Unified Theory of Ned

November 11, 2019 § 5 Comments

nedBy Paul Haney

Ned Stuckey-French was an essayist and a scholar of the essay, a book-review editor and an anthologist. He was an author, an English professor at Florida State University, a generous reader, a connection-maker, an advocate for anyone attempting what he termed “this queer little hybrid thing,” the essay. A tallish, lanky fellow with thick glasses and a runner’s build, Ned was political, and he was personable. He was a wise-ass, he was a warm soul. He was Ned, and he was on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook every day,” Ned confessed at AWP in 2011. The name of his talk: “My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict.” To Ned, Facebook was a meeting place abuzz with opinions and gossip and news of the day. It was a tool of democracy, a forum for hashing out political disagreements and plying rivals with logic and facts and more reasonable truths. It was a digital dynamo of discourse, a sprawling harbor of humanity, a portal for engaging the world.

Ned poured words, millions of words, onto that medium. Even when classes were in session, or when he was traveling, he posted articles supporting unions, and universal healthcare, protections for the marginalized and dispossessed. In sharing these pieces and welcoming discussion, Ned fashioned himself a champion of the left. He never backed down from his “fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law,” as he called him, who swooped in to decry liberal idiocy and hypocrisy. He didn’t back down from that brother-in-law’s friends, either, tagged and recruited to the debate. Back and forth, paragraph after paragraph. “I enjoy butting heads with them,” Ned said. “It’s a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with.” Hard-line conservatives, that is. Staunch Republicans.

On-lookers didn’t know who these people were–Ned himself hardly knew. They were Facebook addicts as well. Some brave progressives jumped into the fray and Ned engaged them, too, pleading for humanity while sizing up their logic and dishing out sources, good ones. A daunting task–to take so many stances, to mount so many arguments. To return day after day and articulate an evolving set of positions. Ned qualified his allies and refuted his opponents, always trying to figure out exactly where he stood. He was developing a platform, a worldview. He was forging a unified theory of Ned.

The threads were epic, endless, always growing, an expanding universe of discourse. The replies grew by the dozens, sometimes reaching triple digits. Trump’s political ponzi scheme. The virtues of Black Lives Matter. When did Ned teach? When did he sleep? The posts and comments, likes and shares kept coming. Politics, sure–no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy Carter, as evidenced by the family photo he’d taken with the former president and himself, his wife, and his two daughters, all beaming in the Georgia sun. But every new track & field record, the latest amazing golf shot, scores of great new essays. His voice was eager as he cheered on his students and colleagues writing their own lives. “Onward!” he cried, and “Go get ‘em!”

“We are in the age of Facebook,” Ned said in 2011. “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Even then, Ned admitted the platform was a timesuck that played on our pettiest instincts. But he also marveled at the site’s ability to memorialize those who pass away. What would he say about the outpouring on his own wall since he passed? A thousand things, no doubt. Just as he did each year on his birthday, he would’ve left a thoughtful, personal, wise-cracky comment on each post. He would’ve engaged.

Over the years Ned learned alongside everyone else Facebook’s deeper dangers, the misinformation, the polarization, the true customers: the advertisers. Yet Ned was on there all the same. He was on there for the people, for the conversations. He was on there precisely because Facebook is democratic, in the worst and best senses of the word, and Ned believed in public discourse. Ned never took a break, never needed a cleanse. Ned was on there, posting and sharing and liking and loving and thinking and rebutting and becoming. Till the very end, Ned was on Facebook.
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Paul Haney was a student of Ned Stuckey-French’s, a friend, and a golf partner. His work has appeared a few times in Ned’s book review section of Fourth Genre, as well as Slate, Boston Globe Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Sweet, and elsewhere. He serves as Managing Editor of Dylan Review. Follow him @paulhaney.

Thank You for the Likes

August 21, 2019 § 49 Comments

sandra_millerBy Sandra A. Miller

I wait for the “likes” on Facebook. Hopefully some shares, too. Then there are the comments: “loved this” or “shed a few tears” or “can’t wait to read your memoir.”

My response—typically a return “like” and a heartfelt “Thank you!”—almost always feels inadequate.

