No Really, How Many?

December 2, 2021 § 4 Comments

A memoirist recently shared her querying frustration: “An agent really liked my work, but said I didn’t have enough platform. But I have a website and I’m on Twitter and Instagram!”

Out of curiosity, I checked. The author’s website showed she wrote occasional humor pieces, loved knitting and had two dogs. She’d published on a couple of literary blogs. On Twitter she had 400 followers; on Instagram she had 185. Nothing in any location suggested she’d written an intimate, soulful memoir about Culturally Relevant Topic.

When Ashleigh Renard (platform expert and author of SWING) and I co-host The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, we’re frequently asked for numbers. How many clicks make a “viral essay”? How many followers show an agent you have “platform”? How many places do you have to publish? How many years will you have to do this?

You knew this was coming: “It depends.”

Followers can be bought, so numbers don’t tell the whole story. Followers can be generated through #writerlifts, in which everyone agrees to follow everyone else and some of them actually do. If you’ve seen Twitter accounts with 20K followers / 19K following, those are not meaningful numbers. People have followed back politely, not because they’re interested in what the many-followed person has to say. What matters more is engagement—how often do people have a (short) conversation with you online? How often do they comment on your photo, not just click a heart? How often do you share information related to your topic, your writing or your book? Does that information get reshared, or discussed even outside your own feed?

Plenty of people have sold books without being on social media. Plenty of people have sold books with 100K followers. Plenty of people with 100K followers haven’t sold a book.

I know all this, Allison, I hear you cry through the ether, but please just give me a number!

  • If you’re writing memoir, it helps to be connected to readers who will later spread the word about your book, at least ten thousand of them. This can be across social media, newsletter, other types of mailing list, public speaking/teaching, or establishing yourself as an expert in your topic. Many of your followers will overlap…so aim for a total of around 50K engaged followers.
  • If you’re writing self-help, business, or wellness (or your memoir focuses on one of those angles) you must have at least one very large following, which could be 100K+ on any single social media platform, YouTube, a podcast, or speaking regularly to groups of 1000+ whose ticket price includes a copy of your book.
  • If you’re writing a “big idea” book (like Malcolm Gladwell’s work) or narrative nonfiction, you mostly need bylines in significant media, like the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harpers, etc. Places where you’re demonstrating that your work appeals to a wide range of people who are ready to have Opinions about your topic.
  • A “viral” essay is 100K plus views, often more.

But I’m going to self-publish!

That’s great! Do you want people to purchase and read your book? Do you want to reach the people who need your message? Every publisher needs platform, even if that publisher is you. Self-publishers would be wise to start with at least half the numbers above.

Two things sell books: interest in the topic and recognition of the author. “Building platform” is simply making as many people as possible aware that you’re writing something they care about, so when your book baby hits the shelf the bookstore aisle will be full of people stopping, saying, “Hey! I’ve heard about that author!” and buying your book. The sneaky algorithms that pump ads into your social feeds and your Google searches are also looking for authors they’ve heard of, writing about subjects of interest. For both people and numbers, your continued, engaged presence in the world is how you become someone they’ve heard of.

Very often, authors publish widely and consistently for several years before landing a book deal. Humorists write columns, or they get their work into the world so someone will let them write a column. (To see what working towards getting a column looks like, follow Lucie Frost on Instagram/Twitter, where she shares fun facts, regularly, in a specific voice.) Literary writers publish essays. Commercial writers publish magazine articles. Very, very few writers generate one magical, beautiful book and publish on the strength of the writing alone. Are you better than Joan Didion? Go for it! But if you’re not, if you know your writing is still growing but your subject is important, focus on making the most of the platform you have.

  • A clean, well-designed website that shows your topic clearly, and establishes your expertise and/or skilled interest.
  • Social media on which you appear regularly and engage in discussions.
  • Getting short pieces into the world, then sharing the best quotes through your newsletter or social media.
  • Starting a spreadsheet NOW for the mailing list you’ll be able to start in 18 months.

Platform takes time and effort to build, and yes, takes away from your writing time. But the good news is, you can do 15 (focused) minutes a day for two years, listening to your audience, caring deeply about other people having the same experience, adding topics as you discover them…and your platform will gradually assemble itself.

Ashleigh Renard and I will be going more in depth on Making the Most of the Platform You Have on the next Writers Bridge, Tuesday December 7th at 1PM EST. It’s always free, always recorded, and you’ll get the Zoom link by signing up here.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of SEVEN DRAFTS.

Don’t Give Us Anything Today

November 30, 2021 § 34 Comments

It’s Giving Tuesday! A hyped-up commercialized day of charity to balance out the hyped-up commercialized days of shopping! You’re probably getting exhortations from every nonprofit you’ve ever lent your email to, plus the charities who bought your email from them. It’s inbox hell.

Brevity does not want your money today.

