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Top Ten Twitter Tips for Authors

Whatever other social media platforms you may be on, Twitter seems to be the main one where writers hang out. Maybe we like the fact it’s almost all text based. Maybe we like the brevity.

If you’re an author setting out on your Twitter journey, here are a few do’s and don’ts that really seem to help.

1. USE A HANDLE THAT WILL STAND THE TEST OF TIME

Using a cute name may be an option if you want to stay anonymous online, but if you want to build an author platform, it’s probably best to use your own name (or pen-name) as your @ handle. You may also be tempted to use the title of your debut book, but I would advise against it. Hopefully, you’ll write many more books, and might regret being forever saddled with the title of your first, especially if those later books do much better.

2. CREATE A PROFESSIONAL BIO

People are going to need a reason to follow you, so give them one! Tell us who you are and why you’re here. If you’re an author, say so. And if you can tell us your genre, so much the better. There’s about a bazillion “bestselling writers” on Twitter, so you need to find some way to stand out. If you really are a NYT or Sunday Times Bestseller, then mention it. Also mention any awards or relevant experience. If you write sci-fi and once worked for NASA, mention that. If you don’t have anything like that, try telling us why you’re writing.

3. GET A DECENT PROFILE PICTURE

Your profile picture will be a huge part of your Twitter “brand”. People will recognise it as they scan down their feeds, and associate it with you. So, maybe ditch the picture of Garfield or Rick & Morty, and use something that epitomises who you are. I use a professional-looking headshot on my profile, because I am open and personable on Twitter. What you see is what you get. Others may choose to use book covers or caricatures of themselves, which is fine, but think long and hard about how you want to be perceived.

4. DITTO FOR THE HEADER IMAGE

A header image is another opportunity to give your tweets context and tell us something about who you are. It’s also a great chance to show off your book covers or post up an image that reflects the tone and subject of your work. So, if you write gritty murder mysteries, you could use a darkened city street. If you write international romances, maybe a yacht or a tropical beach.

5. PINNED TWEETS

Twitter allows you to ‘pin’ a tweet to the top of your feed, so it will be the first thing seen by visitors to your profile. This can be a handy way of posting links to your latest books, deals, or news. But agressive “buy my book” tweets can be off-putting, and the visitor may click away without reading the rest of your feed. So, try to be welcoming. Show off your wares, but don’t try to jam them down our throats. Also, it’s a good idea to change your pinned tweet every now and again. A pinned tweet dated six months ago gives the impression that nothing much of interest has happened since.

6. DON’T BE A JERK

There’s a line in Bugsy Malone that goes, “You give a little love and it all comes back to you / You’re gonna be remembered for the things you say and do.” And this applies double to social media. The way you appear online is the way people will think you really are. So, if you act like an agressive jerk, readers will assume you are one. And if those readers include prospective agents and publishers, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Nobody wants to work with an asshole, far less read their book or be friends with them, so be careful how you behave.

I try to treat Twitter the same way I would treat a bar full of people I want to get to know. I’m polite, respectful and try to be helpful where I can. I don’t wander around starting fights, or jump on the table shouting “BUY MY BOOK!”

7. DON’T SPAM

People don’t react well to a hard sales pitch. If I follow someone and they immediately hit me with an automated “check out my book / facebook page / website message, I immediately unfollow them. At the very least, I will mute them.

The same goes for hijacking other people’s conversations. If two or more people are discussing something, don’t leap in with an advert for your book. And don’t use popular hashtags to try and get exposure for your work, either. Not unless it’s relevant. If people are using a hashtag to talk about a political issue and you jump in with an advert for your murder mystery, you’re going to look like an idiot (however, if you’re a political pundit whose book happens to be relvant to the discussion, feel free).

8. QUALITY NOT QUANTITY

When it comes to followers, you want people who are interested in what you have to say. Trying to get a million randos to follow you won’t be nearly as useful as having 1,000 engaged and interested friends. The former may buy a book from you, the latter almost certainly will. At the very least, they’ll retweet your tweets and help you spread your message.

But how do we get engaged followers? The short answer is: post interesting posts on topics that may be of interest or use to the kind of people who will read your books. Ask questions. Share your journey. Take the time to chat to people and get to know them. Pay attention to those who like your work and retweet your tweets.

