News from the Weeds: The Social Media Thing

(Yes, I still have a deadline, so of course I’m writing another blog post.)

Social media is weird. This is not a particularly original observation, but I’m still struck by it from time to time.

There’s Facebook, which is a coordinated, (mostly) self-curated version of every generic holiday letter you ever sent or received. (I should mention I’ve received some really awesome holiday letters, which may explain why Facebook is doing so well.) In addition, you can subscribe to various celebrities, news outlets, and professional entities, who will provide their own holiday letter entries. Advertising and data-scraping notwithstanding, it’s not a terrible system. I can get news updates, keep up with people I haven’t seen since high school, and watch people I will never meet crack jokes and have political arguments.

Then there’s Twitter, which is the electronic version of a highway billboard. Once again, you can curate whose billboards you see, and float your own little billboards out into the world. Unlike Facebook, though, you don’t know who’s going to see what you post. You know you’ve put it up aside a highway, but you don’t know who’s going to be driving by. Your followers will see it (unless they’ve muted you); but others can see it as well. You don’t know whose attention you’re going to attract. On Facebook, you can assume, up to a point, that only your friends will see what you post. On Twitter? You’re yelling to the whole world, and at any point, anyone anywhere could tune in and listen.

There’s also Instagram (where I have an account and follow a pack of people) and Snapchat (where I do not have an account, because I suspect I’m too old) and more flashing in and out of existence every day.

I’m not entirely terrible at this internet stuff. I’m pretty comfortable with the sort of back-and-forth one gets into when it’s all in writing, when you can think about what you say but have to deal with the complete lack of body language.

But as an author…I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.

I’ve got a Facebook page. It’s fun: I can squee over my book covers and post links to podcasts and toss up random NASA and science-y stuff. But I’m never sure how much to be myself. On my personal Facebook page, I’ve been known to have political arguments. (I’ve also been known to block people over political arguments.) I actually kind of hate political arguments, and I don’t want to have them on my professional page. But how much of myself do I actually put there? I mean, people Like the page because they want book news, right? And there’s not a lot of book news, really, except “Here’s the first book!” and “Here comes the second book!” and “There’s going to be a third book!” Three posts, and all the actual pertinent information has been disbursed.

Twitter is both easier and stranger. It’s easier, because I have one account, personal and professional. @liz_monster is me in all my varieties, and because Twitter is public, I’ve always been careful there. But I’ve been annoyed, and silly, and off-topic, and ham-fisted, and political (although I generally retweet other’s stuff, because other people so often say what I’m thinking much better than I could), and as a result my tweet history gives a much more complete picture of my personality than Facebook does. But when I talk on Twitter, I have no idea who I’m talking to, and that changes the message.

Blogging is much more my natural habitat. I’m still careful here (YOU HAVE NO IDEA), but it’s much easier to construct nuanced arguments in a blog. (I adore Twitter, but really, it’s no place to have a complex discussion about anything.) It would have been nice, in some ways, to have published ten years ago, when Facebook and Twitter were babies.

And here’s the thing: I don’t know if it helps.

I suppose I should define what it helps would look like, but I can’t. I don’t actually know. I see authors on Twitter talk about how much their social media presence has helped. I’ve had people tell me “Yeah, do what you like, but it doesn’t make much difference.” I don’t know who to listen to. I suspect both are correct: for some authors, Twitter and Facebook have really boosted sales, and for others it just doesn’t matter.

I’m beginning to think, though, that the “it doesn’t make much difference” crowd are all authors that were established before Facebook and Twitter came to be, before the internet was a place we were all expected to have some kind of presence.

So I don’t really know what to do, and I push forward and try to be myself, and I feel like I’m yelling into the great and terrible void.

Earlier I was reading a discussion thread about self-publishing, and someone brought up (as someone always brings up) how trade published authors are still often asked to do their own marketing. In the spirit of honest ignorance, I’ll say I don’t know if that’s true or not. I can say I haven’t been asked to do my own marketing. I asked if I could help, and the marketing people asked what I was comfortable doing and found places for me to do those things. Is this me doing my own marketing? I can see how someone might say that it is, but I’d have to disagree. It’s entirely different than the kind of marketing I’d have to do if I were self-published. I’d be absolutely crippled marketing-wise if I were self-published, because I get paralyzed when I don’t know what to do. I’d end up victimized by one of those “send us $10,000 and we’ll get you a few hundred sales!” outfits, and I’d be grateful to them.

