Twitter is an essential part of any writer’s platform. But it can be a daunting place to try to figure out. Which is why I, like so many writers, made an account then promptly let it lie fallow for years.
Last November, with 80 followers, I finally realized that in my pursuit of book publication, Twitter has the potential to be a powerful ally. I started working to cultivate a larger following. Here’s what has worked for me:
1. FOLLOW BACK! — The number one rule of Twitter is reciprocation. Unless you’re Beyonce or Neil DeGrasse Tyson (and who among us is?) then almost no one but porn bots, sales bots, and your mother will follow you just for being you. Take time to follow the real people who take the time to follow you. (Don’t follow back the sales or porn bots though. That way lies doom).
2. Identify your communities. Think about the topics that you most want to tweet about. For example, I tend to tweet about writing, motherhood, Alaska, food, art, sex, and current events. Look for and follow people who are tweeting about the things you care about.
3. Use hashtags. Identify some of the hashtags associated with your communities and start using them. The topics themselves make a good start for hashtags. For example #food will attract people from the #foodie community.
4. Find the community hubs. Community hubs are accounts that are centered around a single theme and promote people within that community. For writers these may be indie author promoters, literary journals, agents, etc. They may also be readers who have an enthusiasm for particular types of writing such as erotica or flash fiction. Hubs generally have a lot of Followers, a lot of people they are Following, and tend to tweet or retweet people who are actively promoting. These are a great resource for finding new writers and readers to follow.
5. Watch your ratio. Keep your Following number higher than your Followers number. But not too much higher. 10-20% is a good number to aim for. Do not follow anyone who’s Following number is dramatically lower than their Followers number. (Unless it’s NDT or Beyonce, and you’re following out of genuine interest). Having uneven Following/Followers ratios is a red flag. It tells you that the account is not reciprocating when followed.
6.Make a routine. Set aside a time on day or two each each week (I do Sundays and Wednesdays) to search for people to follow, cull people who haven’t followed back, and follow back people who have followed you. Allow yourself 20 minutes or so for this.
7. The Mute button is your friend. As your Following/Followers grows, use the mute button to control what appears in your timeline. Obviously it isn’t possible to listen to 1800 people all the time. Be selective about what you hear by tuning out accounts who you’ve Followed back, but who don’t necessarily have the same interests as you. For example, if you write historical romance, it might be okay to mute some of the sci-fi writers in your feed, and vice versa. Don’t worry, if you’re in the same communities, their most liked and retweeted tweets will still get through to you via the networks you’re engaged with.
8. Use pictures. As writers, we tend to forget that not everyone gets as excited by words as we do. But we still want to be read. So use a visual to draw attention to your tweet.
I used to read voraciously. I carried books with me wherever I went. I slept with them under my pillow.
I read three or more books at a time, and knew what page number I was on in each of them.
When I found a writer I loved, I inhaled EVERYTHING they’d ever written. I spent hours in bookstores. I lived in the library.
Then two things happened. I had babies and I graduated with a degree in literature.
After college, I didn’t read anything but non-fiction for a full two years. I was burned out. Proust will do that to you.
I did still read a lot of poetry and history. I read to research my novels. And of course I memorized Go Dog Go, Skippy Jon Jones, and Sandra Boynton’s entire canon, (which I highly recommend).
But outside of an occasional audio-book, I almost quit reading novels altogether.
It’s hard to read when you’re a mom.
Every book was like the leftover, half-finished bagel you shove in your mouth between jumping out of the shower and rodeo-ing the kids into the car. When I did get to read, I read without tasting. Without digesting.
To be a writer without reading is like breathing without inhaling. It makes your writing dizzy and tight. Blue-faced.
To be a writer without reading is like breathing without inhaling. It makes your writing dizzy and tight. Blue-faced.
But today, ten years and two days after learning I was pregnant with my first child, I took my youngest child to kindergarten, hugged her, kissed her, hugged her again, cried a little, and turned to find myself facing a tiny ocean of time.
Time to myself.
I’ve had today marked for a few months as the day I’m going to start working on my novel again. But as it got closer and closer, a different excitement overshadowed it.
I’m going to read.
I’m going to read Literature. With a capital L.
