How to Use Twitter for Book Promotion

I came across this tweet recently, which captures a common frustration for authors on Twitter:

I actually get asked about this quite a lot – my day job is head of content for Social Media Today, so I essentially get paid to analyze and write about social media and digital marketing trends. Combine that with the fact that I’m an author and logically, I should know how to make best use of Twitter for authors and book promotion, right?

And I do, but what I normally add to this when I do respond to such questions is ‘but you’re not gonna’ want to hear it.’

Why is that? Because it takes time, it takes effort – time and effort that writers would generally rather be expending on, you know, their actual writing projects.

The truth is, if you want to utilize Twitter as a promotional tool for your books, then you have to first build your platform, and earn the right to pitch your latest work to a receptive Twitter audience.

How do you do that? Here’s an overview of a few options you could consider.

1. Build a Platform Around an Issue

Now, to clarify, building a ‘platform’ in this context relates to establishing a following of people who are interested in what you do – and ideally, what you write about. If you can establish yourself as an authority or leading voice within a certain niche, then people will seek more information on that topic from you, and in that way, you can utilize Twitter as a promotional tool because your audience is interested in the topic and what you have to say about it.

To do this, you need to get involved in the conversation. Let’s say you write about climate change in your work – you would start by following the relevant leaders in that field and engaging with them, and within the replies on their tweets, wherever was relevant. That, over time, will get your name in front of other people who are interested in the same – so you’re gaining exposure to a group of Twitter users who are interested in that topic.

The more you can get involved and build your profile – through tweet engagement, sharing your own posts, sharing others’ relevant content, etc. – the more you’ll become known in that niche, so when you do publish your book, which relates to climate change, the audience that you’ve established will now be more likely to engage with it.

Author Clementine Ford is a good example of this – Clem writes about gender equality and feminism, and sees a lot of engagement on her tweets as a result, including her book announcements.

Clem has built a Twitter audience of more than 132k followers, and while not every single one of her tweets is about her focus subjects, more than 90% of them are, and combined with her newspaper articles and media appearances discussing the same, Clem has built an audience which knows what they’ll get, and will therefore be a likely market for her books.

But this approach does get a little murky for fiction authors, whose body of work is likely not dedicated to a few key subject areas.

As an example, author Alice Bishop released a collection of short stories last year which looks at the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria – Bishop lived in one of the bushfire hit regions, so has first-hand insight on the destruction.

Alice hadn’t established herself as an authority on bushfires beforehand (which, as a fiction author, wasn’t her aim), but over time, she has been able to build more of an audience on Twitter based on bushfire coverage – sharing articles about the most recent fires, engaging with people from impacted communities via tweet, gaining a following as a someone who writes about fires and their aftermath.

Focusing on a subject has arguably helped Alice build a more engaged audience on Twitter, but that same audience likely won’t be as beneficial if Alice’s next book isn’t related to the same.

In this sense, topicality can help in your promotion efforts, but it’s also likely too confining for fiction authors, who switch topics significantly from one publication to the next. If you dedicate yourself to one key area, it will definitely bring promotional value on Twitter over time, through establishing yourself as an expert in that arena. But this may not be an effective approach for novelists.

Consequently, this is also a problem I see with modern publishing approach to the same, where they seek a topical angle on your work, as opposed to focusing on the story and writing itself. For one, it feels like, over time, literature is merging too much into activism, which can alienate a large audience subset (people are already inundated with politics in their social media feeds every day – the last thing they want is to be preached to in their recreational reading habits). For another, and as noted, it pigeonholes writers into certain topic streams.

But then again, in order to get press coverage, and maximize promotional value, maybe they need a topical angle to pique the interest of relevant editors.

Regardless, if your writing regularly covers a specific focus area like this, this is one way in which you can use Twitter to establish yourself. And once you’ve built an audience of people engaged in the subject, they’ll also likely be interested in your books.

2. Build a Platform within the Writing Community

But what if you don’t write about a specific topic? Another approach you could take is to build a platform within the Twitter writing community, which can connect you to other people who are interested in writing – and by extension, readers who are interested in their work.

To clarify, this doesn’t mean that you should connect to every writer you can and blindly re-tweet each others’ latest book news. Doing this will likely see you end up talking amongst yourselves, and promoting your latest books to no one other than other writers, who are not your target audience. It can be great, and beneficial, to connect with other writers on Twitter for advice, support, etc. But in a promotional sense, it likely won’t help you a heap.

This is where you need to differentiate your purpose for Twitter use, and consider the audience that you ultimately need to reach.

Building a platform within the writing community for promotion more relates to connecting with other authors, with a broader view to utilizing those connections in order to reach more potential readers – i.e. their audience of readers who are already following them.

But this takes a lot of time and effort – Angela Meyer is a good example of this.

Angela has spent literally decades building her profile within the literary sector, first starting as a book blogger, then as a publisher, before finally becoming an author herself. Through all of this, Angela has established connection with a heap of authors and publishing types, who themselves have their own followings of interested readers. When Angela does tweet about a book launch, many of the people who re-tweet it are established authors and publishing folk.

That gives Angela not only reach to writers, but importantly, reach to more readers – but again, Angela has built that platform through years of work, establishing a network on Twitter of people who are now willing to advocate on her behalf.

Angela does also share content around gender identification, which is an element explored in her work, so she also uses topicality to broaden her platform. But an argument can be made that by establishing stronger ties within the literary community, you’ll stand a better chance of utilizing Twitter for promotion.

See also podcasters like Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, who both see higher engagement on their tweets as a result of their established identities within the writing community, and subsequent connection to high profile authors who will be more likely to help them with re-shares and distribution on their announcements.

‘But isn’t that just authors sharing with each other, which you just said isn’t effective?’

Kind of, but in this way, you’re utilizing bigger name authors, those who already have established followings of willing readers. Now, you’re not only getting exposure to other authors, but importantly, the book-buying public.

