A study in purple and gold. Hope you had (or will have) a nice sunset wherever you are.
I see a lot of people obsessing about Twitter these days, with particular emphasis on who one should follow, or not follow, and why. Occasionally these conversations touch on me, sometimes as an positive example, and sometimes not (such as the random person purporting to be a writer attempting to lecture me on not following everyone who follows me — he’s been blocked, because, really, fuck off, dude). So I thought it might be useful to offer up a few thoughts on how I use Twitter these days, and why.
Obvious note: This is what works for me, and may not work for you, etc, blah blah blah. As a general rule, please note that anyone who tells you that you are doing Twitter wrong is probably an asshole who you can ignore (exception: When you use Twitter specifically to troll and attack people. It is almost always you who are the asshole then, and you should probably fall down some stairs).
The salient rule for Twitter and any other social media is: Are you using it in a way that you enjoy and makes you happy? If the answer is “yes,” then keep doing it that way.
I use Twitter largely for three purposes, and they are, in roughly descending order of importance: to keep up with friends, to blather in short form about topics which interest and/or amuse me, and to inform both fans and overly-committed haters what I am up to, careerwise.
Although I use Twitter to keep up with friends, I am well aware that the vast majority of people who follow me are people who I don’t know, and who follow me because they are fans/interested in my work/decided I was amusing on Twitter — in other words, that for the majority of people who follow me, I am entertainment, to a greater or lesser degree (my friends may also be entertained by me, but that’s secondary).
This does have some bearing on my Twitter presence, and is also of value to me as someone who is in fact a professional entertainer of the writing sort. My twitter presence is largely a public-oriented performance; save when I am talking to a friend through a direct message, I am always aware there is an audience for my tweets, regardless of who I am speaking to and what I am saying. I suspect many of the people with whom I regularly chat on Twitter are also aware of this “public performance” aspect.
Does this make our Twitter chatting “inauthentic”? I don’t think so; it merely means we’re aware we’re in public and that when we’re having a conversation on Twitter, that people are listening in over our shoulders — and will feel free to comment or repeat what we’ve said to others.
As a result, when I am on Twitter, I do what I do here on the blog, which is to be “personable but not personal” — I have a voice that is familiar and friendly, and will share stuff I deem to be amusing or pertinent, but I will rarely if ever share anything from the sphere of topics I deem to be too personal. I don’t share everything, and have no interest in sharing everything — not everything needs to be shared to or known by people who I don’t, in fact, have any relationship other than that I exist as entertainment for them.
For all that I am aware of the public nature of my Twitter feed, and that for the large percentage of my followers I exist as entertainment, I don’t generally go out of my way to strategize the commercial application of my Twitter feed as a writer, i.e., how to convert every single follower into a paying customer of my books or whatever. The reasons for this are simple. One, that sort of thing bores the shit out of me. I have things I want to do with my life, but obsessing whether my Twitter feed is selling my work is not really one of them. Two, overthinking that sort of thing makes one’s Twitter feed boring, because you’re not doing it to enjoy it, you’re doing it to manipulate people. Three, I think a lot of the people who do spend too much of their time worrying about how their Twitter feed is working for them give off an unpleasant, metallic whiff of desperation, and why would I want to be or do that?
This is why the jerk who tried to upbraid me for not following everyone who follows me found his way into my block queue: What he was saying was YOU ARE NOT OPTIMIZING YOUR TWITTER FEED TO MAKE EVERYONE ON IT MARGINALLY FEEL MORE SPECIAL AND THUS MORE LIKELY TO BUY YOUR THINGS HOW DARE YOU SIR. And well, you know. That’s not how I use Twitter, nor is it how I want to use Twitter. My career has gotten along fine without having HOW WILL THIS MAKE YOU WANT TO BUY ALL MY THINGS as the guiding principle for every single human interaction I have, online or off. Seeing every other human being as a mark is no way to go through life. It’s tiring, it’s insulting, and it’s no fun on either side of that exchange.