I’m going to read big, fat, difficult books.
I’m going to read skinny, compact, difficult books.
I’m going to read my old favorites – Atwood, Steinbeck, Morrison, Camus, Bradbury, Allende.
I’m going to read new authors.
I’m going to read authors I’ve never even heard of.
I’m going to read poetry and plays.
I’m going to read Shakespeare again. Shakespeare! Out loud! For fun!
I’m going to read in public and ignore people.
I’m going to read in private and ignore my phone.
I might even try to tackle Moby Dick for the umpteenth time.
I went to a bookstore today by myself. I spent a lot of time selecting the first three books for my bibliophile bacchanal. Three books made of paper and ink.
She mused, “I wonder what connection this might have to teaching writing.”
I clicked, primarily because I try (as much as possible) to think of whatever project I’m currently writing as “only practice.”
It’s a trick I use to psych myself down. If I’m not writing THE BOOK, if I’m only practicing for someday when I’m ready to write THE BOOK, then I can’t really screw anything up.
Or can I?
This study would seem to suggest that, yes, you can screw up practicing.
And more isn’t better if you’re cementing errors into the way you approach something.
The article discusses the behaviors demonstrated by the “top” practicers.
While examining these, I was reminded of my years in theatre.
I was good at memorizing. I could usually learn my lines in one reading, (I was much younger then). Plays that have a rhythm or poetry to them, like Shakespeare, were particularly easy to lock down.
But I also had what I called “link lines”. These were lines that, for some reason, my brain saw as not contributing to the actual content of the speech. In other words, lines I didn’t understand.
I invariably forgot those lines when I was on-script. When I was off-script, I had to work hard to recall the link lines. For every 99 lines that poured out without effort, there would be that one tricky little line that forced me to stop and think.
It turns out, mistakes like these are a departure point between people who practice productively and people who don’t. Top practicers handle these blips differently.
“The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.
The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.”
In other words, they stopped and figured out what those tricky link lines actually meant, instead of rattling right past them.
Playing a new piece of music and memorizing a chunk of text, are probably pretty similar processes.
But add to it the complication of composing a whole new work from scratch (whether music or fiction), and applying the list gets complicated fast.
The article cites 8 findings among the top pianists:
“1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.
2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.
3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.
4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.
Of the strategies, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely utilized by the others. In fact, only two other pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:
6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).
8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.”
To some degree, the concept of “practice” is tied to the concept of “habit”. It’s based on the premise that those things we do habitually will become easier. Then, because they are easier, we can add complications to them, which we are then better able to negotiate.
So my original question remained: How could the findings from this research help me be a better writer – a better practicer of writing?
Therein lies the clickbait.
If we can identify what top practicers do, we can incorporate these habits into our own practice. We can learn from the greats to become great. We want easy answers. Discrete, performable steps.
But the list above is not a list of tricks. This list is symptomatic of a different kind of overall approach to practice: 1. Complete engagement and 2. Setting aside the ego or self. In other words, these pianists approached the process as learning, not practice.
Those who were top practicers exhibit signs of focusing on understanding what the music is doing ( #1, #3, #4, #5 and #6) and how it is doing it (#2, #7, and #8).
For top performers, practice is learning. Not mechanics. Not memorization. Not repetition. Not time invest. Learning.
They weren’t afraid to admit that they didn’t understand a line. They didn’t rattle right past it. Instead, they learned what it was and why it was there.
In creative fields, as in learning, questioning requires you to surrender your ego, to risk appearing stupid, to raise your hand and ask the dumb question no one else will ask.
Ironically, in creative fields, surrendering ego requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness. You have to know what is tripping you up – the places where the piece is flowing against you instead of through you – in order to remove them.
You have to be able to tell when you’re getting in your own way.
In the Oscar-harvesting 1984 movie Amadeus, we’re given a contrast between greatness and mediocrity. What the audience sees that Salieri does not, is that Mozart is great because he does not stand in the way of his music.
Salieri writes to achieve his own greatness. His music is practice: a means to an end. He constantly appraises his self-worth based on how his music is perceived. He listens to his ego.