It’s also worth noting here that with Twitter working to show more users tweets that they may be interested in, even Likes can have the same effect as re-tweets. Twitter’s algorithm will display a selection of tweets liked by people you follow in you in your feed – so even if you can get a prominent person in your field to simply like one of your tweets, there’s a greater chance of exposure to a reading audience.

3. Build a Platform Within Your Niche

Focusing on a single topic area can be restrictive, and building momentum for a podcast or similar in order to establish a place within the mainstream lit community takes time.

So what are your other options?

Establishing an audience within a specific niche, related to your work, is another way to maximize Twitter for promotion – though again, it doesn’t come easy.

In this way, you could tweet about things that interest you in, say, the horror genre in order to establish connection with like-minded users. You could share Hollywood news, posts about the horror writing process, engage with the community around the latest content. And through this, ideally, you can build your profile among people who will eventually also be interested in your stuff.

Author Maria Lewis is a good example of this:

Through her tweets, Lewis shares her interests in film, literature and the arts more broadly, which largely relate to the themes of her own books. Really, Lewis uses a combination of all three of these approaches – her books touch on topical issues, she hosts a podcast (and has previously been a host on SBS TV), and she shares a consistent tweet stream of the things that she’s interested in, further connecting her with like-minded Twitter users.

But again, this didn’t happen overnight. Lewis has also worked for years to establish herself as a commentator, through her work as a journalist and presenter, and she’s now earned an audience of like-minded fans who engage with her tweets.

But it is another approach – if you write in a specific genre, you can use your tweets to connect with readers who are interested in the same.

And the more you can build your brand, tweet-by-tweet, the more you’ll be able to connect with an audience that will be increasingly receptive to your own content.

4. Just Don’t Worry About it

So, all of these approaches take a lot of work – but it also worth noting that you don’t have to use Twitter as a promotional vehicle.

Many successful authors don’t even have a Twitter presence – or some, like American author Jesse Ball, just share random images or cryptic messages for fans.

Many authors also just share what they like, regardless of themes or ideas, and still do fine. While you can use Twitter as a means to promote your work, it’s not essential – but if you are getting frustrated, as with the example at the top of this post, with the lack of traction for your book tweets, it’s worth considering how those who do see significant engagement on their book tweets have worked to establish their presence.

‘So why don’t you do this?’

Yeah, I don’t personally tweet along thematic lines, or even along book-specific lines more broadly. That, in my case, is due to conflicting professional interests – I’m the head writer for Social Media Today, which is where the vast majority of my Twitter followers have come from, so if I share more fiction-related content, it likely won’t get a heap of traction. As outlined in the examples above, I haven’t established a platform for book promotion specifically, and because I’m in between these two worlds, I don’t personally make Twitter a huge focus – though I do use it to connect with other authors, which I find hugely beneficial.

In terms of other pointers, I would add these tips, based on examples I’ve seen:

  • Don’t just re-tweet – ever – Well, maybe not ever, but if you’re looking to establish yourself in a specific area, you need to be including your opinion when you share things. Blank re-tweets likely won’t help improve your tweet engagement (as your followers will be getting these in their feed with no context) and won’t further establish you as a person of interest in that field. Better to share with your own thoughts included. A notable exception to this is if the tweet is about you/your work – if a high profile person says your book is great, then you re-tweet that for sure, as this does work to further underline your brand through external endorsement.
  • Follow-for-follow is outdated – Yes, you want to have lots of followers, but followers who are just doing so in order to boost their own audience counts won’t engage with your tweets – and won’t buy your books.
  • Don’t follow trends – Sure, tweeting a cute cat picture or an inspirational quote might inflate your tweet metrics, but will it help connect you with people who are actually going to buy your book? Making a funny video might get more engagement – but if it’s not actively working towards building your presence in your key area of interest, and linking you through to that audience, it’s probably not really helping. Sharing insights into your personal life is fine, but keep in mind your broader strategic focus – if indeed you are aiming to use Twitter for max promotional value.
  • It’s not the algorithm – Some have suggested that it may be worth sharing some high-engagement tweets, even if they’re off-topic, in order to ingratiate yourself with Twitter’s algorithm. That way, the theory goes, when you share your subsequent promo tweets, you’ll get more reach. That’s not really a relevant consideration on Twitter – on Facebook it is, to a degree, but Twitter’s algorithm is more aligned to each individual tweet, and any reach boost you might achieve is likely not worth the effort (worth noting, too, that Twitter is working to better align itself around topics, further lessening any such impact).

As always, some will read this and respond with ambivalence. ‘But I like re-tweeting book launch info and connecting with fellow authors, and that works for me’. And that’s fine, if you’re happy doing what you do, then all good. But let’s face it, if you were truly satisfied with the results you’re seeing, you wouldn’t be reading this.

The bottom line is that there are ways to utilize Twitter to promote your work, but the pathway to true success is not easy. If you’re looking for a quick fix, a quick-hitting way to get the message out about your latest work, Twitter probably isn’t the best option.

Twitter is a brand-building platform, and as such, you need to take the time to build the right audience, those who will eventually be receptive to your promotional messaging.

Overusing adverbs

 

One of the more common indicators of lazy writing, which many are not aware of, is an over-reliance on adverbs – saying someone ran quickly, someone sang sadly, somebody waited eagerly.

The conflicting approach here is that, in non-fiction, the use of adverbs like this makes sense, as it’s unemotional, it’s a form that’s designed to provide straight-forward information, as fast as you can. So it makes sense to say ‘he listening intently‘ as it’s a quicker way to provide the basic overview you’re seeking.

But in fiction, that’s not enough.

In fiction writing, you’re looking for the best ways to convey the emotion of a scene, to condense the feelings of each character within each moment, and distill that down in order to recreate that same sensation within your reader. That’s both the challenge and triumph of great writing, and it is absolutely not easy to do. But in this, over-reliance on adverbs is an absolute killer.

Next time you come across an adverb in your work, consider whether the same could be said differently, giving you a chance to add a more inventive, engaging flair to the sentences, and helping to build each scene.

