Friday Five

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I’m getting ready for the mini-tour and knocking off wordcount on Heaven’s Spite, so today we have a list of five things about writing as a career.

1. Writing is a physical act. Yes, you do it sitting in front of a word-processor, or sitting at a desk. That does not mean it is effortless. The sheer brute physical labor of typing eighty to a hundred thousand words for a novel (and let’s not even talk about revisions) is hard on the delicate structures of your wrist and arm, not to mention your brachial plexus (thoracic outlet syndrome and carpal tunnel problems are real risks to writers.) Plus there’s the fact that sitting for long periods is hard on the body.

Stretching and moderate exercise will not only make sure you have a less-painful career at the keyboard, but it will also help your writing. It clears out toxins and makes the prose more supple. More importantly, you have got to take care of yourself, or your body might rebel. And that ain’t pretty.

2. A story is an arc. The story equation goes like this: There is a situation in equilibrium. Something happens to disturb that equilibrium. The rest of the story is events finding a new equilibrium, and when it is found, the story naturally ends. The first line of the story is like your first cut in a duel. It holds the pattern for the rest of the arc. The story expands from that first line, and reaches a point where it must contract–where all the threads of expansion need to be picked back up and woven back down to a line. This point is not necessarily the climax. It’s different for each piece of work.

Finding that arc, finding the point where the story has to stop expanding and must start contracting toward climax and denouement, takes practice. This is why writing’s a skilled art–it takes lots and lots of practice.

3. The story belongs to the character who changes the most. I’ve attributed this saying to Karen Fisher, but I think it was actually Laura Kalpakian who said it.

Writers often bemoan the secondary character who thrusts him or herself onto the stage and won’t go away. Often, this is the principle at work–the secondary character is actually the one doing the changing. You can even have a main character who is not the character the story belongs to. That also takes practice and skill to pull off.

When you’re stuck in a story, or the characters seem lifeless, turn this into a question. “Whose story is this? Who is changing? Who is changing the most?” Often this helps jolt everything into perspective and shows you the hole in the structure.

4. No risk, no reward. If your characters aren’t risking anything, if there is not a significant chance that they will lose something that matters to them, there is little emotional payoff for the reader. Characters who are flawless have no real way of letting the reader identify with them, and they are never more than paper cutouts.

I do not want a paper cutout. I want blood and guts and bad breath. I want my characters to risk things. I want to risk things every time I sit down at this goddamn keyboard. Because I also want that reward.

5. Beware those who want something for nothing. Jess Hartley, this past week, had an interaction with such a one. This has happened many a time. Lots of people want something for nothing. And they assume that once you’re published, you hold a magic golden key for giving them what they want. What’s more, they assume that you will share this mythical golden key–that it is your duty, your pleasure and your obligation to hand over the golden key to them just for the asking.

This is another outcropping of Speshul Snowflakeism, and a particularly insidious one. Because this sort of Snowflake gets very passive-aggressive when it comes to getting what they want. It took me a merry go round with a few of them before I learned the signs and started just laughing and pressing the delete button when one cropped up.

Note that I’m not talking about the person who extends a perfectly civil, reasonable request and understands when an author can or can’t fulfill that request. I’m talking about the person who presumes a personal relationship with an author where none exists, and further presumes that the author Owes Him/Her Something on the basis of that presumption. That presumption is toxic. I could go on and on, but what would be the point? Just beware of those who expect something for nothing, on many levels.

That’s about it. I’ll add two links: Darkshiver on a particular social media don’t, and the inimitable Wolfinthewood with another roundup of links about the Google Book Settlement.

And now I’ve got to go get cracking. Books will not write themselves, and the small suitcase I’m taking won’t pack itself, either.

Over and out.

A Merry-Go-Round Full Of TNT

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Everyone here is cranky this morning. Including me.

I wouldn’t be keeping up my end of the Friday post bargain if I didn’t tell you something right now. I’m having trouble with the latest book. Coyote Boy (the UnSullen, for those of you who keep track of such things) informs me that it’s the same trouble I have every book.

I can’t help it if it feels like different trouble every time.

Here’s the thing: the book is not doing what I wanted it to do. What I had neatly planned. I have reached the point, as Philip Pullman so eloquently puts it, where I am being mugged by the book that wants to be written. The one where I realize I have 10-20K of pure wrong starting the book, and I have to throw out everything and start fresh, and maybe plug little bits of other stuff in, and ARGH.

Insert me running around screaming, feathers puffing out, fur flying.