Instead, consider the spirit of Giving Tuesday: if you have, give. But for your author friends and your literary community, the gift of your time and attention is far more valuable than a monetary donation. In that spirit, here’s Brevity’s wishlist of Mostly Free Acts of Literary Citizenship for Giving Tuesday:

Free, 10 minutes or less

  • Google an author friend’s name or scroll their social media, and comment on their most recent blog post/article/essay. Let them know someone is reading.
  • Pick a quote you like from your friend’s book or essay and post it on your social media. Tag them. If you know how to schedule Tweets, pick three friends and do one a week between now and Christmas.
  • Phone your local library and request they order your friend’s book.

Free, 20 minutes or less

  • Write a note to an author/writer friend you admire, and tell them why.
  • Whatever app, gadget, or process makes your writing life easier, write 50-100 words about why. Send it to Brevity [ brevitymag+blog (insert @ symbol) gmail.com and yes that’s a plus sign] with WRITING HACK in the subject line and we’ll do a round-up of writing-life hacks in the weeks to come.

Takes More Effort But More Rewarding:

  • Write a review of a new, small-press book for your or someone else’s blog
  • Contact your favorite literary podcast and say you’d like to see the author on it (with two reasons why they’d be great!)
  • Offer to read a friend’s manuscript or exchange pages when you both need feedback

Under $20

  • Buy a friend’s book. If it doesn’t interest you, put it in someone else’s Christmas basket
  • Subscribe to a literary magazine you’d like to be published in (win-win!)
  • Take a chance on a new author—tell your local indie bookstore what you enjoy, and ask what they recommend (bonus points: relationship-building with the store that will one day be recommending your book!)

They’re small things. But they’re not insignificant. As humans, we minimize ourselves and our impact. Particularly in these times, our focus is so strongly on survival and protecting those closest to us, it’s difficult to take outward actions, to engage in a world that has become so actively hostile to our ideals. We tend to think, How much does my compliment matter? Does anyone care what I think?

It does.

We do.

And each time we take action to benefit a friend—or wish a stranger well—we take one tiny step towards our own happiness. In a challenging time, feeling our own power to do good, even in tiny doses, can reaffirm our faith in ourselves, in each other, and in our literary world.

You matter.

Your writing matters.

Your opinion, your thoughts, and your inherent membership in our community matters.

Step forward with your words.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Put a Tag on It

November 23, 2021 § 17 Comments

These traditional Madhubani paintings are only made in Bihar, India, and are, with 35 others, the result of 3 hours of tea-based negotiation.

Some time ago I saw a writing program that looked amazing. You’ve seen something like it: a respected writing teacher/coach works with a small group of students for 6-12 months, with goals, deadlines and feedback. This type of program is for writers who need accountability and welcome feedback, but don’t have the time/money/desire to pursue an MFA.

I thought one of my writer-clients would be a good fit for the program, but I couldn’t find the price on the website. I know and like the teacher, so I emailed.

The response (paraphrased): Oh we don’t tell anyone the investment cost until they’ve applied and been accepted into the class.

You know who else doesn’t give the price up front? Used car salesmen.

You know who else describes their need for your money as an “investment”? Prosperity-gospel shysters. Jesus is gonna return that twenty-five dollar check tenfold, Grandma. Trust me.

I know this strategy: get people engaged and excited about how awesome the product is before getting frightened away by the price. I’ve tried it myself, experimenting with highlighting the deposit on my retreat website and making the payment plan less conspicuous. I had info calls with two writers who didn’t understand that was only the deposit, a waste of their time and mine. Now I put the whole price.

How can you be up front with potential clients for your course, services or freelancing, without scaring off your income?

1) Price your work fairly. For yourself and for the client. You’re not meant to be affordable to everyone, and I’m not advocating for creatives to undersell ourselves. When I lead a class or retreat, I do a spreadsheet: How many hours will I work? What will venues, meals, gift bags, flights, Zoom subscriptions, website design cost? It all gets factored in.

2) Never compete on price. I do a lot of snooping research on what other editors and retreats charge. Mine cost less than some and more than others. I see programs and people I know are at my level or better, who charge more—or less. I’ve been a workshop student, and most of the time, I didn’t pick based on price. Students choose classes because they want to study with that teacher. Or spend a blissful week in that place. Clients book freelancers on how the writer handles the topic. Writers pick editors because they loved the sample edit. Usually, creative clients aren’t shopping for who they can afford, they’re figuring out if they can afford you.

3) Never feel guilty about your price. The magic words: “I totally understand if we’re not a match for your budget.” I know my price is fair for what I offer (see 1 & 2). If I’m way out of a client’s range, I can refer an editing partner who fits their budget and who I know will do a good job; recommend a webinar; or edit 25 pages and give the writer a list of fixes to apply to the whole manuscript (a wise option for most writers even if you’re ready to pay for a full edit, btw).

Charging a fair price lets me offer an occasional discount to someone truly in need, or whose work I adore and want to be part of. I’ve more than once reached out to a writer I knew would benefit from an experience to say, “Just come, we’d really like to have you and I know you’re tight right now.”