In terms of who I follow on Twitter, it susses out something like this: People I know in the real world as friends or colleagues (I’d say about 90% of my follow list), friends of friends who I find to be particularly clever, who I (happily) then often later get to know in real life (about 8% or so), and the occasional person who I don’t know but of whom I am a fan of their work (the remainder).
Note that the vast majority of people I follow are people I actually know. That’s a personal choice; I’m interested in the goings-on of people who are friends. One reason for that is that my friends tend to be far-flung — or more accurately, as I live in rural Ohio, I am far flung from them. Another reason is that my friends are entertaining and I like playing with them on Twitter. A third reason is that while I have my own (small) list of people I follow because I am a fan, at the end of the day my primary interest is the people I know and care about because of my personal history with them.
(Now, as it happens, because of who I am and the circles in which I run, some of the people I am friends with happen to be notable to one degree or another, particularly in geek fields. However, I don’t follow them on Twitter because they are notable. I follow them because they are my friends. It’s a difference which may mean little, looking in from the outside, but means a fair bit from the inside.)
It’s theoretically possible for me to follow everyone who follows me, but then I would have a Twitter feed that that would be useless for what I want it to do, which is to keep me up to date with my friends and what they are doing. There are 319 people on my follow list now, and I have a hard time keeping up with all of them as it is. Moreover, and this sounds a little mean, but come on, we’re grownups here, just because someone is interested in following me on Twitter doesn’t mean I’ll be interested in following them. Because I usually don’t know them, nor am I a fan of them or their work. It doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful, interesting people with cool lives, etc. But I don’t know them, see. And that matters to me for my follow list.
This doesn’t mean I don’t interact with the people who follow me, or who directly address me on Twitter. I do a lot of both as people either respond to what I’ve written or want to ask me something. It’s fun and part of Twitter’s conversational style. But I think that’s to the point, here — you don’t need to follow someone to talk to them on Twitter. You just ping a comment to their handle. Follow who you want to; don’t follow the people you don’t. Simple enough.
On the flip side of following, there are the people I block or mute (“mute” being a function where they are not barred from following you or even responding to you, but you don’t see what they’re saying). I block real people rarely (as opposed to spambots, which I block all the time), but I do block, because some people are real shitheads and I don’t mind letting them know I think so.
I mostly mute people, because it’s quieter (people don’t know that they’re being muted) and because it’s flexible — the Twitter client I use, Janetter, allows you to mute people for times ranging from 30 minutes to forever. That’s useful when I post something contentious and someone follows up with something I find dumb; I (usually) put them in the timeout box for a day rather than snark at them, and the next time they comment to me, I’ve forgotten they annoyed me, which benefits both of us. There are some people I’ve permanently muted; I don’t miss them.
Muting is useful not only for people who annoy me, but for people I genuinely like but who are on a momentary hobby horse I don’t want cluttering up my follow feed. When that happens I’ll mute them for an hour or three while they rant and then later they are back to their usual selves. Or when two friends are being contentious to each other, I’ll sometimes mute them both for an hour, because watching my friends argue all over my Twitter feed is awkward. Muting them while they argue is the Twitter equivalent of seeing friends argue at a party and deciding to go into the next room and chat with other people, who are currently not arguing.
(Do people who follow me mute me? Oh, probably. I can be annoying on Twitter from time to time.)
As much time as I spend on Twitter, there’s no way for me to respond to everything, either on my Twitter feed or when people tweet at me. I can’t imagine how my friends who have substantially more followers than I manage it.
Twitter is a fast-moving stream, basically. I enjoy it — a lot — but I also know there’s only so much I can do with it. So I do with it what I enjoy, and which makes me happy. You should do the same, however that is for you. Again: Simple enough.
I don’t often get a chance to do a picture book on the Big Idea, so I’m pleased that one of the rare examples happens to be by a friend of mine, Emily Jiang, who wrote Summoning the Phoenix, illustrated by April Chu. The book received a coveted starred review by Kirkus (“[an] informative and gracefully illustrated twin debut.”] and covers an unusual topic (for here in the US, anyway): Chinese music instruments. How does one make this subject sing? Jiang is here to tell you.