I don’t really see social media as marketing. Maybe this is foolish of me. I sometimes use it that way – I like tweets and post review links on Facebook and talk about covers and release dates and I’m Oh So Positive All The Time!!! – but I don’t expect anything I say to have much reach. (This is possibly because I can see how widely things are read, and I know they don’t have much reach.) I participate in social media for the same reason everybody else does: it’s fun, and sometimes you end up interacting with really interesting people. It’s a quick-and-dirty way of keeping in touch (I often know family has made it home safely from a get-together when I see them Like something on Facebook), a fine spider web of human contact.

The biggest complication for me is that I don’t know, really, how much I should be responding to readers. Not that I see much from readers, but I do, now and then. I want to say THANK YOU for every good review I see, for everyone who says they’re reading, for everyone who says “Oh, I’ve been meaning to pick that one up.” Not because of marketing, but because it really is neat when a total stranger picks up the book.

But I don’t know what to say about it. For the most part, I’ve taken a “stay out of it” stance. Reviews are supposed to help other readers. Still, people say things sometimes that I want to respond to, and I don’t, even if maybe I should. I’ve seen reviews that mix up the names of characters, and I’ve seen people attribute things to me that I haven’t said. Nearly all of it’s benign, so I say nothing, because what purpose would it serve? And then there are the good questions, like the people who wonder if I’m using my real name. After a lifetime of being teased for Bonesteel, it’s quite nice when people think it’s a cool name. But saying “thank you” just seems weird in that case. Or probably any other case.

Social media is a huge time suck. (Blogging is a huge time suck. I’ve left a character mid-rant, and I need to get back to the book.) I strongly suspect I’m not making the most of it, author-wise. I also strongly suspect that I don’t have the right personality to do that. I might get there, over time, if I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity; but for now? I struggle. I want to be myself, but I also want to be a professional. It’s a blurred line, and it’s still uncomfortable.

Advertisements

Why I’m Not Podcasting

I have been getting the urge to podcast again. This means two things:

  1. I have a deadline coming up. (My ambitions are never quite as wide-ranging as they are when I have a deadline coming up.)
  2. I really need to blog more. (Because what could I say in a podcast that wouldn’t be the same said in a blog?)

You may have noticed the word “again” up there. I had a podcast for a while, although I was too chicken to ever list it on iTunes. (That’s…kind of the story of my life, and possibly why I didn’t get published until I was 51, or perhaps everything I would have written earlier was so terrible I wouldn’t have been published anyway, but I’m just going to tell myself it’s because I was chicken.) It was called Bad Parenting, and it was about dealing with my then-very-small kid. There were 25 episodes, and some of them weren’t bad; but I’ll tell you, my audio setup was terrible. I invested in limiters and mics and software, but the sound quality still sucked.

When I was doing publicity for THE COLD BETWEEN, I did a couple of podcast chats, and as part of the preparation for that I bought a USB mic to use with Skype. The sound quality? Gorgeous. For $60, I got better sound quality than hundreds of dollars and hours of reading had gained me 10 years ago.

Technology rocks, y’all.

(I should also mention that the only reason Bad Parenting ever existed was because of the Podcast Music Network. Free tunes! Except you were supposed to be a podcaster. So, in the Ethical Universe of Liz, this meant I had to be a podcaster in order to get the free tunes. Music motivates everything, at all times. And have I mentioned I’m kind of a binary thinker?)

We just returned from vacation (Acadia National Park, which is beautiful, but possibly rather too much like where I live the rest of the year to be as dazzling as I want it to be, apart from the ocean, which: wow), and I managed to leave most of my work notes at home, which meant I had to think about stuff instead of just cowering in a corner by the hotel pool whacking out words. So I thought about what I might talk about in a podcast.

(Wait, I hear you say. Shouldn’t you have been thinking about the book, even without your notes? Yes. I should have. Shush now.)

