Monday, November 29, 2010

Twitter 101: A Beginner’s Guide for Writers (and Other Creative People)

Twitter 101: A Beginner’s Guide for Writers (and Other Creative People)

For modern writers, social media is an important, if not the most important, promotional tool available.  Major publishers all but insist writers have a substantial social media presence, and they often evaluate the marketability of an author they’re considering based on the size of that author’s online social network.
The two most important social networks are Facebook and Twitter.  While everyone including your granny seems to find Facebook easy to grasp, for some reason Twitter is much more intimidating.  It’srelative simplicity - text-messages, readable by everyone, but limited to only 140 characters - provides little structure or guidance as to how Twitter is best used.  It can leave even the most prolific and confident of writers staring at the screen asking, “What should I post?”

For Twitter users, simplicity translates to flexibility, and that means there are multiple approaches to any goal, infinite strategies available to put your message in front of other people.  As such, I can’t show you the one-true-way to become comfortable on Twitter and use it to your advantage.  It doesn’t exist. 
But I can show you some of the high points of the way I use it, and offer some less-than-obvious tips that will help you build a quality following and share your message with them using methods that won’t chase them away.  Once you’ve gotten started, you’ll undoubtedly develop tricks and strategies of your own.  It’s getting started that’s hard.

Let’s take it one step at a time...

Get a Twitter account.

Go to  Sign up.  It’s free, it’s easy, and all you need is an email account.  There are lots of instructional materials there to help you get started.  Take advantage of them.

By the way, this would be a good time to talk about your Twitter name.  There are several important considerations in picking one, and here are a few tips.
First of all, if your intent is to promote yourself on Twitter, your name needs to lead people back to you and not look too silly or out of character with the public image you want to present.  “LoLTinkiePoo” might not be the best choice for a writer of legal thrillers, for instance.

One bit of common wisdom is to use your name (or your pen name, as the case may be).  Problem is, if your name is at all common (and maybe if it isn’t) there’s a good chance it’s already taken.  Another problem is that names can be very long.  Take my friend, writer @DeanWesleySmith, as an example.  The problem with this is, you not only want people to read your tweets directly, you also want them to be passed along (“retweeted,” or “RTed”).  Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters, and when people retweet things, especially when they add their own comments, your user name has to fit in that 140 characters too.  Longer user name means more editing of your words to make it fit.  Or maybe the fact that things won’t fit without editing will cause a potential retweeter to decide, “Never mind!”

An alternate approach to creating a user name is to use some combination or part of your name with a related word, like @WriteRCastle (fictional TV mystery-writer Richard Castle), or @ChristyMystery (my wife Christina York, who writes mystery as both Christy Evans and Christy Fifield).

Whatever you choose, make sure you’re happy with it.  Once you’ve established yourself under a name, it’s hard to change.

Profile Yourself

Twitter provides a public profile that helps define your identity on Twitter.  Check this as soon as you open your account, and make a habit of checking and updating it on a regular basis.  The three most important things here are:

Picture: Put a picture here -- immediately!  I don't care how camera-shy you are, a picture of you (or a painting, or a cartoon, but of you) is usually the best idea, and any picture is better than no picture.  Leaving the default icon (which as of this writing is a picture of an egg, screaming "newbie!") marks you as, at best, a know-nothing newcomer, and at worst, a spambot (programs that create fake Twitter accounts to deliver spam and malware links) to be blocked immediately.

Bio: You've got a very short space here to present an image of who you want to be seen as on Twitter.  For now, say something interesting about yourself, and maybe mention your interests (which should never include words like "marketing," "selling," or "promotion").

Link: This should be a link to your web-page or blog where people can find out more about you and your work.  It should not be a link to a social media page like Facebook, Myspace, or your own Twitter page.  If you haven't got a web page or blog, do it now, and put some content on it.  If Twitter is fishing, then your tweets there are only bait.  Your web presence, and the links to it (from your profile, and your posts) are line to reel them in.

Follow interesting people.  Observe.

Twitter will help you to find some people to follow, and that’s good, but you’ll want more.  Here are a couple of tips to help you find people worth following:

Once you find someone interesting to follow, go to their Twitter page and see who they’re following.   It’s a good rule of thumb that interesting people often follow other interesting people, and often these are people that you might never have heard of.

Likewise, pay attention to who interesting people are talking to, or talking about.  You’ll find interesting people to follow.

And mind that, when I say "interesting" I don't necessarily mean "famous."  Yes, it's okay to follow some of these, but remember that celebrities with tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of followers operate under different rules than mortals like us.  Emulate them too closely, and you'll just end up looking like a pompous fool.  You can start acting famous when you actually are famous!