But Mozart listens only to the music. Mozart’s commitment isn’t to his ego, his wife, his audience, his patrons, or his family. He writes the music as it wishes to be written. He is a student of his music. He learns from it. His arrogance stems from his knowledge, not that HE is great, but that his music is great.
To me, this is the mark of genius: a commitment to the work for its own sake, coupled with the ability to recognize when your pride or arrogance or incompetence is interfering, then searching for ways to remove yourself and let the work flow.
It’s like the cool conundrum: Cool people are people who don’t worry about whether or not they’re cool.
We all have moments of greatness. For most of us, they are few and far between. We practice for them. They are the end we’re trying to achieve. THE BOOK we will someday write.
But for the truly great among us, there is no difference between practice and learning, because learning is an end in itself.
So my new goal is not to practice my craft. My goal is not to go through the motions of setting down another chapter or completing another revision.
My new goal is to surrender my ego and deeply engage, to understand why something I’ve done is not working. To listen to what the work wants to become.
The book I recently finished writing deals with themes related to sexual consent.
Because of this, I needed a narrative device to make the romantic relationship so overtly consensual as to be hyper-consensual.
The end result is that I’ve been writing a relationship that has elements of BDSM at a time when 50 Shades is all the rage. Yuck.
First things first. I am not a member of the kink community. However, I took care to ensure I was accurately portraying that relationship dynamic. Probably MORE SO because it isn’t one I have ownership of.
Sexuality is deeply connected to identity, and just as I would take care to responsibly portray someone else’s culture or race, I felt I needed to treat these people with as much respect as possible.
Second things second. What I’m writing is not porn. (Though my mother might disagree with that statement). So it is by definition inherently more complex than spanking and tampon yanking. The stakes are higher.
Sexuality and identity get messy fast.
Third. I really did try to read 50 Shades and the writing was so awful, I couldn’t get through it. But the books are universally accepted as badly written, so that is not my point.
My criticism is not of the book. My criticism is of the devotees of the books who argue, “It’s just a book. Relax.”
Incidentally these devotees tend to be the same women who go through relationship after relationship, then look at me and say, “You’re so lucky. You have such a good husband.”
Oh, you mean the man I chose? He didn’t fall out of the sky. I picked him. What’s more, we work very hard to maintain open communication and respect for one another. Luck has fuck-all to do with it.
If you’re following along on this conversation, you’ve heard “It’s just a book. Relax.” a lot. If I were a sociologist, I would conduct an experiment to examine the relationship patterns of the population of people who enjoy this book.
But I’m not. I’m a writer. And as a writer, my central point is this:
To say, “It’s just a book” is to say, “It’s just a romanticized projection of our rape culture’s social norms that reflect what we wish to attain. Relax.”
I know it’s easy for me as a reader and a writer to place a premium on stories. Much the same way that in Hollywood, the movie about show biz always wins the Oscar. (I’m looking at you here, Shakespeare in Love).
But how can anyone say, “It’s just a book?”
It’s “just a book” about a horribly unhealthy relationship idealized as romantic.
To be absolutely clear – the kink is not the abusive aspect of the relationship portrayed in the story. The RELATIONSHIP is the abusive part. When we equate stalking with love – we have a problem.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “If only he would completely violate my privacy and pressure me into doing things I don’t want to do, then I would know he loves me” then you, my dear, are the reason every woman who is raped is tagged as “asking for it.”
This is precisely why I developed such respect for the BDSM community as I worked on my book.
They’re grown ups about their sexuality. They don’t tolerate wishy-washy assholes and their petty drama.
As Louis CK puts it, “I’m not gonna rape someone on the off chance that she’s into it.”
Seriously, ladies? I’m trying to raise daughters here. Could we please just grow a modicum of self respect?
Do I really have to post 700,000 links to articles about how narratives are important and influence our emotional development?
Do you need studies that prove our ability to empathize is learned from stories?
Will you shut the fuck up about it being “just a book” if you see anthropological reviews that detail how narrative is the embodiment of what we are, what we wish to be, and what we must be warned against becoming?
Or are you a grown up?
This is basic.
It’s never “Just a book.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go revise mine to amplify the consent aspect of the relationship. I know it will never sell 30 gazillion copies.
But I’d rather be broke than sell women shit-sandwiches and call it candy.