A woman once drove more than 100 miles to meet me at a book signing. She carried with her copies of every novel I’d written, along with a special present, one that was so personal, so closely aligned to my tastes and loves that I almost felt as if she’d been spying on me.
Of course, all she’d done was read my books, which—much as I might resist the idea—reveal a great deal about me. It’s impossible to write good fiction without millions of specific details, and every detail comes from within the writer.
Which leads in a roundabout way to the sticky challenge of social media for writers—particularly novelists. We all hear a lot about the importance of platform building these days. Genuinely engaging through social networks creates a bond with your readers that can turn them into life-long fans. But after pouring so much of yourself into your writing, social media can feel like jumping naked into a hot tub with a bunch of strangers.
Intimacy, however, is a critical part of succeeding on these networks, where followers are easily fatigued by overt marketing attempts. And beyond your own focus on building your platform, amid the chatter and noise that bombards us all day long, the intimate online space created by a novelist for her readers can be a haven—for both reader and author.
So how can you share enough of your personal life to connect, while still drawing boundaries between what is public and what is private?
The Illusion of Intimacy
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert is a genius at creating intimacy on her Facebook page. She posts inspiring tidbits from her life and the things people send her. She asks questions. She replies to visitors. This makes us believe we know her, gives us the sense that if we lived in the same town, we’d probably be friends.
We seem so alike. We find we think about the same things. We yearn the same way. And somehow, that is true for many of her more than 1.6 million followers. Whether that’s intimacy or the illusion of intimacy hardly makes a difference.
The problem for Gilbert and the rest of us who pour ourselves into fiction or memoirs is that in many ways our work is already intimate. We might not be willing to share our private lives any more overtly on the public stage. The implicit pressure on these platforms to always offer more can start to feel like a game of strip poker in which you’ve never had a winning hand.
How, then, to navigate this delicate balance?
Here’s the thing: We don’t really know Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s evident that she likes yoga and travel, as well as inspiring women to live authentic lives. But what does she talk about with her husband late at night? Has she had a fight with her mother lately? One of her tenets is authenticity, so her voice online is very much the same voice found in her books and when you hear her speak. I’m sure her friends recognize that voice very easily. And yet, it’s only a sliver of the real Gilbert.
As a shy young writer who was suddenly thrust into public speaking situations that terrified me, I created an author persona to cope with the terrifying tasks of attending conferences and book signings. Author Barbara would wear a particular wardrobe that Real Barbara never wore, and by simply donning that costume, I could stride out into the world as a professional.
Creating an illusion of intimacy via your blog or social media accounts is the same kind of trick. You have to find something—or really, several somethings—to talk about in an authentic way.
Your Online Persona
I genuinely love food and cooking, gardening, painting, hiking, travel—all things that pertain to my books, but also my life. I post recipes and photos of beautiful dishes I’ve made, and talk about the tomato harvest.
What I do not post: much about my children, my partner, the family member with substance abuse problems, health issues, etc.
How can you create a persona for yourself? A few tips:
Study the social media profiles of writers you admire. Look, too, at the online platforms that suit their voice. You don’t have to be everywhere, but try to find the best places to reach your own audience. Younger readers love Instagram, while Facebook’s demographics are creeping upward all the time. Where and what do your favorites post?
Choose a focus or approach. What subjects related to your books will allow you to be authentic and genuinely passionate?
Are you funny? Writer Mary Strand, author of the romantic comedy Cooper’s Folly, has mastered a comedic voice and shares a lot about her kooky athletic life, which involves a slapstick number of injuries accrued annually.
What things do you genuinely like to talk about? What would you discuss with friends? Jennifer Weiner loves “The Bachelor” and live tweets during episodes. Maggie Stiefvater draws her characters and posts them on Instagram and Facebook. These are ways to share things that you like or know or do personally without sharing anything that’s truly personal at all.
Revel in your imperfections. A sense of intimacy requires a certain amount of imperfection. Who likes to hang around with somebody who gets everything right all the time? I post about recipes that flopped, my smelly dog, my messy house.
Write it out. You’re privy to fiction—so write a character sketch of your public persona. Assign her a secret name, perhaps, and create some boundaries. What are you comfortable sharing? What is best left offline?
Avoid oversharing. It’s one thing to say you have a messy house because you’ve been on deadline, but quite another to post photos of what’s literally hidden in your closets. If in doubt, don’t use it.
Engage your audience. Offer readers a chance to reply by prompting them with a question or asking for their opinions. Always reward them with your replies and acknowledgment. Creating the illusion of intimacy will reward you tenfold with a ready-made community who can be mobilized when you have a new byline or book. It’s worth the time to cultivate it well.
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Barbara O’Neal (barbaraoneal.com) is the bestselling author of more than 40 books, recipient of seven RITA Awards and an inductee in the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 Writer’s Digest.