What makes it more difficult this time around is the sheer level of personal change I’ve gone through in the last three months–changes in my status, my living space, you name it–taking up emotional bandwidth. Creating takes energy, and if that energy is being spent to maintain an even keel in the face of dire emotional stress…well, it’s got to come from somewhere, and I burn pretty close to the bone anyway. Reserves have been nonexistent, emotionally speaking, for a while now.

So, we have a problem. Lately writing is like scraping the inside of my skull with one of those things you use to get the seeds out of a pumpkin before you carve it. I have wordcount on this book I’m going to have to scrap, and I have not the faintest idea of what I’m going to do. How I’m going to work this thing or solve this problem.

What do I have going for me?

* Habit. Never have I been so glad of the habit of writing every day. Habit is either the best of slaves or the worst of masters, and right now it’s one of the few things saving me. I don’t feel right unless I put in some serious time writing each day.

* Discipline. I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I can’t. I need the money too badly. Kids gotta eat. Plus, editors and agent depending on me. I call it ‘discipline,’ but you could just as easily say I have told myself I have no choice. At this point I’m getting Yoda: There is no try. There is only do, or do not. And “do not” is not an option.

* Support network. I’m sure my editor could have lived without my email saying, “You, um, are okay with maybe not getting exactly the book we talked about a couple months ago, right? I mean, it’s still going to be the same series, and awesome, but when we last spoke I had this scaffolding and it just all crashed down around my ears. Please tell me you’re OK with this.” Or my agent could have done without my frantic call about the same thing. And that my writing partner and Coyote Boy could both do without me staring into the distance in the middle of conversations, my brain suddenly turning over a new idea and vapor-locking.

But sometimes, that’s what editors and agents and friends do. Sometimes they listen to you when you’re tearing your hair out. Sometimes they even reassure you that yes, you’ve done this before and no, the world didn’t end, and that the world ain’t gonna end this time either.

* Sheer cussedness. I’m sure you’ve figured out that the Friday posts are a way for me to keep myself on track, too. Because I am too stubborn for my own good, and dedicated to the idea of keeping my word. I refuse to admit that a book can beat me. Especially one like this.

Put this way, it seems like I have an awful lot going for me. I’m still agonizing over the book and telling myself that I do this every fricking time, that people who know me have SEEN me do it every fricking time, and that this is part of the process.

Unfortunately, this process does not give one a feeling of ease. The best one can hope for is a faint comfort. Every time I start out on the journey another book represents, I get the idea that it might be like carrying the Ring to Mordor. I’m pretty definite there will be a There, it’s the And Back Again I’m not sure I’ll pull off. I have no Gandalf, no Eagles, no Aragorn, no Legolas. I have no army or shiny palantir.

There’s just me and this keyboard. And the voices in my head. The trick of making something out of nothing is the same nerve-wracking exploit each time.

I have written over 35 novels at this point, a fair number of which are actually in print. The only ease I have acquired with the process is the faint suspicion that I’ve strapped myself to a merry-go-round full of TNT for each one and miraculously, each time come away whole. Maybe a bit singed, but essentially intact. I would be lying, friends and Readers, if I said I expected the process to get any easier. I would also be lying if I said I didn’t think about stopping every goddamn time. It’s the same thought about stopping I have when I’m in the rollercoaster, the bar has been locked, and we’re chugging up that first long slope.

I never have that thought until it’s too late.

And now for the point of this long ramble. This is not an easy job. It gets only marginally easier when you have a few books out and familiarity with the publishing side of it. The publishing and everything else depends very simply on you and the keyboard. Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide.

So be gentle with yourself. As far as you can, as far as whatever drives you to write will let you. If you’re looking at making a living on this merry-go-round full of TNT, first I’ll offer you my condolences. Then I’ll tell you something else: it ain’t easy, but I’m in here with you. You’re not alone.

And at the end of the day, uncertainty be damned. It’s still the job I love, the job I have no intention of quitting.

Over and out.

Found Wanting

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Ever since I can remember, I have been measured and found wanting.

I was either too X or not enough Y. Too fat, too weak-eyed, too loud, too dreamy, too smart, too stubborn, too artsy. Not practical enough, not obedient enough, not pretty enough, not quiet enough, not thin enough, not smart enough. Nobody was ever entirely pleased with me, and every praise had sting in the tail. The first taste of approval-without-a-barb I can remember came in fourth grade, from Mrs. I., the teacher of a gifted class. But she was stretched thin with twenty of us to deal with, and the little nibbles I got then gave me a taste for academics. They did not fill the void.

Alas, not all teachers were Mrs. I., who was a genuinely sweet woman. It seemed that, like Jane Eyre, if I had been a “sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child” I would’ve had more luck. (I suppose that’s part of why I identify with Jane so strongly during the first third of the book.) I would get drabbles of approval for various things, but never more than a teaspoonful. I was a disappointment to every adult I met, except the few teachers patient enough to see that I was bored silly and also needed some sanctuary. The bruises were hard to cover up, but it was the damage inside that I needed help with.

