Rachel Barenblat Speaks About Blogging and Booking Poetry

This month on How to Blog a Book, I’ll be featuring blog-to-books—both traditionally published and self-published. In many cases (hopefully all), I will offer you unique insight into the bloggers, their process and how they went from blog to book.

Do you want to blog a book of Poetry?I begin the month with an interview with a blogger I’ve followed for quite some time in the world of Jewish spirituality. Rachel Barenblat is a rabbi and a poet as well a blogger, and in 2008, TIME magazine named her blog one of the top 25 sites on the Internet. Pretty awesome, right? At that time, I said, “I want to figure out what she is doing right.” She was writing poetry and recording it—poetry based on the weekly Torah (or Old Testament) portion read in synagogue each week. And at that time she wasn’t even a rabbi yet!

Anyway, she already had a few chapbooks out, but now she has more published books. So, here’s her blog-to-book story, chock full of great advice on how to blog well, blog a book, book a blog and generally succeed as a blogger and an author or poet.

Please describe your blog and your book.

My blog is called Velveteen Rabbi. I started blogging in 2003, and have maintained the practice regularly since then. I primarily blog about Judaism, broadly defined: spiritual life, Torah, the festivals, prayer, etc. I blogged throughout my 5+ years of rabbinic school. In recent years I’ve been posting poetry as well as Judaic material (and often poetry which is Judaic material!). In the last two and a half years, I’ve added motherhood to my repertoire. In 2008, TIME magazine named Velveteen Rabbi one of the top 25 sites on the internet.

My book, 70 faces, is a collection of Torah poems, poems written in conversation with the weekly Torah reading (“parsha.”) I wrote these poems weekly for a few years, and each week I posted one on my blog. I shared the poems during those years with a variety of poetry-writing communities, as well as the blog readership I had developed over years of regular interactions (both on my blog, and on theirs). Every poem in the published book originally appeared on my blog, though many were revised before publication.

Since you booked your blog (repurposed posts), what process did you use to find or choose the blog posts that went into your book? (And out of how many posts did you have to choose?)

Once I had written a couple years’ worth of weekly Torah poems, I collected the best poem for each parsha and assembled them into a manuscript. Shaping the manuscript was fairly easy in that sense. I talked about the process in public, on my blog and on Twitter and so forth, and a friend and colleague (a fellow blogger, who I’ve known through her blog since probably 2004; we’d also worked together on previous literary projects) asked to see the draft manuscript. After that, she and I worked together to hone the manuscript.

How did you then organize the posts, or did you keep the flow that you originally constructed?  

The organizational process was really dictated by the subject matter. I wanted this to be a companion to the Torah (the Five Books of Moses); I wanted the book to be usable by those who are engaging in weekly Torah study or by those who are writing sermons and divrei Torah as well as those who are interested in poetry but may not have much experience with scripture. I kept the original flow, which is to say one poem (sometimes a multi-part poem, but a single poem nonetheless) for each of the weekly parshiyot (Torah portions).

What percentage of your book ended up repurposed posts as opposed to new content?

The whole collection consists of repurposed posts, since all of the poems in the book originally appeared on the blog.

What kind of editing did you need to do to make the blog posts work in a book? Did you need to add transitions, revise for flow from one post to the next, rewrite because of the different timeline, etc.?

The editing was primarily a matter of refining and polishing the poems. The poems were originally posted weekly; before Shabbat came each week, I would post that week’s Torah poem and then after Shabbat I would move on to the next week’s parsha. The deadlines were great. They kept me writing, and kept me from descending into perfectionism; I couldn’t have written 52 poems in a year if I had been committed to wholly polishing each one as I went, but the poems needed some tightening before publication.

How much new content did you later add to your book? Did you plan for this content in advance or was it simply added during the editing process?

The only new content I added was an introduction.

Did you take your readers input (comments) into account before the manuscript went to press. How did comments affect the final version of the book?

I paid attention to which poems readers had liked the most and which particular images or lines or turns of phrase readers liked and disliked. I took those things into account when I was shaping the final manuscript. But the primary editorial choices came from my own poetic sense and from my editor’s poetic sense.

How did booking your blog make you a better writer?

I don’t know that the process made me a better writer, although it did instill a sense of discipline in me which was really valuable. After my son was born, I spent a year writing weekly poems arising out of the experience of motherhood and posted those to my blog each week. Often that was the only writing I managed to do in a week (especially when my son was a newborn!), but it felt like a lifeline. I probably wouldn’t have attempted that if I hadn’t had the experience of writing weekly Torah poems and posting them on my blog.

Did booking your blog make you a better blogger (and how)?

I think sharing these poems on my blog as I wrote them opened up my blog in some interesting new ways. Before that I had only rarely posted poetry, believing (I think now erroneously) that readers who were interested in Judaism wouldn’t be interested in my other avocation. But writing and sharing the Torah poems there helped me recognize that my blog could be more diverse.

What advice would you offer to aspiring writers who might want to turn their blogs into books or blog a book?

Set yourself a goal and stick to it. One hundred words a day? One page a day? One post a week? Whatever it is, pick it and stick with it for at least a month—long enough for the habit to begin to become engrained. And cultivate friends (readers, other bloggers who are also writers) who are interested in commenting on your work! A good reader is worth their weight in gold. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that the best way to interest other writers in my work is to be interested in theirs, and the best way to get other bloggers to read me and comment is for me to read them and respond to what they’re doing. So there’s an investment of time. But hopefully the ensuing relationship is its own reward.)

