Lizard Brains, Robots, and Online Engagement

Online engagement is a different thing for different types of writing. To get to the bottom of this, let’s first look at the three main audiences of the internet:

  • Robots.
  • Humans.
  • Viral resharers.

Writing for each is different. And it involves different purposes. Anytime someone tells you there are Things You Must Do That Will Absolutely Work, remember the mythic thinking of survivorship bias.

Online engagement with robots:

Robots are not smart. AIs can now learn, and even learn contextually (sort of), but they don’t have the plasticity, semantic flexibility, and associativeness of the human brain. Here, the Venn overlap is that robots exist to funnel strangers — people not part of your community — to information they’re searching for.

Copy written to tell robots where to funnel the humans tends to read fairly flat, sometimes repetitive, and without much implication.

Online engagement with humans:

Humans are smart in ways that robots can’t be, and dumb in ways that robots are smart. We’re excellent at implied meanings and associating across contexts, but not very good at indexing things in our minds. Ever sat down and wondered, “Where did I see that article I was just reading the other day?”

Social media is constantly trying to solve human search by getting robots to catalogue the content of our posts and pins, and tailoring what we see down to our main interests. If our human interests were simple, SEO keywording would be enough.

Online engagement with lizard brains:

Viral resharers are not smart. They are emotionally reactive. The Venn overlap here is that in the physical world, they pose as thinking humans. They’re sort of bodysnatchers. It could be me. It could be you.

Whichever of us it is, they’re driven by their lizard brains. Cute kitteh! Gross injury, hur hur, my friends will freak out! HAHAHA FUNNY JOKE.

Advice on building one type of online engagement may not work for other types. It may even conflict. Let’s figure out how to tune the crap filters for different scenarios.

Iffy advice #1:

Keyword the crap out of everything.

Would you like free shed plans, free shed plans, free shed plans?

In my opening paragraph, I used the terms “online” and “internet” interchangeably. That’s because human minds are more engaged by variety and surprise. If I were keywording for robots, particularly if I wanted them to funnel me people searching for “secrets of online engagement” or “free shed plans,” I should have used that full phrase a bunch more times.

If I were running a blog designed to serve ads to as many eyeballs as possible, I’d want the GooBing robots to send me as many eyeballs as possible. But is that the meaning of “online engagement”?

Iffy advice #2:

Keep it short, people don’t stick around.

What? You mean online engagement isn’t really engagement?

Short attention (or bounce rate) is only true of strangers who are seeking repair how-to’s and recipes. Consider your own behavior. You’re looking for concise, clear and simple when you want to be able to go do something else. Like build a shed.

The same is true if you’re looking for writing advice, for instance. You either want reference materials to glance back at when needed (which is why the latter link is currently pinned on this site’s Facebook page), or quick tips so you can go do something else. Like procrastinate more.

You are actively engaged in doing something else.

What about when you’re engaged with the internet instead?

My friend Shamus Young, who’s stuck with a single blog in the same amount of time I’ve been through four or five, compiled his own findings on his site’s content here. Those at The Outline tend to agree: Attention is not extinct, and reality still matters.

I concur. My previous blog specialized in creative nonfiction essays and social commentary, usually 800-1500 words. The conversations in the comments were possibly its best feature, just as they’re a strong feature at Shamus’s Twenty-Sided Tale. It’s a totally different type of information-sharing than virality or search optimization.

Long-form blogging has a strong continuity with the old days of the neighborhood coffee shop and its conversations and relationships. The post functions somewhat like the news on the TV, or the latest tall tale from that guy who’s always got some interesting twist on things. Then everybody says their piece about it.

And sometimes it rises to greater prominence by hitting on a highly popular, reshareable topic, such as Shamus’s campy parody DM of the Rings, which successfully crosses a handful of related geek fandoms.

That’s primarily human online engagement. The robotic traffic funnels are not the primary feature. The lizard brain reactions are not the primary feature. A more whole person is engaged.

Oh, yes. That takes way more. It takes more depth and quality of content. It means de-prioritizing some of the design purposes of the online machine in order to embrace more of the human. And so, as Shamus began taking his site seriously as a job, his word output rose, and his posting frequency fell.

Is it any wonder that novelists and book authors in general tend to find this task much more Herculean than, say, DIY and lifestyle bloggers? How do we embrace and express more of the human?

