The Second Hand Unwinds

February 19, 2019 § 34 Comments

Finishing a writing project is awesome. Hitting that last page, fingers speeding toward the end of what happened, now that you finally know.

Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.

The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:

At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…

While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.

The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”

It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”

I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.

Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”

A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.

Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot

Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.

Chapter Three: Flashback...to a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.

Well, fuck.

My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.

You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.

I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.

The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.

The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.

We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.

Building Your Twitter Following

February 12, 2019 § 8 Comments

Does Twitter help sell books? Nobody knows. Barnes & Noble customers rarely announce “I came in because of this tweet!” But being visible in the online writing community can be a source of support and inspiration, and enough agents and publishers look at follower numbers to make it worth growing your presence on Twitter.

Twitter basics are just like showing up at an enormous pool party already in progress: Watch conversations before interacting, interact kindly and pleasantly and avoid “fighting words” unless you’re doing it on purpose. Just like that party, you get to swim when you like and stay dry when you want: Twitter rewards occasional involvement throughout the day or week rather than constant checking.

We talked last week about “what the heck to post on Twitter.” But the early days often feel like speaking timidly into the void (647 following! 12 followers! Augh!). How can you organically grow an online community who share your interests and want to hear what you have to say?

The best way to get followers is to follow people, but not randomly. Who will you enjoy reading and who will follow you back?

  • Use Twitter follow-frenzies. Search your Facebook writing group for a post asking members to comment with their Twitter handles. Follow them all, and post yours as a clickable link. If you can’t find a follow-thread within the last six months, post one: “Hey, let’s follow each other on Twitter” plus your link will do just fine. It is polite to follow back everyone who follows you unless you actively dislike their bio/feed.
  • Go to users’ actual profiles. Hit “follow” and wait for a moment—Twitter will suggest more people you might like. Follow them, too.
  • Visit your favorite literary magazine or author’s profile. Add their followers. Use the “followers” list, because the “following” list is likely more famous and less motivated to follow back.
  • Follow other writers with low follower counts. Someone with 367 followers is more likely to follow back than someone who already has 70K.
  • Follow people who liked a tweet you also liked, or whose response you liked.
  • Search hashtags like #amwriting #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #amediting and #cnf (those are clickable links to those searches). Follow people who use those hashtags in tweets and/or their bios.
  • Use Lists. To keep track of the people you want to read in that blur of new tweets, assign people you follow to lists. For example, I made a list of “Agents” so I can read only tweets from literary agents I follow. You can also look at someone else’s list: Click on a profile, click Lists, and click on a list. For example, here’s all the AWP presenters for this year’s conference. If you’re attending—or want the conference buzz—subscribe to see those tweets. Then click List Members and follow everyone who seems interesting.
  • Unfollow people who don’t follow back after a few weeks unless you are specifically interested in what they have to say. (Michelle Obama is probably not going to follow me back.) Most of my non-mutual followers are news, politics, public figures, literary agents and publishing houses. You can use a tool like Tweepi (start with the free plan to see if it’s for you) to sort your list and easily unfollow non-followers, or just scroll down your Following list on Twitter—it’s in chronological order.
  • Don’t bother to follow back travel bloggers and business coaches with huge follower and low following numbers unless you’re really interested. They are using bots that will unfollow you after you follow them (this also happens on Instagram). Dudes with two first names (like ‘Robert Walter,’ ‘James Joseph’), very all-American profiles, and jobs that are military or military-connected in Africa or the Middle East are bots or scammers.

“But Allison,” you ask, “How can I engage meaningfully with the thousands of followers I’d like to have?”

You don’t have to. You’re not on Twitter to talk to anyone, you’re on Twitter to talk to everyone. It’s not like letting your best friend sit next to you at lunch—be part of a great conversation this minute, then move on. Support the people you know well or in person. Retweet writers and cool things to read. Post things you find funny, interesting or cool. Step back and engage meaningfully with the community as a whole, rather than focusing on individuals. Let Twitter wash over you like a wave—and get out of the pool when you need a break.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. See you at AWP!

