Twitter for Writers in Ten Quick Steps

Twitterbirds I joined Twitter in September 2012. Certainly not an early adopter, but about eighteen-months after Twitter proved its usefulness as a worldwide tool of revolution during the Arab Spring of 2011. After I joined, it took me another two and a half years before I tweeted anything. To its credit, Twitter makes it easy; every owner of a shiny new account is provided a scripted first tweet to send, but it’s as cheesy as a wheel of Brie: “This is my first tweet!” Not gonna happen.

In a world tweeting about the toppling of Middle East dictatorships, what does a former English teacher tweet about her struggles to write Young Adult fiction matter? In the end, I spent far too much time over-thinking my first tweet (“Whaaaaat?”). In the end, nobody cares. No one sees your first tweet (or even your first hundred). My angst was wasted energy.

Writers have so many reasons to use Twitter. New writers often use it to connect with others who are in the same boat. They find support, encouragement, and ideas to propel their own writing to the next stage. Finding your tribe can help a fledgling writer through a difficult first draft, or find the guts to submit a piece for publication. Querying writers use it to find and connect with literary agents, to find beta readers for a finished piece, and to learn more about the agents we’re querying (some might call it ‘light stalking’) to determine their fit for our current manuscripts. Published writers can connect with their readers and lightly promote their work (more on this in a minute). No matter where you are in your writing career, Twitter offers avenues to connect with others.

If you’re interested in jumping in to see what all the fuss is about, I’ve collected ten easy to use Twitter strategies. If you’re brand new to Twitter, set your accounts apart from the noobs and spammers and begin building your writing community online. Here’s how to get started:

  • Sign up for Twitter. This one seems obvious, but this is the internet. Better safe than dealing with one hundred “I don’t understand!” comments on my feed. This step doesn’t count in my ten. Because it makes eleven. And “11 Tips” just sounds weird.
  • Use your name as your handle. If it’s taken, use something relevant to you/your purpose for being on twitter. Don’t use your book title or something related to your story; you’re building your brand and, eventually, readers will look you up by name. It’s harder to find @strangeusername than @yourauthorname.
  • Use a good profile photo of your actual face. I don’t want to follow your coy eyeball half-photo or an avatar. Upload a background photo as well. This is where you can be a little more whimsical—show your creativity and use something related to your work or to writing in general. You could use a picture of a vintage typewriter, but since I live in the land of Hipsters, that’s not particularly unique.
  • Fill out your bio with relevant info and a funny tidbit. If you must use a hashtag, you get one. ONE. Don’t hashtag the shit out of your bio. Include the genre in which you write (if you can narrow it down), your tribes, and the professional organizations you belong to. Need ideas? Look at the bios of others you admire or find amusing. Hillary Clinton established her Twitter bio with the plucky identifier “pantsuit aficionado,” a humorous nod to a well-known aspect of her persona.
  • Link to your website. Don’t have one? Think about getting one; it will be another avenue for publishing your short pieces and a way in which readers can connect with you. Plus, it makes your bio look #2legit2quit.
  • Tweets need to be fewer than 140 characters. The art of witty brevity is rewarded in the form of retweets (RTs). Crafting tweets is an artform. The writer in me relishes the challenge to reduce my message to the barest minimum while still being pithy. It’s smart to leave some characters on the table so others can retweet (RT) you. Word on the street is that Twitter is about to eliminate character counts, but many users are all a’twitter over that, so we’ll see. Yes, I did that on purpose, because I have to amuse myself while writing.
  • Don’t buy followers. I know how much work it takes to connect with others and I’m incredulous of a new account that has 31k followers and 24 tweets. If you’re @JKRowling, I’ll give you a pass. But you’re not (If you are, O please, let’s have tea! Tweet me?). Plus, you’ll look like those wanna-be hikers on the trail in their brand new Patagonia without a speck of mud on their boots. Don’t be that guy.
  • Do not spam followers with book promotions. I immediately unfollow anyone who clogs my feed with unending tweets about their books. Twitter isn’t a sales platform; it’s a community. Many new writers don’t know what to tweet about besides their own books. Here are some options: tweet about writing craft, what you’re reading, who else you follow that’s cool, what publishing trends you’re learning about, books you’ve loved, and even your non-writing hobbies. Follow some interesting writers and I promise you’ll see just how much there is to tweet about besides yourself. You’re welcome to promote your own work SPARINGLY. The rule of thumb is that 90 percent of your tweets should be community-oriented and 10 percent can be about your own books for sale.
  • Block the weirdos. I had a few of my more political tweets blow up on the BBC. I can’t tell you how many fascist, racist, and misogynist tweets I received. Apparently, having boobs and an opinion are thought by many to be mutually exclusive entities. Oddly, many men who think I’m an idiot also want to have sex with me. I find that dichotomy curious, but that’s another post entirely. Seriously, just do it.
  • Use lists. They’re your best friend for cutting through the clutter. Once you’ve accumulated more than, say one-hundred followers, Twitter can seem overwhelming. In order to read the tweets of the people you care about seeing, create lists to manage what you see. Online, click on lists and then on ‘create new list.’ Give it a name (Favorite People or Friends, whatever). Then, go to the profile of the person you wish to add to one or more of the lists you’ve created. Click on the gear to the left of the follow/unfollow button and scroll to ‘Add/Remove from lists,’ then on the list you wish to add them to. To read the tweets on any given list, click on the ‘lists’ link on your profile, scroll to the list you want, and click. The tweets you see will be limited to the people on that list. This is a much easier, focused way to interact with those you follow. Note that it is possible to add people to a list without following them.
  • Beware the “secret ratio” between followers and those you follow. Any new account can follow up to 2000 accounts without restriction. Beyond that, Twitter can limit the number of accounts you follow.
    • “But I’ve seen Twitter users who follow 12k?” This is when Twitter’s super secret ratio comes into play. You are not allowed to follow thousands of accounts if you only have 150 followers. Once you follow 2,000 people, the number of accounts you can follow is dependent upon the number of accounts that follow you. It sounds a little confusing, but generally, if the number of accounts you follow and are followed by are roughly equal, you won’t have any trouble. This is Twitter’s effort to limit mass followings (often done to gain attention and win followers).

