Authors and the Internet

(Originally published Dec 7, 2015, here.)

If you read my bio, one of the things that it says is that I have an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. The SHU MFA program is a bit different from most other MFAs in that it focuses on genre fiction and on novels, to the extent that my thesis project was a full-length novel. One of the other focuses of the program is the business of writing.

During my last term, one of the required classes spent a good chunk of time talking about promotion, not of our books, but of author-selves. Or rather, the class discussed various methods for being an author on the Internet, what that meant, and how exactly you should engage with the public.

Short form: there is no one right way. (Kind of like there is no one right way to write a novel, actually.) But there are things you need to think about before you dive in.

One of the things an author must decide when engaging with the public, especially with the advent of social media, is how much do you want to engage and how much of your private life do you want to be public?

The best plan is to figure this out before you publish, of course. But even still, you can make adjustments as you go, with the caveat, once it’s out there…it’s out there.

Some things to consider: How active do you want to be on social media? What platforms do you want to use? Will you talk only about your writing life, or will you also talk about your personal life beyond writing? Will you be involved in social causes? Politics? Etc. There are positives and negatives to it all.

And yes, you can talk about politics and social causes. You can, in fact, be your fiery passionate self. Just decided how passionate you want to be, because you may also get flack from shitheads about that. (Learn to mute and block.)

No, you don’t have to be a smiling upbeat bland talking head to be successful. And no, you don’t have to be positive all the damn time. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has a need to get out and rant sometimes. Just—think about how often you’re doing it and why. You probably shouldn’t spend months or years subtweeting your hatred of someone, because readers (and others) do notice that kind of thing and it’s a turnoff. And yeah, you probably shouldn’t go ballistic about a bad review and rant and complain about the reviewer, etc. Save those things for emails to your best writing buddy.

I’m not saying you have to be nice or professional. I’m saying you should be cognizant. What information your put out and what emotions you want to make public about the things you want to share is all part of deciding how much of your private life you want out in social media. That’s really up to you. You should realize the effect of what you share and decide if that’s what you want.

So, then how do you interface with readers on the Internet?

At this point, all authors need to have a website that they keep up to date with their bio, and information with their released and forthcoming books. That’s more or less the bare minimum. And actually, if that’s all you want to do, that’s absolutely fine. Seriously. I know this flies in the face of a lot of advice that says you must interact with people, but if that’s the level you’re comfortable with…do that.

Some authors choose to be active bloggers or use twitter or Facebook to connect with fans and other folks. The trick is, you need to do what feels the most comfortable for you, because this stuff does take time. And if you hate how you interact with the world on social media, it’ll suck the life out of your interactions…and folks will know. It’ll also take away energy from the most important part of you author-life: writing the next book.

I should probably also note that if you’re approaching social media only as a way to promote your books…stop. No one likes constantly being shilled at. Look at social media as a way of interacting with people who might happen to be readers and writers (or industry professionals).

Yes, we authors tend to blog and tweet a lot about our books around release day, but the way to take the edge of that is not to do it all the damn time. I’ve muted or unfollowed fellow writers if all they do is schedule tweets that constantly say things like “Is my book on your e-reader?” and include a link. I know a lot of other folks do, too. People follow you on social media to interface with you, not your regularly scheduled automated promo.

Back to the MFA program for a second. One of the books assigned during the class I took was Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s worth a read. (I have a copy from 2009, which is a bit dated, but the core of the information is solid. Just the favored platforms have changed.) In it, he lists five pillars of an author’s booklife and the last one of these pillars is honesty.

I think in this day and age and especially in our little subgenre of queer romance, it’s the most important.

This isn’t to say you can’t have a pen name or that you have to let your personal life hang out all over the Internet. Honesty isn’t opening yourself up completely.

Yes, you can have a gender-neutral or masculine pen name and be a woman. But don’t crawl into the skin of someone you are not.

Meaning that the Internet you should bare a passing resemblance to the private you. Don’t take up the mantle of something you are not and try to pass yourself off as that…because it’s not the truth, and when it comes out that it isn’t (and these things always do) your readers (and other folks) will feel horribly burned by your dishonesty.

If you’re not a veterinarian, don’t fake being one on a blog or twitter and start giving advice about caring for pets with that assumed authority.

That seems kind of like common sense, yes?

Now…here’s a tricky bit: Sometimes we are closer to who we really are on the Internet than we are in non-Internet life. This is especially true for queer people. Someone may identify as bisexual or gay or trans (etc.) and not be out to their family or co-workers. There are quite a few authors who fall into this category. In this case, the Internet can be a safe space to finally peel off the skin that feels fake and shine as your genuine self.

Who you are in private, who you are in the non-Internet world, and who you are on the Internet can be vastly different. We often have to hide our true selves in the non-Internet world, because it’s not always a safe space, despite how far the world has come.

And sometimes people find their truer selves on the Internet because of that.

So yes, an author can be male on the Internet (or female or genderfluid, etc.) and when you meet them at a convention or you see a photograph of them, they may present differently in the non-Internet world. This is perfectly fine.

As readers and writers, we should assume good intentions. And generally, I think we do.

The issue comes in when the intentions are not good.

So authors: keep your intentions good.

That really should go without saying.

If your intentions are not good, you will generate a lot of distrust and hurt and dislike. As well you should.

I have no pity for those who dig their own holes, whether it be through plagiarism or catfishing or being lying liars who lie. When they get caught, I only feel for the folks tangled up in the mess left behind.

Share whatever you feel comfortable sharing about yourself on whatever media you feel most at ease using. Use whatever pen name you want to use. But for goodness sake, be you.

It’s so much easier that way.

[You may have noticed that I used Internet and non-Internet life in this essay, rather than Internet and Real World. That’s because the Internet is part of the Real World. You are real. I am real. We hide and show ourselves in different ways in our non-Internet life, too. It’s good to remember this, I think.]