Friday, April 12, 2019

The Best Social Media Tip for Writers: Stay Away

An accomplished, published author told me yesterday that she had to “learn how to do this Twitter thing, because they say publishers won’t look at you any more unless you have a presence on social media”. There are so many things wrong with this, I barely know where to start . . . but here goes.

False Promise

First, it’s true that the big commercial presses take social media presence into account as one of the four or five factors deciding whether to publish an author. An author that comes to them with a million followers on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram is someone who already has an audience and is therefore someone they want in their stable. But that’s like saying that they are more likely to take a movie star than a guy off the street, so you’re going to start acting lessons; or they’re more likely to take a sports celebrity, so your plan for getting published is to begin working out more so you can qualify for the Olympics. Saying you’re going to 'start on Twitter' is no less ludicrous than planning to become a published author by first becoming an Olympian.

To demonstrate why “starting on Twitter” is a waste of your time and effort, let’s examine an author who is currently active across social media: on Twitter, for example, a self-published author I much admire has been active since 2009, has made 186 thousand tweets, and accumulated 59 thousand likes (proving that what she is tweeting is well received) . . . and has accumulated a grand total of 2,561 followers. This author has a ten-year, 200,000 tweet head start on you, and still only has a couple of thousand followers—which none of the big publishers would consider as constituting a ‘social media presence’. And frankly, your life is not as interesting as her’s—she is, shall we say, damn feisty. Furthermore, I suspect the causation ran the other way: she got 2,500 loyal followers because they’re fanatical fans of her books; she didn’t get the book sales by being active on social media.

Danika Stone

To be fair and balanced, let’s consider the case of someone who consciously and successfully cultivated a social media following. YA author Danika Stone has gathered 21,000 followers on Twitter based on a mere 40,000 tweets. She had 10K followers on Twitter when she signed with Macmillan: half were garnered pre-2016 and publication of All the Feels, the rest since. But Danika Stone is drop dead gorgeous and does at least one selfie a day projecting a glamourous lifestyle, to which the rest of us cannot aspire. My question to you is: what possible angle you are going to develop in your projected 40,000 tweets to attract a significant following? Most writers I know are pretty ordinary folk . . . until your book is out there, nobody beyond family and friends is likely to care what you post. How realistic is committing yourself to come up with 40,000 brilliant tweets or selfies?

And . . . what is the demographic for your book? Are any of them even on Social Media? The friend asking me about starting Twitter writes books for people who, like her, spend their time reading books, not on Twitter.

Just because some expert on some panel at a writer's conference—likely someone promoting their book How to Use Social Media—told you that you have to have a social media presence to get published these days, doesn't mean that advice is relevant to you.

Social media diva requires a different set of skills than writing. If you had that skill, you wouldn’t be “starting on Twitter”.

If you’re not already on social media and enjoying it, don’t bother. That ship has sailed. You’ll have to compete for your publishing slot on the other four criteria, like: “write a better book”.

Bottomless Black Hole

If you’re not careful, Facebook and the rest will suck you in and take over your whole day.

All social media platforms are designed to suck you into participating. Their advertising revenue entirely depends on eyes on their page, so it will do anything to keep you on their platform&msash;and to the extent they’re successful—not writing your book. For example, Facebook defaults to showing the most popular posts first—no matter how many times you change the setting to see the current posts first—because Facebook calculates that the posts with the most likes and comments are the posts most likely to suck you back in. If you allow it, Facebook will email you multiple times a day to tell you that this or that person has just commented on your post&emdash;or commented on your comment on someone else's post—would you like to see that they said about you? And if you haven't commented or posted for a few days, Facebook will nag you that it has been several days since your X number of followers last heard from you&emdash; the implication being that they won't wait forever and you'd better get back before they lose interest and wander off.

It’s okay to go on Facebook when you’re standing in line at the DMV or otherwise killing time, but any time you’re on social media that isn’t already dead time is time robbed from writing. If you’re not spending time writing, you’re no longer a writer . . . you’re just a commodity Facebook is selling to advertisers.


Again, almost too obvious to have to state, but social media is more likely to bring you down than build you up. Social media is crowded with trolls whose only apparent purpose in life is to rain on your parade and make you miserable. Even well-meaning people who disagree with, or take offense at, something you wrote can be emotionally damaging. Even the microaggressions of self-righteous grammar Nazis can undermine your belief in your abilities, or worse, pressure you into taking more time composing and proofing social media than the fast-scrolling medium is worth. You don’t have writing time to devote to posting, let alone being meticulous about your wording so it cannot be misinterpreted or criticized.

