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Grace Dent on Twitter and Being Queen of the Universe

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Fiction

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

Grace Dent is quite remarkable. A girl from a working class background who didn’t have the benefits of a polished, connected upbringing, and who is eternally grateful to Scotland and Stirling University for providing her with an education, she has conquered every area of the media. From newspapers (The Guardian) to magazines (Marie Claire), radio, and some of the most popular shows on TV including The Culture Show, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe,  and The Apprentice: You’re Hired, she has also written eleven bestselling novels which have been translated into twelve languages – and her Diary of A Snob novels were acquired for TV development by Nickelodeon in March 2011.

Originally from Carlisle, now living in London, Dent is bright, sassy and has a warm no-nonsense approach to life that is funny, refreshing and has won her thousands of fans, most recently on the social network Twitter. Her new book, and first non-fiction How to Leave Twitter (My Time as Queen of the Universe ) charts her journey from her first tweet, ‘looking puzzled at twitter’ to having over 89,000 followers (at the last count, and no doubt more by the time you read this!)

When we met during her flying visit to Dublin, I asked her how it all started.  She revealed “I always wanted to get out of Carlisle. I loved reading, read loads of books and magazines. But I had a terror of getting a real job after Uni.  I looked at Paula Yates and Julie Birchill and always knew there had to be a job out there for someone who had a funny turn of phrase; the problem was I knew I was never going to pick up the Guardian and find an advert for someone who was funny with bad spelling.”

Her first ‘proper’ job was as an editorial assistant at Marie Claire magazine. That’s a pretty big wow for a recent graduate, but Dent told me, “I was lucky – I’d won a competition run by Cosmopolitan while I was a University, to be their student adviser. It gave me something to put on my CV.

‘One thing it’s really important to remember when you see writing  competitions or internships advertised – and that is that someone’s got to win it. When you come from a working class background you think it’s never going to be me. I applied for loads of jobs out of Uni and then someone told me to apply to all the places I wanted to work and tell them I’d work for free. So I did. I sent out loads of letters, and Marie Claire replied. It meant I was in situ, able to see where the staff movements were, where the gaps were appearing.”

Being a Twitter addict myself and someone who sees the social networking site, particularly for authors, as a place where you can connect with both influencers (the world’s top agents and international bestselling authors) and other writers just like yourself, trapped, as Dent puts it so well, behind their laptops, I was intrigued to find out more about her latest book. How to Leave Twitter  is a must read if you are active on Twitter, and it explains just what it’s all about to anyone who hasn’t yet gone to www.twitter.com to open an account. Not only does it cover exactly what all that twitter mumbo jumbo is about  – the re-tweeting, Follow Friday and DM jargon that terrifies many Twitter newbies, but it’s a dip-in, one stop manual covering what to do, what not to do and how to spot the imposters on one of the world’s most exciting and frenetic social networks.

Dent explained that her twitter success was entirely unexpected. When she first started she said “I pretty much said whatever I wanted on Twitter. It was like spraying rude words on a fence in neon, foot-high letters, and never, ever getting detention for it. It was the perfect place to put out all the extra thoughts and funny one-liners that didn’t get to editors. And the unedited, unfettered me was like a dog whistle to thousands of women all over the world to come together and chat. For many men it was their first chance to see women bantering. My follower numbers just went up and up.

‘The book really came about because every time I went to a meeting, the first part was always about Twitter. I was being asked loads of questions and it’s headbangingly impossible to explain how Twitter works. People try to explain Twitter by saying that it’s a way of expressing what you think in 140 characters, but it’s more than that, and I wanted to break it down into what we’re actually doing when we’re on Twitter – following breaking news, networking, painting a picture of who we are. Twitter is like a real time soap, and it’s addictive watching people. It’s like the world’s biggest sofa and suddenly you can all sit and watch the same thing together.”

As Dent explains, “Twitter enables you to create brand you, and in many ways is a great deceiver. It’s possible on Twitter to make it look like you know all sorts of interesting people. Photos can be heavily styled – you can reinvent yourself, give yourself the best opportunity. But Twitter is about keeping in touch with lots of different, exciting, niche, real-time events all in one timeline.” And as she says in How to Leave Twitter, “I find Twitter comforting. It makes me feel less lonely in my bamboozlement at Planet Earth.”

But her Twitter experience hasn’t been all plain sailing – with so many followers she’s inevitably attracted a few nut cases, and often when she tweets there is someone who takes exception to what she says. Abusive tweets are unsettling and can be quite scary, but Dent has discovered that all abusers can be tracked through cyberspace, no matter how hard they try to hide.  As Dent says, “It’s easy to be taken out of context on Twitter. Now I can’t say anything without getting one bad reaction.”

These days Dent is having as much fun on Google+ as she has on Twitter. Google+’s set up enables you to send messages to specific circles, and as Dent says, “I think the future of social networking is being able to honour the fact that we’re not the same person to everyone.” I wonder how long it will be before Twitter adapts to that model.

Dent’s book gives new and confused Tweeters a no holds barred explanation of how it all works – from the 3000 follower phenomenon that effects many people (they begin to see themselves as a brand and begin apologising for not having checked into Twitter at the usual time) to boast posts (re-tweeting stuff said about you).

One of the key things that Dent conveys so well in the title of her book ‘My Time as Queen of the Universe’,  is that sense all twitter users have of being in control of information whether that is breaking news literally breaking in front of a fellow Twitterer, or useful links passed on. As Dent says it is one aspect that makes Twitter addictive – if you leave, you might miss something!

Crucially for new writers, in How to Leave Twitter, Dent says “I think I can tell if a person has enough ‘voice’ to write a whole novel by simply reading a few tweets”. If she can, all those agents out there looking for the ‘next big thing’ might just be doing the same thing…

And a last piece of advice – Dent says “I think most people don’t realise that posting a photo on DM (a private direct message) means EVERYONE who looks at your photo account can still see it. It’s not private. I’ve seen two photos of my friends I wish I hadn’t. One of them was in the bath.”

@gracedent is a judge on the 2011 Roald Dahl Funny Prize, she’s a most definitely worth a follow if you’re already a fellow addict, and her book is laugh out loud funny. She says in the opening chapter “This book is a whole lot of my personal thoughts, feelings and experiences of Twitter. I’m pretty sure you’ll disagree with most of it. I chatted to scores of people about Twitter as I was writing this book. Absolutely nobody agreed with anyone else’s view on anything.

‘As I worked, I showed parts of the manuscript to good friends, who went slightly ashen and said ‘Grace, you’re going to break Twitter, you do know that don’t you?’ In a way, this is brilliant. Killing Twitter is my only real chance of leaving.”

About the author

© Vanessa O’Loughlin September 2011

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