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How Social Media Helped Me Write My Novel

How Social Media helped me write my novel

by Caroline Leavitt

I know, I know. You hear that writers should shut off social media to do their work, that it’s a time suck. You can get lost in all the conversations and who is doing what, and how everyone feels, and then suddenly, you look up and it’s now six at night, and your writing day is shot.  Stay away from social media, I’m advised.

I never listen. I’m hooked as any addict.

For me, social media is a godsend. I couldn’t have written my new novel Cruel Beautiful World without it.

First, there was the research. Going on a fact-finding mission is always a whirlpool, about to pull you under.  Cruel Beautiful World is about how the freewheeling sixties morphed into the more dangerous 1970s. It’s about the Manson Trial, and the Kent State shootings and the back to the land movement, and I was sketchy on most of it.  Of course, there are thousands of books on each of those topics, but I soon found myself buried in facts, and I knew that what I needed wasn’t facts, but stories. Real stories from real people.

So I asked on Facebook, about free schools and back-to-the-land farming, about the Mansons and Love-ins, about the student strike and so much more. And almost immediately I got answers. I heard from a woman who used to watch the Manson girls wander into a store. “They were hippies, but not the good kind,” she said, a line I immediately decided to use. A guy I knew from Brandeis, who was a year or so above me, told me about how in the 1970s, when two students, Katherine Anne Powers and Susan Saxe robbed a bank for ‘the revolution”, killed a cop with 9 children, and went underground, he and his best friend were so disturbed that they got in his car and drove to Maine and stayed there. I learned about chickens, that they can scream like pterodactols, and I learned what blood smells like. Talking to people, you get the texture of history in a way that a factual book can’t give you.

Cruel Beautiful WorldCruel Beautiful World is my 12th novel, but even with two New York Times bestsellers to my name, a new book is always a new challenge. I have what I call “writer’s amnesia,” where I forget how to handle point of view, how to start or end a chapter. But on social media, there’s always another writer to tell me. Last week,  while working on a new book, I was drowning in a tsunami of backstory so I asked what to do. Fifteen different writers responded, and so did my editor! Within moments, I at least had a road map.

Social media is good for my soul. I’ve learned that writing a novel can overwhelm me, so I break the work up into bite sized pieces when I can. I’ll tell myself that I am conquering chapter one today, and I won’t think about that sloggy middle or the end that doesn’t work. Not yet. And to keep myself going, I post what I’m doing.  Going into the writing jungle. Taking chocolate for the tigers. I get people cheering me on, commenting (and of course, occasionally, telling me to shut up and write), but it makes me feel a whip of adrenylline and fuels my work.

Of course, all work and no play make me crazy. I had to take a lot of breaks while writing the darkest parts of Cruel Beautiful World. While writing about control, about dangerous relationships, I began to feel quick-sanded into that world. So, I took a moment and went on Facebook and headed for the thickets of clickbait.  Did I really need to know ten celebrities who really aren’t all that nice? Was it important to look at all the photos of bad plastic surgery? And what about the 3 minutes it took to watch that video of a monkey dancing the twist? Well, yes. It actually was necessary, because it relaxed me. It made me laugh. And then I could go back to work again, refreshed.

I’m writing a new novel now, and just like with Cruel Beautiful World, I’m putting social media in the acknowledgements. Hey, they deserve it.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of you, and 10 other novels. Her novel Cruel Beautiful World will be published in paperback August 8, from Algonquin Books.

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