February 18, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.
You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,
If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.
I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.
Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?
Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.
In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end.
Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft. “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.
Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.
Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed? Williams writes:
Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.
Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.
Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.
Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.
In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.
You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.
Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:
Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.
She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.
Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
January 24, 2023 § 14 Comments
I guess that guest didn’t hate me after all.
By Allison K Williams
Writers often thrive in new places—residencies and retreats that allow us to expand our ideas and make big progress outside the demands of daily life. But residencies are often competitive and retreats expensive. After eyeing promising opportunities that may be distant, outside your childcare capacity, or require three references (on paper! In the mail!) you might ask, Should I just lead my own retreat? How hard can it be? You’d get to pick convenient dates, cover your own travel, maybe even profit.
After leading sell-out retreats online and off, I can say it’s hard the first time, and new challenges arise from new locations and types of event. But repeat events become a checklist of specific tasks I know I can accomplish. Whether in Tuscany or onboard the Queen Mary 2, I’m going to teach how to finish books and write better, addressing the experience level and needs of every writer present. Most new challenges are logistical.
Going virtual? The new challenge is “make it feel like a real retreat,” and meeting it means gift boxes, responsiveness outside retreat hours, and clear guidelines for participants to plan their time.
New venue in Costa Rica? “Communicate serious dietary needs to the on-site chef in my very weak Spanish.” Hello, Google Translate and a poster of guest pictures clearly marked Vegana, Sin Gluten, and Sin Alcohol.
New itinerary in Portugal? “Schedule tour bus and trains.” Doable with a TaskRabbit helper in Porto, a guide in Coimbra, and the national train system website.
Retreat leadership has evolved from hoping I’d break even and enjoy the experience, into a regular income. It’s truly amazing to nurture artistic growth and exploration in writers who happily contribute to my livelihood. Often, I’m lucky to have Brevity’s editor in chief Dinty W. Moore as co-teacher, which means not only sharing the emotional load but learning new elements of writing myself, in the classes he leads.
Could you create a retreat?
Yes! Even if you start small, perhaps an AirBnB weekend with one writing friend, asserting time for the joy of writing feels great.
But should you create a retreat/workshop/event that other writers pay you for?
Yes, if you keep two main principles in mind.
1) Find the right audience. It’s much easier to market to a specific, defined participant you want to serve. When I created Rebirth Your Book, most retreats didn’t focus on whole-book work. When Dinty and I created our Virtual Intensives, most writing workshops didn’t offer an affordable week focused on one topic.
Are you drawn to help authors fill in the gaps to make their book publishable, or generate new material? Do you want to only offer writing, or explore a new culture, a complementary artistic process, or yoga? Got a great location you want to share, or are you more comfortable over Zoom? As you define your offering, narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone who has a week off and wants to go to Provence,” identify an immediate, pressing problem you will help your guests solve. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, their problem should be solved.
2) Remember that you aren’t a participant. Retreats are rarely “fun” for the leader. They’re often joyful, meaningful, and profitable, but come with daily, constant responsibility. Having a great time on a mountain hike? Make sure you’ve spent a few minutes walking and talking beside each guest. Check in with the guy who was working through a new idea after dinner—how does he feel about it this morning? Is the lady who needed to reach her family for an emergency able to focus on her writing or does she need some personal time?
Retreats demand rigid flexibility. You must create a strong frame within which absolutely anything might happen. Where you’re truly open to accommodating what each guest needs, even if what they need isn’t what you planned. My first-ever retreat, one writer didn’t want to stay in the venue after all, instead commuting from a hotel and eating on her own. I tamped down my fears and made myself available for porch talks and reading pages on her schedule. She later thanked me for “supporting the retreat she needed to have.”
At another retreat, a writer outlined ideas, but didn’t write much at all. I worried he secretly hated me, was sorry he’d paid me, had only tagged along to be with his friend. But two years later, he booked another retreat, so I guess it didn’t suck—and it’ll be my job again to support the retreat he needs to have.
