What to Tweet

Twitter is an ideal tool for technical communicators like me. We like to write, we like technology, and we like to share information about how to do things better. Many of us are introverts, and so enjoy building networks through written communication. We can stay in daily contact with people we may see once a year in real life. These people become our friends and supporters, though they’re scattered around the globe.

Creative writers, I’ve observed, often find Twitter a less natural fit.  Some do quite well, reaching out and sharing relevant information with a wide network. Others connect primarily with people they already know and tweet primarily about what’s going on in their life. And if that’s their goal, then that’s fine.

But if you want to use Twitter as a marketing tool to build your fan base and your network of supporters, you have to do more. Twitter is about adding value for your followers. How do you do that? Figure out what your followers want, and offer them solutions to problems.

Branding Yourself

Before deciding what to tweet, it helps to have a clear concept of your brand. For instance, my interests include gardening, scuba diving, and travel to exotic islands, but those things aren’t part of my brand. So I don’t (usually) tweet about them. My brand focuses on communication: technical writing, creative writing, and public speaking. My unique value proposition is viewing those activities through the lens of personality type. So those are the things I tweet and blog about. Those are the things my followers expect to see from me.

Adding Value

In social media, the unwritten rule is that no more than 20% of your communications will be aimed at self-promotion. The other 80% will focus on other activities that are of interest to your followers. These activities might include some of the following:

  • Articles on the Internet that your audience might find informative
  • Books you enjoyed reading
  • Publications by members of your network that might be of interest to your followers
  • Local networking events
  • Conferences relating to your area of expertise
  • Tweets by members of your network that bear retweeting
  • Pithy observations or quotations
  • Breaking news

Remember, though, that tweeting is to some degree a conversation. If someone retweets you or promotes your activities, then thank them. And if someone follows you, follow them back if you think they’re communicating worthwhile information. Read their tweets and look for something you can retweet, to show them your appreciation. Think about how you can contribute to the Twitter community.

Also, be sure to consider the signal to noise ratio. Twitter is not the place to rant about getting stuck in a traffic jam, unless you’re warning your followers to take an alternate route. It’s not the place to rave about a terrific meal, unless you tell your followers the name and location of the restaurant. If you’re tweeting about your life, be sure to give your followers a reason to care.

What Not to Tweet

Here are my two favorite examples of what not to tweet, both by self-professed social media marketers.

1. “All men are idiots, and I married their king.”

Why this is bad: Rhetorically, this tweet has a certain wit to it. Unfortunately, the author has now insulted half of her prospective clients, and alienated women who do not consider their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, or male associates to be idiots. Moreover, if this author married the king of idiots, doesn’t that make her their queen? I wouldn’t take advice on social media from the queen of idiots.

What she could have tweeted instead: “We all make mistakes. Learn from them and move on.”

Why this is better: A platitude? Yes. But it may be something that one of her tweeps needed to hear that day. Instead of blaming her (ex?) husband for whatever negativity she’s experiencing in her life, she’d be sending a positive message into the world.

2. “Why is everyone watching the Whitney [Houston] funeral?? People die everyday.”

Why this is bad: It’s not hyperbole to say that Whitney Houston was the greatest vocalist of her generation. But even if she’d been a flash-in-the-pan pop diva, it’s insensitive and insulting to trivialize someone’s grief.

What he could have tweeted instead: “Many of my tweeps are watching the Whitney funeral today. My condolences to her family, friends, and fans.”

Why this is better: Twitter isn’t about you. It’s about community, and how you can contribute in a positive way. This requires empathy. If you have nothing positive to say, then say nothing.

That doesn’t mean you can never be critical. You can denounce ignorance and repression without offending too many people. But always consider your brand. Are politics or religion part of your brand? If not, either say nothing, or approach the subject obliquely. For instance, to oppose excessive taxation, post a quote from Abraham Lincoln on personal responsibility. To support gay marriage, post a quote from Martin Luther King on civil rights.

Doing Twitter well isn’t hard, but it does require a strategy. Know the message you want to send. Then, follow the Golden Rule of Twitter: tweet unto others as you’d have others tweet unto you.

Finding Your Voice in Fiction

Copywriters blog about it. Literary agents yearn for it. Budding writers may know they need it, but they may be unsure how to get it (or even what it is). In a sense, voice is your platform. It’s the reason that you alone could write this story—that no one else could write it the way you did.

