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What's Happening Now on the Farm, Quarantine Edition

Robin's egg
At first I thought one of the neighbor kids tossed a plastic Easter egg into our yard, but it turned out to be a real robin's egg.

By Lisa Brunette

It's been a strange spring in a lot of ways. The season has seemed to last a lot longer than usual - our utility bill was cut in half over the last month because we've needed neither the furnace nor the A/C. Spring here in Missouri can sometimes go by in a blip so that you barely have any windows-open days before it's time to shut the place up and turn on the A/C. So a long spring is a welcome thing. But up until this week, it's been dry, unlike last year's mushroom-encouraging daily deluges, so we've been grateful for the rain barrels to water the direct-sow seeds going in now.

FrogPond
This is as close as we get to a pond at Dragon Flower Farm, unless you count our rain garden ditches.

Of course the strangest aspects have been the fire that happened one building away and the pandemic, as if one apocalypse at a time isn't enough. We were lucky with that fire. And because Anthony and I run the game-writing business out of our home, with clients all over the world who collaborate with us remotely and mostly online anyway, not much has changed for us work-wise, despite the strict quarantines. We miss the chance to meet with our growing team in person, but otherwise, we've been lucky that the pandemic hasn't affected our livelihood too much.

What it has affected - besides the fact that we can't find toilet paper anywhere - is our social life, which is now limited to each other and the cat. We love the time to just 'be' together, for sure, and we're both homebodies, so this suits us fine. Without the opportunity to see extended family and go out with friends, we've focused on activities here at Cat in the Flock and Dragon Flower Farm. Here's a run-down.

And the Winner Is...

Anne Harrington of Seattle, Washington, won our Bringing Nature Home giveaway. Here she is posing with her signed copy of Doug Tallamy's book. Congratulations, Anne!

Winner
Love that she had this pic taken in front of those gorgeous windows, with a garden beyond.

Water, Water Every Pear

The very day the fire broke out, we'd spent the whole of the day working on the farm. Our main task was to bury a drainage pipe and dig out a larger ditch for the outflow. The pipe used to extend from the bottom of a gutter, but now it's the rain barrel overflow. 

Drain pipe
It's so nice to hide that pipe after a couple years of looking out the back window and seeing... a big pipe in the yard.

You might remember the 'blueberry moat' I mentioned in a previous post. We're experimenting with some permaculture methods for retaining water in the soil (water catchment). So the above drain plus the one installed between our house and the flat next door both now let out into a ditch we dug and filled with water-loving native plants (buttonbush and rose mallow). Here's the proof that water pools in the ditch during rainfall.

So... we don't know if this all works or not, but some smart permaculturists have made compelling arguments, and why not try it out? We'll let you know if we think it's successful. Have any of you opted for something like this? Let us know in the comments below.

The buttonbush and rose mallow were seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation, part of a 24-count order I put in last fall. Each seedling was only USD $1 a piece, a super steal. Many of these native plants are edible, too, such as the blackberries and wild plum. Here's the bucket full of seedlings the day they all went in.

Spring planting
All thanks to our local native plant org, Wild Ones, for sponsoring a group purchase from MDC, which only sells in bulk quantities.

So Mulch to Consider

We're closing in on a major achievement: The entire back 40 has almost been completely covered in sheet mulch. There's only this one strip in the southernmost corner still to do.

Back strip mulch
By the way, yes, that is a bat house up on the telephone pole.

We actually ran out of the mulch from St. Louis Composting but were able to get free leaves from our neighbors instead. They take longer to break down but seem to be working very well otherwise. Stay tuned...

Arch You Curious?

Building bamboo arch
Hottie.

We recently spent a day constructing something out of bamboo we got for free from a neighbor. Originally we'd planned to make this out of cattle panel, but then I realized bamboo would work just fine. Anthony will elaborate on his brilliant design-and-build project in an upcoming post.

