Using Social Media As A Professional

Social media is a seductress that sucks away tons of time we could be using for writing. However, it is also a useful tool for marketing. I’m not going to talk about limiting your time on social media or any of that. I’m also not here to talk to you about how to market using social media. That’s the realm of social media marketing guru, Kristen Lamb. No, indeed, my focus is a little different.

I have many authors, publishers, editors, and other professionals in the writing industry as friends on Facebook. They are also people whose news feeds are full of all kinds of things. Now, many of them use separate accounts (or pages) to distinguish their writing profession from their personal Facebook where they connect with friends and family. However more just use one social media account to serve both purposes. Most of this post will be focused on Facebook rather than the other social media outlets because Facebook is the one I am most active on. I find Twitter hard to follow and keep up with, and LinkedIn requires you to pay to play for a lot of their good services. Neither are bad platforms, but they just aren’t the one I’ve cultivated the most. However, this list of thoughts on social media use should be universal for all platforms.

1) Use your privacy settings.

I know a few people on Facebook who have their accounts set as public. That means everything they write goes to everyone in the world. While that can be useful and beneficial for some things, if you’re melding personal and professional that means you need to take an extra degree of care regarding what you post because everyone with an internet connection can view what you say. That means you absolutely should not  post very personal things on Facebook with that setting. If you had a fight with your partner, if you had a bad day you want to vent about, if you plan on using a lot of profanity (and that’s not part of your author platform)… you need to think about all those things and who is going to see them.

2) Think Before You Post

Before you put anything on your account, consider how it might impact your brand. For example, I do not post anything with profanity to my Facebook wall whatsoever (though if there’s some in an article, I’ll put a warning and maybe share the article anyway). I also explicitly avoid the topic of politics and do not permit political discussions on any of my Facebook posts. Why? Because they turn into arguments faster than you can say “this was a bad idea.” Now, some authors view their political activities as part of their world and don’t care if they are divisive enough to turn off readers whose opinions differ. That is a perfectly valid standpoint, but make absolutely certain that whatever you post, you do so with attention and care.

3) Know your posts will be scrutinized by potential clients/buyers

Yep. You can think, “Oh, this is my personal space to mouth off,” but you’d be wrong. The minute you start selling your book, you must begin selling yourself. That means everything you post in a public medium will immediately become a factor in whether or not someone will purchase your book or your service. If you’re a publisher or editor, authors will immediately start thinking about whether or not you are someone they want representing your book. This also includes whether or not you write in coherent English. If, as an editor or publisher, you are consistently writing posts that have major errors (which couldn’t be explained by autocorrect or typos), folks will throw red flags all over the place and not work with you.

4) Double-check all sources for articles

Due to the increased amount of scrutiny your page will receive by your audience, you need to make sure your sources and content are quality. If you are consistently posting fake news stories (the Onion doesn’t count), it will hurt your image as someone who can be trusted. This also includes industry stories and information. If you’re sharing information, make sure it’s vetted or at least overtly labeled as opinion. There’s nothing wrong with sharing opinion pieces, just make sure you aren’t sharing opinion as dyed-in-the-wool fact.

5) Know that everything you post reflects on your platform

Everything. When you are on social media, every single thing you post (and everything that could show in your news feed to others, like comments you make on friends’ posts) reflects on your platform and can either help or hurt. There’s a reason I exclusively post silly, positive, friendly things on my Facebook. That’s my choice, though, not something I’m mandating for everyone. Just make sure you’re aware that every single thing you post or share will impact the opinion of your readers. That choice is yours alone to make, however.

In the end, social media is what you make of it. You must make your own decisions about what you share or do not share, what you say, and what you do. If you rant and rave and curse and scream… well, that’ll impact the sorts of people who want to work with you or read your books. If you are sharing vulgarity, nudity, sexually charged material, or deeply political posts, that’ll affect them too. As an author, you need to view things differently because you are, essentially, a small business owner. The product you are selling is yourself and your work. If you want people to invest in you, work with you, or purchase your products, you need to be appealing. Your social media account (unless you separate one out that’s just friends/family) is no longer a private space for you to express yourself. Put that idea right out of your head. If you need a place where no one will judge, comment, or have the right to use that information to determine if they want to work with you then lock down your social media and/or get a diary. We all need to unload sometimes, but as authors we need to be careful how we go about it!

