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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: Twitter

Facebook friends aren't notches on your "networking" gun

Stephen H. Provost

Dear potential online friends: I’m not a target in your networking strategy, and I won't be another notch on your gun. Even if you are authors.

There’s a weird trend going around among authors on social media. They hit up as many fellow writers as possible with friend requests, immediately invite them to “like” their Facebook page ... and never have any other contact with them.

Then, they call it “networking.”

Often, these authors only post about their books, sales milestones and positive reviews; they don’t bother to visit other profiles after their request is accepted, and they don’t manage to post anything much about themselves except for industry stuff.

It reminds me why I never liked cocktail parties, where the whole point of the evening is to make contacts, exchange business cards, and talk about inane subjects everyone is certain to forget five minutes after the party’s over – if not sooner.

I don’t know if the same thing happens in other fields, but I do know I didn’t get a lot of requests from fellow journalists when I was working in newspapers.

Common interests

Look, I like connecting with authors because we have something in common. I also like connecting with Star Trek fans, classic rock connoisseurs, old highway enthusiasts and people who are into mythology. But adding someone to your social media “stable” and then proceeding to ignore them isn’t connecting. It’s putting another notch on that Facebook gun of yours.

I remember going to churches where pastors lamented the need to “grow their flock.” There weren’t enough warm bodies in the pews, and the way they talked about attracting new visitors made it sound like a numbers game. The focus wasn’t on getting to know the people as individuals, it was on adding more “souls” (who could put enough money in the offering plate to keep the church lights on and, of course, pay the pastor’s salary.)

Authors have more of an excuse. It’s difficult to support yourself putting out books, and marketing is as much a part of the job as writing – if not more. When book sales slump, people get desperate and start throwing “publicity” at the wall, hoping something sticks. I know what this desperation feels like: I’m going through just such a slump right now. But I also know it doesn’t work: When people start throwing random ads at me, I tune them out. It also alienates people who might be able to help you if you took a different tack.

Like, maybe, trying to get to know them.

What if you treated social media like a visit to a new neighbor’s home? You wouldn’t go over and knock on the door, wait for it to open, then just stare at the person for a moment and walk away. You’d introduce yourself, give them a bit of background on yourself, tell them it’s nice to meet them and maybe say something complimentary about their home.

Perhaps you find you have something in common; perhaps not. After a couple of minutes, you excuse yourself and leave. Maybe you leave it at that. Or, if you enjoyed the conversation, maybe you ring the person up a couple of days later and invite them out for coffee. Maybe then you start talking a little about your books ... along with other things you have in common. You forge an actual friendship.

One thing you probably shouldn’t do when you go over and introduce yourself is push your way past your new neighbor and into the house without an invitation.

Social protocols

On social media, that’s what it can feel like if someone immediately sends you a direct message. Somehow, we’ve had a hard time translating the social protocols we’ve developed in the real world to the online environment. Maybe it’s time we started doing so. (When sending naked or half-naked selfies to strangers has become common practice, that’s a pretty good sign we’ve lost our bearings.)

I’m friends with a good number of authors online – because they’ve let me get to know them, and vice versa, not merely because they’re authors. I’m friends with other folks who aren’t writers, too, and I feel more comfortable with some of them than I do with many of my author friends. Because, even though I’m an author, I don’t like to talk about writing all the time. I like to talk about music and history and science and politics and philosophy and a host of other topics, weighty and frivolous.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly more selective about the people whose requests I accept. I’ve become aggressive about weeding out potential spammers and scammers, and I’ve started watching new friends I do accept closely. Do they bother to comment on something I’ve posted? Do they post their own thoughts, or do they just repost links? Are they continually asking their contacts to buy this product, sign this petition or contribute to this cause?

Or are they people, authors or otherwise, who I can feel comfortable being friends with – even if it’s only online? I’m not trying to make people feel paranoid, as though I’ll drop them if I don’t hear from them for a week or a month. I won’t. I just want people whose company I can enjoy without feeling I’ve got a marketing target on my back.

We live in an era when the hard sell has collided head-on with a case of collective amnesia about how to treat others with respect and courtesy. That makes it even more of a challenge do real networking and cultivate real friendships. It also makes it even more imperative that we make the effort to do so. Not because we’re authors, but because we’re ... human.

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

5 Ways Artists Can Defend Themselves Against Trolls

Stephen H. Provost

Don’t be a DiC. Dismissive critic, that is. DiCs are closely related to trolls and bullies, along with other, even less savory characters.

They’re all over the place these days, multiplying like Roger and Jessica Rabbit on a pleasure cruise through cyberspace.

The DiCs are newly empowered by 140-character limits and more platforms KISS and Lady Gaga have in their combined shoe collections. But they’ve always been with us, eager to sacrifice our feelings on the altar of their egos. A few well-chosen words, and our self-esteem can go up in flames.

Why do they do it?

