October 15, 2019 § 19 Comments
I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?
If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?
Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:
Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript
Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar
Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time
It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.
At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”
A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?
But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.
We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.
We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.
October 8, 2019 § 3 Comments
Query letters. A necessary evil towards the great good of publication. A hoop to jump through towards representation; a lure to draw in the publisher perfect for our story.
Some lucky authors have essays go viral, build enormous social media platforms, or have NYT-bestselling cousins willing to refer us to their own agent. Most of us undertake the slog, often querying a hundred or more agents and revising our query and the manuscript itself many times along the way.
There are some terrific querying resources out there, notably Query Shark, which focuses on fiction but teaches powerful query-letter lessons for writers in all genres. Jane Friedman’s website has information on memoir and narrative nonfiction queries. Absolute Write’s forums are a place for honest chat about specific agencies. QueryTracker helps us chart our progress. Manuscript Wish List shows us which agents might be right for our book. And here at Brevity, we shared suggestions for the actual process of preparing and submitting to agents.
But it is generally more difficult to learn best practices for memoir, rather than fiction, queries—and Brevity is here to help.
That’s where you come in.
Podcast host Allison K Williams will discuss memoir queries with Janet, using some examples from Brevity readers & podcast listeners. We’ll assess your clarity and style, how you cover the standard query-letter elements, and talk about what you might do differently (or are already doing well!) to increase your chances of representation.
If you’d like to send in your query for a shot at having it discussed on-air, please paste it into an email, followed by your first two manuscript pages (also pasted), to brevitymagpodcast at gmail.com. Deadline for consideration is October 20th. We won’t use author names on the air, but we will be reading all or part of the query letters chosen, so only submit if you’re willing to have your words read on the podcast, please.
Querying can be overwhelming, intimidating, and depressing. But you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to do it without guidance. Help is out there—and it’s coming to your ears.
Brevity Podcast Host Allison K Williams, and Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will also be leading a retreat in Costa Rica in May 2020.
October 3, 2019 § 23 Comments
“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.
I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.
In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.
My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.
And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.
Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.
I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”
I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.
- Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
- Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
- Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
- Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.
Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore at the Rebirth Your Book finish-your-manuscript retreat in Costa Rica, May 2020.
September 10, 2019 § 9 Comments
Anne Lamott’s maxim is some of the most-quoted writing advice in the memoirist world. Followed closely by: Write the book first, worry about hurt feelings later.
That doesn’t stop us from worrying our way through the first—or even final—draft.
If I write about my mom hitting me, can she sue me?
If I tell that secret, will anyone talk to me at the family reunion?
My sister told me I better not write anything about her…what if I change her name?
Yesterday on the Brevity Blog, Lisa Sellge wrote about sharing her finished manuscript with people in it, the hedging and self-protection writers do within that process. But even before the final draft, many writers fear a family explosion, resentment, or even legal action.
We can’t control how our loved (or unloved!) ones will react. We can only be as truthful as we can, allowing ourselves the distance to write from analysis as well as from emotion, showing why other people behaved as they did, as best we can tell from hindsight. It’s our choice to brace for anger from a parent or sibling, or practice verbal judo with a smooth, “I can see how the story would be different from your perspective. Let me know when you write about it.”
What if they threaten to sue? In the USA, you can sue anyone for any damn reason you want. Even if you signed a release, even a big scary release with ACCEPT ALL RISKS FOR INJURY AND/OR DEATH on it. In most American jurisdictions, no-one can sign away their right to sue. Releases provide evidence that a suit is baseless, because the signer accepted responsibility, but they don’t stop anyone from filing paperwork and demanding their day in court.
So why aren’t alcoholic parents and pedophilic religious leaders stampeding into court to bankrupt and destroy the fragile writers telling their own stories?
It’s expensive and time-consuming to pursue a civil case, and they aren’t easy to win without a phalanx of top-notch attorneys laying out extensive documentation of the kind most non-memoirists rarely preserve. Unless the suit is against an insurance company with the potential for a huge payout (as in medical malpractice, accident and wrongful-death cases), lawyers rarely take civil cases without an up-front retainer.
Say your poorly-behaving former spouse has five figures to spare and a sense of vengeance strong enough to waste every dime. First, they must lawyer-shop until they hear, “Sure, you’re not crazy at all and I’d love to take on a hard-to-prove case against someone with no money.” The lawyer must then find a judge who doesn’t laugh them out of court and agrees to consider your spouse’s hurt feelings.
If the suit actually makes it to court, the person you wrote about must prove three things:
- You lied
- You lied on purpose to hurt them
- Your story hurt them in terms of hard cash or public reputation
- The truth is always a defense against libel. Police reports. Affidavits from your friends. Photos or videos. Your convincing presence on the witness stand.