Sharing what you love in a fabulous location with happy guests is truly marvelous. Taking home a paycheck (and a bit of paid vacation) is the icing on top. With planning, confidence, and clear expectations, you can make great retreats happen—whether it’s just you and a friend, or a fellowship of inspired, productive writers. Whether you break even or make bank, our true profit comes from experience. Our true leadership is taking someone’s hand and asking, “What do you see? Show it to me.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager, and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Her retreats take place around the world and online, and she’s offering a webinar about leading your own sell-out retreats (and making a real income from meaningful events) Feb 4th. Find out more/register here.
November 29, 2022 § 24 Comments
“Platform” and “literary citizenship” are the same behavior with different hats.
By Allison K Williams
I blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools in the company of other artists in the same stage of development. I mentioned these learning opportunities are rare for writers: we have plenty of write-your-feelings workshops and respond-to-pages workshops, but not much that goes past schooldays-grammar into building strong sentences and paragraphs. One commenter thought I’d missed the mark–she felt her K-12 education had been rigorous and adult writing classes she’d taken had covered plenty of technique. She also jabbed
But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here.
It hurts because it’s true. I do write blogs here and elsewhere to advertise my classes. I write long posts in Facebook writer’s groups where I’ve personally made the rule “anyone advertising must give immediately useful information; group members should benefit from your post even if they never click the link to explore your services.” I tweet threads breaking down editorial concepts or writing craft elements, then mention relevant webinars. I host The Writers Bridge, a free biweekly series on author platform, and yes, I mention my current offering in the emails with the Zoom links.
One of the things that attracted an agent and a publisher for my book, Seven Drafts, was proving through social media engagement and mailing list numbers that people think I’m an expert. Why do they think that? Because I’ve spent years giving away advice, and I still do. Last year, on a blog about freelance editing, a commenter asked
…do you give free advice online for writers? If so, my question is—do you think it is worth your time and effort?
I responded in part,
I do write blogs and participate in FB groups, and that way writers see the quality of the information I can offer.
That’s how we become experts. People try our free advice; if it resonates, if it makes their life or their work better, they come back for more. Memoirist Ashleigh Renard shows up on social media every day answering every direct message she receives. Her advice helps people. It also lets her know exactly what her audience needs. Love her free marriage counseling? Get some more at her retreat in Tulum!
We stay experts by making our free advice part of our income flow. I might spend an hour writing a blog, or three hours editing other authors’ work (free editing for them!) for the Brevity blog, or five hours preparing and running a Writers Bridge episode. Each time, I sacrifice billable hours for volunteer hours. Creating a new webinar–marketing copy, lesson plan, slides, workbook, execution, follow-up Q&A–is 16-18 hours. Attendees pay $15-25. They say things like “I got more out of this than a semester at my MFA!” and I can deliver that quality for $25 because a few hundred people show up. How do I get a few hundred people? By giving free advice to twenty thousand.
When I was a street performer, we delivered a theatre-quality show with acrobatics, aerial silks, duo trapeze, fire-eating, whip-cracking, audience participation and comedy. After each show, we passed the hat. Our job was to deliver a show so impressive, so captivating, that even though the entire audience could scatter without paying and suffer absolutely no penalties, they would choose to stand in line to hand us money. Plenty of people watched our show without paying. Some of them were cheap. Some of them were unhoused, or in hard times. Some of them shook our hands and apologized for not giving, and we said, “We’re just glad to have you at the show!”
We meant it.
Yes, we were working for money. Yes, it was our real job, and we needed people to pay us. But the joy of genuine communion with the crowd, of sharing regardless of profit, was part of what made the show worth seeing. The great artistic paradox is that the more you write, or paint, or dance, for sheer love of the work, the more monetary reward you’ll see…as long as you’re strategic.
As a trapeze artist, I said it in the hat pass: “Our greatest gift is your smiles, your laughter, and your applause. Unfortunately, we can’t go to our landlord at the end of the month and go”–clapping–“Good apartment man! Good apartment! Go power bill!” I’d say that the people who can pay subsidize the people who can’t, but everyone gets to see the show. I watched people look around, assess how many people were present, and pull out a ten or a twenty instead of a five.