When friends on social media respond to my essays with a click of appreciation or a few words of praise, I doubt they know the depths of my gratitude. As a freelance writer sitting alone in my home office without a regular paycheck or any “good job” pats on the back, those blue Facebook thumbs-up and red Twitter hearts are often my only validation in the course of a workday. They are the virtual back pats that power me through long, lonely stretches of writing.

When I first started submitting work in 1989, I was living in a tiny apartment in Tokyo and teaching at a Japanese university. My laptop keys were crowded with both English letters and cryptic Japanese characters that were as hard to navigate as the teeming streets of that conundrum of a capital city. With money from an extra job, I bought a printer that took up half of my kitchen table. I was 7000 miles from home and determined to become a writer.

After typing out my stories on that funky Japanese laptop, I’d sail them across the Atlantic in crisp vellum envelopes, hoping an editor would fall in like with my words. On the rare occasion when one did, I might receive a letter back, maybe a contract. Often it took months, if anyone responded at all. One time there was no other correspondence between my submission and publication. I just received two copies of a bridal magazine with my article in it and a check for 50 bucks.

When my stories appeared in those random publications that I discovered in the go-to reference book–A Writer’s Market–I’d make photo copies at the 7-Eleven and mail them off to my mother and a few friends in the States. Eventually I’d get an aerogram back saying they “loved it” or “really liked it.” And that was all I ever knew of anyone’s reaction. For decades I wrote in a vacuum. Back then most of us did, and the work, not the network, was our sole focus.

I’m not saying that those were the good old days of being a writer because I still felt lonely much of the time. But it was different.

It’s a changed world now, and while social media can be an enemy to the solitary writer who is both in need of focus and desperate for distractions, I am still grateful for every single “like” on my essays. Those “likes” tell me to keep at it; they tell me someone heard me, or cares about what I said, or supports my writing, or me.

Because here’s the truth for many of us who write and share personal work: We may look brave, but we actually feel awkward asking for your approval—over and over—on intimate stories that emerge from our lives. We memoir writers may be a little self-obsessed—or at least hyper-curious about ourselves because that’s what it takes to write like this—but we typically aren’t narcissists. We all just play one on social media.

Such is the nature of today’s publishing game in which followers can equal book deals and editors want to see the size of our online networks before accepting a piece. For this mid-aged woman who still struggles with posting an Instagram story, your likes are my salvation, a sign that I’m doing okay in this digital world.

So this is really an overdue thank you note to my readers who got me to this place and—because I’m Catholic and feel bad about bothering you—an apology for all the posting I’ll be doing when my memoir comes out in September. You can’t possibly know how your responses to my essays buoy my spirits, or how prayer-hand emojis can never convey my true appreciation.
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Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure is available for preorder from Brown Paper Press and Amazon. You can find out more or follow Sandra’s online treasure hunt at SandraAMiller.com.

Author Photo by Holloway McCandless

Instagram for Writers

June 6, 2019 § 36 Comments

Flatlay of laptop, teacup, teapot, sugar, milk and paper on wooden tableSocial media is a distraction from our writing. Social media can be a support system for our writing—creating community, building readership, and allowing us to practice our craft. Writer Twitter is definitely a Thing, with terrific advice in #askagent, and editors tweeting calls for submissions and pitches. Writer Facebook includes genre- and demographic-based groups that foster literary citizenship and build real-life connections as online acquaintances meet at conferences and readings.

But Instagram? The one that’s all about the pictures? Sure, there’s #bookstagram, where book bloggers share their reading piles and recommendations and authors reveal new covers. But what’s the benefit for writers on a primarily visual platform, and why should they bother?

Instagram is (so far) the calmest, sanest, and most relaxing social platform, with three big benefits for writers:

1) Make genuine connections with people who want to read your work.

Writers don’t need 20,000 followers on Instagram. Writers need engaged followers. “Engaged” means people who like or comment on your posts, and a good engagement rate is about 1%. That’s right: If you have 100 followers, and one person comments, you’re doing well.

This is not how most people think about Instagram. We see “influencers” with 200K followers and ask why we should even bother. But look closer:

Influencer AllThatIsShe – 529K followers, engagement about 0.7%

Memoirist Dani Shapiro – 19.3K followers, engagement about 1%

Memoirist Esmé Weijun Wang – 9.4K followers, engagement about 0.8%

All three of these people are proportionally influential. The influencer makes fun and funny visual jokes. The writers share writing news, book tours, personal stories behind their work, and moments of joy and poetic wonder from their lives. AllThatIsShe’s comments include lots of casual interaction like sharing summer plans and laughter at her clever photographs. Dani and Esmé’s readers give their own responses to prompts, wish the writers well, share corresponding moments from their own lives. They actively engage in meaningful dialogue with the writer and her work. That 1% are people who will show up to a reading and pre-order your book.

