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4 Twitter Hacks for Writers

Last night, I took a class called Making Twitter a Writer’s Best Friend with Richard Santos of the Writers’ League of Texas. It was fun and informational, and in case you’re a #badMillennial like myself who also doesn’t really know how to tweet effectively, here are the most helpful takeaways (for me) from the evening!

Follow agents and editors.

Agents and editors have always been the publishing industry gatekeepers, and until now, they’ve appeared perennially locked away in downtown Manhattan offices utterly impervious to the likes of little old me. Thanks to social media, however, these people (and yes, they really are just people!) are more accessible than ever before. They have public handles, and unless their accounts are locked, anyone can follow them to see what they have to say. Their daily postings might include a random assortment of writing advice, query letter tips, cat videos, and political jousts—and if you’re extra lucky, a little hashtag written as #MSWL.

Use hashtags the right way.

To be honest, I thought “using hashtags” meant just putting the pound sign in front of random words to make them turn blue. I knew you could search hashtags and find other people using those words, but I didn’t realize there was such an art to it. Two hashtags to search for and start following (and also using yourself, when appropriate) are #MSWL and #submishmash. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List. If an agent uses this hashtag, it means s/he is hoping that a book manuscript meeting a particular description (which they will then spell out) lands on their desk. Do you have a book like that? Then reply and let them know (in 280 characters or less) and follow up via the proper channels (whatever the submission guidelines on their website dictate). Use #submishmash to find journals currently accepting submissions via Submittable.

These Twitter hacks for writers make managing your social media platforms a breeze.

These Twitter hacks for writers make managing your social media platforms a breeze.

Participate in pitch contests.

A pitch contest is when writerly hopefuls ‘pitch’ their manuscript idea to an agent over Twitter on a specified day or days of the year. Go to this pitch contest calendar to find out when the contests are held every year, and how to participate. (Hint: it’s generally via a hashtag.) Hone and re-hone your pitch until you have something concrete, specific, and 280 characters or less. Finally, tweet your entry into the contest and see what happens!

Contribute more than you take.

If you’ve already published a book, don’t use Twitter strictly as another platform for promotion. The truth is, no one cares about your book unless you also have something more interesting to say! So, be honest, be genuine, be you—and occasionally plug your baby. Also plug other writers’ works, comment on trends in the industry, and be vulnerable or witty or sarcastic (if that’s your tone) about #thatwritinglife. 

Good luck!

How Intergenerational Narratives Inform Family Identity

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.
— Sue Monk Kidd

Research shows that narrative skills are largely shaped by habitual verbal interaction between parents and children. In other words, it is in talking to their parents (or other caregivers) that kids learn how to storytell. 

One large-scale longitudinal study (Pratt and Fiese 2004) found that kindergarten narrative skills significantly predicted fourth and seventh grade reading comprehension levels. The more elaborate the stories told by the parents, the more elaborate the narratives that children were able to articulate as early as preschool.

Duke and Fivush (2006) expanded on Pratt’s and Fiese’s theory of narrative development when they created the Do You Know scale. Their research indicates that kids who can confidently answer questions like “Do you know how your parents met?” are more likely to exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, an internal locus of control, lower levels of anxiety, and fewer behavioral problems.

Why? Intergenerational narratives (stories passed down from grandparents or parents to children) provide key information on what it means to be a member of a particular family, thereby forming a powerful sense of family identity. Not only does the storyteller get to experience the gratification of sharing their personal values with a younger member of the family, but the child hearing the story may receive information that helps them to understand the world or view the world from a different perspective.

In the classroom, teachers have demonstrated how incorporating family history into social studies teaching likewise leads to historical empathy—a direct result of connecting the student’s own family and life to historical events.

NOTES FROM A DISTINGUISHED LIFE is a workbook for kids that guides them through the oral storytelling process, helping them to capture in their own words the stories of family members and friends—stories that will shape the next generation.

Note: Special thanks to Ashley Smith for sharing her graduate school research with me for this entry.