False Positives

Even more insidious than the overall negativity is the false positivity one so often sees on social media for writers. There are thousands of memes which are some variation on “Keep going, you’re awesome, you can do it.” These motivational sayings seem inspiring at first, and may even help beginners keep going through the angst of writer’s block and the drudgery of endless revision. But sooner or later, when success still eludes one, the endless positivity starts to eat away at one’s soul. If the message is that everyone can do it, and you haven’t yet, it must be because you’re either not trying hard enough (i.e., you are a loser) or you are the exception to the rule and really are not awesome (i.e., you are a loser). The addiction to cute inspirational sayings, like all addictions, inevitably ends badly.

Controlled Participation

Earlier this year I joined various writer associations’ Facebook pages and encountered their perky social media coordinator whose task it was to build the association’s media presence/activity on their page. And initially, it was great because this person posted something every day to get the conversation going and I was glad to contribute in a forum of positivity and light. The coordinator had something positive to comment on every person’s contribution. It was refreshing.


Over time it became apparent that these were not meaningful posts or part of an actual conversation. Every Wednesday was Welcome Wednesday and every Thursday was Self-Promotion Day and every Friday was Funday and so on, which was fine for about five iterations and then . . . well, that’s not an actual discussion. Posting about my writing project on Self-Promotion Thursday isn't actually promoting it because the other people there are not remotely interested in reading my post, because they're too busy posting about their book. Since I have no interest whatsoever in their book about cats, why would I think for a moment they would have any interest in mine? We're all just talking past each other because the forum was for writers, not readers of any one particular genre.

Worse, the social media director was the director for another group I had joined about the same time, so it was the same posts on both of them—manufactured, generic posts, not genuine conversation at all. Sure it was positive, but shallow memes about nothing are not professional development or even genuine social interaction. I wasn't building connections and community, I was just feeding the statistics for the (very nice) social media facilitator. Thanks, but I need to put those hours into my own projects.

Robert Sawyer, the most commercially successful of any Canadian SF writer, says: if you want to be a writer, then you have to write and be careful not to spend time doing writerly things instead of writing. It’s easy to trick ourselves that we are being professional writers when we present at writers’ conferences or post to our author's blog or—and this is relevant here—spend time in writer groups/pages on Facebook or etc. I can’t count the number of writers I know who waste hours writing posts for social media or get sucked into arguing with people in Facebook writer groups and think they’re promoting their careers but, um . . . are to that extent not actually writing.


As Barb Geiger once pointed out to me, the only people who actually make money at craft fairs are the people selling supplies to the crafters. Nobody wants to buy your wobbly candles, or crappy beaded bracelets or whatever, but the guys selling wax and beads are doing very well, thanks.

Same with the writing game. The only people who are making money out of writing are the people selling you their "How to Sell a Million Copies on Ebay" or "How to Use Twitter to Sell Your Book" books. Even if they actually sold a million copies through social media, the book that sold that many copies was "How to Sell Books on Social Media"—i.e., the one you just bought—not an actual book-book, like the one you're trying to flog.

Sure, one or two authors in the early days figured out how to market via Twitter, and made it big, probably bigger even than their book deserved. But consumers are smart, and while whatever strategy these original pioneers used (and are now pitching to you) worked for them, it is by definition far too late for you. The online universe moves, evolves, changes so quickly that yesterday's gimmick is today's sadly obvious ploy, which the consumer merely steps around.

Bottom line: How many books did you buy this month? Of those, how many were titles/authors you discovered on Twitter? Did any of the tricks these social media marketers are handing you, tricks that have worked on you?

If you're already at home on social media, then sure, use social media to market your book(s). But if you're only there because someone told you, you have be, put your time to better use.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Singular "They"

As mentioned previously in this blog, various official style guides now accept the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, as one way to avoid sexist constructions using "he" when it could be either gender. For example, "they" is singular in the following sentence: "When an author finishes a first draft, they know they still have to do a second draft." Within this context, I give you the American Copy Editors Society's winning Limerick of it's 2019 Annual Grammar Day Tweeted Limerick Contest:

The all-purpose he is passé,
And he or she gets in the way.
Ip, ey, co, and heesh
Make readers say "Sheesh!"
Which leaves us the singular they.

