When did you start building your platform? Can you identify the major steps to take? What made a real difference?
First... I actually don't think it's essential for fiction writers to build a platform before they're published. I know or know of lots of very successful authors who had zero online presence prior to their first sale. A platform will not get you published in fiction unless it's a really awesome one. And wearing these shoes wouldn't count as an awesome platform for fiction, unless your name is Snooki or Lauren Conrad or Tyra Banks.
That said, I am someone who started to build a platform before I sold.
I used to be very active on several writers loops. I did this more to learn about writing and the industry, and to share what I'd learned with others, than to build a platform per se... but I did develop a fairly significant network of writer friends both via loops and via blogging.
The keys with blogging are at least two fold. First, make your content interesting. And second leave meaningful comments on other people's blogs in the hopes that you'll gain readership either from those individuals or their readers. Or maybe that they'll link to your blog from their blog. It can be a lot of work to do both of those things consistently, so I only recommend this for someone who enjoys it and has time. Also, you have to be careful not to say something that will paint you in a negative light.
And I don’t think that either of those venues are as active as they used to be. More people are now on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
I was a pretty early adopter of MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and Google+, but I don’t think it’s essential to do these things professionally before you’ve got a publishing contract. The trick is, unless you have really great content on those venues, why would anyone you don't already know follow you before you have a book out? It’s tricky. And is there any point in building up huge numbers of Facebook friends who are mostly interested in either hitting on you via skeevy messages, or asking you to buy them a cow for Farmville? (Asks the girl with 3800 Facebook friends. Do what I say, not what I do.)
Here's my twitter page if you're not already following me there. :)
Some people do social networking extremely well, but I don’t think it’s essential if it’s not something you enjoy. It's easy to get started on these social networking sites, and the main "tricky" thing for a writer is deciding whether to separate your personal identity from your writer identity. If I could turn back time three or four years, I would have set up Facebook differently for sure. Not that I really could have done it the way I wish I'd done it, because it's changed so much....
If you're starting on Facebook now, it's a good idea to set up a Page. But again, why would anyone "like" your page before you have a book? So, it's really just preparation and I wouldn't spend a lot of time trying to coerce people into liking your page. You'll just alienate them. Once you have a book out, they will come. ;) Especially if you have links for them to "like" you on your website and in various other places. :-)
My Facebook Page:
And here's a like button for Molly's new Facebook Page:
There are lots of great resources with advice on using social networking but I think the bottom line is be genuine. Be yourself. And again, be careful you don't tweet or post anything you might later regret. What you post online stays there forever. Minimize drunk tweeting. ;) Especially from an iPhone with autocorrect!
In terms of building a platform, one step I would advise writers to take before they sell is to buy the domain name(s) for whatever author name(s) they plan hope to use. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than realizing you can’t get “yourauthorname.com” when you want it. I reserved my website name in about 2003 and launched my website and blog after I got my first agent (in 2006) when I thought I was about to sell. I didn't get my first book contract until 2009. If I could turn back time, I’m not certain I would have put as much time/thought/money into my website. I do love the look of my site. My designer was very talented and really “got” me and my writing that I shared with her. Problem is, I ended up published in a different genre than I was writing at the time and while my website fits me as a person, I’m not sure it fits my current work... And I'll definitely need a new design with the books I have coming out starting next year (that I still can't talk about...)
One clear advantage I saw to blogging when I started, was that before I had a blog, when you googled my name most of the top hits weren’t me. After I’d been actively blogging for just a few months, and other writers had linked to my blog, suddenly most google hits for my name were actually about me and not some other person named Maureen McGowan. But again... that didn't get me published. I just thought it was cool.
If you know you’re going to use a pseudonym, then by all means start to create an identity online under that name, but know that things might not turn out as you plan. Maybe your publisher won’t let you use the pseudonym of your choice. Maybe you’ll change your mind by the time you’re published. Maybe you’ll end up in a different genre than the identity you’ve built up...
All this said, I think unpublished writers should concentrate more on their writing and honing their craft than worrying about a platform. Platforms are only essential for non-fiction writers. For fiction writers they're just a bonus, not a necessity and won't get your novel published unless your platform is that you're a cast member of a big reality TV show. If you enjoy social networking and have time, by all means. But make writing your first priority until you have a contract. An agent or editor won’t sign you or publish your novel because you have a gazillion facebook friends or a pretty website. In fact, unless they already love your book, they won’t even check to see.