A more permanent structure also went in recently, and that's our new pergola. It came in pieces as a kit I ordered online, and Anthony and I quickly realized we possessed neither the tools nor the talent to do this ourselves. Fortunately my brother Chris stepped up with both things and saved our butts.

Pergola
If it weren't for my brother Chris, this would still be a bunch of parts scattered across the yard.

Can't Leaf It Alone

Structures aren't the only things popping up here at the farm. A great many plants have poked up out of the ground, and some of the seedlings that looked like mere sticks all winter are leafing out. Here's the elderberry bush, an edible native plant.

Elderberry
Elderberries grow in abundance in Missouri. I've seen them near the Meramec River, with the paw paws.

We now have three native persimmons, which in my opinion constitutes a grove. One is a grafted male/female tree from Stark Bros., another is an MDC seedling, and the one pictured here is from Forest ReLeaf, another excellent source of native plants. The persimmons should pollinate each other, and in some number of years give us delicious fruit, much better than the Asian varieties in the grocery store. 

Persimmon in spring
We can't wait to eat persimmons from our own trees!

Last fall we put in a tulip tree, or tulip poplar, and at the time I didn't even realize I'd planted a tulip tree in a bed of tulips! It's growing to beat the band already. In the below photo, you can see its signature leaf shape (alternate, pinnately veined) backed by tulips in bloom. Liriodendron tulipifera is one of the tallest of the native trees, capable of reaching a height of nearly 200 feet. Ours is sited in the front yard, clear of any telephone poles or other obstacles.

Note one of the reasons I chose the tulip tree is because I watched my own father kill one when I was in high school. He was afraid it would fall on the house, which seems paranoid and unlikely in retrospect, or maybe that was just his excuse. He had the tree cut down, and then he spent the next few months destroying the stump by burning trash in it. Yeah, he was that guy. So planting a tulip tree is my way of balancing against that misguided act.

Tulip tree in the tulips
Such a pretty leaf.

Another tree addition is this beautiful shumard oak, Quercus shumardii, which could reach a height of 100 feet and will eventually give us acorns. Oaks are the superstars of the tree world, as they serve the needs of the largest number of native insects. So many pollinators and other wildlife depend on oaks for their survival that if you had to pick just one native plant to add to your yard, let it be an oak tree.

Shumard oak
Love how the leaves appear red when they emerge in the spring and turn red again in autumn before they fall.
Shumard oak2
Such a beautiful, beneficial tree, supporting a great number of wildlife and pollinators.

Moving from tall and stately to small and serene, I give you the sensitive fern frond, unfurling. This native freebie grows in our shadiest spots at Dragon Flower Farm.

Sensitive fern frond
Love. Those. Curls.

Your Herbal Hookup

I want to alert you to the exciting news that certified herbalist Amanda Jokerst has opened her online store, where you can purchase Forest & Meadow herbal products and other items mentioned in this blog post on healing with herbs. We share this news with you as independent fans of Forest & Meadow. We don't receive anything in return for this plug. That goes for all the other businesses and non-profits we're always mentioning on this blog as well. This is a labor of love, folks! Our only revenue source would be the ads you see in the margins, and those haven't yielded any funding (yet?). Feel free to click on them to see if that helps!

Herbs1
Just a small sampling of the amazing products available for the first time online.

The Last Page

I reached a personal milestone in our Dragon Flower Farm work when I recently filled the very last page in the gardening journal that I started two years ago, when the whole process began. Fittingly, there was just enough room to tape in the empty packet from a bunch of comfrey seeds, a permaculture powerhouse plant.

Last page

Thanks again for tuning in. Anthony and I hope your to-do list is short and your friends list long. Stay safe out there, my peeps!

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Fire! In the Middle of One Apocalypse, We Get Another

Anthony_Backyard
This is the point where Anthony realized wetting down our fence was no longer the move. We'd just been advised to vacate.