4) Put the pricetag where it’s easy to find. By putting my pricing up front, I save MY time. I no longer go back and forth in emails with people who’d like to negotiate the cost, the services, or the scope. Weighing opportunity cost, I probably save 3 billable hours a month by not interacting with people who can’t afford me, but say no to themselves before I have to.

I’ve walked through my fair share of souks, flea markets, mercatos, melas and car boot sales. I’ve sat with tea and a salesperson for hours, working out the price of gold relative to the necklace I have my eye on, or how much the paintings are if I buy 10 of them. I enjoy the ritual of determining together a fair price, meeting somewhere between “I know I’m a tourist but come on, dude” and “Madam, you will ruin me!”

But most writers I know don’t have that kind of time. They’d like to find out what I do and how much it costs, and ask questions from there. Most writers deserve the respect of your fairly determined, confidently stated price.

Save your time. Save their time. Put a price tag where your clients can find it.

___________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. In January she’ll be co-leading a virtual intensive, Rebirth Your Writing: Memoir Large and Small with Dinty W. Moore. It costs $375 and you can sign up (or ask questions) here.

Four Scams One Writer Fell For (So You Don’t Have To!)

November 19, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Melanie Gall

For new authors, navigating the publishing process can be difficult. What’s a useful way to spend funds and what’s just a money-grab? Even diligent internet searching turns up conflicting information, from inspiring success stories to vehement warnings. How can you judge who to believe?

First-time author Mohan Ranga Rao wanted professional help to polish and revise his memoir Inner Trek: A Reluctant Pilgrim in the Himalayas. A former businessman located in India, Mohan turned to the Internet. “Since I had no idea about traditional and self-publishing, I Googled ‘agents and publishers for first time authors’ and sent out emails to fifteen search results. All of them responded.”

Many of the emails promised a bestseller, claiming Mohan’s unedited manuscript was a work of genius; “an honor to read”; and would garner “thousands of dollars in passive income” through book sales.

Luckily, Mohan took these with a grain of salt, and contracted with a pair of reputable editors (full disclosure: that’s myself and Brevity’s Allison K Williams) who provided guidance about what was useful and what was essentially a cash-grab. But every aspiring author wants their book to be loved and it can be a challenge to see past the compliments and promises.

Here are four common writer scams, poor business practices, and useless products Mohan was offered—by no means a comprehensive list. Please do add your own experiences in the comments.

Literary Schmagents

An agent claiming to represent multiple bestsellers asked for $200 to review the manuscript. After the review, the agent assured Mohan he would get a publisher…and it would only cost $1,500 for “advice.” In an expensive consultation call, the agent shared the “exciting” news that Inner Trek was ready for copyediting.

Mohan figured out that the “agent” would indefinitely draw out their interaction, charging more and more money. Genuine agents never charge their clients money to review their manuscripts. And they don’t make big promises. Assurances that they’ll “definitely” find you a publisher are a huge red flag.

Vanity Publishing

Brevity has blogged before about the pros and cons of self-publishing, traditional publishing, and hybrids. But apart from those are vanity presses. Mohan approached Partridge Publishing in India, believing they were a wing of Big-Five publisher Penguin Random House. After sending a writing sample, the company said they’d review his manuscript for $1,500. After paying the fee, a representative told Mohan that his memoir needed very little editing. “I was shocked,” Mohan said, “since I myself was not happy with my manuscript. This was when I realized the trap of my own vanity—the prospect of getting a book published was leading me as an author to trust promises I would never have taken seriously as a businessman.”

Legitimate publishers—even hybrid presses—do not charge reading fees. Enlisting trusted, smart friends to “beta read” your book and give honest feedback, or sharing pages with a writing group, can help you be self-aware and pragmatic about how close to finished your book really is.

Buying Followers

Mohan paid a service $25.00/month to grow his Facebook author page quickly from just a few followers to several hundred. However, his engagement rate didn’t change, likely because these new followers were bots or phony accounts—not real people. Yes, a large social-media following with genuine interactions can help secure representation or a publishing contract, but for actual book sales—particularly when one is self-publishing—thousands of fake followers are useless.

Promoting individual posts and getting help with social-media strategy can be worthwhile, but growing an active, interested group willing to “cheerlead” on your behalf (and who may actually purchase the book) takes time. Online audiences must be built through the creation of regular, compelling content: articles, blog posts, videos, funny Tweets, beautiful images. Any service that doesn’t detail the work you (or they) will be doing for content creation—not just likes, views or follows—is unlikely to build your audience of human readers.

Book Trailers

Promoting an upcoming release can include placing related essays and articles, using your mailing list, buying Amazon or Goodreads ads, or promoting social posts. One type of shareable content to show off your book is a “book trailer,” a 45–90-second video commercial for the book.