For those of you secretly wondering What the heck is a hashtag, anyway? I’ll post next week about some of Twitter’s more advanced features. Our writing community is a supportive one. You’re going to meet interesting, creative, helpful people. Be brave! We’re waiting for you…

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How (Not) to Pitch Your Manuscript to Agents

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For those of you who have no idea what a pitch is, or if you’re currently hyperventilating into a paper bag—quick! Read this—to get a sense of what it’s like to pitch a manuscript to an agent for the first time. Trust me, you’ll feel better when it’s over.

A conference pitch is a short (in my case eight minute) appointment in which you throw yourself at the feet of an agent and pray they like your story. The goal is to sell an agent on your idea and secure an invitation to submit a sample of your work. The pitch itself lasts about two minutes, and the wise (desperate?) writer leaves the remaining time for the agent to ask questions about the story, to get to know you, and—most importantly—to ask for pages. At the very least, writers hope for what’s known as a partial, a request of at least a few chapters. The golden ticket is a request to see the full manuscript.

I had four appointments. I’d been writing my pitch for weeks; tweaking the words, refining the script, honing my story to its barest bones. There’s not a lot of succinct information available online about writing a pitch, so I cobbled mine together via ten or so websites that each offered tiny nuggets of wisdom. I felt like a magpie, stealing shiny bits from each to weave together two hundred words to convey the meat of my seventy-three thousand word story.

The pitches need to be memorized (and to all of my former students who ranted that memorization is an unnecessary skill, I told you so.) I practiced everywhere I went: in the shower, in the car, in the kitchen. I made myself a little nutty as I obsessed about the glitches in my delivery, the key word left out, the run-away-freight-train speed of my speech pattern. It was finally while driving during I-5’s notorious rush-hour traffic, that I nailed it. I was ready.

In order to help writers hone their pitches, Willamette Writers sponsors an event called Pitch for the Prize (personally, I think Bitchin’ Pitchin’ is far catchier, but whatever.) It’s a chance to practice your pitch before a panel of agents in a ballroom full of writers. It’s a hard thing to get up in front of fifty strangers and talk about your book using a scripted format. It’s even harder when you realize Pitch for the Prize culminates in the agents giving you feedback. Right there. In front of all those people. The best pitch of the evening wins the pot of entry fees. In my room, it was about $165.

