Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Is Social Networking a Benefit Or a Burden to Writers?

Rule number one as a serious author is to never bite the hand that feeds. That holds true for most things in life, of course, but it's an idiom writers are held in check with as a constant truism. Cross swords with an editor or agent who is willing to invest time in an author's career, the author will assuredly be gutted no matter how skilled he or she can parry. Tick off one's audience to the point of blatancy, then forget future royalties.

Like anything else, it's an honest checks and balances system which has its loops to master and potential pitfalls that can ruin a writer's career. It's not always fair but Kennedy warned us ages ago about the fallacy of fairness. In an equal world, fairness would be a standard to which everyone could prosper from, but we hardly live in an equal world.

The internet, for all of its wonders and hazards, tries to serve as an intermediary for fairness--so long as you can keep up the payments with your service provider. Through sheer anonymity behind a keyboard, everyone enjoys relative equality. It's when we choose to put our pictures into cyberspace and express ourselves when the web becomes personable instead of free floating machina. It also starts the competition game. Seeking one another out amidst the cold cybernetic tundra is, of course, commonly referred to as social networking. Even if our purpose is just to have a few online chums with whom to email and instant message about the daily grind of life, social networking is the new culture.

We'd much rather email and text one another these days instead of picking up the phone or, gee willikers, actually pick up pen and paper and snail mail letters to each other. It takes too much time, we have to spend money on stamps which are double the price they were before the internet went mainstream and the whole "green" movement guilt trips us all into conserving our paper-based resources before our world resembles a Once-ler-esque wasteland.

There is, of course, the convenience factor, though, which draws us to the internet, email and Blackberries. You can send a message quicker than it takes to dial a number and engage the other person you're attempting to reach and stay in good conscience you're no snob, you haven't withdrawn from society, you keep up with current trends. In the business world, email is the happy alternative to being forced to speaking with undesirable, headache-provoking parties through the phone receiver. Life moves faster and we fall to pieces faster accordingly, so it's not always in people's interest to jabber on the phone for long periods of time. Besides, there's 600 channels of mindless fodder with which to downtune from the demanding pace of life, right?

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the former online social ringleader, MySpace, brings us together from every nook and cranny of the world. In my day, we pen-palled one another all across the globe and it's hilarious now to think how it would take weeks for our letters and care packages to get to one another. Now you can reach your online buddy in Dubai with an email attachment of goodies within seconds, assuming he or she is awake in his or her respective time zone to receive it so rapidly. Semantics, of course, but this instant gratification mode comes part and parcel with where we're at in the digital realm. Faster than lightspeed, we can have it all and we can assimilate information and barely tangible electronic products in nanoseconds depending on our ISP's capacity and how much free RAM we leave in our hard drives. Like Kraftwerk would chirp, we are the robots...doo da doo doo...

Yes, I too work the internet social hubs because it's practically expected if you're to be considered a serious writer. Okay, granted, the web makes my writings more accessible to a widespread, diverse audience who might not have had the means or the physical delivery system to read my articles at Metal Maniacs or AMP, which appeared in many retailers, but not all of them, of course. I am probably more read at my blogsite The Metal Minute than either of those venues, though I received quite a bit of wonderful reader feedback through their editors and printed letters within those periodicals. Many of those readers then sought me out through MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn to hook up with me. Some actually personalized their add friend requests, most did not. It's cool. So long as you're not a pedophile, mass murderer, cyberscum or porn spy, chances are I might very well add you.

As a writer, you're just about compelled to add cyber friends, unless you carry prestige and a long sales record in which your very name draws people to you in legion. Those folks don't need to add friends. They can scrutinize far deeper and those they do choose to communicate with online through postings and tweets only egg everyone else to the point of jealousy. "Hey, I follow you too, Ms. I Sell Millions," becomes the transient emotion from most where wound comes not from face-to-face rejection, but the fact a successful writer won't or is merely shy of time to reciprocate online. The biggest offense in the digital world nowadays, is to not respond to emails, texts or instant messages. Your very cred depends upon it unless you're already bank.

Again, here is where we're at in the world. If you're an up-and-coming writer or mid-tier writer, you must social network. Period. There's no escaping it. There are so many journalists, authors, poets and scribes galore and if you want to stand out, you must dog the internet persistently. You must devote hours a day sending out tweets to your followers, scouting out others to follow who might be down with your own goals and in turn, follow you. It becomes an instant numbers game. If you don't have a minimum of three digits in your friends and followers count, you're not legit. Thousands, you have a shot at making it. Six figures, you're in gold territory.

The theory is, the more people you get behind you in the digital realm, the far more likely your sales count is going to rise. Not always a fail-safe attitude, though, since we are still in tough financial times and there is triple the product in every branch of media. Talent is one thing; consumer willingness to buy is the bigger mandate. Writers today are expected to be marketing geniuses and while I myself possess a Marketing degree, most writers do not. In fact, most wouldn't know an actual prospectus and marketing plan if one was handed to them. Writers are analytical, sure, but most are dreamers, creators, designers, keyholders to portals of imagination. Forcing them into marketing schisms (in my opinion, anyway) puts many on a collision course for failure.