By Lisa Brunette

It's been three weeks since the fire, but it still smells like smoke at Dragon Flower Farm.

I was sitting on the couch with my cell phone, on hold with a service provider, listening to the recorded Muzak. I had already showered and changed into PJs. It was early Sunday evening, we'd spent the day working on the farm project, and Anthony was in the kitchen, cooking. 

I smelled smoke and called out to Anthony about it, thinking it might be dinner. It was a nice day, though, and the windows were open, and suddenly, I heard people yelling. I also heard another sound: like a loud electrical burst. Then I noticed the smoke and got up to look out our back window. The neighbors next door often have bonfires out of a metal fire pit back there, and occasionally those fires have roared a bit too large for my comfort, especially since their pit sits on grass lawn. So I thought at first it was that. But then I noticed heat waves far too big to be caused by a fire pit.

Smoke_Backyard
View from our backyard.

My heart pounding, I hung up on my still-on-hold call and tapped in 911. I gave Anthony the phone, as he was still in street clothes, and he walked over to get a closer look at the building where the fire was. I ran upstairs and changed out of my PJ bottoms into the first pair of pants I could find. I threw a jacket over my pajama top. 

If you've ever experienced a panic situation, maybe you know what this is like. Some other part of your brain takes over, assessing and prioritizing. It told me I didn't have time to change the PJ top. But then the order of things gets fuzzy for me as I look back now. I remember my heart pounding, a bitter adrenaline taste in my mouth.

At one point I looked outside the upstairs window and saw a huge piece of burning building fly into a pile of leaves. I grabbed the fire extinguisher. My husband was there in the backyard, hosing down our fence. The burning piece in the pile of leaves, thankfully, had gone out. But the fire was engulfing the back side of the house one building over, way too close. If it caught our neighbor's wooden deck, we'd be next, as there's barely a shoulder's distance between our two buildings. Our house is wood frame.

Here's a video taken by our neighbors on the street behind us. You can see they had a better view of just how bad this thing was.

There was a moment when the fire roared and we realized there was nothing we could do to stop its spread. A sickening, helpless feeling came over me. I prayed for the fire trucks, with their lifesaving water hoses. Anthony had not been able to get through on 911. But he'd seen that several other witnesses also had cell phones and hoped that someone got through. Soon the first fire truck arrived, and let me tell you that is the strongest sense of relief I've ever experienced.

Fire_Truck
In the time before the fire trucks arrived, I felt helpless, as there was nothing I could do to save my home.

At some point I ran outside and told a police officer on the scene about the string of wooden decks in back, asking him if we needed to vacate. He said, "I would definitely do that, yes."

My lizard brain took over again, and I decided the only priorities were Anthony and Chaco, our cat. I told my husband we needed to leave, which I know was a hard moment for him, captured in the image at the top of this post. I'm surprised I had the presence of mind to snap that pic, but maybe my ecstasy of relief at the arrival of the fire engines had calmed me. Plus, I've always retained a bit of the journalist in me somewhere, so some part of my brain said this was a moment I wanted to get down.

Fire_News
Fire departments from seven different municipalities responded to the alarm.

Getting Chaco meant grabbing my purse for my keys, as I realized we had not taken the time to get him a new cat carrier, and the last time we'd used his cloth one, he had successfully broken out of it at the vet. I would have to get him in the carrier and then into the car. By this time, the street was filled with fire engines from as many as seven neighboring municipalities, and the last thing we needed was for our skittish mini-cat to get lost in the fray.

It took some time to locate the cat carrier and then get him into it and into the car.

Luckily for us, we had the time. While that fire grew to an engulfing, raging size with alarming quickness, the fire departments were on scene and battling it before it could spread. Thanks to them, no one was hurt, and only one building was damaged. 

Ladder_Window

Everyone who lived in the four-family flat escaped unharmed, but the fire gutted their apartments, destroying everything they owned, only the brick structure remaining.

