Thursday, June 26, 2014

Writin' Lessonz - Part III: Don't Gameify Your Work

In this episode of 'Writin' Lessonz,' I'm going to inadvertently ruffle some feathers. Not my intention, but I am concerned about it. Please note: I mean everything I'm about to say constructively.

I was prompted to write this because I just noticed that my Facebook Fan Page (here, if you wish to snoop) is at 997 'likes.' (Oh, how I loath the quotes around the word 'like' when it comes to Facebook. I'm so glad it never caught on with Twitter follows.) The nearness of this figure to the nice round number of 1,000 didn't escape me - how could it with Facebook plastering a giant box onto my admin page saying 'You're close to your next milestone of 1,000 likes!'

But is it, really? A milestone, I mean. It's certainly a large, even number. And that's nice and all. 

Expanding your social media presence is helpful if you are not yet an established author. If you're a self-published author on the prowl for new readers, it's actually pretty important. But hitting specific 'milestones' in terms of fan/follower metrics? I feel these are false goals.

Nothing is going to change for me when that number is reached. And I worry that calling '1,000' a milestone is simply encouraging you to think of it as a number, and not as the number of actual, flesh-and-blood human beings who have decided to show support or interest in your work by liking your Facebook page. 

Numbers don't read books. People do.

More importantly, you can't be friends with a number. You can't find out what part of a movie you both love was the number's favorite. You'll never see a hilarious joke or an awesome Photoshop or an interesting link from a number. It's important to never forget that every upward tick in that metric is a separate, fully conscious human being.

I always feel a bit frustrated when I see not-yet-super-established authors, like myself, focusing on these metrics in their posts. This is the least fun kind of content to read. And providing content that resonates with each of our precious connections is of vital importance during the early phase of our writing careers, where we are essentially 'Ms. or Mr. Let's-Give-This-Writing-Schmuck-a-Chance.' If a relative stranger opens the door to give you an opportunity to interact with them, and the first post they see you making is 'Bill Whickerson is my 400 follower!' they have every reason to be disappointed they gave you a chance to be in their timeline or feed.

One thing I saw recently was "Once I get to the next large even number, I'll show the cover to my new book!" This is a fun way to drive Facebook likes, but if we break down what is happening behind the scenes, it might not be the most sensible course.

1) As an author, you want people to see your new book cover. Them seeing it is doing you a favor. Framing the situation as 'If I find a few more people to promote my work to, I will promote my work to you all!' is a mildly effective new way to get a few new likes in the short-term (more on this in the next bullet) but it creates a gentle-but-present cognitive dissonance: "I just need three more people to turn on the radio to this station, and then I'll play my new ad!"

Audience building is something you should be doing at a measured, even pace at all times if you are an author trying to break into the mainstream. One place you shouldn't be doing it is in the same place you are trying to get new audience members. By all means, invite people on your Twitter feed to like your Facebook page now and again, and vice versa. But don't ask for more follows in your Twitter stream. Because:

2) These posts about getting more likes generally go out to the very people who have already liked your page. This is probably the more important aspect of what I'm talking about here. I imagine the hope in this tactic is that these people will share your request on their own page and thus you can pull, from their pool of friends, a few more people to join your group. A decent idea, except for one thing: instead of delivering information or content or connection to the people who were already generous enough to opt-in to your page, you are sending them the message that 'Glad you're here: but you aren't enough for me. I want you to find me more people to fuel my ever-growing number! You are but a log burning on the fire of my insatiable need for increasing notability!'

This second point is essential. If you are posting a lot of 'Just need a few more followers!' or 'I am just sixty people away from 6,000!' you have completely squandered your opportunity to connect with the 5,940 people who already are opting in to hearing from you. You could be sharing something great with those 5,940 people, something you know they would be interested in: instead you are expressing dissatisfaction with the 'mere' five-thousand nine-hundred and forty flesh-and-blood human beings with interests every bit as important to them as yours are to you, and telling them that just a few more logs on the fire would make you feel more important.