Instead of saying ‘he ran quickly’, you might try: ‘he ran like an animal freed from a cage, faster than you would expect.’

Instead of ‘someone sang sadly’, you could say: ‘someone sang, and it sounded as if her heart had separated in two, right in there in the moment.’

There won’t always be an ideal replacement, but as you can see, by taking the time to consider the actual scene, and the actual movement or happening within it, you can likely come up with a more active, alive description, which enhances the feeling you’re trying to express.

And if you find that works, try also replacing specific details, like measurements, kilometres, years-old, etc.

Here’s an example from a piece by Amy Hempel:

“The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.”

You don’t need to be so specific, so clinical and flat in your explanations – and in re-considering your descriptions, you may actually come up with more descriptive, enhancing prose.

 

 

 

#AuthorsForFireys

As you may have heard, a group of Australian authors recently launched a campaign to help raise funds for the volunteer firefighting groups who are currently battling the massive bushfires impacting several regions across Australia.

Some of these volunteers have spent months away from family and loved ones, often at their own expense, risking their lives to help save other peoples’ property, and the work they’re undertaking is grueling, unforgiving, and this fire season in particular, relentless.

The #AuthorsForFireys campaign, which is running on Twitter, has grown significantly, and there are now a heap of big-name authors – both from Australia and overseas – who are offering some amazing packages, including mentoring, copyediting and professional manuscript feedback, along with signed books and related items for fans.

I’m a very small player within this larger pool of literary superstars, but I’ve also put forward what I can offer, if anyone might be interested.

This is an amazing campaign for all aspiring writers to be aware of, and get involved in – and some of these offers could actually end up being the thing that helps you get that initial momentum that you need to get your work published.

Check out the #AuthorsForFireys and #AuthorsForFiries hashtags on Twitter to see what’s on offer.

 

 

Human impacts

bushfire moon

In 2009, my home town of Kinglake was hit by the Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2, 000 homes. I wasn’t living in Kinglake at the time, I’d moved to the city about five years prior, but I had family there. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle didn’t lose their houses. My brother did.

Kinglake is (or was back then) a small town, where everyone sort of knows everyone, so I also knew a lot of people who were impacted. In the weeks following the fire, you couldn’t go up to Kinglake without a resident pass on your car, but I went up with my brother, and I got to see people I hadn’t seen in ages, their faces still half shocked, each of them perpetually on the brink of tears. The horrors they explained to me are difficult to comprehend, and while several books have been written about the Black Saturday fires, none of them has come close to expressing the emotion they shared, even in the smallest details.

These are events which etch themselves into the psyche of those in its wake, the smoke seeps into their bones and becomes a part of who they are. No one can fully comprehend the enormity of such an incident. In my mind, fire moves slow, you can see it coming from a mile off and you can get away if you leave in time. That’s not the reality that these people faced.

I’ve heard stories of animals on fire, writhing in the smoke, human bodies in burnt out car wrecks, shrivelled and shrunken in. My brother was part of a CFA team that rescued a young girl, who took shelter in a dam as the fire front hit. Her skin was basically melting off her bones as she ran to meet them. These are not images you can shake out of your mind, the impacts of such events will linger inside these people forever.

Now, ten years later, we’re witnessing yet another major fire event. And while debate rages around what could have been done, what sparked the blazes, and how we address future threats, keep in mind the people at the centre of this. The people who’ve lost everything, things that insurance cannot recover. Pets, memories. A sense of place. A feeling of home. It’s easy to overlook these things when it’s not you that’s impacted, but the ripples of this catastrophe will resonate throughout these communities, and the nation more broadly, for years to come.

Research shows that over a quarter of the people who were in the worst affected areas during Black Saturday showed signs of significant mental health problems, while PTSD and suicide rates rose as people struggled to recover.

If you can help, please do so wherever you can, and if you know of anyone in the impacted areas, please reach out to them and let them know that you’re there, and that you’re ready to listen if ever they need. It’ll also be important, at some stage, that people look to head back to the coastal areas, in particular, to visit, as towns which are largely reliant on tourist income have also been hit by this crisis.

Definitely, people have a right to demand answers from the government as to its lack of action in this respect, but make sure that anger doesn’t overtake the need to consider the humanitarian impact, which will stretch on for lifetimes.

You can donate to the Red Cross or Salvation Army relief efforts to directly benefit bushfire victims, you can also donate to the RSPCA Bushfire Appeal and the NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) who are working to provide assistance for impacted wildlife, while The Black Dog Institute and Fearless are both working to assist the victims of post-traumatic stress. Comedian Magda Szubanski is also raising money to help bushfire victims long term with trauma and mental health support.

Main image via @gnat_fly/Twitter

Publishing Trends, Consumer Data and Where to Next

Penguin Random House Publishing Direct Justin Ractliffe recently wrote a new, in-depth report for The Copyright Agency which examines the evolving consumer marketplace for books in Australia, and how publishers can align with modern reader shifts.

The report provides some interesting perspective on the utilization of data-driven insights as a driver of publishing success, and repeatedly refers to Netflix as an example of a modern, content-focused business which has built consumer data into its product decisions, leading to greater success.

Which is not surprising – Netflix has repeatedly been held up as an example of how modern data analytics can be used to maximize traditional creative processes.

You may recall the story of how Netflix used ‘big data’ to create ‘House of Cards’, which all of its indicators showed would be a hit.

As per SOFY:

“Netflix identified that the British version of House of Cards was watched by many subscribers.  Those members who watched the British version of House of Cards also seemed to favor movies starring Kevin Spacey. This was one of the patterns that led to Kevin Spacey being cast in the lead role – in fact, big data was instrumental in how most of the characters were cast. It had a role in how the script was finalized and how the overall narrative progressed.”

Brilliant, right? Tapping into consumer data, from Netflix’s 155 million subscribers, to create shows which align with their interests, thus driving viewer loyalty. Great.

