Thursday, October 02, 2014

All Aboard The Twitter Train

On the tweet train
Amtrak has chosen its first set of tweeting writers and the residency will soon begin.

Twenty-four scribes will ride the rails across America, smartphones at the ready, and tweet as they clatter over the level crossings. They are also supposed to be writing real things of greater than 140 characters as they go, as if they are in a mobile writer's retreat.

So who are these authors?

As it turns out, they are already authors. A person needs a twitter following to make this tweet-on-the-rails program go, so if your best talent is just in writing prose, you didn't stand a chance at being selected. There's techies and journalists, minorities of all stripes, and they'll be boarding trains soon. Will you follow their tweets? Does anyone care about the daily experiences of someone in a train carriage who is trying to write about their daily experience in a train carriage?

According to selecting judge Sam Nicholson of Random Penguin House, the winners were chosen based on their writing samples, and those samples were pre-selected from the totality of applicants. Amtrak was able to choose those who they felt would best get the job done, which is to raise awareness of the pleasures of train travel, and then people like Mr. Nicholson were allowed to pick the best writers out of that group.

Writers see an opportunity to get away from the usual distractions and work on their craft. It won't be a long journey, considering the speed of rail travel. Unless the train breaks down and there is a long delay. A writer would relish that sort of extension, as long as the food holds out.

Most of what Amtrak expects are short stories that will appear in a variety of venues. There might be a short story in some literary journal. There could be articles in a newspaper's life and style section. The techies would blog about it. For Amtrak, it is nothing but cheap publicity that reaches into places that ordinary advertising cannot.

Working class writer in residency?
Rail travel is expensive and time consuming. There has to be something on offer that can compete with the likes of RyanAir or all the other discount airlines. It takes a talented writer, someone who can paint pictures with words, to convince consumers that it will be well worth the enormous expense to take the train instead of the cheap airline, and spend countless extra hours in the process.

There will be those who will be swayed, of course, but money is tight these days and people cannot afford to travel much at all. Selecting a more expensive option because some author made it sound romantic does not work when the choice is between cheap fares or not going at all.

And what if the writers have experiences that are less than romantic? All sorts of people ride trains, and they'll be sharing space with the drunk and deranged along with pleasant grandparents on their way to visit the grandchildren. They can observe the Amish in their unnatural habitat, traveling in a pack to avoid too much contact with the English and their evil ways. There is an entire sub-genre of romance that covers the Amish. Nothing like a little research to flesh out a character study.

You can spend a lot of money, waste a lot of time, and see a lot of scenery on a train. Of course, you could see all that scenery from the window of your car, but it's hard to tweet while driving.

Maybe the long-haul trucking companies would consider their own writer's residency program. Tweet from the cab of an eighteen-wheeler and share the romance of the industry. They're looking for drivers, I've heard.

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