Crabs In A Bucket

I received a rather salty (unfriendly) comment on an old blog today that read as an author who had been either mistreated by the publishing industry venting or an author who hated published authors and everyone associated with them because they hadn’t been successful in that route. While I understand frustration when the industry mistreats an author (and saying “no, we don’t want your book,” is not mistreating authors), there’s no need to take it out on others.

I came across the phrase “crabs in a bucket” in a fabulous editing group I’m part of on Facebook, and I thought maybe it was time to address something I’ve been witnessing more and more as social media continues its roll into the gutters of human interaction: Authors being jerks to others because they feel it somehow validates them. Like so many other people in the world (and bullies on the grade school playground), there are those who believe that tearing others down will raise them up. Let me make it very clear: that does not work.

The term comes from a phenomenon where if you put more than one crab in a bucket, they will try and climb over one another in an effort to escape the bucket and, thereby, get nowhere. And that’s exactly what the sort of vitriol I received today accomplished: nothing. They received a polite response from me, because I don’t find it helpful or positive to be unfriendly in return, but their point is no closer to validation than it was before.

In this day and age, I have seen it happen everywhere that authors will teach each other down and kick each other as they try to gain the almighty dollar. Writing groups are full of petty, bickering jerks who make snide comments about work and writing without having understanding of the industry or the art. Twitter and Facebook are full of people ready to tear an author apart over a misplaced comma in a novel where there were 50,000 correct commas. We have developed this thought that if we see something we don’t like in someone else’s book that we have to tear them apart. It comes from this mentality that there is only so much attention to go around, and every author has to fight for the slightest shred of attention.

IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. STOP.

While it’s true that not every book will find its audience and there is a finite amount of money, resources, and reading time available, what will really set you apart from others is how good your book is, how well it’s produced, and how well you market it. Tearing down the author next to you is like punching the runner beside you in a marathon. It’s wrong, it’s not going to help you much in the end, and eventually everyone’s going to either ostracize you or get together and destroy you. Doing this kind of thing will hurt your brand. As such—STOP DOING IT.

That said, if you encounter something very wrong (an editor who is charging for subpar work, a publisher who behaves in predatory ways, a cover designer who takes off with your money, etc.) then you should by all means speak up about it. I’m not saying this to encourage people to be silent about real issues facing the industry and individuals who are taking advantage of others. However, we should address these things in a professional manner rather than making salty comments on the blogs of individuals. There are places and ways to make those things known and to research folks with whom you tend to work. There are also litmus tests you can do to see if the people you’re working with are legitimate. I’ve covered those in previous blogs and would be happy to do so again.

Authors, publishers, editors, typesetters, designers, marketers—we’re all in this together. We’re all in this to publish books and put them out in front of audiences. We’re all in this to make money (you wouldn’t publish otherwise). Other than expelling predatory folks from our midst, we should be in this to help each other. The more support we can provide one another, the better off the whole industry is altogether. Stop tearing each other down and work on your own skills, talent, and contacts. Improve yourself, and stop trying to yank others back because it will not improve your chances. You will not succeed that way.

When Writing Isn’t What You Thought

I encountered an article published by an author who has (according to this), given up the ghost when it comes to novels. The tone is bitter, angry, and selfish. While I wouldn’t critique someone’s private blog or Facebook rant about their frustrations regarding publishing, this being published in the Guardian is a little different. So, I’m going to write a response to the ghost of the author of this article because, honestly, I think this response has been brewing for years:

Get over it and grow up.

Writing isn’t a “sport” for the weak-willed and the narcissistic. You will be rejected often and hard, and you’ll have to kill your darlings. You have to give up the idea of your “opus” until you’ve been published at least a few times before. The thing is, the market doesn’t care about your artistic vision. It doesn’t care how you feel about your book. It doesn’t care about anything but whether or not the world wants to read it. I know that sounds jaded, but it’s true. If you are writing for external validation and for public acclaim, you will fail. If you write with an ego and expect the world to see your genius like you do, you will fail.

So what do you write for? What’s the point?

Because you want to get better. Because you have a story to tell. Because you’re passionate about writing. There are a hundred reasons to write, and they’re a hundred good ones. Write without an ego. Write without trying to live up to others’ expectations. Write regardless of what anyone tells you. Write a hundred novels no one but you will ever read. Pour your blood, sweat, and tears into your art for no one but yourself. Once you’re there, once you’re doing that, you’re starting to get the idea.

