Three years. Four drafts. Enough revision that I could feasibly switch the suffix of the word from re- to de-. I’ve lived and breathed the same story before and after work, during the course of an MFA program, and through the tumult and pleasure of getting married. Yet, I still can’t see the finish line. But something’s been running through the back of my mind, a notion that’s been powering me through nearly as much as the desire to write itself: with enough of myself poured out onto the keyboard, my novel will undoubtedly be on the shelves within my parents’ lifetime. And glean me all the adoration I’ve ever dreamt of.
It just has to, right?
Wrong. Unless you’re one of the select few who’ve found the path to publishing as easy as emptying your trash folder (and I’ll refrain from namedropping because, let’s face it, our jealously of their barometric rise knows exactly zero bounds), then completing your book is only half the battle. Getting published isn’t about hard work anymore or the near fictionalized, serendipitous moment when your heavy childhood memoir or zombie love story lands on the desk of some hapless intern reader at Penguin who just happened to get laid the night before and felt generous enough to send it upstairs. No, these days, the world of success and publication starts with your name. More specifically, it’s about your online brand.
A fellow writer opined that the propulsion of your literary career is based on the italics, what your name carries around like the frilly streamers on a girl’s bike. Ex:
JACKSON Q. McPUBLISHME
“Sweet, Brainy Short Story,” Published in Prairie Schooner, Nov. 2011
“Equally Enthralling Literary Think Piece,” Published in Tin House, Jan, 2012
“Clinically Detached Personal Essay,” Published in Crazy Horse, May. 2013
Agents and readers take note. This writer has got some impressive notches under his belt, based mostly on the quality of his writing. With these credits, he may deserve a second look. Now, tack these on:
Regular Contributor / Blogger at Gawker, TheMillions, ESPN
2,147 Twitter Followers
1,793 Blog Subscribers
This burgeoning new novelist has gone from a noteworthy literary voice to a sellable literary voice. The followers of this author’s many cyber handles already supply a potentially multi-thousand strong fan base that could not only buy the debut novel, but promote, tweet and tumble every word of the prose. And let’s not forget the benefit of a reliable Instagram account where a well placed semi-colon could be photographed, slapped with an artsy filter then shared, liked and hash tagged until well after the first pressing sells out.
The emergence of this pseudo-cyber self-promotion is of course recent, a healthy twenty years after this new pixelated reality, but the reliance on such viral hype has become paramount. A strong, collated SEO (Search Engine Optimization, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Google) carries more weight than a state driver’s license. The successful writers are doing it. The less successful writers are doing it. Gone are the days of writing on parchment next to candlelight and having that be enough (but while we are on the subject, imagine if Hawthorne had a Twitter: @NattyIceHawthorne “Check out this sweet sentence I’m working on: ‘No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude…’ #thescarletletter #page20). Readers aren’t satisfied only with what you create; they want a glimpse of who you are. But what does this mean for all of us introverted misanthropic literary types who refuse to let even our significant others read the paragraph we labored over for a week? It means that as the times change, so must we. There’s only one Cormac McCarthy allowed per generation to deactivate his Facebook account and stay off the grid.
When Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero hit the shelves in 1985, it spoke to a generation: the zombiefied consumer culture of the cellphone-less 1980s. But that book hasn’t been forgotten today, and not because it’s been hailed as a classic of American Literature and taught in high school classrooms across the country, but because Ellis has kept himself in the shiny glow of every young American’s laptop screen. Sure, not every tweet has to do with his writing (though he does keep fans updated on the status of his current project), and he’s continually in the headlines for his brash, offensive statements (one tweet of his compared watching the show “Glee” to stepping in a puddle of HIV) but his online persona, his SEO, is unparalleled.
Ellis’ image is as controversial as those he creates in his fictions. More importantly, he is talked about. Any insider would be hard-pressed to deny that the clamoring of the many activist groups outraged over the content of Ellis’ work hasn’t contributed to his sales. Today, American Psycho has gotten dangerously close to sixty pressings. Sure, the grotesque thematic content has something to do with that, but I would contend that the nearly half-million Twitter followers Ellis currently has plays a large part in his continued relevance. His last book, 2010’s Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to his debut, wasn’t met with the same success as its predecessor, nor the few books he has published since the MTV decade, but he’ll still have a bevy of buyers for his next tale. Why? Because he’s still got the world talking, and the more people talk (retweet), the longer his name is remembered. In turn, Ellis’ work stays in print. And the line grows for his next release.
I’m not advocating we go out and put hashtags around a hundred and forty character slur in an attempt to get the internet repeating our names like a mantra, but I am suggesting that if any of us, however deeply introverted we claim to be, want to draw attention to the writing we’ve spent years obsessing over, then we have to start working this online angle, and doing so much louder than the blog, Tumblr or Twitter that’s waiting just one track pad click away.
An instructor of mine, Frank Gaspar, once offered this advice: “Touch it everyday,” the “it” referring to the project you are currently consumed by. Be it a new chapter, some 500 words, or merely moving a comma around the landscape of the page, the idea is to keep your brain and fingers engaged in the work, a sort of holistic immersion. This advice got me though a few rough patches (and by patches, I mean nuclear fallouts) where all I could do was move a comma. But I contend Frank’s sound advice should be expanded to include all the rivers and valleys of your online persona. When those nagging questions that fill the disquiet before falling asleep arise—Did I write today? Did I move that comma? Did I cut that hack sentence I’ve grown so attached to?—consider adding a few more: Did I tweet today? Did I post a blog? Did I share the links on my Facebook? Am I getting my name out there?
Now that I’ve gone on about the importance of the internet, I have a confession: As of today, I have a mere 35 Twitter followers and this right here is the first blog post I’ve written outside of the ramblings I sporadically post on my personal blog. So, whatever advice might be gleaned from this post should be followed first by its author.