My Philosophy on Writers, Readers and Critics

old-booksAfter a very, busy week following my appearance at WisCon 2009, I felt it was time to sit down and share my philosophy toward other writers, readers and critics. In the past, two weeks I’ve met more new people on-and-offline than I have in the past year. Since many people are unfamiliar with me and my work, I thought it best to put into words that which I feel so passionately about…

I believe that both readers and critics, regardless of education or background, have a right to their informed opinion. By “informed,” I mean I would hope they’d read a book before providing an in-depth dissertation about it. Sometimes, I am amazed how deep that rabbit hole of criticism goes. Sure, I have opinions about the books I read (and admittedly a few popular ones I haven’t) but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize how valuable all books are. Even though I might not like a particular story, it might appeal to someone else. In my mind, that’s a win-win scenario for literacy because it means that there’s a story for everyone.

When it comes to my own work, I know that what I write may not appeal to everyone. No one likes crappy reviews or readers trashing their work, because even though writing is a “job” (e.g. you often get paid) it is also an extension of yourself. Immutable and defined, a writer’s published work becomes a testimony not only to the voices we hear in our heads, but the whispers we hear through the trees, in rush-hour traffic, or on the beach.

Writing often gets depicted romantically, as if being an author means that you have finally reached a utopia in which the entire world bows at your feet for your brilliance, your personality and your creativity. Nothing — and I mean nothing — could be further from the truth. Creativity, in any form, comes with a price because creative people think differently from non-creative people. Different for me meant “not like everyone else,” which led to a lot of confusion, personal angst and career building frustration until I started meeting other writers.

Although I have a college degree in writing, it wasn’t until I fell into the gaming industry that I truly felt welcomed. Professional authors and game designers welcomed me as a “new” writer, even though they had no real reason to do so. Their kindness shocked me, because in my past almost everyone I knew viewed other writers as “competition.” This harsh attitude had affected me deeply: for a number of years I was very bitter and negative about anyone else’s success, yet arrogant about my own. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I was not only showed compassion and understanding by perfect strangers, but leads and writing assignments as well.

I’ve been a part of the gaming industry now for six or seven years, and I have not forgotten what a difference positivity makes. A single conversation over beer was the catalyst that helped me transform bitterness into positive energy. It is my hope that I can bring that same kindness that was shown to me by having a supportive presence on-and-offline for other like-minded writers as my time permits.

Part of my long-term goal is to be a novelist (either part-time or full-time), and admittedly I don’t know if that will ever happen. Regardless, it is my belief that celebrating someone else’s successes is just as important as cheering for your own. Only through a sense of togetherness will we build a creative community that supports and helps one another.

WisCon: the Recap

Billed as a feminist science fiction convention, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I walked through the doors to WisCon for the first time. Held at the Concourse hotel in Madison, this was — by far — the best organized event I’ve ever attended. (This includes both the gaming-related and business events I’ve ever visited and spoken at.) I feel that this fact alone demands a certain sort of respect, given that this remains a volunteer-run organization.

As you may recall, I signed up for four panels and ended up moderating two of them. In addition to those panels, I attended several others that seemed interesting to me related to writing and publishing. In my opinion, I felt the audience was fairly responsive and respectful of the opinions that the panel offered. There were panelists from diverse perspectives and backgrounds, which provided for interesting discussions and audience participation. Unlike other panels I’ve spoken on, I also felt that the audience came with a basic understanding or desire to acknowledge the business functionality of both publishing and the entertainment industry. Translation? I had more conversations about online marketing and social media with other writers than I did about any other topic.

The publishing industry as a whole is shifting and changing so rapidly, that many authors I talked to feel that they need to embrace aspects of online marketing to monetize their efforts and sell more books. In an ideal world, a publishing company would allow the writer to simply write and provide the PR for them in order to sell books. Given the reality of today’s market and volume of publishers, I believe that even if an author doesn’t “do” their own marketing, they should at least be aware of what’s going on in the space.

There were a few topics that I’ll cover in later blog posts which I feel warrant further discussion. For example, I had brought up the issue of network neutrality in a panel discussing print vs. e-publishing. Another topic I’ll address is the challenges of establishing a writer’s community, and how the internet truly “seems” to be having an impact on how offline communities are shaped and supported.