Instagram is economical. You don’t have to fly across the country to a conference that might take 50 waking hours. Spend that same time in 15-minute Instagram sessions interacting with writers you’d like to know, and that’s 200 days of cost-free relationship building. You don’t even have to wear pants.

2) Write better.

The Instagram caption is perfect for encapsulating a moment. In 50-100 words, writers can practice craft at the sentence level. We get to write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.

When writing captions, tell a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in the scene, or in a single thought. The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Being a caption establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”

Writing in this constrained form is the ultimate flash. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.

3) Get Inspiration and encouragement.

When I’m posting regularly, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.

Posting a micro-essay is like a low-stakes “submission” to the world. There’s no “dislike” button, so I get the encouragement without the rejection. The level of engagement tells me what people enjoy reading, and comments suggest future blogging topics for Brevity and writing questions to address in my next book. Every little heart makes me feel like someone is interested in what I have to say and reminds me to write again tomorrow.

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If you’re just getting started on Instagram, or you want a more enjoyable experience that benefits your writing, a couple of quick tips:

  • Line breaks. One of the great mysteries of Instagram! To get an empty line between paragraphs, make sure there is NO SPACE at the end of the paragraph. Hit return. Type a period or emoji, NO SPACE, hit return and start your next paragraph. There are apps that allow you to type a caption and copy-paste with empty lines, but it’s an extra step. Keep your Insta commitment small.
  • Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow thing. Many “large” accounts are using follow-bots to artificially build their numbers. When you click through to see a profile with thousands of followers and very low followings, they are going to unfollow you. Only follow back if you’re truly interested in their content.
  • To build your own followers, find people you like from other social media or real life. When you follow, comment on their most recent post with what you like about it and say where else you know them from. Make sure your profile says what you do and your name is identifiable. Show your face in your profile picture. Participate in following threads on Facebook and Twitter.
  • An engaged Instagram presence doesn’t have to be time away from your writing. Unlike influencers who need current daily content, writers can do just fine with 1-5 posts/week. Don’t bother to post on the weekends unless you love it.
  • Don’t get sucked in. Stay limited and specific: take 20 minutes and post one picture, write one solid caption. In your down time (subway, waiting room, on the potty) take 15 minutes and comment on 10 people’s most recent post. Like 10 more posts you actually like. Follow 3 new people and comment on 1 post each. Then close the app and look around for a story to tell.

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Wanna know more about writing on Instagram? Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams will be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

Just Like the Cool Kids

April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments

After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.

We got on Instagram!

Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)

Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.

We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.

Won’t you join us?

PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!

Building Your Twitter Following

February 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Does Twitter help sell books? Nobody knows. Barnes & Noble customers rarely announce “I came in because of this tweet!” But being visible in the online writing community can be a source of support and inspiration, and enough agents and publishers look at follower numbers to make it worth growing your presence on Twitter.

Twitter basics are just like showing up at an enormous pool party already in progress: Watch conversations before interacting, interact kindly and pleasantly and avoid “fighting words” unless you’re doing it on purpose. Just like that party, you get to swim when you like and stay dry when you want: Twitter rewards occasional involvement throughout the day or week rather than constant checking.

We talked last week about “what the heck to post on Twitter.” But the early days often feel like speaking timidly into the void (647 following! 12 followers! Augh!). How can you organically grow an online community who share your interests and want to hear what you have to say?

The best way to get followers is to follow people, but not randomly. Who will you enjoy reading and who will follow you back?