For Inner Trek, Mohan was approached by a local company that made promotional videos. They sent a proposal for an overpriced video almost four minutes long, wordy and with visuals of random sand art—nothing to do with the memoirist’s journey from having his life threatened by gangsters, vowing to complete a holy Hindu pilgrimage, and climbing a sacred mountain. Where were the selling points that would interest the book’s target audience?

If you’re considering a book trailer, clarify for yourself: does my audience regularly consume short-form video content? Where will I display this video? What about my book will most fascinate the readers who will buy it?

Mohan came away from these interactions with a new plan: building his genuine audience by blogging about his trek; researching best promotional practices; and putting in the time and talent his story deserved. As an author, it’s exciting to think that someone wants your book and believes in your talent, but don’t stop being realistic and business-savvy. If something sounds too good to be true…it probably is.

___________

Melanie Gall is a writer, editor, and professional musician and music historian who tours the world performing. She has sung at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York and Royal Albert Hall in London, and two of her plays have been performed off-Broadway. Her upcoming biography, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland and the Golden Age of Hollywood will be released in May, 2022.

Six Ways to Self-Promote (Without Feeling Like a Huckster)

November 16, 2021 § 3 Comments

Buuuuuuuuuuyyyyyyyy myyyyyyyyy booooooooook!

We’re all afraid of sounding like that, or wearing out our welcome by spamming our acquaintances with ads. But you’ve probably heard marketing expert Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s “7 Touches” theory—the potential customer must hear about the product seven times before deciding to buy. Social media counts as maybe 1/4 of a “touch,” because a tweet or Insta post goes by so quickly. Do you really have to post 28 times before someone buys your book?

Heck, no.

But you can make people aware of your book—or your course, freelance services, or webinar—without directly advertising. A light touch brings your work into your community’s consciousness, so when the time comes to buy, they remember what you’re selling.

Social media bios. Most social sites allow one link, and most people put their website, most recent publication or latest offering. But travel writer Erin Van Rheenen has cleverly set up a “links” page on her website. Visit her Instagram bio and click through: you’ll get a page of links to Erin’s most recent articles and podcasts, her blog, and her mailing list signup.

If this feels beyond your website-building skill level, try the free service Linktree, which lets you easily enter and update links for your book, articles, webinars, services, etc., then creates a single link to the list.

Email signature. If you’ve ever gotten an email from me, it probably had a picture below my signature, like this one for a virtual memoir intensive I’m teaching with Dinty W. Moore in January:

In email, the picture is a clickable link. I include a text link for people reading with assistive devices, or whose email loads photos slowly.

Sell one thing at a time, or your signature becomes a crazy quilt that’s easy to ignore. Start using the signature 2-5 weeks before webinars; longer before bigger-ticket items with a more substantial commitment. If you’re not actively selling, use your signature to invite mailing list signups, promote your latest blog, or make graphics featuring your great reviews or blurbs. Setting up an email signature takes 15-20 minutes the first time; about 5 minutes once you know how.

Blog…for SOMEONE ELSE. The personal blog is dead. Unless you’re working in a specific niche or you’re consistently hilarious, blogs aren’t growing readership like they did in the early 2000s. Only your most die-hard fans will visit a blog on your own site. Instead, pick a literary site you admire, or a site dealing with an issue or interest you write about. Read their blog(s). What hasn’t been covered in the past 6-8 months? Check for submission guidelines and pitch or send a finished blog that’s clean, proofread, in their word count, and fits the tone of the site.

Sites like Brevity, Jane Friedman, Craft, Electric Lit and many more use guest bloggers—start where you love to read. If that feels like a big leap, try trading guest blogs with another author—you’ll give each other new audience eyes. Reaching someone else’s pre-existing audience is much easier than drawing eyeballs yourself.

Offer a resource. An ebook or pdf of a first chapter; tips about your subject; a website page listing literary podcasts or another resource. Include an ad midway for your latest book or service; even better, tie the resource into what you’re selling, like Free PDF of Six Ways to Edit Your NaNoWriMo Draft (PS I Sell Editing Services).

Promote other authors’ work. Rather than just liking/retweeting the happy published-essay news, pick a quote you love and/or say what’s great about the article. Post a picture of a book you like and say why, then tag the author, their agent and the publisher. By praising publicly, we subtly establish ourselves as arbiters of taste, building our own authority as teachers and authors. Tagging also means you just created content for someone else, who is then more likely to reshare it…also promoting you.

Be a guest. Maybe you’re ready to speak at a writing conference. Or your local library. Or the Lions Club lunch. Or a college class. Or on a podcast. If you can package your point of view as a 15-45 minute presentation with specific takeaways for the listeners, you don’t even need a published book. Marketing yourself as an expert—or just fun to listen to—guest can lead to same-day book sales or class registrations. Long term, public displays of expertise serve as part of your author platform, making it easier to sell your book (or your next book) to agents and publishers.

All these techniques are gentle touches, rather than direct self-promotion. My email signature sits below a response you asked me for. If you’re checking out Erin Van Rheenen’s social media, you already want to know more—her easy link is a service. Blogs and reviews are informative to their readers. Everyone wants free resources. Guests are fun and enlightening. By attaching your ad gently to a product or service your audience actively wants, the recipient remembers that you gave them something they enjoyed…and oh yeah, you also have a book for sale.  

