Negotiating Social Media for Writers: A Conversation With Jim C. Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal & Kameron Hurley

Absolute BlankBy Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

“The Internet, like the steam engine, is a technological breakthrough that changed the world.” —Peter Singer

The internet can be both a blessing and a curse, giving us a wealth of information at our fingertips, and allowing us to make connections across continents and around the world. For published authors, the internet has become a place to research quickly and easily as well as interact with fans and colleagues instantaneously. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr all create spaces that allow for different levels and types of interaction.

We wondered how blogs and social media affect the writing and personal lives of working authors, so we contacted Jim C. Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Kameron Hurley, all authors with a prominent online presence, and asked them to talk to us about their lives on the internet.

Negotiating Social Media for Writers

Background Image: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Toasted Cheese: Thinking back to before you were published, can you think of any online behaviors that may have helped your career?

Jim C. Hines: Back in the wee days of the internet, when we hand-coded our “online journals” into Geocities while adding starry backgrounds and moving dragon gifs, I mostly used my web presence to connect with a handful of other struggling writers. It was a great way to share encouragement and to feel like I wasn’t alone in the struggle. Back then, the internet was pretty much worthless as a tool for self-promotion, at least for most of us, but it did help me build those human connections. That’s one of the things I try to focus on today, fifteen years later. Promotion and sales are nice, but those connections are the best part of being online.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Most of the online behaviors were mirrors of things that I do in real life. Celebrating other people’s successes, being interested in what people are working on, and generally trying to be helpful while trying to avoid being pushy.

Kameron Hurley: Writing well and passionately, certainly. Engaging with people. And not being a jerk, generally. That doesn’t mean not disagreeing with people—I disagree with people all the time—but I disagree with ideas and statements and world views. I try not to condemn people as human beings because we disagree about something. Writers have professional disagreements all the time. What I learned is that there’s a core group of people in the business with you now who will be there in twenty years, so try not to burn any bridges or start any feuds unless you’re really, really sure of what you’re doing. You’re going to see these people at all your professional events.

Writing is a business, and you have to treat it like any other business.

TC: What online media (social and otherwise) do you use most? For what? How do you use different media in different ways?)

JCH: I’ve got a blog I use for longer essays and things that require a bit more complex thought. And also the occasional Lego picture. Twitter is great for joking and chatting with folks, like the world’s biggest social bar. I’ve also started doing a little more long-form stuff on Twitter, posting things in five or ten parts. Facebook is good for posting photos and sometimes links back to longer pieces or conversations, along with shorter excerpts and jokes and such. Facebook is also nice for getting input or feedback. It’s easier to tap into the internet hivemind over there.

MRK: Twitter is where I hang out the most. I like the conversational aspect of it. It’s fantastic for research, because most of the people on there are really, let’s be honest, looking for a way to procrastinate. So queries like, “Anyone know where I can find the telegraph code for Atlanta in 1907?” get answered in five minutes flat.

KH: I spend most of my online life on Twitter, and I write all of my long form content on a blog that I own and manage at kameronhurley.com. I strongly recommend that if folks are going to write content, that they host it all on their own websites. Platforms grow, change, and dissolve, but you can maintain your website and its content presumably forever.

I cross-post all of my content to Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, and Tumblr, and I recently started an Instagram account. Tumblr and Instagram I created primarily because I knew there was a huge potential audience who used those platforms that I was completely missing. The average age of someone using Twitter is 34. If you want to find younger readers, you need to be where they are, so I do make an effort. That said, I don’t like them as much, so I keep my involvement there very low maintenance. It’s all on autopilot, set to post across platform when I click “publish” on my blog.

But Twitter is the biggest cocktail party, and certainly the platform that’s been best for me to connect with colleagues and fans. I’ve virtually “met” a ton of people who I later hung out with at conventions or appearances. I like the immediacy and low time investment of the form.

I’d pick one or two social platforms you like and put your time into those. Don’t try to fracture your time too much, or you’ll burn out really quickly. Social media moves so fast that keeping up is a full time job in and of itself.

TC: How has your relationship with the internet/social media changed since being published?

JCH: It’s gotten… bigger, really. More people, more followers, more interactions, more content… it takes significantly more time than it used to. There are a lot more options out there now. It also feels a lot more tense sometimes. I think there are a lot of important conversations and discussions happening right now, but there are also days I just want to post funny animal pictures, you know?

MRK: I talk a lot less about my personal life than I did. I used to blog about lunches and company. When 100 people follow you and they are mostly folks you know in real life, then it’s just chatting with your friends. But with 14,000 followers, it now it feels like I’m invading the privacy of my guests if I trot them out for public view.

