Today I’m teaching at class at Hugo House’s Write-O-Rama, a festival of mini-writing classes that raises funds for Hugo House’s programs and resources. I’ve taught this class before, and I’m really happy to have been asked back to teach it again.
This post is designed to help anyone who takes that class (or who is interested in general) find greater resources.
Why Use Social Media? I Don’t Need the Distraction!
Yes, that’s true. Writers need to be focused. But we also need readers.
There are a lot of writers and readers online who use social media to find new voices to follow. Agents and editors take author platforms into account now more than they ever have before. Like it or not, we live in an age where publication does not come with a grandiose marketing budget. There is no team of people to do it for you unless your prior celebrity brings that team with you. If you’re just a normal person with a great story to tell, you need to find a way to connect with readers. Social media is the way to do just that.
It’s also a great way to connect with other writers. Think of it as your online Paris in the 1920’s. A lot of writers are here online, commiserating with one another, sharing ideas and inspirations, and more. Colson Whitehead once wrote about Twitter:
I used to think that I was the only one hunched over a keyboard in soiled pajamas, rummaging through the catalogue of my failures and intermittently weeping. Now, I open Twitter and see that I am not alone. I am part of a vast and wretched assembly of freaks who are not fit for decent work and thus must write, or wither. I am fortified by their failures, and I hope they take succor from mine. Some of those out there are established, some are just starting out. I don’t give a whit about your accomplishments—all I care about is your facility for describing the fine grain of your work-related suffering, in less than 140 characters, preferably 100, so I have room to add a footnote. I debrief them on my repulsive day; they inform me of their ongoing tortures. The miles disappear, the borders of nations evaporate as we log on, disburden, commiserate, and then, most important, log off. Log off, because even though it’s nice to have someone to talk to during the day, it’s also nice to shut ‘em up.
What Networks to Focus On
Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn are great ways to communicate who you are as a writer. I liken Twitter to the a cocktail party where you get to create the guest list from any author, artist, actor, or director that you’d like. The noise is minimal, since the stream flows with time, unlike Facebook’s popularity-weighted newsfeed. This allows you to tweet more often, converse with others, meet new writers without increasing noise for people who follow you. You can tweet stories there, like Jennifer Egan’s Black Box or the event I run for Hugo House, #FridayFiction.
On Tumblr and Facebook, you can experiment with longer pieces of flash fiction, shorter prose essays, or just talk about what is sparking your interests at the moment. Readers love to engage with writers on a personal level. On Tumblr, Neil Gaiman takes time to give advice on writing to aspiring scribes, shares art inspired by his work, or his wife’s art which in turn inspires him. Cheryl Strayed shares beautifully crafted updates about her work, her book tours, her family and daily inspirations on Facebook. Both mediums allow a deeper engagement than Twitter, although the “party” can be harder to curate.
LinkedIn is a great place to network professionally with other writers, share your publications, and share content specifically about the writing life, how to market your book, how to hunt for the right agent, etc.
Then there are image-based social media sites like Instagram. I do think writers should be involved here. I’ve seen poets post poetry to accompany pictures, from haikus to prose poems. Booksellers share their favorite new books. The combination of both can be a moving experience for people and can help people become a fan of your voice.
Who to Follow?
A list of writers to follow on Twitter and another one from The Missouri Review.
A list of writers and literary blogs to follow on Tumblr
Find a person you respect on social media. @ColsonWhitehead, @NeilGaiman, or @MargaretAtwood, for example. Look at who he’s following. Start building your list from that. Pull from Hugo House’s list. My list. If you also like film, go to your favorite film review site, find their Twitter feed and look at who they’re following.
And grow your Twitter following by following reviewers and book sellers like Michele Filgate, Allison Devers, Maud Newton, Kevin Sampsell, and follow who they’re following. Since joining Twitter, I’ve relied on Michele and Allison especially to find new writers to fall in love with.
Look at who your most lit and tech savvy friends are following on Facebook and do the same thing. Tumblr is harder to find, but there are plenty of great articles rounding up great writers and literary sources on Tumblr, like the one from the Millions cited above.
