modern media approaches

A fellow author friend of mine, Jack Heath, recently posted an explanation on Twitter as to why he needed to take a break from social media in order to better focus on other things.

As Jack explained, one of his biggest concerns is that in maintaining an active social media presence, which he feels compelled to do with respect to book promotion and establishing connection with fans, is that it’s having an impact on the way he experiences the world.

“I used to go through life looking for stories to tell. Now I’ve found myself looking around for things to post about. I worry that if I keep going down this path, my books will cease to be imaginative or original. I can’t even enjoy reading anymore, because whenever I hit a good paragraph, I feel the urge to take a picture of it. I almost always resist that urge, but it’s too late – the thought alone has taken me out of the story.”

Jack raises an interesting question – do authors need to have an active social media presence? Or even should they?

Like most writers, I’ve had conflicts with this myself. My day job is writing about digital marketing, so I need to use social media in order to understand how everything works. But I don’t post much myself, and I don’t see a huge amount of value in doing it, personally. But many authors do indeed gain significant value from being active online – I’ve written previously about how authors can maximize the benefits of social media, and build their platform to help them sell more books.

But it’s hard, it’s a big commitment if you want to use it as a brand-building vehicle. it’s not just posting whenever you feel, it takes a dedicated effort in establishing your place and what you want to be known for. That then enables an audience to find you, and you can then use that to help promote your books, and some authors clearly have a knack for it. But others…

Writing is a solitary exercise – you need time away from everybody else in order to gather your thoughts and let your stories form, before then needing even more time alone to actually write them. Given this, it’s not surprising that many authors are actually quite introverted and aren’t looking to be the centre of attention. Which is counter to the aims of promotion – and definitely, with access to millions of people, social platforms provide you with a means for promoting yourself and your work. But as Jack notes, it can also take a toll.

So should you bother?

This really comes down to the individual. Again, many authors gain a lot by being active online, yet equally as many high-profile writers don’t even have a Twitter profile. Tara June-Winch has won virtually every major literary award in Australia in 2020, and she doesn’t have a Twitter presence. In fact, of the five authors nominated in the fiction category in the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, only one of them has an active Twitter account.

In some ways, this seems like an option only available to more established authors, as they have less need to build that initial brand awareness. But it does also suggest that it’s not 100% necessary, being active online is not a definitive requirement.

Yet, there is also a growing focus on author identity in book promotion, with often as much discussion around who the author is as the work itself. This is counter to literary discussion, in my view, as the work should always be the focus, but either way, it’s a trend that exists, which points to it being beneficial to let your audience in, and to share more of yourself with the world.

In many ways, though, it seems like more writers would prefer to take the Cormac McCarthy approach.

Notoriously media-shy (or resistant, depending on how you look at it), if you want to get in touch with Cormac McCarthy, for an interview or any other purpose, you reportedly have to leave a letter in a mail box which is checked periodically by his ex-wife. If she thinks it’s relevant, she’ll pass it on, and then he might, if he deems it of interest, get in touch. But probably not.

There’s no other form of contact, which leaves him to concentrate on his writing.

As one of McCarthy’s ex-wives noted to The New York Times in 1992

“Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page.”

That feels like a better approach, though there is much value in writers groups, online discussions, contributing to the wider community. But it can also get to be too much.

In the modern world, establishing the right balance is increasingly difficult.

creativity in crisis

Should you be actively creating at this time?

In many ways, it seems like the perfect opportunity – people have more time on their hands due to the lockdowns, there are fewer social events to attend, etc. Yet, most people I know are not feeling overly creative, and have struggled to stay focused on fiction work and art.

Why is that?

Because creativity is inspired by our lived experiences, in what we do and see each day. Fiction writers don’t come up with an idea for a story instantaneously, it takes time – it’s various pieces and elements that rattle around inside your head until they coalesce, and the seed of a story is formed.

Right now, it’s hard to be creative because our inputs are reduced, because there are not as many things happening to us personally, which makes it more difficult to gather the various remnants and ponder their meanings and reflections.

Of course, there is a lot happening, in terms of global events. On a broader scale, its one of the busiest periods in history, but those larger scale incidents lack the immediacy required in many cases, to actual feel the emotion of small moments, to understand the scope of the details.

