On social media, moving needles, and an act of blind faith
"I stopped talking about my work as something I loved and started talking about it like something I was convincing you to buy"
Last week, I deleted all my TikTok videos in a frenzied haze. It was suddenly intolerable to me that they existed, these flagrant displays of desperation, these inauthentic performances of my work. I realised, all at once, that they were irreconcilable with the kind of online creative I want to be.
Part of me had hoped, when I first joined the app, that I’d post these dumb videos for a couple of weeks and nothing would happen, and I could point to it and say: look, I tried to be a Good Author, tried to generate lots of sales, and it didn’t work, so now I can go back to writing books safe in the knowledge I cannot move the needle myself.
But not only did the blasted things gain tens of thousands of followers and three million views on my book’s hashtag, they also sold copies in the many thousands. They moved the damn needle.
And so it became a duty, an obligation, because if you can convince complete strangers to buy your novel with a seven-second lip sync, why wouldn’t you?
In a time when my career felt otherwise adrift—I was out of contract, having had several projects die on submission, and couldn’t yet see a path forward—TikTok represented a small amount of power at my fingertips. It was some semblance of control, in an industry where control is rarely yours to wield. And I am grateful for it, the way it kept me afloat long enough to regroup, to chart a new path. To bolster my sales enough to support that path long-term.
However, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching these past few months, about my relationship with social media and the intellectual real estate it takes up. Because the fact is, this is not what I want my mind to be thinking about for hours every day. Lists of content ideas, posting schedules, trending audios, shit! I need to buy a ring light!, trope checklists, humblebrags, aesthetics, oh god I still haven’t posted about that influencer pack from that publisher.
I want my mind to be stuffed with story.
I want my imagination to wholly inhabit the book I’m currently writing, the world I’m currently building, because that is how excellent books are made. I want to be constantly pushing the limits of my creativity, of my ability, of my craft, and in order to do that, I have to wrest back some brain cells from the murky depths of The Algorithm. I don’t think it’s an accident that I wrote Our Infinite Fates, the book that changed my life, during a six-month TikTok hiatus.
Of course these things can coexist. This is not me announcing my social media departure. I am by no means suggesting that authors who do a lot of social media work are writing suboptimal books as a consequence.
It’s more a reflection on my own limits, my own experiences with burnout (which I’m still not ready to talk about, but I never again want to say goodbye to my son outside a hospital because I think I’m dying of a heart attack). It’s about the finite well of creative energy, and how I choose to draw from it.
Upon seeing that I’d deleted those hundreds of videos from TikTok, a writing friend checked in with me and said, “are you okay babe, because it’s giving manic depression?”
And I am okay! I have never felt in a better place with my career or with myself.
For me, this is actually the biggest show of blind faith I could make with regards to my work. Because I finally believe that the stories I have on my future slate are good enough to stand on their own, without the need for me to stand on the virtual street, banging my cymbals together, yelling at random passersby that they should buy this book because it has the Only One Bed trope. I trust that the stories I’m putting out there going forward will resonate with readers—to the extent that they’ll want to press the books into their friends hands and say, please read this so we can scream about it together. I trust in myself, and in word of mouth.
This might be unmitigated arrogance and delusion on my part. But just writing all of this out feels good, because I believe it to be true. I believe in my work. I believe I can have a successful career without sacrificing myself the alter of the clock app.
I’ve spent the last year and a half telling everyone that TikTok saved my career. But that’s not true. What saved my career was writing a great fucking book.
And while I will continue to tell people about that book (and all future books) on the internet, I plan to do it in a natural and organic way. I want to share things when I have things to share—cover reveals, arc drops, upcoming events, career updates, writing insights, et cetera—and then not think about it when I don’t.
Last week I posted a series of talky Instagram stories about my secret life as a competitive chess player—stories in which I gushed and enthused and shared my passion in a real, authentic way. People loved it! They asked so many questions! My DMs were a riot of chess curiosity! And it felt so fucking good to just be real for a minute.
So I want to find a way to talk about my work like that, because I do have that same raw passion and organic obsession for my stories as I do for chess. When I talk to family and friends about what I’m working on, it’s that same stream-of-consciousness, that same unbridled enthusiasm.
Yet somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to talk about it like that online. Maybe because of the punitive effects of ever-shifting algorithms, maybe because I worked in sales and marketing for ten years, maybe because metrics are all too easy to obsess over, but at some point I stopped talking about my work as something I loved and started talking about it like something I was convincing you to buy.