Except that’s not really true.

Definitely, Netflix, as a case study, provides some interesting considerations, as noted by Ratcliffe, but the correlation/causation elements of this argument don’t play out as strong when you dig a little further. Yes, Netflix has achieved success – but how much of that, really, comes down to its original content?

Here’s a simple counter – Netflix published some 700 original shows in 2018, and 80 original films. How many of them can you name?

Sure, Netflix has had some big hits – the platform has struck gold with shows like ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Stranger Things’, and movies like ‘Bird Box’. But on balance, Netflix’s production output is still fairly hit and miss. If Netflix’s data-driven approach were as spot on as implied, why are so many of its offerings failing to gain momentum, and attract big audiences?

But Netflix has 155 million subscribers, which many use an indicator of the success of its original content. Is that an accurate correlation?

Not necessarily. Netflix benefits from brand equity as much as it does from its content – the platform is cheap to access (in relative terms), provides access to a heap of movies and TV shows (Netflix-created an otherwise), and there are also, every now and then, cool, original shows that people want to watch. Given these various elements, it’s impossible to attribute how much of Netflix’s overall success comes down to its’ own productions.

To make it an even more difficult comparison, Netflix doesn’t actually reveal any viewership numbers, so we have no idea what’s working and what isn’t on the platform.

Netflix did, just recently, publish a list of its best performing originals between 2018 and 2019, which provides some insight:

netflix shows

But as noted by The Guardian, it’s interesting, here, to note that only two of the shows listed weren’t a first season. So, again, despite Netflix’s data insights, it’s clearly not fueling ongoing success – which suggests that, potentially, the user analytics-driven approach isn’t as effective as suggested.

Arguably, the Netflix programs which have seen success have been driven to higher levels of viewership by the social media hype train, as opposed to simply aligning with consumption data. Indeed, ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Stranger Things’ and ’13 Reasons Why’ were all among the most tweeted about TV shows in 2018, while the Bird Box challenge became a trending meme on social media, which undoubtedly increased views of that film. In each case, an alternative view could suggest that it’s not consumer data that’s lead to their eventual success, but influence – slotting into the zeitgeist of the day and prompting expanded discussion, which then leads more people to take a look.

As such, maybe it’s not so much data-driven decision making that publishers should be investigating, but viral dynamics – studies like this one by Steve Rayson which dig into the reasons behind why such trends occur, with a view to fanning your own waves of success.

But that path, which requires understanding modern communication dynamics, aligning with pathways that lead to increased social media traction, and igniting those first sparks in just the right spots, is definitely not easy. It’s worth noting too that Ratcliffe doesn’t definitively suggest that publishers should adopt a strictly data-driven approach, but the risk in adopting such a strategy is that you end up narrowing the field too significantly. Basically, my response after reading Ratcliffe’s thesis was ‘I hope people really liked ‘Boy Swallows Universe”.

At core, my concern with Ratcliffe’s overview is that it looks to cater to the existing audience of readers, as opposed to seeking ways to win more readers back. And of course, the latter goal might not even be viable, but if you’re looking to make data-backed decisions, and the data you use is limited in scope, because the reading market is already narrower than before, then that seems like more of a path to eventual obsolesence, as your audience will thin further and further the more you refine your targeting.

But then again, the alternative is not a lot better – the truth is that people’s reading habits have changed, and with so many distractions available to us 24/7, asking someone to take the time to read a full novel these days is asking a lot. People aren’t reading as widely as they once were – which, as to Ratcliffe’s suggestions, points to the benefits of maximizing those who are.

As an author, and someone who loves to see new voices, that concerns me. But from a marketing perspective, I see the logic.

But I would argue that the Netflix data-driven model is not as solid as many suggest. Again, Netflix created 80 new shows in 2018, and relatively few of them resonated. And you don’t have to take my word for it – go watch them, a lot of them just simply don’t work.

At the rates that Netflix publishes, its track record is not much better than any other publisher, even with its added consumer insight. Which would suggest that the existing publishing models, which rely upon the knowledge of publishers – their ‘gut feel’ as it were – are probably just as good.

It seems less about the data in the acquisition process, and more about the marketing push, using elements like influencer marketing and similar dynamics, to amplify messaging.

But the market is narrowing, as are opportunities.

 

at sea

writing ex

I haven’t posted here in a while. Partly because I don’t have anything new to share – I don’t have any new publication dates or anything set to be released in the near future. But also, because I’ve been contemplating where I’m at with my fiction work, and how to push through to that next stage.

Also, I’ve been writing. I’ve written three new novel manuscripts in the last two years, along with a screenplay, a YA novel manuscript and I’m currently working on a series for younger readers, aimed at my nine year-old son. I have a set writing routine, I’m able to commit time to doing it, and I want to make sure I use that capacity while it lasts. You never know when life changes might take your writing time away, so once you have it, you need to keep going.

And in some ways it’s freeing, being able to work on the projects I want to, dedicating the time to editing and reworking and getting them to a presentable state. But also, not having another deal locked in is scary.

I commit a lot of time and effort to writing, and will do so as long as I can, but it’s difficult to tell, in the current market, whether my ideas will make it. I remain confident that they will, eventually. But publishers’ budgets are getting tighter, and reader interests are, at least seemingly, narrowing in. I believe in my work – but will it actually work in the current environment? Can I find an audience and deliver for my publisher, solidifying my career?

And then there’s the more philosophical question – does that even matter?

I mean, I’ll always write, whether for thousands of readers or none, I’ll always come up with stories and ideas that I want to explore and flesh out. And in some ways, that’s probably enough – but then again, there are bills to pay, and the time I spend writing I could spend doing something more directly tied to income.

For the vast majority of writers, fiction doesn’t pay much, and most authors wouldn’t be doing it for the money – cause they could make more elsewhere. But it’s still a consideration, it’s important on some level.