Our goal as writers isn't to be more important than other people. It's for our stories to be as important to others as they are to us. And why do we want to do that? Because other people's stories are important to us. It's a giant web of importance, with nobody sitting like a fat spider in the middle. It's the nodes of the web that matter, and the strength of the bonds.

By all means, attempt to increase the number of your social network connections. Just make sure you post about something other than the number of those connections more often than not.

Which leads me to the next topic: burlap sacks. Just kidding. The next topic is the related (to the above topic, not to burlap) trend of 'psyching yourself up' or 'patting yourself on the back' by announcing either a) Word Count for the Day! Hooray! or b) Intention to Write. Or, even worse, c) Desire to Write Thwarted by Minor Issue. These kinds of posts have a detrimental effect on the writer for several reasons.

One, and it's an important one, is that 'studies have shown™' that serotonin is released in your brain when you announce your intention to do something. It's almost as though part of your brain gives you credit for a thing you haven't done yet, just because you posted on FB: "I'm going to climb Mount Everest." Then, you see likes and comments start to flood in. 

"Wow, Mount Everest! You're brave!" 

"Hell yes, I freaking am!" coos your amygdala, and then you are swimming in a sea of unearned serotonin. 

"I think I might actually just sort of chill in my comfy chair, come to think of it. I feel pretty good."

Well, the same thing can happen when you say: "Going to sit down and work on that old WIP today! Got my nice cup of bourbon, my burlap sack..." Okay, how'd that get in there? 

But, besides the worrisome concern of serotonin seepage, we have to wonder: isn't a writer's job to write? By making it a special occasion, especially in the public manner of announcing it, you subtly reassure yourself that it is somehow special that you are making time to do this.

If you want to write, you should be writing as often as possible. Take Stephen King, for example. He writes for about five hours a day, all but two days of the year. Every year. For something like forty years. And before he had a couple of successful novels under his belt and could write full-time, when he was still an overworked and underpaid school teacher and industrial laundry worker, he only managed to write about, I don't know, fifty short stories and five or six novels (at least). 

He didn't tell friends 'Oh, I love to write, but I have all these papers to grade.' He sat in a crappy little laundry room where the only space for his typewriter was on his lap and cranked those suckers out well into the middle of the night.  

He writes more than you. He writes more than me. And, though he's had a Twitter account for about half a year, he has never mentioned anything to do with writing on it once. He's mentioned that his book Mr. Mercedes was about to come out, and he seemed nervous about how it would be received. He's talked extensively about the books he's been reading and enjoyed. But he's never posted 'Well, just wrapped up a long day of writing. Bringing characters to life is so fulfilling,' or 'I love killing people... in my writing!' or anything remotely similar.

That's not to say that you should be flogged within an inch of your life if you feel like sharing things like that from time to time. But keep in mind, readers and even other authors don't leap out of their chair, clasps their hands together, shake them above their heads, and go 'Yes! An author on the internet got another 1,500 words down on paper! This is a great day!' And a daily post from a garbage man saying "Chucked another 700 plastic bins right into the truck. Life is good," or "I got my thick gloves on, I'm on the back of the truck: let's get dumping," would get old fast.

The important thing is the work, and the routine, and making a point to carve out the space in your daily life for that work. Not just a physical and temporal space, but a mental space.  If you can set yourself a daily writing routine, and stick to it even when you feel at first like you'd rather just frown at the wall, you'll already be doing better than 98% of the writers out there. Never, on a day when I didn't feel like getting started with my writing, did I still feel that way even ten minutes later. Sometimes a little push is all you need to start falling: gravity will do the rest. The more you open yourself up to the process, the more the process will open itself up to you. 

What you don't have to do, however, is open up to the rest of the world about what you are about to do. Let them find out how much work you've done when it is done. Let the work speak for itself. Nothing makes it more clear that you have been writing your little heart out than the finished product: a beating heart of words right there on the page.

That's all for now. Stay tuned for future installments of 'Writin' Lessonz,' where I will fail to bring up burlap sacks.


  1. What is a burlap sack? Bring it on.

  2. That 1000th "like" might be a guy who likes to buy 218 copies of every book he reads though, making that number very significant. I may have also just drank too much.