- If you accidentally didn’t tell the truth, that’s still not actionable. A plaintiff has to prove you lied on purpose or were very careless, not just that you were mistaken or have a different opinion. Memoir is inherently our opinion; it’s also worth adding caveats like “As I remember it…” or “what it felt like was…”
- Damages are meted out based on actual, provable harm. By portraying people’s behavior in interpersonal relations rather than their ability to do their job, you are unlikely to damage their finances or their reputation enough for a judge to believe they need redress. You can say your doctor cheated at golf; criticizing his medical ability could do him financial harm and he’s likely to have records to prove it.
Our final protection against being sued?
Most of us aren’t worth suing. We don’t have enough assets for a long-shot winner to take. In most jurisdictions, a lawsuit can’t take your homestead. Your homeowner’s insurance is unlikely to cover libel, so your angry relative won’t be suing them. Generally, if you have enough money to be worth suing, you can already afford your own excellent lawyer to tell you all this. If you don’t have that kind of cash, it’s almost never worth the time and money for the plaintiff or their attorney.
I am not a lawyer. This is emotional, rather than legal, advice. But emotional fallout from a published memoir is far more likely than legal action. Instead of fearing a suit, spend that time being as honest as you can on the page, letting other people’s actions show who they are and being clear about what you remember and what’s a best-guess. Read Tara Westover’s Educated to see how she honors competing stories while insisting on her own truth.
Threatening to sue is easy. Actually suing—winning—and collecting damages is pretty darn hard. Be fair, be kind, write the best book you can that tells your own true story. If someone threatens to sue, smile gently. Tell them, “I can see you feel really passionate about getting your story out there. I hope you write a book.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her travel-adventure postcards at TinyLetter.
August 29, 2019 § 26 Comments
One of my favorite Leonard Bernstein songs (lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green) is a cheerful, upbeat ditty about the wreckage of broken dreams in New York. In verse after verse, a bright young thing comes to the big city from the cornfields, experiences a measure of success, then works a drudge job while never creating again. The actress flipping flapjacks, the opera singer tossing trout at the fish market, the writer who hasn’t written a word. All their dreams in pieces at their feet.
But here’s the thing about pieces: you need them to build other things. I led a writing retreat this week for three memoirists, and we got talking one night about the ways we’ve been burned, by relationships, by family, by unscrupulous writing “coaches.” I mentioned a thing I say a lot, that I’ve written about in my newsletter, a phrase that gives me comfort every time: If you like where you are, you gotta be OK with what got you there. I said that if a fairy godmother came down and said I could go back in time and have a great high school experience instead of a horrifying one, I’d say no.
I’ve gotten too much good writing from bad things.
Before the retreat, we were all at a writing conference, the wonderful Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. During the conference, I was approached a couple of times by writers with a deep, dark confession. They’d been “Anna March victims.” March—not her real name, as we all eventually found out in this wonderful LA Times article detailing the scam—recruited writers to pay her large sums of money up front, then didn’t deliver the promised editing, coaching or, as she put it, “book midwifery.” The scam kept going because the victims were ashamed to say they’d been taken advantage of, or worried that March’s literary might (as it was perceived during her grifting period) would crush them.
I feel for these writers. It’s a shitty situation to be in, to discover that your instincts were wrong, or that you’d overridden some perfectly good instincts to hand a couple thousand dollars to a con artist. I feel for their wasted money, their wasted time, their wounds from asking themselves “How could I have been that dumb?” or “Was it me? Was I just not good enough?”
But you don’t have to get conned to feel wounded. Did you get your money’s worth at your last conference? Finish your book in that pricy writing workshop? See a payoff yet from all that time on social media?
The problem with this line of thinking is seeing writing as a race with a finish line, or a game with a prize, instead of a process. There is no “done.” There is no amount of money and time you can invest that guarantees a payoff. Many MFA grads never publish. Many great books get remaindered. Great writers, including my teachers and mentors, finish books, then putter around the garden and the internet wondering, will I ever write again? Great human beings get conned, dumped, wounded physically and spiritually.
It’s not you.
And it’s not a waste.
That horrible realization you’ve been scammed is one day going to be either material, or a thing you survived. A thing that proves you can survive. That bad relationship is teaching you what you don’t want in the next partner, or how you can be a better partner (marriage #2, right here!). The failed book is proof you wrote a whole book—and you can do it again. The debilitating illness is a chance to pace yourself, to value small moments more than showy accomplishments that later feel hollow. All these things suck, and you are legitimately entitled to be angry, sad, and/or defiant about them. Feelings are facts, too. But these catastrophes and misspent time and futile efforts are also the pieces you have to work with. The fragments you will take up, sand off the edges, and shape into your story and your life.
You may not yet be thriving, but survival alone is proof you’re on the way there. You may not yet be publishing, but you have a lot to write about, a story to share. The gift of memoir is telling our readers they aren’t alone. You’re not the only one who feels like this. Experiencing the tragedy of waste builds empathy and allows us to embody our readers’ experiences, often in a way they cannot themselves process or put into words.
