Diversion, Delight and Pleasance: Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany

September 13, 2021 § 1 Comment

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 § 28 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.

The Long and the Short of It

June 17, 2021 § 9 Comments

Last night, in a webinar for Creative Nonfiction, we talked about sentences. What makes them soar lyrically across the page; what makes them stumble awkwardly into your editor’s inbox. Two great questions came in afterward (Thank you Maria-Veronica and Catherine!). First:

What are the most important or key elements that make a long sentence great? In what way can it have as great an impact as a short one?

I love long sentences. The bane of my MFA existence was classmates who “corrected” what they saw as run-on sentences in my work. Thanks for the effort, fellow writers, but 90% of the time I wanted the sentence that long! Maria-Veronica’s question made me think deeply about why. What makes a long, complex, multi-claused sentence not a run-on?

1) Rhythm: the sentence pulls the reader in with flow or beats, often including deliberate repetition.

2) Direction: the sentence spirals deeper into a moment, or the sentence zooms out to show context as part of the immediate moment. If the direction changes, the reader is clearly brought along.

3) Unity: the sentence has one time and one location, unless there’s a specific reason to go elsewhere; or the sentence uses one metaphor and explores it fully. We’re expanding one moment, not compressing a whole bunch of moments into one.

Rhythm:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

– Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Note how the deliberate repetition of “mad”-syllable-syllable establishes rhythmic beats. “To be saved” breaks the pattern and slows us a little as the clauses get longer. Then, repeating “burn” accelerates the sentence through the final, un-punctuated image.

Direction:

On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.

– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow

The sentence starts in a close, intimate moment, then zooms out to the feeling of sexual release and otherworldly expansion. Halfway through, “sliding down a rainbow” navigates the reader from the universe back down toward earth; the things on earth; the people; and the sentence circles back to where we started.

Unity:

He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.

– Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Forty-five words showing and exploring how one man says, “I love you.”

For fun, try rearranging the words in one of the sentences above and seeing how their power diminishes in another order. (These and many other beautiful sentences at https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/)

I’m also a fan of the sentence fragment, judiciously deployed. Catherine asked about one of the samples on my slides, a fragment from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and here’s the whole gorgeous passage:

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.

No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.  

Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

The ten fragments (and two grammatically complete sentences) are showing death, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, as a series of physical experiences flashing into consciousness and then unconsciousness.

Use whatever sentence structures make your story sing on the page. If that’s fragments, great! If that’s run-ons, make ’em work! The important part is knowing what you’re doing—it’s not a fragment because you messed up, it’s a fragment chosen to best deliver that moment of the story. There is no prize for “best grammar” in the publishing world, no golden star for subject-verb agreement, no blue ribbon for adjective order or time served for use of adverbs, but plenty of writers bend language to their will.

Be one of them.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Pre-order Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, or join her June 28 for a free keynote or paid masterclass on writing YA Memoir with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington.

Tell Me How You Hurt Me

June 15, 2021 § 4 Comments

Hello? Ex-Husband? Why you were such a terrible person?

Interviewing people in your memoir can fill in details about settings you were too young (or emotionally unable) to remember, and explain personal logic behind choices that hurt you. But how the heck can you have a civil conversation with your abuser, your estranged parent or your ex?

Writing a good memoir means connecting deeply with your own feelings and experiences—then setting them aside and approaching potentially traumatic conversations with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker.

Don’t start with “Why’d ya throw me down the stairs, Dad?” If you’re there to make a point, challenge your sister’s truth, or get your mom to agree with your version of events, your interview is already tainted. They’ll feel it. They’ll get defensive. And there you are, right back in the relationship you were trying to process and move past. When interviewing perpetrators of your trauma—or just plain awful people—focus on knowing and understanding another person and the logic that made their own choices make sense. Truly listening doesn’t mean you agree!

Start easy. First interview people you enjoy talking to. Even if you clearly remember a positive event, they’ll fill in more detail. Your best friends can gently remind you of times you weren’t on your best behavior, and those belong in your memoir, too.

Lower the stakes. Set up interviews in comfortable, reasonably neutral locations.

  • Record on your phone if needed. Microphones feel “official.”
  • Talking in the car can yield intimate, thoughtful conversations—you’re sitting close, but without uncomfortable eye contact.
  • Avoid assigning blame or questioning their integrity. Instead of “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” ask, “When (specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?”

