Twitter, Tweet, Twits:
How the Hottest Social Media Platform Helps Writers

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

By now, if you haven’t at least heard of Twitter, you should probably just get back to dusting your cave paintings and chasing away those pesky pterodactyls.

What you may not know, however, is exactly what Twitter is and how it can help you as a writer. And no matter what the media says about Internet geeks discussing what they had for breakfast or how annoyed they are at their boss, Twitter can help you. As with everything on the Internet, it’s simply a matter of filtering out the useless information to get to the good stuff.

What the Heck is a Twitter?

Twitter is a microblogging platform. Twitterers—also known as tweeple, tweeps, or twits, the latter of which we’ll use for this article’s purposes—post messages up to 140 characters in length.

Twitter homepage

What you’ll see when you go to http://www.twitter.com.

These messages, or tweets, appear on a twit’s page and are seen by their followers. Followers are people who choose to add you to their list of people whose tweets they watch.

If a twit doesn’t have followers, they’re essentially talking to themselves. And while much of the Internet can consist of people talking to themselves, Twitter is a waste without followers. And if you’re not following anyone, you won’t receive an ounce of information. Once you’ve begun following people, your Twitter “feed”—what you see when you first log in—will show the most recent tweets posted by your friends.

kristophrenia's Twitter page

My Twitter page. At the top is the text entry box, where I answer the question,”What are you doing?” Below that are the most recent tweets from people I follow. In the right sidebar are my statistics: number of people I follow, number who follow me, and how many tweets I’ve made. Below that are links to my replies, direct messages sent to me, and any tweets I’ve favorited.

Feeling silly yet? Well, yes, it does sound silly. What’s not silly, though, is how much it can help you weed through the overwhelming mass of resources on the web.

If you’re not yet convinced, I’ll offer an example from my own experience. A few months ago, I woke up one day, made my usual oversized pot of coffee, and began my morning Internet surfing. Checked my sixteen email accounts, my Facebook, my RSS feeds. And then I hopped onto Twitter. One of the writers I follow had just posted a link to the blog of literary agent Caren Johnson, of Caren Johnson Literary Agency; Ms. Johnson was offering writers the chance to post a short pitch for their novel in the comments of her blog. For each pitch, Ms. Johnson either requested a partial from the writer or offered her reasons for passing.

If you’ve done the query route, you know how very rare this is.

The catch: writers had 24 hours from the initial blog post to enter their pitch. I discovered the opportunity a scant two hours before the deadline. I hurried to tweak my pitch to her requirements, watching the seconds slip away as I did. Then I took a shower, as I knew that otherwise I’d spend the next twenty minutes hitting the refresh button. By the time I was dressed and blow-dried, Ms. Johnson had requested a partial from me. While she eventually rejected my novel, she offered her reasons—something that was a huge help in fixing a flaw in my voice.

If it weren’t for Twitter, I’d never have seen the post, or at least not in time to take advantage of it. Now that’s a resource.

No more rummaging through page after page of blogs by agents, editors, and fellow writers. No more searching through the many online publications that follow the publishing industry’s movements. No more wondering what articles and announcements you’re missing. Once you’ve found and followed a good selection of writers, agents, and editors, you can go to your Twitter page and find out all the latest.

Twitter vs. Facebook, MySpace, and Blogs: The Big Difference

So you have accounts with Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, a few dozen other social networking accounts, and a blog, all of which you use with varying frequencies. Why add one more to the pile?

Facebook and all its buddies help you connect with the people you know. Twitter, on the other hand, is the perfect place to connect with people you don’t know, but want or need to agents, editors, and other writers. Follow them, and they might follow you back. Even if they don’t, you’ll have immediate access to what they have to say.

The sparse amount of information required for an account—name and email address—adds to the privacy level. Controlling the information you release on Twitter involves nothing more complex than evaluating your own words. Rather than worrying what old, embarrassing, and perhaps incriminating picture a friend might post and tag with your name—one of the scariest parts of Facebook now that everyone’s boss, mother, and grandma has an account—you just have to watch what you say. That’s all Twitter is: words and links.

The Basics

Once you’ve created an account, you can begin following people. To make it easy for you, click here and log in, if you aren’t already. Then simply click the Follow button under my picture (yes, that’s me). Congratulations! You just followed your first twit.[1]

There are a few ways to find more people worth following.