Many things contribute to an author’s voice. Word choice and sentence structure are part of it. But voice is also much deeper. It’s your world view, your values, your passion. In short, it’s your personality.

The websites of literary agents make it clear that they’re looking for a unique and compelling voice. If your manuscript sounds like every other submission in your genre, then no matter how well written it is, the agent will likely pass. Your personality must shine through.

Here are some of the components of voice:

Your values

David Keirsey grouped the 16 Myers-Briggs types into 4 temperaments, and identified the values unique to each. For example, the Idealists (NFs) and Guardians (SJs) value cooperation, while Rationals (NTs) and Artisans (SPs) value autonomy. But while the cooperative efforts of Guardians focus on preserving traditions and social institutions, Idealists seek to build stronger communities through personal growth. And while Artisans want autonomy so they can take advantage of immediate opportunities, Rationals focus on building systems and long-term strategies.

Think about some of your favorite novels, and consider how the voice might reflect one or more of these values. For example, I might argue that in The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Aibileen expresses Guardian values, Minny expresses Artisan values, and Miss Skeeter expresses Rational values. Yet the novel itself expresses Idealist values. The voices of the three point-of-view characters come together to give the novel a voice that’s different from the sum of its parts.

Your experiences

I’m a Pennsylvanian who’s made a home in North Carolina. I know how disorienting it is to leave your support system behind, and start a new life in a strange place with customs you don’t understand. My experience with this sense of alienation plays a role in my fiction.

But note that your experiences aren’t limited to things you’ve personally lived through. We’ve all been listening to stories—through books, TV, movies, and conversation—since we were born. The people you know also have a unique set of experiences that they can share with you. The old caveat, write what you know, is backwards. It should be know what you write. Research. Interview people. Travel if you have to. Draw on your past, but continue to build your store of knowledge.

Your interests

If you love jazz, set a couple of scenes in a jazz club. Include dialogue that could only be spoken by a jazz connoisseur. If you garden, include descriptions of trees and flowers that demonstrate your specific knowledge. These kinds of details add depth and authenticity to a scene.

Your interests may also affect the theme of your work. As a writer of women’s fiction, I’m fascinated by the effects of human evolution on behavior, particularly in the differences between men and women. In most primate societies, to avoid inbreeding, females stay in the troupe they were born into; males, on the other hand, are forced out when they reach sexual maturity, and must make their way in the world. Modern human females largely define themselves in terms of their relationships, whereas males define themselves in terms of identity. My fiction explores the conflicts that naturally occur as a result: for instance, the woman is trying to preserve the relationship but her partner is trying to preserve his identity. Or, conversely, a woman’s search for identity creates problems in her relationships.

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The best way to ensure that your voice shines through is to be authentic, to write from your core self, and to be fearless. If you’re not willing to take chances in your fiction, to expose the deepest parts of yourself, you won’t touch the reader’s heart. It’s that emotional connection to the characters that keeps readers engaged. A story without voice is a story that won’t sell. So don’t hold back. Write for all you’re worth.

Can You Make a Living As a Novelist?

A reader asked whether I thought it was possible to make a living as a novelist in the current environment. We’re seeing deep changes in the publishing industry. That can be scary, because change creates uncertainty. But I believe that this is the most exciting time ever to be a novelist. We have more publishing options, more delivery options, and more ways of connecting to potential readers. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a living as a novelist. In fact, it may be more difficult now, because readers are more demanding and sophisticated. So what can you do to increase your odds?

1. Write a stellar book.

Whether you choose traditional or self-publishing, your manuscript must have no major flaws. Major flaws include:

  • Numerous grammar and spelling errors
  • An opening that doesn’t hook the reader
  • No distinct voice
  • A plot that doesn’t move
  • Characters that readers can’t identify with quickly enough
  • Wooden dialogue
  • Overblown descriptions
  • Events that seem to happen at random without a connection to the main character’s journey
  • A contrived ending

The gatekeepers in traditional publishing will keep you out if your debut novel has these flaws. But if you go with self-publishing, you can publish your manuscript anyway. The problem is, no one will buy it. You won’t get the word of mouth endorsements you need in order for the novel to succeed. And anyone who does read the book will avoid your future ones.

2. Write another stellar book.

Very few people can make enough money to retire on from their first novel. It’s likely that it will take 3 or 4 novels before you build a fan base. You must be in it for the long haul. Ideally, you should follow up your first book with your second in six months to a year. Readers who love your book, and are panting for more, will give up on you if you keep them waiting too long. Bob Mayer recommends that you don’t self-publish until you’ve got three books ready to go. Only then will your promotion pay off in sales.