What one thing did you do that increased your traffic or brought in more unique visitors?

Some of my readers during the period when I was blogging the Torah poems came from various poetry communities whose prompts I was using to help spark the poems. But most of them were my existing blog readers—people who’d already been following Velveteen Rabbi, sometimes for a long time. Once the Torah poems became a weekly thing, people who were interested in them started mentioning them to other people, and the word spread a bit on its own. Then once the book was out, I set up about six months’ worth of readings (including a book tour to Boston, to Montreal, and even to Texas!) and blogged those events, which helped keep the book in front of readers’ eyes.

How long did it take for you to gain blog readers, and can you pin point any certain event that created a tipping point when readership increased noticeably?

I honestly don’t know how long it took for me to gain readers. I can tell you that my readership increased a great deal when TIME noticed my blog; also when Nick Kristof mentioned something I’d done on my blog (using my blog as a platform for fundraising, to help a mosque in New York City that had been desecrated in a hate crime) in the newspaper. But I think most of my enduring readership comes from the fact that I write a lot, and I try to keep the blog meaningful.

How did your traditional blog-to-book deal come about?

My publisher is Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing. I’ve known Beth for years—through our blogs, actually; her blog, The Cassandra Pages also started around 2003, and we’ve been connecting via blog since not long after we both began blogging. We’d worked together on some previous literary projects, including the anthology Brilliant Coroners, which she published and I co-edited (with British blogger Rachel Rawlins), so she knew my work; I’d also served as a judge in the Qarrtsiluni chapbook contest, and the end product of that contest is published by Phoenicia each year. She’d read the poems as I was sharing then on the blog. So when she heard that I was hoping to publish, she asked to see the manuscript.

What’s the most important thing a blogger can do to get noticed in the blogosphere and build an author platform or fan base?

I think the best thing a blogger can do (aside from doing good, honest, meaningful writing and putting it out there regularly) is to interact with others. Read widely. Leave comments. Strike up friendships. Do favors for people. Review their books on your blog. And then, when you’re the one with a new book, they’ll be likely to want to help you sell yours, because you helped them sell theirs. Befriend people whose work you admire.

About Rachel Barenblat

Rachel Barenblat holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and was ordained a rabbi by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2011. Since 2003, she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi; in 2008, TIME magazine named her blog one of the top 25 sites on the internet. She is a contributing editor at Zeek: a Jewish journal of thought and culture, and her poems have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She is author of four poetry chapbooks and one book-length collection, 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011). In 2012 she will be a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinic fellow. She serves Congregation Beth Israel, a small congregation in western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband, Ethan Zuckerman, and their son, Drew.

Her book, 70 faces, based on poems published on her blog, Velveteen Rabbi, is available at http://www.phoeniciapublishing.com/70-faces-torah-poems.html.

 

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Comments

  1. Nina says

    Thank you for participating in this month’s focus on blog-to-book deals, Rabbi Rachel, and good luck with your book!

  2. says

    Nina, thank you for giving book-bloggers a chance to talk about their process and encouraging others to have the same perseverance! It was a great pleasure to work with Rachel on 70 Faces: Torah Poems, and I’m delighted and proud to see it featured here.

  3. Nina says

    Beth,
    Thanks for your note! It’s great to have a publisher stop by. I often get asked about blogged books and previously published work, so your support of Rachel’s project is important to many book bloggers.

  4. says

    Wow! Great information! I am still in my infancy when it comes to blogging and I truly appreciate all the different aspects of blogging I am learning from your site! Thank you so much for sharing all of this!
    dadblunders recently posted..Xander’s Life Rules #4

  5. Nina says

    I wonder if there are any books out there written by stay-at-home dads…you could blog one.

  6. says

    None that I am aware of. I have always found that the stay-at-home dad section is generally pretty sparse compared to stay-at-home moms area. On my blog i currently have a pretty lengthy area of things that have happened to us with helpful commentary (in general things I know as a social worker or learned in school) I wonder what type of format it would need to be in for a book vs. the writing style I had adopted for short blogs? Especially since it is a area that is not explored that often….
    dadblunders recently posted..Xander’s Life Rules #4

  7. Nina says

    Well, you can get my book or read the many posts I wrote last month (under the tab labeled book launch) and learn the basic rules of blogging a book. I’d do the research and seriously think about it. I coach on this as well… But if there aren’t many books on the topic, you could easily dominate the field with your blog. How many blogs are out there on the topic? That’s another thing to consider.

  8. says

    I actually have looked for definitive numbers on dad bloggers vs. mom bloggers and they are not readily available on dads. I have been able to find numbers for moms though. Dad bloggers are a relatively newer concept. There are a few out there currently that dominate the market on dads. They have been doing it longer than most and several of them already had a background in media or entertainment.

    Many dad bloggers start a blog as a hobby and discontinue it after some length of time. Myself, I do various things on my blog, such as Life Rules, Xander’s World (how he plays with toys), Truthful Thoughts and of course everyday interaction where I often make comments about parenting and what should be happening. Generally, for the most part I find humor in things and write about it and how difficult it can be raising a child.

    I know that I believe I have some unique insights being a social worker that worked with children.

    Aaron
    dadblunders recently posted..Xander’s World Episode 15 or Super Puppy

  9. Nina says

    You might read my book and go through the proposal process. See if you have a book in your blog…or can begin focusing your blog into a book.

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