Anyway, I’ve struggled with being found wanting in one way or another all my life. This has bred an odd dual problem: wanting approval on the one hand, and fierce perfectionism on my own terms on the other. If I was harder on myself than anyone else, my young brain decided, then I maybe, maybe could please someone. Anyone. It took me until I was almost thirty to start figuring out that I wasn’t wanting, that just maybe I was okay.

This isn’t just navel-gazing. I do have a point in mind.

Recently I was talking about writing with someone, and they said, “But it wouldn’t be good for you. I mean, they would be books you didn’t want to write, so they wouldn’t be your best.”

And I immediately said, “There’s no way I’d turn a book in unless it was the very, very best I could make it. I can’t do less than that, not even by a hair. I’d know. I just can’t.”

Writing for publication opens up the door to be judged and measured in every single possible way. You write, and judge it while you’re writing (even though you probably shouldn’t.) Then your beta reader/crit partner/group/inner editor judges it through a draft or two. Then your agent sees and judges it, and sends it out for editor to judge. The editor judges it through at least one and more likely multiple drafts. A copyeditor judges it, then it’s judged through a proofreader and your own eyeballing of proof pages.

Then it’s sent out into the world, and it’s judged by reviewers and customers. Sometimes quietly by them choosing to open their pocketbooks–or not–and sometimes loudly and vociferously. Over, and over, and over.

Is it any wonder writers get a little neurotic?

For someone with my background, this is nervewracking to the highest degree. I literally could not have found another career so tailored to take advantage of my particular fault lines, to rub figurative salt into my wounds. This has forced me to toughen up. It has forced me to grow up, to make the decision to find my self-worth as literally self-worth–and not what-someone-else-says-worth. To confront those voices inside my skull repeating not X enough, too much Y and see them for what they are.

Like everything else to do with writing, there is a paradox. Because during creation, the time when it’s me and the keyboard and that’s it, is when I feel most free. It’s like dancing naked in a dark vault–somewhere I know nobody will possibly see me, so I’m free to do what I want, however I want to do it. I am free to make the ultimate effort with nobody judging me but myself. Within my fierce perfectionism, I have absolute freedom–because I know at every moment I am doing the best I can. I am incapable of giving any less.

Sometimes I think that is what Readers respond to on some level. Even if your book is not perfect, some part of doing your absolute best, giving yourself heart and soul, makes it through. I’ve read books that made me cringe, but I did not stop because I could tell both that the author had put their time in mastering craft, and that they had done their level utter best. The commitment came through, and that commitment was something I responded to.

Your mileage may vary, of course. And I do not claim to have seen every time an author was giving his or her personal best. The point I am trying to make here is: try not to judge your own work too damaging-harshly. You will find plenty of judgment in everyday life, in the editing process, after your book is on the shelf. It took me thirty years to begin learning one simple thing: There is no way you can please everyone. You are going to have to concentrate on something else, and for my money, that something else is giving myself over to my work. Heart, soul, body, everything. At the end of the day, when it has just been me and the keyboard–that lonely place where the magic happens–I need to know that I’ve done my best, each and every time.

It gets me through. It gives me the strength to go on. Knowing that I have never done less than my best, that every time I turn a book in it is as good as I can possibly make it, that I do not and will not ever be shoddy or slipshod, even if my best is judged to be found wanting in the eyes of reviewers or editors…

…well, quite frankly, that’s all I’m going to get. So I’m going to take it with both hands and hold on tight.

Over and out.

The Social Web, And A Giveaway!

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
This Friday’s post will be short and sweet, as I have several errands to run, an air conditioner to install (yes, it arrives AFTER the heat wave, but I am not complaining) and a ton of other stuff around the house to do, stuff I put off during the OMG 100+ degree days we’ve had recently.

Today’s question comes from Reader MJ:

You’ve written about the addictive nature of the internet and its dangers to serious writing (and to authors themselves). I’d like to ask about a variation on that topic. How valuable is social interaction to you as a writer, and what part does the internet play in that social interaction? Do you have interactions there you can’t/don’t have face to face, or is the internet the last place you can just “be yourself”?

First off, disclaimer. The Internet is different things to different people. I am not sure I am normal in many ways, especially when it comes to social interaction. That being said, I’ll answer as best I can.

