It can be difficult to find the time, energy or creativity to get those precious words down on paper after a long day at work. All of us can find reasons to procrastinate. This has been borne out by recent studies that show humans tend to greatly underestimated the time it takes to finish any project and find working on projects much more exciting than completing them. If you’re writing a book however, you need to finish or you’re missing the main purpose of writing in the first place — to find your readers.
As I was sitting in a coffee shop recently, tapping away on my laptop, it occurred to me that I am as guilty of these stalling tactics as anyone. Knowing this about myself, I have devised a few habits to get around my natural tendency to procrastinate. These have helped me maintain my productivity even though I work a normal 40 hour per week day job. Looking back, it has made a difference.
Since I published my first book six years ago, His Life Abiding (2013), I have written two more full length novels, The Men in the Trees (2014) and My Summer (with Robots) (2018). Additionally, I have written and illustrated the first two volumes of my graphic novel serious, Dark & Fevered Dreams, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and created an immersive website for the same. Although I sometimes kick myself for not doing more, I think every writer has to keep things in perspective. If I look back on what I produced in the six years before that, which was essentially nothing, then I’ve made great strides.
So here are a few habits I’ve adopted since becoming a professional author. If you have some of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
NARRATE WHEN YOU CAN'T TYPE: Using smart technology effectively might not help you become a better writer, but I can help you get your thoughts down more quickly and efficiently. Because I often drive long distances for my day job, I will use that “downtime“ to capture my ideas or work on a book chapter. Since anything I narrate will be refined in rewrites, I don’t worry if what I’m saying is uninspired. All I want is to get words down on paper... or in an audio file as the case may be. Later, listening back to my narration, I will use talk-to-text technology to get it into a usable written format. Talk-to-text means I can do it a few minutes what might’ve taken me an hour to type manually.
SET BOTH LONG AND SHORT TERM GOALS: The longest long term goals I set is only six months. Again, this timeframe is based on sociological studies that show if a person doesn’t accomplish a task within six months, they probably never will. My six month goals tend to be higher level achievements such as “finish the first draft of my new book“ or “increase my social media following by 10%.“ Short term goals tend to be daily or weekly. I keep these flexible because if you’re a creative person your productivity is dependent upon your mood. I’ve given myself permission not to write on my up-and-coming books every day if I don’t feel like it, but to do something every day. These alternatives may be scheduling social media posts, writing a blog such as this one, or corresponding with my readers.
DO TWO THINGS EVERY DAY: From your list of short term goals, choose two that you will accomplish every day. Any two are fine — you can mix and match as desired — but make sure you do at least two.
MAKE YOUR GOALS ATTAINABLE: Human beings respond better to positive reinforcement and you'll actually create a positive feedback loop for yourself if you have goals that you're completing regularly.
WORK ON MULTIPLE PROJECTS: I don’t always feel like working on the same property project every day so I will bounce back-and-forth between several. Currently, I am finishing up work on Volume 3 of Dark & Fevered Dreams and just started writing the sequel to My Summer (with Robots). If I don't feel like writing, I may pick up my iPad and iPencil and work on illustrations for Dark & Fevered Dreams instead.
TEND TO WHAT YOU PLANTED: The publishing industry rule of thumb is that a book tends to sell best in the first six weeks after its release. Still, your previous novels may have a lot of life left in them and there are things you can do to remind your readers of their existence. For example, publicize them alongside your new releases; arrange free giveaways of your older titles; change the cover art periodically; or start an online discussion about some aspect of the novel to draw in new readers. In my experience, the release of a new novel has always helped sales of the old ones.
STAY FOCUSSED ON YOUR MESSAGING: If you are a small or independent author, you will not have the massive marketing tools of the corporate publishing world behind you. Instead, you will have to work that out for yourself and may need to resort to some guerrilla tactics. This isn't a bad thing, because it forces you to directly interact with your readers, booksellers and potential publishers as a result. Social media, book related websites like Goodreads, and online chat rooms can you do a great job of helping spread the word. However, nothing will help if your messaging and brand is not clear and focused. Take a look at these resources on how to brand yourself and then come up with a clear message and look so readers can find you in a very crowd field.
