September 7, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
This past November I took the plunge and jumped headlong into social media. Of course I already had a personal Facebook account for friends and family, but professionally I was way behind the curve. I didn’t have a blog, nor did I tweet. Whenever I had something published, I posted a link on Facebook, but that was kind of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. My friends and my mom could “like” my link, but it was highly unlikely that an agent or editor would stumble upon anything I posted.
Part of the reason I was reluctant at first to start a blog or Twitter account, was that – like many writers – I am not so good at “tooting my own horn.” Even though I have published hundreds of essays and short stories, most copies of these languish as clippings in three-ring binders I store in my office closet.
One day though, after fretting and grousing about how out of the literary loop I was, I decided I would jump in, and I hired a young woman to help me set up a WordPress blog and Twitter account. It only took a few hours, and I was on my way. And, to my surprise, I discovered that I loved the whole enterprise! Here are some of the reasons why:
— I am very opinionated, and I am always right. (Just ask my family.)
— I’m old, in social media terms (or any terms, for that matter), but my online persona enables me to inhabit a new, witty personality, that – oddly – suits me very well.
— I can share and link to interesting essays, stories, books, and articles about the writing world with my “followers.” My family is happy that I now have an audience – other than them – for this compulsion to share. My mom has this same compulsion, which manifests itself as mailed newspaper clippings.
— I love making new “friends.” Even theoretical friends who I will never meet. And I can ignore nudists, religious zealots, gun lovers, and people who can’t spell.
— I can sit at home in my pajamas and act like I’m doing something in the literary world. I’m involved, even if peripherally and at third remove, with all these new people I follow: authors, editors, agents, publishers, and literary journals.
— Who doesn’t like being “liked” and “followed”? I’m all about immediate gratification.
— I can harbor delusional, but harmless thoughts that an agent/producer/editor will read my brilliant thoughts/tweets and “discover” me.
— I have something quiet and productive to do every day, when I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and everyone else is still asleep.
— Posting tweets and blog entries forces me to do something in the realm of reading and writing almost every day, or at least think seriously about doing something.
— It turns out that I’m really good at thinking up short, pithy random thoughts totally unrelated to anything else. Or, as I prefer to call them: aphorisms. Don’t laugh – Sarah Manguso recently published a book of aphorisms, 300 Arguments: Essays, with Graywolf Press, described on Amazon as, “A brilliant and exhilarating sequence of aphorisms from one of our greatest essayists.”
— Even though I know very few of my readers or new “friends” personally, I feel that I have found a group of people who are silently cheering me on. And that may be the be best part of all.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, Clapboard House, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Tishman Review, the Brevity blog, and many other publications. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College, lives just north of Chicago, blogs here, and can be found on twitter at @k_stevenson01.
August 11, 2017 § 28 Comments
I heard it yesterday, and I’ve heard it before. At conferences. In workshops. In podcast interviews. Always from a reasonably famous, multiply published writer. The workshop leader. The big visiting cheese.
“Don’t even think about platform.”
“Don’t worry about platform.”
I know they genuinely want what’s best for their students. They want us to focus on words, not clicks. Want us to make great work before thinking about the market, not let what’s selling this week influence the book of our heart.
They are wrong.
They are näive, out-of-touch, factually incorrect and a little bit condescending. Darling little writers–first make a book! Don’t put the cart before the horse!
Of course we want to write a good book. That’s why we paid to take your class. But you know why else we paid to be here? Because we’re hoping (mostly in vain) that you will slam down your pencil, announce “this is the greatest work I’ve ever seen!” then end class immediately and lead us by the hand directly into your agent’s office, shouting “Marlene! You gotta rep this one!”
That’s not going to happen.
You know what else isn’t going to happen? My memoir won’t be magically plucked from slush by an agent who says, “Nobody knows who you are, but you’re so brilliant, don’t even worry about it! Sure, the memoir market is glutted right now, but you–you’re totally different than every other author and the glistening diamonds of your words will bring the world to your door!”
What I see on #MSWL–that’s Manuscript Wish List for those who scorn hashtags–and on websites and in interviews is agent after agent after agent looking for “Memoir/self-help with strong platform.” Sometimes they switch it up: “Memoir/self-help with existing platform.” Novelists have it a bit easier–it’s more about the words, but platform doesn’t hurt. Platform can be why the agent requests the full manuscript instead of saying no to the query, because they know you on Twitter and you’ve been cool. Platform doesn’t get you the book deal (famous-person books are a different category), but it can get you in the door.
