Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Avoid Looking Silly in Public

In the past two weeks, we’ve covered diverse ground on Novel Matters. Week before last we talked about various aspects of marketing, from word of mouth, to social networking. Then, last week, Katy Popa pointed out how easy it is to be caught with our metaphor around our ankles. She said, “Metaphors are not toys. If you don't know how to handle them they can hurt you - or worse: they can make you look silly.”

Today, I’m going to combine these two topics and (and paraphrase Katy’s quote to suit my purposes) talk about life in the public eye.

Social networking is not a toy. If you don’t know how to handle it, it can hurt you – or worse, kill your writing career.

I was chatting with a good friend who shared the exciting news with me that she has inked a new contract – another multi-book deal. She’s beyond excited. Together we did the happy dance. Then she said, “Mum on that, right. We (meaning her and her major publishing company) aren’t announcing until September.” If you were to check her website or blog (which you can’t, because I’m not telling her name), there would be nary a mention. Not of the deal, not even that she had pitched to this publisher. Smart cookie, my friend.

Another writer friend (I’m lucky to have so many smart friends), was going through a rough ride, professionally. She’d suffered several difficult setbacks and was in the midst of a major change of direction with her writing. It was a difficult time. There were tears. There was ice cream at 2:00 A. M.. There was pacing. And if you had visited her Facebook page, her blog, or read her Twitter updates you would have seen. . . no evidence of her turmoil. She neither lamented nor dished. She didn’t ask for Twitter prayer. She remained professional.

What if my first friend had spoken out of turn? Announced the deal before the publisher wanted it announced?
What if my second friend threw herself into micro-blogging the blow-by-blow of her rough ride? Simply, they could have blown it.

Social networking is not a casual affair. It isn’t private. It’s part of the job. If you are a writer, published or working to become published, you are being watched. If not today, then tomorrow. Agents you query, editors you sent proposals to, publishing VIPs who read your work and might be interested, all of them seek you out online. They read your posts. Social networking has many functions (connecting to other writers, connecting with readers, building a fan base, marketing your books), but you must always keep in mind that your online presence is a living resume. A real time curriculum vitae.
On my personal blog, I posted a list of five tips to help the writer handle social networking. Here is an abbreviated version of that list:

Develop an inner circle. It's important to develop an inner circle of people to whom you turn when you feel insecure, angry, betrayed, or otherwise upset about your job. Start with your family. Then hand select a very few close friends who love you and support you. These are the people you need to lean on, and who can truly validate. They are the one’s you vent to. The one’s you share your early good news with. Not the public.

Validation is an illusion - stop running after it. Outside of your inner circle (comprised of people who truly know you and love you anyway), there is no such thing as validation from others. People's opinions change. Books rise and all too soon become 'so yesterday'. When we need to be validated by an increasingly far-flung group of people, we devalue the rock solid affection and support of our inner circle. We end up hurting the people who love us most by taking their validation for granted and running after validation somewhere else.

Stop talking about yourself all the time. Social networking has created a new self-paradigm where in it is acceptable to talk about yourself all day long. Facebook wants you to post how you are feeling, Twitter wants us to post our micro-moments. Talking about yourself all day creates and unhealthy filter by which you begin to view the world as orbiting around you.

Nothing matters more than the writing and the story you are telling. We can talk all day about our work, about people's reactions to our work. But if we focus our energy on talking about it, the quality of our work will suffer over time. Excellent writers are writers who know they haven't arrived. They know how much more there is to learn and they dedicate themselves to mastery. Do we want to talk about writing? Or do we want to be great writers? Publishing professionals can spot the difference.

Develop a strong sense of self. Creative people have weird needs (as a creative person, I speak with authority). Depression rates in writers peak when the novel is finished. We die little deaths, we mourn the intangible. The fragile nature of creative people means we need to work harder at understanding ourselves and accepting ourselves for who we are. Not by micro-reporting our every mood.

Know where you are going, and keep moving toward that goal. Hockey obsessed Canadian's have a saying, "Keep your stick on the ice." It means stay in the game, stay focused, and be ready. Develop a strong goal, and work toward it. Don’t be seduced into thinking your public rants on Facebook won’t effect an agent’s decision. Don’t think that publishing houses don’t notice when you post how many editors are reading your work and when those decisions are expected to be made.