GUARD YOUR WRITING TIME JEALOUSLY: It's not selfish, it’s necessary. You have to think of writing, even if it’s not your livelihood, in the same way as a normal job. Set hours, quotas and standards for your work times and then require those around you to respect them.
ASK YOURSELF: WHY AM I DOING THIS? A friend recently asked how much I earn writing books. My answer was simple: "not much." Honestly, authors at my level are lucky if writing turns into a lucrative hobby but hopefully you’re not doing it for the cash alone. If your goal is to become rich, there are a lot quicker and easier ways to do it. And the rise of independent publishing has made the competition to find readers even worse. But why are you writing anyways? Is it because you want to be famous or because you have something to say? Analyzing your motives and measuring your success in ways other than dollars may help you feel better about what you're doing.
I read the book in the fourth grade and it haunted me for years to come. How does one track down a novel when you can't even remember it's title? This is the Halloween-themed story of how I rediscovered my childhood ghost.
As the publication of my third young adult novel, My Summer (with Robots), approached, I began thinking more about those books and stories I read in my youth which still resonate with me today.
It was easy to come up with a list of significant popular fiction from my childhood. Titles such as The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder; Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh; Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George; and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien are all standouts. But as I thought about it, I realized how much I have been influenced by stories found in unexpected places, maybe even tales whose titles I’ve long since forgotten but still linger in the shadowed corners of my mind.
Perhaps the most important of these was a short story called “The Bend of Time” by Howard Goldsmith ,which appeared as installments in Child Life magazine from October 1976 through January 1977.
During the 70s, Child Life was one of a myriad of youth magazines which flooded mailboxes, libraries and school book fairs alike. Others, like Dynamite and Pizzazz, were identifiable by their techno-colored covers and pandering features about the celebrities and pop culture fads. If humor was more your style, you might pick up Cracked and Crazy, imitators of the better known and more irreverent Mad magazine. And for the younger set, there was Jack & Jill, Highlights and, of course, Child Life.
What impressed me about “The Bend of Time” was how dark and sophisticated it was for Child Life, a periodical that specialized in science fiction and mystery but adapted for readers as young as 8. Lavishly illustrated by Werner Willis, the story was about a teenager named Roy who had returned with his parents to help recolonize Earth centuries after the ecosphere became uninhabitable. The family moves into Fallingwater, an abandoned house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright during the early twentieth century. Although constructed to accentuate natural light, the home has been completely boarded up and the living room filled with banks of antiquated computers. Discarded on the floor, Roy finds the faded photograph of a boy about his age. On the photo’s back is written: SUBJECT: KEITH EDWARDS. AGE: 14. INTELLIGENCE LEVEL: SUPERIOR. DATE: AUG. 15, 3220. Over the next few days, Roy begins to have highly realistic dreams of visiting Keith in the boarded up house some 800 years earlier. Roy finally realizes his dreams are slips in time, peeks into an age when humanity was enslaved by a race of sentient robots called Ogolots. When an Ogolot ominously tells Keith he’s been scheduled for removal from the house so his brain can be "studied," the boys escape from Fallingwater with a phalanx of machines hot on their heels.
The story doesn’t end there, of course… but for me there would be a 40 year pause until I could finish reading “The Bend of Time.” You see, back in ’76 my mother didn’t renew Child Life so we never received the January 1977 edition containing the final installment of the story. I have kept the first three issues ever since, occasionally conducting searches through used book shops and online for the highly elusive conclusion. But it wasn’t until last month that I discovered that “The Bend of Time” was originally published in an anthology called More Science Fiction Tales: Crystal Creatures, Bird-Things and Other Weirdies, edited by Roger Elwood. Finding a used copy on Amazon finally allowed me to finish the saga of Roy and Keith.
After the digesting the story in its entirety, I began to realize how it foreshadowed a lot of the same themes I’ve been writing about for years. Whether its supernatural connections between people born to different eras (as in His Life Abiding); my fascination for abandoned places (as in The Men in the Trees); or the curiosity of thinking machines (as in My Summer (with Robots)), inspiration was perhaps divined early on from this short story in a now defunct kids’ magazine.