The social-media slammers genuinely don’t understand social media. Now, I’ve got a horse in this race–I am, as you probably know, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. I give talks on using social media to practice writing craft. I am invested. But as a person who cares about effective and genuine social media, I also know this:
Platform is not clicks, or follower numbers, or multiple posts a day, or going viral.
Platform is the ability to directly connect with potential book buyers. And my wonderful, brilliant, famous teachers, there’s a reason you don’t think much about platform:
You’re already standing on it.
Platform = fame+genuine, personal connection. That notable book award? The reviews you got in the New York Times? Your Oscar nomination? The conference I just paid $900 to hear you speak at? Your adoring, book-purchasing, word-of-mouth-generating students across the country? That’s platform.
Platform is getting your name out there, yes, but it’s also about genuinely connecting with other people. Social media helps build supportive writing communities. There’s YA Twitter and #5AMWritersClub Twitter and Black Twitter. Places we can hear our idols speak for free, even ask them questions about their work. Places we can meet future readers, people who enjoy interacting with us and will later evangelize for our books. Places we can share our ideas and be challenged, and find out who else is interested in what we have to say.
Social media can waste our writing time, sure. But we can also use it to practice and improve. Write image-inspired micro-essays on Instagram. Editorials on Facebook–Anne Lamott’s doing pretty well there. Rock Tumblr like Roxane Gay. Use Twitter to make every word count, pack endless meaning into a single sentence, and take that craft back to our essays and stories and poems.
My brilliant and beloved platform-hating teachers already have books out in the world, published before Twitter existed. Before agents counted followers before offering representation. My teachers’ publishers are already invested in them, so it’s easy to tell a room of baby writers, “Publicity is the publisher’s job! Not the writer’s!”
Not any more.
I’m in a memoirists’ group on Facebook. More than 100 of the members have traditionally published books in the last five years. They’re doing just as much self-promotion, book-tour-arranging, press-release-writing and word-of-mouth-creating as the self-publishers. They have to, so their sales will justify book #2.
Would I like to be purely writing, unsullied by social media? Sure. It would save a bunch of time. I genuinely enjoy Instagram and blogging here, but yeah, there’s a sense of duty in some of my “platform-building.” But the chances of my being taken on by an agent who is blinded by the beauty of my creative nonfiction and cares not at all for the clickbait of this world is somewhere between being struck by lightning and winning a scratch-off for more than $50.
So please, dear famous teachers: Stop bashing platform. The way we build it is different than the way you did. Not easier, not harder–just different. And we are expected to do it in order to begin to approach the success you’ve already earned, the success that means you don’t have to be on Twitter.
If you want to walk me into your agent’s office, I’m up for it. I’m writing the best book I can write and practicing my craft and protecting my time and I am ready when you are. But until then, pass the hammer, because I’ve got platform to build.
June 22, 2017 § 21 Comments
The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.
I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”
As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.
On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:
Bummed change for payphones.
Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.
Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.
Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.
Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.
Looked out the window.
Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.
Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.
Read ads and billboards and posters.
Figured out train and bus timetables.
Asked strangers for directions.
Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.
Whistled or waved for taxis.
In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.
I need to be bored.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.
June 20, 2017 § 14 Comments
I did another self-funded mini-Amtrak residency last week. One of the best parts of the train is inconsistent/slow wifi and poor cell reception. I spend a lot of time looking out the window and thinking thinky thoughts. Another best part is shared tables–Amtrak seats strangers together until a dining car table is full. And usually, that’s pretty awesome.
Last week, the man beside me began dinner conversation by passing out scraps of paper with his name and “bn.com” so we’d know where to download his books. Give the man credit–he was of an age that paper media was probably a more comfortable way to connect than whipping out a smartphone and asking for our Twitter handles. Unfortunately, he also brought up a strong political position over the salad course, at which the lady across the table joined me in a chorus of, “Oh, we never talk politics with strangers!”
Maybe because the day before I’d heard a strong political position from my beloved hairdresser that made me rethink whether the terrific face-framing layers were worth it, or because that morning I’d gotten into a tussle with a stranger on Facebook, it hit me pretty hard to hear another diatribe in a place I thought was safe.
As writers, we’re “supposed” to “build platform.” Get to know people in our field, online and off. We tend to accept most friend requests, join most groups that seem vaguely simpatico, check what’s happening online like it’s a duty instead of a way to duck writing a tricky sentence (guilty!). Until November 2016, this all-access plan was mostly good. Since then, I’ve found a lot of my social media time feels like running through a paintball game.
Click–Pow! Horrible event I care about! Where’s my senator’s number?
Click–Zap! Surprise bigot in the comments!
