A Twitterature exercise: Can fictional characters draw (and keep) followers?

A novelist’s invented personae may not have created a huge following, but the experiment offers lessons in social media—and inspires a looser writing style.


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U.S. Ambassador Holt Blankenship is among the more active diplomats on Twitter these days. He tweets his thoughts on the uprisings in the Middle East and describes a near-fatal encounter with hypothermia on the sea ice.

The other day Blankenship shocked the diplomatic world by announcing that the U.S. government has been consulting a London bookie named Paddy Powers when deciding what foreign factions to back.

But I have a confession. Blankenship—”our nation’s voice in the Afterlife”—is someone I created as a literary experiment, tweeting a subplot from a rather odd novel I wrote.

Though I haven’t shaken the foundations of American literature in the two weeks I’ve been doing this, @US_Ambassador Blankenship—and fellow characters like the goat-headed @Gov_Gopnik—did teach me something about Twitter, along with related sites such as Twellow, SocialOomph and FollowerHub.

Now, nobody’s going to hire me as a social media consultant. But if you’re struggling to find your voice or drum up followers on Twitter, perhaps my project can offer a few lessons.

Promoting a novel

Blankenship was drawn from my unpublished novel “Liquidation Bay,” an excerpt of which ran in Narrative magazine in 2009. After falling through the sea ice while out for a walk, the ambassador is rescued from certain hypothermia by the governor’s mistress, beginning a liaison that leads to blackmail and personal ruin.

But my literary agent, who is representing a realistic novel of mine (Russian Mafia, murder, Chicago), is less than thrilled about taking on a satirical novel set in Hell. So I decided to gin up interest by tweeting scenes from the novel and observations by characters.

My goal was to amass hundreds of thousands of followers, grab the attention of publishers and waltz into a major book-and-film contract. Eyeing a still loftier goal, I thought it might make a story for Ragan.com.

Discovering Twellow

I consulted CEO and Twitter maestro Mark Ragan, who suggested I follow 50 people a day, using the Twitter search engine Twellow, which enables you to search Twitter profiles for key words such as professions.

This works well if you are the CEO of an influential communications company offering invaluable industry tips; less so if you are a fictional albino diplomat tweeting thoughts like this:

“The wolfman, Harould Critters, was not only a chess player and accordionist, as he was quick to explain, but also a Tolstoyan and a vegan.”

A terser style

My novel is often told with Ciceronian flourishes, but Twitter is unforgiving. I began tweeting sentence fragments, and though this could be frustrating, it was fun to loosen up.

I began using more contractions. I used to write for New York Times editors who forbade contractions except in quotes, and it’s hard to shake their voices in my head as I write. But there is no getting around the fact that he’d is four spaces shorter than he would.

As @US_Ambassador, Blankenship followed others like crazy. Soon he was linked to 1,018 people, but he had fewer than 100 followers of his own, many of them suspiciously beautiful young women like the articulate Ms. Jenifer Fanara (“I am really cheerful to be a goody-goody twitterer here”). This became a problem. People who can’t maintain a high percentage of followers start looking like spammers—or desperate authors.

Hope for a foothold

Some moments seemed to herald a breakthrough. When the ambassador began to follow some people involved in alternative-reality games, a discussion broke out about this new “Hell ARG” featuring him.

@geologylady created a list @geologylady/hell-arg for my characters and wrote: “hmmmm perhaps nothing, perhaps interesting, perhaps the start of a hot topic. ;)”

One day @KarlRove clicked Blankenship’s follow button, prompting the ambassador to tweet a shout-out: “Glad to see my good friend @KarlRove is following me. Welcome! Tell old 43 I owe him a Dutch-rub if he ever shows up here, the son-of-a-gun!”

The former Bush adviser quickly vanished from Blankenship’s followers. Karl, come back! Just kidding!

Finding oomph

Along the way I discovered SocialOomph, a website that enables you to schedule your tweets throughout the day. This was a handy tool for an insomniac like me who is usually tweeting between 4 and 5 a.m. Now my tweets could flow out when Internet traffic is heaviest.

Also, it became clear I was going to have to cut off the ingrates who weren’t following back one of the grand experiments in American literary history. FollowerHub enables you to track who isn’t following you back and—ha!—dump them.

The former wedding deejay from Northern Virginia? Unfollow! The “immigrant from another time”? Take that! The guy who once “jumped off [his] parents’ van with a garbage bag thinking it would work like a parachute”? Gone!

Twellow revisited

I pared back the people I was following to the mid-200s, with about 168 following me. Then a tip in an article I read sent me back to Twellow. Searching the words “follow back” in quotes, I found people who will click to follow you, no matter how bizarre your frizzy-haired avatar might be.

Within 24 hours the good ambassador had gained about 120 followers, hitting 292 at last count. It may not be enough to propel my manuscript into a million-dollar deal. But I’m still hoping to win back Karl Rove.

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