into all of the same kinds of things: this girl read the same books as me and listened to the same music. Her journal was dotted with those same emo song lyrics mine was, and she seemed every bit as shy and awkward as I felt myself to be. Like me, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, other than that it would have to involve writing, because that was the only thing she’d ever really wanted to do. Hell, she even had red hair.
(Because I know people are probably going to ask me this: no, I can’t remember her name, or what her journal was called. She actually closed her site down a few months after I discovered it – er, I’m sure that had nothing to do with me – and seemed to disappear from the Internet after that, so I’ve no idea what happened to her. I like to think she’s living in a massive house with a dressing room and a walk-in pantry, though.)
As I read through page after page of this girl’s diary, it occurred to me that she was basically living my life, on another continent. She was the person I would be if circumstances had been different, and this was totally fascinating to me. Through her links page, I found other online diarists. Most of those weren’t even remotely like me, but this was just as fascinating, because now I was getting an amazing insight into lives which I wouldn’t even have been able to imagine before. That’s what “blogs” were like in those days. Most of them weren’t focused on any particular subject: they were literally just diaries of people’s lives, and I was completely sucked in by them.
I can’t remember how long it took me to decide to start writing online myself. I do know I did it because I was hoping that, in the same way I’d managed to stumble across someone I had more in common with than anyone I’d ever met in my “real” life, that other people might find me. Just as my teenage self had hoped someone would one day understaaaaand her (Look, I told you I was emo, OK?), I think I hoped that someone out there would relate to what I’d written, and that I’d make friendships, form connections with people, even although I’d probably never meet them.
My first website was hosted on free webspace, with ugly Angelfire banners across the top, and it basically broke all of the rules of web usability, having coloured text on a black background, and probably some scrolling marquees. We didn’t have things like Blogger or WordPress in those days (or telephone speaking devices or horseless carriages or FIRE. I hope you’re all listening to this, young ‘uns. You don’t know how easy you have it! Uphill, both ways!), so it had to be totally coded by hand (I taught myself HTML for this very purpose), with each new post a whole new page which was created and then added into the structure. It was a total pain.
(NO, it no longer exists. And if it did, I would burn it with fire, because seriously, people. Seriously.)
As much as I enjoyed writing that site, after a few months I got bored: not just with how fiddly it was to have to keep creating new pages all the time, but by the fact that there wasn’t really any possibility of interaction with anyone. There was a guestbook, but no comments, and while I did get the occasional email from someone who had somehow stumbled across it and read it, there wasn’t really any easy way for people TO find it, so I was essentially talking to myself. And “myself” isn’t really the greatest conversationalist in the world, to tell you the truth.
I’d been aware of Livejournal for a while, and it seemed like the answer to all of my online-diarist problems. Rather than creating all of the pages yourself, you could just type each new post into a box, hit enter and it would be published. There was a comments box on every post. Best of all, because of the way Livejournal was set up, with “friends lists” which allowed you to follow people, and be followed back, there was the possibility of people actually reading it. Which was the whole point, surely?
I loved it. I stayed on Livejournal for years, and made friends there who I’m still in touch with to this day. I gave it up just after Terry and I started planning our wedding. See, my journal was “friends only”, which meant it could only be read by people I gave access to. This was great in some ways, because I knew everyone who read it, and they’d all become trusted friends: this was a HUGE benefit to me when Terry was ill, for instance, because I knew I could be totally honest with those people about how I was feeling, and not feel like they were judging me for it, or nitpicking over ever single little thing I said. (I mean, they probably were. But they were all polite enough to keep those thoughts to themselves, if so.) I could admit to them that I was worried sick, without someone popping up and telling me I was, “SO! NEGATIVE!” and that we should consider ourselves lucky that Terry even HAD kidneys to fail, because some people don’t even HAVE no kidneys, nuh-uh. So BE POSITIVE, OK?