Guide Excerpt.jpg

A Ghost Story

Innocence, well, it's belief in the goodness of things, I guess. Trusting that no matter how many times the world knocks you down, the next person to come along is going to help you up.

It's wearing a heart-shaped locket, with a silver clasp, only it's not a locket but your heart, and the clasp was broken a long time ago, and so your heart just hangs there, vulnerable and exposed, no protective metallic casing, and sometimes someone will hug you too hard and squish your heart between the two of you—this is a metaphor here—but that's innocence: risking weakness, heartache, unspeakable agony. And knowing no different. Because your vulnerability has never been abused.

For example. We were in the basement, sitting cross-legged around the Ouija board I'd gotten for my thirteenth birthday. It was cold down there; goose bumps prickled our bare arms and legs. Though we both sat as I'd instructed, with eyes closed, still the hot orange of candle flames on my inner eyelids. Still the shaky in-and-out of her chest whenever fear grabbed her. The room smelled wet yet from the last flood. And mold—black and thick as new asphalt. A crude oil cancer beneath the carpet, with sticky fingers to hold a body down.

Funny … the game had been my idea, and there I was succumbing to the power of my own suggestion. Invoking the spirit world boldly, as seen in movies, then shrinking inwardly, hoping nothing would actually happen. My little sister trusting me and hating me for it, because I made her believe anything.

Does fear have a taste? That night it was the battery acid in the pockets of my mouth: hot, metallic, dripping too much tar. I showed her how to place her hands on the glow-in-the-dark planchette. Her fingertips against mine still gummed with caramel apple. I told her she could ask the first question, that she better make it good. She asked what she was getting for Christmas.

That's innocence. 

Sometimes ghostwriting IS about ghosts.
— Jess Hagemann, Ghostwriter

Budding Genealogist? Start Here.

Like many American families, mine has a story about a great-great-great-great-grandmother who was full-blood Native American.
— Jess Hagemann, Cider Spoon Stories

... In this case, Choctaw. When I first heard this story, I was 16 and brimming with teenage angst. Feeling misunderstood and like I didn’t belong anywhere, I latched onto this family factoid with gusto. While all I knew for sure was that her name had been Syntha, I embellished—imagining her as a Choctaw princess, huntress, and warrior woman in one. In other words, someone to look up to, and be proud of.

Flash forward to 2018, when I submitted my saliva for DNA analysis to 23andMe. 6 weeks later, the results came back negative: 0% Native American heritage. In fact, very little of anything other than white European. Confused and admittedly a little crushed, I turned to ancestry.com, whereupon my clever boyfriend reconstructed my family tree. Lo and behold, there was Syntha! We even found a picture of her—and handwritten beneath the image, this caption: “1/2 Choctaw.” Okay, so not full-blood … but someone else at least had heard a similar story.

DNA analysis services like 23andMe can help solve long-standing family riddles.

DNA analysis services like 23andMe can help solve long-standing family riddles.

Where does that leave me? Well, I’m more inclined to believe the science rather than the hearsay. If my DNA shows no Choctaw lineage, then I have no right to claim one, regardless of passed-down stories. The only man I might have clarified things with—my maternal grandfather—is deceased now, so I guess it will remain a mystery.

Luckily, your story doesn’t have to end that way.

What have you always heard about your family history? Would you like to know more? Perhaps build a comprehensive genealogical tree? Take a DNA test?

Or maybe you were adopted, without a clue about where or how to start. 

No matter who you are or what you *think* your story is, here are two great resources in Austin for finding out more. Note: You don’t have to live in Austin to take advantage of their services!

 

Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Twice a year, I teach a four-week memoir-writing class. During the second week, I invite staff from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to attend as guest lecturers and offer a mini-presentation on the research tools available through TSLAC. They have printed family and county histories, a variety of Texas government records, federal census schedules, and many other resources to help you compile your family history. Sign up for the class here (next session starts October 11!) or reach out to them directly for investigative help!