Iffy advice #3:

Make it visual.

In viral posting, this is true. Social media is very tailored to at-a-glance images. It wants reactive clicks before our brains engage. That’s how ad clicks lead to spontaneous surfing of retail websites. Ooohhh, shiny. That’s why so many of those tear-jerking, hilarious, beautiful videos turn out to be brand ads. They want your lizard brain.

If you write anything less lizardy and more thinky, be prepared to have a longer slog to gain visibility and community engagement. Maybe social media isn’t actually the primary tool for getting started. Maybe featured images on blog posts are totally not as effective as emotionally reactive graphical punchlines.

Social media helps some, because humans are dumb at remembering where they left things. A Facebook group, personal timeline or (sometimes but less often) page can help people remember where they left your website, and to check out the new thing. But it’s not the cornerstone of community-building.

Building a social media community works much better when it starts with emotionally reactive, visual posts like jokes, sarcasm, heartstring wrenching, or political soundbites. From there, the commenters develop their own conversations. Some of those conversations are very, very stupid, because lizards are not good at using their words.

Translating that kind of content across formats to something more substantive like a blog takes some thought and observation of the community.

Online engagement is many kinds of thing, not A Thing.

If you want a thoughtful community, such as the kinds of people who read books and then think about them, the standards of clickbait writing and SEO aren’t necessarily good predictors of what to do online. It’s more likely the community will arise around the books, not the website or social media channels.

The exception is the ubiquitous category of saccharine inspirational/self-help, which is stupid easy to launch via lizard tactical. Lizards are keen on wallowing and will return to it repeatedly.

For the human brains, once your community starts to come together, online tools may serve various purposes that can be discovered by listening. If they come, they will tell you how to build it.

If you want virality, you should know why you want it instead of just flailing for it. Does it have anything at all to do with your writing goals? Or does it just seem like something you have to achieve in order to build your reputation? If the latter, screw that bull hockey entirely.

If you want to write a how-to site that allows you to promote related products and receive sponsorship, that’s another animal than being a novelist. It can work well for non-fiction writers.

Writers are also many kinds of thing, not A Thing.

It pays to filter for where your sources of advice are coming from. It also pays to think about how you can adapt some of these practices to fit your purposes. Just don’t let all the opinions out there engage your lizard brain.

online engagement lizard brain

Why Survivorship Bias Will Screw You Over

Welcome to the writing world. Attend any conference where writers get to play agent/editor/sales pitch roulette, and you will hear this from someone:

Survivorship Bias
Source: XKCD

Survivorship bias is everywhere. In books, it’s the success stories of those who made it big. Or even just those who did get a traditional contract. Or the craft admonishments of those debuts who wrote their novel according to every formula of their genre. (Experienced hands don’t do this.) Or even the income statistics of authors who, very genuinely and kindly, want people to know that “I did and so can you.”

Without accounting for the ranks of those who put their work out there and never sold a single copy, and those who never even got that far, those statistics are skewed. The advice you’re getting is not from people who are used to success, but who are used to a certain type of success.

Only the “successes” get mentioned. The failures get ignored.

That means the reasons for failure get ignored, and that’s the stuff we should really be troubleshooting.

This also presupposes a particular definition of success, and if your definition doesn’t match, you could end up feeling like a failure before you even get started.

Survivorship bias is the stuff that tells you to have a useless monthly newsletter because certain people have found it fits their audience relationship, and then tell everyone that this is what works. Those people may just be from 2002, kind of like the people who recommend blogging are from 2006. Anyone who can’t make The Success Strategy work is filed under categories like Must Be Doing It Wrong or Doesn’t Really Get It.

And this happens with everything. Like networking stuff. There are, I swear, more than fifty bazillion dawg-awful advice articles about how to market yourself as a public menace, because it worked for some people in some instances, for reasons that happened to override people’s natural reactions to the harassment factor. Or for reasons that may apply to them and not others, like existing social connections.

Never mind that you will quickly, like slap-face quickly, learn that “reminding people about your product” too often or in the wrong way is not appreciated. Being annoying is not representing your work well. Not knowing which channels and presentations are and aren’t appropriate is not charming.