Maybe you’re feeling some of this, too. And as the Social Media Editor around here, I want to give you permission (nay, encouragement!) for a good summer clean-out. Look through your Facebook friends–anyone you truly don’t remember? You don’t have to unfriend them, just unfollow. (For a more gradual process, check the birthday notifications. Anyone you don’t care enough to wish a happy day to can probably be unfollowed.) If nastiness pops up on a friend’s feed, block the source and you won’t see them any more. Every time you see something awful on Twitter (that isn’t a citizen’s duty to be aware of) mute that account.
What kind of social connections do you want to be making? What idea exchanges do you want to have? Instead of waiting for the sore spots to get poked, take ownership. Pick one day a week or one time a day to participate. Decide what topics you care enough to engage on and let everything else go–even if you have the BEST FACT EVER to refute with. Start a newsletter (Tiny Letter is pretty easy) so that it’s you reaching out when you choose, and people who email you back are likely into what you have to say. Remember social media as a place to have fun, and share silly memes, make jokes, and express your personal voice about your garden, your dog, or your writing process.
When I got into the train dining car the next morning, I saw the male author headed my way, and I whispered into the hostess’ ear that I’d rather not sit with him, please. She put me at a table with a couple. I asked them where they were from. “Seattle!” chirped the woman. We talked about Broadway musicals and mime and their children and my husband, and I didn’t once bring up my book.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shhhhhhhh…
November 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
We’re back on the air! This month’s Brevity Podcast is now available right here and on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches.
Episode #2 features an interview with Andre Dubus III on his memoir Townie, and the burning question of whether one must have an eventful life in order to write memoir. Suzanne Roberts talks about her retreat program Wordy Girls, and how she figured out that writing was not in fact her first priority.
Who else would you love to hear? Let us know in the comments.
Show Notes: Episode #2 People, Books and Places
Suzanne Roberts’ books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, and the poetry collections Plotting Temporality, Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel, Nothing to You, and Shameless. Her work has been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, ZYZZYVA, Fourth River and Gulf Stream, and widely anthologized. Suzanne was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-res MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham College.
Suzanne’s essay for Brevity, “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin”
Andre Dubus III is the author of six books, including the New York Times’ bestsellers House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days, and his memoir, Townie. His most recent book, Dirty Love, published in the fall of 2013, was a New York Times “Notable Book” selection, a New York Times “Editors’ Choice”, a 2013 “Notable Fiction” choice from The Washington Post, and a Kirkus “Starred Best Book of 2013.”
Andre has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and is a 2012 recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His books are published in over twenty-five languages, and he teaches full-time at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Fontaine, a modern dancer, and their three children.
Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College
Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
October 25, 2016 § 22 Comments
More accurately, as Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) puts it,
The only thing that’s dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place. If you’re blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like…I dunno…making a sex tape. But not with a dead person. I’ve been very clear on this, y’all.
(go read the whole post, I promise those last two sentences make total sense in context)
None of us are going to make any money blogging, unless our blog is part of a global, social-media-exploiting, traffic-driving, email-collecting, drip-campaigning, algorithmic, Twitter-metric, SEO-conscious plan. And in that case, we wouldn’t actually be writing very much, because all our time would be spent driving clicks.
Years ago I kept an old-school Blogger blog. I wrote 3-5 days a week for two years. I linked to other bloggers and participated in “blog carnivals,” which is how we shared links to stuff we enjoyed reading, back when Facebook still insisted on an “is” at the beginning of your status and Twitter didn’t exist. I posted regularly enough that if I missed more than a couple of days in a row, readers emailed to ask if I was sick.
That’s the first value of blogging. Connecting with your audience, and with other writers. Not “building platform,” although that’s a nice side effect, but genuinely interacting with people who care about what you say, and finding out what they care about. To learn what you, as a person with the ability to write, should be examining about yourself and putting into the world on behalf of every reader who has the same story and needs to tell it, but doesn’t have the words, or the bravery (yet). Jenny Lawson’s vivid, hilarious, brutal posts about depression got her a book deal, yes, but she also let thousands of readers know they weren’t alone, that they were allowed to tell what they were experiencing, too.
Blogging taught me to put out work regularly without being precious about it. I blog here for Brevity most Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes I’m sick). I keep a list of topics to write about, scribble down ideas when I have a great conversation about writing in person or on Facebook, copy-paste when I get over-explain-y about writing in an email and think, this could just be a blog post and I’ll send them the link. There are still mornings I wake up without the faintest idea of what to write. There isn’t time to wait for inspiration–as it is, I’m daily thankful I live 8 time zones ahead, so I have my morning to figure out a topic before the Brevity HQ’s 7AM. Sometimes I look at the literary news and see if there’s another essay to respond to. Sometimes I remember the theatre director Anne Bogart saying,
If what’s on stage in rehearsal isn’t working, I shout ‘Stop!’ Often I have no idea how to fix it, but I always sit in the very back of the house, and by the time I’ve walked all the way down the aisle to the stage, I’ve usually figured out where to start.