_________________________________

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. She’ll be teaching a 5-day virtual memoir intensive in January, with Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore–more info/register at Rebirth Your Writing: Memoir Large & Small.

Getting to the Truer Version of the Story

October 28, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Aimee Christian

Memoirists often ask themselves, Would anyone actually want to read my story?

That depends.

David Mura says, “I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.”

I wrote an entire draft of my memoir and when I was done, I felt great. I submitted it to my writing group, who reflected back to me something I could not see myself. My first draft was not just shitty, it was ugly. Angry. Fury, all over the page. A 90,000-word vent. As Allison K Williams calls it in Seven Drafts, it was the vomit draft. But as I continued to revise and revise, I let go of so much wrath. As I cut the ugliness away from the narrative, I found that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need unpleasant words to describe other characters not only because I wanted the readers to draw their own conclusions—but because I didn’t feel that way anymore.

Just by writing it out.

Which is great. But was not enough to make the story the truth.

I’m not suggesting my memoir wasn’t true, or that your memoir isn’t true. But what is truth?

After you’ve edited for factual correctness; reckoned with what you remember versus what you don’t and how you plan to address the differences; and carefully crafted an acknowledgement that your book is your version of the truth, what comes next?

Melissa Febos put it so beautifully in her essay collection Abandon Me that when I listened to the audiobook in the car, I had to pull over to rewind again and again, writing down her words like it was the 1980s and I was trying to decipher The Cure’s lyrics from a tape. Stop. Listen. Stop. Scribble. Rewind. Repeat.

We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. 

I wanted to tattoo Febos’s words on my eyelids, on my fingertips, so that I would remember them with every single word I typed. I suddenly understood why I’d grown bored of my own manuscript. I’d written detailed accounts of all the stories I’d told over the years, of the smoothings over, the ironings out of truths. The stories I’d told myself that made my pain points a little less sharp, that made my shame a little easier to hold at night, that made my life a little easier to live. But in doing so, I’d left out all the parts that were not genuine. The pieces that made truly interesting memoir worth reading were just not there.

How would I begin to unravel the layers, peel back the covers, get at the rawer truths?

I did it and am still doing it painstakingly. Poring over a paragraph at a time, asking myself questions through a series of writing prompts, about sentences, dialogue, exchanges, actions. Why, why, why, okay and why, great but why, and why, no but why? Why did I do this? What did I mean? What did I really want? Why did I behave this way? What would this scene look like from the other person’s perspective? What if I wrote this scene in five sentences? What if I wrote it again, and again, and again?

Here’s an example: I know my mother, and I know how my mother behaves. So when I did that thing all those years ago, was I really so surprised when she behaved exactly as she always did? Or was I just looking for another excuse to feel wronged? Why did I do what I did? What did I think would really happen?

Getting this honest with myself, I didn’t like what I saw. But it was a much realer picture. And even I had to admit, the story that was unfolding on the page was much more interesting than the one I’d set out to write. I began to feel better about who I was. David Mura was right. I was becoming the person I wanted to be when I sat down to write the book. She was waiting for me.

If you’re going through the pain and vulnerability of writing a memoir at all, write the real one. Not the curated one. The one you don’t want people to see. The one you’ve tucked away all this time.

Dig it out. Dust it off. Get reacquainted with it. Learn to embrace it and maybe even love it.

Because that’s the story people want to read.

________________

Join Aimee Christian for three Wednesday evening writing sessions beginning December 1st to get to the truer version of your story, looking at those parts that Melissa Febos says need to hurt, not flatter, and not comfort. “Let’s meet our own gaze and see what’s really looking back.” Includes readings, writing, and one workshop. Info and registration here

Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net


Diversion, Delight and Pleasance: Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany

September 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

In 1348, Boccaccio writes in the Decameron, Florence was gripped by plague. Seven young women and three young men (about the ratio of most writing events) meet on a Tuesday morning in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Living in the city right now sucks, they agree, and so they’ll  

betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country…and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason. There may we hear the small birds sing, there may we see the hills and plains clad all in green and the fields full of corn wave even as doth the sea; there may we see trees, a thousand sorts, and there is the face of heaven more open to view…

In an isolated hilltop castle, the characters set up quite a life. Servants make their beds with fragrant sheets, bring meals and wine, put flowers on the table. In the afternoons, the ten relax in a shady meadow, but rather than spend their minds on gambling, they decide that every day for ten days, each one of them shall tell a story. Those hundred stories form Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Writers, too, need diversion, delight and pleasance in their surroundings. With retreats, the setting is often as important as the work done there. Bringing ourselves to a new location allows focus and stimulation—and a surprising amount of creative power is unleashed when someone else handles meals.

Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams are leading an October retreat in Boccaccio’s hometown, Certaldo. In a small hilltop castle, on a terrace overlooking Tuscan fields, we’ll help ten writers create their stories every day.

Is it…responsible…to travel overseas right now? Is it risky?

ALLISON: I spent July in Tuscany, went to the USA, and was in Florence again last week. I needed negative PCR tests to board international flights and showed proof of vaccination to enter Italy, to dine inside, and to enter public indoor spaces. Tuscany has half the lowest per-capita Covid rate of any US state, has a fully-vaccinated rate of 63% and climbing, and masking indoors is required and mostly followed. I felt much safer there than in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

Much like Boccaccio’s storytellers, we’ll be largely keeping to ourselves, with private airport transfers and our own dining areas and lodging in a small, family hotel. We’ll also be testing before returning home.

What’s the difference between a workshop and a retreat?

DINTY: A Workshop is primarily designed for feedback, where we look at draft pages around a table and ‘critique’ what is working and what is not quite coming across. Our Tuscany experience is instead a Retreat, aimed at both freeing up time to expand the writing and freeing up the necessary head space to think holistically about a large writing project. We will “retreat” from the burdens and distractions of our regular lives, to aim our attention on the joys and struggles of putting words on the page and turning pages into completed books.

What exactly will Allison and Dinty do all week?

DINTY: Some days have formal classes to help get the wheels spinning, and as Retreat leaders, we’ll be sitting down with everyone individually to work through manuscript problems (and opportunities). But we will be available as coaches at every step along the way, to discuss small issues in the text or larger concerns about sustaining your writing project. Plus, we will steer you to some lovely Tuscan destinations when the time comes to relax.

ALLISON: I truly love being “at the table.” When a writer hits a tough spot, we can step out and talk through the challenge, getting them back to the page. We’ll meet with each writer via Zoom before the retreat to make a clear plan for what they want to accomplish (writers can bring an idea, a full draft, or anything in between), and meet again after returning home, to sustain the momentum.

Also, gelato. I will be eating a lot of gelato. Some of it onion-flavored. (It’s a local thing, and way better than it sounds!)

DINTY: I may not be eating the onion gelato. But I’ll be eating gelato for sure!

I’m not ready for this.

ALLISON: That’s OK! We might see you virtually in January, in Costa Rica in Feb/March, or next year in Tuscany! This is not your only chance to retreat with us. Meanwhile, please make time for your work when you can. Check into a local AirBnB for a weekend, or train your family that Wednesday afternoons are sacred. Or focus the emotional power you have on keeping yourself and your family safe in this weird time. Writing will always be there when you come back.

DINTY: These are difficult times. I admit some initial hesitancy about travel right now, but I researched how airlines are enforcing masking and safety and how Italy looks right now and I feel confident, especially given the precautions we will all be taking. A trip like this is just what I need. Maybe it is for you too, but if not, stay safe. We’ll see you another time.

I’m totally ready for this.

DINTY: We still have spots for two writers and we’d love for you to join us. Here are the full details including cost, daily itinerary, FAQ, and photos from the 2019 Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Get in touch through the contact form with questions.

At the end of their retreat, one of Boccaccio’s young men says,

I have seen and felt here a continual decency, an unbroken concord and a constant fraternal familiarity… I hold it meet, if it be your pleasure, that we now return whence we came…

That’s what we hope our writers will return with, too.

1, 4 or 5 Stars: Why to Review Right Now

September 7, 2021 § 29 Comments

You can do something for me today. For every author you know. For even the authors you don’t. An act of literary citizenship that takes 7-10 minutes. Sure, you can spend time and/or money to be a literary citizen—hosting events, blogging, editing or reading for a journal—or contribute gently to your community by giving thoughtful feedback in your own writing group. But to actually help authors sell books, for free, right now:

Write a review.

Not “pitch a review to a literary publication,” although that’s great, too. Not “write a 900-word blog post balancing serious critique with just enough praise.” Not “read the book twice for fairness and highlight quotes and eventually put something up in a couple of months.” Just write and post a short review, right away.

  • Write a review of 3-10 sentences. Maybe quote one line you really liked.
  • Post to Amazon, where you can usually review even books you didn’t buy on Amazon. Copy your review before hitting “submit.”
  • Paste the review to Goodreads. (Goodreads accepts reviews even before the publication date, allowing for ARCs or having read the manuscript.)

Feeling ambitious, or you like the author? Take a photo of the book or the cover on your screen. No need to style like #bookstagram—next to your teacup or against your houseplants is fine. Post to your social media. Tag the author so they’ll see it and feel supported and can repost on their own social media…which might get you another couple followers. Citizenship always comes back around. Posting that photo with your Amazon review helps your review show up, and tells the algorithm you own the book (useful if you supported your local indie bookstore).

Should I wait to have time to write something “real”?