3. Don’t put more time into promotion than you do into writing.

These days, even fiction writers need a platform before most acquiring editors will consider them. If they Google your name and don’t find you, that’s bad. You should be on Facebook and Twitter, maybe LinkedIn and Google+. It also helps to have a blog with a decent number of hits. But none of that matters if you’re not focusing on your manuscript first, making it the best it can be. Read books in your genre, study the craft, and write every day.

4. Eliminate non-essentials from your life

Writing a novel is a full-time job. If you’ve got another full-time job to pay the bills, then you need to eliminate things from your life that don’t contribute to your writing practice. That doesn’t mean giving up your social life. If you and your spouse enjoy throwing a Super Bowl party every year, don’t let your writing get in the way of that. But if the only reason you watch the big game is to see the commercials, then maybe your Super Bowl Sunday would be better spent in front of a keyboard than in front of a TV.

5. Get feedback on your work (from someone who’s qualified to give it)

Chances are pretty good that your mom will love your novel. After all, she loved those crayon drawings you did when you were three. Were those crayon drawings masterpieces because your mom loved them? No. The same is true for your manuscript.

Join a critiquing group, either local or online. Participate in events offered by writing organizations, and seek out fellow writers you can trust to serve as beta readers. Keep in mind that the first few times someone critiques your creative writing, it will be excruciating. But in time, it gets easier. You start looking forward to the feedback because you know it will make your work stronger.

6. Want it more than you’ve ever wanted anything

Chances are, writing your first salable novel will be a long-term commitment. It requires you to pour in your emotions, to be more honest than you’ve ever been. It means giving up your leisure time. These sacrifices are hard, so ask yourself: can you go to your grave satisfied if you never become a published author? If the answer is yes, then you may not have the drive and the passion it takes to see this thing through.

Success in publishing is about 30% talent. The rest is timing, perseverance, and luck. A lot is out of your control. But if you want it enough, you work hard enough, and you keep at it for as long as it takes, you may just have a chance.

Query Letters: Seduce, Don’t Summarize

In her blog SlushPileTales, literary agent Lauren Ruth of Bookends LLC runs a wonderful series called Query Dice. She critiques queries (with the author’s permission, of course), and invites readers to share their views as well. One thing stands out to me about the queries she’s featured so far: the authors are trying to summarize their book, instead of crafting a marketing pitch to hook the agent. They’re giving the agent more information than she needs, and the result is confusion rather than excitement.

Agents are in part to blame for this. Too many agency websites state that the query letter should contain a “synopsis” or “summary” of the novel. Those words suggest that the author should encapsulate the entire plot in two paragraphs. But as editor Jane Friedman says, “A query letter is not a straightforward description of your work. It’s a sales letter. It should be persuasive and seduce the agent into requesting your work.”

Other agency websites ask for a “description” or a “pitch.” These terms are better, but “description” could lead some writers to submit a beautiful abstraction, instead of focusing on plot. And “pitch” could lead some writers to declare, “It’s the next Da Vinci Code!” or “It’s better than Eat, Pray, Love!” Agents don’t want that, either.

What agents really want is back jacket copy—that marketing copy on the back cover that convinces the reader to buy the book. Back jacket copy must entice readers, revealing enough to pique their interest but not so much that their curiosity wanes. Your query should do the same for an agent.

For instance, here’s my attempt at writing back jacket copy for my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

When Charles Bingley rents an estate in Hertfordshire in Regency England, the mamas of the eligible daughters in the neighborhood welcome him with undisguised glee. Chief among these mamas is Mrs. Bennet, who has produced five daughters, but no sons to inherit the family estate. The two eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, hope for love but know that marrying well is their only security against poverty when their father’s fortune inevitably passes to a distant cousin.

Bingley is smitten by the lovely but modest Jane. Then, his friend Darcy visits Hertfordshire. The grandson of an earl, Darcy is shocked by the coarse manners of the provincial society. Jane’s vivacious sister Elizabeth teases Darcy out of his silence. But when Jane and Elizabeth’s family expose their own follies at a ball, Darcy whisks Bingley out of Hertfordshire to save him from Mrs. Bennet’s designs, leaving Jane heartbroken. Elizabeth realizes a painful truth: The greatest threat to her future happiness isn’t the entail on her father’s estate. It’s her mother’s crassness, her sisters’ wildness, and her father’s benign indifference. If she and Jane hope to find love with men of quality, the sisters must rise out of the stifling country society into which they were born.