Most of what strikes me about all of this publishing stuff is that I don’t know shit about anything, and that’s disconcerting to me. Not that I’m not used to being ignorant – I’m ignorant about an enormous number of subjects, and destined to remain so, unless said subjects become something of immediate importance to me, like atmospheres and general relativity – but I’m not used to being ignorant of my own profession. There was a time I knew nothing about the software industry, but that would have been a loooooong time ago.

(That isn’t, by the way, the same as saying I was never ignorant at a new job. Every new job brings with it a period of utter stupidity, during which you go through the usual competence stages: 1) I can do this; 2) wow this is hard; 3) I’ll never learn this; 4) wait now I’ve got this; 5) I rock; 6) OMG I’m terrible and I don’t know shit. It’s not until you hit Stage 6 that you start to do genuinely solid work.)

One thing about blogging is that you never really know what people are going to be interested in reading. This blog has been kind of a generic diary for me. I’ve been a lot more careful of what I say since The Great Publication Date; although my hit rate hasn’t increased hugely, there’s the URL of my web site on the back of the book, so it feels more public even if, in practice, it isn’t. So there are things I don’t write about because it would be unprofessional, and because I remember enough of the competence stages to suspect I’d feel like a fool in about a year.

(Except for this one thing, which I swear someday I’ll write about, but long after I’ve passed Stage 6, if I ever do.)

But when I talk to my friends, what they really want to hear about is the process. They may, on some abstract level, care about What Publishing Is Really Like; but what they ask me about is my personal experience. Not “What’s the process of submitting a novel?” but “What was submission like for you?”

And hey, I figured, I can podcast about that! I can talk about my own experience! I don’t have to know anything to talk about my experience.

And then I realized: Being ignorant of publishing is part of my experience.

Not in a spreading misinformation sense. I am so wary of that. I don’t even know if all publishers work like mine does. (I suspect macrocosmically yes, microcosmically no.) I don’t even know if other authors at the same publisher have the same experience. And I don’t know how much of what I observe is the process, and how much is me and what I’m like to deal with. (I suspect, now and then, that I’m a pain in the ass. I don’t think I’m a major pain in the ass, but we all have our moments. And knowing that, I recognize that I may in fact be a major pain in the ass, in which case I sincerely apologize, but probably won’t be able to change because this is the best I can do.)

But I do know what it’s like to be tossed into the pool without any real idea of how deep it is, and without any real knowledge of whether or not I can actually swim. And I can certainly talk about how it feels to hang there, suspended in water of unknown depth, awaiting unknown currents, uncertain of the best way to avoid ignominious drowning.

I’m not going to podcast. (Seriously: deadline.) But…maybe I’ll blog a bit about What Publishing Is Really Like, From The Perspective Of Someone Who Is Wondering If She Should Have Brought Her Life Preserver.

As long as everybody remembers I know nothing, it should be fine.

 

KILL IT WITH FIRE

I tend, these days, to be cautious on the internet.

A lot of this is because of all the years I spent not being cautious on the internet. I started on Usenet back in 1988, and I did my share of ranting and piling on. I have a temper, and the reason so few people know this about me is because I have spent a lifetime practicing how to think before I react. I still sometimes fail, but it’s rare these days, and I almost always regret it after the fact.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t rant much in public. I’ll do it on message boards from time to time, but even then, I’m careful, and I spend a lot of time typing and deleting. I’ve spent hours on posts that have never gone up. On many forums, all I need to do is wait, and someone else will say what I was thinking, and they’ll be more rational and make a better argument and do, overall, a much better job of actually debating an issue.

But sometimes I wake up early and read a forum and see an excerpt from an article that sets my teeth on edge. And hours later, I end up writing a blog post.

Welcome to my Saturday!

So there’s this thing that people talk about, sometimes, when they discuss female characters – in particular, “strong” female characters. Often, someone ends up saying something like “strong female characters should not just be women who act like men.” Which, in an interview I read this morning, someone did.

And in fairness, I know what that person meant. We all know what they meant, right? Because in any culture, there are going to be norms that NO NO NO ENOUGH I WILL NOT FANWANK IT AWAY KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE.

It is a bloody meaningless phrase and every time I see it my eyelid starts to twitch and I dwell on fond memories of all those tequila shots I did in my youth.