In my editing and teaching career, I rarely say it out loud: Writers who pay me $3595 for a program or $4495 for a retreat subsidize every free blog post. Writers who buy an $1850 edit or a $685 book proposal evaluation have subsidized 50+ episodes of The Writers Bridge. I have privilege from income, whiteness, lack of children, and a supportive spouse, subsidizing my ability to lie in bed for an hour dispensing writing advice on social media and answering blog comments. I’ve made the calculation: I’d rather charge for value delivered than hours spent. That means doing about 1/3 of my total work hours for free, and pricing paid hours high enough to stay joyful and excited about volunteering. And I’ve learned that part of not feeling guilty about charging high prices (or advertising!) is not bothering to work for cheap–just happily working for free.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. OH LOOK SHE’S ALSO SELLING SOMETHING: Just cranked through NaNoWriMo? At the end of your draft and unsure what’s next? Please join her for the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Book December 14th. It’s $25. If you prefer to track down and print out every blog Allison’s ever written about story & structure, put them in a binder and work from there, it’s free!
November 22, 2022 § 24 Comments
Hide a book in the bathroom in advance.
by Allison K Williams
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me
Twelve bosses texting
Eleven toddlers shrieking
Ten addiction triggers
Nine tacky sweaters
Eight guests arriving
Seven spouses slacking
Six in-laws nagging
Five traaaafic jaaaaams!
Four unwanted presents
Three loud screens
Two barfing pets
And an obligation Christmas party.
I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live three thousand miles away in a country where December is celebrated as, and I quote “Winter Shopping Festival.” Our neighborhood lights were for Diwali, and they’re already down.
I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past twelve Christmases, usually in a non-English-speaking and/or non-Christian country, and this one I’ll be in Bali. Not everyone is that lucky.
My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”
My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”
An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules (“I can’t ask them all to do overtime this month”) while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three crutches in three weeks.
You may have similar items on your holiday list. Touchy in-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was out of town the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Bad art friends.
But your holiday experience is up to you. Often, things that felt like obligations were only customs. We don’t “have to” do anything—we may prefer doing something unpleasant over the consequences of not doing it, but that’s still a choice.
So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, choose your favorites, and purposefully dismiss the rest of the list. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do, so you can say, “sorry, I’m not available.”
All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.
What a shame our schedule filled up so much—have a great time!
Our budget has just vanished in a flash this year.
Wow, I can see that situation really bothers you–I hope it all gets sorted out.
Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “That sounds terrible. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”
If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)
Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. Make it not your job even to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I can take on, but you’re welcome to plan it—let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”
Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Rosario has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Maria’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.
Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, bail to your guest-free refuge while muttering “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.
And if all else fails? Hit me up. We could use a housesitter to water the plants in Dubai.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This holiday season, she’ll be by the pool, writing lesson plans for Project Memoir, an 8-week high-intensity writing program. Check it out.
November 15, 2022 § 41 Comments
What if publication isn’t your best goal?
By Allison K Williams
An author friend realized something while working on her memoir: faithfully rendering the stories of her life and preserving her experiences for her family was important. Quality writing, ideally at a publishable level, was also important. Actually publishing? Not so much.
Another author friend recently told me she’d just landed her dream job. Based on a similar previous job, she’d written a novel, a snarky, hilarious send-up of the manners and mores in her business world. Now she needed to set her work aside—publishing it, perhaps even working on it, could jeopardize her career.
Writing for personal satisfaction, or family tradition, or balancing the value of the job or life you love against the publicity of publishing, doesn’t get much respect. Often, we see the pursuit itself of publishing as a validator—that anyone who doesn’t seek shelf space isn’t “serious” about their work. As self-publishers advocate side-stepping the gatekeepers, we think, well, maybe you didn’t stick it out long enough for “real” publishing. Maybe your work wasn’t good enough. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re on the outside of a sharp, considered business decision. Sometimes we’re desperately needing validation for our own position in the queue, telling ourselves we’re “real” for sticking it out even as the process stretches on.
“Everyone has a story worth telling,” says publishing expert Jane Friedman. “Not everyone’s story is a good fit for a commercial publishing deal.”