The fire blew out the windows in the building next door to us and melted the siding off the home on the other side. It blistered that wooden deck we worried would catch fire.

That was all just really too close.

Before the fire was extinguished, I worried about how we'd cope with losing both our home and business, since we work out of a home office. My anxiety was pushed even higher at the thought of having to continue to quarantine without a home to stay locked down within. My heart goes out to our neighbors, who've lost their homes during an already difficult time. We're glad to hear they received some emergency support from the Red Cross, and that all of them had a place in town they could go to stay.

In the middle of one apocalypse, they got another. After pandemic and then fire, what's left?

But it's always good to remind ourselves of how fortunate we are, and that goes for many of us in dealing with the pandemic. Anthony and I are very lucky we can continue to work through the quarantine, and are relieved that no one we know has suffered from COVID-19. We're also grateful to live in a place and time in which a formidable fire foe can rear its fearsome fury, and a legion of water warriors arrives to vanquish it... just... like... that.

Back_Deck

Our neighbors reported the fire was started by an accident with a barbecue grill. The enclosed porch on the back of the flat was reduced to char. Once the blaze was extinguished, firefighters pulled down what remained of the porch, just skeletal burnt debris. Here's how the back of the building looked the next morning.

Back_After

In addition to the prospect of having to rebuild our homes and livelihood if we'd lost it all in the fire, we also hated the idea of losing all that we've done at Dragon Flower Farm - the past three years' work to create something wonderful here we can both be proud of. We're grateful we haven't had to sacrifice that either.

Chaco, by the way, was unharmed. And he did break out of his carrier. At some point during the night, we looked over to see him perched on the dashboard of our car, taking in the whole scene. It was a surreal sight!

We learned through this experience that our disaster preparedness needs some tweaks. We've got a better cat carrier now, and it's in the coat closet within easy reach. We're also working on a "go bag" and other measures.

Front_Dusk

It's worth taking a moment to recognize the people who put themselves in danger in order to help others. It's quite a calling to be a firefighter. The rest of us could only stand on the sidelines - trying our best to maintain social distancing - and watch in awe as they did their swift, expert work to squelch the fire. 

I know our local fire firefighters had actually been hoping to pass a measure this spring for increased funding for equipment, but the election has been delayed due to the shelter-in-place order. We reached out to the fire department to see if we could donate, and they suggested we give to The Backstoppers, so we have. Their mission is to provide:

Ongoing needed financial assistance and support to the spouses and dependent children of all police officers, firefighters and volunteer firefighters, and publicly-funded paramedics and EMTs in our coverage area who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The flat's brick structure is still standing, and there's every indication they will eventually rebuild. But for now, we have this view over our pear tree. It's a reminder of how close we came to disaster.

View_Backyard

But hope springs eternal here at Dragon Flower Farm. We're counting our blessings this season and looking forward to summer, and all that comes after.

Note: The fire was covered in 40 South News, and a local filmmaker created a short documentary of the event:

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After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, the Importance of Staying Put

Houseplant1

By Lisa Brunette

With all this homebound time suddenly at my disposal due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, I recently spent a day repotting our houseplants. This is a routine, mundane activity that most people do every couple of years or so, but the truth is, I've never done it before.

Throughout my entire adult life, I've moved every two to three years, so by this time, I'm usually trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my houseplants rather than adjusting their growth space for the long haul.

I'm apparently not alone in my life of frequent relocations, though I am an extreme example. Americans have historically been a fairly mobile people, with as many as 45 million people up and moving at our peak in 1985, or between 20 to 25 percent of the population that year. 