9. BE CAREFUL WHO YOU FOLLOW

Follow people who are relevant to your interests. Use the list function to segment your timeline. Have one list for agents, another for editors. Create a list for your most engaged followers, and your favourite authors. Choose successful authors and watch how they use twitter. Learn from them. Listen to what they’re saying and how they say it. Maybe even reach out to them to ask them questions about their craft.

But don’t just follow other writers. Try to follow readers and reviewers, bloggers and publishers. Anyone with an interest in your particular genre. Because it never hurts to know what’s going on in your field.

And for the sake of your mental health, block anyone who trolls you. Don’t try to argue with them, just block and move on (and report if necessary). Mute topics that stress you out, and try to cut as much negativity from your feed as possible.

10. FOLLOW ME!

You can find me @garethlpowell where I regularly host question and answer sessions for aspiring authors, post writing tips and offer encouragement, and occasionally share pictures of my cats.

When to write and when to edit

There’s a piece of writing advice that goes around and around, and it says: “Write first, edit later.”

What this means, is that you should concentrate on finishing the story before you start tinkering with it, or you’ll never finish. And on the whole, it’s sound advice. You need to get the first draft finished before you can really see the shape of the thing, so that early chapter you spent so long revising might not even be needed anymore.

However, I’m not one for prescriptive advice. You can do it that way, or you can do what I do, which is sort of halfway between the two extremes.

I try to get my first draft finished before any major changes, but if there’s something huge that affects the rest of the book, I’ll go back and change it there and then. Also, if I’m finding it hard to get going, I might go back and edit some earlier scenes to ease myself back into the flow of the story.

Using this approach, I tend to produce fairly clean first drafts. They may need some structural edits, but they’re not a complete mess.

Social Media Pressure

Scrolling through other people’s feeds can make you feel inadequate. You might think their lives look so much better than yours, or they’re working harder than you and being more successful. There’s this insidious pressure to keep up, and make your life as perfect as theirs appears to be.

But remember: you’re only seeing what they want you to see. You don’t see their hard times, their struggles and insecurities, their setbacks and disappointments. You don’t see the years of effort it took them to get where they are today.

Stop comparing yourself to others’ ideas of perfection. We all have different paths to walk, and the only person you should be competing with is yourself.

The Fermi Paradox

So, I’ve been thinking about the Fermi Paradox. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the paradox was suggested in 1950 by physicist Enrico Fermi, when he asked, “Where is everybody?”

His argument was that it tool 4 million years for potentially space-travelling life to evolve on Earth, but the universe is a thousand times older, so there should have been plenty of time for other star-faring races to evolve and overrun the galaxy–and yet, we don’t see them.

Many (mostly depressing) solutions have been put forward, postulating some kind of Great Filter that prevents civilisations reaching the level of technology necessary for us to detect them. Candidates for the Great Filter include nuclear war, pollution, the impossiblity of interstellar travel, and killer robots that destroy life wherever they detect it.

On Earth, life evolved in response to a series of great extinctions and a variable climate. When the dinosaurs died out, mammals just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And when climate change started to make life on the savannah difficult for our ape ancestors, they had to get smart or die. They had to diversify their diet, learn to hunt, and ultimately harness fire and travel north, into Europe and beyond. We wouldn’t have survived without our intelligence and desire to explore. But an alien species in a more stable environment (a sub-surface ocean beneath the ice of a frozen moon, for example) might never have the need to develop those characteristics. They may have curiosity, but their options for exploration or technology would be limited by their environment. Their world would be covered by kilometres of ice, beyond which only vacuum lies; and they probably wouldn’t discover fire and smelting on a seabed. The desire to look outwards and seek new frontiers may be an extremely rare trait.

My own personal thoughts on the matter are that given the size and age of the universe, intelligent alien life almost certainly exists, but given those vast gulfs of time and space, we are extremely unlikely to ever meet them.

Look at the picture of the Andromeda galaxy accompanying this post. Look how many stars there are there. Roughly a trillion. If one of those stars housed an alien race at the same technological level as us, how would we ever detect it? You could drop a fair-sized galactic empire in there and unless they were using spectacularly noisy star drives to power their ships, we’d still never know they were there.

But it isn’t just the distance. Every light year we peer into the cosmos is a year back in time. Andromeda is 2.537 million light years away, so we’re seeing it as it was when the first Homo habilis on Earth were just beginning to experiment with stone tools. Given that some estimate it would take humanity only 100,000 years to colonise our galaxy using self-replicating, slower-than-light craft, that’s plenty of time for a species to have done the same to Andromeda. There might be whole reefs of Dyson spheres, and a galaxy-wide civilisation existing there right now, but we won’t know anything about it for another 2.5 million years.