But where do you draw the line – how much time is too much to be allocating to a task with indeterminate return? I’m sure this is a dilemma that all writers face – and again, I know that I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep doing what I love, keep working to improve. But the questions of promotion, of raising awareness, of how you go about boosting your profile, how you make money – while also matching that with, you know, actually doing the work itself, is always difficult.

There are government funding options to consider, of course, but those too are in increasingly limited supply. And also, I don’t need them as such. I work full-time, I can pay the bills. I would generally rather leave those options to writers more in need – because they’re likely the voices that we really need to nurture in order to broaden our perspectives. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Essentially, I haven’t posted anything here in a while because I’m waiting. For the next big announcement, the next step. And I’m not exactly sure what that is just yet.

So I’m working. I’m writing every day, refining my sentences, filling in my plot holes, tightening up my language. Improving where I can.

But I guess, aside from wanting to provide some sort of update, I also wanted to share that the process is hard, for everyone, and no one has all the answers. Even two books in, I still have periods of total self doubt. But I always come back to why I write.

Is it to make money? No, though that would be ideal. Is it to build a profile and chase some sort of literary ‘fame’? No, not at all.

I write because it’s what I love to do, and if I can somehow fund that work though publication, while also connecting with an audience, that’s the ideal.

But will I keep writing anyway, if that doesn’t eventuate? Sure. I mean, it’s what I do.

And the more you practice, the better you get.

Note: I was partly reminded/inspired to get back to my blog by this post from author Matt Davies, which all authors and prospective writers should read.

The trend away from literature at festivals

After the recent releases of the programs for the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ and Canberra Writers’ Festivals respectively, I tweeted out these stats:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

That raised a few questions over what this means, whether such matters, and what, exactly, my point might be.

There are a couple of things. For one, as someone who’s interested in literature and writers, I look forward to the release of these programs to see if there’s anyone worth heading along to hear. I was disappointed with the line-ups of both events, largely because of the low representation of any authors I might be interested in – though many others, it’s worth noting, have praised the programs. Worth noting, too: MWF director Marieke Hardy, now in her second year, lead a significant increase in revenue for the event in 2018.

As a literary fan, I dislike the trend away from fiction authors, given there are seemingly fewer and fewer opportunities to hear them speak, but I do also get the financial perspective, the business side of such planning.

But the other issue I have is more pressing – with fewer outlets for fiction writers to generate exposure for their work, I feel like we’re losing a significant opportunity, which could have a much larger cultural impact over time, as our next generation of authors miss out on connection with writers and work that may help them find their own voice.

Of course, literary ‘voice’ is a bit of a fluffy concept – finding your voice is never really a clearly defined process. But I’ll give you an example within this context – as much as I was good at English and literature when I was in school, I was never taken by the assigned books on the curriculum, and I never really found stories and/or authors that I truly connected with till after I started reading for pleasure more consistently, after I’d left the school system.

Through the authors I found – many via events, festivals, bookshops – I was able to discover writing styles that I connected with, that I wanted to write like myself, which then inspired me to try my hand at creating my own works.

A significant part of this comes down to basic exposure – and as noted, there are many authors I’ve come across because they’ve been speaking at events, broadening my literary input and helping me find more of what I like. It’s important to also note that I didn’t go to see every one of these authors speak, but simply having them featured on the bill, seeing them interviewed as part of the lead-up – all of the periphery exposure that comes in addition to being part of a writing festival, particularly one of the majors, helps to connect more people to more authors, and as more and more bookshops close down, and the opportunities for such reduce, authors, arguably more than ever, need that extra push wherever possible.

Excluding fiction authors from a writers festival is a major blow – and again, I do understand the commercial obligations, and the festivals that do receive government funding, and, you would assume, have more of an obligation to promote the arts do feature more fiction writers.

But it feels like a lost opportunity. In some cases, some of the festival events feature whole sessions where none of the speakers or hosts are primarily known for their writing – which, to me, misses the entire point of a writers festival (call it a ‘festival of ideas’ or something if you’re no longer going to focus on actual writing).

Festival directors need to make money. But then again, authors do too. The less opportunity for exposure, the less they’re able to do so, which is another component to the whole chain in lessening cultural impact. In essence, as the balance of power in the Australian book marketplace shifts towards commercial content – and away from literary expression – we also run increased risk of failing to help our next generation of authors find their voice.

Who’s the next Christos Tsiolkas? The Next Richard Flanagan? Right now, I’d say we don’t clearly have another shining literary light coming through – and the way we’re going, maybe we won’t see such anymore at all, and definitely not at the same rate we have in the past.

It’s only one indicator, and there are other signs of positive activity within the fiction space overall. But it’s a concern that writers festivals are increasingly moving away from actual writers, and therefore, the sharing of discussion and exposure around the same.

Advice for aspiring writers…

“Clearness is the most important quality of writing but it’s the most overlooked. People think being complicated or ambitious is the most important part of writing, but the mind is so raw and complicated itself that being clearer will always create a greater depth of complexity. It never leads to reductiveness.”

Jesse Ball

Short Story: ‘Stay High’

car in rain

Dear old Katriece. Stupid ol’ Katriece. Always falling for the next scheme, the next shining lure and swindle.

She knew what they said about her. Dopey ol’, no hope Katriece. She knew what they said. She’d heard them say it, not to her face, of course, but behind her back, when they didn’t know she was listening. She’d heard them at dinner parties and at family gatherings. ‘Oh, Katriece,’ they’d say. ‘When’s she gonna’ twig? When’s the other shoe gonna’ drop? When’s she gonna’ realize?’

She did realize. She wasn’t stupid. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Sometimes people don’t go as you expect.

Stupid ol’ Katriece. She was pretty, once. She could have had any boy in high school, don’t you know? She could have married up, bought a house. It didn’t have to be this way. She just made the wrong choices, fumbled down the wrong paths.

She’ll be fine. She’ll work it out. She just needs to get back on her feet. You’ll see.

She’ll work it out.