Writing is not easy. So many people assume you can just pick up and write without studying. Just because you can put coherent words into your word processor doesn’t make you a writer. What makes a writer is dedication. It’s writing through difficult times, it’s study, it’s practice. No artist of any kind ever produced pure gold without practice and study. So many folks seem to think writing is exempt from that reality, and it’s not. If you want to be a good writer then you need to do the same thing you’d do to learn to paint or learn an instrument. You find a teacher or mentor, you study, you practice, you learn how to use language and make it sing for you.

Writing is not something you can just pick up and do just because you feel like maybe you want to put something on paper. If you want to be a writer, if you want to be successful, if you want writing to be your vocation, then strap in, hike up your big boy/girl panties so high they’re at your chin, and join the rest of us in the trenches.

Tenents of Storytelling

My dear friend Helen keyed on a phrase I used in my last entry: tenants of storytelling. She asked me to enumerate them, and since then I’ve been trying to come up with a list of commandments for writers. Now, keep in mind that there is almost always a time to break the rules, but you need to understand them before you do that. These are also not rules for just the craft of writing, but for plot and story, so I’m going to leave my crunchy nitpickiness regarding the Oxford comma at home. You can thank me for that later. Winking smile Let’s get to it!

Don’t write yourself into corners through poor planning.

Many authors end up using poor storytelling because they didn’t make a plan for their plot before they wrote it and then didn’t know how to get out of the corner they’d written themselves into. They then rely on deus ex or other means to squirm out of it. The way you avoid this is by having a plan for your story before you execute it. That isn’t to say you need to plan every tiny aspect of your plot, but if you don’t have a clear goal to write toward (your ending), you’ll probably end up with problems.

Over-complicating doesn’t make your story “complex” in a good way.

Some writers end up coming up with too many ideas and trying to stuff them all into a single book. This leads to a book turning into a catastrophe with so many threads the reader (and even author) end up lost and confused about just what is happening in the world of the characters. That isn’t to say complicated plots with multiple threads all happening at once are bad, but take care that you aren’t being complicated just because you have story ADD and aren’t focused on readability.

Some writers also develop the mistaken impression that this kind of thing makes your story “complex” in a positive way (like Game of Thrones). While complexity is good in the right circumstances, it needs to be woven well. Complexity doesn’t happen just because you have a high quantity of things happening all at once.

Not keeping your pacing moving.

Some authors run into issues where the plot either goes rushing by so quickly the readers don’t quite follow it or they drag things on so long the reader develops cobwebs. Now, pacing issues can be a function of poor writing rather than just storytelling, but sometimes it can be due to storytelling. A writer might not quite know how to get from Point A to Point C, so they meander around in the swamp trying to find their way out. That’s fine to do when you’re writing a first draft, but too often writers leave that kind of thing in the final draft and try to drag readers with them while they try to figure things out.

Confusing transitional scenes or lack of transitional scenes.

I’ve encountered manuscripts where the writer gives the reader no transition whatsoever between one scene and another. One moment the character is on the subway, the next they are in a hotel. No scene break, no mention of the character getting off the subway and into the hotel, nothing. Again, recognizing that this is fine in the first draft (you should see how many things I leave out when I write a first draft!), folks often overlook them in subsequent drafts and never go back to repair that lack of transition. It’s confusing as heck because it’s like a camera cutting from one scene to another without warning or indication they’re entering a new place.

Inconsistency within the manuscript.

A character whose height, weight, name and personality change through the manuscript is going to raise red flags. That isn’t to say a character can’t develop (they should), but if it’s just because the writer forgot something, it proves an issue. However, if characters are acting inconsistent with how you have created them just because you have plot needs and didn’t put together how to make it work… Well, you can see the issue.

Relying on clichés is a problem.

Most writing will employ some measure of cliché. They aren’t, innately, a bad thing, but many writers rely on these tropes too hard and pidgeonhole their characters, which makes their work predictable. Now, anyone familiar with stories can often see the direction of a plot—that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean clichés like “the butler did it”.

Even the best plots won’t go anywhere with poor pacing.

Pacing is a difficult thing to get on point. You don’t want to crawl through a scene, but you also don’t want to sprint, either. Pacing is also not just the speed of the scene, but it’s also in the technical aspects of the writing (passive voice or passive construction, for example!), so it’s a many-faceted issue. I’m not going to dig too hard into pacing in this post, since I could write a whole blog entry just on pacing. Suffice to say, pacing is somewhat of a nuanced subject, but the thing that’ll trip up an author most is not being aware of it.

