Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Twitter, writing, but mainly Empty Chairs

It’s a busy time, but the compulsion/addiction to add another posting won’t be denied. Why busy? Well, I’ve just started writing another book in the ‘Brilliant’ series, there are 3 commercial commissions (bizarrely 2 of them are on piracy – not book piracy but the real, nasty stuff at sea), and the need to keep promoting Shadow Selves. Then, of course, there’s the nagging of Stanley to deal with. He wants to know whether ‘his’ book’s selling, wants desperately for it to be successful and yet, if I tell him business is slow, he gets a sort of satisfaction out of it.

(Adding to the busy bit is the fact that carving classes have begun again and I've started on a new piece, using a wood whose grain I'd read about, yew. That's it in the picture.)

So, there are two connected but distinct things I want to talk about – both relating to writing. Some of you will have visited (and even contributed to) Anneke’s site for flash fiction, Rammenas. For those who haven’t, she’s recently been running a challenge which involves writing a story about a photograph she’d taken. The entries have been very varied and show how different people respond in different ways to a writing stimulus. One thing that struck me, though, was the fact that one submission got significantly more responses from visitors than the others. It was good, but not better than them. (In fact, for me, there were several others that were much better in terms of their use of narrative and ‘literary’ techniques and their impact on the reader.) I certainly don’t begrudge the writer the admiration his treatment got, but it made me wonder about the value of any comments – not just those directed at him, but all the others. I mean, if the commenters were genuinely appreciative of the genre, why didn’t they read and say something about some of the other stories?

The answer, apparently, is that it’s a function of a Twitter group called #fridayflash. You post your story, tell your followers about it, they retweet, etc., etc. At this point I have to admit that I don’t ‘get’ Twitter. I’m on it, I do tweet very, very, very occasionally, but I can’t imagine logging on and reading through pages of snippets, most of them about things which don’t interest me. On the other hand, another online friend, who knows what she’s talking about, insists that it’s the best way of raising one’s profile.

But my worry is that, in the end, it isn’t about writing at all. If someone reads a flash fiction story and offers a critical analysis (however short), I’d have thought that their interest in the form would extend to sampling others in the genre, especially if they were treating exactly the same subject. And, if it doesn’t, how valuable or legitimate are their reactions or opinions? It seems that they’re simply saying ‘OK, this shows I’ve read it and been nice about it, now go and read mine’.

I suppose what I’m saying is that this devalues writing. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from writing – quite the reverse. I comment on people’s stories and articles, unless I think they’re bad, in which case I’d rather say nothing than be negative. But the impulse to comment on the work of others in order to encourage them to read yours often produces false notions of the quality of the writing. Because if I read a flash fiction story which is total crap, I’m not going to say so because then that writer wouldn’t be well-disposed towards me and wouldn’t read me. Or, if he did, he’d be inclined to look for flaws, even if only to prove that I was a crap writer and therefore didn’t appreciate him. I was recently asked to review a newly published first novella and, frankly, I didn’t understand why it had been published at all.

The point needs further development but time presses, so I’ll move to the second writing-related topic. And this time it’s a book which not only definitely should have been published, but which is (in the words of another reviewer), ‘a must read for anyone who counts themselves as a member of the human race’. It’s Empty Chairs by Stacey Danson – a harrowing autobiography which chronicles the sexual abuse of the author by her mother’s ‘friends’ (from the age of three), and the trials she then has to undergo when she runs away from home and starts living on the streets. I know, I know – many of you will have the ‘Oh I hate the idea of reading that, it’s too gruesome/horrible/depressing, etc.’ reaction. That’s the way I usually respond to such subjects. But this is such a positive book, despite the evidence of how vile people can be. The narration is beautifully direct and simple (in the best sense of that word) and the combination of vulnerability and power of the central figure (Sassy-Girl is the street-name she’s given and which she lives up to), is ultimately liberating. Whatever they all throw at her, she survives and we know she’ll make it. I’ve posted my review on Amazon and it’ll appear on Booksquawk at some point. I usually tend to hold back from recommending books too heartily because that might be offensive to other books and writers I’ve mentioned, but I really do think this one ought to be read. It’s often painful but, in the end, it’s an affirmation of the human spirit.


  1. Another excellent essay. What we see today, with all the postings, comments, tweeting and twittering, forums, and opinions offered on every subject, large and small, is an interesting metric of popular culture and the impact of social media on our brave new world.

    For a writer to build a readership base today requires a new mindset, one geared to handling ADD, information overload and the truly fleeting nature of electronic media. Those of us weaned on a more leisurely savoring of a good yarn or reasoned discourse flounder under a barrage of demands to read this, comment on that, hit this button to enter ...

    And I've found it's no longer a 'I've read yours, now it's your turn to read mine'. No, what we have is 'read mine and maybe I'll think about reading yours, if I have time' [Authonomy-speak] - the entitlement generation at work.

