Wondering about Facebook and Other Random Jottings: A Guest Post by Bill Sherwonit

I’m not exactly a Luddite, but I am something of a technophobe, never quite comfortable around the latest technological gadgets. I remember my unease when computers were first moving out of research labs and into the general population. Maybe I was influenced by all the science fiction I’d read as a teenager and young adult, but computers seemed a scary and perhaps even a dangerous thing. I kept my distance from those intimidating contraptions until being forced to learn their basic workings when I joined The Anchorage Times in 1982. (The Times, unfortunately, had an ancient computer system that was prone to crashing on deadline and I lost lots of words to that techno-beast. Eventually I learned to hit the “save” key every few sentences or so.)

I was perhaps one of the last journalists to compose my stories on a typewriter; the first newspaper I worked at, the Simi Valley Enterprise, didn’t upgrade from typewriters to computers until after I left that small California paper’s newsroom to become a Times sports writer.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that I’ve always gone with user-friendly Macs since getting my first home computer, sometime in the late 1980s. The latest is a 2008 model MacBook, my first laptop. Even with Apple computers, I generally use only the most basic functions. More than anything, they’re a great storage device for stories, research, online interviews, and email communiqués. And my computer has become invaluable for composing stories, though I still prefer to record notes in a journal, inscribing words on paper with pen or sometimes pencil. Even with the MacBook, I generally steer clear of the many little symbols that are stretched in a daunting row across the bottom of my computer screen. I have yet to explore iChat, iTunes, Garage Band, or Time Machine, to name a few of the programs – or is it applications? – I carefully avoid. I haven’t even experimented with the popular Power Point. Someday, maybe.

I think I was one of the last writers in the U.S. to finally – and, at the time, reluctantly – get email. I carry a simple cell phone, mostly for emergencies, and still haven’t learned how to retrieve messages (nor do I desire to learn). As for all the other small, hand-held devices that seem to be everywhere and do everything: Yikes!

All of this is leading, in a roundabout way, to Facebook. Over the past couple of years, several people have invited me to become a Facebook “friend.” I’ve been tempted to check out their Facebook pages, but that means I have to sign up and my technophobic side has been hesitant to do that. What strange new world would I enter? It’s a little like looking down the rabbit hole.

More recently a few writerly friends and colleagues have suggested that Facebook might be a good way to help publicize books and other literary matters. I’ve already seen the Internet’s value in helping to “spread the word” about my recent books via emails, blogs, and websites. So what about Facebook? I can feel myself edging closer to that doorway, anxiety building . . .

As if Facebook isn’t enough, now there’s Twitter, something that remains far off my personal radar screen, but apparently embraced by legions.

And so I wonder: does anyone out there have stories or opinions to share about Facebook? (I’m less curious about Twitter, although it might be interesting to get a writer’s perspective on that phenomenon, too.) What should a writer do?

* * *

Like other writers who endeavor to earn a living through their stories, I frequently struggle to balance the creative and business sides of writing. In fact I sometimes have to remind myself that they’re two very different animals. Two different ways of being. Creating stories is challenging enough. But to “sell” one’s work? That, for me, is a far bigger challenge, also a greater source of frustration, angst, and, occasionally, deep discouragement (though certainly it can sometimes lead to great rewards, positive reinforcement, unexpected opportunities).

It’s certainly true that some days I struggle to put together even a few coherent sentences, days when nothing I write seems to work. But by and large, the writing of stories feeds and fulfills me, helps me better understand my place in the world, maybe even offers hope. The selling or “marketing” of my work often wears me down. But if I want to make a living at the former – and gain an audience – the latter is necessary. I initially typed in “a necessary evil,” but in truth it’s not that; now and then spreading the word can actually be fun. But overall, it’s emotionally hard work and yes, wearisome.

By nature I’m introverted, like many if not most writers, I suppose. From my teens into my early thirties, I was painfully shy, often a loner. Both writing and reporting helped draw me out. To succeed in journalism, I had to engage more with people. For a long time, I think I instinctively followed the adage, “fake it ‘til you make it.” Finding a career – a calling – that I loved, and having some success at it, helped me along the way. So did my middle-aged discovery of “community.”