Have I said enough? No, I haven’t. For people who don’t understand good social boundaries and respectful two-way communication, or who don’t respect the etiquette and conventions of various platforms, there will never be enough saying it to make them stop. The only recourse is a rape whistle.

You know the authors I am talking about. You probably also know some of the guilty culprits egging them on. I bet you even read their blogs, you soulless web crawling person.

Success is counterintuitive.

Getting things to work out well is like airplane armor. You have to pay attention to whether your brain is actually being logical, or making false connections from lack of full consideration. Our brains are liars.

Also, like airplanes, applying the armor (or publishing/marketing advice) in the wrong place really can take your plane down. That hardly seems fair to you. So here’s a story.

I have a writing/critique partner in my fiction life , which is pretty much a neglected corner of my writing life overall (I’m an essayist, not a novelist). Whenever he puts out a novel, all of us who love his work go ga-ga over it. People email him and post on his social media.

But he’s rarely there.

Neither are most successful writers. It’s called a virtual assistant, and people hire them because trying to keep up with the speed, frequency and intensity of public contact is a recipe for burnout. A larger writing franchise may find it worth hiring more than one as online channels expand.

Why would you expect yourself to do the work of three people and write?

What I learned from observing my partner early on was that being only slightly available actually increases the allure of contact. If you can just have it, then the value is low. Same with anything. If it’s hard to come by and somebody wants it, like a ruby, then it’s valued high. If it’s hard to come by but nobody wants it, like a bottled fart, then you’re not wasting any energy on being available when you shouldn’t.

You don’t need to try to be everywhere, in front of everybody.

If your business model grows enough to need more channels, then start using more channels. If you don’t really need them, why be out there waving your book cover around to a handful of followers like a drunk dorky kid in an empty room? That’s not a party.

Success is connecting.

Let’s not even talk about the myth of having to pay for promotion or boosting or whatever on social media. If your product is right for the medium, you don’t have to. One of my side projects has never cost its collaborative team a dime. Which is good, because it’s just for fun, to a niche audience. And yet our Facebook fan base is mid-five figures, and we’ve had original content go to a million page views.

The reality is, writers on social media are often boring. I don’t want to be told every week that my friend has a book and here’s the link. I don’t want to be friend requested to rack up someone’s numbers to impress an agent with their “platform.” Or conversed with only when there’s something that needs selling.

Reading is very personally tailored, and books find their way by being in the right place for those who’ll love them. And yes, for instance, BookBub may be one of those places (if your work has already accumulated some audience cred). So could many other channels.

None of this means marketing is useless. It means naively following formulas without understanding their application is useless.

Sounds a lot like why not to hire an editor too soon.

Survivorship bias is why you want to give up.

The most pernicious part is how this tells you that certain genres sell (probably not so much yours). Certain market areas have become oversaturated and are starting to sag (like your favorite thing to write). Certain conventions of composition and structure have been met by every book that’s on the survivors’ list, so every new prospect must meet them too. Certain people work hard and that’s The Reason why they find success.

But whether you’ve put out ten books or zero, your unpublished works aren’t on the survivors’ list.

You don’t know what will happen until you do the thing.

End of story.

Stringing Words Into Sentences

Side note: Links to Amazon use an affiliate code. When you click through, I get a few cents for referral, which helps me keep doing this. Thanks.

Voice comes from honesty.

The hardest thing about starting to write is finding your honesty. Not just telling the truth as you see it on the surface of your mind, where we lie to ourselves.

Honesty becomes a way of life on the page eventually. The easiest way to get there is to trigger emotions so strong and immediate that you have to say exactly what you feel deep down.

For a lot of people, that involves a detox from institutionalized writing. Five-paragraph essays. Being forced to write about the weather or how great your mom was on a sheet of pre-printed lines. Being forced to engage with basic literacy before you were developmentally ready (maybe your motor coordination wasn’t there yet, or your reading comprehension had a schedule of its own that said Oh yeah, well eff you to the institutional timeline). Or being corralled into limited, educational-agenda-based forms of expression that had nothing to do with what really interested you.

That’s why Pat Schneider’s breakout creative writing technique begins with detoxing from various aspects of our early lives. Her exercises tap into our experiences of injustice, shame, and disappointment, and perform strategic lifesaving surgery by excising those inner barriers onto a page. First, courage. You have to get rid of the fears about exposure that you didn’t even know you were dealing with.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Clear expression and topical engagement come from feedback.