Curating your networks will help you make friends, grow as a writer inspired by others who are doing what you’re doing, connect you with content that inspires, educates and challenges, which you can in turn share with your network through reblogs and retweets.
What do I say?
- Be professional.
- Be interesting.
- Pick areas of interest to focus on.
These are my rules of social media. Be professional: don’t burn people, whether they reviewed you poorly or didn’t reply to your comment. Don’t go on about your Amazon rankings. If you wouldn’t say it to a stranger at a party where you’re mixing work and pleasure, don’t say it online. No one would walk up to you at a cocktail party and say, without introduction, “MY BOOK IS #978,042 ON AMAZON’S SELF-PUBLISED EBOOK LIST. READ IT TODAY!”
Be interesting and pick areas of interest go hand in hand. Pick a couple of topics: literature, writing and film, for example. Curate your social networks based around those and share content that’s interesting to those people. Any google search or half-hour spent reading on your favorite websites will yield something. Readers will begin following you because they learn from you, as you’ll learn from others.
Articles on Writers and Social Media:
The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing - The New Yorker
Writers and Work Ethics Online - Colson Whitehead, Publisher’s Weekly
EXAMPLES of literature on SOCIAL MEDIA
In letting yourself use the word count constraints of social media to share art, you’re not only giving readers a chance to fall in love with your voice, but you’re also sharpening your craft. Here’s some great short short fiction from classic and modern writers who use brevity to sharpen their prose:
Dorothy Parker’s Twitter-sized literature.
"The sun’s gone dim and the moon’s turned black; for I loved him and he didn’t love back."
Ernest Hemingway’s short, Facebook and Tumblr-sized fiction from In Our Time:
A VERY SHORT STORY
"One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night.
Luz stayed on night duty for three months. They were glad to let her. When they operated on him she prepared him for the operating table; and they had a joke about friend or enema. He went under the anæsthetic holding tight on to himself so he would not blab about anything during the silly, talky time. After he got on crutches he used to take the temperatures so Luz would not have to get up from the bed. There were only a few patients, and they all knew about it. They all liked Luz. As he walked back along the halls he thought of Luz in his bed.
Before he went back to the front they went into the Duomo and prayed. It was dim and quiet, and there were other people praying. They wanted to get married, but there was not enough time for the banns, and neither of them had birth certificates. They felt as though they were married, but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it.
Luz wrote him many letters that he never got until after the armistice. Fifteen came in a bunch to the front and he sorted them by the dates and read them all straight through. They were all about the hospital, and how much she loved him and how it was impossible to get along without him and how terrible it was missing him at night.
After the armistice they agreed he should go home to get a job so they might be married. Luz would not come home until he had a good job and could come to New York to meet her. It was understood he would not drink, and he did not want to see his friends or anyone in the States. Only to get a job and be married. On the train from Padua to Milan they quarreled about her not being willing to come home at once. When they had to say good-bye, in the station at Milan, they kissed good-bye, but were not finished with the quarrel. He felt sick about saying good-bye like that.
He went to America on a boat from Genoa. Luz went back to Pordonone to open a hospital. It was lonely and rainy there, and there was a battalion of arditi quartered in the town. Living in the muddy, rainy town in the winter, the major of the battalion made love to Luz, and she had never known Italians before, and finally wrote to the States that theirs had been only a boy and girl affair. She was sorry, and she knew he would probably not be able to understand, but might some day forgive her, and be grateful to her, and she expected, absolutely unexpectedly, to be married in the spring. She loved him as always, but she realized now it was only a boy and girl love. She hoped he would have a great career, and believed in him absolutely. She knew it was for the best.
The major did not marry her in the spring, or any other time. Luz never got an answer to the letter to Chicago about it. A short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.”
In 1919 he was traveling on the railroads in Italy, carrying a square of oilcloth from the headquarters of the party written in indelible pencil and saying here was a comrade who had suffered very much under the Whites in Budapest and requesting comrades to aid him in any way. He used this instead of a ticket. He was very shy and quite young and the train men passed him on from one crew to another. He had no money, and they fed him behind the counter in railway eating houses.