Every twitter user’s page shows their friends in the right sidebar.

kristophrenia's Twitter friends

A selection of people I follow.

Click the View All link under the block of pictures, hover your mouse over each twit’s username, and see if their personal description catches your interest. If it does, just click the Follow button under their username. Or go straight to their Twitter feed by clicking on their picture. See some interesting tweets there? Click the Follow button under their picture.
kristophrenia's Twitter profile

Following a user is as easy as clicking a button.

Another useful method is through @replies. When you want to reply directly to someone’s tweet, simply place the @ sign and the person’s username before your tweet.

A real life example:

20orsomething: I love books and I love publishing, and Twitter is a fantastic resource for both. Reveling in words and soaking up the knowledge…

kristophrenia: @20orsomething I know! I’m continually amazed by how useful this is, once you’re following the right people.

If someone following me were curious to know more about Susan Pogorzelski, a.k.a 20orsomething, they can simply click the link to her profile in my reply. I’ve followed many people after seeing the interesting conversations they had with my friends; conversely, I’ve gained several followers after they saw my own conversations with their friends. You can keep up with @replies directed at you by clicking the @username link on your homepage, or by using the many applications designed to bring your Twitter feed to your desktop or your iPhone.

Once you’ve built a decent base of friends, you can start using the information they post—and disseminating information you find by tweeting links to interesting articles and blog posts. Twitter automatically shortens any URL under 30 characters; other ways to convert links include TinyURL, bit.ly, and Snipr. Copy and paste the URL you want to shorten into any of these websites, then copy and paste the resulting shorter URL into your update box. For example, the URL for http://www.toasted-cheese.com/ becomes http://bit.ly/p3fn. Posting URLs is a great way to connect others to interesting articles, making you an important resource in their world; it can also be wonderful self-promotion. The number of unique visitors who came to my blog last month was twice the number that found me the month I joined Twitter.

Did someone post an update that you find interesting, something that you want to share with your friends? Give credit by placing the letters RT (which stands for “re-tweet”) at the beginning of your update, followed by an @reply for the original twit, then paste their update. Just a few days ago, my friend strugglngwriter posted a comic cracked me up. I showed it to my followers and gave him credit by tweeting:

RT @strugglngwriter As a writer, this comic from Wondermark made me laugh: http://wondermark.com/519/.

Certain subjects tend to blow up quickly on Twitter as everyone tweets on a trending topic; Twitter keeps these organized using hashtags (#topic). A great example is “Follow Friday”. Every Friday, many twits post an update listing their favorite, funniest, or most useful friends using the @reply feature. With the addition of the tag #followfriday to the update, users can easily search for Follow Friday posts without having to weed through every update that includes the word “follow” or “Friday”.

How to Maximize Your Time

If you intend to use Twitter as a professional resource, it’s important to streamline your list of followers. This greatly reduces the amount of useless or inane information that will appear in your feed, and we all know there’s a massive amount of inanity out there. Feel free to follow your friends, but don’t feel obligated to follow every “social media expert” that follows you.

But how can you find all the people you should follow? One great resource, aside from the methods mentioned above, is WeFollow. Here, users can add themselves to a database with up to three descriptive tags; for example, I chose #fantasy, #youngadult, and #writer. Add yourself to the database, then skim through the listings for writers, agents, editors, and the genres in which you write.

The first site that helped me find compatible twits to follow was Mr. Tweet. Simply follow Mr. Tweet on Twitter, and he’ll Direct Message (DM) you back. Once he’s analyzed your followers, he’ll DM you a link to a personalized site, where you can find a list of recommended twits based on who you already follow. Mr. Tweet updates bi-weekly, so you can find more great people to follow every other week. The more writers and publishing people you follow, the more information you have access to.

To get you started, here’s a list of agents and editors who tweet:

With the increasingly fast pace of news on the Internet, our ever-decreasing attention spans, and the rising ubiquity of the agent or editor blog, something like Twitter is desperately needed if you want to keep up. So come on out of the cave, dodge that pterodactyl, and follow me.

I promise I’ll follow you back.