One reason I’ve heard for hiring an editor (or for seeking feedback in general) from a few different people is this: People will read total crap, so their feedback may not mean anything.

Oh, thank goodness. That’s a fantastic starting place. But you’ll need to come back to it when you get your first negative review, okay? Also, good luck with that!

Feedback doesn’t teach creative writing technique in the technical sense. Practice teaches technique. But feedback teaches you about being interesting and being resonant.

People will ignore you when you’re not interesting and not honest.

People will read you when you’re connecting with what matters to them in a way that rings true.

And finally, it teaches you where you’re not communicating clearly, because someone will pipe up and say, “I have no idea what you mean by this! I’m confused!” Beta readers and critique groups or partners are excellent for pinpointing the places where we didn’t say what we thought we said.

I’ve found blogging is also great that way, because then you get to try again in the comments. You can even start an argument about it, which is definitely not allowed in critique groups, at least the better ones. There might be some cage-fighter crit groups out there.*

I don’t know. But I do know you can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Strong writing comes from personal literacy.

I touched on this in my initial post here. A lot of people who are just fixated on the shiny aura of “writing a novel” are also very unimaginative. For starters, they can’t imagine a “serious” (ping me on my “serious writing” rant sometime) writing form other than the novel exists. For another, they’re much too busy imagining having their name splashed on the cover of a novel to imagine a good story. But when do we get to the cover with my name on it!? Are we there yet???

The truth is, many people don’t read well. I have in past chalked it down to impatience, based on the lack of reading my reply emails coherently. These days, I also suspect a general literacy problem in the Now We’re Seriously Adulting population of people who are past their twenties.

As children, and teens, and trailing into young adulthood, we’re encouraged to read stories of wonder. But there’s an agenda. Wonder is only allowed when it Promotes Literacy In Children. Once that task is completed, we drop the habit of seeking out thoughts and expressions that amaze us. It’s not “useful.” It “wastes time.” We start skimming everything. We lose imagination.

Constraining ourselves to a grownup sense of wonder, atmosphere and importance is another invisible wall that prevents honesty. It kills voice. Seeking out your favorite themes in other forms and places will help you realize what you really need (not just imagine you want) to communicate, and how many ways there are to communicate it.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

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FOOTNOTES

*We’ll talk about critique etiquette another time. Short version: The number one rule is to say “thank you” and move on without further comment, taking what works for you and leaving the rest.

For a deeper look: Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others.

What Do You Really Need to Be a Good Writer?

Hello, and please don’t hire me.

You don’t need me nearly as much as you need yourself.

I’ve spent about 15 years observing the absurdity, chaos, and misplaced priorities of online publishing communities. You can find me in a corner, sharing rants with friends who are equally annoyed by the perennial floods of nonsense.

Happily, the likelihood is that you don’t need to hire me.

I can’t tell you how to be a good writer.

Because that’s different for everyone. I just know you don’t need the crazy shit. I’ve been through the crazy shit, because I started out stupid like everyone does. The number one rule I’ve come out of it with is, you can learn business and use that knowledge in publishing, but you can’t learn business by being in publishing.

I’ve seen a crapton of blogs, articles, and e-products — from books to videos to subscriber clubs for “insider advice” — of questionable value for their price.

And the advice. One of the bits of advice is, run a website with free sample information to get people to buy your information product. That’s not bad in itself. But, lo and behold, fifty bazillion websites full of excessively SEO-keyworded, scan-reading-optimized, regurgitated microwave meals in various questionable stages of digestion.

Why is it like this? For the same reason that I once assessed editing to be more sustainable than writing. Go back to 2006, before digital self-publishing tools really evolved, and read Wired editor Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail [affiliate]. Note that subtitle: Why the future of business is selling less of more. 

You, my friends, are the long tail. There is a key idea in Anderson’s writing: “You can’t make money being the long tail, but you can make money off the long tail.” That is why Amazon is rich and authors are poor.* (Here is a less spin-doctored, more human and much better-organized dataset from Jim Hines.)

It’s why editors don’t starve. It’s why there’s a festering cesspool of information products out there asking you to consume them. Selling to the long tail is presuppositional by now.

To get started, you need to turn the tables on that game.