Here are a few of the wonderful writers and editors I had the pleasure of speaking on panels with:

  • Lori Devoti – Lori’s new book, Amazon Ink, just debuted a few days ago. She’s a very passionate and energetic writer who brought a lot to our discussion about Consistency vs. Variety in book series. Lori started her writing career in romance, but is now writing urban fantasy. Watch for a special treat from Lori on in the next, few days.
  • Kelly McCullough – Kelly is working on a novel series which debuted in 2006, called WebMage. He has a love for world-building, which shows both in his books and the discussions we had about Consistency vs. Variety. If you’ve never met Kelly, he’s a very likable guy with a great sense of humor.
  • John Helfers – Both an author and writer, John and I wrangled a panel about Reinventing the Adventure in the wake of our moderator’s absence. Wearing probably the coolest t-shirt I saw at the convention, (Any Firefly fans out there?) John was an animated and experienced speaker who had a lot to say on the subject. If you’re a fan of John’s work (HINT: He’s working on Shadowrun) you can catch up with him at GenCon: Indy in August, too.
  • Mary Robinette Kowal – Meeting Mary Robinette Kowal, who is the secretary for SFWA and up for a Hugo Award, was a lovely person to meet. Mary is extremely web-savvy, but also highly creative. Working as a puppeteer by day, Mary is definitely a writer that many science fiction fans should be keeping their eye on. Mary moderated the panel Do Writers Need a Platform?, and her first book is due out next year.

The people I mentioned were just a few of the talented folk I spoke with on panels, and I highly recommend that even if you don’t attend the conference you visit to check out the professionals that do attend. There were also dozens of professional writers and editors that I had the pleasure of chatting with, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with writers like Alex Bledsoe, Sarah Monette, Richard Chedwyck, Lynne Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas, Jack McDevitt, professionals from Tor Books and several others.

The other thing that I’d like to point out regarding this convention, is that there’s a strong element of literary criticism present at this convention that originates from a love of books. I believe that regardless of your opinions on a book or on writing, attending a convention like this one will open up your mind to new ideas and different perspectives. I did not have one conversation that I did not enjoy; everyone was respectful, intelligent and engaged — even if we disagreed. Additionally, even though this was the most diverse group of people I’ve ever seen at a con, they supported one another tremendously.

I will be attending next year’s convention and hope to speak on panels. I invite you to participate, volunteer and do the same.

Thanks for following my blog! Instead of wishing you best of luck with your writing today, I hope that you are able to fall in love with a book.

Visit Me at these WisCon Panels

Next weekend I’m going to be attending WisCon, which is located in Madison. This will be my first time attending and speaking at the convention, and I plan on sticking to the writing panels as much as I can. The panels below are the ones I will be speaking at; if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I hope to see you there! Regardless, make sure you bring your favorite books or games to the “Sign-Out” for your favorite writers to autograph for you.

My Panels at WisCon 2009

Reinventing the Adventure * Sat 5/23 10:00 – 11:15AM * Capitol A
Moderator: Alex Lamb. Carol F. Emshwiller, John Helfers, P. C. Hodgell, Monica Valentinelli.
The adventure story archetype lies at the heart of both science fiction and fantasy, and is the oldest and arguably most profound literary form in human history. How come contemporary society has ghettoized this art form? Even in science fiction, many authors have shied away from adventure in their desire to be taken seriously. How can we reverse this trend? What does it take to write fiction that’s fast, fun, shamelessly adventurous, and at least as challenging as what passes these days for mainstream lit?
Consistency vs. Variety * Sun 5/24 2:30 – 3:45PM * Capitol B
Moderator: Monica Valentinelli. Lori Devoti, Liz L. Gorinsky, Kelly McCullough
Many writers long to stretch their writing muscles, working in different universes and broadening their scope and depth. Publishers and some elements of the reading public seem to prefer consistency: they like a writer who turns out a series, sometimes effectively the same book over and over again. How does a writer balance their own creative need for variety with the consumers’ desire for consistency?
Birthing a Writer’s Community * Sun 5/24 4:00 – 5:15PM * Conference 4
Moderator: Diane Silver. Stickshift Bear, Nancy Jane Moore, Michelle Murrain, Monica Valentinelli.
There isn’t a writer on earth who doesn’t spend too much time alone, staring at a blank page (or screen). We all need reaction and encouragement from others writers. Add in the struggle of surviving—not to mention retiring—on what may be a small income and the challenges that come with aging, and we’ve got a recipe for innovation. Let’s get together and discuss how to birth a writers community. We’re talking about a brick–and–mortar place that balances private space and time with satisfying contact with other writers and room for public gatherings. Such a community would share financial as well as physical resources. We’ll talk practicalities and share dreams.
Does a Writer Really Need a “Platform?” * Sun 5/24 10:00 – 11:15PM * Conference 4
Moderator: Mary Robinette. F. J. Bergmann, Rich Novotney, Monica Valentinelli
One idea that’s kicking around writers’ websites right now is that writers have to have a “platform”—something that makes you stand out from the crowd. Celebrity writers have built–in platforms; non–celebrities are encouraged to build up a platform with a website, blog, speaking tour, or similar self–promotion vehicle. Is this really necessary? Can’t you just write a damn good book?

