Everywhere you go, people are talking about giving up Facebook because their data has been given away. But Facebook is essential in this wildly narcissistic age because it keeps people humble.
On any given day, Facebook is filled with useful things like news stories you might miss because you don’t follow certain bloggers or check out various web sites. And even “18 Ways To Make A Really Great Rum and Coke.”
But it’s also been burdened by quizzes like “Answer these questions and we’ll tell you what kind of snake you are.” And worst of all, the language advice blogs. I’m not sure why those are so popular, but they crop up all the time, get endlessly re-posted, and they’re often filled with dubious assertions.
Not so long ago, I read one written by a best-selling inspirational author whose apparent audience is people in the business world. His aim in that column is to keep “smart” people from sounding “silly,” but his advice is mediocre and error-prone. Seriously, why should you trust someone who thinks that correct word choice is “English grammar”? It’s not. It’s a question of diction.
He also doesn’t understand that the strict distinction between “nauseous” and nauseated” broke down years ago. It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you feel nauseous when you mean “sick to my stomach.” Pedants might not approve, but that’s too bad.
He trots out the tired dictum that “ironic” can’t mean weirdly or cruelly unexpected. Of course it can, and yes, breaking your leg right before a ski trip is deeply ironic, not just coincidental. It’s a reversal of expectations—one of the prime meanings of ironic—because you expected to be skiing and now you won’t be able to. Despite all the planning, the lessons, the money you’ve spent on equipment, etc.
Now, some language bullies might despise that usage or misunderstand it—look how people have dissed Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” over the years—but there’s nothing wrong with it.
His ultimate advice is to learn “rules.” Seriously? That’s okay when it comes to distinguishing between “lay” and “lie,” but it’s not nearly enough. As an author and teacher of writing, I think rules are a good foundation. But being familiar with the language as it’s written—and in different registers—is more important.
It’s disappointing that an author who wants people to sound more literate wouldn’t recommend that his fans become more literate: that is, actually read more so they have a better understanding of how English works.
But even people you’d expect to be language mavens, like lexicographer Kory Stamper, can write nonsense. In a blog supposedly dredging up “delightful” neglected words that need to be polished and enjoyed because they’re supposedly out of sight, with a word like “Schadenfreude” presented as a prime example.
Google it and you’ll find three and a half million hits.
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.
For the last few years, at every writers’ conference I’ve attended, the hottest topic has been social media. Writers crowd these sessions like medieval pilgrims seeking miracles at a shrine. They seem convinced that with just the right piece of information, they can use social media to promote themselves into writing stardom.
Any why shouldn’t they be? Session after session, book after book, writing blog after writing blog all seem to promise that if you figure out the way to use Twitter or Goodreads or Tumblr or Instagram or Facebook or Amazon algorithms and SEO you’ll hit the jackpot. Just read X’s blog or book and see how she did it…… Your books will be in the Top 100, you’ll have tens of thousands of followers and customers–if not more. Hell, you might even develop your own lifestyle brand. You won’t just have a platform, you’ll have a ziggurat.
But it’s not possible for every writer to score big, is it? And just like all the other other promotional fads of recent years–like blog tours and Skyping to book groups–this heavy focus on social media might end up wasting an author’s time.
Americans love quick fixes and snake oil, they always have. It’s not surprising, then, that so many writers are following what’s going to be a false lead for most of them. It’s really tempting to imagine yourself just a hashtag away from fortune and fame.
Writing is intensely competitive. It’s hard to have a writing career of any kind and not compare yourself to other writers–that’s endemic in the business. You’ll always find someone else selling more books, appearing at more venues, winning more prizes, making more money than you are, getting better reviews (deserved or not). But things have only gotten worse now that publishing is easier, and more and more people just like you, it seems, are getting rich because they have the secret.
According to the New York Times, “A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness.” We writers have enough ways to make ourselves miserable without even getting out of bed–hell, some of us probably can do that in our sleep. Honestly, who needs more help?
Do you feel pressured as a writer to be engaged with social media? How do you deal with the pressure?
You’ve all seen it before on Facebook: the jaunty post from a writer of some kind who says, “Guess what, dudes? Today I wrote 7500 words! How did y’all do?”
There’ll be a chorus of praise: “Wow!” “I’m impressed! “Awesome!” “You rock!”
And a few people will admit to feeling inferior: “I only wrote 500.” Only? Why is that something to apologize for? What’s wrong with that? It’s only “inferior” when compared to 7500 words, which is suddenly the new Gold Standard for daily production. Why should anyone apologize for writing any amount?
