February 22, 2018 § Leave a comment
A few years ago I studied
at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.
They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?
I said, “But there’s this countdown…”
“Countdown to what?”
And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.
I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.
Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.
Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.
There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.
Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.
It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.
I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.
Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.
Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”
The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.
February 15, 2018 § 13 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.
February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
February 8, 2018 § 11 Comments
Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”
But should you?
One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.
As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?
By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.
Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.
For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.
Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:
In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.
That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.
Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
February 5, 2018 § 13 Comments
Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.
Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.
There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:
It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.
When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.
Most of my “writing” days look like this:
- 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
- 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
- 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
- 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
- 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
- 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
- 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing
Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.
What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.
When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”
Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.
Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.
February 1, 2018 § 25 Comments
1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:
- Open Advanced Find and Replace
- Check the box for Wildcards On
- Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
- Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
- Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.
2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.
I never considered that he would run away
I never considered he would run away.
3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.
Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.
Pat was also kind of mean.
When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:
Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog.
For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:
Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.
4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.
We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.
Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.
5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.
Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.
Happy writing–with or without inspiration.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
January 30, 2018 § 3 Comments
This episode, we’re talking all things submissions, with The Rush‘s Jobeth McDaniel, Kenyon Review‘s Geeta Kothari, Brevity‘s own Alexis Paige, and writer Tim Hillegonds, with an essay about rejection from our host Allison K Williams.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Rhiannon Navin about her new novel Only Child and how fiction comes from fact; and with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Show Notes: Episode #8 People and Books
Find out more about:
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays by Michael Steinberg
Miss Manners (Judith Martin)
January 25, 2018 § 5 Comments
When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.
None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.
I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.
Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.
The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?
The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.
The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?
Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.
It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?
Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.
The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
January 23, 2018 § 19 Comments
Years ago, my mother was a beauty queen. Not metaphorically–she was Miss Niagara Falls and Miss Ottawa and twice runner-up to Miss Canada. As a kid, I spent hours leafing through her scrapbook, marveling at the full-coverage swimsuits of early-1960s Ontario and thinking how much young Mom looked like Grace Kelly. But my favorite of her titles was a small, local affair–not even really a pageant.
Winter 1965, the Ottawa Jaycees, a businessmen’s club (like Kiwanis or Rotary), wanted to combat seasonal unemployment by encouraging people to fix up their homes now. Instead of waiting for spring and better weather, get out there, buy some lumber, hire a contractor and get going! In the Ottawa newspaper, my mother wears snowpants and a parka, one foot on a shovel, surrounded by workmen. There’s a construction helmet perched on her beehive hairdo. The caption? “She’s Miss Do-It-Now.”
I’m pretty sure the kids of 1965 found her title as giggly as I did in 1985.
But the message is clear. Don’t cross items off the to-do list–write now.
Don’t wait for better weather, or a better mood.
Skip the easy satisfaction of running errands, prepping dinner, running laundry, returning calls. Shut down the internet and put your phone face-down. Don’t check the news–it’s just going to make you mad or sad. You don’t need a perfect coffee shop or the right table or the right moment. Put your kid in the playpen with plenty of toys (or, depending on age, give them unfettered screen time for an hour or two, saying firmly that time will be cut short if any questions are asked or interruptions made).
If you’re stuck on the next scene, write the scene after that.
If you sit down and the words won’t come, write about what you’re going to write:
Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…
And before you know it, you’re writing the thing instead of about the thing. Or at least getting down the first draft, the one where you tell the story to yourself. The one you can fix in the second draft.
It’ll feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). It’ll feel precarious like a helmet perched on big 1950’s hair, and vaguely off-color like a beauty title that sounds a little dirty.
Do it anyway.
Don’t wait for spring, or springtime in your heart.
Do it now.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Today she’s writing through the flu, which sucks but is still words.
January 16, 2018 § 11 Comments
What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:
…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.
And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,
the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.
We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.
Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,
…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.
I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.
I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:
I helped with that draft.
I told her about that residency.
I encouraged him to submit that essay.
So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.
I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?
Because that’s not how any of this works.
- Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
- Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
- I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
- Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
- Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.
(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)
It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.