KH: I spend more time thinking about what I’m saying instead of just blasting out angry rants. Overall, I think this is actually a good thing—as a writer, I should pay special attention to the words I’m using, and writing publicly now, with more people listening, means I’m more aware of the impact of my words, and I take greater responsibility for them. Do I really mean what I’m saying in exactly this way? Am I needlessly attacking someone? Am I being gauche to shock and hurt people? What am I trying to accomplish with a rant?

TC: Has your pre-publication online life ever “come back to haunt you”?

JCH: Not yet! My post-publication online life, on the other hand…

MRK: Not yet!

KH: Strangely enough, not that I know of. But then, my colleagues are forgiving.

TC: How do you use blogging and social media for promotion? How much self-promotion is expected of you?

JCH: I’ll announce when new books come out and things like that, but self-promotion is very much secondary. People know I’m an author. There’s links and info about my books on my sites. If readers want to check those things out, they can. They don’t need me shoving it in their face every other post.

As for how much is expected of me? I haven’t had much outside pressure from my agent or publisher or anything like that. I’ve talked to authors who feel like they’re supposed to be online and actively promoting themselves on ALL THE SITES, but that hasn’t been my experience, nor is it something I’d be comfortable trying to do. I don’t want to be a salesman. I want to talk about cool SF/F stuff with my fellow geeks, and maybe sometimes rant about stuff that pisses me off.

MRK: I do. I think the thing most people miss with social media is that the emphasis is on social. Which means that you have to be engaged in the community for it to work. Sometimes I describe social media as a high school cafeteria. You can wander through, overhearing snippets of conversations, and occasionally stop to join in them. If you need everyone to know about a thing, you stand up on the table and shout about it. If you’ve been engaging and part of the community, then everyone will help spread the word. If not…you’re just the obnoxious person who stood on the table and shouted.

KH: No one really expects authors to promote themselves; they hope for it, sometimes they ask and prod about it, but writing and promotion are very different skills, and the reality is that many of the world’s best writers are very poor promoters. The best advice I ever got on promotion was from fellow science fiction writer Tobias Buckell, who told me to only do the things I enjoyed doing when it came to promo. I don’t like doing readings, so I stopped doing them, and I doubled down on what I’m good at, which is blogging. I can write essays pretty quickly. Now I do fairly extensive blog tours during the release weeks of my books.

What you find is that media works like a sieve—you do a ton of blog posts for small blogs, and folks one tier up see that. So you do some for mid-sized blogs. Then you get invited to podcasts, you get invited to radio shows, then mid-sized publications quote you, then larger publications come knocking. It’s about projecting your presence across a number of different media during a short, intense, promotion window. Think of yourself like a puffer fish, always putting out content that makes you look like a bigger deal than you are. Sounds like a trick, right? And it is. People think I’m far more financially successful than I am when it comes to writing fiction, but that, in turn, has led to me being more successful because I’ve been invited to more projects and gotten more gigs. You project success and importance and speak loudly and smartly, and you’re funny and delightful, and then people start asking you to do more work. If you can do the work well, and on time, then congrats—you’ve faked your way to success!

Which is what a lot of us do, really. A lot of promotion is pretending to be the person you want to be, even during the times you’re really not feeling it.

TC: How would you describe your relationship with your fans online?

JCH: Pretty darn good. One fan just send me a gift certificate for gourmet bacon. My fans and readers and community of online geeks are awesome.

MRK: They are lovely, lovely people.

KH: That’s a good question. I think you’d have to ask them! Fun, overall, for me. Fans are delightful and encouraging, and one of the best parts of the jobs. I’m on Twitter to have fun, interesting conversations. Most of the folks who follow me are there for that reason, too.

TC: Of course, one drawback of the internet is the anonymous hate and trolling that sometimes goes along with having an online presence. Can you describe a time when you had to deal with hate and/or trolling?

JCH: Eh. I don’t get too much trolling, and the hate is significantly milder than I’ve seen other people get. (Which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with me being male and white and straight. /sarcasm) I have no problem with people arguing with me online. When people get abusive or cross the line into just being dicks, I generally just block them and get on with my life.

MRK: Yesterday. So, I decided that it would be a nice thing to offer to help people who couldn’t afford a supporting membership for the Hugo awards, by doing a drawing to give some away. This led to cries of “Vote buying!” even though I wasn’t up for an award. My feed became infested with people associated with GamerGate. So I did something I call “politeness trolling.” Which is that someone says something hateful to me, and I answer them with a request for clarification, often accompanied by an apology. More often than not, this actually leads to an interesting conversation.

And the ones that are just trolling me? Heh. I grew up in the South where we’re taught to say, “That’s nice,” instead of “Fuck you.” I can bless someone’s heart all day.