There are a lot of reasons people move, and mine have run the gamut:

  1. To attend college in 1989, I moved across the Mississippi to St. Louis.
  2. Changes in roommate situations, marital status, jobs, and income meant a whopping 11 separate moves around the St. Louis region between 1993 to 2000.
  3. To attend graduate school, which is how I ended up in Miami, Florida, in 2000.
  4. To take a job in another state, which is why I moved from Florida to Washington state in 2002. 
  5. The chance to buy a house for the first time in 2003 meant a move from renting to owning.
  6. Another job change occasioned my move from Tacoma to Seattle in 2005.
  7. A divorce, which is why I sold my house in Seattle in 2009 and moved into an apartment.
  8. Another change in marital status meant a switch from one apartment to another.
  9. A second chance to own a home, which is why Anthony and I moved from Seattle in 2015.
  10. And finally, a job opportunity in 2017 brought us to St. Louis.

Houseplant4

That's my highly mobile adult life. But I was a military brat, too. As a child, I lived in nine different homes in six different states. My education took place in eight separate schools, and my fourth grade year alone was spread across three schools.

So there's never really been a sense of rootedness or home for me. I lived in Seattle for a decade, in the Ballard neighborhood all that time, so it came close. But that was chunked up over two apartments and a house I had no choice but to sell, so even that was disrupted and impermanent. Plus, I could never shake the feeling in Seattle that I was an outsider, from somewhere else. Being priced out of the real estate market there despite a solid career as a game writer didn't help matters.

St. Louis does often feel like home to me because I lived here for a decade before, during undergrad and the first years of my career spent at the St. Louis Science Center, an iconic local fixture. In a strange way, because I've lived in so many of St. Louis' great old neighborhoods - places like Dogtown, South Grand, the Central West End, and the Loop - even though that decade was also migratory, I feel like St. Louis is really a part of me. Having family in the area helps make it feel like home, too.

Houseplant3

But I miss our family and friends in Washington state, so that sense of home here is tinged with the bittersweet feeling of missing home back there.

As you might have noticed when you checked out that U.S. Census Bureau report I linked to above, our cultural mobility rate is waning. There's a cost to all the frequent moves, from the actual cost of moving itself, which ain't cheap, to the lack of cohesion in our families and communities that can result. It's possible our desire to pull up tent stakes is decreasing as our wages stagnate, resources dwindle, and opportunities in other locales lose their luster. And maybe we crave more stability, to regain what we've lost in all that movement.

The Chinese have a saying, "One move is like two house fires." Constant relocating has definitely taken its toll on me, so the butt root has been firmly planted in Midwest soil, and Anthony, who's moved a good deal himself, feels the same. As we approach the third anniversary of our lives in St. Louis, at the home we're calling Dragon Flower Farm, we're enjoying planning for the long-term, for the first time.

Houseplant2

That means a business we can run together, strengthening family and community ties, and a garden we can see come to full fruition. Having left so many green growing things behind over the years, I'm taking comfort in the future promise of our newly established orchard and perennial edibles, all supported by the native plants - those awesome symbols of permanence and environmental health - that will draw and feed pollinators and insects, restore topsoil, and hold rainwater.

With all the uncertainty ahead - economic, social, global - all we can do is make changes in our own spheres over the things we can control.

The day I repotted my houseplants, I also started some seeds indoors. May they take root, grow, and feed us well.

Seeds1
All photos mine, of our houseplants and seeds.

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Not Another 'I'm Leaving Facebook' Post...

Screen Shot 2019-10-26 at 6.29.45 AM

By Lisa Brunette

I first joined Facebook in 2008, and this was my first status update. Some of you might remember back then the convention was to treat one's name as the beginning of a sentence, with the self as subject and awkwardly talking about yourself in the third person ("Lisa Brunette is annoyed that her shoe is untied." "Lisa Brunette is hungry for sushi."). If you've been on as long as I have, you might look back on those days with some nostalgia, and hmm... isn't that weird in itself.

I had a good excuse to be a relatively early Facebook adopter: I was a journalist at the time and involved in a new media start-up in Seattle called Crosscut. It was my job to learn as much as I could about social media.