Give fair warning. Anna Sale of the podcast Death Sex and Money says:

First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. “I’ve been wondering about something,” or “I need to tell you something I haven’t.” With this groundwork, you are signaling that you want to go into a different mode together. Again and again… when I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed…

Prepare…then go with the flow. Make a list of questions, but let the conversation roam. Near the end, pull out your list and see if there’s anything important you haven’t gotten to. You can say ‘I really want to hear more about…’ ‘Can we talk about…?’ or ‘I’m going to take a jump here and ask you about…’

Let them feel heard. The Body Keeps the Score author Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Being validated by feeling heard and seen is a precondition for feeling safe, which is critical when we explore the dangerous territory of trauma.” Use validating language like:

  • Thank you for sharing this with me.
  • I hear you.
  • I appreciate that this must be difficult for you.

Nonverbal cues, like nodding or “hm/uh-huh” can be helpful. If someone gets emotional:

  • This reaction is normal considering what you’ve been through.
  • I’m sorry you had to go through that.

Use silence. Let the silence stretch after you ask a question. After an answer, avoid jumping right in with the next question. Often, your interviewee will feel the need to fill the silence, and their spontaneous response may be more revealing.

Stay aware of body language. Watch for closing-off gestures like folded arms, looking away, or legs crossed away from you. Listen for short, clipped answers or vocal tension. These are cues to back off or leave this subject for another time. If your subject is open and relaxed, you can probably push further.

Bring them back to normal. If you leave your subject happy, they’re more likely to talk again. End your interview with a positive question:

  • How’s your day-to-day life now?
  • How do you like to unwind or spend the weekend?
  • What’s the best part of your life right now?
  • Do you have any plans for after we talk?

Ask twice. If you can, talk again a couple weeks later. Often, people remember more details after your questions have been on their mind.

Interviewing with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book. You’ll also be able to contextualize poor decisions other people made, or times they hurt you, if you allow them to tell you their logic at the time. You don’t have to forgive them, or forget what they did. But asking real questions and allowing truthful answers (even from shitty people!) yields information you need to write your book. Let your readers judge their character. Your job is to extract more truth with less trauma—for you or anyone else.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her Wednesday (tomorrow!) for Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. A recording will be available to registered participants if you can’t make it live.

Emotional Subcontractors: Working with Adverbs

June 8, 2021 § 9 Comments

Everyone hates on adverbs.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.

When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?

Replace redundant adverbs.

She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.

But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.

She thumped her coffee on the counter.

Skip the “duh” adverbs.

If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.

Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:

Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)

Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.

Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:

“Tell me right now!” she said quickly.

Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.

As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:

RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?

SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.

Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)

Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.

 “That’s him,” she said accusingly.

Instead:

“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.

“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.

“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”

With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:

He turned angrily and raised his fist.

He whipped around, his fist raised.

He spun, his fist raised.

Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.

He smiled bitterly.

They ran haltingly.

She danced jerkily.

Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”

In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:

Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.

The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.

Plumb the adverbs in your own work:

1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?

2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.

3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.

Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.

These ARE My Real Friends

June 1, 2021 § 23 Comments

I’ve always had a simple test to show if someone is my “real” friend: Would I drive across state lines in the middle of the night to bail them out of jail?

Now that I live in an absolute monarchy where I’m not even sure if bail is a thing, the equation is a little more complicated. I’ve also spent the past ten years actively making more virtual friends—reviewing books, sharing publishing information, commenting on posts, boosting tweets. That’s a lot more bond money at stake.

But Allison, you say, wary of the reduction of the sacred bond of friendship to an automated heart, How can you be “friends” with people you’ve never met? Social media isn’t real friendship. Acquaintances, maybe. But friends? I mean, would you really even recognize half your Instagram following if you saw them on the street?

Nope. But I’d recognize the people I follow back. Or the hundred or so who turn up at biweekly Writer’s Bridge events, or the twenty or so who come to weekly co-writing events, or the fifteen in my most active comment pod.

O philoi, oudeis philos, exclaimed Artistotle, often translated as, “O my friends, there is no friend”; at once a recognition and a denial. If we have many friends, have we any? Those we deem intimate, we grant power. Here is my secret—destroy me if you will, or as Derrida writes in The Politics of Friendship, “No friend without the possibility of wound.” How many people can we trust to hold the knife?