She’d heard them say it. It’s not like they were discreet about it. But what did they know anyway? Oh, your life’s so perfect, Melissa? Your husband messages me, saying ‘hey, what you up to?’ Late at night when he’s drunk. You don’t know that. You’ve got it all worked out, haven’t you? You don’t even know.

Here’s what happened this time: Stupid ol’ Katriece invited all of her stupid friends over for a dumb showcase party for her dopey new business. This was selling make-up, lipstick mostly. You sign-up for a franchise and you work for yourself, and Katriece signed right on up, took it on. She promoted it to all her friends and her followers online, and they turned up, and they listened. And they smiled their fucking asses off, drinking her wine and eating biscuits and fucking cheese. They nodded and smeared lipsticks across their skin, and then when Katriece left the room, just for a second, just for a minute, that’s when it started. She could hear what they were saying. She wasn’t fucking deaf.

In the next room, Katriece leaned up against the wall and listened to them. As they tore her apart. Stupid ol’ Katriece.

She means well. At least she’s trying.

Is she still living with her Mum?

She listened, to every word of it. She’d heard it all before. She knew what those smiling faced held in, their masks slipping away to reveal the worms infesting their swollen bodies. She knew it. Katriece listened in.

At least she’s got something going on now. Remember when she had that breakdown? Remember that?

Remember?

Katriece listened to it all, every syllable vibrating through her soft bones.

So what does she do? She smiles. She stands tall. She feels the stiffened make-up covering over that pimple on her left cheek. She stands tall and walks upright and Katriece re-enters the room and looks across all of their worm-filled faces. Their synthetic smiles staring back, the colours painted over their pores.

Katriece smiles at them, then she shows them her products. Her own boss. In control of her own destiny. Reporting to no one. Bossbabe. Stupid ol’ Katriece, she swallows it all, gulps it all down into the depths, where it gathers together in her stomach, congeals into a mass, a tumor that’s going to eventually choke her to death. She swallows it, and she stands tall and she holds herself upright before them. A real life voodoo doll, pierced by their stares. She knows them. She knows what they think.

Katriece thanks them for coming, shakes their hands. Hugs, kisses. Because what else is there? What the fuck else do you do here?

She shuts the door behind the last of them – her Mum’s house, not hers – and she holds the cold metal of the handle as she leans forward and touches her head onto the painted wood. As she feels her joints coming apart beneath her skin.

Oh my God. You wouldn’t believe the shit they said.

Language, Katriece’s Mum says.

Oh my God, Katriece tells her. I’m a fucking joke to them.

Calm down.

No, you don’t get it. They tore me apart, they trashed me completely. Nothing’s ever good enough, is it?

Calm.

I can’t.

Take a Valium.

I don’t want to take a pill, Mum.

You might need it.

They think I’m a joke, Mum. I’m a joke to them.

You’re not a joke.

Katriece sits down at the table. She’s huffing, staring at the patterns in the wood surface. She shakes her head.

I’m just trying to make something of myself.

I know.

Katriece shifts her gaze to her Mum.

You think it too, don’t you?

Oh, Katriece.

No, you think it too. I can tell by your voice.

Please.

I’ve always been a disappointment, haven’t I Mum? I’ve always been a failure. You wish I’d gone to uni and become a doctor or something.

No I don’t.

Why not? Am I too stupid for that? Is that what you think?

You can be anything you want.

No I can’t, Mum.

Katriece taps at the table. Her fresh painted pink nails drumming on the wood.

I can’t, Mum.

The tears build up, catch in Katriece’s long lashes.

I’m a failure, Mum.

No.

Yes, Mum.

No. You just haven’t found your thing yet.

Katriece looks around the kitchen. The house is fairly new, still smells of paint and varnish. The sunlight heats in through the window above the sink.

I’m sorry, Mum.

What for?

I’m sorry for failing you.

No. Please don’t.

Katriece looks out to the sky, the clouds against the blue.

I’m gonna’ go.

Where?

I’m gonna’ go.

Katriece stands from the table and leaves the room. Her mother watches her, her hands and fingers wrapped round the curve of her tea cup. She hears the front door slam, then she waits.

She looks to the floor. Her daughters’ shoe prints marked across the polished wood.

There’s this bar, this dirty bar that they all used to go to when they were in high school, where everyone went. She hadn’t been there for years, but fuck it, why not?

Why not? Katriece thinks as she drives along with no destination in mind. Funny Ol’ Katriece, still hanging out in the same bars as she used to.

It was different now, the bar. It was quieter for one, and empty. It was early, of course, a lot earlier than when they used to come here. But it was dead. It was dead quiet.

Katriece sits on a bar stool alongside the bar and she looks all around, remembering things that once were. The colours of the bottles, the thump of the music. Forceful kisses with too much tongue and cigarette aftertaste. She remembers this place. Katriece runs her hand along the smooth wood surface.

What can I get for you? The bartender asks.

Oh, sorry, Katriece says. Was totally zoning out. Um, can I just get a beer?

Yep. On tap or from the selection?

Oh, just the tap, the normal.

Okay. Did you want the Lionheart or the Mountain Range?

Katriece narrows her eyes as she ponders the question.

I don’t really know. Whatever you think?

She smiles to the bartender, a young man with a thick, dark beard, wearing a dark coloured apron over a buttoned up white shirt. The bartender smiles back, then he takes a glass and fills it from the tap.

My God. My God. Katriece runs her hand over her tied back hair, stiff with hair spray. My God.

The bartender places her drink in front of her. She hands a ten dollar note across to him.

Keep the change.

My God.

Katriece rests her hand onto the bar, then she looks down at her skin. The knuckles sunken in, the tendons flexing. The little lines all across. This is me, she thinks. This is me now.

She takes a sip of her beer from the chilled glass.

It’s only later that she notices.

Two beers in, sunlight reaching through the wall of windows at the front. It’s only then that she realizes she knows him. The man across the way, sitting alone at a booth over in the corner. She knows him.