You can be sure that there are other people who won’t post at all in response to the Word Count Wiz because they feel really embarrassed. Maybe they weren’t able to eke out much of anything that day, and a total of 7500 words feels like mockery. But they shouldn’t be embarrassed or put off.
Crowing about how many words you’ve written may feel super in the moment (and Facebook is often about moments), but think about it. A post like that could have the unintentional effect of shaming people who are blocked, or write slowly, or who don’t write every day. These might be writers who’re just starting out, or who’ve suffered traumatic rejections of their work, or were dropped by their publishers, or who for any number of reasons just don’t produce a lot, or write fast–or both.
But even if if doesn’t, and even if you did write those 7500 words in a day, so what?
Who says writing fast and copiously is a guarantee of anything? Those 7500 words could be 100% crap. Writing that much and that quickly only proves you can type fast, nothing more. Remember Cold Mountain? Its National Book Award? The millions of copies sold? The movie?
Why is the on-line writing world so obsessed with churning out words every single day, day after day–and tons of them? Why should it matter unless you have a contract and you’re under deadline? Why should you measure yourself as a writer by the number of words you write per day? And seriously, why should other writers care?
What about revision? Experienced authors know how important revision is to a finished work. But revision isn’t necessarily about how much you get done–it”s more about what you get done, how you re-shape your project, whatever it is. A major revision could ultimately involve very few words but make a huge difference.
Why don’t people post more about that or about the work itself? Whatever happened to caring about substance? Like honing dialogue in a scene? Deepening a character’s motivation? Or building the arc of your narrative? What happened to caring about anything other than how many words you spew out in a day–and then posting the total in some kind of victory lap?
Yes, I know the book is awful in every possible way. I’ve blogged about it several times on The Huffington Post and just recently, in a sex writing workshop, I used one of its sex scenes as an example of very bad writing. Here’s some of the excerpt I chose:
His hands run down my body and over my breasts as he reaches the dip at the base of my neck with his lips. He swirls the tip of his nose around it then begins a very leisurely cruise with his mouth, heading south, following the path of his hands, down the sternum to my breasts. Each one is kissed and nipped gently and my nipples tenderly sucked. Holy crap. My hips start swaying and moving of their own accord, grinding to the rhythm of his mouth on me….Reaching my navel, he dips his tongue inside, and then gently grazes my belly with his teeth. My body bows off the bed…..His nose glides along the line between my belly and my pubic hair, biting me gently, teasing me with his tongue. Sitting up suddenly, he kneels at my feet, grasping both my ankles and spreading my legs wide.
Holy shit. He grabs my left foot, bends my knee, and brings my foot to his mouth. Watching and assessing every reaction, he tenderly kisses each of my toes, then bites each one of them softly on the pads. When he reaches my little toe, he bites harder, and I convulse, whimpering. He glides his tongue up my instep–and I can no longer watch him. It’s too erotic. I’m going to combust.
When they read this scene, the students quickly identified all the things that were wrong with it in a spirited and hilarious discussion. Short list: the sex is all exterior and clinical; the “geography” is weird; the voice shifts in peculiar ways; the writing is anything but erotic; and you should never have to tell readers a sex scene is sexy.
To prepare for the workshop, I’d gone over Fifty Shades of Grey carefully a month before which is why when I saw the excerpt below all over Facebook recently, I had to cry Foul! I knew it was fake. And I was also pretty sure I had previously used the same freaky and funny lines quoted when handing out a list of winners or runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest to a fiction writing class. Or I’d at least considered using them.
As bad a writer as James is, this isn’t her special kind of bad. This is different. It’s just a shade more grotesque. And while Christian Grey is lots of things, none of them interesting, he doesn’t mewl. Maybe the book would have been better if he had.
So there I was on Facebook, letting people know the quote was bogus, after defending such greats as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain from misquotation. I asked people not to re-post it. Why? Because E.L. James deserves full recognition for her own brand of lousy writing and nobody else’s, thanks to her trademark lines like “My subconscious has reared her somnambulant head.” and “I slice another piece of venison, holding it against my mouth.”
A classic is a classic, after all.
I’ve warned creative writing students that they can’t expect that everyone will like their work. Some people may actively hate it. Who knows why? That’s just a writer’s life.
I’ve never thought about hate email, though, until I recently posted a blog on The Huffington Post titled “Why Don’t Jewish Lives Matter?” It was about the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres; I wondered whether the world would have been as outraged if the terrorists had only targeted the supermarket.