Tips

  • Make sure you have the option “E-mail when someone starts following me” turned on (Settings ? Notices). This ensures that, when someone follows you, you can follow them back if you wish.
  • Like so many other useful tools, Twitter can be addictive and distracting if you allow it to be. To avoid getting irrevocably sucked into the information black hole, give yourself time limits. Use Twitter as a reward for writing. And by all mean, keep that browser closed while you’re writing.
  • Be a part of the conversation. Don’t be afraid to reply to tweets you find appealing or funny. Just make sure that what you have to say is interesting, informative, or at least entertaining. As with everything on the Internet, think before you tweet.

Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

[1] I’ll freely admit I’m not the most useful twit; I aim more to entertain myself and my followers, and I enjoy having moderately wacky conversations. I’ve met a lot of hilarious, interesting twits that way. But I also post interesting links to industry articles, and I follow every agent, editor, and writer I can find.

Final Poll Results

Your First Writers Conference:
A Guided Tour

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

I didn’t get to go to my first writers conference.

In late 2006, I joined Pennwriters, Inc., a Pennsylvania writers group. My reasons for joining were threefold: I wanted to go to their conference, which in most cases is cheaper as a member; I wanted a critique partner who wrote in my genre; and I wanted to network.

I got the critique partner. I’m still working on the networking—breaking into established groups always makes me shy. And the conference? Well, I even submitted the first ten pages of my two young adult novels to the group’s annual writing contest, the results of which are announced at the conference. I was that dead-set on going. As I told my husband, I didn’t hope to actually win (a blatant lie); I wanted the judges’ critiques that came after the contest.

Life doesn’t always agree with our plans, though. In May 2007, when they announced the contest winners at the conference’s Saturday luncheon, I was in my car on I-495, probably having a panic attack as I dealt with D.C.-area traffic for the first time. Somewhere between entering the contest and the actual conference, my husband and I agreed to a temporary move to Virginia for his job. Our moving weekend just happened to coincide with the conference.

I’ll admit I thought of the contest once or twice, on the drive down, but once we got to Virginia everything was so chaotic that I didn’t think of it again until Wednesday. Since we were still without Internet access, I called my mom and helped her access my email. I paced our still furniture-less apartment as she scanned the messages, looking for the right one. You probably didn’t win, I told myself. Don’t expect to win.

“Oh, my God,” Mom said from five hundred miles away. I heard the excitement in her voice, but I couldn’t have guessed what came next. My breath caught in my throat as she read the winners’ list. “‘Novel Beginnings’ Contest: First place, The Malloy Legacy, Kristin Baxter. Third place, Battle of the Hexes, Kristin Baxter.”

It was the first time I ever won anything. And, technically, the second. In retrospect, not attending the conference was probably a boon, since my jumping-screaming-crying reaction may not have made the most professional impression on my peers. It made a lasting impression on the cat, though.

That particular bittersweet experience inspired a singular goal in my mind: I would go to the 2008 conference, and I would take advantage of every second.

So, in May 2008, I drove to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend what should’ve been my second writers conference but was really my first. Throughout that weekend, my heart rose in my throat and plummeted to my stomach, I got several serious cases of jelly knees, and I was exhausted to my very marrow and yet utterly unable to sleep.

This is the mark of a good conference.

I listened raptly to a keynote speech by Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite writers. I nearly had a heart attack when an editor from Avon read the first two pages of my novel to an editor from Berkley and another from Tor, as well as a room full of writers, and then all three editors critiqued it. I pitched my novel to an editor from HarperCollins and received a request for the full manuscript.

I came away from the weekend inspired and invigorated, and ready for another year of lonely work. I also arrived home brimming with advice for first-timers.

There are several features to consider when choosing a writers conference. Conferences can be prohibitively expensive once you add everything up. This may be the only time this year, or for several years, that you get to gather with other writers of all genres and areas, at all levels of experience, and learn about the one thing that brings you together. You want the event to be worth every last penny.

Here’s how to figure out which conference is right for you, which features are important and which aren’t, and how to take advantage of every second.

Costs

A full conference can cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, and that’s just the base cost. Once you add hotel rates, food, drinks, transportation costs, and extras such as keynote dinners and parties, you’ve shelled out enough for a nice vacation. And if you’re just starting out in this business, you probably aren’t making nearly enough money to nullify the hole this trip will put in your bank account—if you’re making any money from your writing at all.

If you’re not sure whether a conference is right for you, or if you can only invest a limited amount of time and money, some conferences allow a single-day attendance option. If the conference is located within a few hours’ drive, you not only decrease the total cost of the conference, you also eliminate the need for an expensive hotel stay.

