Saturday, February 19, 2011

1203 Posts later, how this blog helped me get a book deal

I sat at my dining room table in Maplewood, New Jersey with my wife Rebecca and our dear friends Craig Winkelman and Jane Beck. It was July, 2005, and they were there for a goodbye dinner; in a few weeks my family of five would be moving to Beijing.

Craig and Jane are the creative forces behind rayogram, brilliant web design and consulting firm. I have known them for 20 years and they have always far ahead of the curve regarding anything technical. So I paid attention when Craig said, “You should start a blog to report from China.”

It was a new phenomenon but I quickly saw the advantages of having a site to upload my thoughts and pictures, freeing me from the responsibility of sending out mass emails. One email to everyone I cared about giving them the address would be sufficient; anyone who was interested could check in as frequently as they wanted. Craig took my laptop and together we went to blogger.com and registered www.alanpaulinchina.blogspot.com. The blog you are reading now, 1,203 posts later.

And the rest is history, at least for me; I never would have written my upcoming book Big In China (Harper Collins, March 1), if I had not started the blog.

Before moving to China, I had spent 10 years I juggling assignments for Slam and Guitar World with domestic responsibilities, as the stay-at-home dad for my three children. Now, liberated from deadlines and with no need to hustle for work, I poured myself into my new blog. I initially viewed it as merely a means of keeping in touch with friends and family, but I quickly realized that keeping this public journal was transforming me, reigniting my passion for writing.

I began to treat the blog as a job, compelled to make daily postings. Writing so much for no money represented the economic emancipation that expat living offered, thanks to highly subsidized housing in a place where everything else cost radically less. Back in the U.S., it felt like we were on a treadmill, struggling to bring in as much as we spent, even as our salaries rose. Now I was free to follow my muse, writing thousands of words a day just to tell the story I wanted to tell. Just before graduating college, I self-published a book collecting satirical columns I wrote for the Michigan Daily under the pseudonym Fat Al. In a short introduction, I wrote, “If you can’t do it with passion, don’t do it.” I had tried to continue living by that creed, but it had become an ever-harder standard to maintain. Now, it seemed attainable again.

Some people reading my blog back home noticed the changes.

“Something is happening to you, Alan,” my aunt Carrie Wells emailed from Maplewood. “I can feel it pulsing through your writing and it’s exciting.”

I knew what she meant but I didn’t pause to examine it, consciously pushing analysis away and pledging to live in the moment. After almost 20 years as a journalist talking to others, synthesizing their experiences and doing my best to tell their stories with honesty and integrity, I was now telling my own tale and the very process of doing so pushed me to keep seeking adventures.

On my very fist look-see visit to Beijing I hatched the idea of writing a column about my life in China. After a couple of months in China, I pitched the idea to Bill Grueskin, the editor of WSJ.com, who was only marginally interested. When I offered to write three on spec, he said, “I’d be a fool to say not to that.” I doubt I ever would have made the offer if I had not been pouring myself into my posts.

I edited three of my favorite posts filled with excitement and fascination about my new life and submitted them, quickly receiving an enthusiastic e-mail letter of acceptance. The sense of possibility and reinvention I felt from my earliest days writing blog posts about my arrival in China was paying off.

Just a few weeks later The Expat Life debuted and it became a defining element of my time in China, as well as the basis for Big In China. But when I needed deeper, more incisive details while writing the book, I always knew where to turn: right back to my source material, my blog.

This story is adapted from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China (Harper Collins). Available March 1 in all formats at all retailers. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul. For more information, please visit www.alanpaul.net.