It may seem strange that I kept these now yellowing magazines all this time, but we all do things similar, don’t we? How many people reading this blog have that dogeared copy of a favorite novel still sitting on their bookshelf? Maybe they even re-read it every few years? After all, the point of good fiction is to impact and inspire.
PS: If anyone reading this happens to own a copy of the January 1977 edition of Child Life magazine containing the final installment of “The Bend of Time” and is willing to part with it, please contact me at email@example.com.
Also, if you happen to know anything of the author, listed as Howard Goldsmith in Child Life but William Danton in the original anthology book, I’d been interested in knowing that too. I’ve not been able to find anything about the man — or even if he wrote anything beyond this single short story. He has become, curiously enough, part of the mystery for me. Thank you!
If you’re in the San Jose area looking for famous haunted places, then the Toys R Us in Sunnyvale may be second in reputation only to the Winchester House. The recent announcement that Toys R Us will be closing all of its stores nationwide, having succumbed to bankruptcy, has inspired me to revisit this alleged haunting which was popularized on the 1980s variety show That’s Incredible. For decades, there have been rumors of customers and staff members having strange experiences inside the store. Overnight, toys are moved from shelves and piled on the floor in bizarre configurations. There’s often the sensation of being watched by invisible eyes. In the women’s restroom, the water taps may turn on spontaneously or ghostly hands might stroke your hair.
These strange occurrences were investigated starting as far back as 1978. The most best known inquiries were done by the late Sylvia Browne, a professional psychic as famous for self-promotion as she was for being a dubious prognosticator. You might remember that Browne completely immolated her reputation over the 2002 Shawn Hornbeck abduction case. Shawn was an 11-year-old victim of a stranger abduction in Missouri. Hornbeck was missing for four years when he was miraculously recovered by police looking for a separate kidnapped boy. Browne, who was a regular guest on the Montel Williams Show, did a “reading” about the Hornbeck case four months after the boy vanished and was wrong on almost every detail. More heartbreaking, Browne stated on the show that Hornbeck was dead. That must’ve been horrifying for his parents to hear. When your child’s missing like that, all you have to cling to is hope. Certainly the Hornbecks must’ve thought about their son’s fate all the time, but for anyone to state it as fact in such a public forum... terrible!
In hindsight, Browne’s excursions to the Toys R Us were just as much bullshit. Perhaps to silence her detractors, Browne produced a now infamous photo of a tall, thin man leaning against a wall behind the seance members. The man was not part of the seance party, Browne insisted, his form only showing up in one photo taken with an infrared camera. During this same seance, Browne claimed that she identified the thin man with the less-than-inventive name “Johnny Johnson.” Johnny was a suitably tragic figure right out of the professional psychic’s handbook. A poor immigrant farmhand, he was heart-broken when the beautiful rich girl he loved chose to marry a man most suitable to her station. Shortly thereafter, Johnson hurt himself with an axe while working in the orchards that once stood where the Toys R Us now resides and died from resulting the infection.
While the details of Johnny’s life sound a lot like the plot from a bad romance novel, what about that famous photograph? Again, we’re reliant only on Browne’s word about how the photo was taken and there are some obvious problems, including that the man appears to be wearing modern dress (not that of a 19th century farmhand) and is throwing a shadow on the floor (something a ghost would be unlikely to do). I am not posting the photos here since I do not own the rights to them, but you can easily find them online by searching for “Johnny Johnson ghost photos.”
Despite the Johnny Johnston story, it’s entirely possible that strange things have occurred in the Sunnyvale Toys R Us over the past four decades. At the very least, it wouldn’t be the first toy store that boasted of a ghost. The juxtaposition of such a mundane and comforting place having a spooky supernatural side is tremendously alluring for us human beings. It’s why so many similar venues, be they bookstores, theaters, amusement parks etc., are also thought to be haunted. Let’s face it, shopping for toys becomes even more fun if you think you’re being watched by the spirit of a lovesick farmhand, trapped forever among its plastic, neon-colored plastic merchandise.
Now doesn’t it?
If you grew up in Tucson, Arizona, during the 1970s and 80s, and were inclined to play miniature golf, Magic Carpet Golf was really your best choice. Located on Speedway Boulevard near Wilmot, it was not the city's only course, but it was the most authentic.