Check your favorite web pages for Twitter icons.  Many news sites, magazines, newspapers, etc., also post regularly to Twitter.  Find out about things as they happen, not long after the fact.

Once you’ve found people to follow, sit back and watch for a while.  People who are popular  and well followed are usually doing something right.  Study them and try to figure out what it is.  Learn from the best before choosing to put yourself out there.

Divide and conquer

By now, you’re following enough people to be seeing quite a stream of incoming Tweets.  Maybe an overwhelming steam, like drinking from a fire-hose.  Relax.  It’s all manageable.

The first secret is to live in the moment.  If you haven’t been on for a while, never try to catch up with everything.  If something interesting seems to be going on you want to catch up on, check the Twitter feeds of key players to get the high points of what you missed.  But in general, this isn’t like email.  Anything that happened more than a couple hours ago is over, and can usually be ignored.

The next step is to divide the people you’re following into categories, so you can manage and prioritize what you chose to read at any given time.  Twitter has a built-in function to allow you to this called “lists.”  Use it.
Make a habit, every time you follow someone in whom you have more than a casual interest, assign them to one or more of your lists.  I, for instance, have an “inner-circle” list for close friends and associates, one for general news sources, one for science, space, and technology folks, a list for publishing professionals, one for professional writers, one for mystery, one for booksellers, one for entertainment people, and so on.  Come up with your own list topics based on your interests and needs.

A Twitter application, like Tweetdeck (the one I use, there are others) can help you managing these lists and handling other Twitter tasks.  I’ve got Tweetdeck on both my computers and on my Android smart-phone.  Like any tool, these Twitter applications magnify your efforts, to make a doable job easier.  Do some research and find your own, or just jump in and try Tweetdeck on my recommendation.  Find it at, or at you phone’s app-store.

Decide who you are

Maybe you think you know who you are, but despite any illusions of intimacy you may have, Twitter is a public forum.  While I recommend being genuine in what you present to your public, what you’re presenting should necessarily be an edited, packaged, targeted version of yourself.  I can’t tell you what that persona should be.  You’ve got to decide that for yourself.  But it should be someone that people will be compelled enough to follow and interesting enough to read.  It should also be someone you’re completely comfortable with, like a favorite pair of shoes.  Remember, you could be living in this persona for a long time, so be happy with it.  This is marketing, but it's marketing you should be able to wear like your favorite pair of old sweats.

Decide what to share

Likewise, you need to decide how much of your personal life to put out there.  This is an important area to consider.  It can be endearing, for example, to talk about families, relationships, and children, but remember that you’re dealing with not only your own privacy, but the privacy of those around you.  And if your relationships change, if you end up in a divorce, or a child ends up in trouble with the police, or a family member passes away, then your private pain becomes public as well.  If you share your travel plans, you’re also alerting any thief that your house may be vacant and easy pickings.  As in law enforcement, everything you say can and will be used against you.

Don’t let that put you off completely.  That’s the cost of any kind of public presence.  Just be aware of it, and control what you put out there.  A little misinformation or misdirection may also be a good thing in the interest of security.  For instance, when I mention I’m going out of town, I also mention that I have scary cat-sitters equipped with guns.  This happens to be true in my case, but if it weren’t, how could you be sure?

It’s also important to realize that personal information can be off-putting.  If your intent is to promote yourself and/or your work, then consider carefully how open you want to be about your politics, and your positions on controversial topics.  Again, how you handle this is up to you.  One writer friend of mine chooses to keep her strongly-held politics completely to herself.  Other people wear their politics on their sleeves, and happily limit their following to like-minded people. 

My personal approach is not to hide those opinions and leanings I find most important, but I don’t define my persona by them either.   Occasionally, when I feel it’s important, I speak my mind (and in so doing, risk losing a few followers), but it doesn’t happen often enough to dominate what I have to say.  Anyone who can make it over the occasional political or ideological speed-bump can follow me even if we disagree on some things.

Other aspects of your life can be off-putting as well.  It’s easy to scare people off with the details of a health problem, personal tragedy, or life-challenge.  Maybe “cancer survivor,” “crime victim,” “angry divorcee,” “parent of a missing child,” or “former cult member,” is the persona you’re presenting to the world.  Maybe that’s the package you’re trying to sell to your followers.  But there’s a fine line between sharing and over-sharing, and it’s easy to send people running for the exits.
It’s equally true that, once you’ve released your privacy on a sensitive topic like this, you can’t easily take it back.  Consider your options carefully before you proceed.