I am not a social person. Social gatherings or even dealing with the public is highly problematic for me. I’m even phobic about my phone, for Chrissake. Working retail was an endless nightmare for me. And don’t even get me started on office politics…

I like email because it gives me a bit of necessary distance between me and what another person wants. Growing up in a family where one’s boundaries were constantly trampled and survival depended on anticipating as best one could, the implication that someone needs something from me is high-stress. I like to save my limited energy and time for interaction for my close friends and family, because there is so little of both.

I am an extraordinarily solitary person. I’m not as bad as Bukowski, but I need stretches of time alone. Being essentially a single mother and the “safe place” for various friends means I have to be vigilant about my solitary time, and make sure to get it in so I don’t have nerve endings sparking like exposed wires. (This makes me, as you can imagine, So Not Fun To Be Around.)

So, social interaction is on the one hand immensely valuable to me as a writer–because I am writing about people, and I observe them endlessly whenever I can–and on the other hand, not so valuable and maybe even actively harmful, because a lot of times people drain me.

The thing that’s valuable to me on the Internet is that I can control my response time. The slight bit of distance and time between receiving an email etc. and the time I answer it provides me with a crucial hairsbreadth in which to consider the situation. To me, a lot of online interaction is safer, and it’s the only way I have of communicating with my fans. Let’s face it–I’m pretty poor. I’m supporting four people and the cats on my writing, and I don’t have extra for childcare. This is partly why I don’t visit a lot of conventions or do a lot of signings–I simply can’t afford the cash outlay.

The Internet has allowed me to have a personal relationship with my readers in a way that would not have been possible before. And it provides me the distance I need in several social interactions, a distance that keeps me from descending into being a twitching ball of self-destructive nerves.

I don’t have interactions on the Internet that make it “easier” for me to “be myself.” For one thing, I’m 33 now. I am myself, and I think I am only going to become more so. (It’s about damn time.) There are certain aspects of the Internet–chat, for example–that I don’t use because there are parts of myself I don’t want to share, as a public person. So my Internet use is curtailed by the idea that I am a public person, and the anonymity of the Web can be pretty flimsy. This is a curtailment I take gladly, because the benefits the Web offers vastly outweigh any pain I might feel at the loss of things I might want to do.

I am friends with a lot of people–my beta reader, the mods on my forum, fellow authors–who I would have never met without the Internet. So, as far as a wider acquaintance pool to draw friends from, the Internet has really worked for me. On the other hand, there’s been a lot of stalking and bad behavior I’ve been subjected to because of–you guessed it–the Internet. Again, the benefits far outweigh the dangers, especially when some simple precautions can ameliorate the dangers.

Still, there is no real substitute for going to a public place, settling down with a coffee or a bottle of water, and watching people. Writers are chronicling the human condition, and you can’t do that without observation of humans–yourself included. I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits of observation, but observation is not quite social. It requires a little bit of standing apart, and in that sense all writers are outsiders.

But to get back to the point, the social interactions on the Web have been very good to me, especially considering my gracelessness in face-to-face social interactions. The crucial little bit of distance gives me time to collect myself before I say/do something. (Sometimes I don’t use that space, but hey, nobody’s perfect.) For someone who is intrinsically a hermit and pretty introverted (despite giving a different impression when I set my mind to it) it is a godsend.

And now, for the giveaway! To celebrate the Dames release week madness, I am giving away two signed copies of Redemption Alley, the latest Jill Kismet book. To win, all you have to do is comment on this post before midnight on Saturday, August 1. Winners will be chosen with the help of Random.org. Please note that I can only send books to US addresses. Sorry about that.

Writers And Social Media: The Should NOTs

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Last week I brought you the things writers should do with social media. (You can also check out Monica Valentinelli’s recent SFWA article about online marketing, featuring Alex Bledsoe, Yasmine Galenorn, and Yours Truly.) I promised the should nots this week, and I shall fulfill.

This week, I promise to try not to rant.

I said try. My spirit is willing, but my flesh, alas, is occasionally weak.

I’ll start with the biggest and most obvious first. Ready?

Social media is not an ego game. The biggest mistake I see a lot of writers making is falling into the “numbers” trap. As in, “I need X followers/”friends” to be a Real True Celebrity!” I see giveaways–“when I reach X many friends I’ll give away Y” and promo stunts all aimed at upping the follower/”friend” count. Don’t do this, okay? It is not classy. It makes you look desperate.

If you are at a party and a used car salesman corners you and starts trying to tell you that you need to buy a car from him, what do you do? You make polite appropriate noises and escape as soon as possible, and avoid that person in the future. Social media is kind of like that party. Actual mixing is content, hitting the advertising button too hard is desperation and being a cheap shill. The former gains you followers in an organic manner. The latter turns people off and will not get you a quality network. Which leads us to:

Don’t be fooled by quantity. Carla Harker had this to say last week: When I see a new follower has hundreds or thousands of people they follow, I don’t think they are actually interested in what I have to say. I think all they’re trying to do is increase their own follower numbers. I know that’s not always right, but that’s what it appears from my side of things. I’d rather follow someone following a few dozen people–even if I’m not one of them–than be one of thousands.