This copy isn’t perfect—for one thing, it names 5 characters, which is 3 too many. The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth, doesn’t feature prominently enough. But this is the way the novel reads. It introduces a number of characters at once, and Elizabeth doesn’t dominate at first. In this sense, the rhythm of the copy follows the rhythm of the novel.

Note that this copy focuses mainly on the early chapters of the novel. Then, the second half of the second paragraph skips forward to the midpoint reversal. The final sentence summarizes the protagonist’s course of action based on the new information she receives at the midpoint, which begins the long lead-up to the climax.

Note also what I left out: I barely hinted at the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Their courtship is a critical part of Elizabeth’s internal journey, but it doesn’t drive the external plot. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t realize she’s engaged in courtship with Darcy until halfway through the novel. So I gave the reader just enough information to suspect that the two might become a couple.

I also left out the subplots, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. There’s no room for subplots in a query letter.

Before you try to write the query, I recommend that you first write a logline. A logline is a one-sentence description of the main action of the story. Here’s a possible logline for Pride and Prejudice:

Two sisters in Regency England must marry well to avoid poverty, but the uncouth manners of their family threaten to frighten off any men of quality they meet.

This logline is horribly reductive. It doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of one of the greatest novels of all time. But a logline isn’t supposed to do that. It’s supposed to leave the audience wanting more. And having a logline will help you write your query with a laser focus on the main plot.

Why is writing a query difficult for many budding novelists? Author and self-publishing guru Bob Mayer looks to the Myers-Briggs personality types for one explanation: “Promoter (ESTP) is the complete opposite of Author (INFJ).” As an INFJ author myself, I can relate. But remember, the MBTI types are based on preference, not ability. Writing promotional copy is a skill you can learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

Chapter 4 of Bob Mayer’s book Write It Forward contains more information on how the MBTI can help fiction writers plan their career and deepen their characters. This book is available in multiple formats from Who Dares Wins Publishing, and is also available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Related links:
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision

Breaking the Surface: Deepening the Characters in Your Fiction

Recently on Twitter, @AgentShea (Katie Shea of the Donald Maass Literary Agency) was wondering “how to make a one-note romance book into women’s fiction.” This is a question I also think about. As a writer of women’s fiction, I find that some romance and chick lit novels leave me dissatisfied. They hint at the depth of their characters but don’t really explore it.

For instance, I recently read a chick lit novel where the heroine is addicted to shopping. Even though she’s getting deeper into debt, she can’t seem to stop herself from buying things. The novel is resolved when she finally takes control of her financial life. But it never explores why she’s got this addiction in the first place.

I get that there’s a temporary high that comes with buying pretty things (have you seen my lia sophia jewelry collection?). I get that the character’s mother also loves to shop. But people with an addiction generally have a hole in their life they’re trying to fill. What’s this character’s wound? In the novel, she doesn’t seem to have one.

This is one area where knowledge of personality type can help you deepen your characters. For instance, this protagonist struck me as an ESFP. She was gregarious, fun-loving, spontaneous, and deeply loyal to the people she cared about. She ignored her negative feelings, hoping they would go away, rather than confronting them directly before things got out of control. So, considering the stressors of an ESFP, what might the source of this character’s pain be?

Personal relationships are of primary importance to ESFPs. Conflict with a loved one, or the feeling of being excluded by their social group, is likely to trouble this type even more than others. Because of their lighthearted and carefree demeanor, ESFPs may find that people don’t take them as seriously as they deserve. I can easily envision how an ESFP character experiencing feelings of rejection might spiral into compulsive behavior.

In this novel, a couple of simple elements might have deepened the story substantially:

  • Spending more time dealing with the heroine’s recent breakup with her boyfriend, which in this case was simply glossed over.
  • Showing other characters consulting her expertise about fashion but not finance (she’s knowledgeable about both).

This is just one example. You can take the same approach to any of the personality types, identifying their stressors and working them into the story.

For other ideas on deepening character in your story, see the list of Breakout Novel writing prompts that Donald Maass currently has listed on the agency website. You can also find these prompts by searching #Maass on Twitter.