Look. I don’t know much, really. I know some things about the software business, because I was in it for 27 years. I know about why startups fail, and about the degree of luck involved, and the shocking fragility of all this intertwined software we have come to depend on. (It’s hair-raising, really. Back up your stuff, people. I mean it.)

As a writer, though? I don’t know anything. I mean, I know things about writing, because I’ve been doing it for 47 years; but I can’t really tell anyone about it. I could tell you how write, and what things work for me, and what need to do to keep from procrastinating. I can’t even tell anyone how to get published, because from my own perspective it’s some mysterious alchemic relationship between persistence and luck.

And I’m a publishing newbie, and I’m out here, a tiny pebble tossed in the ocean, and nobody’s listening anyway, so here’s the thing: Please, for all that is good and beautiful in this world, stop saying “women who act like men” when you are talking about cardboard characters. Because “women who act like men” is gibberish.

I’m not even talking about the cringe-inducing gender-binariness of the phrase. (But I could talk about that, because WTF?) But I’ve got two big problems with this idea, and they’re related.

1. Why are men considered the immutable, ubiquitous norm that we all understand?

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. By virtue of the fact that I grew up in the US, educated in a US school system buying books mostly based on US culture, I’ve read a huge number of books by men. So on that level, I really do get it: without it even being explicitly taught, we’ve all learned that the norms of our culture, of our art, of our politics – the norms of everything come from men.

So it’s natural to think of men as “the norm,” right? And to measure everything against this norm, and to define everything in terms of how it deviates from the norm.

Except wait, no, that is utter bullshit. Men make up a wee bit more than half the population (and by a wee bit more, I mean a fraction of 1%), and that’s not the kind of percentage that justifies using them as some kind of elementary particle to define every other bit of matter in the literary universe. It would be nearly as justifiable to use women as “the norm,” because in any random sampling of the population, you’re going to get numbers roughly equal.

The only reason men are viewed as the norm is because men have always been viewed as the norm, humans remember cultural shifts for about four seconds, and generation after generation we keep passing this down.

But there’s another piece that’s frankly more interesting to me:

2. What does “act like men” mean, anyway? 

Okay, so I guess I’m going to touch on the cringe-inducing gender-binaryness of it after all. Because how the hell do men act?

I don’t actually think anybody has ever been told, ever in the world, that there is only one type of male character in fiction: The Man, who is the same everywhere. If you want to write The Man, just follow these twelve simple rules. Write The Man, and he will be a well-rounded character because he is the norm. Nobody ever has been told that. And that’s because it’s utter bullshit. Even if you stick with your 50%-plus-a-fraction-of-1% people in the world, there is no norm.

In much of Western culture, “act like a man” tends to mean “the only acceptable expression of emotion is violence,” and it’s a poisonous thing to tell anyone. We tell it to our children, and we get the expected result, and seriously, people, what the fuck kind of a message is that? This is why I write science fiction.

But let’s leave out the issue of toxic masculinity for a moment, shall we? “Act like a man” is another cultural constructAsk six people what it means, and you’ll get six answers. Using it as some sort of literary shorthand because “we all know what it means” is cheap and stupid and, yes, utter bullshit. If you argue using a phrase that has no concrete meaning, I am most likely going to tune you out.

Okay, I said there were two things that bothered me about this. But there’s a third, and it’s probably the most important:

3. Why is it bad to write a woman who acts like a man?

Because unless you also write your men to be cardboard, predictable, and uninteresting, there is nothing wrong with doing this.

Now, depending on the world you’ve built, there may be characteristics that are less realistic for a female to possess; but that’s not about stereotyping. That’s about paying attention to your worldbuilding, and making sure your characters make sense.

“Strong women characters should not just be women who act like men” is repeated enough that someone, somewhere must perceive this to be an actual problem. But let’s be honest about what the problem really is: badly drawn characters. Having those characters described with a weird, meaningless, culturally tone-deaf phrase doesn’t actually change the underlying issue. Good characters are genuinely hard to write, and screwing it up isn’t an unusual thing to do.

But if you do this? Own up to it. Say “I didn’t think this through.” Say “I fell back on tired stereotyping instead of trying to write a vivid individual.” Do not tell me “strong women shouldn’t be women who act like men,” because no. It is bullshit. KILL IT WITH FIRE.

Maybe next Saturday I’ll stay off the net.