It's been 11 years now, over a decade in which I've spent countless hours viewing posts and shares from my 'friends' and 'Like' pages, more than a decade of birthday acknowledgments and life events and politics and of joining and leaving many a group. The bulk of my activity ceased to be easily justified on professional grounds years ago, though for a long time it was fueled by the need to promote my books. 

These days, I find myself rejecting Facebook's legitimate place in our lives altogether. You might have noticed I've been scaling back. The longer the stretch of time I spend away from Facebook, the less I feel like participating in it.

Eleven years is a long haul to have been on Facebook; that's as long as my first marriage. I think about the ways my time might have been put to better use: learning a language or two, reading many more books, growing plants and trees, experiencing nature, volunteering, mastering a difficult yoga pose like Astavakrasana, cultivating deeper relationships in real life. 

I'm also beginning to see that Facebook's overall effect on society as a whole is probably detrimental. Through algorithmic pushes and punishments, it increases binary thinking and decreases opportunities for serendipity, locking us all in echo chambers in which what we like and what we think are rarely broadened or challenged but instead constantly reinforced and narrowed. Our behavior is all the while collected as data and used to sell us everything from new shoes to political candidates. 

Facebook's even listening to us, we now know. We read confirmation of this in the reports about microphones in our digital devices picking up what we say, but it's just "keywords," they tell us, nothing to worry about, so we keep having the eerie experience of talking about something and then seeing an ad for that same something. And we keep using Facebook. Isn't that strange? Why does it have this hold on us, and how can we break it?

Facebook's privacy violation, data mining, and aggressive targeted marketing is nothing new. It's all been part of the company's modus operandi from the very beginning. Check out this post, also from 2008, my fourth public post on the platform.

4th_facebook_post_rev

Facebook creates the worst kind of feedback loop. It throws us into constant comparathons in which we can never, ever measure up to our friends and influencers - so marketers can swoop in and sell us something that promises to make us as good but can't possibly live up to that promise. The outcome, though quite lucrative for the company, isn't good for us. Social media in general, and Facebook in particular, exacerbates the depression and sense of isolation that drives so many (especially young) people to drug addiction and suicide. 

An unabashedly insidious, decidedly for-profit venture, Facebook sucks us in with the illusion of connection, networking, and something not even remotely approximating true "friendship," while successfully delivering on none of these things. Facebook activity robs us of the chance to share our life events, perspectives, and anecdotes in person with real people who can engage with us in meaningful ways.

Facebook promises to be a useful tool to share information and bring people to together, but instead, human nature and the algorithms that exploit it drive the posts and activity of the lowest common denominator higher in ranking. Let's take as example my most positive Facebook group experience, one devoted to native plants in my state. What I really want to see in this group are posts about rare native plants or positive IDs on plants I've seen in my own environment. But what Facebook most often shows me are the worst posts; for example, a common one is from naive, newbie members who did not take the time to read the group rules and post pictures of beloved plants that happen to be invasive species. The ensuing storm of reactions only ensures the (unintentionally) offensive post will become more popular and more likely to be seen. This group is moderated the best I've seen of any, yet Facebook's own algorithm works against it. Despite the increasing policing done by moderators in groups and individuals on their own walls, Facebook too often falls far short of the mark.

So why participate at all? My own fears run the gamut: that I'll lose touch with people I've known (especially in far-away places I no longer live), that I'll somehow miss something important, that I won't be in the know or included or thought of. But Facebook keeps me in touch with and in front of friends based on what's good for Facebook, not me. In a world without social media, we would keep in touch with those who are important to us, and let the rest wane naturally.

There are also its ancillary tools, which have only recently been added, I suspect, in an attempt to try to make Facebook appear more useful than it actually is. Facebook Marketplace has effectively replaced Craigslist, so I suppose there's the concern that I won't have a place to go to buy and sell things you can't get in stores or at lower prices. I've also found the freely provided information from experts - that native plant group is still the best example here - to be truly useful. And while I no longer wish to participate in an events program that notifies everyone in my "friends" list every time I express interest or attend something, I did like the ease of searching and sifting through what's happening nearby.