Social Media for Beginners: 15 Tips to Consider

Before the words “social media” became a buzzword, many writers like myself were engaging in adding content via places like message boards, forums and LiveJournal. Often, the phrase has become synonymous with the major social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and GoodReads, where users generate their own content to interact with one another.

When marketers talk about social media promotion, they are addressing ways to leverage the free tools that are out there to build a trendy “buzz” to get people talking about you, your business or your product to help you achieve a definable goal. There are quite a few marketers out there recommending that you jump into the social media fray, but before you do I highly recommend you keep these things in mind:

    1. You’ll Need to Budget for Time — If you’re thinking about jumping in with both feet, keep in mind that building a social media presence is a very time-consuming activity. Not only will you need to add content and review followers, but you’ll have to design a “look” that fits your brand as well. The more websites that you add to your “social media channel,” the more maintenance they may require. On top of it all, the tools are not static and often receive enhancements as well. If you don’t stay on top of what new changes occur, you might find that your presence is no longer functioning, appears outdated or is not taking advantage of an aspect that could increase sales or traffic for you.

    To sum up, engaging in social media has four components that can eat up a lot of your time: the content you provide, interaction with others, the tools you use and overall maintenance.

    2. Be Prepared to Get Personal. — I talked a little bit about this in my post that describes how social media is about being social. Basically, if you do not have a well-known brand or celebrity name, the way that you engage in social media should help people get to know you in the way that you’re comfortable with. (Remember, a social media strategy for McDonald’s will be night-and-day different from a local hamburger store that no one is familiar with.) Many people who follow me online have met me in person at different events, so keep that in mind when you’re jumping in. You don’t want to be “that guy” who has an online persona that is wholly different from what you’re like in real life. When the two worlds collide, it will reflect very badly on you to the point where you may find your online persona ruined as a result. I joked about that a little bit when I wrote how to ruin your online reputation in 10 easy steps.

    3. Remember that Social Media is often about Trends. — If you’ve been part of a social media trend, you understand that in many ways it’s “here today, gone tomorrow.” I’ve experienced this first-hand professionally and personally, and I have to say that since topics are constantly shifting in social media (in part due to the technology that’s able to deliver it) you’ll see more “micro-trends” than ever before. These “micro-trends” may be based on old or new content, and may be something I consider “flash flood” marketing, which in my mind is a subset of viral marketing. Basically, it’s what happens when a topic overpowers the social media space extraordinarily quickly, but it ends up disappearing just as quickly, leaving a mess in its wake.

    4. A “Good” Social Media Campaign is a “Customized” Campaign. — I highly recommend that you take a hard look at why you want to create a campaign in the first place. Social media may not work for every writer or business, no matter what someone else might say, because throwing “content” on a website without any sort of a goal — tangible or otherwise — is a big waste of time.

    Additionally, since you have the ability to test “responses” to your campaign through your web analytics package, don’t be afraid to edit or revise old content to leverage new social media trends. By this, I mean that since social media often has a “content component” based on your web presence (e.g. website, blogs, products, videos, etc.), don’t be afraid to revise old content to be more contemporary with a trend.

    This is especially true if you have a page on your website that gets a lot of search engine traffic. Often, many readers don’t look at the date when they’re researching a topic or getting hooked on a trend, so be sure to keep that in mind. I’ll add dates to my content revisions to help people understand when I’m editing a page and for what reason, so that I can leverage social media when it’s appropriate.