Designed in 1968 by Lee Koplin, the crazy artistic genius who built all kinds of miniature golf courses and roadside attractions starting just after World War II, the grounds were what I imagine the inside of Tim Burton's head must look like. Magic Carpet was an over-sized repository of kitschy Americana, right up there with roadside dinosaurs and cigar store Indians. The place teemed with strange concrete decorations — including a giant monkey with a swinging tail; a rampant bull with bulging eyes and lethal-looking horns; and an Easter Island mo'ai so large you could climb up its innards for a nighttime view of the surrounding city. And whether you considered these strange edifices to be art, architecture or just crap, they were a uniquely American invention which provided a uniquely entertaining mini golf experience.
During my childhood and teen years, I visited Magic Carpet regularly without ever knowing its pedigree. By the time I had kids of my own, age and lack of maintenance meant the two courses were an often dangerous thicket where masses of cactus overgrew the pathways and low-hanging tree branches tore at you from above. The strange menagerie which lived there had also lost much of its sheen. Concrete skins had begun to chip away, revealing the rebar and chicken wire skeletons beneath. Nothing had been repainted in years, unless you counted the several layers of graffiti. As the place continued to deteriorate, it became both sad and fascinating. Suddenly, you weren't just playing miniature golf — you were an urban explorer unlocking the mysteries of mid-twentieth century "roadside art."
Clearly, most Tucsonans didn't share my fascination because the last few times I went we had the place to ourselves save for the aging owner and a teenage employee who did everything from run the concession stand to repair the video game consoles. When the owner passed away in 2008, the era of Magic Carpet golf ended with him. A group of dedicated citizens rallied to save as many of the concrete statues as they could. The aforementioned mo'ai ended up on Fourth Avenue as the gateway to a popular nightclub. Others were sold to private residences or found an equally weird home at another local oddity, The Valley of the Moon.
Years after the golf course was demolished and turned into a parking lot for a local car dealership, my sister told me she had found the bug-eyed bull in her neighborhood. By that time I was living in Oregon however and quickly forgot about him. This past Christmas however, I went looking.
Hidden on a side street behind a Brake Masters and a massage parlor, there he was! He emerged from the trees like the minotaur bearing down on Theseus. (Wait, does that make me Theseus in this scenario? Never mind.) Honestly, I didn't even see him until I was practically on top of him. The Irish steakhouse whose parking lot he festoons is now closed and abandoned, so once again the bull is an orphan to time. The irony of this was not lost on me but it was still good seeing him. He looks well and he gave me a few gentle moments to remember all the fun I'd had at his former home. I don't know where he'll go from here. Hopefully there's a kind, nostalgic heart out there who's willing to give him another shot.
In 1979 I was twelve years old and in the midst of a preteen conundrum.
America was in the midst of a Golden Age of Science Fiction. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had crushed box office records a couple of years earlier and had inspired countless imitators. Broadcast television was filled with science fiction and fantasy shows, although admittedly most were pretty terrible — not that that mattered in the least to a sixth grader.
In May of that year, a dark, stylish film called Alien appeared in theaters. The critics buzzed about it. They debated as to whether it was science fiction film or a gothic horror film set in outer space. They reveled that the characters were essentially blue collar miners ultimately led in their fight for survival by a young woman, played by the then unknown Sigourney Weaver. They were mesmerized by the pugnacious alien, a bio-mechanical nightmare so different from the weird but mostly agreeable creatures offered up by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
I knew I had to see it. Yet a single obstacle lay in my way: my mother.
A surprisingly efficient gatekeeper when it came to television and movies, my mom allowed me and my sister only 3 and a half hours of TV per week and we were required to use color-coded pens to circle our selections in TV Guide to prevent any cheating. As for films, it was G and PG ratings only. Alien’s hard R and its provocative tagline — In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream — had sealed its fate long before I had ever asked to go.
Now let me just add that my mother was absolutely correct in denying me access to Alien. As a parent, her instincts were spot on but my juvenile brain and sense of indignation were not quelled by a logic I did not see at the time.
