October 31, 2009

Nine Months of Social Media – an Evaluation

Where does the time go? It's November already, and that marks nine months since I began using social media. It started with this blog, then I added a Twitter account, and more recently I joined Facebook. It's time to take a break and look back. This week, I'm sharing my thoughts about these three forms of social media, and I hope that you'll react by posting your comments and suggestions.

When I started the Walrus and the Carpenter blog, I wanted to do something other than a daily blog featuring short posts. My plan was to update monthly with an essay to interest other writers. Then, after learning more about blogging and reading more blogs, I decided that I should be posting more often. Since May, I've been trying to write weekly.

I haven't decided yet where this blog is going, or where I want it to go, so don't be surprised if you see some changes. I might return to posting here monthly, or I might give in and write shorter posts more often. Whatever I do, I want my readers to take something away when they leave here: an attention-grabbing link, a creative exercise, or something interesting to think about.

I'm still on the fence about blogs. Reading them and writing mine takes up a lot more time than I had planned for. I find it overwhelming at times; yet I see value in blogging, and for now I plan to continue.

I joined Twitter never expecting to find worth in sending or reading 140-character messages. I joined only because other writers were doing it, and I wanted to stay current with fresh trends. Surprisingly, of the three forms of media discussed here, Twitter has been the most rewarding.

I've written a previous post about Twitter, so I won't repeat what's there. I'll add to it by saying that I've been wise about whom I follow on Twitter, and I think that's what makes it work for me. My list is limited to people who share my interests. I don't automatically follow back, I block spammers, and I'm less likely to read tweets from people who only use Twitter to promote their books. I reply to posts that get my attention, and I retweet those that I find interesting. In other words, I participate in my Twitter community.

There are two things that keep me coming back to Twitter. First, the people I follow often post links to blog posts and articles. If I take a few seconds to visit those links, I'm exposed to much more information about what interests me than I would find on my own. That alone makes Twitter worth it. Twitter also offers the support of a real-time community. If you read my other blog, you might remember that I wrote a post about how "followers" pulled together in real time as a young woman experienced a life-changing tragedy. I see that kind of support consistently among the people I follow. It intrigues me that a caring community can be built on brief, 140-character messages called "tweets."

The jury is in on Twitter. I'm staying. It's quick, it's informative, and I like the people I've met there.

I'm still new to Facebook. I signed up in August purely for business. It was another way to network with writers, especially those not using Twitter. I'm still not comfortable enough with the media to give it an adequate evaluation, but let's look at a couple of positives and negatives.

On the positive side, Facebook allows me to create longer posts than Twitter does. I like that. I can also add images to posts on my profile page, and that's a plus. I have control over who "friends" me, and I like that, too. (On Twitter, followers don't ask for permission to follow.)

One of the things I dislike about Facebook is the interface. I wish that I could change the appearance of my Profile page by changing the background and/or layout. I also find it clunky that the Friends list is alphabetized by first name and that I can't resort it by last name. The Home page looks cluttered, and I think the "Poke" and "Like" options are a bit strange, but I understand that they're there for the social and fun aspect of the media. I don't know if it's a visual perception on my part, or what, but the whole interface just leaves me cold.

I hadn't planned to connect on Facebook with family and friends, but I have, and that creates a bit of a challenge as I try to figure out how to mix business with pleasure. So far, I've kept personal posts off my page altogether. I set up my account so that no one can post to my wall. This gives me control over what gets posted on my Profile page, but it also makes my page impersonal. I'm still pondering whether I want a separate page for family and friends, or maybe to set up a fan page for my writing business. (If you use Facebook and have an opinion, please post a comment. I'd love to hear if you've experienced this issue and how you've resolved it.)

I haven't been on Facebook long enough to decide whether I will continue. Like Twitter, it provides a good place to network with other writers, but I don’t find it as user friendly. For now, I'm eager to see how it evolves.

Overall, I view social media as an essential tool for the business of writing. It provides a great way to network with other writers and also to stay current with publishing news and trends. Still, I wonder if that is enough to justify the time I spend on social media sites. The jury is still out.

Now it's your turn. What do you think about social media?