In essence, what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re struggling to create right now. If the words aren’t flowing, if the story is not coming together. Because without our usual connection to the broader world, it’s harder to find those small pieces that you’ll need to complete the puzzle of your story.

Writers are observationalists, we pay attention to the details and absorb moments, which we then use to build an understanding of the world, and the worlds that we subsequently create. Without fewer chances to observe, our creativity, understandably, is impacted.

So go easy on yourself, there’s a lot going on, for everyone, and if you’re not feeling it right now, it’ll come back. There’s no need to pressure yourself even further if the creativity feels a little distant.

Novella: Argonaut

Yeah, I haven’t written anything here for a while.

Because, you know, there’s a pandemic happening, and things are strange and uncertain. And for the most part, things feel kind of paused, frozen in a stasis of some kind, as we all wait for what comes next.

Within that, it hasn’t felt like the ideal time to write, even though we have more time for such, given we can’t do much else.

It all feels a little like watching static on a TV screen. Things are happening, but nothing really is. Nothing really seems to change.

But I am still working different things, and recently, I took a shot at entering the Griffith Novella Competition for 2020.

I didn’t win, which is fine – the calibre of entries is no doubt high, and my story wasn’t essentially written for the distinct theme of theme of the competition. But I had a shot at it with a story in which I tried to capture a part of what it felt like growing up in regional Victoria in the early nineties.

That story, titled ‘Argonaut’, is just going to sit on my hard drive gathering virtual dust, so I figured I’d post it here.

If you’re looking for something to read, or you’re, for some reason, interested in what it felt like growing up in Kinglake (before the 2009 bushfires), feel free to take a look – and if you have any thoughts/comments, let me know.

Argonaut

screenwriting upgrades

Here’s a writing exercise that I absolutely don’t recommend, but could be helpful if, you know, you have time on your hands.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been working on converting one of my unpublished manuscripts into a screenplay, both as a means of providing an alternate path to some form of publication (given shrinking opportunities in publishing, with the impacts of COVID-19 set to narrow such even further), and as an exercise to see whether I could do it, and what might come from actually sitting down and writing something in an alternate format.

I’m not entirely new to screenwriting – my first novel, Rohypnol, was optioned for a film version, and I worked on the screenplay with the production team from Seed Productions. But still, I’m no expert, and given the format-specific considerations of screenwriting, it’s a very different challenge, one which makes you look at your work in a new way, focusing on visuals and dialogue, without the capacity to explore each character’s emotional responses in-depth.

That different angle has helped me improve much of the dialogue in the novel manuscript. Once you’re writing down what you want people to say, you think about the exchanges in a different mindset, and it made me re-examine each of the spoken terms and responses in the story, and has made them feel much more natural and realistic.

But additionally, it helped me come up with an entirely new ending to my novel, which better summarizes the key themes and concepts, and feels much more satisfying as a whole.

I’ve never been great at endings. It’s very difficult to come up with something that feels complete, that feels like it’s pulled all the threads of the story back in and solidified the world into a new, different reality, incorporating the lessons learned. It generally takes me a while to think and re-think how the ending will look – and when I put the original ending of this story down in screenplay form, it didn’t feel satisfying. If I were watching the film version, I think it would have felt incomplete, like it was a bit too abrupt.

So I changed it in the screenplay, and I’m now working on changing it in the novel as well. Which, of course, then also means re-examining every part of the manuscript, ensuring that every story element, every chapter, every scene, all moves towards that final goal. For the most part, I know that it does, but it’s another month of work to check through, section-by-section, in order to ensure that everything’s in its right place.

So, as a writing exercise, it’s been very beneficial. But it’s also a significant exercise to undertake. As a lesson, it may well be worth considering how your particularly dialogue-heavy sections would work in screenplay mode, and how you would feel if you handed them to professional actors as something you wanted them to read out.

Would it make sense? Would it flow well, and feel real – and would it convey the emotion you’re looking to express, if they had no other cues, no other indicators other than the words on the page?

Of course, everyone visualizes their story differently, but for me, it definitely made me see at least some elements in a different light.