I had always envisioned my first published book to be a novel, not a picture book. Writing a good picture book is difficult because of the need for economy of prose, the craft in conveying a ton of information in very few words. Plus, I’d been immersed in writing and rewriting young adult novels after graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing. I was certain something was going to happen with the novels, but somehow the picture book Summoning the Phoenix just caught fire.
The spark for Summoning the Phoenix came from researching and building my magic system for my YA fantasy novel, for which I had started world building a few years ago when I was in grad school. High fantasy is one of my favorite genres, yet as a reader I was over-saturated by fantasy worlds that were set in an alternate medieval Europe. I wanted to create a ancient alternate fantasy world that was All-Asian-All-the-Time, and I wanted my magic to have a uniquely Asian logic to it. Yet as an English major, my knowledge of European culture and history vastly exceeded my knowledge of Asian culture and history. So I researched.
My world building consultant and confidant in grad school was a renegade Buddhist nun who is the most unlikely nun anyone will ever meet. Instead of projecting a calm, pious aura, she is bubbly, irreverent, and sassy, always ready for a good laugh. Plus, she loves young adult fantasy, especially Harry Potter, both the books and the movies.
It was my renegade Buddhist nun friend who helped pick apart my magic system that I had designed to be All-Asian-All-the-Time. When I informed her that magic in my world would be based on Asian medical concepts and incorporating ideas like qi, or life force, and acupuncture points, she remarked that it sounded similar to Naruto, a popular manga and anime series. No, I replied, not bothering to let her know that I had never seen or read Naruto. My magic system was different and better because it would also incorporate the Asian elements layered on top of qi and acupuncture points. That’s when my unlikely nun friend started laughing, stopping only to tell me that now my world sounded like a cross between Naruto and Avatar the Last Airbender, the television series, not the movie.
She insisted I watch those shows, and I did, reluctantly, only to discover that she was right. My magic system was eerily similar to those found in Naruto and in Avatar the Last Airbender. It’s always a mildly horrifying experience to realize that you’re being derivative without even knowing that you’re being derivative. Or, to be more accurate, I was somehow in synch with other creative worldbuilders, but because my stories weren’t published yet, I needed to revise my All-Asian-All-the-Time magic system so it wouldn’t seem derivative. After a lengthy brainstorm, I decided that I would add a musical aspect to it. Some of my favorite genre novels featured musicians: Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, Archangel by Sharon Shinn, and most recently Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Why not create magical musicians who were All-Asian-All-the-Time?
There was one problem. While I am a classically trained pianist and singer, my education was all Western music. A few years ago, I had very little actual knowledge about Asian music beyond the 1960s Tawianese pop music my parents loved to listen to while cleaning the house. A few years ago, I couldn’t name any of the traditional Asian musical instruments. So I researched.
During my research, I chose to focus on musical instruments from China because it would more directly reflect my cultural heritage. After reading books and countless articles, I gained a sense that perhaps traditional Chinese music was not considered as good as classical European music. I found this quite ridiculous, since Chinese music has a tradition of thousands of years compared to European music, which was only a few hundred years old. After acquiring all this interesting knowledge about Chinese musical instruments, I wanted to share what I’ve learned, to celebrate the creation of traditional music from China. Driven by this enthusiasm, I pitched this idea to an editor, who, coincidentally, had always wanted to publish a picture book about Chinese music.
It was not an easy path. I had to continue to research, rewrite, and revise my manuscript at least six or seven times before my editor gave me a contract to sign. Even after an illustrator was brought on board, I was still refining my words of the picture book until Summoning the Phoenix was ready to go to print. In the end, it was worth the work.
Now that my picture book is finally published, it’s time for me to return to writing novels, especially adventures of magical musicians in my YA fantasy world that’s All-Asian-All-the-Time.
And that’s Two Big Ideas for the price of one!