However, that bit of return doesn't outweigh the risks and consequences, so I'm looking for ways around. I'm sure the local newspapers and radio would love me to use their events listings, there are always garage sales and flea markets in real life, and I've recently got a lot out of joining a few non-profits and going to their events instead of relying on Facebook groups to exercise my tribal impulses.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to focus on real friendships - not the elusive list of "friends" Facebook tells me I have.

As I continue to scale back on social media with a desire toward total deactivation, I hope you'll connect with me in other, arguably more meaningful, ways. 

If you're in the St. Louis area, consider whether we already are or want to be friends in real life. Rather than hoping that we saw each other's recent status updates, let's have lunch and share our news in person.

If you like the posts I share about my family's Dragon Flower Farm projects, general lifestyle, and travel, consider subscribing to the email newsletter here: http://forms.feedblitz.com/192

If you're in the game industry and/or want to keep up with all things Brunette Games, we have a newsletter for that, too: https://forms.feedblitz.com/a2b

Since scaling back on social media over the past couple of months, I've already recovered enough time to have worked my way through half of Jane Austen's novels, reading the originals and watching many of the screen adaptations. Done: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. Still to go: Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. I'm inspired by her epistolary-driven storylines to dive back into letter writing, if any penpals will have me. Please let me know if you're interested!

LinkedIn is likely staying, out of professional necessity, and admittedly, we're still figuring out what best serves Brunette Games, since it provides a full-time livelihood for our entire household, plus another's. There's also the question of my labor of love, Cat in the Flock. So I can't promise you won't see any social media posts ever again; I reserve the right to change my mind.

But for the record, I don't believe that social media is really the necessity everyone seems to think it is.

Please reach out to me privately if you'd like other contact information. If you're reading this on the blog, and it sparks thoughts you want to share, please do so in the comments below. I wish you the best of luck with your own journeys through social media and beyond.

 


Guest Blogger: Taking Your Social Media to the Next Level

Like Me

by Andrea Dunlop

LB: Today on the blog I have Seattle-based author and social media consultant Andrea Dunlop. I asked her to critique my social media activity because I get a lot of compliments, but I honestly feel like I'm bumbling around most of the time. Here's Andrea.

As a social media consultant, I often work with clients who have either a small presence on social or are starting from scratch. So when Lisa reached out to me to give her social media a critique for a guest post, I was excited. She’s already done some of the hard work of cultivating an audience, so there’s something to build on. 

There are a million ways big and small to improve your social media reach, and what’s more, new tools, platforms, and hacks pop up every day. I don’t pretend to know all of them (no one does), but the depth of the practice is what makes it so much fun to be a constant student of social media. It’s never going to be the same every day.

Below I’ve included some notes on what’s working well for Lisa on her blog, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as some recommendations for each. 

Lisa’s Blog 

What’s Working 

Consistency: Lisa posts an average of at least once a week, which is my gold standard for author blogs. If you want to make your blog your main thing and a possible revenue generator, you’d want to blog more frequently (read a great series about that here from Ramshackle Glam’s Jordan Reid). But for most authors, your main goal is to bring some extra traffic to your site and keep readers engaged between projects. Once a week is great for that. 

High-quality content:  In addition to posting regularly, Lisa mixes in short posts with guest posts and longer, more in-depths posts on writing and publishing, such as this essay. Lisa has learned a lot of helpful information from her work, and she shares it with readers in a digestible way. 

Reader Engagement: Many of Lisa’s posts about her writing involve a call to action for her readers, asking for feedback on a new prologue, or posting a call for beta readers, for example. Involving your readers in the process is an excellent way to galvanize your most passionate fans. 

