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Your Online Presence Can't Just Be a Gimmick (Or: Using Twitter Meaningfully While Unpublished)

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Today's Q&A is with Johanna Harness, the founder of the #amwriting community, which started on Twitter, but this group's activities extend far beyond Twitter. I find Johanna to be a phenomenal example of an aspiring writer using social media in a meaningful way. Read on!

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You're well-known as the founder of the #amwriting hashtag. There's now a full community surrounding this hashtag (2,000 writers), complete with Amazon Store and CafePress merchandise.

While this community benefits many people, let's talk about how this entrepreneurial move has benefited YOU specifically. I know it's a huge nut to crack, but let's try.

What's been the biggest tangible benefit, something that has moved your career forward noticeably?

I have an amazing following on Twitter. For someone who has a no-celebrity, no-multi-level-marketing, no-talking-animal, no-shit-my-dad-says kind of persona, I'm incredibly lucky. This is #amwriting at work. The writers there have given me a daily audience of more than 25,000 people, built up primarily from the 2,000 or so who tweet using the #amwriting hashtag.

I'm having a great deal of fun. I get to meet some amazing writers and speakers, organize tweetups, do live tweeting, and pull together writers for mutual support. So much good keeps flowing into my life because of my involvement in that one group.

On a personal level, all my best writer friends are on Twitter. I'm held accountable for my own writing on a daily basis and I have beta readers and critique readers who have helped me and shared their strength. Within the #amwriting community we help each other with research, brainstorming, professional advice, creative inspiration—there's no end to it. The smartest people I know are right there, making themselves available to help others. This spirit of collegiality is an asset to all of us. It's a secret weapon in an industry that can get unnaturally dark at times.

So there are those benefits—the podium for speaking, the secret weapon of collegiality, but I also benefit from #amwriting on a weird purist level. I pour energy into the group and I get at least twice that much back. I get really excited when someone finds a way to express an idea that's been bubbling and cooking for years. Or that moment in a manuscript when the authorial voice slips away and the voice of the character emerges crisp and clear. Crazy-wonderful!

Being around to witness these moments fills up my own creative well. I'm not sure I'd count that in pages or words, but the evidence of this is clearly apparent in my writing.

Has there been any financial/monetary benefit worth talking about (related to Amazon store or merchandising I would assume)?

The Amazon store is pretty new and grew out of my desire for an #amwriting directory. I kept wanting an easy way to move from Twitter identity to book on shelf. It takes too long to follow a trail from Tweetchat to Twitter bio to blogs to websites to bookstores. So I always had it in the back of my head: make a directory.

I started working on the details at the beginning of the summer, recruited some very nice test subjects from #amwriting, and quickly found the limits of my original idea. Pairing WordPress with the Amazon affiliate store seemed the least-complicated solution and, by that point, I was all about the least-complicated solution. We opened the directory and affiliate store on July 1, and the response has been enthusiastic.

The CafePress store is even newer than the directory. I created some #amwriting buttons to give away at conferences, and someone asked me to make the designs available at CafePress—so I did. I included a link in the FAQ so it's there for people who want it, but I have no burning desire to sell T-shirts. Books written by our writers, on the other hand? I hope we sell a lot of those.

Any future plans or goals for #amwriting?

Always, yes. There will be delightful discussions about words, more tweet-ups at conferences, more cross-promotional opportunities, many more bios added to the directory, more talk about published books—and even more delightful discussions about words. It all comes back to the writing.

You're currently looking for an agent for your middle-grade and YA novels. How long have you been looking, what has that process been like?

A few years ago I took some classes through the land-grant university here in Idaho, and I learned a great deal about horticulture and viticulture and orchard management but, as a writer, I kept seeing metaphors in everything (which is, by the way, not very helpful when trying to calculate the ratio of wetting agent to add to a tank to overcome surface tension—especially when surface tension makes me think about writing again. And adding a wetting agent to a solution—isn't that a cool verbal puzzle?)

So one of the things I learned was that you cannot support a young tree too long or it won't develop a proper root system. It needs to be battered around by the wind and storms so the roots grow deeper. Otherwise you get a tall tree with shallow roots and it topples over in the first wind. And that's where I am as a writer. I'm developing my root system.

I started querying almost a year ago. I get requests, send manuscripts, and I keep writing new things. Then, when I've nearly given up on a reply, I get feedback. My roots grow deeper, I refine my craft, and I repeat the process. I know it's not only about writing a publishable book. That first book has to launch my career. It has to be the right book for the right agent. I'll keep writing and revising until I have my name on that book.

Given that you have a notable online platform at this point, do you have plans to self-publish should the traditional efforts not pan out? Or do you just plan to keep writing more books and refining your craft?

I buy and read alternative authors all the time. I keep hearing people talk about quality control, like this is something new to readers. "How will readers know how to filter?" Such a bizarre question. Readers know how to filter because they've always filtered. They look for repeats from favorite authors first and then they look for recommendations and buzz from trusted sources. It always comes back to the story.

So there has to be something more involved when authors think about publishing methods. For me, it's about the experiences we want to incorporate into our lives. The experience of indie publishing is much different than the experience of traditional publishing. If a writer wants to control all production details, the traditional path will be a disappointment. Likewise, indie publishing wouldn't be right for me. I'm ready to take on the challenges of traditional publishing and work with an agent and editor. That's the experience I want. The two processes aren't interchangeable.

The online platform is great because authors are always responsible for creating buzz about their books People seem to enjoy hearing me talk ab
out this funny dystopian teenager who has a thing for dragon boars and severed heads. They like hearing me talk about energy and words and story. When they buy, I want them to come back and buy again because they love the first book. An online presence has to be more than a gimmick to sell one book. It must sustain an audience and take writers from that second level of filtering (buzz and recommendations) to the first ("Hey, this is a great author!").

How much time do you spend on Twitter each day?

I check in with #amwriting every morning when I sit down to write. It's part of my morning routine. I drink coffee and I chat with other writers while the verbal part of my brain wakes up. Some days this takes five minutes; some days it takes an hour. After I'm warmed up, I write hard. With a limited amount of time in the mornings, I can't afford to waste a bit of it. As my day gets busy with other activities, I tweet here and there using spare minutes squeezed from mostly packed hours.


What do you say to writers (published and unpublished alike) who tend to say, "I don't know how you have time for that social media stuff" or who advise that it's better to focus on just the writing when you're unpublished?


Again, it comes down to the conflicting paradigms of product versus process. If an online presence is a product used for marketing a product, then it makes a lot of sense to focus on one product at a time. It's an assembly-line model. We really are more efficient if we do one task and then another. If that works for a writer, it makes no sense to change.

For me, planning, writing, and revising are experiences of story. A completed manuscript represents a bit of magic: the writer's experience transferred to page. When read, the words become the reader's experience. Since no two readers walk through a story in exactly the same way, I can play with tiny details and elicit different responses from different readers. As a writer, I love experimenting on my Twitter friends: read this passage, taste this idea, tell me how it makes you feel and what it makes you think.

So social media is part of my creative process and not just about marketing. Am I hoping my friends will be there when I have a book to sell? Absolutely. But I hope they'll want to read because they appreciate my crazy-magic-talk and they want to experience what I have to offer. That's the weird purist in me again. It all comes back to the writing.

UPDATE: Read Johanna's reflection on this interview, several days after it went live. She has more excellent thoughts to share.

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My heartfelt thanks to Johanna for taking the time to provide such insightful answers and commentary. Go learn more about the #amwriting community, and visit Johanna's homepage.

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