Given any other time, she’d make a mental note of it and move on, but two beers in, Katriece knows this man, and she decides to go tell him, to go talk to this person. To see how he’s been. She hasn’t seen him in years.

Derek?

The man looks up, startled by the sound. He squints up at Katriece from beneath the dim light directly above the table.

Yes?

Derek, it’s me, Katriece. Do you remember me? From school.

The man shuts his eyes tight, moves through his memory.

Katriece?

Yeah. From school. Do you remember?

Katriece stumbles back on her heels slightly.

Yes, the man says. Yes. Katriece.

Katriece slides into the opposite side of the booth, falls into the seat.

Oop- little clumsy.

The man watches her, his eyes narrowed. She straightens herself and her drink and its cardboard coaster beneath it, then she looks across the table to the man.

Derek? She asks.

Yes.

You remember me right?

No.

Stupid ol’ Katriece. She’s made a fool of herself again. The room feels as if it’s expanding all around.

Oh, she says. I’m sorry.

Katriece goes to move.

Wait, Derek says. Just wait. He closes his eyes.

Katriece, he says.

He nods, then he opens his eyes.

I remember now.

 

The first thing is, Derek smells. She can smell him in detail, the notes of alcohol and body odour, the hint of damp clothes. The years have been harsh for Derek, already wrinkled in. Scars from acne healed into craters, pores gleaming with sweat. Dark hair, grey along the roots. Cheeks weighed down with sadness. The years have been harsh for Derek.

So what have you been up to? Katriece asks.

When?

Like, since school, what have you been doing?

Mostly this.

Katriece laughs. Derek takes a sip of whatever he has in the cloudy glass in front of him.

It’s weird seeing you here, she tells him. What are the chances?

Pretty good odds, Derek says. Pretty good.

He leans back into his seat, slouches down against it.

I’d take that bet, you know? He tells her.

Katriece sips at her beer. She looks over Derek’s worn hands, the dirt clogged beneath the thick slivers along the edges of his fingernails.

Do you still see anyone from school? She asks him.

Derek smiles.

Why are you asking me about school? That was a lifetime ago.

Katriece smiles.

I know, right? It feels like so…

Then Derek sits up and leans forward onto the table.

Fucking school. Fuck those fuckers at school. They don’t know shit.

Katriece looks around, checks if anyone is looking at them. She smooths her hand over her stiffened hair.

Okay, she says to him. Hey, are you okay?

Derek smiles.

Katriece from school, he says. Thank you for stopping by.

Katriece looks around again, then she goes to slide out from the booth, grabs her drink.

Do you know? He says. That all that shit they talk about isn’t true?

Katriece pauses. The chill of the glass inside her hand.

What?

The things, the pictures they put up, where they’re all smiling and happy and they look so successful. All of that’s not true.

Who?

Katriece rests her glass onto the wood again, settles back into the seat.

The people from school, where we used to go. They’re not what they say.

Really? Katriece asks. She angles further back into the booth.

Really, Derek says.

What do you mean?

I mean, the things they say. They always show these pictures and talk about their holidays and all the money they have, their perfect fucking kids.

Derek shakes his head.

It’s not true.

What do you mean?

It’s not true is what I mean, Derek says, getting louder. They just pull those things out from the mess, they pluck them out of the shit and then they wash them all off and they send them out. Derek fans a hand up through the air.

Katriece runs through the images of friends, former classmates in her head.

Why do you say that? Katriece asks.

Because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen them for myself. I know.

Derek shakes his head again.

I know that shit.

He takes a drink.

Those bitches, Katriece thinks. Those worm-faced mask women sitting on her couch. Those liars. What makes them so special?

I can show you, Derek says.

He leans back from the table. The light from above highlights the gaps in his thinning hair.

I can prove what I’m saying.

How?

Dog drunk, driving in the wet night is not a good prospect, but fuck it. Fuck it all. Derek’s car out in the car park is scratched up and clapped out and Katriece notices two child seats strapped in behind the back windows.

Hey, Katriece says. Have you got kids?

What?

The seats. Katriece points to them.

Derek waves her off.

Don’t worry about that, let’s just get going.

They shut the doors and move to pull the seatbelts across, and for a moment, their faces are right up close to each other. She stares him in the eye.

None of that, Derek says.

What?

I don’t have any need for that.

Katriece clips in her seatbelt and sits up in her seat. She flips down the visor to check herself in the mirror as Derek starts the car.

Now, he says. Before we go into this, I need to know that you’re committed to the task.

Katriece looks to him, then the world takes a moment to re-frame itself, catch-up in her view.

First, you need to take this.

Derek opens his hand to her. There are two yellow ovals of pills stranded in the centre of his palm.

What’s this?

Don’t ask, just take it.

Well I need to know what I’m taking.

It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that we stay high. We come down and we’ll realize what the hell we’re doing and where the hell we are, then everything falls apart. We stay high, you got that?

Fucking Katriece, stupid Katriece. Of course, she takes the pills. She swills up spit to soften their journey down her throat.

Derek watches her, smiling. His glossy eyes glint in the streetlight.

Now let’s go, he says.

The car bumps too hard over the curb side, and out into traffic.

You wouldn’t believe it, you’d think they would never make it. The car stumbling along through evening traffic, switching across lanes, flashing beneath traffic lights. They should have never made it.

Their destination is a house in the suburbs, a quiet street in a new housing estate. It’s dark out, and the lights are on above the streets and inside the houses, and they drive along and pull into a driveway, behind another car already parked. Derek turns the engine off and then the headlights and Katriece lets go of her seatbelt, the pattern of it indented into her palm.

Derek leans forward. He twists his head to fit over the steering wheel, peek out.

Here we are, he says. Let’s go pay a visit.

Who’s house is this?

Come see.

Derek opens the car door.

Come on.

 

They knock on the front door, both of them wavering like reeds in the darkness. The outside light isn’t on. The house is not expecting visitors.

A light flicks on above them, squinting them away, then the door opens up. A man with red hair and a red beard looks out at them through a screen door.