    As you say - it's a bit much and might make for an interesting thesis on swarming behavior in social media.

    As for Empty Chairs: I second your recommendation.

  2. I've been studying the comment business for a while, together with analysing the site stats. The friday flash people are, as far as I read their work, the same kind of enthusiastic story writers as on Rammenas. I noticed that if someone asks for an honest opinion about the story, they do get useful critique. Some of them get to know each other better and probably save their 'real' critique for a private correspondence.
    I'm not a Twitter fan, on the contrary, for many reasons. But I do think it can work for those who use it well.

    The comments on Rammenas, and on many of the other story blogs, are usually friendly. What you get is this. Instead of writing:

    The characters are very interesting and I like the dialogue. But the story development could be better, there's too much hoopty-doodle and the story would have been better if you had been paying more attention to punctuation, like here... and here....

    they write:
    The characters are very interesting and I like the dialogue.

    So I've been wondering too what the value of the comments are. I think it's encouraging if a few people respond with a positive comment. Most of them will be genuine, even though you don't always get their detailed opinion.
    If you don't get much comments, it doesn't say anything. I noticed that some of the regular readers never or rarely use the comment box, for several reasons.

    Anyway,it seems that if we're really looking for constructive critique, a comment box isn't the right tool.

    To prove I'm wrong:
    Interesting blog post, food for thought. But, also a bit too long. The section about Empty Chairs deserves more attention. It would have been better if you'd written a separate post about it.


  3. Diane, you're right, it's not just reading and writing, it's a whole way of thinking that's changing. Hypertext linking means that the old linear narrative (or cause and effect thinking) doesn't cut it. The mind has to be ready to make leaps which can't even be intuitive. You click the button and you're in a different (and only marginally related) scenario. I need to catch up with the younger people.

    Anneke, of course, you can see it from a sort of insider's viewpoint since you run Rammenas and see the stats, etc. I think your analysis of the choices people make in (and the things they eliminate from) their comments is spot on.

    And I agree with you about the length of the posting. I think what happens is that I set out to write a relatively short piece about a topic but, as I write, its intricacies unfold and all sorts of possible avenues open up. Alternatively, it could just be that I talk too much. But it's a shame if that detracts from what I said about Empty Chairs. I'll probably use my full review of it for the next posting.

  4. Even worse some of our contests turn into popularity contests with the winner getting the most votes and they've got whole teenage softball teams with pizza parties sitting around voting and they're not even readers.

    And this week i saw a post at said contest where someone claimed they read for 'entertainment not to be educated' - complaining about a long word she didn't understand. She said, "If the author has more words like that I just might have to pass." Ahh, the dumbing down of society...

  5. Firstly on the essay... I am a person who hates to be negative. Therefore if I offer a comment it will be of an encouraging nature or not offered at all.

    If the story I'm reading is part of a contest, then I am very careful to offer a comment and also a critique if it's warranted. I do not waste my time logging in to a site without offering a comment on the content that drew me there in the first place. I look for something to like. If i find nothing of value I offer no comment; however it will be rare for me to go back to that site again.

    As the previous commentators have said, it's a world filled with people with little time, and perhaps that is the major factor. Sadly it reflects on the allocation of precious moments to really read a piece and not simply skim it.

    Secondly, "Empty Chairs" my proof copy arrived today, Bill. I held it in my hands and for the first time in a very very long time I cried like a baby. I think Jenny would be proud. Thank you for the support. I can't even come close to telling you and the other folks that are standing by my side, just what it means to me. I hope you all know. Thank you.

  6. @Bill: Agree, comments are not always useful/genuine. but still feels good to get them! as a blogger, I am a comments addict. I check every morning if anyone said anything to me. :) But I noticed that my flash fiction attempts rarely get any attention from the readers who otherwise comment actively on the blog. I have to say, I prefer that to some fake enthusiasm. If it is not their cup of tea, I'd rather not impose it on them. It is people like you and some others, whose comments on my fiction I really appreciate and value.

  7. Marley. Yet again, I agree completely. It seems that literature (in the broad rather than the ‘intellectual elite’ sense) is being judged by quantity rather than quality. Your ‘entertain not educate’ person’s remark would be very funny if it weren’t such a serious indictment of today’s cultural values.

    Soooz. Your attitude to leaving comments is the same as mine. It’s like that sickeningly cute rabbit in Bambi said – ‘If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all’. And your point about life being too short to waste time on second and third rate writing is one that decided me, many years ago, not to persist with reading books I wasn’t enjoying. Nowadays, I give them maybe 4 or 5 pages then dump them. Needless to say, Empty Chairs grabbed me and just wouldn’t let me go (nor did I want it to).