 

Lauren Gribble, Genealogist

Lauren Gribble, Family Genealogist

Lauren Gribble, Family Genealogist

Let’s say you pop into TSLAC and feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of old photographs, rolls of microfilm, and software programs on offer. You really just want someone to do the work for you. Lauren Gribble, an Austin-based genealogist and the owner of Find Your Branch Genealogy, works with individuals to build out family trees on ancestry.com and her rates are incredibly reasonable. She even offers a money-back guarantee if she can’t find the specific information you’re looking for.

Like me, Lauren first got into genealogy research because of a family story—or rather, the lack thereof. Her father was adopted as a baby, and didn’t know the first thing about his biological heritage. Through a combination of DNA analysis and artful combing of databases, Lauren was able to find her father’s (and therefore her own) direct ancestors, solving a long-time family riddle! 

 

Jess Hagemann, Ghostwriter

Once you have the *real* story nailed down, it’s time to commit it to paper, so that future generations don’t have to repeat your hard work all over again. That’s where a ghostwriter comes in. Tell the stories you now know for sure to Jess at Cider Spoon Stories, and she’ll write your family history for posterity … because legacy shouldn’t be a luxury!

How to Write and Publish e-Books

Over here at Cider Spoon Stories, Jess gets questions ALL. THE. TIME. about writing and publishing e-books. Here are three of the most common e-book inquiries she fields, and her best advice for maximizing the online writing and publishing processes.

Note: The following pointers apply to works of fiction and nonfiction published to your personal/business website or to Amazon Kindle only.

1. How long should my e-book be—and how the heck do I format the thing?

Compared to print books, would-be authors have a lot more flexibility when it comes to e-books. For example, word count restrictions don’t really apply. Want to make a short 5,000-word PDF available for instant download from your landing page? Done. Prefer to self-publish a 300,000-word monster through Amazon Kindle? Easy. There are no New York City gatekeepers patrolling the internet and dictating what the industry can and cannot support. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, regardless of length, your book still has to be good if you want it to sell. That means picking a single and specific topic (that you ideally know enough about), creating an engaging through-line, or story, with a cohesive narrative arc, and hiring a professional editor to spitshine it for you. No typos or mismatched margins here!

Note: These rules may not apply to Nook, iBooks, and platforms other than Amazon Kindle.

Note: These rules may not apply to Nook, iBooks, and platforms other than Amazon Kindle.

Depending on whether you offer a reflowable e-book or a static PDF, layout may or may not be as intense as a print book’s considerations. With e-books, you can forget about headers, footers, page numbers, drop caps, and all other manner of fancy formatting, as chances are these won’t be supported by your e-reader platform of choice. If you’re going the PDF route, ask yourself: Is the information important enough—and in-demand enough—to stand alone? Or does it require (or might it be aided by) headers, graphics, brand colors, and the like? (In which case, you’ll want to hire a professional designer.)

2. Does my e-book need a cover design?

One thing you’ll still want to invest in, whether print, e-book, or PDF, is an eye-catching cover. Again, you can hire a designer to build it to spec, or use Kindle’s free cover creator tool to knock out something quickly and (relatively) painlessly. Can a discerning eye tell the difference between a homemade-with-stock-images and a professionally-designed cover? Well, yes. BUT: Decide what your budget can support and stick to it.

3. Does my e-book need an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s the barcode you find on print books that identifies them and allows them to be entered into (and ultimately sold through) bookstore databases. If you’re publishing digitally, you don’t need one, because you’re not being sold through a bookstore. (Duh.) PDFs are good to go with a copyright disclaimer in the first few pages. Amazon Kindle will assign your e-book what’s called an ASIN, or Amazon Standard Identification Number—and that’s all you need to collect every pretty penny from each book sale!

7 Ways to Edit Your Own Work

I always recommend hiring a professional editor; most writers are just ‘too close’ to their own work to catch typos, clunky sentence construction, or other mistakes that can create narrative confusion.

If you’re on a budget, however, or just plain stubborn, here are seven things to watch out for when polishing your manuscript for publication.