At the same time, though, I think sometimes knowing exactly who your audience is can be a bit stifling, especially when it’s a very small audience, as mine was. You start thinking, “Oh, I better not write about THAT, because I know so-and-so isn’t interested in that. And I better not write about THIS, because I know such-and-such DOES like that thing, and he might be offended by me saying I DON’T like it.” And honestly? I wanted to write about my wedding. I knew most of the people who followed my journal wouldn’t be interested in hearing about wedding planning every day of the week, so I decided I would start one of those newfangled “blog” things everyone was talking about, and which seemed to be a bit like the old days of stand-alone, self-coded journals, except with all of the benefits of something like Livejournal: comments, instant publishing, and all that jazz. I would use this new “blog” of mine (That word was never used without the inverted commas, by the way. I remember we online journal writers all laughing about it and talking about how it would NEVER catch on. I mean, “blog” – hee!) for all of the wedding stuff I would surely become obsessive about any day now, and keep my livejournal for everything else.
So Forever Amber actually started life as a wedding blog. Or that was the plan, anyway. I launched the site on on March 31st, 2006 – exactly a year before my wedding – and I used Typepad purely because that´s what everyone else seemed to be using, so I figured I would, too. I it almost no thought at all: the name came from one of my favourite books (And is also my OWN name, obviously…), the theme was one of the default ones which came with Typead, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was so used to Livejournal, with its built-in audience, that it didn´t even occur to me that I´d need to promote my posts in any way, so I just… didn´t. Luckily, it DID occur to me to tell my Livejournal friends that I´d started one of those newfangled “blog” things, though, and it turned out that some of them WERE actually interested in reading what I thought would be strictly wedding-related rambles, so they became my very first readers. Unfortunately, I very quickly discovered that, actually, I wasn´t all that interested in writing about wedding planning, so my new blog morphed into another record of my life, another variation on the green velvet diary, and after a few months, replaced the Livejournal completely.
By that stage, I´d started freelancing for some of the Shiny Media blogs, including the now-defunct Shoewawa and Catwalk Queen. We were allowed to occasionally promote our own blogs when we were writing for those sites, so gradually I started to pick up some more readers from there: some of those readers had blogs of their own, and were kind enough to link to me, so I think my readership just grew from there. People often ask me what I did to grow my readership when I first started blogging, but the answer is that I didn´t really do ANYTHING – or not intentionally, at least. I know I did absolutely nothing to promote my blog – partly because I didn´t know how, but also because, at that stage, I still viewed it purely as a hobby, and didn´t take it particularly seriously. I would go for days without posting at all, then post three times in one afternoon- I´m lucky I had any readers AT ALL, now I come to think of it, so if I had to come up with an explanation of how my blog grew in those early days, I think I´d put it down to sheer, dumb luck, plus the fact that I already had access to a much larger audience, through my freelance writing gigs.
Whatever the reason, however, it was those early readers who motivated me to keep at it. These were the days before social media took hold, when people used to comment much more on blogs, and it was possible to really build a community around them. (I mean, I´m sure it´s probably STILL possible to do that, it´s just a whole lot harder these days…) I made some lasting friendships through the comments section of my blog (and by commenting on other people´s sites, too), and the knowledge that there were people out there who were interested in what I had to say, encouraged me to keep on writing. Now that comments are so much harder to come by, I think it must be much harder for new bloggers to motivate themselves, so I think I was lucky to have gotten into it at a time when the blogosphere was both smaller and friendlier: over time, blogging became a habit which was impossible to break, and I think it was probably my consistency, more than anything else. I just kept at it, and didn´t give up, and although my blog has changed over the years, the fact that it´s still updated frequently is, I think, one of the reasons people continue to keep coming back to it.
The secret of my success, then? I didn´t quit. And I have no intentions of doing so, either. I’ve no idea what this site will become in the future, but I do know it will be forever Amber. So, if nothing else, at least I know I picked the right name…