    5. Not Every Goal is about Getting Followers or Traffic. — As a web analyst, I’m often amazed to watch how a website might increase their visits by 1,000% or more, and then notice that their sales remain unchanged for weeks afterward. Visits, followers, fans, friends, etc. are not the end all, be all of social media because the numbers don’t mean anything unless you can tie them back to something you can hang your hat on — conversion.

    For example, say you’re a small pizza restaurant in New Jersey and you offer a really awesome social media campaign that attracts fifty thousand plus followers on Twitter. All of a sudden, you have a great number of followers! Do you have the personnel to manage your popularity? What happens when, in a day or two, the campaign buzz dies off and Twitter has moved on to something else. Now you struggle getting anyone to interact with you and you notice that your sales haven’t really picked up. Why? Of those fifty thousand plus followers, how many of them live near your restaurant? Do you offer online delivery services to accommodate sales? Were you prepared for both success and failure?

    Regardless of your situation, remember that social media success is often in the eye of the beholder. In many ways, social media can be “just” about brand awareness. As long as you have your goals defined once you do your homework and understand how social media may work for you, you’ll be very successful because you’ll understand the “reality” of the tools.

    6. Think Long-Term. — If you’re going to get into social media, be prepared to grow your channel over a longer period of time. There is a time (and place) for attaching yourself to trends, but that solely depends upon what you (or your business) wants to get out of social media. Regardless, this is not a place where you want to have a set-and-forget mentality. When you “forget”? That’s when your followers do, too. The flip side, is that if you’re in-their-face too much just tweeting about your online catalog, be prepared to get ignored. Social media wasn’t created for businesses, it was created for people.

    7. Social Media does not Work on Your Schedule. — Are you a nine-to-five business? Have you budgeted a half an hour a day for social media? Remember, a social media buzz can happen when you least expect it. It doesn’t happen on your schedule, and it can often occur when you’re not on the clock. For this reason, if you’re active in the space you’ll need to teach several people how to monitor your social media accounts (even if they don’t have log in) to see what others are saying about you so you can respond appropriately.

    8. Social Media Crosses International Borders. — Internationalization is a topic on many people’s minds. One “hidden” benefit of social media is this: just by signing up for a popular tool’s account provides you with the means to interact with someone from the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Japan, England, etc. Keep this in mind if your product is only available in the U.S., you might want to make your product’s availability clear. I recommend listing that up front in your bio and prepare your customer service department to handle those types of questions. Why? Well, this relates to my next point about how people on social media don’t want to feel cheated. Don’t engage a potential customer if you can’t deliver your product. They’ll walk away unhappy and might just talk about you in a negative way.

    A good example of where you might often run into problems is for social media-based “contests.” I recommend offering digital coupons or gift certificates if the winner is outside of your targeted locale.

    9. Don’t “Trick for a Click.” — While there are cases when you want to incite people to click on a link, you never want to trick someone for a click. When a reader or a customer feels cheated, they don’t feel engaged with your brand (or your personality) and they leave with a bad taste in their mouth.

    You can see this effect through your web analytics package. If you know you’re intentionally being vague or not offering enough information, you might notice an increase in traffic visitors to that one link, but only that one link. Of course, one-click traffic can be a frequent occurrence with social media even if you didn’t trick for that click, but it is a potential “why” behind your data. For that reason, I recommend providing genuine content and a frequent review of your conversion goals to target your visitor’s “second” click rather than just the “first.”

    10. Consider the “Spam” Effect.” — Remember that spammers also use social media, and not every tool is effective blocking against spammers. Over the past, few weeks, I’ve noticed spammers infiltrating real-time trends via Twitter. These “fake” trends are not only annoying, they can often turn people off from different forms of marketing if they think it might be spam. In many ways the spam effect has affected legitimate campaigns and businesses, because spam mirrors traditional viral or in-your-face marketing tactics to manipulate algorithms and get noticed. Keep the “spam” effect in the back of your mind. Sometimes, the difference between a “click” and an “eye roll” is about how you deliver the message, not necessarily what it contains.

    11. Experiment with “Content-Specific” Tools. — Even if you go into social media in order to leverage trends, keep in mind that you might get more success out of tools that specifically relate to your goals for social media or your core functionality as a business. If you’re a bookstore or a writer, get on GoodReads. If you’re a professional or a job seeker, leverage LinkedIn. In other words, you may find that your “social” success comes from a targeted tool on a topic that relates to you and not through a generic tool.

