Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Website Review:

Twitter

By Margaret McGaffrey Fisk
Copyright 2009 by Margaret McGaffrey Fisk, All Rights Reserved


www.twitter.com

Twitter is a social website where people communicate in spurts of 140 characters or less.  The description, though, barely scratches the surface of a tool that has had enough of an impact in the political and corporate world that some people are wondering if it should be held in a single company's hands.  It's the latest, greatest communication engine and no one is quite sure of the final impact.

That's all well and good, but why should writers, whether just starting out or already with a publication or two under their belts, care about a social site?  It might seem that 140 characters (not even words, mind you) are too few to provide anything of redeeming value, especially not professional information.  But that impression is patently false.

Twitter offers writers the opportunity to peer over the shoulders of agents, editors, other writers, publishers, and market experts.  Following the right tweeters means someone else points you to the most critical articles and blog posts in your interest area.  You can get early notification of submission periods, learn the quirks of an agent or editor you're interested in, or discover something you thought of as a hard and fast rule is really more along the lines of 50-50 among various professionals.  You can even gauge the personality of people you might want to work closely with, learning first hand their ability to present themselves to the world.  The possibilities are pretty much endless.

I follow a handful of agents and editors whom I have found offer useful information and advice. Reading their tweets about shows they like, food they eat, or difficulty with their landlords also helps demystify these writing gatekeepers, making them seem more approachable.  Several agents in my follow list are ones that I will never submit a manuscript to because they do not cover my genres, but I read their posts because they still offer a window into the world of agenting that is otherwise limited to the occasional blog post about that role.

Even if you think learning these industry professionals are human isn't a worthwhile use of your time, both the agents and editors offer tips about common problems they see in submissions, how to handle conference interviews, what they are looking for, and dozens of other hints.  Not only that, but they act as a filter for the web itself, pointing out articles they think properly convey information about their knowledge areas, whether a publishing terms dictionary or a breakdown of word counts per genre.  It's also a useful method to determine whether your submission has been read since many report the state of their backlog.  Not only that, but several agencies have run contests through Twitter with a requested partial or query critique as the prize.

Twitter offers an additional tool that agents and editors use to flag and organize important information.  These hashtags (a non-spaced group of words marked with #) allow you to see all the posts related to that topic. They are accessible by clicking the hashtag on a post in your feed (or typing the term into the search box) to see all public posts on the topic whether you follow that person or not.  Some of the ones I have checked include:

#pubtips - This is a tag used to identify information related to publishing.  If you have a question, you can target it to an individual by putting @ before their handle (for example @marfisk gets me), but if you add #pubtips, anyone following that hashtag can answer.  Some examples would be a question about the difference between query letters and cover letters, that FinePrint agent Colleen Lindsay flinches from the term "science fiction novel" because of the "fiction novel" even though she knows it's the proper name, and a link to a blog post detailing the way royalties are calculated.

#askagent - Periodically, any one of a group of agents will decide to open their Twitter feeds to questions, usually limited to non-query questions.  This is a spur of the moment event when they have a spare hour or two.  One usually starts and others join in if they can, but the questions and answers will be available for some time afterwards even if you miss the actual session.

#queryfail - A controversial event that is announced ahead of time where agents and editors go through their submission pile and note trends or errors that people should correct before sending their work in.  The controversy came about because some authors objected to the level of specificity in the submissions discussed, but the two I have watched offered some good cautions.

And if you're not yet at the submission point with your writing, you can still follow other writers who can give you an idea for how professionals manage their workload, the struggles they go through, how they promote themselves, and many other bits of information that would take an age to glean from reading their blogs.  Here again there are hashtags to find information about writing in general (#writing), as well as numerous ones to collect comments about specific genres or techniques, such as #writingtips where you'll see both actual suggestions and links to useful web pages.

Another benefit of Twitter when following agents, editors, and writers is the ability to see a bird's eye view of the major genre and publishing conventions and conferences that you may not be able to attend.  I've gotten an insider perspective on BEA (Book Expo America), RWA (Romance Writers of America), ComicCon, SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), and World Con this summer.  You can learn who won the various awards as they are being announced, what is the most sought after swag (giveaways), what publishers seem most interested in, and that publishers are giving out electronic versions of their novels for the conference rather than bound ones. 

The minute by minute reporting isn't the only conference benefit as I mentioned above with agents and editors offering tips in advance of the conference you might be attending so you can avoid some of the pitfalls.  Following someone on Twitter, for example, is not considered stalking.  Chasing them into the bathroom on the other hand...

There is no requirement to follow those who follow you, so don't expect a bunch of agents to add you to their list.  That said, if you start to say interesting things that are ReTweeted (essentially forwarded on Twitter), you may find yourself with followers who want to know what else you might have to offer.

Many publishers also put a representative on Twitter to discuss current releases, contests, submission calls, or other aspects that would be handy to know.  To offer a couple examples: @HarlequinBooks points out when a novel contest is run along with discounts and sales on their books.  @EosBooks highlights blog posts of interest, and if you're paying attention, you can see which releases they consider warrant that extra push.

Then you have more general resources like @PublishersWkly, which offers an article roundup and highlights specific news relevant to publishing; @fmwriters where you can learn what challenges, marathons, or classes are running on Forward Motion; or @JaneFriedman who is publisher and editorial director of the Writer's Digest brand community at F+W Media and offers a "Twitter Highlights" blog post every week to call out things you might have missed.

One easy way to start following the people you're interested in is the We Follow directory.  Twitter participants put their handles into the directory under relevant tags and you search for the tag to see who you might be interested in.  For example, to find agents, you can look here: http://wefollow.com/twitter/agent while you'd use the tag search at the top of any page to find other useful categories.

Now before you run out and sign up, there are some pitfalls to using Twitter.  Keeping up with everyone's posts, especially if you're quick to follow or follow back, can be time consuming.  Some people have posts go to their phone (confirm whether it is covered by your plan first because it can get pricey), others read on one of the many Twitter tools, and still others stick to the basic website.  However you connect, though, reading takes time.

The flip side of that is Twitter is a constant stream.  If you go on vacation, catching up on your return is painful.  The best way to look at it is as though Twitter were a huge chat room that you go in and out of.  You have no good way of learning everything that happened when you were absent, but there's enough value in the current information to make it worth your while.  Don't try to keep up, just enjoy what you can, when you can.

Also, this is an online presence.  Even if your post scrolls deep into the past, it still might show up on Google some time later.  Be smart.  Be yourself, but at the same time, be aware of how you appear to the others following your stream.  People joke about swearing once and losing a handful of followers, but that's less of a concern than constantly making abrasive, clingy, or ignorant posts to people who you want to interact with on a professional level.  Just as Twitter can help you learn that agents are real people, so does your stream let them have a peek at who you are.  Don't Tweet in a manner that you wouldn't use when sitting across the table from them at a conference, because that will make an impression it may be hard to overcome.

So, are you all ready to dive in, then?  Go to www.Twitter.com and sign up.  The only charge is to your spare minutes.