Too often we mistake sheer quantity for quality when it comes to social media. Now, you can argue that if even a fraction of a sheer-quantity network pays attention, you will reap reward. I would argue right back that those rewards are transient and no substitute for a quality network, where people follow/friend because you provide real content and end up being enthusiastic about you for a variety of reasons. A recommendation from someone in a quality network will carry more weight than spam from a sheer-quantity network, the same way a word-of-mouth recommendation from one of my personal friends will carry more weight with me than an ad campaign, however crafty and cool the ad campaign is.

This touches on the principle of asymmetric follow. On Facebook, MySpace, or Goodreads I accept “friend” requests because the structure of those networks means I have to in order to connect with those fans. It’s a function of the network, true.

On Twitter, however, I “follow” the people who provide content I need/am interested in. There’s a huge difference between my follow list and the list of people following me because I am providing varied kinds of content, while cherrypicking Twitter for content I want to read/personal networking. Which brings us to the next thing.

Do not mistake your followers or “friends” for, well, actual friends. I actually came across this a lot on LJ. If you are a writer, published or seeking publication, you should not think of your followers in social media networks as friends in the traditional sense. They are your customers, they are your fanbase, they are “following” you because you are a content provider. This is a professional relationship and deserves to be treated like one, because you are using social networks as a PUBLIC personality, not for private reasons.

Yes, it sucks. But if you are published or want to be, you cannot be treating the Internet like it’s private. IT’S NOT. For some people, their blog can be private and their Facebook page only a way to connect with their real-life friends. This is not how it is if you’re using social networks professionally. Using them professionally means your cutesy or flirty posts, or the posts where you rant about reviewers, or really any inappropriate behavior, have career consequences. And those consequences are hardly ever good.

So, you’re a writer using social media. Your followers and “friends” like your books/short stories. They do not need to know about your sex life, or about more of your personal life than people at a party you’re attending in a professional capacity. There is a line here that is easy to cross, since you have both the illusion of privacy (you’re sitting alone in front of your computer) AND the illusion of community (we’re built to get emotionally involved with people we communicate with) when you use the Internet. Sometimes the line is in different places for different people–I’ve mentioned that other people put pictures of their kids up, which is something I would never do. Some people do talk about their pets or what they had for lunch. In small doses, personal information helps your fans feel closer to you.

In large doses, it’s a recipe for oversharing and disaster. Get it through your head that your followers and “friends” online deserve professionalism from you. As Maura Anderson said when I put out the call for advice last week: I know it’s easy to be cutesy and flirty and maybe a tad out of line but, again, you are not talking to a few friends on the phone or in person. You are broadcasting this to the world. While it may be easy to excuse it as “being human”, it can often convince potential readers or employers that, at best, you have really poor judgment.

Don’t spam. Don’t spam. DO NOT SPAM. For every 2% of promo, you need to have 98% of actual content to balance it out. Announcing book releases, giveaways, and interviews is okey-dokey. Having that be the ONLY THING you announce is going to make people feel like you never open your mouth except to sell them something. This is most uncool, since it violates the implicit contract in a social network–that you are not there just to sell something, that you are there to connect on some level. Since social networks are so easy to use for spamming, there is a backlash against anyone perceived to do so. Anger at other more blatant spammers will get turned onto you if you’re perceived to be one of their ilk. This is not fair, but it’s the way it is. Deal.

Also, Facebook and Goodreads people? Do not send out invites saying “Become my fan!” or “Read my book!” This puts you squarely in the spam/desperate shill category, and turns me off. If it turns even me off, and I understand the principle behind it, think of how much it would alienate your prospective audience of readers. A fan-based network sending me an invite is cool and comes from a quality network. You recommending your own book to me on Goodreads is part of a quantity network, and is a cheap shill. Don’t do it.

Don’t post while angry. Anger will make you stupid. It will make mistakes for you.

OK, I’m going to halfway break one of my rules here. Ready?

I was angry last night about reviewers (yes, this is plural, there’s been a rash lately) who pan my books when they can’t even spell the characters’ names right. I had a lot of spleen to vent and I could have written a scorching rant of a blog post. Did I? No. It was hard to step away. I ended up leveling to 80 out in Northrend instead, which may have been a waste of time but at least it wasn’t a waste of time that would set off an Internet sh!tstorm and make me look like a jerkwad. Don’t post when you’re pissed.