Once while attending the Sitka Symposium, a fellow participant joyfully announced, “Finally, I’ve found my tribe.” That’s how I feel about the community of nature writers, specifically, and writers generally. There’s a certain bond, I think, in how we relate to the world. Sure, the writing community is a vast thing, especially if you pull in the publishing world. I’m not saying I feel connected to all of it. That’s far from true. But I’ve found community within that larger, more intimidating world, especially here in Alaska. It’s a community that for me includes journalists and creative writers, essayists and novelists, poets and bloggers and activists (some writers wearing many hats).

While I still love my solitude and am content to spend hours of the day alone, I also now relish my participation in circles of friends and colleagues and other like-minded and -hearted souls. (For me writing overlaps with other circles, for instance with the “green” community of environmental/conservation activists and, more generally, nature-loving folks.)

Though I’m not by nature a salesman or promoter, I of course need to be one, at least now and then. I was intrigued by Ken Waldman’s four-part series “In Defense of Self-Promotion” because he clearly seems to embrace that part of his writer’s and musician’s life. On the other hand, I know talented, published writers who seem able to “let go” soon after their books are published and don’t fret about how well their books are selling or what more they can do to promote their work. (Yet even they must “sell” their stories or ideas at some point, no?)

I fall somewhere in the middle. Never having had an agent or a major publisher – and most recently published by a university press, which is about as far from N.Y. publishing houses as you can get, when it comes to marketing opportunities – I have had to be deeply involved in the marketing of my books. Sometimes I feel I should do much more. Other times I wish I wouldn’t obsess so much over how my book is doing on Amazon.com, the size of the audience that attends my book events, or whether I can get some mention in even the local media. In short, I can drive myself nuts!

The writing and selling of a book are challenging enough. But then comes the roller-coaster ride of book promotion. It’s exciting and uplifting to have dozens of people attend a talk and reading and, conversely, awfully disheartening to have an audience of one or two people. Having experienced both I now try to avoid the latter. No book tours for me at this point in my writing life, partly because the University of Alaska Press has no budget for that, partly because I’ve been tied to home by care-giving responsibilities, and lastly because it’s not something I yearn to do. Nowadays I pick my spots, choosing to do fewer “live” events and instead focusing my marketing efforts in other directions, for instance Internet connections (thus my curiosity about Facebook). Since my newest book came out in September I’ve spent way too much time online, not nearly enough time writing new stories. On the other hand, maybe I haven’t done enough to promote the book. Yeah, it’s crazy stuff.

* * *

I can’t talk about the business of writing without some mention of rejections. As I sometimes tell students, writing is the ideal lifestyle for people who need to work on their “rejection issues,” because most of us writers – even many of those who are considered successful – must face rejection again and again and again.

This is where persistence comes in. And a belief (even if it’s delusional) in the worth of one’s work. It also helps to grow a thick skin.

Writers sometimes discuss their many rejections in a gallows-humor sort of way. Some rejections, we agree, simply stink. Or hurt, immeasurably. Others can provide essential insights. Some are actually encouraging. And some are suitable for framing (well, almost). But there comes a point, as coaches and athletes like to say, when a defeat is simply a defeat and no longer a “moral victory.”

A couple of my books suffered long strings of defeats before finally finding a publishing “home.” For better or worse, I stubbornly believed in each book’s relevance, its value. I felt I had a story worth sharing and kept moving along my own quixotic path despite numerous rejections, some of them viciously mean-spirited, without any redeeming value. Others evoked chuckles. Upon reading an early version of Changing Paths, one New York agent described the writing as beautiful, but added that it didn’t stand a chance with any large publishing house. The story was too “quiet,” it didn’t pack enough punch, didn’t have enough drama or conflict. “You need to find a more compelling central character [i.e., not me],” he suggested, “or else get killed by a grizzly bear.”

I guess he had a point. I pitched the book to an assortment of agents and then several editors of smaller but high-profile presses and didn’t get anything more than some tantalizing nibbles. Then, miracle of miracles, I contacted the University of Alaska Press whose staff (as well as outside reviewers and an advisory board) didn’t need me to get mauled by a grizzly, but rather enthusiastically embraced Changing Paths. My potential audience is much smaller than what I’d initially hoped, but at least now I have an audience. And I have people whom I can regularly contact with questions, concerns, ideas, and suggestions. The press’s managing editor, Elisabeth Dabney, has been especially gracious, enthusiastic, patient, and accessible. I keep waiting for her to finally say, “enough already.” Instead she keeps answering my questions, allaying my anxieties, offering words of encouragement. Thanks for that, Elisabeth.