KH: I used to get death threats and such in the beginning (back in 2004), when I had comments turned on for my blog. I got rid of comments, have my assistant screen my email, and block people ruthlessly on Twitter now. I’ve made it so I’m able to live pretty troll-free. Twitter’s mute function is fabulous. I’m also very careful never to wade into comment sections that I know aren’t going to be useful conversations—you get very good at figuring out when someone’s discussing your work and when someone just wants to start a pile on, or poke at you to see if you’ll have some public meltdown. Inciting author meltdowns is a sport, for some people.

I see so many people giving over their platforms to trolls these days—retweeting hateful statements, getting into arguments with people who are clearly just there to argue—and I can’t imagine it’s very satisfying to anyone but the troll. You have to get that trolls are sadists. They want you to waste your time arguing with them. They want to discourage you from creating work. They want you to be upset and be fearful. The best thing you can do in the face of evil is to do the work that evil doesn’t want you to do, because it’s the work that helps create a world that has no place for them.

TC: It’s fun to watch popular authors interact with fans online, and while I’m sure the majority of interactions are positive, what are three things you wish fans wouldn’t do when interacting with you online?

JCH: Stop adding me to Facebook groups without asking! Don’t tag authors when posting nasty reviews of their books. And for Cthulhu’s sake, if you think the proper way to argue with a woman is to call her a bitch or a c**t, or to post threats of rape or violence, do civilization a favor and get the hell off the internet.

MRK: 1. Apologize for bothering me; 2. Offer me unsolicited advice on writing; 3. Complain about the pricing of my books.

KH: I occasionally get folks who tweet at me like twenty or thirty times a day, without really adding to a conversation, just sort of being like, “I’m here! I’m here!” It’s lovely that they are there, but the reality is that if something feels like spam, I need to mute it for my own sanity. I do sometimes get folks who try and make “ironic” sexist or racist jokes, which always falls flat with me. I mute those immediately, even knowing they meant no harm. When you’re surrounded in real hate all day, even the ironic stuff gets to you.

Overall, though, my fans are great. They are funny and smart and supportive. I even had one bring me a bottle of scotch to a signing, raising the bar for all future fan interactions (TAKE NOTE FANS).

TC: Can you offer any advice to those hoping to be published, regarding their internet/social media presence?

JCH: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t try to do everything, because you’ll burn yourself out fast. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and do that.

MRK: Don’t stress about it too hard. The social in social media means that you really should be engaging in ways that are comfortable to you. Anything that you have to work at, or hate doing, is going to show as a lack of sincerity. And at the end of the day, your job is to write. So do that first.

KH: Do what you love. Avoid the stuff you don’t like doing. But know the difference between “I don’t like this” and “this is too hard to learn.” Sometimes, if you take the time to learn a new platform, you’ll end up liking it, but you don’t know if you don’t try.

And don’t be a jerk. For the love of all things… don’t be a jerk. Be the best possible version of you. Treat people kindly and humanely. These aren’t pixels, they’re people. And when you are burned out (and you WILL be burned out, at one time or another), it’s OK to take a break from the internet and promotion and all the rest.

I’ve gotten to the point now where I schedule six weeks a year that are just to promote whatever novel I have coming out, and I don’t expect to do any writing in that time. Then I go dark for a month or two, and really pull back on my social presence after that while I work on the next book. Don’t try and be “on” all the time. Break it up into manageable chunks of time.

But most of all, I want to remind folks that the work comes first. Write great books. THEN figure out how to tell people about them. Walk before you run.

pencil

Jim C. Hines‘s first novel was Goblin Quest, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After finishing the goblin trilogy, he went on to write the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, and is currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, a modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. He’s also the author of the Fable Legends tie-in Blood of Heroes. His short fiction has appeared in more than 50 magazines and anthologies.

Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan.

Mary Robinette Kowal is a Hugo-award winning author, voice actor, and professional puppeteer. Her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while two of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story: “Evil Robot Monkey” in 2009 and “For Want of a Nail” in 2011, which won the Hugo that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press. Mary lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Sometimes she even writes on them.

Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture—a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. She has won the Hugo Award (twice), and been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her most recent novel is the subversive epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. The sequel, Empire Ascendant, will be out in October 2015. She writes regularly for Locus Magazine and publishes personal essays at kameronhurley.com.

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2 thoughts on “Negotiating Social Media for Writers: A Conversation With Jim C. Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal & Kameron Hurley

  1. Pingback: The Fellowship of the Puppy 5/8 | File 770

  2. Just discovered this site. So useful.. looking forward to a bit of back reading. I’ve just been offered a book deal on my blog so building a writer platform is my next big step – delighted to have found you!

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