Respond appropriately. I don’t respond to follow requests on Twitter. I respond only briefly to “I reviewed your book!”–with a “Thank you, I’m glad you read it.” I respond more in depth to fans who ask questions or interact with me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve only been involved in one involved debate, and that was a discussion of DRM with a couple other industry professionals. I pick and choose what to respond to, and will do a general answer when a lot of people ask me the same question. It’s kind of an art form. When in doubt, be brief and polite. Which brings up another thing:

Don’t forget to write. Like, actually write. Social networks are built to be addictive timesucks. That’s why they work–they take advantage of natural human urges and response patterns. Don’t get so wrapped up in your social networks that you forget your job. Which is actually producing those books the fans pick up and read–you know, the reason they are impelled to find you on social networks in the first place.

The trusty kitchen timer is your best friend here, too. Set limits on your social-networking time. This will force you to prioritize and also (hopefully) force you to get your real work done. It is all too easy to lose track of the reason why you’re doing this, because social networks are so seductive and every time you get a reply, you get an ersatz jolt of “connection” that turns your biological wiring into pudding. Pudding doesn’t think straight, and it’s so, so easy toget addicted to that jolt. Don’t make that mistake.

All right, that about wraps up what I see as the most egregious errors writers commit on social networks. Now it’s your turn–the comment section awaits. Be polite, but be honest. Tell me what writers shouldn’t do in social media.

I’m listening.

Special thanks to Monica Valentinelli, Maura Anderson, and Carla Harker for discussions about social media. Thanks also to the people on Twitter and Facebook who discussed, offered advice, and generally gave me the grist for this mill of a post. Thank you all very much

Writers And Social Media: The Shoulds

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Good afternoon, chickadees. Today we’re going to talk about social networking.

Don’t make that face. This kind of talk is good for you. Like broccoli. Or chaos.

This started out with me getting spammed by someone with a screenplay on Twitter this last week. It hit at exactly the wrong time–I was already scraped-raw and frustrated. Fortunately, the spam touched off a discussion of what writers should and should NOT do when it comes to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and the like. This week I’ll be talking about the shoulds. Next week is when it will get fun, because I will talk about the should nots. And probably wax righteously bitchy about them, too.

I just like taking the positive first. This is a good rule in life.

For a lot of people, social media is a way to connect, share their lives, and commit various lapses in judgment. Unfortunately, it is also utterly public, which means that a writer, especially one seeking publication, has to use it a little differently than the average bear.

For example, it’s bad form for anyone to post naked pictures or venomous screeds on Facebook. But it can be just-plain-disastrous for a writer. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the term “career-destroying,” in fact.

So, what should a writer do on Facebook/Twitter/Goodreads/etc.?

* First, realize that you’re not the average user. When you use social media as an author seeking publication, or an already-published author, you are not just a private citizen using it. It becomes part of your public persona, and as such, you need to think carefully about what you want to convey, and just how far into your life you want to invite people.

* Get it through your head that ALL these things are PUBLIC. You can’t erase what you say on the Internet. It’s out there on servers that other people have control of, and screencaps flourish. I cannot emphasize this enough–the Internet is PUBLIC. Like anything in public, you need to think about if you really want to hang that part of yourself out there. Writers have varying degrees of comfort with sharing their lives online–John Scalzi, for example, shares more than I ever would, but still sticks to his limits and (here’s the other thing) doesn’t let his sharing detract from his work of writing. Which brings us to the next point.

* Set time limits and stick to them. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing–all these things are timesucks. They are seductive and can pull you away from actual writing, which is your job. This can eff up your chances of being published–or continuing to be published–bigtime.

* Think about your safety. I worked for a bank for a while, back in my benighted youth. One of their rules was no pictures of loved ones on your desk, period. (You would not believe some of the safety rules they give you in teller training. People are cray-zee when it comes to money.) Because if someone with bad intentions can identify and snatch your kid to get an inside track on a bank heist, and that is not safe for you, your loved ones, or the bank itself.

It’s the same thing on the Internet. I do not post pictures of my children or my house. I use pseudonyms for everyone except other public figures who use their real names on the Net. I’m not uber-famous and I have only had one or two deranged fans/stalkers, but still. I don’t want to take that chance, and I don’t want to make it easy on someone with bad intentions.

Some people do post pictures of their friends, family, loved ones, house, you name it. I just can’t, and the fact that I am a public person because I’m a writer just solidifies my intention to never do so. Call me paranoid, but better safe than sorry.

* Think about what image you want to convey. It’s not inauthentic to sit down and really think about your brand. Every time you go to work, to the grocery store, to the library, to a party, etc., you are interacting with other people and making judgments about what to tell them and what is inappropriate in that venue. Online is no different.

