Here’s something I’ve never understood. We’ve all experienced the situation where we’re at the edges of a conversation at a gathering where we don’t really know people. Maybe we’ve introduced ourselves; maybe we haven’t. Either way, we’re standing there, looking in, trying to nod along, but there just doesn’t seem to be any natural way into it and all we want is for someone to notice us and talk to us! However, when we’re on the other side of it, and we see people hovering at the edges of our conversations, we usually ignore them.
Of course, in this, as in all things, I am amazing, since I just worm my way into the edge of the conversation and then wriggle my finger and say, “Hey, can I break in?” and then they say “Of course!” and then I listen in until I have something to say.
But most people are not like me. Most people cannot do that. And yet, they deserve to be included. I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the random people who drift up onto the edges of your conversations. All I’m saying is that you should try to include them. Ask them their name. Tell them the topic of the day. Ask them what they think. If they fall silent, nudge them a bit. That’s it. Very simple.
This is the conversational skill I’m best at, actually. To me, it’s so patently obvious when someone wants to be part of my conversation. And it’s equally obvious when they want to say something but don’t know how, or when they feel like they’re slowly being forced out of the conversation. In fact, I often find myself frustrated when someone is talking to me and they don’t notice (or don’t know how to notice) the person lingering at the edge of our conversation, so they never pause long enough for me to bring the lingerer up to speed. Sometimes I’ll just interrupt my friend myself, but sometimes I can’t do it, and I have to watch the lingerer drift away in silent despair. Or, you know, silent mild awkwardness.
I’m still watching, and loving, Gossip Girl, but I’m also really put off by the voiceovers by the mysterious “Gossip Girl”. Perhaps there are one or two situations in which the GG voiceovers say something revelatory or interesting, but in general they’re incredibly obvious. For instance, the show will cut to a picture of some girl messing around when she should be studying on a test and then Gossip Girl will say, “Oh no, looks like little Jenny Humphrey is all play and no work.”
Like, umm, yeah, we’ve got eyes. I don’t know why anyone ever thought it was a good idea to have voiceovers that describe what we are looking at. The most egregious offender, in this instance, was the most recent Great Gatsby film. In that case, every single one of the voiceovers was either banal or flatly untrue. For instance, when Caraway first meets Gatsby on the stairs, the voiceover goes on and on and on about how brilliant and magnetic his smile was, when, err, we can see the smile. We’re looking at it. The smile is okay. Leo DiCaprio knows how to smile. But it’s not the greatest smile that ever was. And when the voiceover tries to sell the smile so hard, then it just reveals what it’s not.
In Gossip Girl, the voiceovers seem to be consistently misused. They’re almost never used in the most obvious way, which is to deliver background exposition about things that are difficult to dramatize. For instance, the voiceover never tells (i.e. gossips to) us anything about some kind of secret history that the onscreen characters might share. The voiceover never serves as counterpoint, in order to highlight some kind of irony in the scene: some truth that’s the opposite of what’s being said or shown. It’s really the most flat-footed element of an otherwise very deft show.
The only show with good voiceovers that’s coming to mind right now is Scrubs. In that case, the voiceovers worked because they were used to set up the show’s frequent cutaway jokes. But they were also used, in many cases, to quickly fill us in on background details and set the scene at the beginning of the episode. And, also, to tell us what was up with the various patients we were seeing. The voiceovers also worked because JD had a very warm, very humane voice. And he was also one of the main characters of the show, so the voiceovers continued his narrative arcs and character development. However, even in Scrubs, the closing voiceovers were frequently saccharine, moralistic, and unnecessary.
I track how much I read every day. And for basically the first part of the year, I had 300 straight days in which I read at least an hour a day. But I haven’t read a word for the last four days (ever since finishing the Sarashina Diary). I don’t know, I guess I just haven’t been feeling the written word lately. Not sure exactly what’s up. I’ve been loving Gossip Girl and feeling really engaged by it. I think that maybe what I need is something a bit warmer. Somehow that’s the one thing that’s always been missing, for me, from books. With a few exceptions, they seem to lack a certain warmth and comfort and safety.
Don’t know where this show has been my entire life. It is fantastic (though I’m only at the second season, and I’m sure it’ll become awful eventually). Like every other person my age, I watched Josh Schwartz’s previous show, The OC, but that was always vaguely unsatisfying, since it went off the rails almost immediately. By the end of the first season, everyone’s plotlines were already getting all twisted up and entire episodes were being wasted on stuff that no one cared about, like a random four-episode arc involving a psycho stalker.
Whereas Gossip Girl, and it feels weird to say this about a show involving out-of-control sybaritic excess in a Manhattan prep school, feels a bit more restrained. Episodes proceed at a slower pace. There are fewer revelations. Any secrets or hanging threads are usually disposed of by the end of the episode or by the beginning of the next one. The characters are allowed to breathe and interact a little more, and aren’t railroaded by the plot quite as much.