Will You Social Media Today?

February 5, 2019 § 6 Comments

Antique engraving of a white male writer thinking, an inkwell in front of him and pen in handYes, yes, we know. Build a platform big enough and the agents will beat a path to our door. What we really want to do—what we should actually do more than anything else—is write. Yet as memoirists, agents and publishers want to know: How many people can you reach with the news your book is out? How many of them are in the demographic likely to buy your book? How many will leave a glowing review, either because your book is great or because they love you and you write about what’s important to them?

Platform-building is a long haul, and it’s hard to know how to spend our time and focus day to day. What the heck are we supposed to put on social media anyway?

Try:

  • A new book you think is great.
  • Something you overheard that makes interesting dialogue.
  • An article you wrote or were involved in publishing: link the article and quote a couple of sentences that seem mildly inflammatory or counter-intuitive.
  • An article you liked about writing: link plus a quote and/or your opinion or contribution to the advice.
  • A writing meme
  • Encouragement to someone else
  • A fun poll
  • A serious poll
  • A retweet of someone else’s opinion with a comment agreeing or disagreeing or adding to the conversation.
  • A cartoon or quote that inspires you.

Most of us won’t ever get big enough that platform alone gets us published, but plenty of us have stories compelling enough that a nudge from platform might tip us over the edge from unpublished to published. Take a few moments, and build a little of yours today.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Writing From Immediacy

January 31, 2019 § 2 Comments

I often tell people in the throes of a break-up, “Every relationship we’re in teaches us a little more about who to be in the relationship we’re meant to be in later.” It’s a little convoluted, but it comforts me to believe that, to think that the awful things my first husband and I did to each other helped us learn how to be honest and kind to our current spouses. But it’s hard to look ahead from within the moment of trauma, to try to process or analyze what’s happening to us in a larger sense.

Writing memoir often requires distance. Many writers have both given and received the advice, “Take some time, allow yourself to step back. Don’t write from the heat of the moment.” It’s usually very good advice. We are far more able to present our actions, and the actions of others, without judgement, allowing the reader to decide whose side they want to be on, with some time away from the events themselves.

Dani Shapiro has both given and believed this advice. But her writing process for her recent memoir, Inheritance, countered the received wisdom. In an interview at The Millions, she says:

In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

At first, this process didn’t seem to work for a memoir. She’d taken two months away from the manuscript, and when she came back to it:

I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

What helped Shapiro was considering Joan Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking.

In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story.

Shapiro’s work ended up mirroring that process, finding a way to tell what happened to her with a sense of immediacy, but without herself (as writer or as narrator) actually living within that moment of trauma as she wrote.

As memoirists, the ability to summon up the immediacy of our trauma without being sucked into it as we write is valuable. It’s difficult to walk that edge of telling what happened vividly enough for the reader to be in the moment of happening, while maintaining enough remove to use our writing craft and sense of structure, but that edge is what divides memoir from therapy, what makes a story powerful and life-changing for the reader as well as the writer.

Shapiro’s discussion of her process is illuminating; read the whole interview here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir.

Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.

When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.

Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.

I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.

Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.

Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:

  • Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
  • Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
  • Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
  • Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
  • Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
  • Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
  • When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
  • If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
  • When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
  • Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.

It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Can’t Means Won’t

January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”

Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”

Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”

The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”

I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”

My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”

Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.

The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:

I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.

I hear it as snobbery:

For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.

I hear it as despair.

Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.

Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.

This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
  2. Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.

Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.

The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?

Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.

Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.

Most of us are not that good.

Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.

Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:

I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.

My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.

I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.

Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?

Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”

McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”

“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.

McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.

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When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.

Time Travel

January 1, 2019 § 58 Comments

It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.

Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.

Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.

That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.

Nope.

That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.

Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.

In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?

Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.

All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.

As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.