And really, let’s be practical here. If you’re submitting to agents or publishers, they will Google you. What do you want them to see? Just think about that. Measure what you say online, even in forums, by what you really honestly want other people to see. If you plan on being published and you’re on the Internet, you will be public at some point. Plan for it now.

You do not have to be “fake” to do this, by the way. Being polite and being yourself are not contradictory with thinking hard about your public persona and showing what you want to show.

* Your primary job is to provide content, not market yourself. Yes, a website and a Facebook account will help your fans find you. They are marketing tools, but their primary purpose cannot be marketing. That will turn your fans off because it makes you look desperate and pushy. It turns what should be a conversation into you constantly pushing other people to buy your sh!t. It’s inappropriate at a party or a grocery store, and it’s inappropriate online.

Your job in interacting in social media like Twitter and MySpace is to enrich your fans’ experience and help them feel an emotional connection to your books. It is not to feed your ego with how many “followers” you have, and it is not to flog your books mercilessly. I cannot say it enough: the hard sell doesn’t work. You don’t want to be an oleaginous car salesman.

You need to be a content provider. Post links to things you think are cool, new blog posts that are fresh content, things that make you go “hmmm” or interest you. Yes, you can also post book releases, short story releases, and contests. But those things cannot be ALL you post if you expect to have an interactive relationship with your fans. You do need to provide content or you’re just an empty noise. Empty noise grates on the nerves. 98% of your posts, tweets, whatever, need to be ACTUAL CONTENT. The rest is naturally marketing–book announcements, contest announcements, etc.

* Get away from the computer when you’re angry. So much trouble could be avoided if authors just stepped away from the Net while they’re pissed. Give yourself some time to cool off before you post that rant. Like, 24 hours. Or a week. If you have a strong emotional reaction to a subject, chances are you’re not thinking clearly. Not thinking clearly means a higher chance that you’ll do something stupid online, and those stupid things get a lot of clicks and bad publicity. (Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity.) I really can’t make it any simpler than that.

* Do occasionally respond. Several people mentioned during the discussion this week that they dislike it when an author has a presence on a social networking site that isn’t updated. One or two content streams that you do update are better than a million of them that you never get around to. Ease of use and your liking for a particular platform can enter into this. For example, Twitter is my main social networking tool because it’s easy to use and can propagate to Facebook, where a lot of my fans can connect with me. My MySpace page, while occasionally updated, has languished because MySpace makes it hard for me to update with third-party applications. Other stuff like Digg and Delicious I just don’t have time for. I pop in on Goodreads about once a week, but I have no time for LibraryThing or Shelfari.

There’s a balance to be struck between the timesuck factor and the interactive factor. Twitter gives me the most bang for my “time spent” buck, mostly because I can use Tweetdeck to keep track of everything. I do read my @replies religiously, respond where it seems appropriate, and if a lot of fans ask the same question I make a GENERAL reply rather than replying to each. bloody. one. I do have to set a timer and tear myself away from Twitter, but that’s a small price to pay for the ease of use and the connectivity.

That about sums it up. However, there’s one other thing I need to mention before next week. This is very, very important.

Be someone you’d like to know about. A constant barrage of criticism of other authors, complaints about how you’re ill-used, or just plain whining is not “being yourself” or “being artistic.” It’s passive-aggressive attention-seeking, and there are few things that will turn fans off sooner than that.

Making a list of the things you’d like to follow in other people’s social media streams is an invaluable tool for playing to your own strengths when it comes to using social media. It’s like the old strategy of finding friends–make a list of what qualities you’d like in friends, then start practicing those qualities on your own to attract them. It’s a sneaky way to force your Inner Censor to show you how to get where you want to be, and I’m all for making the Inner Censor do actual good work instead of sitting around whining and making your life harder.

Now it’s time for you to share your own advice. Remember, this week we’re talking about what writers SHOULD do with social media. Save the should-nots for next week.

Yeah, I know, I just killed the real fun until next Friday. This is me being sneaky. What better way to keep you coming back?

Ready? Discuss!

Hidden Hinges, and the Messy Death of a Metaphor

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
My brain is oatmeal today, because yesterday I finished the first draft of the third Strange Angels book. So if I occasionally sound like a babbling idiot, that’s why. There’s a snapback involved in finishing any huge project. This one is all the more intense because I don’t get a break–I go right into last-minute Weasel Boy revisions and short-story reworking. Come August, when everything is turned in, I am going to be so, so useless.

Last week I talked about how writing is not a bloodless art. Several of you have asked me about the “hidden hinges” I mentioned at the very beginning of that piece. (Warning: I am about to beat a metaphor to death in this post. I AM NOT KIDDING.)