Related post:

Using Personality Type Theory to Develop Fictional Characters

Men and Their Institutions

I’ve heard that in ancient Polynesian culture, tribes seeking to expand would come ashore on a neighboring island. The newcomers and the male inhabitants would engage in a sort of ritual stare-down. Their angry faces and threatening posture were meant to intimidate the enemy. If the inhabitants showed no sign of weakness, the invading force would leave. But if the inhabitants betrayed fear, war would break out.

This posturing seems an efficient way of resolving conflict—a conflict derived from basic need. It’s easy to understand that if a population outgrew the resources of its island home, the only choices were to find new territory or starve. The human instinct to wage war is about survival. And men evolved to become effective at hiding their emotions.

I grew up believing that war was evil, but I’ve now lived long enough to recognize that war is sometimes necessary. On this Veterans Day, I’m grateful to those who have fought to preserve my freedom and way of life. In our modern society, war is less about territory and more about ideology. Even though the primitive needs that drove humans toward war have largely been eradicated in modern American society, those evolutionary adaptations that assisted men in waging war still remain. And they sometimes manifest themselves in disturbing ways.

On the battlefield, combatants commit what would be acts of atrocity in any other context. They violently protect their buddies from the enemy and even from civilians if necessary. This band of brothers mentality makes war possible. It makes a strong military possible. And military institutions are honorable ones when they’re designed to protect the innocent from aggression.

But outside a military environment, this instinct to protect your buddy when he’s committed an atrocity, or to engage in secrecy to protect your institution from the shame of violent acts perpetrated by one of its members, has no place. And that’s especially true when the victim is a child.

I’m a student of human nature. I write because I want to understand why people do the things they do. But as a writer and a native Pennsylvanian, I’m struggling to understand how an institution like the Penn State football program could knowingly allow a child rapist to operate in its midst.

Does some basic evolutionary drive account for how these men protected one of their cronies by covering up the abuse of children? Or were the men involved in this case an anomaly, driven by the arrogance and selfishness that are our shared human condition?

Even if this behavior can be explained by some primitive instinct, there’s still no excuse for it. As Jodie Foster said when she accepted the Best Actress Oscar for The Accused: “Cruelty might be very human, and it might be cultural, but it’s not acceptable.”

Shoveling the Slush

I had the pleasure of hearing agent Jon Sternfeld speak at the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference this weekend. As the newest member of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, Jon is responsible for reviewing the slush that comes into the agency. The term “slush” refers to unsolicited submissions of writers seeking representation. And as Sternfeld points out in this post at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog, thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, the slush pile is growing:

Even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write.

What if there were a test that wannabe novelists had to pass before they could submit to agents? It would be an easy thing to implement. Many agencies now have online forms that writers must use to submit their queries. What if agencies added a simple, ten-question test that you had to pass before you could get to the submission form? It might go something like this:

1. The main character of a story is called the antagonist.

o True
o False

2. Who wrote The Great Gatsby?

o Ernest Hemingway
o John Steinbeck
o F. Scott Fitzgerald
o Saul Bellow

3. The denouement occurs during which part of the story?

o Beginning
o Middle
o End

4. Which of these sentences is punctuated correctly?

o “Open the door”, he said.
o “Open the door.” he said.
o “Open the door”. he said.
o “Open the door,” he said.

5. Every story must have a villain—that is, an evil person who is out to destroy the main character.

o True
o False

6. Which of these sentences is generally considered to be the best constructed?

o She walked quickly toward the exit.
o She walked very quickly toward the exit.
o She hurried toward the exit.
o She walked hurriedly toward the exit.

7. Purple prose should be avoided in fiction.

o True
o False

8. Choose the word that correctly completes this sentence: She opened the door to reveal the surprise and said…

o Walla!
o Voila!
o Valla!
o Woila!

9. Commercial fiction is more artistic than literary fiction.

o True
o False

10. The weather should always reflect the main character’s mood—that is, it should be rainy when the character is sad, and sunny when the character is happy.

o True
o False

What do you think? Are these questions objective enough that publishable writers should know the answers? Are they too difficult or too easy? Would such a test reduce the number of queries agents receive from unqualified writers, or would it be too easy for people to find the answers?

Being able to type letters into a word processor doesn’t make a person a writer, any more than being able to cut a tuna fish sandwich in half with a kitchen knife makes a person a surgeon. A quiz to weed out the dilettantes from the serious writers would give agents more time to devote to those of us who actually sort of know what we’re doing. And that would be a good thing for agents and writers alike.