            —Claire Valgardson (@CMValgardson,

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Guest Post: Karl Johanson on Suggested Revisions

Karl Johanson is editor of Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine. His editorial in Issue #8 contains a wonderfully ironic list of things that can go wrong in one's writing. I asked to reprint it here.

I’ve know in my time some coaches who were extremely inspirational. They could cheer you on and you were inspired. They could yell at you and you were inspired. They could stand in silent contemplation on the sidelines and you were inspired. I wish I had that talent, as the only aspect of editing I don’t enjoy is having to say 'no' to many of the submitted works. I appreciate the creative process, often as much as the finished products of creativity. I wish I had something truly inspiring to say to the writers I wind up saying ‘no’ to, as they truly inspire me.

In general, I’m not the type to make fun of those working at being creative. However, if I were, I might say something such as:

Dear sir or madam:

Thank you for allowing us to consider your science fiction story. We like this story and would like to publish it in an upcoming issue of our magazine, but we feel it requires a few very minor alterations to make it publishable.

I liked the premises (premi?) of your story. The concept of having a story which considers the complex and subtle sociological and personal implications of changes in technology is a good one. However, we feel the story would have a broader appeal if it instead focused on violent conflicts which make use of this new technology.

With regards to your, sentence structure remember that, commas are supposed to be cues for where a person should breath if, they’re reading the story out, loud.

The characters in the story should all have nicknames, alternate between their real names and their nick names throughout the story to help the readers remember who is who. The nick-names we suggest for the characters are, in order of their appearance in the story, Spanky, Spiffy, Wheezer, Bif the Crusher, Sarge, Amazon Tracy, Tycho, Zoltron Man and ‘Six-gun Pete’. (Write in a couple stun gun fights between Sarge and Zoltron Man.) In addition, we would like you to add another character to the story. A lovable furry orange alien named Chester, which leaves a trail of slime where ever it goes, which the other characters slip on throughout the story for comic relief.

Developing the characters while furthering the plot and action was a bold choice, but it can often be dull. Better to stop the action all together and give a long drawn out listing of unrelated events from the various characters’ pasts to develop them. Also, tell us about the personalities of the various characters, without confusing the readers by relating these personality traits to anything that actually happens in the story.

The story needs a good kicker for the ending as well. Simply using the plot, dialogue and action to resolve the main story points and conflicts, while juxtaposing them with the parallel personal conflicts of some of the characters, leaves the reader wondering where the really big explosions are. Perhaps it can turn out that they’re all living on a miniaturized duplicate of the Earth. And all of the characters somehow get changed into mice or aardvarks, except Spiffy. For the epilogue, Spiffy should recite the following soliloquy: “Mankind, after millennia of crawling up from the cosmic slime, one invention and innovation after another, slowly moved its way into space, which was not only its destiny, but its birthright! (Aren’t exclamation marks great?) And Man didn’t worry if the universe took issue with this incursion into its dark and airless regions. Man pushed, pulled and slid sideways into this destiny, with a belly full of raw oats and bravery, and a particle cannon full of positrons ready to do Man’s bidding in a cold, dank, star studded, impersonal universe.” We know that your story doesn’t actually take place in space, or have anything to do with space travel (and yes, the universe isn’t actually ‘dank’), but we think the readers will let this slide.

If these changes are acceptable to you, then you likely don’t have much artistic integrity, in which case we don’t want your story after all.

Karl Johanson

Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine can be found at

For a brief sample video of Karl giving actual advice to writers click here

For more Karl advice to writers, check out this page of videos of Karl's presentations at various conferences.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

New Editorial Standards


Editors Canada, the professional association of Canadian Editors, has released updated definitions of types of editing: Editing Skills. It's important that anyone seeking an editor understands that "editing" can mean a number of different things and therefore to make sure that the "editor" they hire understands which type of editing the client is looking for.