Now, ultimately, most rules of writing are loose in some ways. These, however, are pretty strict so far as I am concerned. They’re loose in the sense that you can avoid them in a myriad of ways, but these aren’t rules to be broken. The only one that gives you much wiggle room is the clichés one because you can use cliché in satire and some other genres if you’re doing it almost as a parody of the fact that it’s a cliché.

If you would like me to elaborate on any of these points, please just ask in the comments section, and I’ll talk your ear off for you!

Happy Endings

I recently encountered someone asking why so many literary writers poo-poo happy endings. After some evaluating I realized that many literary writers’ books do have rather miserable endings. However, I don’t think it’s a categorical denial of happy endings so much as it is a reflection of the person, and many famous writers weren’t all that happy.

Some people seem to think that being miserable is a requirement for being a writer, and one of my previous posts discussing depression is definitely indicative of that. But not every writer wants to write about their unhappiness. Quite the contrary, honestly. I prefer to write about fantasy worlds because it takes me out of where I live. Some people prefer to write about their sorrow and pain because they find it cathartic. Others want to wallow in it and exorcise their pain through sharing it with others.

The ending of your book doesn’t need to be categorically happy or sorrowful. In fact, the ending of any work shouldn’t be categorically anything. When writing a story its conclusion should be a fulfillment of the promises the story itself has made. It should be satisfying. But you don’t need to think that you need to fill some sort of literary rules about your ending because there aren’t any other than that it work with the book.

This, of course, likely comes as no surprise to any of you who follow me because I believe in telling your story and following where the story takes you. While there are certain tenants to storytelling, there is no requirement for any specific kind of ending for your book. You need to write where your heart goes. Stories end where they are meant to end, and you shouldn’t eschew any particular type of ending just because someone else finds it trite. If your story ends with “happily ever after,” then it ends with “happily ever after.”

Some of the reason folks these days lean toward darker endings is because they believe it makes their work edgy. It’s similar to the trend of killing off main characters a la Game of Thrones. While I do not prefer or employ this technique, I wouldn’t tell someone not to employ it if it works for them. However, I do recommend not giving into the pressure of feeling as though you are obligated to do any particular thing in that regard. Just because something is popular at the moment doesn’t mean you need to leap onto that bandwagon. At that point, you lose some of your artistic integrity because you’re attempting to fit a formula or mold rather than digging deep into your own creativity and allowing that to dictate what your writing will entail.

Ultimately, you need to write the story and book you want to write. This may mean that not everyone likes it. It may mean that not everyone will want to publish it. However, if you water something down far enough to please everyone, it will please no one. Listen to your gut and let the story whisper in your ears. Write what the muse tells you, and the heck with anything different.

The Fine Line: Description

Many writers struggle with description. I recently had a manuscript that, in the same chapter, suffered from over-description and under-description. The author told the reader every inch of the main character’s morning routine in intimate detail and then didn’t describe the setting whatsoever. The balance of describing things is difficult because we are told over and over that we need to move the plot forward. Everything we write should push the story onward. And then we read big name authors like Tolkien and Martin who describe everything in complete, intricate detail.

In the end? It comes down to taste. Do you prefer Hemmingway’s stark writing style that doesn’t spent words describing something so trivial as a character’s hair color unless it’s important or do you want to be Tolkien who filled his world with so much detail it took forever to dig through it to find the plot? While, by my writing style, you can probably guess my preference, it’s important to know what your style is.

For me, I’m somewhere in between. I like to give readers information that might not be directly plot-related but fills out the world, but I don’t want to drown my readers in it because it, to me, destroys the pacing. Finding this balance in your own writing is tough because you never know how much is too much or how little is too little until you read it. You’ll also hear conflicting stories at every turn. Some writing coaches will tell you one thing, and some will tell you another.

Ultimately, it’s your choice how much description you want to use. Choose one and stick to it, though you can experiment a bit with short stories and essays to decide which is going to be your personal style. While your style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, you should take the time to learn and understand it.

Now, let me pull back a little and say there are empirical points where there can be too much or too little description, or where you might be using description improperly. These points aren’t a style choice; they’re places where you may be using things wrong.

How do you describe things poorly? By using a “laundry list” of adjectives or using adverbs unnecessarily, you’re not providing rich description. Let me give you an example of poor description and then an example of good description to show you what I mean.

Poor Description:
The bright, clear, yellow sun slowly rose over the tall, snowy mountains.