Now, this is purely personal terminology, YMMV and all that. I do structure my books vary carefully and put things in certain places for a reason. I tend to visualize a book like a tapestry or a fall of cloth hanging in a certain configuration, and the external and internal hinges are the places where I’ve inserted a hook or something to get the fabric to make the shape I want. It requires both fine close work (trees) as well as stepping back to take a look at how the whole damn thing is hanging (forest.)

What I call “external” hinges are big plot points, major parts of the plot. Smaller plot points are the folds of the fabric itself. Internal, “hidden” hinges are smaller, pretty much invisible underpinnings, and they come in two types: the personal and the reader’s hinges.

This won’t make a lot of sense without an example, so here goes.

In Working For The Devil, the sex scene with Dante and Japhrimel is an external hinge. It moves the story forward and introduces the basic tension in the second half of the book, the tension that was foreshadowed both by Japh’s treatment of Dante and by Dante’s own feelings of being an alien in her own world. The reader’s hidden hinge in that scene is where Dante talks about Japhrimel telling her things she had always wanted to hear. That feeling–that you’re waiting for the lover who will whisper the right thing in your ear–is amazingly human, and it is the reader’s entry into the scene, for all it occurs near the end of it. It’s not quite a payoff, but it is a hidden hinge and part of the reason why that scene works.

The personal hinge is just that–personal. It’s the part of the scene that makes it work for the writer, and no, I’m not going to tell you what my personal hinge in that scene is. It’s not what you think.

The personal hinge is the writer’s entry into the scene–it gives the writer what the scene is “about,” it emotionally invests the writer so that the writer can make it possible for the reader to be emotionally invested. It happens in the oddest places, and most times the reader’s eyes skip right over it. I have yet to identify a hidden hinge in a fellow writer’s book, and I have yet to have anyone guess any of mine correctly–or even mention them.

This is why reading is so important for writers. You have to read widely, in a few different genres, before you start being able to identify where the outer and the reader’s hidden hinges are. Sometimes the hidden hinges are missing–try as I might, I cannot find them in a lot of big “blockbuster” books. (Clancy and Dan Brown come to mind here.) This could be because there is no emotional point of entry for me in those books personally, or it could be because they’re not there. (I will leave that question where it lies.) I can read them for other reasons, but the satisfying emotional gestalt of story is missing.

Hinges are different than worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is how you dye that fall of fabric, but without the hinges it’s just a shapeless mass. Hoisting it properly and making it hang to make the finished shape you want requires structure–both the bigger structure of external hinges and the smaller detail-oriented structure of reader’s hidden hinges.

If the external and the reader’s hidden hinges are at variance or improperly balanced, the work isn’t going to “hang” right and will feel lopsided or misshapen. External hinges without internal hinges make for a choppy mess of events with very little internal logic and no reason to care about why these characters are doing those things. Internal hinges without external hinges are very hard to do, because a story without something happening, even if that something is purely internal, is not quite a story. Sometimes the reader’s hidden hinges can double as external hinges in a story with not much “going on” on the surface, but that’s a hat trick for other writers, not me. Purely internal stories are okay, but I prefer a little more bang and flash. Again, that’s a personal taste.

I didn’t find out about internal hinges until after my sixth novel or so. Before I had a fuzzy idea why some things worked, because I’d read so much and had caught the rhythm of storytelling. But around my sixth finished book I started being able to see the structure of a whole book inside my head like a 3-D model, and I was pretty much useless and excited for a week thinking about it and applying that sight to stuff I’d already written. Which held up okay, I guess, for someone who couldn’t see what they were doing while they were building it. I’d been working blind up to that point, just doing things instinctively, and now I could finally see what I was doing.

It was awesome.

This is part of why I am so adamant that writers cannot stop at their first finished piece and just flog that one, endlessly. I may be a dolt because it took me six effing books to get the structure model inside my head, but I would never have gotten there if I was still flogging smoke and being That Writer. There are two things about novel writing that new writers largely don’t get: that it takes a phenomenal amount of sheer bloodyminded practice/hard work, and that it’s different each time. Each novel’s process is different–the shape under the cloth is unique. Understanding how to get the cloth to fall the way you want requires that you practice enough to understand how cloth behaves, to get it to do what you want.

I warned you I would beat that metaphor to death, but I think I’ll stop now while it’s on the floor begging for mercy. I don’t have the heart to finish it off today. I must be getting soft in my old age. Either that or I’m exhausted from finishing that most recent book and looking at dyeing a whole new batch of cloth…

Oh, crud. The metaphor just died. Guess I killed it after all.

Keep writing!