As an acquisition editor, I frequently had to tell authors that their manuscripts were not quite to publishable standards and suggest that they work with an editor before trying the next publisher, only to be told they had already paid thousands for editing. Of course, what they paid for was copyediting or proofreading, when really what they needed was structural editing (sometimes called substantive editing) or stylistic editing (also called line editing), or etc. Their manuscripts would be spelled correctly and not have a comma out of place, but that none of that matters if the surprise ending of one's mystery novel is that the butler did it. If one takes a manuscript that has plot or character flaws to a copyeditor, they won't necessarily comment on these structural flaws. They will assume that you're happy with the manuscript as is, and just want copyediting. Copyeditors are given all sorts of rubbish to edit by clients who are not looking for the editor's opinion, just that they do their job and fix the grammar. It therefore behooves the client to know what they are asking for.

And what they actually need. Clients often present us with copyediting, when really, copyediting would be premature. One should always start with a structural edit as there is no point copyediting a scene that may be revised or deleted. Some authors think their first or second draft is good enough to go ahead, but "good enough" really isn't in today's competitive market. always starts with a sample edit so we can tell the writer whether (1) the manuscript is ready for professional editing, or if it needs a few more preliminary drafts (that is, go back to free writers' circles, beta readers, etc.), or (2) the client needs structural or stylistic editing. Some clients who come for copyediting do not appreciate being told their content still needs work, or worse, think we're just trying to upsell them to an extra iteration or more expensive kind of editing. We're open to just copyediting if that's what the client wants--there are occasions when that even makes sense--but we always start with an appraisal of a writing sample & synopsis/outline so we can tell the author what's needed and they see a sample of our editing before committing to an expensive contract.

If you are interested in a more detailed breakdown of editing standards for each type of editing, Editors Canada's Professional Editing Standards 2016 outline what you may expect in each category.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Setting Goals for Writing

One of my goals for 2018 was getting published in Pulp Literature, and here is Issue 21 (fifth anniversary issue!) of Pulp Literature with my story in it.

My second goal was to place a story each month, but that appears to have been over-reaching. I only placed six stories in 2018, though I sold a seventh first week of 2019, so maybe that one almost counts.

My third goal (in support of the first two) was to have as many stories out in circulation as possible. In addition to the six I placed in 2018, I had another thirteen stories sitting on various editor's desks awaiting a decision. At the peak, I had 20 stories in circulation at one time and gathered a total of 35 rejections. Selling short stories is largely a numbers game. Writing is only the first step; keeping them out there until they sell is equally important.

My goal for 2019 is to finish the damn novel.

Monday, December 3, 2018

"A doctoral student and their advisor walk into a bar. The advisor orders a draft and they sit in awkward silence for eight months."
—S***T Academics Say, Facebook Page, Dec 3, 2018.

These days, one of the things I specialize in is coaching graduate students through the writing process. It's astounding how many folks get caught in blank page syndrome or writer's block for months at a time without seeking help. Or who find themselves overwhelmed by their advisor or committee's feedback, when really, the feedback was (should have been) really helpful, had they been but able to interpret it. And I love helping students maintain their motivation and momentum as thesis-writing angst inevitably sets in.

By the same token, it's sometimes heart-breaking when students seek my help when they've left it too late. I've had a couple of cases where students wanted my help two weeks before the deadline for submissions or the meeting with the Dean about what to do now that they've failed. If they had only approached me five months earlier, they'd be graduating instead.

Or even the successful students who approach me for simple copy editing (APA or Chicago or MLA formatting) two weeks before their submission deadline. It never seems to occur to them that all 400 of the graduating class(es) are going to be seeking copy editing those same two weeks—because no one wants their thesis rejected by Graduate Studies becouse of some simple formatting error—and it's only those who booked their editing weeks or even months in advance who are going to actually have editors available. I'm usually able to work one or two extra theses or dissertations in by working overtime and on weekends, but that means double or triple time charges, so not everyone can afford that. If only they thought to book help earlier.

Of course, people often think of editors like the guy at the copy centre: open to walk-ins 9-9, no appointment necessary, and your work back Wed, Today for a rush job. But editing isn't like that. You need an editor who understands your discipline and maybe a bit about your topic, so that means shopping around: generic copy shop is not the model here. And you need to book ahead because the good editors are already working on large projects weeks if not months in advance, and you may not always want the editor that's free to take on your thesis/dissertation/book today. It's like, if you forgot to book the wedding photographer, you can find one the day of, but um. . .that same day booking explains why some wedding photographers are still in business.

For a free booklet on successful thesis or dissertation writing, go to Writing Strategies for Theses or Dissertations