Engage with others

Now that you’ve decided how to put yourself out there, it’s time to do it.  It’s natural to assume that means posting, and you should do that.  But simply standing on a soap-box and shouting won’t get you attention in a place where everyone is standing on a soap-box shouting.

Interaction is the key.  Comment on other people’s posts, even if they don’t seem to respond.  Retweet (share) posts that you find interesting, informative, or enjoyable.  Engage people in conversation. 
Be positive.  This isn’t high-school debate.  Find points of commonality with other people and build on that.  Disagreement is fine, but bitch-slapping strangers is no way to make friends.

Figure out who to follow

There are several schools of thought on following. 

First, a common lazy-approach to getting a lot of followers is to follow a lot of people, sometimes thousands of people.  This is done with the knowledge that some people will automatically follow anyone who follows them. 

I don’t recommend it.  People who “auto-follow” generally don’t have time to actually read anyone they follow.  The scatter-gun method of following lots of people will get you numbers without actually getting you attention.

As I’ve said, some people follow back anyone everyone who follows them, and in some circles (not the circles I care to travel) failure to do so is considered rude.  I recommend choosing your follow-backs carefully.  I don’t see much point in following people whose tweets you’re not actually interested in reading.
It’s also a harsh reality of Twitter that first-impressions are important, and potential followers are usually going to make judgments about you based on limited information.  The first thing a savvy Twitter user will do before following you is to check your Twitter profile, and the first thing they’ll see are your Twitter numbers.  Do you have many more followers than people you follow?  You’re probably someone important, or at least interesting enough to follow.  The masses have spoken!  But if you follow a lot of people,  as many - or worse, more - people than follow you, then your character is suspect.  (Unfortunately, that’s an area where I’ve gone wrong.  Because I find so many people I am interested in following, scientists, astronauts, writers, editors, and other potential news sources, my numbers are currently way upside down.  I don’t want to unfollow anyone, and even though I’m trying very hard to follow as few people as possible for a while, it’s still going to take several hundreds of new followers to even things out.  Learn from my mistakes.)

Become an expert in your field

People are drawn to experts, and everyone is at least a potential expert in something.  If you aren’t an expert, make yourself into one.  It’s not as difficult as you may think.  Just pick something you already know a lot about,  something that you’re passionate about, and that you may have dismissed as unimportant because you’re too close to it.  If you’re passionate about it, it’s likely other are as well, and these people can become your loyal followers and supporters.

What is this thing or things you're an expert in?  Only you can answer that question.  It could be your profession, or some aspect of your workplace.  It could be a cherished  hobby or craft.  It could be your favorite sports team, your favorite classic author, or your favorite sport.  It could be something you collect, or some charitable cause you volunteer for, or even your own home-town.  But your passion for the subject is what’s important.  People are drawn to that passion, and through it they will know you.  It’s a way of sharing yourself deeply with others, but in a way that’s  still fairly safe for you, and that maintains a screen of privacy and personal space.

And yes, you can be an expert in just yourself, or your own work, but if so, it helps if your work is already well known, and your personality is near to a force of nature.

In my case, I’ve built on a few of my favorite things.  I’m a life-long science geek, and I read widely on all aspects of science, but especially space flight and computer technology.  I’m very interested, not just in science, but in the people of science, and the way that science interacts with society and everyday life.  I’m also interested in science education, and inspiring young people to care about science as a part of their lives.  Being a bit of a nerd, I occasionally  tweet about pop-culture.  And I also talk about my work (writing), the publishing industry, and especially the cutting-edge aspects of that industry, such as ebooks and electronic publishing (again, something I’m professionally involved in).

Once you’ve figured out your area (or areas) of expertise, use it to make yourself an expert worth following.  To do that, leverage what you already know…

Find your sources

What makes an expert isn’t knowing everything.  It’s knowing where to find everything.  If someone asks a question, know where to find their answer.  Know where to find the latest news in your area of expertise to share with your followers.  You don’t have to know everything.  You just have to know interesting things that your followers don’t know.

What kind of sources?  Well, since you’re already there, start with Twitter.  Use your expertise to search Twitter and track down people who are experts in aspects of your chosen area, then follow them.  You know enough to dig beyond the obvious sources, to find the ones that others miss.  Retweet them.  Engage them.  Interact with them.  Network with them.  When you can, make them your friends.