I’m not trying to be the Big Brother voice of doom. I’m clarifying an issue I’ve noticed as a problem. As writers we have a weird job, and part of that job is to be public figures online before we ever truly become public figures.

How about you? Have you noticed social networking super stars? Seen it bite someone in the behind? What have you learned online? Please share your wisdom!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I remember this partial list on your blog. Liked it then. Like it now. Ah, social networking--the new black.

I know what's worked for me. I'm vulnerable and still professional. I go into it hoping to establish a connection, but I'm not needy or clinging or that cyberstalking weirdo. I don't complain online or make too much of my personal life known.

I know who I am with God and really with every single thing in life that makes all the difference.

Great post.
~ Wendy

Lynn Dean said...

My husband assures me that in any business it is not uncommon to review the online data of people applying for a job. If their Facebook albums show them partying hard or sounding off, what sort of employees will they make? I'm sure this is true in publishing as well. Just consider it an unofficial "About Me" page. ;)

At the other extreme, I've had friends who started a new business and suddenly their posts were all replays of sales and marketing motivational material. The real "them" was gone, replaced by a carefully crafted facade. Blegh!

Maybe there's wisdom in the old adages "Put your best foot forward" and "Don't air your dirty laundry." There's an art to living honestly and passionately with restraint.

Cherry said...

Wow! Wise, wise insights. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't have a career, I have a novel that I face off with on a regular basis, but about two years ago, I decided that if I even for a moment thought I might get published someday, I should stop blogging about the fact that I often forget to put my pants on when I'm home alone.

Am posting this anonymously, because I'm not talking about the no-pants thing.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy, Yes! I remember you commenting on the longer version of this list. Since I wrote it, I've been put to my own test, ensuring I follow these tips. It's been an exercise of self-discipline and faith.

Lynn: Great advice! And yes, there are all kinds of things turning up about Facebook updates. Divorce settlements, job interviews, child custody cases, and people even losing their jobs over careless FB updates. Scary! And for writers, what we say online can and will follow us (for better or worse) right into the pub committee meeting!

Cherry, thanks for dropping in today!

Bonnie Grove said...

Anonymous: HA! Brilliant! I laughed until..... well, you're right, we won't talk about these things.
Excellent application! Thanks for that.

Nikole Hahn said...

Great blog. Good advice.

Judy Christie said...

Outstanding points -- and issues I wrestle with on a regular basis. I figure no one cares if I had a baked sweet potato for lunch, but I hope they want to see my cute granddaughter from time to time, and I certainly hope they'll get acquainted with me and want to read my books.
Thanks for discussing this and offering great tips. They're going into my "Big Picture Writing Journal" ... which no one sees but me! :)
Bought "Talking to the Dead" in Dallas last weekend and looking forward to reading it.
And, my p.s.: I think your posts on FB are a great mix of funny personal and professional.

Bonnie Grove said...

Judy: That balance is, ultimately a judgment call. But your idea of a mix of family and books is a good one, I think. Showing your personality online is important and part of the overall experience of interacting with readers, other writers, and industry pros. It sounds to me like you have a balanced approach.

And thanks for picking up Talking. I hope you enjoy it! And your note about my FB posts - so kind of you - Thanks!

Jan Cline said...

I have an aquaintence that I think abuses the networking and social priviledges. It's hard to have a friendship with someone when you can get past the "presence" of them. I have learned a lot from this person though - what not to do! I have learned how to reach out to my comrades in the writing world. It's not always about me.

Steve G said...

Great post!

Also, one can always have more than one ID in social media. Why not have a Twitter ID just for family and close friends, and another one just for the "Public you"? Rant and post babies on the family one, be professional on the public one (just don't get the 2 mixed up).

Samantha Bennett said...

Great post! I needed to hear these healthy reminders. Gracias!

Bonnie Grove said...

Jan: You're wise to learn from a negative example - thanks for reminding us! Sometimes those "what not to do" examples are the ones that stick with us.

Steve: True, you can always set up an alias account for your private communications with family and close friends. A good idea if your inner circle is far flung, too!

Samantha: You're so welcome! Thanks for dropping by today!

Hilarey said...

Great post! Thank you. I so often hear and assume that I need to be online more. Daily, dynamic posts...but this is a healthy look at the balance needed.

H. Ome said...

Ok then I need to follow all these tips to not to look silly in the public. That is going to be very helpful for me even though for other persona also.