He was delighted with Italy. It was a beautiful country, he said. The people were all kind. He had been in many towns, walked much, and seen many pictures. Giotto, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca he bought reproductions of and carried them wrapped in a copy of Avanti. Mantegna he did not like.
He reported at Bologna, and I took him with me up into the Romagna where it was necessary I go to see a man. We had a good trip together. It was early September and the country was pleasant. He was a Magyar, a very nice boy and very shy. Horthy’s men had done some bad things to him. He talked about it a little. In spite of Hungary, he believed altogether in the world revolution.
"But how is the movement going in Italy?" he asked.
"Very badly," I said.
"But it will go better," he said. "You have everything here. It is the one country that everyone is sure of. It will be the starting point of everything."
I did not say anything.
At Bologna he said good-bye to us to go on the train to Milano and then to Aosta to walk over the pass into Switzerland. I spoke to him about the Mantegnas in Milano. “No,” he said, very shyly, he did not like Mantegna. I wrote out for him where to eat in Milano and the addresses of comrades. He thanked me very much, but his mind was already looking forward to walking over the pass. He was very eager to walk over the pass while the weather held good. He loved the mountains in the autumn. The last I heard of him the Swiss had him in jail near Sion.”
The Orange by Benjamin Rosenbaum, a Facebook and Tumblr-sized piece of flash fiction.
An orange ruled the world.
It was an unexpected thing, the temporary abdication of Heavenly Providence, entrusting the whole matter to a simple orange.
The orange, in a grove in Florida, humbly accepted the honor. The other oranges, the birds, and the men in their tractors wept with joy; the tractors’ motors rumbled hymns of praise.
Airplane pilots passing over would circle the grove and tell their passengers, “Below us is the grove where the orange who rules the world grows on a simple branch.” And the passengers would be silent with awe.
The governor of Florida declared every day a holiday. On summer afternoons the Dalai Lama would come to the grove and sit with the orange, and talk about life.
When the time came for the orange to be picked, none of the migrant workers would do it: they went on strike. The foremen wept. The other oranges swore they would turn sour. But the orange who ruled the world said, “No, my friends; it is time.”
Finally a man from Chicago, with a heart as windy and cold as Lake Michigan in wintertime, was brought in. He put down his briefcase, climbed up on a ladder, and picked the orange. The birds were silent and the clouds had gone away. The orange thanked the man from Chicago.
They say that when the orange went through the national produce processing and distribution system, certain machines turned to gold, truck drivers had epiphanies, aging rural store managers called their estranged lesbian daughters on Wall Street and all was forgiven.
I bought the orange who ruled the world for 39 cents at Safeway three days ago, and for three days he sat in my fruit basket and was my teacher. Today, he told me, “it is time,” and I ate him.
Now we are on our own again.
Félix Fénéon’s Twitter-sized fiction, from Novel in Three Lines, all orginally published in the French newspaper, Le Matin in 1906.
"Ouch!" cried the cunning oyster easter, "A pearl!" Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It has cost 30 cents at the dime store.
Frederic Penaut, of Marseilles, has a wife and a brother. The two were i love. Or so he believed, and he wounded his rival with two shots.
"We’ll settle your hash!" was supposedly said to Guyot de Toul at electio time. Was it politics, the, that drowned him in the canal?
At the Trianon Palace, a visitor disrobed and climbed into the imperial bed. It is disputed where he is, as he claims, Napoleon IV.
Six word stories from famous authors, curated by Wired Magazine:
Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.
- William Shatner
Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?
- Eileen Gunn
It cost too much, staying human.
- Bruce Sterling
Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
- Margaret Atwood
With bloody hands, I say good-bye.
- Frank Miller
Jennifer Egan’s story for The New Yorker was first serialized on their Twitter feed. Here are the first 10 (out 606 tweets), beginning a narrative about a female spy:
And of course, there is #FridayFiction, which I’ve been running through the @HugoHouse twitter for the last two and a half years. I provide a weekly prompt and people contribute stories constrained to a single tweet and then the community gets to follow the tag and get inspired to keep writing. Many have said that their single tweet stories have gone on to inspire full short stories later.