Hopefully, that leads to better outcomes for both versions of the story.

 

Tips for Book Promotion Amid COVID-19 Lockdowns

It’s very difficult to contemplate the full extent of the impacts of the current shutdowns around the world due to COVID-19, and they only look set to get worse, at least in the foreseeable future.

The amount of people affected by the virus, both directly and indirectly, will be in the billions, and while our main focus needs to be on slowing the spread, and saving as many people as possible from the outbreak, the resultant actions will also mean job losses, income reductions and rising hardship across the board. And among the sectors hardest hit will be artists, with the shutdowns making it increasingly difficult to gain exposure, to build an audience, and to generate income from their work.

That, of course, incorporates authors, and those seeking to promote their books to audiences.

I’ve written before about the already challenging environment for authors in Australia, with fewer literary events, fewer bookshops and fewer opportunities for exposure. More than compound these problems, COVID-19 has virtually eliminated these avenues entirely – which means that authors need to turn to online promotional methods to get the word out, and build buzz through digital means.

Now, that’s not impossible. I’ve also written a detailed guide for how authors can, for example, utilize social media platforms for promotion, which is one element that all artists need to consider. The problem is that it can take time to build social media traction – and while you can (and should) use ads on Facebook and Instagram to expand your reach and awareness, that’s not always so simple, with the complexities of ad targeting providing their own challenges.

But digital tools can work, and can offer great reach potential, if you know how to use them. To help, here are some quick tips for how authors can maximize their online presence and expand their audience reach.

Social Media Ads

Social media advertising is complex, and targeting the right people, on the right platforms, can take years of research and understanding in order to get it right. But it can, absolutely, work – and you should, absolutely, be considering it in the current environment.

So how can you reach the right people for your book?

A key option you should consider is Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences, and expanding your presence by reaching the exact right people who’ll be interested in what you do.

lookalike

Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences cross-match your existing audience data with other people on Facebook who share similar traits. Through this, you can get your ads in front of people who may not be aware of you or your books, but who will likely be interested, based on their related habits.

And they can be very accurate – Facebook has a database od some 2.5 billion people, and for each of them it has a profile, which includes a list of everything they’ve engaged with, every Page they’ve followed, every Like they’ve ever given. With that insight, Facebook can provide very accurate audience matches – it’s not simply matching, say, someone who like British crime shows with books by Agatha Christie, it goes far deeper, and connects hundreds of correlating trends in order to hone in on those who are very likely to be interested in the same things.

So how can you use this?

Probably the best way to do this is to first create a Custom Audience in your Facebook ads options. You can find this in the ‘Audience’ section of your Ad Setup. Under ‘Create New Audience’, click on ‘Create New’, then ‘Custom Audience’. When you do that, you’ll be given a set of options – select ‘Facebook Page’ as your source for your Custom Audience info.

custom

As you can see here, one of the options here is to create an audience of ‘Everyone who engaged with your Page’ with a time frame. This is significant, because for most people, a lot of their Facebook Page likes are from friends and family, and you don’t really want to target them. Targeting those people who’ve actually engaged with your posts is a better option – and if you’ve only just started talking about your new book, you can narrow down the time frame, further refining your audience.

From here, you can create an audience of people who’ve engaged with your Page, and you can then target these people, who’ve shown interest in your writing in the past, with Facebook ads about your new book.

But we want to expand beyond this – the next step, from here, is to go through the Lookalike Audience process. Lookalike Audiences are available via the same steps as a Custom Audience, but when you get to the set-up stage, you need to enter an existing, created audience to use as the basis. And you now have one, in the Custom Audience you just made of people who’ve engaged with your posts.

In the data source, select the name of the Custom Audience you just created, and use that as your basis for lookalike matching.

looker

Now, Facebook will provide you with an audience of people who match the profiles of those who’ve already engaged with your content, and will likely be interested in what you do.

From here, you need to experiment and see what results you get, then double down on the results and hone in further. You can then look into more complex ad targeting options (Facebook Pixel, segmentation, etc.), but for starters, this will help to expand your audience on Facebook, and reach people who are increasingly likely to be interested in your books.