In the late 1940s, psychologist Leon Festinger led a study investigating the role of physical space in friendship formation. The scientists’ theory: “Friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home, or walking about the neighborhood.” It wasn’t attitude or commonalities that made friends, they found, but proximity. Their study of MIT student housing showed that the most popular residents weren’t the most likeable—they were the people who lived at the bottom of the staircase everyone used to get in and out of the building. Proximity made them more likely to meet more people, giving them a larger chance of connecting. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs redesigned the Pixar offices to put engineers, animators and executives all in one building to create Pixar’s famously collaborative space. Google puts every worker no more than “150 feet from food” so everyone will “casually collide” for “unplanned collaborations.”

These casual collisions are why most of us make our last serious friendships in college: we have proximity to our classmates, with whom we frequently collide, as well as being assigned to work with people we might not have chosen. We’re more codependent: we need a ride to the store, or quarters for the laundry, and there’s no shame in asking, or in saying, “Sorry dude, can’t today.” Common areas abound, places specifically designed to read or talk or think or lie in the sun with a book until someone walks up to say, “Whatcha reading?”

Social media and virtual events recreate the college experience. Paradoxically, living thousands of miles from most of my friends while unable to travel for over a year has built more connections than ever. I spend more time on Twitter and in Facebook groups. I co-invented a biweekly gathering where writers discuss a common topic, have small-group breakouts (Surprise! You’re gonna talk to someone new!), and the chat is alive with personal side-conversations. I’m a member of Instagram comment pods where I’m required to engage…while I grow to like people for who they are.

I don’t have to schedule time for most of these interactions—I don’t even have to agree in advance. Interaction happens when I choose to be in the virtual space. Acquaintanceship grows into intimacy through repetition. Welcome to the Writer’s Bridge, love your haircut! I saw your fabulous essay on Facebook! Your new baby is beautiful on Instagram! I have an answer to that publishing question you Tweeted!

Frequent. Spontaneous. Contact.

Am I in a bad mood? Fine, not commenting on your post right now. Am I in a great mood? Let me drop into a few Facebook groups and share information. Not every person will love me…but as we all survive publishing together, the opportunities are there to develop real friendship.

Early one morning, Wittman Ah, the artist protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, acknowledges “the winners of the party”—not a chosen social group, but the last stragglers of an all-night acid trip, emerging to share the dawn. Strangers thrown together by happenstance and a deeply emotional journey through a common experience. “It’s very good sitting here among friends, coffee cup warm in hands, cigarette,” he thinks. “Good show, gods.”

It might not be practical for me to post my Twitter mutuals’ bail, but I can sure help them promote their book, celebrate success, lick the wounds of failure, brainstorm solutions, provide resources for their current problem, or just plain enjoy their company.

You know, like friends.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to spontaneously connect? She’s leading a webinar for Creative Nonfiction Magazine June 16—come be a new friend! Register here: Writing Powerful Sentences: Going Beyond Grammar.

No Publishing Without Penalties

May 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

We’re all concerned about hurting others or getting hurt.

We all want to share our story as truthfully as possible.

What happens when these are diametrically opposed? When your ex threatens to take the kids, Aunt Mildred screams at you on the phone, and your mom says she’s “not mad…just disappointed”?

Your story matters, and you get to write it the way you remember. It’s called a memoir, not a “comprehensive review of all facts.” But you can take steps throughout your writing and publishing process to minimize fallout and family strife.

Write the book. You may discover a new story thread as you write, leaving out the worrisome scene or the touchy relative. You may discover that actually, you have five scenes showing why you became a mountain climber, Aunt Mildred saying you’d never amount to anything isn’t the strongest one, and you’re cutting it.

Seek out other perspectives. If you’re not speaking to your antagonists, ask their family members. If you are, interview like a documentarian. Don’t ask, “Why did you push six-year-old me down the stairs, Dad?” Instead, “Tell me about how we interacted when I was a kid. What were our days like?” You might cry in your car after every interaction, but you’ll get better material by starting from a neutral position.