    The flip side to this argument, is that even if you don’t want to use the tools, it’s a good idea to avoid getting “brand-hijacked.” I recommend signing up for the tools to ensure your name or brand is protected even if you never plan on using them. If you do leverage tools like Facebook or Twitter, though, be aware that you can do some content customization based on your social media goals.

    12. Emotion is a Strong Motivator. — Remember when I mentioned trends and how social media doesn’t work on your schedule? Well, sometimes when you engage in social media you may find that you get poor results not because the timing wasn’t right, but because you didn’t emotionally appeal to people reading your content. For example, you may offer innocuous or “fun” content that has absolutely nothing to do with your business and get a ton of responses.

    If you want a good example of how emotion can effect a trend (and subsequently) sales, consider the Susan Boyle phenomenon from the show Britain’s Got Talent. Here’s a press release from about how Susan Boyle impacted sheet music sales.

    13. Do Not Just Talk About How Great You and Your Products Are. — I do not care if you have the best product in the world, do not use social media to just add content about how great you are to sell your gadget. Just like your website might have “lurkers” (e.g. people who visit your site but don’t buy anything) your social media accounts might also. Your number of followers is not any indication of how successful your content is, because quite frankly social account maintenance is time-consuming for anyone.

    I should point out that “brand” social media account might get a little more leeway, but once your customers find you online they do expect some interaction. I recommend incorporating how you’re going to address customers via social media as part of your overall campaign. In this case, it helps to be proactive rather than reactive.

    14. Check the Terms of Service for Every Tool. — I cannot stress this enough. The ownership and distribution of content on the web is a very sticky point for many content creators (e.g. writers, artists, companies, etc.) and we are still in the wild frontier where internet law is still developing in many cases. I mentioned a few terms of service in my post about Who Owns Your Content When You Blog, Facebook Twitter?. If your content is important to you, please do yourself a favor and check out the terms of service before you engage. This will help both you and your social media professional (should you hire one) tailor a campaign customized to your goals, including where you want to drive your traffic. For example, if you’re a photographer and you typically send people to Picasa but you don’t like their terms of service? You might change your web strategy and send them to Flickr instead.

    15. Social Media is Almost Impossible to Track. — Last but not least, please remember that social media is almost impossible to track. Your web analytics package will offer you a three-dimensional view of how a visitor comes to your website and what they do when they get there, but it does not tell you what the visitor is doing before they get there.

    Many metrics for “social media reach” have been created based on sheer mathematical numbers; e.g. #of followers vs. #of replies or #of fans and visitors. These metrics are exceptionally misleading because they do not take into account a) how often someone logs into their account to see your content and b) when they view it. To put this in perspective: just because you might have 10,000 people in your network does not mean that all 10,000 people read all of your content, all of the time, exactly when you post it. Additionally, since there are a ton of different ways to use these tools, it is quite possible that someone can view their social media activity and appear “active” without ever logging into the tool. If web analytics tracks three-dimensional visits, consider that social media tracking is about the fourth dimension — TIME. Until the social media tools offer a premium service where they allow you to see data for your particular profile, you will only be able to see the effects of your efforts, but not the data you’re used to seeing for your own site.

    In addition to the reasons listed above, try not to get too worked up over your number of followers. Why? Well, not only may your followers change frequently, it’s quite possible that not all of them are valid accounts. Having said that, if you want hard numbers that you can test there are ways to be able to do that based on your end goal — conversion.

    If you are selling something, consider that a social media-specific coupon could turn into a viral promotion in and of itself. Compare that to your other (non-social media) offers and see if they are more (or less) successful, then refine your technique based on timing or trends. I recommend fostering a base of content first, so that your coupon is a frame-of-reference for your potential customers.

    If you don’t have something to sell, your social media goals are probably different. For example, you might say that you want X number of new followers by a certain date or that you want to use social media to increase your RSS feed subscribers. Regardless, think “long-term” to achieve those numbers and you’ll have better success. Your network will be more engaged and refine itself over time, because the people in your network will get to know “you” rather than your “account.”

For all of these reasons and many more, if you’re serious about starting a social media campaign, you might want to consider hiring a social media professional to promote your book or product. A professional’s job is to stay on top of social media so you don’t have to. Based on what I’ve said here alone, you could end up saving money by hiring someone to help set up your campaigns for you.

Hope this helps! Feel free to pop in your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.


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