Instagram Stories

Think you’re too out of the loop to utilize Instagram Stories? Think again.

Stories are where Facebook sees social media interaction headed – in fact, Facebook has repeatedly noted that Stories are on track to overtake the main News Feed as the key engagement surface in its apps.

fb new feed f83

This chart was created in 2017 – Facebook hasn’t provided an updated listing, but you can see that Stories usage will likely overtake the News Feed, if it hasn’t already. And that’s definitely worth noting.

Stories are most popular on Instagram, where they get prime placement at the top of the app.

Insta1 (1)

More than half of all Instagram users engage with Stories every day – and in Australia, that equates to more than 4.7 million Instagram Stories users, every day.

With that type of placement, and that type of reach, you need to consider how you can use Stories in your promotional efforts.

You can re-share Stories that mention your book, which is a good way to amplify word of mouth, while you can also create quick snapshots and updates which are non-intrusive, and easy for your audience to take in.

Of course, the only people who’ll see your Stories are those who already follow your Instagram profile, but you can promote your Instagram presence on other platforms in order to grow your audience, and direct people towards your Stories as a means to keep them updated.

Another good way to build your Stories audience is by doing Instagram Live streams. Instagram Live video streams are available in the same place as Stories, so by getting your audience to tune in, you’re also promoting your Instagram presence, and promoting your Stories at the same time.

If you haven’t considered Stories, you should – they have great reach, they’re simple, and there’s a heap of creative options to consider to make your Stories look great.

Virtual Book Launches

Another opportunity to think about is virtual book launches, and engaging your community via digital tools like live-streaming.

Author Lauren Chater recently launched her new book via Facebook Live, and while many have dismissed streaming, and indeed Facebook generally, as a less effective promotional vehicle for books, right now, with everyone stuck at home, it’s actually far more effective than you might expect.

chzates Lauren’s stream had, on average, 100 concurrent viewers throughout, which is a solid audience for a book launch. And while Lauren won’t get the benefit of in-person engagement, and a multiple bookshop tour, Lauren’s digital launch showed that you can still effectively connect with an audience, without being physically present.

At the time of writing, Lauren’s launch video is up to 4.2k total views – which is an added benefit, you not only get that immediate audience who tune in when the video is live, but also repeat views over time. The video also has 339 comments, people who Lauren can respond to, and further build her audience. Not all of those viewers, of course, will end up buying the book – but if even a quarter of them do, that’s a solid start, and could help to kick-off a big word-of-mouth push.

These are just some of entry-level options you can consider for book promotion via online means. And while they won’t give you the immediate exposure to a reading audience that a literary festival appearance would, they each provide ways in which you can expand your audience, and give your books a push – even if you can’t leave your house to do it.

In a Tub – by Amy Hempel

Reasons to LiveMy heart – I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there – in the high brace of quiet and stained glass – and I listened.

At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.

My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.

When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.

The birdbath is shaped like that tub.

I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.

I lock the door and run a tub of water.

Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.

From ‘Reasons to Live‘ by Amy Hempel

 

Character perspective

I sometimes wonder about the impact of writing on your mental health.

Not in a general sense – studies have shown that there are strong correlations between creative writing and mental health benefits, largely due to “cathartic expression of thoughts and feelings”.

I have little doubt that creative writing can be good for you mentally, but when you’re actually doing it, when you’re in the process of creating characters, and really getting into their heads, their motivations and logic, sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. And that can spill over into your day-to-day life.

I’ve noted this when I’m writing particularly tough characters or scenes, and forcing myself to try and understand and see things from their perspective. After I’ve finished my writing session for the day, I might feel down or angry, and for a moment, I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because of that delving, that shifting of your perspective into that of the character. It’s not a lingering feeling, it generally goes away again pretty quick. But I have wondered what it must be like for my wife, and for others who live alongside at times unintentionally moody writing types.

Novelist Jeff Vandermeer, who wrote the excellent Southern Reach Trilogy, touches on this in his essay about writing the series.