Good Description:
The morning sun spilled golden light across the snow-capped mountains like honey, clinging to the stark edifice of the ragged cliffs.

The reason the first description is poor because you can see a laundry list-style list of adjectives at the beginning, an unnecessary adjective, and another short list of adjectives following. It’s childish writing which might work for a children’s book (whose limited vocabulary means limited description), but for adult fiction it’s weak.

The key here is going to be to use description well in your writing. The amount of it is going to vary from person to person, but make sure you aren’t using it improperly and poorly, regardless of how much or how little you may choose to employ.

“Character Autonomy”

I’ve been gone awhile due to my health, but I’m hopefully back now. I’m going to write once or twice a week until I find my stride again, but I haven’t abandoned the blog. Life has just been distracting me from my work here.

So, this particular subject created a hotbed of contention in a writing group I’m part of today, and it’s one I’ve seen all over the place. When a writer says, “My character did ‘x’, and I had no control over it at all! I had to write his story that way,” most of the rest of us head for the hills because the belief that your characters have a complete life of their own, over which you as the writer have no control whatsoever, is a sign of mental illness. Now, that isn’t to say our stories can’t surprise us, or our characters might go in ways we hadn’t initially planned, but suspend your judgment until I have a chance to explain my assessment of both sides of this coin.

So, on one hand, our characters are creations of our mind. We made them. We chose their parts (even if it was an unconscious decision which I will get to later), and they do not exist outside our heads. At least not in their entirety. On the other hand, our characters are comprised unconsciously out of bits and pieces of people or other characters we have seen or encountered in our lives. We are, after all, repositories of information. People whose characters just sort of appear in their heads fully formed (rather than created deliberately) are accessing their memories in a less structured manner, though they are doing similar things. Even when we choose attributes, we often are creating mirrors of people we’ve encountered in our lives. The reflection is unconscious in either case, and the only thing that differs is the method.

I am, perhaps, somewhat unique in the sense that I experience both methods of character creation. Sometimes, I build a character with each aspect intentionally designed for a purpose or chosen with care. Other times they walk out of my brain and onto my mental “stage” fully formed.  Neither method is more valid than the other, but they both stem from the same places.

Now the big difference in “my character dictated the scene” and “I dictated the scene”—not counting mental illness—is that in the first scenario the writer’s subconscious or unconscious mind is writing the story. They might not know it at the time while they daydream about their characters, world, and plot, but that’s what they’re doing. Their mind is chugging away and utilizing their memories and experiences to create stories based on things they’ve read, seen, or experienced. They are also extrapolating what could happen next. Usually, this takes place while the writer is daydreaming or letting their thoughts wander rather than dictating the exact details of a scene.

The other scenario means the author is constructing the scene like an architect. They plan every aspect of it and write each word with intent and deliberation. While they often have lines or details that come to them while they write, their experience is rather different from those who just have experience of everything appearing in their head as though by magic. The architect is drawing from the same well of inspiration; they are just accessing it through different channels.

When it comes to writing a book, both methods are important. Being able to unchain your thoughts and let your imagination wander and paint pictures you may not have expected is a valuable tool. When we daydream we are at our most creative. We are letting our mind roll over what matters to us, and come up with all kinds of different possibilities. On the other hand, being able to plan and construct our scenes and characters as needed is an important skill as well. In the end, a blending of both of these tools will make you a powerful writer. Both have their time and place.

Returning to the “my character did ‘x’” and “I made my character do ‘x’” conversation, what we are seeing is a lack of realization on both sides of what the other is saying. Not counting the potential mental instability where delusions are a condition, we need to recognize what is being said because in some ways, both are right and have merit. Most of us are very aware that our characters don’t exist outside our sphere of control and outside our minds. And yes, we have control over them. At the same time, many writers (particularly those young in their journey) don’t know how to access their creativity without daydreaming. Being able to do that and willingly create in that way is a skill that is learned rather than daydreaming which is instinct to us–most folks do from the time we are children.

Also, learning to articulate the differences and understand exactly what’s happening with each style of writer requires a little more understanding of both writing and of the way we think and process information. If I know someone to be mentally stable, and they talk about how a scene wrote itself, or a character “made a decision”, I usually chuckle with them. Largely because I know what they’re trying to communicate. I can also bemoan alongside the architects when a scene just will not congeal the way we’re trying to write it. Or rejoice when something comes together exactly as it was planned.

We really are all doing the same thing; we’re just approaching it from different angles and using different language to describe the same process.