By the time the blog had received close to 800 Likes, Facebook Shares, and shares on Twitter (it eventually more than doubled that), it also got plenty of vicious response, too. No surprise, there. People seem completely unashamed to parade their full range of prejudices on line, especially on places like The Huffington Post responses boards.
I was surprised, though, to get a long,vicious email in my Inbox from someone apparently enraged by the blog’s title. This person’s screed was the same illogical slumgullion you see with all kinds of haters, while reading as if it were checking items off a list from Anti-Semitism for Dummies. In other words, vile, but totally unoriginal and cookie-cutter.
Naturally it started off by saying that Israel was the problem because of its treatment of Palestinians. This is classic post-war anti-Semitism because it blames all Jews everywhere for every action of every Israeli government. Are Americans responsible for the drone strikes deaths in Yemen and Pakistan? The half million dead in Iraq since the U.S. invasion?
As you might might expect, the ribbon on the package was the equation of Israelis with Nazis. See? All Jews = Israelis = Nazis. That explains everything. But the writer wasn’t done. There was more venom to spew. The other ridiculous charge was that Jews were misusing the Holocaust to their own ends and playing the victim. Charming, no? Finally it slid into some Old School Jew-hatred by labeling Jews as repulsive, arrogant, and unbearably cruel.
The email reeked of contempt, disgust, and brutality. A psychologist might see a writer with tremendous shame issues coping with that shame by expressing grotesque superiority over others. If you click the link to the original blog you’ll find comments just as vicious. These people clearly aren’t at all troubled by going public with their Jew-hatred, unlike the person who sent me the email. Feel free to guess why my correspondent wanted to write privately.
I started writing this blog on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was moved to finish it because of the shootings in Copenhagen. King said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I’ve revered MLK since 4th grade, but I don’t think there’s enough light in the universe to bring these haters out of their own darkness? It makes them feel too good.
Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.” I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks. I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself. I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.
Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness. I get that. I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone. I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings. I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.
But going cold turkey, for even a week? I just can’t. It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.
If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email. If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard. Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.
I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone. In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently. And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.
Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer. Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.
The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook. I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week. Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Many authors worry about how many words they write every day. Some even post the tally on Facebook as if they’re in some kind of competition.
And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them?
If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers start out assuming that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent.
Many well-known authors like Ann Lamott (in Bird by Bird) advise beginners to hold to a daily minimum, but some days it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. Why should it be?
I’ve never advised my creative writing students to write every day; I advise them to try to find the system that works for them.
I’ve never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.
But aside from that, every book has its own unique rhythm. I’m currently finishing a suspense novel and I’ve spent weeks on one chapter. Some would call it obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I’ve been doing is musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic as it were, making sure everything fits right before I go ahead, because this is a crucial chapter. I’ve also been doing some fact-checking because guns are involved and I’ve had to consult experts. I barely have ten pages, yet there are times when I’ve written ten pages in a day on this same book.
The current chapter is the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it’s got to be right. So when I re-work a few lines that had been giving me trouble and find that now, they finally work, that makes me very happy.
And if I don’t write a word, I know I will be, soon enough.
The New York Times recently reported that fashion designers like Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg are turning to Instagram for inspiration and to take the pulse of their fans. They monitor where and how fans are wearing their designs and also poll fans for opinions and suggestions for their work.
The iPhone app is apparently “generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms.” So when will publishers start pushing their authors to switch to this hot new social medium that’s outpacing Facebook and Twitter?
Think of the possibilities! Authors could find out where and when fans are reading their books. They could post and enhance photos of themselves on tour and at work. They could post images of how they imagine their characters, seek advice about book covers, and generally engage with their fans 25 times more than they do already on any other social medium and have their photos instantly posted to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr.
Every aspect of their lives, from morning to night, could be photographed and commented on. Best of all, the Instagram community doesn’t seem to generate the kind of snark other platforms do.
And if they plunged into the new, new thing, they could also catch up with the shifting social media landscape, discovering why Instagram is so hot, why Facebook acquired it for one billion dollars, and why it has this stellar track record, as Kelly Lux reports on her blog:
- Launched on October 6, 2010
- #1 in the App Store within 24 hours of launch
- iPhone App of the Week
- Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010
- Launched 7 new languages
- An Instagram photo made the cover of the Wall Street Journal
- Surpassed 25 million users in early March, 2012
The possibilities for authors and their fans are endless, and publishers will no doubt be relentless in chasing after the next Holy Grail of PR.
If they’re not doing so already.