where the writers are
Behind the Book -- Becoming Your Own Best Publicist
Jennifer reading to her mother

It seems like only yesterday my mother was teaching me to read. And now, many, many years later, I’m teaching her the ins and outs of social media.

While she was visiting from North Carolina for Christmas, we set aside one day for a Social Media Crash Course (aka Teaching Mom to Tweet). My mother (Penelope Niven) is also an author and her latest book, Thornton Wilder: A Life, will be released by HarperCollins in October. The book is twelve years in the making, and is the first comprehensive Wilder biography. Mom has worked her way through mountains of papers and research materials and interviews. She has organized volume upon volume of resources and, from those resources, she has written a beautiful, brilliant, masterful book, which manages to be at once scholarly and spellbinding.

Like all publishers these days, HarperCollins expects Mom to be not only a prolific and professional writer but a social media master. My mother barely uses a cell phone. She doesn’t text or tweet, and the very mention of Facebook is enough to send her into a tizzy (and she is not the tizzying type).

Publishing has changed in the twelve years I’ve been writing professionally. When my first and second books came out, it didn’t occur to me to blog or post, and Facebook and Twitter weren’t even invented. Back then you wrote the book, you edited the book, and you did what your publicist told you to do. Nowadays, authors almost have to maintain a social media presence to be successful.

Because I’ve been learning the social media ropes myself, I offered to help my mother. The day before she left to go home, I set her up with author pages on amazon.com and Good Reads, as well as pages on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s a sample of our tutorial session:

Mom: So how do I twit?
Me: You don’t twit, you tweet.
Mom: So how do I do that?
Me: Well you just write something you’re doing or something you want to share or something you’re interested in or something timely and topical.
Mom: How many words can I twit?
Me: Tweet. They don’t do it by word. They do it by character. You get 140 of them.
Mom: 140 characters? That’s all?
Me: You just wrote a 900 page book. I think you can handle 140 characters.
Mom: That’s precisely it. I just wrote a 900 page book. Now I have to blog and post and twit as well? How do you write a book and write all these other things too?
Me: Tweet. And it’s almost impossible.
Mom: I don’t think Hemingway would have liked Tweeter.
Me: It’s Twitter.
Mom: Can you imagine him twitting?
Me: Tweeting.
Mom: I can just hear what he would say.

(This was followed by a hilarious and lengthy discussion of how our literary favorites– Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, the Brontes, Shakespeare– would have reacted to social media.)

(We both agreed Truman Capote would have been a terrific tweeter by the way.)

In the end, we managed to get Mom set up and at least reasonably comfortable maneuvering the various sites. There is more to do, more to learn, more to teach, but I didn’t want to completely overwhelm her. So far, she hasn’t posted since our class day, but she promises she will. (To be fair, she did have to travel home, and then there was New Year’s Eve, etc.)

So far, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter and look her up on amazon.com and Good Reads too. I know I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does.