* * *

I always worry a bit when participants in my classes or attendees at my book events have little or nothing to say when I invite them to ask questions or make comments after a presentation. In a similar manner, I fret a little when my blog postings or opinion pieces (here and elsewhere) fail to elicit comments. What am I doing wrong? I wonder. Is anybody out there? Is anyone reading my stuff? I’d sincerely love to get your opinions, your ideas, and your stories about Facebook, Twitter, rejection, or the tension between making stories and selling them. Or maybe there’s something you’d like me to address in my final guest blog. So share a comment, maybe even start a conversation. Please don’t make me beg. (Or is that already begging? Arrrgh, there’s always so damn much to fret about when you’re an overly sensitive, angst-ridden writer, especially in the depths of winter, when everything seems darker.)

9 thoughts on “Wondering about Facebook and Other Random Jottings: A Guest Post by Bill Sherwonit”

  1. Re: the tension between making stories and selling them:

    I have made peace with my stories and the vagaries of their reception.

    I once had a (mock epic)story published in a trade mag that many friends and neighbors read. It even won a prize. I had a couple friends who "got" the whole rhythm and reason of the thing, and then I got many curious responses or "conspicuous-in-absence" non-responses from friends.

    What I eventually realized via subtle references is that some people didn't equate me with the voice the story was written in. I am reserved and not highly social, while the voice of the piece was pretty raucous and hyperbolic.

    This,apparently,confuses people. It makes them uneasy.
    I also used some five syllable words, which enrages people and makes them think you are putting on airs.

    Nowadays, I no longer puzzle out the responses to my work. Once I know I have worked my tail off to make it as clear and entertaining as possible, scrubbed its grammer etc., it is on its own.

    I figure if one person out of a thousand "gets" it, that's gravy.
    Because, really, I wrote the thing for myself…

  2. I just misspelled grammar in previous post.

    At one time I might have spent half a day being mortified by that but now, oh well – typos happen.

  3. Two years ago I resigned from my teaching job to write full-time. And that's what I did. Besides doing agent reseach, I was pretty much in a cave, writing.

    Now I have an agent and my YA novel is on submission and I've entered the world of blogging, twitter and facebook.

    I love the connections I've made with other writers but balancing my time has become a challenge. I wish I had more to offer you with regard to these online social networks except that I am new to them and exploring them, too. So far, besides the time factor, I have been pleasantly surprised by the depth of the interactions I've had.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I so enjoy reading the guestbloggers here that I easily put off my own morning writing and editing to do so! Thanks for that, Bill. In particular, I'm always eager to hear how other writers deal with the emotional rollercoaster of rejection, publishing/marketing, continuing to learn one's craft. In my own experience, it never gets easier, but community does seem to help.

    My own experience with Facebook went in the following stages: a few months when I embraced it as a way to build a readership and find other people of shared interests (including politics — for me, this felt even more important a year ago, during the '08 election). Then it slid into being a distraction — more "friends," too many messages to sift through, too much to figure out as Facebook changed. For a while when I was struggling to get a major project going, Facebook and email felt like a self-sabotaging addiction. And then, phase three: I got bored of it. The friend requests roll in, but I rarely check it. Now it's just another irritating "to-do," like my overloaded inbox and my second email address that gets 99% spam, which I have to spend a while cleaning out every 2 weeks, looking for the very rare personal message.

    This sounds mercenary, but if I had a new book coming out, I'd probably jump back into Facebook and learn all about its latest incarnations, privacy rule changes, how to use it to maximum benefit. But for now, as a writer, I'm enjoying a quiet phase and desperately avoiding online distractions. I think it's still a helpful tool for the activist or the highly social person or the stay-at-home writer who wants/needs more connections, and I'd recommend that every author take a look and know how it works, but the battle against distraction only gets more fierce with each new online service or application.

