April 18, 2019 § 10 Comments
Many of us have sat in the classic writing workshop: the class reads a piece, a discussion happens, the writer keeps their head down and doesn’t talk. At the end of the conversation, the author might get to ask a couple of questions for clarification, or perhaps say something about their intention in writing the piece.
This can be useful—it’s good for writers to learn to listen to critique without defending against it, or pushing back with “what I meant to say was…” because if it’s not on the page, we didn’t say it. It can also be traumatic, especially if the class misinterprets a point in the story and spends the whole time arguing about a meaning that doesn’t matter.
In playwriting, authors often have help. The “dramaturg” is a writing coach/researcher/helper/challenger who assists the playwright. In post-performance discussions, or after rewrites in rehearsal, the dramaturg often leads the discussion, making sure the author’s concerns are addressed. The dramaturg asks follow-up questions, gets audience members and actors to clarify points, redirects the discussion if “how you should write this” starts bubbling up, and afterward, helps the writer process and apply the feedback that’s most helpful to their work.
Writing teachers do some of the same work leading workshop, but often, their job is focused on keeping the workshop moving as a whole, rather than being an individual writer’s advocate. Sometimes, workshops go off the rails or turn into a pile-on, leaving the writer bruised and defensive, or questioning their writing ability rather than the impact of a specific essay. Without an active mediator, it’s hard to truly receive feedback and weed out what’s helpful from what was a tangent in the discussion.
Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.
When she began teaching nonfiction, she discovered a key issue. The space of discussing memoir and essay is even harder, because in critiquing the work, there is always some element of talking about the author. Nguyen points out that with cultural and racial context missing between writers and readers, this can be a terrible experience for the author, particularly for underrepresented students.
I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.
When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.
The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.
When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.
In her classes, Nguyen further incorporated the writers’ agency (and the role of the dramaturg) by encouraging students to set the tone of the discussion they wanted to have. Her writers submitted their work for discussion with an added statement of what they hoped to cover, including areas in their work of particular concern in this draft. And,
On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop.
Nguyen writes about how this method sometimes blends with classic “author-doesn’t-talk” workshop style, and what benefits she’s seen in her students work, and her own, from opening up the discussion to include the author. Many of us seeing frustration in our students—and ourselves—can benefit from talking more in workshop.
Read Beth Nguyen’s whole essay at LitHub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments
Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.
If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.
That time has come.
Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!
April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.
As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.
- Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
- Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
- Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
- Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
- Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
- Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
- Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
- Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
- Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
- Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
- Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
- Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
- Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
- Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge
There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.
Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 28, 2019 § 34 Comments
Many people think I’m an overachiever with everything under control. If you’re also an overachiever, you probably understand the hollow laughter that inspires in me. So often, the symptoms of organization—paper planners, to-do apps, regular social media appearances—mask what feels from the inside like abject laziness.
But Allison, you reassure me, you do a lot. You blog! You edit! You write! You travel all over!
Thanks. That’s true, and I’m privileged to get to do those things. Paradoxically, I often feel the most lazy when I’ve gotten the most done. Sure, I checked six things off my list…but I know in my heart I did them because they were easy instead of working on a larger, more difficult goal. I vacuumed instead of working on my proposal. Ran errands instead of analyzing the structure of my novel. Read 100 pages for clients instead of writing one of my own.
Often, what feels like “laziness” is actually procrastination, anxiety about the outcome, or not knowing where to start. And no matter how many tasks get accomplished, I feel lazy when the most important thing isn’t done. When I’m avoiding something with big stakes, or that takes a skill I don’t have yet. Sure, I’ll learn the skill as I go, but I’ll start out uncomfortable with my own incompetence and unsure how I’m going to finish. Or I’m faced with a big job I don’t yet know how to break into steps. I’ll move it to tomorrow’s list instead of tackling any part of it, because starting would also mean admitting I might not know how to do it.
Here’s what helps.
The cartoonist Jessica Abel, who also runs workshops for creatives learning to control their time, pointed out in a recent webinar:
Priority means one.
You can’t have multiple priorities on a list, because a priority is one thing. Sure, your priorities may change throughout the day, or as you shift from your artist self to your family self or from the office to the studio to the home. But at any given time, you can only have one priority. Likewise,
Many projects=no projects.
The amount of great ideas we have and are capable of executing far exceed the number of hours available to work. Being able to do a thing well doesn’t mean the thing fits our plans. It’s OK to put great new projects on the back burner while focusing on one project until it’s done.
About two months ago, these two ideas changed how I work. I started picking one project and doing it until it was done. I hedged a little: one personal project and one client project at a time, but rotating lets me rest my brain. I can work for 6-8 focused hours, but I can’t really do more than 4 hours in a day (plus breaks!) on one thing.
The third key to feeling less lazy?
Like, ridiculous tiny. Like instead of “be healthier” which is not a doable goal, because really, what would you do if I pointed and said “your job right this minute is to be healthier”? Um, I’ll get right on that?
So I backed up. I want to drink more water.
Still not a doable step.
I need a water bottle I can carry around and also wash out and re-use.
That I can do. I figure out it needs to be small and lightweight, because I won’t carry it if it’s heavy. Step one isn’t even “buy water bottle”—it’s “look online to see what lightweight water bottles exist,” so when I walk into the store I know what I’m looking for.
The last piece that finally fell into place, that helped me feel less “lazy”?