You can take Friedman’s meaning as, “Sure, write your story, but it might not be good enough.” But there’s an equally strong case for “Sure, write your story, but explore your goals—is a traditional publishing deal actually your best path? Or will getting your words into the world another way be more satisfying?”
Traditional publishing is often seen as the “top” goal. Big Five, literary or university presses offer us validation, a stamp of approval from the publishing establishment. But even then, book sales can depend on how much time and effort the author is able to spend on marketing and promotions. After a long slog to find an agent, publisher or both, the author may have little control over the cover, title, or how the book is presented to the market.
Self-publishing can be a giant money pit—or a source of steady income for authors willing to self-educate and able to self-promote. It’s easy to be taken in by scammers, choose a terrible cover design, or get snowed under while learning how to run Amazon ads, write press releases and recruit a launch team. For authors who want to see their work on physical shelves, it’s discouraging and disheartening how many indie bookstores want nothing to do with self-published work.
Hybrid services can be a fast, easy way to get one’s book into the world, combining the control of self-publishing with the assistance of traditional publishing—or it can be heartbreakingly bad and massively expensive. Authors using a hybrid press often forget that they are not signing a “publishing contract” but purchasing a package of publishing services, and no matter how many times the press says “partner” or “contribution,” their entire profit comes from the author’s pocket. (And “royalties” means, “you already paid to publish your book and now we’ll be taking some more money.”)
We have all seen plenty of success stories in all three venues. We’ve all watched low-profile books capture the public imagination and shoot up bestseller lists. We’ve seen self-publishers make bank in book sales and generate enormous subsidiary businesses. And eyes-open hybrid packages can be a strong option for people with more money than time who need a guiding hand.
Here’s what I rarely see—authors who say, “I was happy just to have a book in my hand; I used Amazon to print ten copies for my friends.” Or, “It was enough to tell the story in my head and type ‘the end’.” Or even, “I enjoy writing, but I love my day job more.”
I spent ten years on a memoir that didn’t sell. I’m glad I wrote it, because it taught me how to write a book. I probably needed to go through getting an agent and lots of publisher rejections for the lesson to hit home: this book wasn’t good enough. Self-publishing Get Published in Literary Magazines was exactly the right choice when I needed a product to sell at writing conferences to offset my travel costs; I’m looking forward to bringing out the third edition with co-author (and Brevity Blog co-editor) Andrea Firth. And having Seven Drafts traditionally published has been a credential I needed to advance in my life’s work.
As you write, consider your goals. “Work real hard for a long time and feel like a failure if you don’t get a traditional deal” is not actually a goal. But “feel good about what I created and know I’ve done my best” is. As our own Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore says in another Brevity Blog,
Don’t let others dictate to you what “success” means in book publishing. Decide for yourself what makes it worth your while–and then celebrate your efforts.
I’m about to send a final draft of a novel—another 10-year book—to my agent. It might not be good enough. If she wants edits, I’ll make them. But if this book isn’t ready, I’m probably done with it. I’ll print a few copies for my friends. Because I don’t need this book in the whole world—I just need to tell this story, writing at a publishable level. Writing that sentence makes me cry. But it doesn’t make me sad. I’ve put the best of my craft into finishing this manuscript. People whose opinions matter to me think it’s good. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her mailing list here (that’s publishing, too).
November 9, 2022 § 22 Comments
Why aren’t we teaching writing technique?
By Allison K Williams
Writing is the only art form without a focus on technique. Sure, we take English class in high school and learn about the past perfect tense. College Composition 101 implants the five-paragraph essay, which must later be uprooted to write creatively. And workshops give us feedback on the emotional impact of our pages, the character’s journey or the storyline.
None of that is technique.
Technique—in any art—involves formally examining one’s fellow students’ work and immediately applying the lessons of their success and failure to one’s own work, under the guidance of a skilled teacher.
Ballet students spend hours at the barre, perfecting small movements before stringing those steps together. The teacher singles out the best pliés, the strongest knee position, even the most attractive foot arch, and points out sloppy posture, poky elbows and jutting chins. Every student dancer hopes to be singled out. Praise means you’re doing it right; criticism means your teacher thinks you can do it right.