I am enjoying it a lot. And not as a guilty pleasure. I’m genuinely liking it. There’s something very warm about the show. Family is important. People are terrible and manipulative, but they struggle against their more terrible impulses. Also, they’re really good-looking. That goes pretty far with me. All I want in life is to see beautiful twentysomethings pretending to be beautiful teenagers who alternate rapidly between falling in love with each other and trying to screw each other over.
My friend (and recent guest poster) gave me some advice on how to go about following people on Tumblr. I took the advice, and subsequently the whole social network has become slightly more fun for me. Tumblr is a weird thing. I have no idea who the people I follow are. It’s kind of an internet throwback in that way: it feels much more like myspace or livejournal. Whereas on Twitter–my other big social network for talking to strangers–most people feel like they’re pretty well-attached to a real identity of some sort. Anyway, if you want to follow me on Tumblr, I’m rahkan.tumblr.com. I cross-post the blog there, but I do also post slightly different content than what I put on FB and Twitter. Actually, I’ve gotten pretty good nowadays about diversifying. All the social networks are good for slightly different things. Twitter, for instance, is good for talking about country music with an audience of people who largely (except for Tess Sharpe and Michelle Modesto) don’t care at all. And Facebook is good for complaining about silly Bay Area stuff (since I assume that all of my FB friends are either in the Bay Area or are somewhat interested in what goes on there). And on Tumblr most of my original content is quotes from whatever I’m reading. You see, the whole internet is just an interlocking set of systems for broadcasting my thoughts.
Years ago, I read Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, and found it to be thoroughly delightful. It’s not quite a diary, more like a series of anecdotes, lessons, and complaints by a courtly woman in Heian Japan and was written in about the 11th century AD. What came out most strongly from the book was just the personality of the writer: short-tempered, irritable, but also charming and perceptive.
Anyway, I recently realized that The Pillow Book was not an isolated document. It was part of a whole genre of Heian-era courtly memoirs. I checked a few out of the library, but the one that caught my eye immediately was the one by an unknown author who’s only known as the Sarashina lady. I mean, look at the first lines of the book:
I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days! Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself.
This document is also not quite a diary, since it was not written as a daily chronicle. Instead, it was written towards the end of the author’s life, as a sort of memoir. I say “a sort of memoir” because it’s actually quite strange. The book spends pages upon pages talking about a man who she met on a rainy day and discussed trivialities with…but mentions her husband and three children for a total of maybe three sentences.
In fact, that’s most of the book: a succession of pilgrimages, hotels, windy nights, and fragments of poems.
It seems random, but it’s obviously not. The book isn’t a traditional memoir. It’s not about doings. Instead, it’s more like a novel. It’s about a person’s emotional development. This is a woman who was obviously very sensitive. A woman who, from the very earliest part of her life, had a strong sense of what was right and beautiful. For instance, she rights of her recurring fantasy, during her teen years, that a man would come along and shut her up in a distant tower and then visit her for only one day a year, and leave her, the rest of the time, to walk alone along the windy battlements. Which is a beautiful image (partially derived from the Tale of Genji) but also a bit perverse.
And the book is about how that person–the girl who dreamed that dream–survived and changed throughout a lifetime that didn’t really include very much that was beautiful or Romantic.
I find that most ancient documents (at least those that are in prose) don’t have the virtues of modern literature. They don’t describe sights and sounds and smells and emotions. They’re about great doings or adventures or amusing incidents. Only in ancient Japanese literature, really, is there that fine-grainedness to the perceptions that strikes me as very modern. I highly recommend this book. It’s also really short, maybe 80 pages long.
(Today, I’m running a guest post from a friend of mine and fellow Baltimorean. One of Ezra’s business pursuits is helping people build their online brands and drive traffic to their sites. Oftentimes, when people ask to write guest posts for my site, I say no, because I’m like, “Well, what’s in it for me?” In this case, I knew that Ezra would deliver a solid essay, and that I might be able to get a little bit of his social capital)
I spend a lot of time on various social media networks, and communities within those networks. Many authors are starting to realize the importance of social media, especially as print publishing becomes all the more shaky, but a lot of them don’t quite seem to be able to execute. So without further ado, some gentle scolding from a person on the other side of the creativity/filthy capitalism divide:
1) Great Content But No Growth
You’re a writer! You excel at clever posts and spend a lot of time promoting your work with bon mots on Twitter or pithy observations on Facebook – but nothing seems to reach an audience larger than mom and your few-remaining college friends. I see this constantly with writers and comedians I know, talented people who put up great stuff but neever reach a larger following. Now the overall subject could fill a book, but in general following and interacting with people is the only way they will come across you. I wouldn’t be afraid to put a small budget into a Facebook or Twitter ad if you actively have a book or other product for sale, but just following and talking to lots of people will have your follower count climbing rapidly.
Link to your social media accounts from your blog, friend’s blogs and other accounts that have bigger following. Link from message boards and comments on forums or aggregators. If you’re making all this great cotnent its really a shame to not have a lot of people see it.