I wish I could put “finish X by this date” on my calendar, but I just don’t. It doesn’t always have to be a deadline imposed by another person, but I need a reason beyond “I want to be done by then.”
I want to finish my new writing retreat website before attending a festival where I’m talking about writing retreats.
I want to finish my book proposal before going to AWP so I can meet small presses and be ready to send to anyone who seems interested.
Are these actually any more solid than “finish X by this date”? Nope. But it works, so I’ll keep doing it.
My one-project-at-a-time-with-a-deadline plan is working so far. I finished the website. The proposal is well under way. I’m flying through client pages. At a cafe, my writing buddy looked at my water bottle and said, “It’s so tiny!”
“Yeah, but it’s a doable goal!” I said. “It’s little enough I can drink two or three refills while sitting here, and that feels like I’m getting something done!” Then I went and peed for the third time in two hours.
Next time you’re feeling lazy, ask Am I anxious about the outcome? Worried I don’t have the ability to do this? Overwhelmed by where to start? Made helpless by too many ‘priorities’?
Then pick one tiny step.
March 14, 2019 § 11 Comments
As the name suggests, Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is faaaaaaaancy. There was an author lounge with a buffet of cute little snacks, swanky hotel meeting rooms, professional A/V services, and an army of volunteers shepherding writers to panels and readings. (Emerging from freight elevators to dodge carts of petits fours and deconstructed salads wheeled through industrial grey corridors by white-clad chefs: rock star!)
The arts scene in Dubai is two-faceted:
- A scrappy group of expats beg, borrow and/or pay exorbitant rent for space to hold an artistic event.
- Someone royal loves a particular art form and throws money at it until the dream happens.
It’s astonishing to be in a country where someone with immense money and power is deeply interested in literature, and a large government-owned corporation sponsors a ten-day festival devoted to books. The festival is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, The Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. His Highness is an author himself, and his books appear prominently in bookstores across the United Arab Emirates.
This was my first festival devoted more to readers than writers, and it’s almost three festivals at once. Their Youth Program brings busloads of students onsite for big-deal children’s authors like Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi), and a fringe of student performances, as well as sending authors into schools. Adult readers enjoy literary lions, writers of books-you’ll-definitely-find-in-the-airport, and local authors presenting panels, readings and workshops. Finally, Arabic-language writers draw a fervent audience of Arabic readers. Panels were simultaneously translated—everyone wore headphones, each panelist spoke their most comfortable language, and we all heard our preferred listening language. (Individual live translators handled both Arabic-English and English-Arabic for the same panel—I was in awe!)
Over 400 million people speak Arabic, and Arabic culture holds a strong oral tradition and love of poetry. Surprisingly, there’s no giant publishing industry catering to all these potential readers, and a stream of festival events focused on building the Arabic book pipeline. I moderated a panel on contracts, with a hybrid publisher, a traditional publisher and an attorney from the Emirates Publishers Association, and the sense was that right now publishers set the terms, but there’s a move towards educating authors on their rights, particularly foreign-language sales and digital/audio platforms.
A panel on literary agents featured Dubai’s sole agent alongside UK agents from Susan Mears Literary Agency, and the audience was happy to discover that writers don’t pay agent fees; the agents get their cut from selling your book. The panel also suggested that agents here build an ethics code similar to the Association of Authors’ Representatives in the USA or Britain’s Association of Authors’ Agents.
Writing workshops included all-day manuscript-focused intensives and shorter talks on dramatic structure, social media and authorial voice. I found the ones I attended to be clear, basic information great for the audience of budding writers.
Many UAE writers are expats from India, Europe and North America, and a concern for all was book vetting by the government. One British writer mentioned the difficulty of observing cultural mores that aren’t a formal list, and non-Emiratis often don’t know what may be offensive. His middle-grade book included a girl daydreaming in her bathtub, a setting that had to be changed for publication in his Arabic country of residence.
Other high-priority topics included translation (Who pays for it? Who does the actual translation? How do you know it’s any good?) and distribution. Self-publishers and publishing companies alike face a huge hurdle in the UAE in that there is no unified sales-tracking system. In the USA and 9 other countries, BookScan compiles point-of-sale data. Here, booksellers must be individually billed for money owed the publisher—a paperwork challenge to say the least.
Fascinating to me as an American is the fast-track publishing process. Most Arabic books receive little or no editing from the publisher; many aren’t edited beyond the author reading their own work. While this means a book can be on the shelves mere weeks after submission, it also leads to errors and omissions. Sometimes, a translator told me ruefully, “I spend hours figuring out a paragraph, finally contact the author, and it turns out a typo changed the meaning.” On an editing panel, my fellow speakers seemed mixed on the value of editing versus speed, some saying they only publish the most polished manuscripts submitted, but authors in the audience were eager to find out how, why, and whom to contact for editing.
Festival organizers have seen in these issues a unique opportunity to help shape the book industry in the region. The Emirates Literature Foundation is actively planning year-round workshops, courses, and development opportunities for the emergence of a robust, ethical, and wide-ranging UAE publishing industry. As a festival guest, it was a fantastic opportunity to see this initiative beginning—and the crustless sandwiches and mini-desserts were pretty fabulous, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her next Rebirth Your Book full-manuscript retreat will be October 13-20 in Tuscany.
February 19, 2019 § 35 Comments
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.
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.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.
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.
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.
January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments
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.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.