As an artists’ model, I held still while students sketched, including one memorable lesson where, with my permission, the teacher circled my “fat pads” with washable magic marker on my skin, to show how drawing the female body is less dependent on musculature. After that, and every other sketching session, students circled the room to inspect each others’ work. As they moved from easel to easel, the teacher pointed out on each drawing where the line was strong, or a student had nailed a tricky shadow, as well as where they’d gone wrong, often adding a few quick pencil strokes to show what should be on the paper.
Musicians sing or play hours of scales, then rehearse with a conductor calling out missed notes and coaching the emotional interpretation of the score.
In most writing workshops, we discuss “craft” in terms of expressing emotional content on the page. Show-don’t-tell. Sensory details. Honesty. Those elements are valuable, and we need them to write. But we also need technique. What word arrangement best shows that sensory detail? How do the rules of grammar transform into strong paragraphs?
I’ve been to plenty of prestigious workshops and residencies, studied with noted teachers and gotten an MFA. My playwriting classes talked about structure and character objective; I’ve never studied either in a prose writing class. Playwrights learn to write dialogue so the actors will be guided to say it as we envision by the words themselves—not by stage directions like (angrily). I’ve heard “no adverbs!” many times, but I’ve never been taught in a prose workshop what to do instead.
Most of us teach ourselves what sentence structures make powerful writing by trial and error. One glorious day, I discovered the difference between a purposeful long sentence and an ineffective run-on: prepositional phrases! Words like across the room or in her hands or two days ago locate the reader in time and space. Too many relocations and they’re lost. Truly at that moment, I felt the angels sing.
Workshops can usually only cover short sections of full works. Too often, we’re not aware of the pace or rhythm of the whole book. Did you know that scenes need to accelerate near the end of a book, to create a feeling of inevitability in the reader, and one way to accelerate is by making each scene a little bit shorter? I don’t know if Cheryl Strayed teaches that, but Wild ends with chapters of 25 pages, 12 pages, 15 pages and 11 pages, then closes with 10 years’ worth of epilogue on a single page.
Many writing workshops reward the students who arrive with the most talent by helping them get better from where they are. The students with rougher skills can hope to apply the feedback to their own work, but too often what they get boils down to an inspirationally-delivered, “Great idea! Now scrap everything you’ve got and start over!”
But with what tools should they rebuild?
Most writers want to be able to analyze their own work and make it better. We all go through stages where our great idea has outstripped our ability to express it on the page.
Writer Deborah Lucas commented beautifully on this blog:
Art in any form, whether it be words on a page or paint on a canvas, I have found, goes through a process I like to call “the uglies.” It’s the destruction of the caterpillar before becoming the butterfly in the chrysalis. Even on emergence, the wings must dry and the body must warm before it can take flight. If your work is seen by the wrong person, say a less-than-matured editor, it can be devastating, even lethal to the creator.
Getting through the uglies means acquiring and using specific tools that have nothing to do with the power of the story or the emotional commitment of the teller. Improving our craft means receiving and applying feedback on the mechanics of language, and formally observing our fellow students’ works-in-progress to see those mechanics in action. Technique shapes great ideas into considered, focused, interesting and beautiful books—and more of us should be teaching it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
October 18, 2022 § 8 Comments
Greetings from Tuscany!
Eleven writers and a couple of partners and friends joined Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams for a week of writing time, craft lessons, Italian cooking, Italian eating, and walking the same cobblestoned streets as writers and artists have for hundreds of years. Our tiny hill town, Certaldo Aldo, is enfolded in the countryside and enfolded us in fellowship and creativity.
Yeah, that’s a little cheesy.
But it’s also true.
Changing locations can nurture your writing and your desire to write. Breaking the normal routine–whether that’s jetting off to Italy or taking a different bus to work–can jumpstart our creativity. New paths spark new pathways. Pause your normal podcast and listen to your brain in the shower. Try a new drink. Take an after-dinner walk.