Or perhaps we simply missed them. Perhaps that vast empire collapsed a billion years ago, and we simply can’t see their ruins.

Perhaps vast waves of colonisation have already swept through our own galaxy and we simply don’t recognise their traces.

In our own solar system, there are anomalies. Mercury appears to be the solid iron core of a larger planet, stripped of most of its crust. Venus spins in the opposite direction to the rest of the planets, and has the slowest rotation of any of the planets. Did something smack into it, or could its rotational energy have been tapped by a supercivilisation in order to power an interstellar wormhole, slowing (and reversing) its rotation? Or perhaps, given that it was once apparently habitable, could it and Earth have been targetted by planet-killing robots that wrecked Venus’s climate and dealt us the blow that birthed our moon?

We exist in deep time and deep space. I live in hope that one day, we’ll find evidence that we’re not alone, but realise that given the distances involved, any species we detect will most likely have gone extinct by the time we detect them. And alas, the same holds true in reverse. By the time we’re spotted, we may be long gone.

“Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.”

Becoming a Full-time Writer

Lots of people want to quit their jobs to become full-time authors. It’s one of the subjects I get asked most about. So, I thought I’d write a quick post detailing my experiences.

Twelve years ago, I was a marketing manager for a large European business software company. I had a small team of direct marketing people under me and co-responsibility for a £ half-million marketing budget. When the company restructured and my role became impossible, I left because a) I was sick of the stress and b) I wanted to write.

(Annoyingly, if I’d have stuck it out for another eight months, I would have been made redundant and received quite a nice redundancy package, as I’d been at the company for ten years. As it was, I left with nothing. But at least I didn’t have a heart attack or stress-related nervous breakdown.)

Since then, I’ve written and published 12 books, numerous short stories, and a fair few articles. I’ve also been a stay-at-home dad for my kids.

However, it’s been a financial rollercoaster. I’ve done freelance work as a copywriter and journalist and done some part-time work for local organisations in order to bring in some money, and there have been periods of barely scraping by, accompanied by many sleepless nights.

I don’t think I would have survived the past two or three years without the support of my awesome Patreon community, who have been extremely encouraging and loyal.

But since Embers of War was published in 2018, money has started to trickle in from foreign sales, royalties, audio rights, and TV/movie options. Not megabucks, and certainly not as much as I earned in my previous job, but enough to provide a little breathing space.

So, if you’re thinking of giving up a reliable income in favour of an artistic life, think long and hard about what that means.

The average advance for a novel is somewhere around £4k-£5k, and that’s not usually paid all in one lump sum. You get half when you sign the contact and half when the book is published, which might not be for another year, depending on schedules. So, after spending a year writing your debut novel, you could be looking at an annual income of £2,500, which is certainly not enough to live on.

An agent can help. They might be able to negotiate a better deal, and they will let help you hang onto your foreign publication rights, which can then be sold to generate more income.

But you are still going to need to find a way to generate more income, especially if you have dependents and a mortgage. So, you may have to consider a part-time job, or spend part of your writing time hustling as a freelancer.

You can also look at diversifying your channels. If you’re primarily a novelist, you might also consider writing comic scripts or screenplays. If your novels are traditionally published, you might consider self-publishing some shorter fiction.

Once you start to get established, you may be offered a fee to attend a literary festival, or host a writing workshop. But you have to accept the first few months, and maybe years, are going to be an uncertain time – unless you have a patient spouse with a well-paying job.

It’s taken me twelve years to finally start earning decent money in this business, and I’d still be lost without Patreon. So, think carefully, make a plan, and diversify your income streams.

And the best of luck to you!

Adventures in the SF Trade

Okay, so I decided it was high time I started a proper blog. Twitter and Instagram are fine, but I think it makes sense to have a corner of the Internet that’s just mine. Social media posts tend to get shunted down the timelines and lost in the tumult, and sometimes I have more to say than can be comfortably crammed into a tweet thread or Instagram caption. And sometimes, I just want to get away from the doom-scrolling for a while.

I’m going to use this space to post writing advice and encouragement, updates on my own work, book recommendations, and general musings on life and art. I’m intending to post daily, so subscribe via the form on my main blog page to make sure you don’t miss a post!