If you’re passionate about your subject, you probably already have your own sources: clubs, professional organizations, magazines, web-sites.  But it can help to organize these sources, and make them more accessible.  Put those web-links in an easily accessible folder, and make checking news sites and journals part of your routine.  Put those magazines in a file, or give them a shelf.  Keep a file or notebook of your contacts in your field.  A little advance work to put things at your fingertips will save work as you’re looking for answers or interesting things to tweet about down the line.

One final tip is to make use of Google, and especially Google News and its Alert feature, to track down information and find interesting items to link or tweet about.
You’d be surprised how many people who have a question about your chosen subject area won’t even bother to try a simple Google search.  Even if they do, your knowledge of your subject will allow you to make deeper and more targeted searches to find their answers.  If you don’t know the answers, you know the questions to ask to get those answers.

If you set up a Google account, you can also set up custom sections on your Google News page.  So, for example, you can set up a news section for “Georgia History,” or “Horses,” or “Model Boats,” or “Plumbing Regulations” or anything related to your “expert” area.  As you check the day’s headlines on your computer, you can also be checking for news-worthy items to share with your followers.

Even more useful is Google’s “Alert” function.  With this you can set up a standing search of news, blogs, or the web in general, using any search terms you desire.  When it finds something, it will email you.  You can choose to have these sent immediately, or as a handy daily or weekly digest.

Take advantage of these tools, and you’ll usually be one-step-ahead the pack, and as any news person will tell you, it often isn’t who reports best, but who reports first, that gets all the credit.

Share something interesting every day

This is simple, but important.  Now that you’ve got something to tweet, tweet it.  Not all at once.  Just make this your motto: “I will tweet something interesting at least once a day.”  If you can manage that, you have just left 90% of the people on Twitter eating your dust.

Interesting how?  It can be informative, funny, amazing, or provocative, but it’s got to engage people’s interest.

Tag and Be Found

A “tag” (also known as a “hash-tag”) is simply using a pound symbol (#) in front of a key word or a string of text to mark it as a search target.  A tag can be a general topic word like #dogs, #sports, #politics, or something longer and more specific like #ThingsMyCatSays or #TheBigGameTonight.  Putting that “#” in there says, “this is a key to what this message is about.”  Tags are designed to be searched for by other Twitter users, and serve to connect like-messages together.

You can add tags at the end of the message, or you can insert the “#” in front of significant words already in your message.  Examples:

“Message from my cat overlords: I must leave the windows open, even when it gets cold. #ThingsMyCatSays"

“Message from my #cat overlords.  I must leave the windows open, even when it gets cold.”

Those single word tags are a way to tap into people looking for popular topics, and if you can imbed them in your message, they take up very little of your precious 140 characters.  But longer tags have the advantage of being specific and potentially unique.  They can help people find and follow a series of messages you post on the same topic.  It’s also possible that others may adopt a tag you’ve created and use it in their own posts.  This will tie their messages to yours, and potentially lead their followers to follow you as well.

Likewise, you can use popular hashtags to lead people into reading your messages.  A lot of “get famous instantly on Twitter” schemes hinge on various manipulations and exploitations of tags.  But you should use caution before engaging in such schemes.  Tags can be a useful tool, but they can be off-putting as well, if your posts are so littered with them that it’s obvious you’re fishing for followers, or chasing popular “trending topics” where you have nothing to contribute.

Don’t tweet too little

Of all the things you can do wrong, this is the least serious.  If you miss a day, a week, maybe even a month, odds are you won’t be missed, and it probably won’t hurt much. 

Twitter isn’t about the moment.  If you aren’t tweeting, you aren’t moving forward, and if you aren’t moving forward, you can’t make progress on Twitter.  You want to make friends, to network,  to build a following and  recognition, and the way to do that is to put yourself out there, again and again, long enough that people take notice.

Don’t tweet too much

But that doesn’t mean you should tweet everything.  People don’t need to know about every meal you eat, every errand you run, every bathroom break.  Even if you’re tweeting entirely on your area of expertise, you want to be part of your follower’s information flow, not the flow itself.  Nothing will get people to unfollow you faster than looking at their twitter feed and seeing nothing but your tweets.

Tweet at the right time

Twitter can be a time sink, and so it’s important to maximize the return on your efforts.  You want the tweets you make to appear at the time when your followers are most likely to see them.  When this is may depend on your target audience, but it’s been my experience that most Americans, at least, seem to do their social networking during office hours (no commentary here, just reporting facts).  My posts made Monday through Friday during work hours (in some mainland U.S. time zone) seem much more likely to get retweets and comments than those made during evening hours, or on the weekend.

