Take Twitter, for example. Before I knew anything about pitch contests, my Twitter activity amounted to little more than a few dozen followers and a snarky tweet every couple of weeks. Truly minimal involvement. I had only even started an account just to see what all the fuss was about. It was a semi-engaging way to follow musicians and authors and comedians, and occasionally find some interesting bit of information. I was much more (and, truthfully, still am) involved with Facebook for social networking, since that’s where my most of my friends and family are.
Then one of my cousins, also a middle grade writer, told me about this contest he’d read about on Twitter called Pitch Wars. A lot of people were excited about it. He was querying at that time and knew I was, so he sent me a link with the info. Long story short — we both entered, were both chosen as first alternates, and many happy days followed. My participation in Pitch Wars opened me up to this whole world of Twitter pitch contests I had no idea existed. Months later I was a finalist in Pitch Madness, which led me to finding an agent, which in turn snowballed my Twitter presence into something, while remaining relatively modest, much wider than it had been before. There's one important take-away for you -- whatever the environment you cultivate for yourself in social networking is like, you need to be prepared for it to head off in unexpected directions, and sometimes without much notice.
Twitter is now the network I primarily use to connect with the writing community. I’ve met some interesting people there I’m happy to know, and even though the frequency of my tweeting seems to come and go in waves, I try to stay in touch with them to keep from fading into the background. I don’t see myself ever being someone to tweet fifty times in a three-hour period after getting caught up in a four-way conversation, but I like the feeling of knowing there’s this greater writing community out there. I like seeing how active it can be, and knowing how welcoming it is.
But I still wonder: Am I holding myself back by not tweeting more frequently, or reaching out to connect with more people? How much difference will having hundreds vs. thousands of followers ultimately make, either in landing a book deal or with all of the business that would come next? How vital is this for an author in the world of 21st century publishing? (And what kind of writer would I be if I wasn't constantly inventing new ways to second guess myself??)
In the end, it's fair to say that however you use social networking as a part of your writing platform boils down to two things. First, whatever interactions you have with people online need to be genuine, especially if you hope to build strong networking relationships. Most network-savvy people seem to have good filters for what’s real and what’s not, and something real is always going to give you a stronger connection.
Secondly, and probably even more important, the writing needs to be there. People might promote your book deal or retweet your cover reveal or interview you for their blog because they want to be supportive, but giving them some writing they’ll love can be very compelling motivation for them to stay on your team (as well as to keep you on theirs). A long list of friends and followers could be a good way to get people to climb up on your platform and have a look at what's going on, but the goal is getting them to stick around.
And remember while you're out there tweeting and posting and blogging and making all kinds of new pals and finding amazing critique partners, it never hurts to simply be nice to people. We're lucky to have so much niceness already as a part of our greater online writing community, and the more we can spread it around, the better. Both the Internet and the real world can always use more of it.