That’s our job. To study our craft and learn to use the best words we can to share the things that happened, the things our readers are suffering alone. To have the courage to step out of the shadows and say, me, too.
Bernstein made a song out of broken dreams, a good song, a song that’s lasted.
What will you do with your pieces?
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She has one spot left to finish your book in Italy in October. Get references 🙂
August 22, 2019 § 8 Comments
Ever wondered how to get into McSweeney’s, the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs, the Belladonna, Slackjaw, or another prestigious humor site? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard—write something very funny, make sure it fits the venue’s tone, send it in.
Step one tends to trip us up. How can you write funny, on demand?
Writing comedy is a learned skill. Yes, some writers start with more talent than others, but it’s not talent that makes an essay hilarious. Humor comes from a great premise (that you thought up after discarding 50 similar-but-not-as-good ideas), a specific point of view (that took a couple of drafts to get to) and tight, focused writing with careful word choices (that took another few drafts to whittle out of the initial bloated, semi-funny word glob).
Here’s a chance to learn the skill, and maybe win some money and/or publish your own comedy writing.
Slackjaw, Medium’s most-read humor publication (90,000+ followers), wants to support humor writers—and aspiring humor writers—everywhere, with their first Humor Writing Challenge.
Most writing contests are set-it-and-forget-it. Send in your work and hope for the best. This one’s different. Participants in the contest will be pitching ideas (so they can choose the best/funniest one to write), getting peer feedback, and re-writing. An online community will provide support and direction to contestants. Even if you don’t have a burning desire to write comedy, this process can introduce you to collaborative idea development, and how to solicit and implement editorial ideas in your own work. Plus, you’ll have deadlines to generate some specific assignments, and motivation to rewrite and sharpen your work.
The judges panel includes comedy writers for The Onion, Comedy Central, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, etc, and there’s $2000 in cash prizes. Finalists will have their work considered for (paid) publication on Medium, too.
If you want to publish humor writing, or you need a kickstart on your autumn writing plan with a fun, supportive environment, consider signing up for Slackjaw’s Humor Writing Challenge.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference this weekend, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram for choice bits of conference writing advice.
August 20, 2019 § 10 Comments
Doing one thing.
It seems so simple, and yet this morning I:
Gave feedback on pages
Tore apart my closet looking for a thing I tucked away while I was on vacation, and had hidden so well I couldn’t find it (my closet is now extremely tidy and partially Konmari-ed)
Dealt with the air conditioner repair men
You get it. Chances are, you do it too. And it doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad writers. We’re human. We got stuff to do.
But three months ago I really needed to finish a website. I made it my “weekend” project, and worked only on website copy and pictures and html code until I was done. No editing, no other writing, no reading, no errands. It took four days. But it’s done.
Two months ago I needed to finish a book proposal. Weekend project. Blinders on. Six days. But it’s done.
I don’t have kids and I set my own work hours and my spouse is beyond supportive. But it’s still hard to pick one thing, figure out how to tackle it, and do it until it’s done. It’s hard to stay focused when totally legit things want our attention (I did shower and cook dinners).
That’s why so many writers love retreats. A blissful week away in which someone else cooks and cleans, and no-one can “Hey Mom!” or “Ummm…Dad?” or “I need that presentation” you. But even on retreats it’s hard to get started. And if you’ve only got a week, you need a plan. A big-picture view of what needs doing and how.
At home, you can enlist a writer friend. Split an Airbnb for a week, read each other’s manuscript before you go and give specific, prescriptive feedback about what to work on in what order. Not “your book should be like this” but, after hearing your goals, “Restructure the plot, then fix the ending, then rewrite chapters 8-10.” Check in with each other daily for accountability.
But if you have time and funds, we’d like to suggest a retreat…that comes with a manuscript read. (This is where the ad part starts!) Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams would like to invite you to Costa Rica.
Next May, we’ll be hosting 10 dedicated writers in a luxury eco-lodge overlooking the Pacific. Organic food that you don’t cook. Beautiful grounds you don’t mow. Probably sloths. Definitely monkeys. But most importantly, we read your entire manuscript before you arrive, and with you, make a work plan to finish a draft, a proposal, or your book, before you leave. Don’t have a book yet? Write the first draft with us, and we’ll read it when you go home. Either way, it’s a chance to focus deeply on the work that’s most important to you.
If a travel retreat isn’t in your bag, grab a friend and start picking dates for your own week of fabulous productivity. But if you think finishing your book in tropical paradise might be for you, we’d love to spend that time together.
More information about Rebirth Your Book retreats. (If you’re already close to done, there’s room for two more in Italy in October!)
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Please say hello if you’re at Hippocamp!