2) Useless Or Harmful Posts
Consistency is absolutely crucial on social media and I would strongly recommend one-two posts a day. However it’s better to not post at all then to have a stream of useless things. Punchy, witty commentary on a football game may make for a good Twitter feed, but rantings about quarterbacks may turn off a lot of your audience, especially if you happen to be a young adult or science-fiction author. I always strive for share-able, self-contained posts on my public social media, ones that will appeal to the broadest segment of my audience. I happen to love Scandinavian Black Metal, but most of my readers (and frankly, the bands themselves) have little interest or need for the latest rare Norwegian cassette form the nineties to be discovered.
Also I know many authors are passionate about their political beliefs, but I’ve seen a lot of follower accounts go down after the mid-term elections and very little in terms of measurable change in our governance…
3) Too Many Qualifications.
Many author profiles I come across list the person as a “writer, editor, blogger, publisher, poet, cover designer, marketing expert, window cleaner, sandwich artist.” Those of you who have been grinding away at this thing know how hard any one of these roles is and it cheapens your main purpose to list so many things. The main bio space on your social media channels is very important, as it may be the only representation most people see of you. Make sure it is clear, direct and highlights ONE or TWO credentials.
4) No Call to Action
Related to the above, people put enormous work into their social media presence, but to what end? On Twitter and Instagram, you are allowed ONE and only one link in your bio, where does it point towards? Figure out what your express goal is (sell a book? drive readers to your blog?) and make sure you have a pinned post at the top and a bio link that all point towards that call-to-action.
And don’t be afraid to go a little clickbait! Maybe you don’t want to be “Which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Would You HAve Sex With?” but an attention-grabbing headline will do a lot to get your reader’s to click through to your Amazon or Goodreads page or whatever the target link is.
5) Too Much Inside Baseball
While it may be tempting to complain about the rigors of NaNoWriMo or kvetch about specific personalities in your genre, I imagine your goal is to reach a wide audience with your writing, and it’s important to keep in mind what they want out of an author’s social media account. Things like productivity tips or content about improving your work are interesting and relevant to many people other than writers but posts about conferences, internal politics, academia etc can all put people off.
Anyway, thanks a lot to Rahul for letting me snag some valuable real-estate on his highly-entertaining blog! My name’s Ezra Winter and I’m a full-time social media and online marketing person, working with clients like the soul singer Bosley, to help grow and take advantage of their public presence. I really love this kind of work so I run accounts on most of the major networks for myself, and I’m beginning to write articles and blog posts about what I’m doing. The most relevant to the Blotter Paper community (and one of my favorites to write) is probably this interview with Daniel Kibblesmith, who is amazingly clever at Twitter, which helped lead to him becoming a published author and writer at The Onion.
The above tips were written from the point of view of Twitter, but apply pretty generally. I find Twitter to be the most effective tool for spreading written or verbal content, though Tumblr offers some exciting opportunities in that regard. If I’ve piqued your interest I hope you’ll check out my blog, and give me a follow on the ol’ social media channels. If you have any thoughts or feedback leave a comment, send a tweet, or shoot me an email email@example.com
A few days ago, I posted on Twitter lamenting about how I’d never managed to get into anything by Kawabata other than Beauty and Sadness (an amazing book that you should all read). And a day later, I picked up his book The Sound of the Mountain and found myself really responding to it. The book is about 62 year old old man with a failing memory whose household includes his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his daughter, and his two grand-daughters.
The plot has that aimless quality that I’ve noticed in many Japanese novels. Much of it is about contemplating the mountain and the gardens. He attends the funerals of a few of his friends and meditates on their absence. He slowly befriends his daughter-in-law. He thinks about the distance that’s grown up between him and his wife.
A lot of Japanese novels include some attempt, by the characters, to enjoy traditional Japanese art forms. In this case, the narrator buys several No masks (i.e. the masks that actors would wear in a No drama) and spends some time contemplating them. This is pretty interesting to me, because there’s nothing similar in English literature. You don’t often see characters in our novels seriously think about the ballet or the opera or classical music or even poetry. We Americans are extremely disconnected from our traditional art forms, but we don’t seem to miss the absence.
I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to be able to speculate accurately about the reason for this difference. Whenever I read a Japanese novel, I’m struck by the weight of history. All of these places have been inhabited, more or less continuously, and more or less peacefully (i.e. without major interruption by invasion or collapse of civilization) for thousands of years. To live in a town in Japan means being connected to the people who’ve come before you in a way that I don’t think anyone in the West can really understand. Every Western civilization has suffered major upheavals–changes in government and in ethnic makeup–that far exceed anything Japan has seen.
But, at the same time, Japan (at least the Japan in these novels) doesn’t feel exhausted or tired or decadent. In the west, we’ve been programmed, because of the fall of successive waves of empire (the Roman, the Holy Roman, the British, etc) to think of civilization as either expanding or being in decline. Whereas Japan’s situation seems so different. Kawabata’s novels are about a Japan that’s suffered a major setback…but is still expanding. A Japan that’s economically vibrant without being politically powerful. And even though the business and economic and political backdrop is submerged in these novels, you can see the tension there in the way that these characters try to reconcile their current way of life with their traditional cultural forms.