You don’t mostly need information; you mostly need skills.

Information is worth something — if it’s good. Skills are worth more. If they weren’t, I’d edit for free. And books would be free. And so would your next call-out for a plumber.

The minute you separate information from skill, you’re missing most of the picture. The plumber can tell you what caused the problem, but it’s hands-on work, done knowledgeably, that fixes it. That much-less-costly YouTube tutorial didn’t fix it for you either. No matter how much you now regret it, that was your own two hands.

The words in the book don’t come together on their own. And all my best editing assistance won’t help you if you don’t understand what it looks like in action. This is not about my skills. It’s about yours.

This isn’t a “get what you pay for” problem. It’s not because stuff is free. There are lots of good free resources out there.

It’s a problem of priorities. Information sellers want you to buy information. If you listen to them, it sounds like informing yourself is all-important. (And if it says so on the internet, it must be true!)

But there’s that rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. Information is telling about writing. It’s not showing writing.

There’s your first big hint about how this really works.

So. What do you really need to be a good writer?

You need literacy. You need to read fairly widely and interact with ideas and imaginations that aren’t necessarily comfortable. You need to work on understanding them, which is different from accepting them.

You need to take spontaneous photos, paint, knit, play with the dog, or lie there. Do many useless things. Why? You have to stop analyzing in order to switch gears into creative thought.

This video seems to come and go from the internet, but I’ll link it anyway, because it’s one of the best things ever about what it means to be creative: John Cleese on creativity.

And then you need to practice, and practice, and practice.

You may need some technique stuff that’s in a few classic books and workshops, and we’ll distill that down as we go. But mostly you need literacy, taking the writing seriously and yourself not so much, and practice.

There’s a specific time to hire an editor, but it’s specific.

I’ve been queried by a majority of people who don’t understand why they’re querying me.

  • They read online that they should hire an editor.
  • They found my name through a successful client and are hoping I’ll wave a wand that makes them successful too.
  • They haven’t (yet) found beta readers** and lack faith that they’ll be able to attract any.
  • They want to avoid critique groups, for whatever reason — usually because they want it to be about their work, not about theirs and someone else’s.
  • It will make them feel (and, they think, sound) more professional if they can casually say “my editor” in a sentence.
  • They want a fast-track — which an editor can be, just because tailored one-on-one mentoring is hands-on practical work, not generalized abstract theory. But not as a substitute for the work of learning… AKA the work of hands-on practical work.

That’s the part that makes me hate editing. I hate trying to help people who aren’t taking the full time needed to inform themselves. There’s nothing I can do for them. The existential despair is like an ever-spinning, never-ending toilet flush.

Don’t flush your editor down the toilet.

You only learn how to shape words well by shaping a lot of words. Talking about clay doesn’t make a sculpture. Two or three sculptures doesn’t make a sculptor. The information only helps if you’re actually doing the thing. Only if you’re doing it lots, so that when an informational tool comes along, you can see how you might use it.

Stupidity will make you pay in cash, time, tears, anger and burnout. If you don’t find out why to do the things people say you should do, you’re also not going to find out why not to till the hard lessons teach you. Maybe several times over.

Trust me on this. I started out stupid too, like everyone.

So this is a blog about that. Down with the stupidity. Down with the hard lessons, as much as is realistically possible considering the craft we’ve chosen and what that says about us.

Let’s be simple, effective, and tolerate no crazy shit. We’re just gonna write.

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FOOTNOTES

*In “these exciting times,” the survey spider captured a skewed dataset that eliminated two-thirds of non-selling books and authors (“captured practically all of the titles selling with any frequency whatsoever, the vast majority of the infrequently selling titles, and many, many [i.e., by their own report, 32%] of the non-selling”). My educated guess is that this eliminated a large swath of self-publishers from considerations.

Of selling authors, only 9,900 authors from the last 100 years (out of approximately 200,000, or 5% of those surveyed) were earning more than $50,000 per year. Elsewhere, this surveyor finds that only 2.8% of visible authors make more than $10,000 per year. A careful read will reveal an excellent example of the long tail concept in action.

**For those who aren’t sure, we’ll talk through jargon terms going forward. Short version: Beta readers are people who will read your pre-published work and give you a reader reaction on it before it’s out there in the world.