October 20, 2009

10 Questions for Aspiring Writers

As an aspiring writer, you probably have lots of questions about the business of writing. You might wonder if you need an agent, or how to write a great query letter, or what your odds are of getting published. The business of writing can leave you feeling tired and lacking in enthusiasm. That's why it's important to work on your soul.

The American poet Edgar Lee Masters said it best when he wrote:

“Only after many trials for strength,
Only when all stimulants fail,

Does the aspiring soul
By its own sheer power
Find the divine
By resting upon itself.”

How about it? Is your writer's soul powerful enough to rest upon itself? Last week, I challenged you with an exercise to write very specifically. This week, I challenge you to think very specifically about the following ten questions.

1. Why do you want to be a writer?
I know. You've been asked this question a million times, but don't skip to #2. This time, think about what drives your writer's soul, then write down your best answer.

2. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses?
Be honest with yourself. Your soul becomes stronger when you acknowledge imperfection.

3. What are you doing to become an even better writer?
Did you notice that I said "even better?"

4. Are you able to write just to please yourself?
If you write only to please a specific audience, you might want to change that. It can take the soul right out of your writing.

5. How much time are you willing to spend writing every day?
Your blood pressure just shot up, didn't it? It's okay if you don't have time to write every single day. What's important is that you make time to write.

6. If your work is rejected multiple times, will you continue to write?
Again, be very honest. Think of your soul as needing a coat of armor. With what will you build it?

7. What are you doing to learn about the publishing industry?
Writing is fun and creative, but publishing is big business. Learning about the business side of writing is the key that unlocks doors.

8. How do you network with other writers?
Writing requires a solitary soul, but the business of writing needs company.

9. When you read, do you think about the writer's style? Do you read outside of your favorite genres?
(Okay, I added an extra question here.) Read, read, and read. Books are like vitamins that fire your soul. If you read between the lines, you'll learn the business of writing.

10. As a writer, you'll leave a legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?
This is a tough one. With a lot of hard work and some luck, someday you'll have a book on the bestseller list. But if that doesn't happen, will your legacy be one of failure or of success. That's entirely up to you.

Now, go back and answer the first question again:

Why do you want to be a writer?

October 10, 2009

Does Your Story Have Soul?

This week, we begin with a think-about-it question:

When you sit down to write a story,
do you always have a clearly formed main idea?

We writers are a driven and enthusiastic bunch who likes to plunge right into our writing. I'm guilty of it, and most likely you are too. When we get an idea, we don't consciously ponder that a really good story has a soul -- a story within a story hidden deep inside the cache of words. We don't stop to think that the soul is the essence, the seed from which a story grows, and most importantly, that it is the place that evokes feeling among readers. Instead, we just sit down and write.

Remember when you were a kid in school and the teacher asked you to find a writing selection's main idea? He or she probably taught you to state it in a single sentence. The American playwright David Belasco encouraged this, too. He said, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea." (Calling cards in Belasco's day were quite small, often smaller than a business card.) The poet Robert Southey understood the concept of brevity/soul/feelings, too. He said, "It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."

Last week, I was listening to author Jerry Apps as he was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio. He spoke about a writing exercise he uses with his students. You might be familiar with it. It is the six-word story, a popular writing prompt often introduced using a six-word story written by Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

How do those six words make you feel? Hemingway is said to have called it his best work. I don't know if he ever turned it into a full-length story, but the essence is there. He created the story within the story, the part that stirs up feelings.

Jerry told about an intriguing assignment that he gave to his writing class. He asked them to write personal narratives, stories from their lives, using just six words. It sounds easy, but it's not. The six words have to be well chosen. They have to tell a good true story, one that touches readers' hearts and makes them want to know more. If you would like to read some of the responses to Jerry's assignment, you can find them on his blog.

Here are a few more examples:

Someone else lived out my dreams.

I'm the fool who rushed in.

My lover arrived in a box.

That last one really makes you wonder!

So, can you do it? Can you write a six-word personal narrative? Give it a try. Who knows, maybe you'll come up with a great story idea.
But remember, you're not writing a haiku poem which usually relies on counted syllables. In this exercise, you count only words. If you want an even more challenging exercise, choose your favorite novel and try to write its main idea as a six-word story.

Good luck, and have fun!

Listen to a webcast of Jerry Apps' interview with Wisconsin Public radio by going here. Then search for Tuesday 10/6/2009 11:00 AM.