Mostly because they want to look like authorities on something. Anything. And it’s a lot easier to spend 30 seconds banging out those 140 characters than it is to spend years earning a degree or doing any actual research.

Social media has leveled the playing field in many respects, with one result being that any Tom, DiC or Harry can claim expertise and proceed to tell others why their inferior. Because they can, they do. And all too often, we let them trap us inside a house of cards. They mark what they consider to be their territory with sarcastic tweets, hit-and-run Facebook comments, and scathing reviews on Yelp or Amazon.

Authors, musicians and other artists  can be particularly susceptible to DiCs, because we put our heart and soul into what we create.

How to combat them? Here are five suggestions.

Understand their motives

Yes, it’s personal, but it’s not about you. It’s all about them. These insecure egotists have a single goal: Building up their own sense of worth via a false comparison with someone else. They try to remake their victims in the image of their own straw men (and women), so they can proceed to tear them – you – down.

Don’t let them, because you really are better than they are – and they know it. If they trick you into believing the opposite, they’ve won.

Recognize their methods

DiCs want to insulate themselves from any fallout because, when it comes right down to it, they’re more scared of you than you are of them. That’s why they hide behind computer screens, podiums and their own dismissive tone when confronting others.

They use sarcasm in place of substance. They favor personal attacks and fallacies over rational discussion. And they hate to lose, so they’re going to pretend they’ve won even if your logic is unimpeachable.

My advice: Don’t waste it on them.

Think of them as venomous snakes defending their territory: They lie in the weeds, just waiting to inject their poison into you because they’re scared you’re more powerful than they are. And they’re right: You are. They want to bring you down before you can use that power against them, even though you probably wouldn’t have even noticed them otherwise … and that’s the one thing they find scarier than being exposed as powerless: not even being noticed in the first place.

Don’t engage

Paradoxically, even as they seek to ensure your own safety, they actually want you to respond. Why? Because they need to be noticed. If you respond, it satisfies their egos by demonstrating that they can control someone else. You’ve taken the bait, and now you are (in their minds, at least) under their power.

Just the other day, someone tossed a dismissive piece of criticism in my direction from the safety of a public podium. I had no opportunity to respond, because that podium provided the critic with the safety he felt he needed.

But that wasn’t the end of it. After the meeting was over, he approached me to “reassure” me that his remarks weren’t meant personally – and, conveniently, to reaffirm his position. He attempted to assert a measure of authority by stating he had some background in my field. I responded briefly with my reasoning, then he told me something to the effect that he “wanted to let me know” his opinion.

I initially took this as a cue to restate and elaborate on my own point of view, but before I could do so, I stopped myself. That was, I believe, exactly what he wanted me to do. Instead, I looked him in the eye, nodded once, and politely said, “OK.” He didn’t have much choice at that point but to walk away, because I’d asserted my control by ending the conversation on my terms.

Listen just long enough

One problem with DiCs is they realize critiques can be helpful. If we simply tuned out all criticism, we might miss the constructive kind. You know: “Your fly is open” or “You have something between your teeth” or “You might not want to say that in polite company.” It’s in our own best interest to take notice of constructive criticism, and the DiCs use this fact to get their foot in the door by masquerading as people who “just want to help.”

Here’s the best way to respond: Listen just long enough to determine whether their criticism is constructive or dismissive, then, if it’s the latter, disengage. Shake the dust off your feet and walk away. The bad news is that some DiCs are so practiced at drawing people in that they’ve become adept at concealing their motives and identity. The good news? Once you know their methods and motives, you’ll become adept yourself – at seeing through their camouflage.

They won’t know what’s hit them when you shut that door in their faces.

Oh, and one more thing: Once you've identified them as DiCs, don't let them back in.

Seek out constructive criticism

It may seem counterintuitive to actually go looking for criticism, but the more you seek out constructive criticism, the better off you’ll be.

Not only do constructive critics give you information you may need, they also provide barometer against which to measure the DiCs.

Constructive critics:

1)      Tell you the truth, whether it’s affirming or critical. They’re not “yes men” or DiCs; they’re authentic.

2)      Don’t have any personal stake in whether you take their advice or not. They’d be no less fulfilled in their own lives either way. They aren’t trying to stroke their own egos. They’re only engaging with you because they care about you.

3)      Are civil and respectful. Because they’ve got no dog in the hunt, they won’t bully or pressure you. They recognize and affirm your right to make your own decisions, even if they don’t agree with them.  

Constructive critics are essential because they are, first and foremost, not critics but allies. They’re your friends before anything else. They want to affirm and help empower you, not prove that they’re somehow superior.

The more allies you have, the more perspective you’ll gain and the better you’ll become at recognizing the DiCs.

There’s another advantage, too: Because they’re your allies, you’ll have more support when those DiCs do, inevitably, rear their ugly heads. You won’t be singing solo anymore: You’ll have a chorus of voices telling them to go right back where they came from.