April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments
Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:
Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…
Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…
Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…
“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?
And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?
Set clear ground rules.
Ask writers what they need.
Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.
Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”
Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?
Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.
Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”
If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:
I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?
Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?
Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.
Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.
Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!
Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.
Approach it like an assignment:
This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?
I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.
Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.
Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?
Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!
March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments
One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.
These memoirs don’t work.
They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.
Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.
But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.
Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.
Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because
We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.
How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?
- If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
- After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
- Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.
See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.
March 2, 2021 § 25 Comments
When I was a circus aerialist, my act finished with a dramatic upside-down slide, dropping 16 feet head-downwards before catching in the aerial fabric, my skull inches from the ground. It was a crowd-pleaser, and it required more technique and timing than sheer strength, so it was a good trick for the end of a tiring show. The only problem was, the back of my knee was the “brakes.” Squeezing hard on the fabric with my upper calf kept me from concussion, but it also gave me rope-burn.
I did it anyway. It was the best trick I had, the one that made audiences clap and put money in the hat at the end of the show. The raw skin was usually worth it. But sometimes, when sticky humidity told me “this one’s gonna be bad,” I’d look at the audience and judge their enthusiasm, their involvement in the show so far, and think, Have they earned this? Do I want to give them this much?
I face the same challenge as a memoirist. When I break out a particularly intense story, or share deep vulnerability on the page, I go full out. But I temper my words in subsequent drafts, gauging how personal I want to be based on the readers I’m hoping for. That’s easy enough to do for an essay or an Instagram caption; I can start later in the story or end earlier, leave some details out, put some mitigating circumstances in. I have some control over how far the story goes, where I submit it, who will see it on which social media.
Adjusting memoir-pain tolerance is much harder for a book. The writing process lasts longer; the potential audience is bigger. Our relatives and friends may treat a book with more weight than a Facebook status.
I’ve had editorial clients ask, “Should I just make this a novel?”
Novels need complete dramatic arcs, compelling characters, and an ability to fully embrace new scenes or plot elements. “What actually happened” isn’t always believable as fiction. The more gripping the story, the less it may resemble your story.
For novelists, the craft of writing is as important as the story itself. Sure, some average writing makes the bestseller lists, but usually because the story has powerfully hooked the public. Novels based on the author’s experience draw from life, but approach the subject from another point of view, or with a better ending, or happening to different people. Write your novel because you want to write a novel, not to hide from your own story.
Memoirs are elevated by truth. Readers can forgive an arc that doesn’t quite resolve when they’re thinking about the real-person protagonist. Decent-to-good writing becomes gripping when you’re telling the truth. Plenty of memoirists are also incredible writers. Plenty of memoirs-in-progress are not yet excellent writing. How much time do you want to spend “becoming a great writer” versus “becoming a good writer, learning about myself, and getting my story into the world”?
I’ve had clients ask, “Could I use a pen name?”
Memoirs sell on topic and name recognition. The less recognizable you are, the more powerful your topic must be. If you’re writing about your week in Bin Laden’s bunker, or your high-class Manhattan escort days, or your Secret Service career, sure, use a pen name (and lawyer up!). But if you’re trying to avoid social fallout, don’t bother. You’d have to start establishing that fake person’s publication record and online presence now, and your family is going to find out eventually anyway. Why sacrifice your existing network to temporarily hide, while also sabotaging your ability to sell your own book?
Put the effort of re-visioning your life as fiction into cultivating positive relationships with your readers and your fellow writers. Skip building a fake person to promote this book—instead, build your own courage and your support network. Part of publishing memoir is standing up for your own story. If you’re not ready to share it as yourself, you probably aren’t ready to share it at all. Keep writing and publish later.
Writing good memoir hurts, because good memoir pokes old wounds. Publishing memoir means knowing ahead of time you’re going to inflict pain on yourself, and choosing to share your story anyway. The pain becomes a badge of power, a sign that silence doesn’t control your story. That you’re strong enough to tell. You trust your readers to listen. You give readers hope, you’re not the only one this happened to—one day, you’ll be strong enough to tell your story, too.
When I did my rope-burn aerial trick, sometimes the audience had earned it with their laughter and applause. Sometimes they hadn’t, and I ended with something less dramatic but without physical pain. But more times than not, I did the trick for me. Because I could. After about 4 years, the back of my leg scarred over. No more rope burn. I’d leaned into the pain so many times it couldn’t hurt me anymore.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Wondering how much pain your memoir can take? Register now for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings March 10 at 1PM Eastern (recording available).
January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments
Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”
Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”
That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).
For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)
When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?
Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.
Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.
Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.
You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.
Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.
Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.
Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?
Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.
Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.
If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.
If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.
Then again? You might get more.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”
December 31, 2020 § 27 Comments
2017 2020? Yeah, this post I wrote three years ago is STILL ASTOUNDINGLY RELEVANT. You know that feeling of low-grade background stress you’ve sustained for nearly four years, ramping up a level each year? You’re not alone, fellow writer.
So 2020 was a dumpster on fire while swept away in a flood, yes, but how was your writing? Because now is a great time to consider what you did. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and couldn’t. Let’s genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments, together.
Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?
Get a piece accepted? Submit to places you want to be accepted?
Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?
Make it to an online workshop or reading or write-in?
Read a book you really loved? Or one that taught you something about writing? Tried some exercises? Researched something new?
They all count.
Bask in the feeling of accomplishment. If you’re a journal-keeper, make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations!
When you’re done, look ahead. Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 12th. But it’s a good time to reassess, because other writers are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck your local independent bookstore (who likely offer curbside pick-up).
Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.
- Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open.
- That one’s Measurable–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, or maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out.
- Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. Maybe start with “meet more Swedes.”
- And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing.
- Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts (10 tries, quarterly submissions, etc), so the goal starts with an action you can take.
Here’s what I’m thinking about:
What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to finish a novel, because I care about writing YA, and I think it looks better to give writing advice when I’m walking the walk. You?
Do you need help to be this kind of writer? I need to locate a couple of beta readers who haven’t read the previous incarnations so they can come in fresh. What help do you need?
What big project do you want to finish? That book, and to host a writing retreat in Costa Rica or Italy, both delayed from last year. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process. And allow myself grace when elements I can’t control hinder my progress. What’s your big project?
What do you want to read? More “challenging” books and less comfort re-reads. How can you make that happen? Order Hilary Mantel’s latest and dive in! What can you not wait to read?
What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’d like to spend a little less phone-on-sofa time. You?
It’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in our brains. It’s hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what we can actually accomplish. Like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.
Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2021’s writing year? Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. January 22nd, she’ll be leading the webinar This Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal-Setting and Project-Planning for Writers. It’s a steal at $25–sign up here!
December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).