Later that summer however, my father offered to take me, a suggestion which was undoubtedly motivated by his complete ignorance about the film and a lingering desire to stick it to my mom who had divorced him a few years earlier. But I was not the type of kid who routinely lied to or disobeyed my parents, so I declined and we enjoyed a double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker instead. It wasn’t a decision I regretted. After all, James Bond had a super cool Lotus Esprit S1 which turned into a submarine IRL and fired missiles! But it did mean that I would have to wait a few more years to see Alien.
If there was any light at the end of the tunnel, it was through books. My mother, a school librarian, had no problem with frequent trips to libraries and book stores. As it happened, Waldenbooks carried the illustrated Alien Movie Novel so over the summer I literally READ the film I was never allowed to see. This had to be done in covert intervals of course, as purchasing the book with all its gruesome, chest-bursting, head-smashing color photos was also verboten.
Decades passed and I hadn’t thought about that book until I stumbled upon a used copy of it in a comic book store two weeks ago. There was an immediate rush of nostalgia, warm memories of being a kid and getting away with something. Granted, reading the Alien Movie Novel wasn’t quite as scandalous as flipping through a dirty magazine, but for a boy who loved horror films born into a family that loathed them, it felt like a naughty victory.
Now, 38 years later, the book sits on my shelf next to my Alien Blu-ray, a quiet reminder of when life was defined by the simple problems of childhood.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I made my first foray into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It did not go well.
I had little exposure to role playing games (RPGs) prior to high school, but had fallen in with a group of boys who were (and still are) rabid for them. After a certain amount of cajoling, I agreed to give it a shot. My interest in the fantasy genre was limited, but the storytelling aspects of D&D appealed to the burgeoning writer in me and I even wrote out an extensive history for my first character. Because I also had some artistic talent, I created portraits of all our characters. So, before I’d even had my first adventure, I’d already put a lot of effort into the experience and my enthusiasm was building.
On a sunny summer afternoon, we assembled at the Dungeon Master’s (DM) house for my first game. I was the novice of the group, and my level one character was a poor addition to a fellowship which had been in play for a long time; but with my friends to guide me, I felt comfortable and confident. Within the first hour, we found ourselves in a dungeon and, being the most under-powered character in the group, I was holding back.
“Y’know,” the DM told me, “if you don’t take any risks you won’t gain any experience points.”
At his urging, I took it upon myself to break down a locked door — immediately falling into a pit of green slime. Thus my character, only an hour into his first quest, met an abrupt and unseemly end.
Keeping in mind that “do overs” are not included in the D&D rule book, and the DM’s uncompromising personality did not incline him to make any exceptions, I found myself with few options.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Nothing. You’re dead,” the DM replied.
“Can I roll up a new character?”
“You can for the next game, but not this one. You can watch us play, I guess.”
Needless to say, I didn’t spend the rest of the day watching four other guys play Dungeons & Dragons. I went home and convinced myself that RPGs simply weren’t my cup of tea. That attitude lingered for thirty years. Except for a brief flirtation with World of Warcraft (the digital version of D&D, I suppose), I’ve never had any interest in trying RPGs again.
In retrospect, what kept me away from RPGs wasn’t the games, but the gamers. Over the years, watching from the sidelines as my friends continued to play, I was amazed by how seriously they took the experience. (This is not unusual for gamers.) Still, I found it ridiculous when one friend stopped talking to another over a romantic dispute involving a female NPC (non-player character). Another would become enraged whenever a companion “went rogue” and strayed from an agreed upon action. Yet another was so conservative in his game play that he eschewed any kind of combat, robbing the gaming experience of its excitement. From a distance I could find all this amusing, but I knew if I actually sat at the table with these kinds of gamers, I’d want to kill them or quit.
So why am I telling you this? Well, after thirty years of resisting D&D, I just started playing again and I’m finding plenty of others my age who are doing likewise. Yet it can be daunting to know where and how to start so consider this a cautionary tale. What changed between my two experiences is who I decided to play with, opting for other noobs and finding a DM who was patient and willing to instruct rather than dictate. I kept my focus on the social aspects of the gaming experience, rather than becoming obsessed with the minutiae or one-upmanship I watched pervade so many other games. As a result, I’m really loving my RPG experience.
