The first thing the fancy, Big 5 publishing company that bought my debut novel said to me upon signing was probably “congratulations.” But all I remember was the second part: “Now tell us about your social media presence.”
The year was 2009, and my answer was, “None and I’ll never use social media.” I’d opted out of all of it up till then: Friendster, MySpace, and, especially Facebook. Having gone to school in Boston, I wasn’t about to use anything created by some knob at Harvard who’d invented a new way of rating women. These were the same dudes I’d learned to avoid at bars as an undergrad, so why would I support them now?
My publisher’s response was basically, “Actually, yes you will.” This was the halcyon days of social media, after all, when suddenly Anyone could become Someone in 140 characters or less. No one could guarantee what social media would do, but there were examples of what it could do. Therefore, our instructions, in so far as anyone publishing in that time had instructions, was to do Everything and Anything.
And so I had Facebook (both pro and “personal,” which never was that) and Twitter. Instagram came later. There were a few Tumblrs and a Pinterest account. There were also a half dozen more—the competitors that would spring up to challenge, especially Facebook, as more and more news came out about Facebook selling data, gaming algorithms, et cetera. None of those stuck, but I’d dutifully join them and poke around, alongside all of my other writer friends.
Nowadays, I’ve nuked FB and Twitter, and I still have Instagram simply because while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak. It’s hard to quit all social media, and I do love following possums (I’m not the only one, don’t judge).
I’m telling you all of this because I don’t want to be another person telling you all of your hopes and dreams can be met through social media. I do think you can use it if you like, and I know it does have benefits for most people who use it strategically. The emphasis here, though, is on strategically. Social media, in my experience, can be a dark hole into which you pour a ton of energy that could be used elsewhere more productively. And so here’s my advice, for those starting out and for those who want to reassess how they’re using social media.
If you’re a newbie starting out, this means research. If you’re a wizened old crone like me, it means paying attention to what more successful people are doing.
Basically, this means *not* bumbling into social media, like I did. I was told “do everything,” and so I “did everything.” I should never have done this. Granted, this was a different time and there were fewer models as we were all figuring this shit out. The problem was I kept to this model, long after it was clear it was not serving me.
What I’d do is read a lot of stuff about what people on the ground are saying works for them. Publicists often have good insight, BUT they’re often selling something, so take their advice with a grain of salt. The best way is to see what other creators in your medium say works for them. This is not always explicitly stated; rather, it’s illustrated through what they’re actually using. Most of my idols have only a few things. A newsletter that’s on a schedule, a static website, and one or two forms of social media that they focus on (that may or may not crosspost to other forms of social media). In other words, they are *not* throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
And as for which social media they choose, it seems to be largely defined by genre or product. Romance and mystery writers, for example, seem to prefer Facebook. YA writers do not. Visual artists are on Instagram. Where is your audience? Find them and focus yourself there. Don’t shout into darkness, if you can help it.
Take an hour or two on any given day and schedule your programming for that next week. Or do this once a month, for the whole month. I would avoid a “for the next day” schedule, because you’re eating into your daily amount of inspiration, words, your muse, whatever you want to call it. Constantly taking yourself away from your bigger, more ambitious projects to attend to social media (and this includes your blogs and newsletters) is a distraction. It *feels* like it’s not; it feels productive. You’re writing! But don’t let it fool you. You’re putting your energy into what is supposed to be serving your bigger goals, instead of the bigger goals themselves. This is a velvet-lined trap.
To keep your focus, write your newsletters for that week or month and schedule them. The same things can be done for Facebook. Actually *write* the posts with links, so you can cut and paste them easily. There are also scheduling apps that you might want to look into.
And never forget a lot of very successful writers are using some kind of social media assistant who actually does this work for them. If you have the money, you can hire someone, too. If you don’t have the money, remind yourself that the very prolific NY Times bestselling author who ALSO posts on every social media platform, has a robust newsletter, AND a blog might have hired someone to do this work for them, so that they can focus on writing. And which do you think made them famous, to start with? It was their focus on writing. So that focus on writing should be your model, not the person they hired to pretend to be them posting cat pictures on Instagram.
This is for all of you, no matter where you are in your career. Do not be afraid to cut a cord, if that cord leads to nowhere. You are the battery plunging energy into that system, and you cannot get that energy back once it’s wasted.
And you know if it’s wasted! If you get likes and comments and shares, you’re plugged in. If your sole commenter is your mother, dutifully sharing your post to her 45 FB friends, you are plunging energy into the darkness.
“But Nicole,” you may be thinking, “everyone has to start somewhere! How do I know I’m wasting my energy if I’ve never done this before! Maybe I’ll become the next YouTube star!”
This is absolutely true. Don’t be afraid to try things. AND DON’T BE AFRAID TO QUIT THEM IF THEY’RE NOT SERVING YOU. I had a vlog at one point. The problem was, I didn’t really know how to use editing software and I really didn’t have the time (or the inclination) to learn how to use it. So I’d just have these long, stream of consciousness videos where I sat and talked at the camera. No one watched them, for good reason. Why did I do it? Because everyone was vlogging! What did I realize? I’d have to do a LOT of work to make a product people wanted to watch. Did I want to do that work? No.
So I quit vlogging. Now, had I loved doing it, or if I was curious about how those other people edited their videos and I really had the time and desire to learn, this would be another story. But if you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t really like, you are not going to revolutionize that field. John Green hasn’t vlogged his way into people’s hearts because he half-assedly makes videos and posts them to YouTube. People love watching him because he clearly loves what he’s doing AND his videos always had panache, style, and the editing I really didn’t want to learn.
The other alternative to quitting is to put as much energy into a thing as it deserves. If you haven’t even finished your book yet (or sold a book), the bulk of your energy needs to go into writing that book (or another book that might sell). Feel free to use social media at the same time, but scale your energy to what it deserves. 80% of your writing, at least, should be going into your Major Big Goal, and no more than 20% should be going into anything else. These can be adjusted to give even more time to your major goal, but should never be adjusted upward.
Of course, if you are someone who ROCKS at making videos, or is the Master of the Gramz, or who uses TikTok in a way no creative has every dreamt and you LOVE it and you’re SO GOOD and every time you post something, you get new followers or attention from someone famous, or whatever, then maybe you CAN be the next John Green. But for the majority of us, social media needs to be used as the tool it is, not the product in itself that it can so easily become. Because most of us don’t want our legacy to be a million tweets, or a great FB feed. We want our legacy to be a novel or a great essay or a beautiful painting or a perfect photograph. So focus on your real goals, not social media.
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