  • Use Twitter follow-frenzies. Search your Facebook writing group for a post asking members to comment with their Twitter handles. Follow them all, and post yours as a clickable link. If you can’t find a follow-thread within the last six months, post one: “Hey, let’s follow each other on Twitter” plus your link will do just fine. It is polite to follow back everyone who follows you unless you actively dislike their bio/feed.
  • Go to users’ actual profiles. Hit “follow” and wait for a moment—Twitter will suggest more people you might like. Follow them, too.
  • Visit your favorite literary magazine or author’s profile. Add their followers. Use the “followers” list, because the “following” list is likely more famous and less motivated to follow back.
  • Follow other writers with low follower counts. Someone with 367 followers is more likely to follow back than someone who already has 70K.
  • Follow people who liked a tweet you also liked, or whose response you liked.
  • Search hashtags like #amwriting #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #amediting and #cnf (those are clickable links to those searches). Follow people who use those hashtags in tweets and/or their bios.
  • Use Lists. To keep track of the people you want to read in that blur of new tweets, assign people you follow to lists. For example, I made a list of “Agents” so I can read only tweets from literary agents I follow. You can also look at someone else’s list: Click on a profile, click Lists, and click on a list. For example, here’s all the AWP presenters for this year’s conference. If you’re attending—or want the conference buzz—subscribe to see those tweets. Then click List Members and follow everyone who seems interesting.
  • Unfollow people who don’t follow back after a few weeks unless you are specifically interested in what they have to say. (Michelle Obama is probably not going to follow me back.) Most of my non-mutual followers are news, politics, public figures, literary agents and publishing houses. You can use a tool like Tweepi (start with the free plan to see if it’s for you) to sort your list and easily unfollow non-followers, or just scroll down your Following list on Twitter—it’s in chronological order.
  • Don’t bother to follow back travel bloggers and business coaches with huge follower and low following numbers unless you’re really interested. They are using bots that will unfollow you after you follow them (this also happens on Instagram). Dudes with two first names (like ‘Robert Walter,’ ‘James Joseph’), very all-American profiles, and jobs that are military or military-connected in Africa or the Middle East are bots or scammers.

“But Allison,” you ask, “How can I engage meaningfully with the thousands of followers I’d like to have?”

You don’t have to. You’re not on Twitter to talk to anyone, you’re on Twitter to talk to everyone. It’s not like letting your best friend sit next to you at lunch—be part of a great conversation this minute, then move on. Support the people you know well or in person. Retweet writers and cool things to read. Post things you find funny, interesting or cool. Step back and engage meaningfully with the community as a whole, rather than focusing on individuals. Let Twitter wash over you like a wave—and get out of the pool when you need a break.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. See you at AWP!

The Time Aspiring Writers Spend on Writing-Related Activities

January 23, 2019 § 7 Comments

jared bilskiBy Jared Bilski

  • Tweeting funny comments, often involving coffee, along with the #amwriting hashtag – 8%
  • Posting photos on your Instagram of a coffee cup and a leather-bound journal; a coffee cup and a laptop; or a coffee cup, a leather-bound journal and a laptop along with the #amwriting hashtag – 6%
  • Obsessively checking your #amwriting tweets and Instagram posts for engagement and responding when necessary – 11%
  • Posting long, meticulously proofed posts to a variety of Facebook writing groups, posts which are ostensibly about a ridiculous technical concern you have about your incomplete (novel/memoir/screenplay) but are really ways to remind others you are, in fact, a writer even if you feel like you are a fraud with a dogshit idea for a (novel/memoir/screenplay) – 17%
  • Pensively smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – 7%
  • Crying – 11%
  • Crying while reading David Foster Wallace while pensively smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – 9%
  • Letting people know you’re a writer during completely unrelated conversations – 10%
  • Research (i.e., stalking the social media accounts of famous authors for whom you harbor great resentment and jealousy toward because if you had even a third of their connections and trust money you would be the one talking to Terry Gross about your latest novel instead of writing these goddamn #amwriting posts) – 3%
  • Finding creative ways to convince your parents big things are happening with your writing while also casually asking them for money – 16%
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    Jared Bilski
    is a writer and comedian who lives on a creek in Collegeville, Pa. He’s written for The Washington PostMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyFatherly and a bunch of websites that no longer exist. The brand/third-degree burn on his left shoulder is a permanent reminder of the stupidity of his youth. Find him on Twitter at @JaredBilski.

 

Can’t Means Won’t

January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”

Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”

Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”

The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”

I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”

My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”

Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.

The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:

I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.

I hear it as snobbery:

For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.

I hear it as despair.

Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.

Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.

This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
  2. Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.

Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.

The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?

Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.

Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.

Most of us are not that good.

Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.

Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:

I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.

My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.

I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.

Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?

Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”

McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”

“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.

McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.

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When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.

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