1. Double Spaces

Are you still typing double spaces after periods? This trend died with the typewriter. It may be hard to break old habits, but it’s worth it: continuing to use the space-space between sentences will instantly date your writing (since it’s not taught in schools anymore) and could make your publisher wonder just how ‘current’ you are on the literary scene.

2. Mis-Capitalization in Titles, Headers, and Subheads 

Four types of words should never be capitalized in your titles, headers, and subheads—unless, of course, they’re the first word. These are articles (like a, an, the); prepositions (think in, out, on); conjunctions (and, but) and be verbs (is, was).

3. Passive Voice 

Back to those be verbs (i.e., any form of the verb be): yes, they get your meaning across, but they’re pretty boring to read. All writing sounds better in the active voice. That means substituting action verbs for be verbs. Instead of falling back on “was” and “were” all the time, try more colorful verbs that bring to life the action on the page.

4. Commas 

Ask three different editors, and you’re bound to get three different opinions about the Oxford comma (the comma that follows every item in a list). I highly recommend using the Oxford comma, and here’s why. [What’s wrong with the following sentence?] “I like cooking my family and my pets.”

Commas also always go before the name of any person being addressed. EX: “Can I help you, Alex?”

5. Em-dashes 

An em-dash is two hyphens together with no space on either side, such as: “The boy said he was hungry—but really, he’d just eaten breakfast thirty minutes ago.” Em-dashes create a pause like a comma, but stronger, and will help clarify your meaning.

6. Ellipses 

One space should precede and follow each set of ellipses. EX: “ … ”

7. Italics 

The names of books, TV shows, and movies are always italicized. Song names can be indicated by double quotes.

EX: Katy Perry’s song “Firework” was featured in the show Glee.

Italics also indicate internal thoughts.

EX: My first thought was, This has got to be a joke.

Good luck! And when in doubt, hire an editor.

Bastrop is burning, but life is good.

As I type, Bastrop, Texas is burning. Yesterday a wildfire claimed over 30 homes. Smoke curtains nearby Austin with a throat-searing haze. My nose keeps running and it hurts to swallow, but life is good.

Many of you will recognize the phrase “Life is good” from the iconic wearables line that really took off at the start of this century. Founder Bert Jacobs spoke to 7,000 women at the Texas Conference for Women on October 15, and he left us with a story about his mother: Dying of cancer, she did not have to run around “making up” for the love she wished she’d given, because she’d given it all her life. Instead she asked her sons to throw her a party—because life is good.

Candy Chang, urban designer and installation artist, reinforced the sentiment with an overview of her Before I Die walls. Stenciled in white paint on abandoned buildings in over 70 countries around the world is the inviting phrase “Before I die, I want to __________.” Hope-filled messages written in every language and chalk of every color overflow her new book that showcases the walls. Chang’s offering of a receptacle (even a shrine) for low-barrier, anonymous community input is her attempt to “make democracy more accessible” while encouraging “unbridled creativity.” “Embrace the honest mess and remember you’re not alone,” she said ... because ultimately, life is good.

Life is good, and it’s fast. Faster than ever before. “Who controls the speed and the incline of the treadmill?” asked Carson Tate of Working Simply. “You do.” We can speed up or slow down life by saying Yes to what best aligns with our highest priorities, and No to those asks we feel we “should” do regardless of personal benefit. When we don’t say No, Tate joked with a smile, we end up "shoulding" all over ourselves—and that’s not what Candy Chang meant by “honest mess” … that’s just a mess. Life is good when we reach the flow state and improve efficiency. When drafting your to-do list, batch ‘like’ tasks and build in time for thinking and reflecting.

And not just thinking and reflecting—but stimulating your reticular activating system. This is the part of the brain that gets a workout whether you’re actually experiencing a given scenario, or just picturing it in your mind. Visualizing success is like practicing being successful—and in this example anyway, practice really does make perfect. The Olympics committee keeps 10 psychologists on staff just to coach the athletes on their mental game. Picturing your prosperity can help actualize it—and life is good when everyone prospers. Focus on prosperity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear.

Bastrop is a frightening place right now, but it will overcome and you will, too. Life is good.