A retreat may not be in your calendar or your budget right now. But we invite you to join our retreat state of mind: noticing small details, trying new tastes, slowing down to sit and enjoy and receive the world around your words. Perhaps in your garden, or a park, or even watching the innumerable relationships playing out in the school pick-up line. Writing by hand in a workaday notebook or a treasured journal, scribbling notes on napkins or dictating a fresh thought into your phone. Listening to your own story with an open heart.
May your journey inward be as delightful as your journeys outward.
PS – we return to Tuscany October 7-15, 2023. Drop your email here and we’ll let you know when registration opens.
September 6, 2022 § 12 Comments
How arguing with yourself can sell your book.
By Allison K Williams
One key way to sell a memoir? From a “hot essay”:
- a well-argued, passionate, strongly written essay or OpEd
- published in a major media outlet
- that garners attention online and off.
Simple, right? Just write your piece and go viral! But first, let me tell you what the Powerball numbers will be this week…
Nobody can guarantee virality (not even people with millions of fans already!) Fortunately, your work doesn’t have to go viral for your hot essay to increase your audience and help sell your book. This contest has two first prizes: either hundreds of thousands of people engage with your work, or the right person does—the agent or publisher who loves your idea, or their friend/cousin/intern who brings your work to their attention. And the process of writing the essay itself will make your book-to-be even better.
What’s the difference between an OpEd and an essay?
“OpEd” comes from “opposite the editorial page,” and it’s how newspapers traditionally distinguished guest opinions from in-house, often unattributed pieces that represented the official position of the paper. Essays, in this context, are usually straightforward, first-person accounts of a significant happening or the evolution of a life around one main theme.
Essays ask questions. OpEds pose answers.
Essay titles are evocative. OpEd titles summarize the problem or the hook.
Essays start in scene. OpEds start with a lede—a single sentence that sums up the problem and your position on it.
Essays show your personal experience. OpEds show you’re an expert or have deep knowledge about your topic.
Essays use literary techniques to create emotional resonance and ask the reader to reflect. Opeds use rhetoric, supporting information & thesis/antithesis to make clear, logical arguments and call the reader to action.
Publishing a wave-making OpEd or a highly visible essay usually happens in intelligent-but-commercial media with a strong online presence rather than a strictly literary outlet. Places like Vox, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Find your ideal essay or OpEd topic by looking at the themes in your memoir.
Rather than encapsulating your plot, think about how you explain your book. There’s the plot, and then there’s the part where you tell your fellow writer, “But what it’s really about is…” Mother-daughter relationships. Overcoming addiction. Loneliness. Whatever the larger element of your book is, the thing that will make a reader say to a friend, “Reading this will help with your problem, even though your story is different.” You might have overarching themes, and themes within scenes or chapters or subplots. They’re all fair game.
Pick one of your themes. Then articulate both the most extreme position you could take on that theme and its opposite. Something like, Alcoholics shouldn’t have children/Alcoholics should have children. Center your nuanced essay or powerful OpEd on the conflict between those two ideas.
Each of these essays sold a memoir that expanded on the essay’s theme. The process of writing the short piece also helped the author solidify and define the central conflict of their book. By thoroughly examining the view opposing their own and showing their fight against it, their struggle or journey gains more tension and uncertainty for the reader.
OpEds are more likely to build your audience and platform than nail an immediate book deal—but publishing an OpEd helps answer “why me?” in your memoir proposal. Why should your book be published? Because you’re the expert in this topic. How do we know you’re an expert? The New York Times thought so, so we’ll take their word for it. Getting your opinion into the world on a smaller scale paves the way for your full-length opinion to be taken seriously, as well as helping establish the importance of what you have to say.
Whether or not you write an essay or OpEd, and whether or not it goes viral, it’s worth examining your themes and your central premise, identifying their opposites, and exploring those opposites as fully as possible. As a memoirist, you already know what happened, and there’s a tendency to support our own view (and our eventual destination) from the beginning of the book. Your work as a whole will be stronger if you reflect the constant conflict between two opposing and strongly held (not necessarily equally valid, just strongly held) ideas. Every scene will be more immediate, more visceral. Because practicing arguing both sides brings you back to when you were in conflict with yourself—when the future genuinely was in doubt.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!