When my novels were published in 2002 and 2005, I had no online presence at all. I had left my job in 2005 and set up a website at the end of that year. The woman who built it for me said the website was a window into my life, but I needed repeat visitors. I had to engage with people, she told me, which meant having a blog.
This advice came in January 2006 and I was very resistant to the idea at first. It was a massive personal shift for me as I had always been very private, but as I’d already discovered when I was published, that wasn’t going to be possible any more. At least this way I could take ownership of what was ‘out there’.
I had no clue what I was going to say in my regular blog posts. My first post was about a really stinking review of one of my novels in The Guardian. It wasn’t simply a literary review but had crossed over into being personal. I knew the last thing authors should ever do is respond to a negative review, but it frustrated me that there was no way I could correct the impression that had been given of me to the world. So I posted the review and my response to it on my blog.
It took off from there. People found me and I sought out other people with a vague writing connection and formed some really close relationships. It became this wider literary community that grew exponentially, as we know things do now, from very small; maybe about 20 or 30 people I would chat with most days about our blogs. I hadn’t known in advance that I’d find a degree of engagement that would be so amazing and nourishing – and so much of a diversion.
It does eat into your time, time that I would have previously used for writing, but being a writer is largely about being fascinated by people. Suddenly, through blogging, you’ve got access to all these people you would never usually come across. These connections develop in a different way to real life relationships and, though it’s mostly good, sometimes you can be proved wrong. You can bond with someone who suddenly says something that you didn’t expect from them and you have to adjust your perceptions.
We might have come together because we were writers, but any conflicts along the way tended to be political. I got very deeply involved in some of them and it took up hours of my time and headspace. I do think it was worthwhile because what I’ve always wanted to do with writing is talk to a wider audience about issues such as politics. My novels explore these issues in a fictional setting and the blog enabled me to have debates with people and reach a wider audience.
My blog has gone through lots of incarnations. In the early days, it was mostly rants about politics or something to do with writing or publishing. Gradually, I got more personal. I had a whole series of posts called Debi and her Dad, in which I posted photos and talked about the frustrations of being a sandwich carer for my father who was then in his 80s – he’s now 99. I posted care in the community rants, rants about GPs, the NHS crumbling and the cuts.
At some stage during blogging I realised I didn’t want to name my children, though I talked about them quite a bit. They’re old enough now, so it’s not so crucial if they’re identified, but I’ve still guarded certain aspects of my life, although I never hold back politically.
I also wrote posts about my experiences living in Grenada between 1982 and 1986. I was there during the revolution and the coup, and the US invasion in October 1983. I wanted to create a document, a resource. It needed to be absolutely clear that it was my personal experience, but also recorded a period in history that I thought was very important for people to know about. I originally integrated posts on my main blog then, when I had finished it, I realised that it should stand alone, so I created the Revo blog.
I was also part of a forum called Bloggers with Book Deals, which was a group of published authors who all had blogs. It was a very private forum, where we could rant about things we didn’t want to share with the world. The group has folded in the last few months because it ran out of steam, but we all still know each other, but the support now comes via Facebook or Twitter. When we want to speak to each other more privately, we do it by email.
I resisted Facebook for quite a long time. At each stage I had to be persuaded because I know how much of your time it can eat up. With Facebook you have the instant impact and the home page that tells you what’s going on without the time-consuming checking of individual blogs. I decided quite early on to use Facebook the same way that I did blogging, so my posts are public and I automatically accept most friend requests.
I went onto Twitter about three years ago. Again I was initially resistant, but it was the same as with Facebook – you reach out, you see who’s there, you follow different people and suddenly it’s exponential and you’re hooked. I feel very strongly that 90 per cent of social networking needs to be non-promotional – 10 per cent maximum can be about promoting a book or whatever – but all the rest needs to be the engaging-with-people stuff. That political perspective I really like, the reaching out and getting a wider audience, intensified once I migrated to Twitter.
An example. The mother of a friend of my son had troubles with housing and had the idea of turning a negative into a positive by creating an anthology for the charity Shelter. I tweeted to my followers and Facebook friends saying we were looking for submissions and within a couple of weeks we had over 100. A lot of them also came via The Word Cloud, which is a very nourishing and nurturing online writing community. The resulting Stories for Homes anthology raised about £2,500 for Shelter in the last year. It’s the whole ‘onlineness’ that made it possible. It’s not all serious though. Watching reality TV or major sporting events while tweeting is some of the best fun you can have with a keyboard.
About the author
Debi Alper is the author of six novels, the first two of which (Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana) were published by Orion to critical acclaim. Her books are contemporary urban thrillers set among sub-cultures. Over the years, she has worked as a charity finance officer, a photographer, farm labourer, life model and wig maker. She wrote her first novel as a direct result of being in a local writers’ group and still writes in long hand lying on the settee. Debi spends a lot of time helping other writers to perfect their novels through critiques, mentoring, and creative writing workshops. Debi runs a regular six-week Self Editing course and edits in all genres – several authors that she has worked with have been signed up with agents and gone on to see their books published. She lives in south London with her partner and two teenage sons.