So, if you have a blog post, public appearance, new book, contest, or other "event" post you'd like to be sure people see, try to post it in the middle of this "prime time" for your target time-zones.

Give that ye shall receive

One great way to make it about you is to make it not about you.  Offer up “Follow Friday” recommendations for people you follow.  Be supportive of other people’s work and projects, retweet other people’s links, and don’t even think about getting anything in return.  But in doing these things, you‘ll make friends, earn good will, and build support that will come back to you in unexpected ways.

Don’t be a marketer

Even if your major reason for being on Twitter is to promote yourself and your work, going at this directly is the quickest way to turn people off and to chase followers (and potential followers) away.  Strictly limit your directly promotional tweets to, I’d say, no more than one in ten tweets.  Even then, try not to be overly direct, and never use a hard sell.  Try to direct interested people to what you’re selling, not push them.  Keep your announcements informal, personal, and soft-sell.

Wrong: "Don’t miss the greatest thriller of the year!  'Blood on Toast!'  You’ll be on the edge of your seat! Now in stores!!!!"
Better: "Exciting day!  My new thriller novel “Blood on Toast” is out.  Hope you’ll check it out: (publisher, web-site or bookseller link)"

Keep in mind that people who follow that link are expressing an interest, and should be receptive to a more direct sales pitch.

Once you’ve made a promotional post, never directly repeat it.  If people see the same pitch twice without explanation they’ll be running for the exits.  If you must repeat, do something like this: “In case you missed it earlier this week, my new novel “Blood on Toast” is out.  More info here (link).”

If possible, any further post shouldn’t come without presenting some contextual reason for it.  

For example: “Very pleased today to see a stack of my new novel “Blood on Toast” at the front of the bookstore.  That just never gets old! (link)”

Enjoy Yourself

Yes, if your intent is promotion, this is work, but if it starts to feel that way, people are going to sense that in your posts.  People who are having fun are fun to (virtually) hang around with.  You’ll be most successful in your promotional activities if you’re enjoying what you’re doing on Twitter.

And finally…

Be Patient

Though things can happen quickly on Twitter, that’s usually not how it happens.  Be prepared to stay with this for the long-haul.  Don’t expect to have a thousand followers in a day, or a hundred.  Most of the time, building a following is like compound interest.  It starts out glacially slow, but it move faster over time, and with patience, it can lead to big things.

You shouldn't be obsessed with the numbers anyway.  Numbers aren't everything.  Quality of followers and the relationships you have with them is as important as quantity.  5 good followers are worth 5000 drones who read nothing and care only about building follower numbers for themselves.

Have fun, and I’ll see you on Twitter.  (Just don’t expect me to automatically follow you any time soon!)

- Steve (@JStevenYork)

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Sketch a Novel in an Hour (Orycon)

Greetings, Orycon folks.  

If you're looking for the printed version of our "Sketch a Novel in an Hour" writers brainstorming exercise, the link is below.  Feel free to link to it from your pages and share the link with friends.

As always, if you've found this information useful, a small contribution to our tip jar is always appreciated!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Steve's Orycon Programming Schedule

Here's my schedule for the Orycon Science Fiction convention,November 12-14, 2010 at Portland Doubletree Hotel.

Sat Nov 13 1:00:pm Sat Nov 13 2:00:pm To the moon! Or ...?
Hamilton The Augustine Commission is deciding the future of space flight. Where we're going and how will we pay for it?
(*)Dan Dubrick, Elton Elliott, J. Steven York, G. David Nordley

Sat Nov 13 3:00:pm Sat Nov 13 4:00:pm Workshop: Story Outline in an hour
Roosevelt Bring something to write on and write with. You'll have an outline (or a good start) to a story by the end of this panel. Bonus--this would be a great head start to that creative writing class homework you're ignoring over the weekend.
Christina F. York; Christy Evans, J. Steven York, Video Projector

Sat Nov 13 7:00:pm Sat Nov 13 8:00:pm Promotion in the Information Age
Jefferson/Adams Corporate websites, Facebook, mass emailing, contests, twitter, ads, spam: What works, what doesn't, and why just 'drumming up business' is even more important now than ever.
(*)Cat Rambo, M.K. Hobson, Sheri Gormley, J. Steven York

Sun Nov 14 2:00:pm Sun Nov 14 3:00:pm 1 cup F, 2 cups SF, 1 tsp H in blender ...
Hawthorne Combining genres--What readers want from blended genre stories, and why some editors and agents have trouble with them.
Jessica Reisman, (*)J. Steven York, P.N. Elrod, Seanan McGuire