A full writers conference, though, is like an investment. You must be confident that you’ll get a return on it, whether it be financial in the long run, or mental and emotional in the short. So the most important consideration is whether it’s worth your money.

Here’s a basic list of what to look for:

  • Location: Is the conference close enough that you won’t go broke paying for gas or plane fares? Does a friend or family member live nearby, providing free accommodations?
  • Classes and seminars: Does the class list pique your interest? Does it strike a good balance, with offerings for both beginners and more advanced writers?
  • Editors and agents in attendance: Will editors from well-known publishing houses or magazines be there? Will agents who represent authors you read and admire be making the trip?
  • Critiques: Does the conference offer in-person critiques of attendees’ work, whether by fellow writers or by publishing professionals?
  • Pitch sessions: Will you have the opportunity to pitch your work to an established editor or agent?
  • Keynote Speaker/Guest of Honor: Is it someone you admire? Someone you’ve been dying to meet?

Classes and Seminars: Striking a Balance

Writers are like snowflakes—no two are exactly alike. Some of them are seasoned pros, and some of them make clichéd comparisons to snowflakes.

In all seriousness, every writer is at a different level of experience and skill, and if they’re steadily working, their level of experience is in constant flux. No conference can possibly cater to every writer in attendance. And even when a conference and the classes attended are chosen with utmost care, every class a writer attends isn’t going to enlighten and inspire. Think of the class offerings, then, in terms of which level of writer they’ll attract. Do most of the classes focus on the basics like manuscript format, or are they geared more toward multi-published authors who need to brush up on copyright law?

Find a conference that offers a balanced selection of both. This both increases your chances of learning as much as possible, and almost guarantees a diverse attendance of writers. I firmly believe that we can learn something from every writer, from the starry-eyed neophyte to the wizened professional, if we keep an open mind.

Do yourself a favor and attend at least one class that seems beyond your current reach. Do yourself a second favor: buy a fellow attendee a drink in the bar. Be brave, and you’ll learn more than you thought possible.

Editors and Agents: New York Comes to Podunk

Most writers, contrary to popular belief, do not live in New York and hobnob with the literary elite every day. We live in the suburbs, in the country, and in the woods, and we spend our evenings at the computer or the kitchen table. For many of us, this is our one chance to connect and network with the people who decide what’s on the bookshelves each season.

To make the trip worth your while, do your research. Go beyond the conference’s guest bios and look up the agents and editors slated to attend on sites like AgentQuery and Preditors and Editors. Are they currently active in publishing? Do they have a solid history of sales or acquisitions? Most importantly, ensure that at least one editor and one agent will be attending that represents or acquires in your genre. A good conference will have a wide variety of publishing professionals with diverse areas of interest. This is especially imperative if you write in multiple genres—or if you haven’t quite settled in a genre yet.

Pitches and Critiques: Get Gutsy

While you could easily pitch your work from home with a well-polished query letter, this may be your only chance to meet one-on-one with a publishing professional. Some might scoff at pitch sessions as a worthless hook used to lure writers in, but they can be more than just an in-person query. Pitch sessions can last anywhere from two to fifteen minutes, and that face time can be valuable if used correctly.

Frequently, when registering for a conference, you can indicate your first and second choices for pitch appointments. I chose to spread mine out—I picked a children’s book editor as well as a fantasy editor, since my novels fall under both headings. Do your research, though; you’ll be wasting your time and the agent’s or editor’s if you pitch something they don’t represent or buy.

Once you’re at the conference, as terrified thoughts of your upcoming pitch dance through your head, try to attend a class led by the agent or editor you’ll be pitching to prior to your appointment. They’ll most likely be discussing your genre of choice, anyway, but this will also give you the opportunity to gauge their personality. Are they personable and lively, or subdued and curt? These cues can help you tailor your pitch to the individual who will be hearing it.

Most advice columns regarding pitch sessions tell readers not to be nervous. This is the most pointless advice I’ve ever heard. You’re risking face-to-face rejection—of course you’re going to be nervous. Better advice would be: Be yourself. Remember the passion that drove you to complete your project (don’t waste their time by pitching an unfinished book), and let that passion shine through. Once your pitch is completed, if you have time remaining, ask the agent or editor questions about their work, how they ended up doing it, and what they like best about it. Ask them about their most recent favorite book. Be friendly and open, but be professional. They’ll remember you for it.