    As for holding the proof copy of a book for the first time – yes, there’s nothing to beat it. I’ve always said it’s the closest a man can come to having a baby (without all the screaming, pain and ‘for fuck’s sake, nurse, give me the gas and air’ phases). In your case, given the subject matter of EC, that must have been multiplied many times over.

    Scary. Yes, I always wonder why more people don’t leave a comment – if only to say ‘I was here’. We read the stats and see that there have been x number of visitors but only a tiny percentage say anything. Apparently, one of the problems (and that may be the case with your own, very successful blog), is that people come, see that comments are made by the same regular group, so they feel they’ve wandered into an exclusive club. (Mind you, that’s understandable. For example, I’m wondering how, in your present advanced state of pregnancy, you’ll react to what I’ve just written about giving birth. I only know about your condition because I read your blog but it does suggest a level of acquaintance different from that of blogger/commenter. I hope all’s going well.)

    If any strangers are reading this, I should reassure them that, despite my awareness of Scary’s condition, this is a totally open coven and their comments – positive or negative – would be welcome.

  8. So thought provoking in so many ways...

    #1) Like Bill and Sooz, I won't give a bad review or provide negative feedback. I will provide constructive criticism, if asked. So few people really want that, anyway, so I don't have to offer much of it!

    #2) Re: Commenting: I only leave comments if I'm moved by what I read (in a positive sense, of course) or if I feel part of the community of the place at which comments are desired (such as this blog). For example, I comment a lot here and on a few other blogs because I feel welcome and that my input is appreciated and sought. On new sites/blogs/Twitter pages, or those of people I don't know well (or feel that I know the author well), if I leave a comment, I'm brief.

    #3) Re: Empty Chairs: I will purchase this book for 2 reasons: because (1) Bill got on his soapbox about it and because (2) my daughter is a survivor of sexual assault and I believe in helping her and others who have bravely and courageously moved on in a positive sense.

    #4) Yes, Bill's essays do tend to run on but I really - how should I phrase it, Bill? - LOVE the way his mind works and the tangents he runs off on!

  9. As for Empty Chairs, yes it's a good idea to post your review here, together with a link. The number of mentions and links influence search engines. The book sounds worthwhile for anyone who's looking for the subject (and others).

    And Scary's comment made me realise that there is a difference between story comments and blogpost comments. Blogposts often have information and/or opinions. Commenters reply with their opinion and/or additional information. They don't have to judge the blogpost itself. With stories it's different. Commentors feel they have to judge the story, tell the author whether they liked it or not, and, preferably, they have to explain what they liked or didn't like. What I noticed is that story writers are more experienced at it, after all they have to be critical at their own work too. They know how to analyse a piece of writing. Even if the work is not your taste, you can recognise it's strong points. This is probably why people are looking for writing folk on the internet. (On blogs, facebook, twitter)
    What's interesting is that Scary's stories on Rammenas, as I see in the stats, do get a large number of readers, coming from her blog, and they stay long enough. I suspect that many of them simply don't know what to say, since a piece of fiction doesn't contain the blogpost ingredients: opinion/information.

  10. I think you’re right again, Linda – so many people don’t want constructive criticism, they just want to hear they’re good. I’m sorry, though, to hear about your daughter. The pain of having such a thing happen to one's child is unimaginable. But the incidents just seem to keep on proliferating.

    Anneke, interesting and very apt distinction between story and blogpost comments. In the end, from fellow writers I’m interested to hear when my stuff has or hasn’t worked but, whether they’re responding to stories or blogs, the important thing is to know I’m being read. I’ll trade the pursuit of fame (ugh) and fortune (hmmm, well …) for the knowledge that people are reading what I’ve written.

    And you can all stop reminding me how long-winded I am. I’ll try to be briefer.

  11. @Anneke: That is quite nice news to me, as I was not sure if I should ever even bother mentioning it on the blog! I figured they must be bored with the subject, since no one ever comments.

    I also wanted to add that electronic reading/writing is simply a completely different field, isn't it? People who spend a lot of time on social networking sites, such as FB, Twitter, blogger etc famously have a very short attention span. To capture their interest for long enough to finish something as short as a flash fiction of 500 words must be very hard. I personally find that I often scan through things, and simply can't focus on every single story/article/blogpost I come across. If I want to read a book, I will get a hard copy and read it before bed. I almost never! read any long-ish story or a book on my laptop. Even when I need to download something, for example a Russian book recently I could not find in store but was curious about, I have to print it out and only then I can focus on it properly.

  12. Scary, since I got my Kindle, I've been thinking quite a lot about the nature of the reading experience. I find it difficult to read stuff on computers but these devices are different. It's still not the same, however, as reading a book - it's not worse, but it's different. I'll have to think about it and maybe blog about it too.

  13. Yes, it is an interesting subject, I think...I would not ever consider my ebook to be quite the same as a "properly" published book. saying that, if that ebook is read a lot, and made money for me....I might change my mind. :)