What to Work On

Focus: I love that Lisa mixes up her content, but it can also make the blog feel a little scattered. Lisa is doing a variety of interesting things (writing, indie publishing, game design) and this unique mix is part of what makes her worth following. This also means that she can hit a number of disparate audiences, which is great. The challenge here is making the content cohesive. Always think about what your core blog readership would be the most interested in.

Too Lisa-centric: Before you think I’m being critical here, this is a problem with most author blogs I see. Of course your fans want to hear about you and your books, but it’s easy for that to become monotonous for any reader who isn’t one’s husband or mother. Now of course there are exceptions and plenty of lifestyle bloggers who build platforms based almost solely on their own experiences, but again, that’s not going to work as well for an author blog. I would suggest to Lisa to add a bit more about what else she’s reading and content that focuses on fellow authors in her genre. Featuring others is also a great way to build community, which is one of the best long-term marketing strategies out there. 

Lisa’s Twitter

What’s Working 

Consistency: Lisa tweets several times each day, which is a good bar for this platform (and why some people find it so intimidating!). The shelf life of a tweet is short, so if you don’t want to be on Twitter every day, you can always schedule tweets using a tool like Tweetdeck, but you also might consider whether this quick-moving, conversational platform is right for you. 

Art: Lisa is taking full advantage of the banner space on Twitter by using it as ad space. You don’t get much space for text on Twitter so the more you can use the visuals, the better. Twitter has really upped its game with its visual components to keep up with competitors like Snapchat and Instagram. 

What to Work On: 

Avatar: I really recommend using a photo, rather than a painting or other drawing for your Avatar. There are exceptions, of course, like Grammar Girl, but she’s a persona, so it works. One of the things Twitter is the most useful for is networking; therefore, I prefer a clean, clear headshot (no hats and glasses please). 

Too Lisa-centric: My biggest critique of Lisa’s Twitter is that it's almost exclusively about Lisa. This doesn’t mean that Lisa is a narcissist; it just means she’s not using the platform to its full effect. Twitter is one of the easiest platforms to use to share work by fellow authors and writers by tweeting about books you’re reading, links to essays, pictures from events, the list goes on. A good ratio is: for every tweet that’s about you/ your book, you should have about four that acknowledge someone else. Cheryl Strayed is an absolute all-star at this. 

Lisa’s Instagram 

What’s Working: 

Selfies: There are lots of smiley photos of Lisa and shots from her everyday life. Super cute! Lisa’s Instagram makes me want to go hang out with her, maybe swing by her house for dinner. Her account gives me a sense of her personality. 

What to Work On: 

If Lisa just wanted to use her Instagram for fun, her approach would be fine, but right now it’s underutilized as a marketing tool. As an author, Instagram doesn’t always seem the most obvious choice for social media, but it’s one of the most powerful tools out there if used well. Don’t take my word for it; take Vogue’s 

Some tips for Lisa: 

Consistency: Three times a week is a good minimum; every day is better. Do this by…

Mixing it up: Instagram is not only a great place to share selfies and other in-the-moment photos but also stylized images about your book (a few examples over on my page), inspirational quotes, videos, and more. Lisa has a ton of great images collected on her Pinterest page that would repurpose well for Instagram. 

Books, books, books: If you are an author, you should be reading constantly and you should also be snapping photos of what you’re reading and uploading them to #bookstagram. Especially if you’re hoping to reach a younger audience, #bookstagram is where it’s at. Check out my favorite Bookgrammer @BookBaristas to see how it’s done. 

*For more tips on Instagram, read here

Andrea_Dunlop

Andrea Dunlop is a social media consultant based out of Seattle, WA with over a decade of experience in book publishing. She is also the author of Losing the Light (out now) and the forthcoming novel She Regrets Nothing, both from Atria Books (Simon & Schuster). You can read more about Andrea’s consultant services here. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. She is currently running an introductory special for new clients, so book before August 1st to receive ten percent off your consultation fee.

Lead image courtesy of Pixabay