On that note, a word of advice you’ll find everywhere else, but that too few writers heed: Don’t pitch your book to an agent or editor while they’re leading a class or seminar. There’s a fine line between bravery and rudeness, and this crosses right over it. Remember that everyone else in the class has paid to be there, just as you did. Classes are for learning; pitch sessions are for pitching.

Many conferences also offer read-and-critique sessions. In most cases, either an agent or editor, or other writers in your genre, will read your first few pages and offer their thoughts. These usually fill up quickly, so reserve a spot while you can. I didn’t register in time for the group critique sessions, but I got lucky enough that my first two pages landed near the top of the pile in a class on writing better beginnings led by three editors. When they read my first two pages aloud, I was busy searching the room for a portable defibrillator—but once I calmed down and listened, I got some phenomenal advice that helped punch up those first few pages, and that I carried through the rest of my writing. As terrifying as those few moments were, they were also invaluable to my writing.

So, while nerve wracking, these sessions can be extraordinarily helpful for your writing. Again, be brave and don’t let your fear get the best of you: you’ve paid for this opportunity, so use it.

Keynote Speakers/Guests of Honor: Bonus or Waste of Money?

Joyce Carol Oates, creative writing professor at Princeton, three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and bestselling author, delivered the keynote address at the 2008 Pennwriters conference. I’ve admired her writing for years and consider her one of my favorite writers of all time, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered she would be the featured speaker at my first conference. I emitted a very loud squealing noise, terrifying both my husband and my cat.

Ms. Oates’ speech focused on writers and rejection, a theme with which we can all identify. While such a speech could easily turn depressing, it seemed to uplift everyone in the room. She related anecdotes about legendary writers from Emily Dickinson to Samuel Beckett to Norman Mailer, and the rejections, both personal and professional, that they suffered. She then connected these rejections to each writer’s life and work, showing the profound effect rejection can have on a writer.

To know that the greats have endured such stinging rebuffs and refusals, and yet continued on to become legends and permanent members of the literary canon, should inspire even the most disheartened writer.
After her speech, Ms. Oates signed books and graciously posed for pictures. I now have a treasured, personalized memento from that weekend, one I would be unlikely to procure anywhere else.

While the keynote speaker shouldn’t be your central consideration when selecting a conference—especially since keynote dinners are not usually included in the base cost—he or she can certainly add yet another transcendent moment to the event, if the speaker is someone you admire.

Final Advice

On clothes: Most conference organizers recommend business casual wear for classes and seminars. This is a professional event, so leave the jeans at home and look your best. Plan for varying temperatures, though, and dress in layers. Many hotels and conference centers air condition their meeting rooms, but the bar and luncheon areas may be warmer. And for the ladies, don’t wear your highest high heels. You may be making several circuits from your hotel room to the classrooms, and your feet will thank you for your thoughtfulness.

On roommates: One way to cut your hotel costs in half is to bunk with another attendee. Most conferences offer a roommate-matching service. In addition to the financial considerations, this is a great way to get to know another writer.

On your fellow writers: Writers are not the most social lot; we spend a great deal of time alone, with only our characters and thoughts for company. This is your chance to spend a few days with a few hundred other writers, and the crackling energy in the air will sustain you until your next chance. Be brave. Break out of your shell. Forget your mother’s advice and talk to strangers. At the end of the weekend, you’ll be glad you did.

Resources

Below are some websites that can help you sort through the plethora of conferences out there and find the right one for you:

The Shaw Guides to Writers Conferences and Workshops: Allows sorting by genre/specialty, month, country/state.

AgentQuery: The popular resource for agent hunting tackles conferences.

Writers’ Conferences and Centers (WC & C): A division of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Includes both conference dates and registration deadlines.

Preditors and Editors: Alphabetical listing of conferences, conventions, and festivals.

Guide to Literary Agents: Small conference listing by state. Not all states listed.


Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

Final Poll Results

The Big Three

A Pen In Each Hand

By Kristin Baxter

List the benefits you’d like to get from a conference in order of importance. Do you want to improve your writing, meet publishing professionals, network with your peers—or just have a professional-sounding excuse to get out of town? Figure out what’s most important to you, and what features a conference should have to meet those needs. Then use the resources listed in the article to research conferences, and find at least three conferences that might fulfill your top three requirements.