Amazon reviews are not serious discussions of literature. They guide buyers on the fence: Look, someone liked something I know I’ll like, too. Buy. Look, someone had an issue with a plot element that’ll bother me, too. Nope. Reviews help algorithms decide how many people will spontaneously see this book. More reviews (the best-guess “magic number” is 50) makes a book show up higher in search results. More people not specifically shopping for that book will see it, and some of them will buy it. Goodreads reviews are often more thoughtful, but review now rather than laboring over a paragraph truly reflecting your literary prowess.

What if I haven’t read the whole book?

Your review is more valuable to your friend than reading their whole book. Think about it: would you rather I email you in six months, “I finally finished your book and I loved it!” Or would you rather I post that sentiment on my socials during your release month, even if I’m not on the last page yet? (Authors: do not pop-quiz your friends on your book. Trust they read what spoke to them and be grateful. If they want to thoroughly discuss your plot choices, they’ll bring it up.)

…Shhh…I didn’t actually like my friend’s book…

Helpful reviews are no stars, four/five stars, or one star.

No stars: Hated the book? Don’t review it. For a friend’s book, pick a sentence you like (there’s one in there somewhere!) and quote it with a photo on social media. Tell your moral compass you’re not recommending the book…you’re observing that it exists, pointing out one good thing, and supporting your friend.

Four/five stars: If you liked the book enough to give your time to review, choose four or five stars. Didn’t like it four stars’ worth? Go back to the no-stars plan. Three stars says, “I think your work is…average.” Two stars says, “Your book sucks, but it didn’t raise my anger or disgust enough for one star.” If you wouldn’t say that to their face, don’t say it with your review.

One star: If a book you regret reading is by a stranger you will never need goodwill from, and it really irritated you, go for that one star! A trash review is better than tepid, as long as you’re specific about what you didn’t like. Your poison may be someone else’s champagne.

You want your friends’ support when it’s your turn. They need your support now. Maybe they’re not even your friend—maybe they’re an author you hope will blurb you one day. The best time to start publicly supporting future blurbers’ work with reviews and social media is two years before you ask them for that favor. The second-best time is now.

If you have time, if you have a mass media or literary venue, by all means read that book like it’s your job. Make extensive notes. Write a beautiful essay placing the book in context with the cultural moment and your own love of literature. But if that’s not what you’re doing, read enough to know what you like and write a quick-but-thoughtful review, right away. What have you read in the last six months? Other than bestsellers, those authors need your reviews. You will make their heart sing that someone, somewhere, recognized their artistic contribution to the world.

I’ve been writing reviews all year, making deposits in the Bank of Goodwill. And oh look, my book is out today! You don’t have to buy it or like it, and I won’t ever hold that against you. Most authors won’t even notice if you don’t review them. But we’ll sure remember it with joy if you do.

________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, SEVEN DRAFTS: SELF-EDIT LIKE A PRO FROM BLANK PAGE TO BOOK is out today. Buy it at Bookshop.Org to support indie bookstores; go Amazon.com if corporate behemoth is your style. Ignore the “out of stock,” it’ll get there!

Come Together

July 29, 2021 § 14 Comments

You may not be ready to step into the world yet. Or plan travel. Or be around groups of people. And that’s just fine. The Delta variant, angry political arguments, the idea that wanting to protect your own health and others is somehow not a universal given, all of these are frightening.

In this past span of 18+ months we’re sort of calling “a year,” virtual teaching and online workshops have flourished. Suddenly, we’re all able to cater to people who can’t leave their houses for reasons physical or emotional or financial or just because. And it turns out there are great ways to teach online, to interact with students and help students interact with each other.

Yet, many of us still miss personal, human connection without a mediating screen. Gentle crosstalk without a Zoom delay. The warm presence of writerly bodies across a table. Hugs.

Fortunately, whether you’re a staying-home-still or a stepping-into-the-world person, on a budget or ready to spend your accumulated vacation funds, there are upcoming events for you! You might enjoy:

August 13-15 (live) Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This three-day writing conference features 50+ notable speakers including Athena Dixon, Lilly Dancyger and Marian Winik; engaging sessions focused on writing, publishing, networking and writing life, interactive all-conference panels, author and attendee readings, social activities, networking opps, meals, and optional, intimate pre-conference workshops. Cost is $489 and 8 places remain. More information/register here.

August 21 (virtual) Woodhall Writers Conference. This first-time conference includes small-group workshops with top-notch instructors, enlightening panels on the Future of Publishing and Book Pitches, keynote speeches by inspiring writers, and networking interactions that will help you expand your artistic community. Workshops include: Introduction to Short Forms with Tom Hazuka and Darien Gee, Poetry with Charles Rafferty and Prose Writing with Eugenia Kim. Cost is $175 with a workshop, or $95 for keynotes and panels only. More information/register here.

October 10-17 (live) Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Truly excited to travel and write, but want some guidance? Or maybe you just want to write in a castle? Join Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor (me!) Allison K Williams for personal coaching, editorial feedback on up to 75 pages, seminars on writing and publishing, live-editing, great food and inspiring scenery, all in a tiny town in the hills outside Florence. Cost is $3250, payment plans available. More information here.