Derek?

Pete. Derek raises his arms. It’s me, come to visit.

The man looks to Katriece, who’s standing just behind Derek.

Katriece?

Head churning like rocks being dragged over concrete, muscles melting away beneath the thickness of her skin. She looks at the man inside the house again. She re-focuses on his features.

Peter? She says.

Katriece, I haven’t seen you in years.

Pete looks to Derek, who’s smiling, eyes closed beneath the bug-clustered light.

What are you doing here?

Do you live here? She asks.

Yes he lives here, Derek says. Let us in, Pete, come on.

Peter opens the screen door, nostrils twitching from the tang of alcohol. He holds the door for the two of them to come through.

 

Peter’s house is polished wood floors and white everywhere, and he leads them through into the lounge. A large, cream-colored couch sits bent before a huge TV screen.

Take a seat, Pete says. Can I get you anything to drink?

No, no, Derek tells him. But something to eat. We haven’t had any dinner, you know.

Oh, Pete says. I’m not sure we…

Ah, I’m kidding, Derek laughs.

Katriece sits down onto the couch and it feels like the room is moving. It feels like a memory of the sea, the waves nudging by. The couch fabric feels kind, rolling across her palm.

A woman comes in, looks over the two of them. The woman has short, bleached white hair, tied back, so that the dark roots are showing. She has big, dark eyes and she’s wearing a tank top. Katriece notices the outline of her nipples pushing onto the fabric. The woman smiles with her mouth closed, holds up a hand.

Oh, Katriece, this is my wife Louise, Peter says. Katriece and I went to school together.

The woman looks at Peter.

Pete, you need to keep it down, I just got them to sleep.

Yes, yes, Peter nods.

We’ll be quiet, Derek whispers. Derek puts a finger to his lips. Louise throws Derek a glance, then Peter. Then she leaves the room.

Peter sits down onto the end of the couch, the opposite end to Katriece. Derek’s sitting in a beanbag now, up beside the TV.

Peter nods, then laughs.

Louise comes back into the room and hands Peter a bottle of beer, holds a glass of water for herself. She sits down beside Peter on the couch.

This is your house, Katriece says.

Yep, yeah, Peter responds. We’ve got a few things to do to finish it, but it’s coming along.

It’s lovely, Katriece says.

Thank you, Louise replies. We were very lucky to get a place in this area.

Then silence. Derek watches, reclined into the beanbag.

So, Katriece, what have you been doing with yourself? Peter asks.

Oh, she replies, and then the instinct kicks in, flicks into presentation mode.

Well, I run my own business, selling make-up. I have my own line that I promote.

Louise raises her eyebrows, nods politely.

I’m looking to hire some new people next year. Just building slowly.

Katriece can feel herself sitting up straighter, her face constricting into a smile. She knows this. This is what she does. Then she stops. Katriece drops her head. She looks at her hand, the veins and lines and tendons in the light.

Actually, Katriece says. That’s not true.

She looks up, looks across to Peter and Louise.

Actually, I don’t make any money. I might. I have a lot to sell. Some people are interested. But I don’t sell anything much yet. It’s really hard to get started, you know?

Katriece stares at the couple, sitting together on their couch. Till they blur into shapes in her view. An abstract form beneath the downlights.

Actually, I live with my Mum. I still live at home and I’m not doing anything and not going anywhere. Katriece’s stare fades, drifts across. But if I don’t do it, if I don’t try something, then what do I have, you know? Then what am I?

Katriece stares into the blur, the void of shapes. Into nothing.

You’re still pretty, Derek says, and Katriece looks to him.

But that’s not why we’re here, Derek says. Pete, he says, tell Katriece about your life.

What do you mean? Peter asks.

Louise is now holding his hand, her fingers wrapped over his.

Tell Katriece about how all this, this house, this life, tell her how its bullshit.

What?

You know what I mean. You told me.

Louise looks to Peter.

Told you what, Derek? Peter asks.

You said how… Derek takes in a deep breath, leans his head back onto the bean bag.

You said how you hate your life sometimes. Your wife, your kids. You said how you feel trapped.

Louise is staring at Peter now. Staring through his skull.

I didn’t say that.

Yes you did. When you came out with us.

Did you say that? Louise asks.

No, Peter shakes his head. No. Why would I say that?

I knew it. Louise sits up from the couch. I fucking knew it.

Then Louise slaps Peter’s face, and when she does it, you can see that she’s pushing her teeth together inside her mouth, that she’s trying all she can. The sound claps off the white walls, then Louise stands up from the couch and leaves the room, her head up, her footsteps thumping.

Peter stands up just after. He touches at his red cheek.

Fuck you, Derek, he says. Just cause your life is fucked, just cause you can’t stand to go home and face your wife and kids, you don’t need to drag everyone else down with you.

A door slams further back inside the house. A child starts crying.

Fuck, Peter yells. Get out Derek.

Derek leans forward, then falls back into the beanbag, then he leans forward again. Peter pulls him up.

Fucking get up, get out.

Katriece stands up too, steps forward. She keeps her eyes away from Peter as she moves by.

Katriece and Derek stumble out onto the front porch and the front door slams behind them. The crying inside, the yelling, muffled behind the brick walls.

Then the outside light switches off, dropping them into darkness, and the cold of the night chills through. The wind rushing along the street.

The two of them drop back into Derek’s car and Derek sits behind the wheel. Watching the house. Watching. His face is stalled in a drunken stupor.

Behind the blinds, someone, something is moving inside. The shadows flashing across. Katriece watches them, then she watches Derek. Smiling. Eyes reflecting the glimpse of moonlight.

Is that true what he said? Katriece asks. About you being afraid to go face your family?

Derek’s eyes drop and he looks away. He looks down at his legs, feels at his pocket for his keys.

Now, I don’t see what the fuck that matters, Derek says.

He starts the car. The dashboard lights shadow his features like a campfire.

I don’t see what difference that makes, Derek says.

 

Main image via Pexels