Vandermeer writes about how he struggles to concentrate on anything other than the story when he’s working, and that often impacts on his real-world perception:

“It’s as if my writing self has signed some contract with the outside world, allowing my everyday surroundings to be overtaken by the terroir of my novel. As a result of this contract, a lot of weird stuff happens and I’m able to transform it into fiction.”

Vandermeer further explains some of his surreal experiences, which all tie back into the themes of his novels, and can only, logically, be linked together by his brain trying to make sense of the various inputs and mashing them together. The experiences can make him feel paranoid and disoriented, which is similar to my own view – and when you’re writing about things like a father seeking revenge against the person who killed his son, and really trying to understand the true hurt and anger and pain of that perspective, that can, at times, be problematic.

I guess, the only thing you can do is to be aware of such – when you’re working on something, and you’re heavily, emotionally invested in the work, it’s likely going to have an impact on your perception. But it’s probably not your perspective that’s problematic, it’s seeing things through the characters’ eyes which alters your response.

Maybe take a moment to decompress when writing, shift out of that mode and dial it back. Do something simple to break away from it, and try to remain aware of your own perspective versus that of the character.

Or maybe it’s not everyone, I don’t know. But I certainly experience the overflow of character emotion into my real-life.

 

 

 

Art history

It’s incredibly frustrating that so many people seemingly fail to recognize the connection between arts and broader societal shifts.

Arts is often seen as an easy way out, a lazy career path. ‘Oh, you want to paint pictures and write stories – go get a real job’. And I get it, I understand the practical perspective that creative arts don’t directly impact anything of ‘real world’ significance. But that perspective is wrong, and that viewpoint fails to connect the dots between the messaging people consume and how that impacts their thinking – and how that then translates into more widespread social movements, enabling change.

I’ll give you some examples:

  • In 1906, after reading Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, which explored the horrendous working conditions or primarily immigrant labourers in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, US President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned an investigation into the sector. That initial action paved the way for the current Food and Drug Administration, upholding standards in the industry.
  • In a more modern example – in 2014, researchers found that adults who’d read the Harry Potter series as kids were significantly less likely to be prejudiced toward minority groups
  • An even more modern example – just this week, Oklahoma leaders announced that the state will embed the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre into the curriculum of all Oklahoma schools, following the inclusion of the real-life event in the recent TV expansion of Watchmen.

These are works of fiction that have inspired real change – real-world impacts as a result of creative arts. It’s not always obvious, but the art that people consume, that people connect with, it can change their perspective. And on a broad enough scale, that can literally change the world.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see the current Australian government reduce the focus on arts and cut arts funding, why it’s so disheartening to see literature getting less and less focus at our major writers’ festivals and events. Those shifts, in large part, are driven by commercial realities, which govern priority based on financial return. And I get that, I understand the business logic – but what we’re potentially losing by reducing the focus on arts is likely more significant than any spreadsheet would suggest.

That’s why we need more arts funding, why we need to support art where we can, and encourage exploration of creative elements. Because that’s how we grow, how we advance. Maybe you don’t see it, initially, but arts provide perspective, like nothing else can.

That doesn’t mean that every book has to have an overt political meaning, but what we need is perspective. From all different people, in different art forms. The capacity to see things through someone else’s eyes is world-changing, and nothing facilitates this like art.

That’s why arts funding is important, and supporting local arts groups is key.

Think about this when you see a local event on, or a new book from a local author. Think about it, too, when you go to vote.

Your support is key to maintaining our cultural foundations, which is what so much of what we now take for granted is built upon.

Social media for authors

So, there seems to be quite a few questions from authors around how to best utilize social media for book marketing. And there’s a lot to it – to provide some extra help on this front, I’ve expanded on my recent posts on Facebook and Twitter tips and put them into a downloadable PDF, if anyone needs.

Through my day job as content and social media marketing manager for leading social media news website Social Media Today, I’ve provided insights, training and consulting to a range of companies in order to help them formulate more effective social media marketing strategies, while I also regularly appear on ABC local and Radio National programs to discuss the latest social media updates and shifts.

And while the presentation here is fairly basic (I’m no designer), the notes provided will put you on the right track to maximizing Facebook and Twitter for book promotion.

Feel free to share with anyone who needs:

Social Media for Authors