The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.

Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.

What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.

See you there.

According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.

What will your writing year bring?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?

The Golden Ticket

November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments

Sure I’d love to refer you! I’m not freaked out by your in-person request to a stranger at all!

The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.

I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.

A referral is:

A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.

Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.

Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.

What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:

I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?

This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.

Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.

1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?

If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”

2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.

3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.

4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.

5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.

Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.

How to Write a Bestseller

November 13, 2018 § 18 Comments

Nice to meet you, sir. Thanks for coming to our writing circle. OK, everyone, let’s say what we’re working on for the next hour.

Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—

Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”

Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—

Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.

Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.

Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?

You want to write a bestseller.

You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.

Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.

You’re still here?

No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.

There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.

Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!

Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.

Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.

Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.

Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.

Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.

We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.

Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”

I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.

OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!

 

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Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.

Free Online Memoir Summit

November 4, 2018 § 6 Comments

Wake up, writers! I just heard the most amazing thing about authorial voice!

Having trouble making it to conferences? Finding workshop dates impossible or prices out of reach? Here’s a chance to enjoy a sampler of conference-style sessions you can watch in your yoga pants for free.

Starting November 8th, Village Writing School will present a series of free online lectures and interviews discussing memoir craft, marketing, platform-building and more. The video sessions will remain live until November 12th, and registrants may access them at their leisure over the five days.

Sessions include:

Family and Religion—Two Scary Topics
Ruth Wariner’s memoir, The Sound of Gravel, details her escape at fifteen, with her brother and three younger sisters, from a polygamist cult in Mexico of which her father had been the leader. The book was an instant New York Times Best Seller and was called a “bracing, unforgettable story of survival” by Entertainment Weekly. Ruth will join us to discuss the difficulties of writing about these two emotionally-charged topics and why you should.

Telling Your #MeToo Story
It’s vitally important for writers to write and publish #MeToo memoirs. But what are the psychological challenges? What are the technical challenges? What writing techniques can help you portray a #MeToo scene? What should you keep in mind about your audience and about approaching publishers? What can you expect when you publically share your story? Tracy Strauss, who has published essays on writing #MeToo in Poets and Writers Magazine as well as Ms. Magazine, and whose own #MeToo story is forthcoming from Skyhorse Press, will guide you through this difficult topic with her courage and wit. You, too, can write for healing, for change, for empowerment.

It Doesn’t Take as Long as You Think
Rachael Herron, author of Fast Draft Your Memoir in 45 Hours and A Life in Stitches, will prove to you that you DO have time to tell your story. She’ll also show you how to figure out what that story is and how to find the best spine for it. No more excuses!

Thoughts on Your Story, Beginning to End
Marion Roach Smith, who has taught the craft of memoir to thousands of students both in university classes and online will show you what to consider before beginning your story. She will also examine some special challenges of writing about trauma and tell you what to do if you still don’t have a happy ending.

Other Ways to Tell Your Story
Allison K Williams, who teaches workshops on blogging and essays and hosts the Brevity podcast, will show you how to tell your story through live and written short forms. Even if a book is not your thing—or not your thing yet—Allison will show you how to get your voice out there and how to build a readership for your story.

Publishing Your Story—What New York Wants You to Know
Renée Fountain, President of GH Literary, will discuss the potential for memoir, the things to avoid, and what New York is looking for. And as a literary agent seeking memoir, she’ll tell you what she is looking for.

It’s Never Too Soon to Build Your Audience
Beyond a “platform,” you want an authentic connection with readers. What are some ways you can begin to build that relationship long before your book comes out? Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia will show you how such connections can become the most satisfying part of your writing career.

All sessions are hosted by Alison Taylor-Brown, the founder and director of The Village Writing School, a 501c3 nonprofit. The school is an independent creative writing program, located in beautiful northwest Arkansas. Its mission is to help writers tell their stories in a more readable, publishable way. Complete details and speaker bios are here.

Interested? Register here.

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