Do as much showing as possible. Describe behavior and show its effects on those around the person. It can be very meaningful to write an antagonist’s perception of herself, giving her view serious consideration (Is Grandma an alcoholic or is she just “jolly”? Are you being judgmental?). Balance makes a more interesting book, with more for the reader to think about. Give the clues to the problem—make the reader a detective who puts it all together.

Rest the book. Every author, fiction or non, needs a resting period for their book. If you’re a category romance novelist churning out ebooks for dollars (you go!), that might be an afternoon. But for memoirists, your final-draft manuscript should sit without your attention for a minimum of six weeks, and ideally six months. Coming back to a book with fresh eyes is one of the best editorial techniques I know. When you come back, read the manuscript into your phone’s voice recorder. This will teach you where your voice is overly formal or just plain awkward, and the saying it aloud part confirms, “Yes, I really do want to say this, in this way.” Then play the recording back. Listening also shows where your book needs revision.

Get the deal. Before you tell any relatives the book is done. No point in getting everyone all fired up if it turns out you’ve written a “practice” memoir. When you’re contracted, an agent or publisher (or freelance editor, if you’re not ready to query or you’re self-publishing) can help navigate second thoughts. A supportive stranger’s perspective on your portrayal of a partner or relative can confirm your words are fair.

Step with caution if you’re in mid-divorce or a custody battle. But divorce papers get signed and custody gets solved, and your book will still be there when the time to publish is right.

Prepare for engagement. Plan and rehearse what you’ll respond to questions you’re dreading and how you’ll handle interactions with people in your book.

Tell your sibling, “Isn’t it fascinating how we can grow up in the same family and have such different experiences? I’d love to read your version of the story someday.”

Tell your parents, “You don’t have to read it, but I hope you’ll support me sorting out my own experiences on paper.” It’s not the first time you’ve hurt your parents’ feelings (we were all 13 once!) and it’s probably not going to be the last.

Most people who threaten to sue don’t, won’t or can’t. It’s not as easy as they think, and it’s not cheap.

There is no memoir-publishing without penalties. You are never going to get off scot-free. Someone you were very kind to will be unhappy anyway. Someone you didn’t even mention will be mad you left them out. People will remember things differently. Your book will sell a ton of copies and your friends will be jealous and even more people will read it and be mad. Or your book will hardly sell at all and your enemies will triumph. Cousin Mark will be mad you talked bad about his dad. Your mom will be upset you dug up that old family story. Your kid will be embarrassed you talked about changing their diaper.

You can’t stop people from feeling their feelings and having their own memories, and you will never finish your book if you are trying to please them more than you are trying to tell your story.

A memoir is, by definition, one person’s memory. Be honest with yourself, be kind when you can be, and put in a disclaimer about memory at the beginning. Write your best work and brace yourself—sharing your journey is worth it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Worried about navigating your own memory as you write? Join her this Thursday for Memoir From Memory: Telling the Right Story with Confidence. 1PM Eastern, recording available if you can’t make it live. Register now.

Here Comes the Sun

May 10, 2021 § 9 Comments

Actual photo of the Brevity staff

With summer around the corner, the Brevity staff slips out to the deck and into our summer schedule of waterskiing, forest hikes, and celebrating our vaccination status around the campfire. A new issue of Brevity comes out next week—you’ll love the beautiful essays and thoughtful craft pieces. Start making that summer reading list from Brevity book reviews (and please do drop your own reviews on Amazon and Goodreads of the new books you’re reading.) And stay tuned as well for announcements regarding our greatly expanded “Teaching Brevity” section of the website!

We’ll still be posting to the Brevity blog, on a slightly more relaxed schedule, and we’ll keep reading blog submissions at a summery pace. In June we’ll be rolling out a new feature—biweekly writer advice!—and we’ll be calling soon for your writing, editorial and publishing conundrums.

Meanwhile, tell us what you hope for from the Brevity blog. What pieces have stuck with you, and what do you want to see more of? Essay pitching tips, querying or submissions advice, writer’s life, journal reviews, writing craft, exercises to try yourself or teach? What haven’t you seen that you’d love to read on Brevity?

We’re so thankful to be sharing a writerly summer with you, beautiful readers. Let us know what else we should share. We’ll be on our inflatable pool loungers (Dinty’s floating on a wise giraffe, Allison’s on a toothy alligator, of course), ready to hear your thoughts. Swim up and join us.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor

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