I arrived a half hour early, paid my fee, and stuck my name in the hat. Each participant is drawn at random, has two minutes to pitch, and another two to receive the agents’ feedback. The moderator drew name after name. My stomach crawled into my mouth each time he reached into the bucket. I tried to relax, to enjoy the moment that wasn’t mine in the spotlight. Some writers clearly made up their pitches on the fly, some meandered through every character arc in their 315,000 word YA fantasy novel, and a very few knocked it out of the park. They gave pitches that left me hanging, and made me sad when I remembered their books weren’t yet published and I couldn’t read their stories. The evening waned on, and more than a few participants verbally diarrhead (verb form of the noun; I made that up) all over themselves, taking up far more than their fair share of time. As the clock struck nine, the moderator announced, “We’re all out of time!”

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“Whaaaat?”

Hours—days, weeks, really—of stress culminated in frustration when I realized I wasn’t going to get to pitch. I made a beeline for the bar. Did you know that in Portland, OR, you can’t stack drinks? Ugh.

The next afternoon, I waited to pitch my first real live agent. I sat outside the pitch room, compulsively checking the time, whispering my pitch to myself over and over again. After what felt like hours, they announced my appointment time and I crowded through the double doors with all the other hopefuls. The agents sit in a large ballroom, set up exactly like speed dating. Each writer tries to be witty, charming, and smart, to capture the agent’s attention, to get them to ask for pages before the next shiny new plot line nudges her out of her seat.

I wandered over to my agent’s table, my hand extended, prepared to introduce myself, to impress her with my firm, but not too firm, I-mean-business handshake. And in the briefest of moments, someone else swooped into the chair, at the table of MY agent, and immediately began to pitch her story.

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“WTF?”

I stood alone in the middle of the room looking at all the happy pitchers. I yanked out my phone to check my conference schedule on the app. It confirmed my 2:00 appointment. The martial artist in me wanted to uh, “interrupt” the woman’s pitch and reclaim my chair. But the professional side of me knew I couldn’t afford to get off on the wrong foot with a potential professional connection. I backed off and found a staff member. I explained what’d happened, trying hard not to sound panicked or angry—a difficult task given I was both—and they offered to reschedule my appointment.

After this, my second failed attempt to pitch my story, my nerves were frayed. I won’t lie; I thought about going all Hunter S. Thompson on the agent and bringing a flask with me to my next appointment. But cooler heads prevailed and my next window of opportunity arrived. I headed back into the pitch room. I made a bee line for her table, ready to give the pitch of my life. Her spot was empty. Nothing but two empty chairs in the middle of a room buzzing with the sound of excited authors pitching their work. No agent. I sat, clutching my bag, and felt tears well up in my eyes. I’m not a crier. Like, at all. Ever. But the stress from the missed opportunities and aborted attempts to sell an agent on my story—one I’ve worked on for three years—got the better of me. I took a deep breath and forced those tears back where they belong. Stuffed way down, a dark little knot of disappointment and despair.

After several minutes, the agent swept in, introducing herself mid-stride, and asked me to begin. Given the shortened window of time, I dived straight in and pitched my book. Just as I got rolling, she interrupted me.

Oh, for the love of God, please just let me get this out, I pleaded silently. Certainly, she was about to dismiss me, to tell me my plotline sounds ridiculous. She didn’t. She leaned in and said, very sharply, “What’s your name again?” I told her, holding up my name tag. “Great writer’s name. Continue.”

I finished up quickly, aware of the time I didn’t have. She demanded to know the title, cocked her head to the side and fixed me with a look. “Okay. I want to see this book. Send me two chapters.”

It wasn’t a full request, but given the angst I’d felt getting to this point, it might as well have been. My smile could not have been bigger (and if you know me, it’s pretty big).

I jumped up from the table, planning to rush off to my room, fire up my laptop, and send her the pages in seconds. As I turned away, she called my name. “When you submit, please be sure to let me know whether this is a multi-agent submission.”

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In the end, all four agents I met with requested pages. I went home with two partials and two full manuscript requests. Four for four.

Overall,  every agent was kind and friendly. Each of them did something to establish a connection with me, and made the right noises about my story. I’ve sent the manuscripts off. So far, I’ve received one rejection from that set of queries. Which means three (two full manuscripts) of them are still in play.

Better check my email…it might be from an agent.