And so you see Twitter filled with billions of abbreviated marketing messages from writers touting their wares. The key, above all in the social networking stratum, is to get other users to re-tweet your self-penned advertisement, so you are likely to see the same messages come flying again from supportive writers. It becomes information overload, to the point your own tweet-pitch becomes just one ionized blurb amidst billions served on a daily basis. McDonald's might soon be balking at that claim, and I'm not going to be a hypocrite and denounce this practice. I've done it plenty and will be tweeting and Facebooking a message about this very post just to bring awareness to my friends and followers with the hopes of luring them all here to read. That's how it works now. We can only dream to serve billions of readers on a daily basis, but it's the driving motivation behind social networking--at least from a writer's perspective.

Also, what this online mania leads to is enterprising writers with certain levels of status or business ingenuity to prey on desperate, hungry writers by charging them a dime or two to sell themselves on their high traffic websites, or in some cases, charging them for a review of their book. I won't name names, but it resembles the practices of a well-known media journal, and this pay-to-play ethic basically robs the integrity of what is considered an "indie" scene. A true indie scene passes the materials around, shares its thoughts amongst one another for free and uses word-of-mouth to spread the media like wildfire--or to go viral, as is the lingo today. It's one thing if you're an assignment writer for a paying magazine, but directly charging an artist seeking your valued opinion? It's more than a gray area. The punk, thrash metal and alternative scenes of the eighties were proof positive that scenes are built and nurtured from within and profiteering off of one another was restricted to buying each other's works and t-shirts and then telling newcomers all about them.

But, like Depeche Mode sang in "Everything Counts," it's a competitive world and even more so with the internet inviting each and every participant with a direct connect into this formerly fabricated marketplace. Web shopping is real now, books are sent and consumed electronically in large (if not larger) amounts than hard copy to your local Barnes and Noble. Of course, I posit that nothing the interent offers compares to the intoxicating aroma of parchment and java at Barnes and Noble, where I feel as much at home as inside a record shop. Of course, you won't be engaged by strangers there as readily as you are on the web. Remember, it's easier to connect with others from the security of our computer-based hidey holes than in the real world.

The biggest thing to social networking for writers is how much do we need to do it and still remain productive in the actual craft of writing? Must we be chained to the Twitter page at the cost of actual writing time? The logical tactic is to minimize Twitter and plow through our paragraphs, bringing the Twitter page back up every so often on breaks to check others' tweets and to throw out more of our own. It's why certain authors who are making a name for themselves online always seem to be on Twitter and their tweets rumble through within minutes of their last ones. It's effective, but it is destined to become pandemic.

Not everyone enjoys the luxury of writing from morning to dinner time. Work, family, obligations, they're all a part of life and definitely a part of mine. Writing time is my most cherished personal commodity. When I must carve out portions of my free time to catch up with my Facebook friends, toss out tweets, thank my followers and answer my emails, often this comes at the sacrifice of valuable writing time. Sadly, I'm soon falling asleep at my computer once I have a manuscript up after all that since I've already had a long day at work, my family is noisy enough to whittle me down and then getting caught up with my digital microcosm becomes encompassing all on its own. I do my blog posts in the morning and it's always a race against my son who normally hears when I'm up and he's chasing my shadow. As you can see by the length of this post, I rose from bed earlier than usual so I could do it in peace, and it has become a part of my everyday habit as a writer. I hate to say it, there was less stringency before the internet, even if I do indeed thank the internet for the blossomed audience I enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, it's unwise to bite the hand that feeds.

Still, I do have to say this in summation: if I don't keep up with my social networking, I notice my followers drop off a few points or stagnate until I resume posting. Even at this site, the hit count reflects its activity, even if The Metal Minute continues to draw hundreds of readers each day, even when I don't post. Facebook, if I'm not reading through and commenting or "liking" my fellow Face-friends' thoughts, I can expect dead air to my own posts. There's the fairness factor I alluded to previously. It is easy, however, to misconstrue not giving a generous block of time in devotion to others in this digital metropolis as snubbing. If you want to succeed as a writer in this computer world, you must find the line between pushing your relevancy out there and hedging the all-important quietude in which to create.

Used to be a writer need simply find the quietude.


  1. Fantastic post, which clearly sets out the pros and cons of the networking phenomenon. I remember those days of having penpals all over the world. At the age of 11, I joined a penpal club based in Finland and was up to 40 correspondents at one point. The rustle of blue airmail paper, the bright splash of stamps from Australia and other far flung countries - ah, those were the days!

    You final summary is spot on - I have a blog and a half-finished travel book, but struggle to do more than tread water in terms of keeping up with blog + networking. "Quietude" for the book has eluded me for some time, though arguably it is the more important project. I also agree with you about the "dead air" thing - when I go away (and am more offline than not), it feels like the waters close over your head in cyberspace. It is like being on a treadmill, but as you say, you should not bit the hand that feeds you, even though it appears to make us run faster than comes naturally! (Well, to someone of my age, certainly... ; - ) )

  2. Hi, Vanessa, thank you very much for your comments. Glad to meet you, of course. I remember those pen pal days quite well and had many based in Finland, Japan, Germany and of course, the UK. It was part of the tape trading scene that built up our scenes in the eighties and I looked forward to those packages almost as much as the promo packages I've received as a music and film journalist.

    It really is a phenomenon how much the internet has become a strategic tool for writers, musicians and artists, much of it beneficial, but my itch about it had to be expressed since I find it ultimately superficial that you're only as continuously relevant as your last Tweet. :)

    Come by again!

  3. Yes, I so agree about the last Tweet indicator! That cannot be right, but it is the way things seem to be going...