  5. I agree with Andromeda. Facebook needs to be used as a tool, with a cautionary eye toward its potential to become a distraction and/or obsession. It is a good way to keep yourself in front of people who care about you and your books. Cautionary notes for the new and/or barely initiated: you can be spammed from within Facebook, so be careful about adding friends you don't know (this happened to my son) and your Facebook ID can be nabbed and used to send spam to others (this happened to a fellow writer).

  6. Ah, Facebook, which I sometimes call “wastebook” because it can suck time from so many projects that need my attention. On the other hand, I have eight siblings and they (and their children & spouses) are there. We keep up on the minutia and the big events in each others’ lives more than ever. Of course many of my AK friends are there, posting photos from their latest adventures which gives me some inspiration to do something different. I try to view it as part of my social time now that I’m working from home.

    As for the blogging and comments on blogs, I find that if I post something on my blog I get very few comments relative to how many people visit (I check my stats every couple of weeks just to see if people are visiting). If I put a link from facebook to the blog, it generates lots of comments on facebook, though they are usually very brief. The big difference is that to comment on a blog, you have to log in, whereas on facebook, you can choose to be logged in for an extended period, so it’s easier for people to comment.

    As for its value in marketing, it’s all in making the connections with the largest group possible. Networks of friends and friends of friends grow exponentially. If one of your FB Friends becomes a “Fan” of Changing Paths, their friends will see it and maybe they will become a fan, etc. In this case, viral is very good. Will it generate sales? I think it will, with part of the beauty being that it will connect you with readers from all over the country.

    I think if you have good self-control, facebook can help, but it can also trap you. In the dead of winter, it’s worth a little exploration.

  7. I've enjoyed all three of Bill's posts, was going to write him directly today, but this seems the better forum.

    Funny, I was going to try to write about Facebook and the others last month when I was a guest of 49 Writers, but ran out of time and space.

    I share Bill's attitude toward technology. My first email account was in late 2001; I got a cell phone in 2005 when I had a month-long sublet in a place with no land line. I'm still using that phone, have never traded up. I like to think I have a pretty fair idea of the uses, and abuses, of these tools.

    A year and a half ago I was at an arts conference where a presenter pronounced that everyone in the room needed to be on Facebook. I shrugged my shoulders, didn't quite understand why, but thought I'd explore it. The presenter had some impressive credentials in the field and taught graduate-level arts administration courses.

    When I joined Facebook, I somehow mistyped something, or otherwise didn't follow directions, and when I next checked, a month later, somehow found myself a "public figure," with close to a dozen "fans," including a few friends and acquaintances I'd lost track of. By then it felt awkward to undo the error. I have a "friend" site there too, but it's somehow related to my "public figure" site, and maybe one of these days I'll spend a few hours to untangle it all.

    For now, every so often I log-in, poke around, see if another long-lost friend or acquaintance has found me–it happens both there and at the linkedIn site–and invariably shake my head. I have better uses of my time. Mainly, the whole thing annoys me. Yet, I'm also thinking maybe I'll be able to figure my own way to best make use of what Facebook and their kind offer that other communication modes don't. Through myspace, which for all its flaws is a good way to quickly sample lots of music, I've found accompanists in out-of-the-way places. Still, I'm never quite sure why people can't just go to my website and email me directly if they want to say hello electronically. I'm not hard to find.

    In the end, we can only do so much. We're ALWAYS having to invent and reinvent how to be most efficient. Just last night I logged on to Facebook, noticed friends I ought to be in touch with. Maybe I'll email them; maybe I'll say hello on Facebook; maybe I'll just get back to work on my current manuscript. I empathize with Bill's concerns.

  8. I just have to put my two cents worth in about Facebook. All my suspicions were confirmed when I learned recently that it is now possible to buy "friends." No amount of networking / book marketing potential will convince me to sign on with a company that sees human beings as a commodity. But then again, maybe there is an after-Christmas special coming up? Five for the price of four? Sorry for the sarcasm but I just can't do it. And I agree with Ken that if anyone wants to email me directly, I'm happy to have a personal chat.
    Anne Coray

  9. Thanks to commenters (is that a word?) for all the varied feedback on Facebook and other matters. Good food for thought. I'll check back in somewhere down the line if/when I decide to enter the Facebook world. In the meantime, best wishes for the holiday season and the year ahead to you all.

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