If you’re new to RPGs or just curious to try them out, find gamers you can work with. Many game and comic book shops will hold workshops and classes to help beginners, and this might be a good place to start. But also take a moment to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. As I found out in high school, your first foray may color your perception of RPGs for a long time to come so make it a good one!
I’ll admit. I’m kind of obsessed with Riverdale, The CW’s neo-noir crime drama starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse and Camila Mendes. If the name and characters seem familiar to you, but you just can’t place them, that’s because the show’s a dark adaptation of the Archie comic books.
Yes, those comic books and yes, I mean dark.
If you remember Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty as thin teen stereotypes concerned only with who to take to the homecoming dance, your illusions are about to be shattered. Take that all-America trope and shove it through the lens of David Lynch; or think about movies like Heathers or River’s Edge; and you’ll be in Riverdale’s neighborhood.
By any standard, it’s a pretty remarkable transformation.
Honestly, I was never a fan of the Archie comics, finding them a little too white bread for my tastes. Granted, Archie was created just prior to World War II when wholesome, nostalgic depictions of young adults were in vogue. Mickey Rooney, Julie Garland, Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper dominated the box office and Archie was a deliberate attempt to replicate their success by offering a serialized character who was “normal” (i.e. didn’t have super powers). The downside of normalcy was storylines that strayed into the mundane. Major themes included the female characters (Betty and Veronica) vying for Archie’s attention, rivalries with other students, homework problems and difficulties relating to parents. All of these things are common challenges for adolescents regardless of the era, but Archie was inclined to present them in a highly sanitized, and increasingly unrealistic, manner.
By the 1960s, this trend reached its zenith. Archie had become a superhero called Captain Pureheart (yes, really) whose main power was being a really swell guy. By the following decade, he’d been coopted by conservative Christians and spent much of his time espousing the virtues of Jesus Christ and encouraging prayer in schools.
None of these later comics, nor the related animated shows, were particularly successful. Many didn’t last more than one edition (or season), and it was clear Archie needed to be modernized if he was going to appeal to increasingly sophisticated, worldly young adults.
And the competition was fierce.
By the start of the twenty-first century, comic books had become something very different from what they’d been in decades past. Zombies chewed their way through humanity in the stark, black and white artwork of The Walking Dead (2003). Japanese manga was on the rise, exposing American readers to unapologetically adult themes including frank depictions of sexuality. Even mainstream publishers like Marvel Comics were shifting long establish paradigms, with one of the best examples being 2006’s Civil War. Yet despite these industrywide changes, the Archie brand was slow to adapt.
In fact, the Archie comics really didn’t push boundaries until the century’s second decade. One of the most notable changes was in the art. The cartoony feel used since the 1940s was replaced by something more stylized and storylines became more inclusive. Real-life themes such as gun control, divorce and death were introduced. By 2010, an openly gay character named Kevin Keller was established and the following year made history as the first male LGBT character to have a solo comic book storyline. In 2012, the comics even went so far as to kill off Archie when he takes a bullet intended for Kevin.
But as you know, nothing that dies in comic books can stay dead forever. (Just ask Superman.)
By 2014, Archie was relaunched and rebranded to appeal to millennials under the New Riverdale banner. With writer Mark Waid (Daredevil) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga) leading the way, the concept was to keep Riverdale as a “whitebread community” on the surface, but give it a seamier underbelly. Ultimately, this transformation fed into The CW television series which began with the revelation that underage Archie’s having an affair with the high school’s music teacher, which has caused a schism between he and long-time friend Jughead Jones and possibly caused him to witness the murder of a classmate named Jason Blossom.
How’s that for shifting a paradigm?
With the season two trailer dropping yesterday (see below), now’s a good time for you to check out the series if you haven’t done so already. The show can be streamed on The CW website, Netflix, YouTube and a variety of other places.
Enjoy the ride.
Regardless of what you’re writing, social media can be a valuable tool to connect an author with his or her readers. At it’s best, it will provide insights, education and entertainment to those you’d ideally like to transform from “followers” to “fans.” At it’s worst, it can become a marketing bludgeon which may eventually drive people away from your feeds — or at least cause them to ignore you.