Then I open the New Post window and hope my fingers will figure out where to start. There isn’t time to agonize over every word–thankfully, readers don’t have the same literary expectations of a blog as they do a book. A blog post should be the best we can do, but it’s just as important to get it out there on time. Blogging regularly increases your speed, and your ability to turn an idea into words by force of will, whether ‘inspiration’ has graced you that day or not. Blogging doesn’t replace long, slow, thoughtful pieces that coalesce from many drafts, but it keeps us in the habit.
Blogging gives us something to share on social media. We contribute positively to our civilization by sharing an idea instead of a meme, starting a discussion about a book we liked or an essay we read or an experience we’ve had. It lightens the heart to care passionately about a subject that might stir disagreement but is unlikely to dredge up hatred.
You might like Medium, or Tumblr, where Roxane Gay keeps her blog, or a curated site like The Manifest-Station, which is a little more like submitting to a literary magazine. You might like to write long posts on Facebook, like sex-icon/disability activist Erin Clark. I use Instagram as a place to post micro-essays, because carefully crafting words for 20 minutes in an airport lounge makes me feel like yes, I wrote today, and the little hearts popping up on my phone remind me, someone’s listening. Someone likes my words. I should keep doing this.
October 4, 2016 § 6 Comments
Officially, I’m Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. What that means is I blog here, tweet, help boost the signal on Facebook posts and tweets by/about Brevity‘s journal and blog, and keep an eye out for trends in the literary internet, many of which I report back to you, our Gentle Readers. I also maintain my own social media–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and an occasional personal blog post.
I’m often asked–and I see writers agonizing about–what social media we “should” have. In particular, whether it’s worth it to have a Facebook page for our “author self” as well as a personal profile.
If you’ve already decided Facebook isn’t for you, or you don’t enjoy social media at all, feel free to skip this post. Go write something. But if you’re wondering about Facebook pages vs profiles, here’s the skinny:
Facebook pages are only useful if your agent insists you have one and you have ten thousand likes. Even then, 90% of your followers won’t see 90% of your posts, unless you pay.
Sad, but true. The way Facebook’s algorithms function (as of October 2016) makes pages without paid advertising more or less useless. People will only see your posts if they visit the actual page, on purpose. (Notice that the Brevity “page” is actually a group, which gives us more engagement with Gentle Readers, but requires more time to monitor and maintain.)
You may want one anyway. Facebook pages are useful if you are very concerned about online privacy. Your agent or publisher may insist you have one. And if you do, you may as well copy-paste all your writing-related statuses over there. It’s nice to refer people to, and to show off all your reviews in one place. About every six months, ask all the people you know to like your page, so that you gradually build an audience of people who have volunteered to hear from you. Other than that, leave it alone unless you’re embarking on a specific social media campaign–it’s one more thing sucking your time away from writing.
You don’t need a Facebook page if you’re OK with less privacy. As far as I’m concerned, Facebook is my public face. It’s not a private sharing space. I don’t friend back everyone who friends me, and I don’t post anything I’m embarrassed to share with the world. Right now, I’m also small-time enough that connecting personally with readers is still doable and desirable. For me, this goes hand in hand with the idea that the internet isn’t really a private place, and if I’m ever a big enough deal to get paparazzi-d, they’ll find anything I ever put out there. So it might as well be words I chose.
If you choose to use your personal Facebook page as your public face, don’t post things you don’t want strangers reading/seeing, and check your privacy settings for anything you want to limit to friends or a specific list. Remember that you don’t have to friend everyone back and clog your own feed with the rainbow-pug memes of a thousand strangers–when someone friend-requests you, they become your follower and see your public posts. It can be worth it to spend 5-10 minutes liking and commenting on the posts of people you don’t know well, but who you would like to have become your readers and your far-flung connections–your posts show up more in the feeds of people you engage with. Every day, think a little more about crafting your posts so that you’re revealing what you choose, and you’re pleased to have a stranger see them.
Yes, this can feel a little fake. A little dishonest. Even creepy. But I’m a confessional nonfiction essayist, and my brand is personal me. And “personal me” is a curated, purposeful presentation of subjects I genuinely care about and engage with, much like a “personal” essay. Every time I post, I’m practicing writing to be read. Every time I post, I’m aware that people I don’t know personally are reading it–and I’m pretty happy about that.