Ongoing (virtual) Low on cash but want to better the business aspect of your work? Enjoy Jane Friedman’s free Sunday Business Sermons. Jane’s frank, friendly style gets to the nuts and bolts of publishing and process. You can watch live upcoming sessions on Using Discord and Better Slide Presentations, or enjoy the recordings of past sessions at Jane’s YouTube channel, including Branding Tips&Tricks and How I Get So Much Done. FREE, no registration needed. Topics list and dates here.

Ongoing (virtual) Creative Nonfiction Magazine offers webinars, live and asynchronous courses, and self-guided courses to generate new writing, stay focused, and create your best work. Upcoming webinars include Byline Boot Camp: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Short Nonfiction Published with Melissa Petro, and Mind Music: Writing the Lyric Essay with Amy Hassinger. Most webinars are $15 early bird/$25 regular; course prices vary. Find out more/register here.

What are YOU teaching or learning, and when and where and how much? We invite you to share your upcoming events—and events you’re excited about!—in comments.

Writing As Your Younger Self

June 24, 2021 § 6 Comments

Me six months before my first bad decision

When I’m not writing nonfiction and blogs for Brevity, I write Young Adult novels. I’m gonna put modesty aside and say I’m good at it. Specifically, what I’m good at is voice. Teachers and fellow writers have said so, and the people whose opinions I care about most—high school students—have said so, too. “I think that all the time,” one girl whispered to me. “But I didn’t know you could write about it.”

I’ve put a lot of practice into writing fiction, but that’s not the secret sauce that lets me write YA, or essays about my younger years.

It’s not having kids.

Once we have children, I’ve observed, we’re parents. Duh—but parents are different than people.  

People remember their childhood. Parents remember their childhood but hope to hell it was better, because they’re watching childhood play out right now, and it’s really, really important that it be a good experience for their own little people. Tragedies fade and blur. Adventures polish up and outshine them. But some of the greatest adventures of our childhood could have been terrible tragedies if chance had gone the other way. Nobody wants to imagine that roulette wheel spinning for their own kid.

Parents see how young children are. In the movie The Tale, based on director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences, the protagonist imagines herself in the past at age 13 as sophisticated, mature, wise beyond her years. She has fond memories of intimacy with her track coach. Then she sees a snapshot of herself at 13, small and childlike. She was a baby! What happened to her wasn’t her “first relationship with a caring older guy,” it was victimization by a predator. Even those of us without children in our homes can see that. But when you have kids, you see the baby first. It’s harder to recapture that feeling of invincibility, grown-up-ness, the sheer power of being young, and feeling beautiful and exciting because you don’t know how young you are.

My writing buddy Jessica Jarlvi says, “Writing Middle Grade has been quite challenging—I have to look through my children’s eyes and see how they’d react to a situation.” Seeing what childhood’s like—experiencing it fully enough to show it on the page—means becoming for a short time the person who thought getting in that guy’s car, lying to your parents, having that drink or smoke, was a great idea. And it’s damn scary to imagine that in your own child’s head. Parents have a biological imperative to believe childhood was, on balance, pretty OK, with maybe a bad moment here or there. We want to think we can create that for our own children, and it goes against every instinct to truly, honestly believe, that your own tragedy wasn’t some exceptional, never-to-be-repeated lightning bolt. It could happen to your kid. It could be happening right now.

Even when we’re not consciously aware of these feelings, they must be moved past to write our younger selves on the page. This is one reason why it’s easier to write childhood memoir in our retirement years. The kids are out of the house. We did the best we could. We’ve heard about some of their near escapes and talked through them—or laughed about them—over wine (they’re old enough to drink! Bizarre!) They’ve mostly survived.

I’ve had the experience Jennifer Fox’s character had in The Tale, of seeing how my outside was wildly different from how I felt on the inside, because I teach circus to K-12 students. Going into the same schools year after year, I see kids cross that threshold from child to not-really-a-child and marveled at how young they still are. They’re stage managing a 150-kid show and handling boxes of uncounted t-shirt cash and protecting each other from falling off the trapeze. Very focused. Very mature. But picturing my 9th-grade boyfriend, age 28, pulling up on his motorcycle outside the gym to pick up one of my trapeze girls? I’d kick his ass.

To successfully write as our younger selves, or as younger characters, we have to let go of the ass-kicking, no matter how righteous our anger. We have to listen to the music we listened to, eat the food we ate, revisit the schools we ruled or crawled through. We have to accept that we took big risks, that we caused or experienced great harm. We have to forgive ourselves for lying, for doing that stupid thing, and see why that felt like the right choice at the time. And we have to let go of imagining all those things happening to kids of our own until the writing session’s done.

Go hug them.

Join Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams next week for a free keynote: Writing Memoir for Middle Grade and YA, or the paid masterclass ($20) or roundtable live-editing workshops ($60), June 28 and 29, hosted by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors of Western Washington.

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