After about a decade of working with social media, I decided to get serious about it in Fall 2015. I created a social media strategy, set benchmarks, watched my stats and attended workshops and other professional development opportunities to stay current on social media trends. I work at least an hour a day on my social media feeds, creating, scheduling and reviewing both new and curated content. Since then, my online following has increased by 160%. This hardly places me as a social media superstar, but it does underscore that having a plan and carrying it out faithfully can yield results.
As part of my new plan I began watching other author’s media streams, not just for inspiration but also to be mindful of annoying and counter-productive habits. Toward that end, and with my tongue somewhat in my cheek, I present my list of the top 6 things authors should NOT do on social media.
Don’t inflate your success. Have you noticed how every author you’ve never heard of claims to be both “best selling” and “award winning?” In many cases, this is completely disingenuous. There’s no universal standard for measuring a best seller, so unless you’ve made it onto the much coveted New York Times list, doing so is akin to labeling a food “organic” — it sounds good but what does it actually mean? As for book awards, well, these can actually be purchased by authors who have a few hundred (or thousand) dollars to burn. Both of these strategies may give someone bragging rights, but that’s not the same as connecting to your readership. I can’t ever recall purchasing a book just because it was “best selling” or “award winning.” I purchase books because I’m interested in what the author has to say — which is really more important than whatever epaulets they have on their shoulders.
Don’t fake your followers. Speaking of disingenuous social media trends, authors may purchase Twitter or Facebook followers in order to give the illusion that they’re popular. There are a tons of online services that will happily provide you with a ton of fake followers if you’re willing to spend the money. Once I published my first book, I was deluged with offers (they still average about two a day) from companies and individuals who promised me thousands of followers for prices as low as $5. If you’re an author who’s just interested in playing a numbers game, more power to you. But if you’re actually interested in building a loyal social media following, it takes time, dedication and creativity. Twitter has some free tools to help you do this, which you can access here.
Don’t make everything a sales pitch. Every writer wants to sell, but there comes a point where you really need to cool it with the constant sales pitches. Some authors I followed on social media were rebroadcasting the same ads / Amazon links multiple times a day. Does this actually translate into sales? Honestly, I don’t know. Certainly it makes for a dull, obnoxious social media feed that tells you nothing about that author except he or she is a very motivated seller. In my opinion, a better habit is to strategically promote your books (during a sale for example) and then provide occasional free content as well, such as a short story or an ePub version of an older book. Yes, you want to stay in your readers’ mind — but not because you’re obnoxious.
Don’t just use other people’s content. To elaborate on my previous point, it’s important for authors to create something NEW for their followers. Curated and reposted materials are fine if the author’s selective. Simply hitting the “retweet” button on everything tagged #amwriting is not the same as being an thoughtful editor. Like a good book, a good social media feed has a voice, a soul and a story to tell. Figure out what those are and only share other people’s content if it helps enhance your message.
Don’t be afraid to follow back. Your readership may have interesting things to say and you can tap into that by following them back on social media. Not only can this be a great way to distill ideas for your next novel, it can also tell you what your audience is hungry for and allow you to engage with them one-on-one.
Finally, please don’t wear fedoras. This seems to be more of a trend among male authors who specialize in crime novels or spy thrillers, apparently borrowing a page from the handbook of Mickey Spillane. For Spillane, the fedora worn at a rakish angle may have been iconic in the mid-twentieth century, but today it’s just a schlocky affectation. This isn’t just about hats, of course. The larger message here is that ridiculous props and costumes can make an author seem pretentious rather than genuine.
Do you have additional tips for authors on social media? If so, use the comments section below to share them.
Back in December 2016, I went hiking with two of my best friends to Seven Falls, a natural area located just north of my home town of Tucson, Arizona. At first blush, such a thing would hardly seem blog-worthy, but for me it was highly cathartic. Before I reached my 50th birthday, which would happen two months later, I was making it a point to reconcile myself with a few things that had happened to me in the previous decades. This had been an ongoing process, started in earnest after I had left Arizona for Oregon in 2010. My reasons for leaving my home state were varied and complicated and I won’t bother addressing them here. But suffice to say that I left behind some unfinished business. In the author’s vernacular, these were incomplete stories, needing just a few more sentences before I could put them away for good.
Thus the hike to Seven Falls.